In Search of Ancient Morocco

THE THEME OF exile and absence followed us to Taroudant, which sat in the shadow of the Atlas, now just a violet outline, 140 miles southwest of Marrakesh. It had been a surreal journey, in which I had let people and experiences come to me, as they would, resisting nothing. And it was to take one last surreal turn. My Persian friend in New York, who had first told me of the Draa, was an intimate of the last empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi. As I entered my fifth day of being filthy and unshaven, with scarcely a clean T-shirt let alone a jacket or formal shoes, I received a direct message from him: “I was just contacted by H.M. Queen Farah, and she asked you to come to dinner tomorrow.”

A discreetly lit blue door led into a pleasure garden where night-blooming jasmine wafted through the night air. In a great room, decorated with candlesticks of dull brass and ostrich eggs in bowls, a fire burned on one end and a floodlit swimming pool was visible through glass doors. A phalanx of silver-framed photographs of the last Shah of Iran was arranged along a sideboard. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife Farah had left Iran in 1979 after the Islamic revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power forced them out. The shah died soon after of cancer, while Farah began a long exile in Egypt, the United States and Paris. She bought her mud-brick house in Taroudant, where she came several times a year, because it reminded her of the country to which she longed to return. Soon the shahbanu-in-exile (“shahbanu,” which means “empress” in Persian, was created expressly for Farah) would appear, still radiant at 80, with black ribbons in her gold hair and corals on her neck. Soon there would be a wonderful dinner, full of friends and family, where talk would turn inexorably to exile and revolution and elites pushed out of countries that were changing too fast. Soon, over a table laden with Persian rice, the last empress of Iran would turn to me and say, “In exile, food becomes important.” Soon Mowgli, Her Majesty’s King Charles spaniel, would shower me in kisses. Soon I would be left with an odd feeling of melancholy at having met one of the legendary figures of the 20th century, this lady who retained an almost girlish sense of innocence and humor, despite having lived through the loss of countries and children, and more experience than several lifetimes could encompass. Soon there would be all this, but before I walked through that door and civilization returned with all its force, I found it hard to let go of the image of that other door to the Sahara in Dar Paru.

My Persian friend in New York had spoken of the persistence of magic in Morocco, and of a sphere where the old gods were yet to be overthrown. In Taroudant, I knew I would be leaving this sphere behind me, climbing up into the mountains, back into the bled al-makhzen, the region of law. The world of Islam would return, grafted thinly upon a core of older belief — what Wharton calls the “old stone and animal worship, and all the gross fetichistic [sic] beliefs from which Mahomet dreamed of freeing Africa.” Even from the great mosque at Tinmel, once the Almohad capital, it would be impossible to re-enter the feeling I still had as I stood in that great house on the other side of the Atlas.

It was a feeling of vacancy, of being emptied out by the desert. The silence we had come out of — and which made Azzdine exclaim, “Le radio enfin,” as a remix of “Bella Ciao” blared, announcing our arrival in Taroudant — was fading. Variety had returned, erasing the shattering sameness of the plain against which every little tomb and tree was amplified into a focusing point for the eye and the spirit. For one brief moment, I stood in a liminal place. Ahead was a door to a brightly lit room full of laughter and cheer; behind me was Paru’s door to the Sahara; and all around me, in my bones, I knew, as perhaps I may never know again, the power of the desert as a spiritual resource. I am not a spiritual person; I am devoted to concrete reality. And it frightened me. I had an intimation of the fragility of the bled al-makhzen — the sphere men create to keep at a safe distance the perturbation beyond, should one step through the wrong open door.

Local Production by Fred Fantun.

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