For a while I had been fascinated to find out where the beggars actually live here in Marrakech and to find out where they go when they are not in the main square, begging. My original idea was to pick one and follow him or her. They pretty much just stand around and, well, beg. I quickly discovered I could leave my subject for an hour or three, and he would still be there on my return. I needed a new strategy.
I knew of the god-forsaken housing areas just off the tourist centre from previous wanderings, so, I went looking to see how they survive.
The alleyways are narrow (no wider than my arms’ span) and they are around three storeys tall. They block out the sun, which must be a relief in the 50 degree summers they experience here, but it also makes the alleyways look depressing and claustrophobic. However, their most noticeable characteristic is their maze-like structure. Each alleyway is long and brings you to the end with a choice of left or right, turn after turn after turn, until you reach a dead-end.
I followed one such maze, which finally led me to a door that looked every inch a door that would open into some sinister home of an evil witch from a Disney movie. I heard a desperate groaning from the terrace above, and looked up to see a crazed man staring down at me with manic eyes. It was obvious he was mentally ill. He stretched out an arm in a feeble attempt to half grab – half reach me, but he was hopelessly too far up. Apart from his glaring eyes and shredded clothes that were stiff with years of dirt, the most obvious thing about him was a large amount of spittle that formed a ring around his lips and culminated in an impressively thick and long string of drool.
I have seen a lot of true destitution on my travels that inspires pure and absolute pity and humility in me, but this man was not just geographically but physically and mentally at the end of the road for me.I turned to leave. I wanted out. I had come too far – literally and metaphorically.
At the first corner, I was uncertain of the route out. I looked back and there was the man dragging his warped feet towards me. My bafflement as to how he managed to get down three storeys in lightening speed just fed my imagination as to the eeriness and unworldliness of this man.
I know I had intruded. Poverty is like grief: to be done in private, at the behest of the stricken as to when and where it is observed. I rarely touch on the subject of poverty in my travel writing, because I find the subject an easy target to speculate and postulate about, but with no real insight into its true effect on humanity and society. I had been curious as to how they lived their lives away from public view. I had entered this man’s domain, and now I felt guilty, and more than a little stupid that I was not emotionally equipped to handle the extreme of what I had witnessed in its lesser forms so many times previously.
I chose a turn and a short time later, he took the same one. These long alleyways give you no alternative for 10-15 seconds, which is a long time when you are being pursued by someone so un-nerving. You just have to keep going until the next turn. I kept hoping I would get two turns ahead of him, so he would not know if I had chosen left or right, but with super-human speed, he always entered my alleyway before I could leave it, so knew which turn I had taken.
For a minute or so this unsettling chase continued through the narrow, sunless confines of brick and shadow. All it needed was some disturbing, spine-chilling incidental music, and we would have been in a film! Turn after turn he was worryingly on my tail.
I had long since lost my original way. I remembered reading once that the way to the centre of a maze was to continually turn left, so I figured if I alternated left and right, I would effectively be walking in a straight line out of the maze. I don’t know if that is always true, but it worked this time. I came out at a completely new street, but I was finally out and I managed to find my way back from there.
I wish there was a better, more dramatic ending. All I can add is that I learnt I have my shameful limit of bearing witness to poverty. After a certain degree of true abject hopelessness, I am so ill-at-ease that I would prefer to turn and run away from it.
A huge part of me wants to go back through the maze of darkened alleyways and face this man again, to stand my ground, to smile at him and try to understand. A huge part of me wants to leave well alone for the sake of my guilt and for his privacy. In the end, I doubt that I could ever find the path that leads to the evil witch’s doorway again. I believe it’s just as well.