The International Bank of Bob
Mohammed is a bicycle and motorcycle repairman, slight of build, shy, almost apologetic in his body language. As he first welcomes me, I am sure that he was one of the smaller kids where he grew up, and he probably still feels it sometimes.
As a forty-two-year-old adult, Mohammed now labors for eleven hours per day, six days a week, in a space smaller than many American kitchens. Mohammed's work area is crammed floor- to-ceiling with tires, wheels, cogs, chains, motor blocks, and assorted metal bits, but there's an order to the crammery, everything in its place. You can see right away that
Mohammed doesn't waste time here. He works.
When our conversation concludes, I turn around from Mohammed's garage, facing a half-dozen young men in this working- class part of town.
They are staring at me and speaking to each other in a language I don't understand.
One of them is making a fist.
When I was a boy in Ohio, Morocco was faraway and alluring Tangier, a pulsing oasis for international spies; Marrakech, where Crosby, Stills, and Nash took the express train with the sunset their eyes; Casablanca, a place so remote that Humphrey Bogart could try to hide from an entire world war. Even Fez, where the little red hats with tassels came from, felt enticing.
Now that I'm here, it's not quite so beguiling. Casablanca is the size of Chicago, boasting not just Africa's largest mosque but its biggest shopping mall, offering the traditional Saharan pleasures of Sunglass Hut, Pinkberry, and bowling. Tangier just got its second Marjane, the local equivalent of a Walmart Supercenter (boxed Tunisian dates, just 19.9 dirhams per kilo). Morocco's eighteen Pizza Huts are all open until midnight, seven days a week, although the pepperoni is made without pork.
As to Marrakech, express trains still arrive daily but so do dozens of airlines, all serving the million-plus annual tourists who come here seeking a take-home box of exotic. They wander the souks to buy leather and spices, sit in cafes smoking sweet shisha tobacco, and stroll its main square amid a whirling storm of snake charmers, fruit vendors, jugglers, and fire-eaters. Back home, I may have seen Marrakech's main square as often as the rest of Morocco combined from Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which a fugitive spy gets stabbed here, revealing a key secret as he dies, to The Simpsons, where it's an obvious place to buy opium or a magic animal paw. In tourist brochures and most popular media, this one city block portrays all of Morocco as soothsayers, incense, and dancing macaques.
No one would imagine that all of America looks just like Times Square. But this is the developing world that Westerners glimpse in pop culture: sensual, colorful, animal, fragrant. I'm nowhere near any of that. Instead, I've come to Rabat, a government city where few tourists linger the main attractions being a mausoleum, a necropolis, and a mosque that was never completed and rented a room in the medina, not far from the casbah. I've hired a translator, made local contacts, and traveled at last to a working- class neighborhood unmapped in any guidebook, all just to visit a total stranger named Mohammed.
Now I'm standing in the street near his workplace. Arabic graffiti covers a nearby wall. Strange music pours from a window down the street. A nearby mosque has just sounded a call to prayer.
Sweat pours from my body, soaking my shirt. When I first become aware of the young men looking at me, I struggle even to glimpse faces in the glare of the North African sun. This is the developing world that Westerners often see in the news: indecipherable, alien, menacing. In 2007, bombs were set off outside the U.S. consulate and a U.S.-run school, and the Department of State still dramatically warns that "potential targets" for Americans in public include "clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, hotels, movie theaters," and more. Even the Marrakech main square, merry tourist construct it has become, would attract an extremist response, with one popular cafe and seventeen of its customers blown to bits.
Reprinted from The International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris. Copyright © 2013 by Bob Harris. Used by permission of Walker & Company, a division of Bloomsbury USA
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