Hussein hissed in my ear: “I can get you anything, girls, drugs, alcohol, camels.” Camels?! I turned away from Hussein, trying to hide my rising laughter.
We were in a shop in the Marrakesh medina, where Andre was persuaded to buy a hand woven rug, a crazy thing to do considering that we were backpacking – Andre would have to carry the bloody thing all the way back to London. Andre also wanted to buy a kaftan, so the elderly shopkeeper began showing him a selection. A young girl fiddled about behind the shop counter.
“You want?” Hussein gestured towards the girl. “Only 100 dirham. She is good.”
Earlier in the day, Hussein had attached himself to us as we walked away from the station in search of a hotel. He was in his early 30s, dressed in modern clothing, with sunglasses resting on his head. Hussein told us that he lived in Casablanca and had come down to Marrakesh to visit some relatives. He took us to a cheap hotel. Then some sightseeing. Then he took us shopping. Once attached, it became very difficult to get rid of Hussein.
“Now you look like Lawrence of Arabia,” he told Andre as we left the shop.
We went back 900 years as we navigated the narrow streets of the medina. The only clues that this was the 20th century were electricity cables running along the sides of buildings and the occasional tv aerial. Eventually we came back out into the Jamaa el Fna, the main square in Marrakesh. The Jamaa el Fna is a lively market and meeting place, the hub of life in this city on the edge of the Sahara Desert. There are traders in colourful costumes, snake charmers, story tellers, dancing boys, magicians, fortune tellers and a whole lot more. It’s real Arabian Nights stuff, and our hotel was quite nearby, where we finally got rid of Hussein, who said that he had some business to attend to. At his insistence, Andre and I agreed to meet him at 7pm in a café, from where he’d take us to a restaurant. We had no intention of making the rendezvous.
Seven thirty that evening found us in our hotel room, getting ready to go out for dinner. There was a loud knock on the door. I opened it, and yes, you’ve guessed it, standing there was an angry looking Hussein. We told him we were tired and did not feel like going out. It didn’t work. Hussein became friendly and said that we must eat and he knew of a very nice restaurant. It was hard to say no to Hussein.
“We eat, then we smoke some hashish, good hashish, then young girls.” He gave a nudge and a wink straight out of a Carry On film.
The restaurant lurked in the medina. The sun had set. We followed Hussein through the maze of mostly unlit streets, aware that we were breaking one of the golden rules of travelling. Some of the narrow streets were so dark that we almost lost sight of Hussein as he hurried along. After much twisting and turning we followed him into a blind alley. Ok, so what happens next. In the gloom we saw Hussein knocking on a door. A peephole slid back, words in Arabic, then the door swung open and we were admitted.
We found ourselves in a very large room with the roof open to the stars. In the center there was a fountain and small tree, while around the walls were low tables and sofas. On all sides smaller rooms led off to other parts of the building. Arabian Nights stuff, again. The place looked like a Sultan’s palace. We found out later that indeed it had once been. Madame came over to us. Blonde, well into middle-age and a Parisian by birth she had wanted to be a painter. Unsuccessful as an artist, she now ran this upmarket restaurant and brothel in the Marrakesh Old Town. She still painted and later in the evening she showed us some of her work.
Madame led us over to one of the low sofas, glided away, then returned a few moments later with the menus. It was way too pricey for us, but not so pricey as to be prohibitive. This would be a little treat. We ordered the tourist menu, the cheapest one. Hussein did the same. A waiter brought over drinks and we watched other people arrive. Some were there just for culinary delights, some for carnal delights. There were also middle-aged tourists, a Spanish couple and a German couple. Did they realise they were having dinner in a knocking shop?
The knocking would come later. Madame led us to one of the small rooms. It had a low semicircular table and cushioned sofas. Us tourists were being herded together. The Spanish couple were very friendly and spoke quite good English. We were soon chatting away. The German couple were less talkative. They livened-up as the food began to arrive. The main dish consisted of lamb and rice with vegetables. Around this there were many other smaller dishes. Pickey stuff, as the feeling took you. The food was very good. Hussein ignored the cutlery in front of him and ate everything with his fingers, much to the disgust of the Germans. Madame sat with us and explained what each dish was and how it had been prepared. All in all, a rather jolly meal.
Once we were replete, three musicians came into the room carrying traditional arab instruments. They took up position in the space created by our semicircular table. A tall, slim and very effeminate young Arab joined them. He began serenading us. It was all in Arabic, so Madame explained things. Most of them were love songs. The best one was a ditty about a sheep herder. Its chorus went: Ah ya, ya, ya, ah ya ya ya. We all joined in, mimicking the smiling, effeminate singer. Then it was over. Hussein asked me for some dirham, which he gave to the musicians. We got an encore. The one about the sheep herder. Ah ya, ya, ya, ah ya ya ya.
The singer minced from the room to be replaced by a belly dancer. She had a faint appendix scar on her abdomen and began gyrating in front of us. Madame explained that this was not actually a belly dance, which has its origins in Egypt, it was instead a form of Moroccan dancing. Whatever, her erotic dance had us all spellbound. When she had finished, Hussein again asked me for some money, which he stuffed in the dancer’s bra. She started gyrating again. After that the German man took over, much to the annoyance of his wife. The girl danced for another 30 minutes, at the end of which she had bank notes sticking out from every crevice of her bra.
We went back into the main room and sat on a sofa. The effeminate singer and the dancer were a kind of warm up act for the carnal delights. There were now some half naked beautiful young things milling around the fountain. Some of the rooms that led off from the main one had a raised floor and were entirely cushioned. There were curtains you could pull across the doorway. This is where the action took place. But we knew the action would be très cher in a joint like this – prices started at 200 dirham.
Madame brought over the bill. Hussein did a disapearing act. Each day we budgeted a certain amount for food and hotels. The meal that evening cost us three day’s worth of our budget. It wasn’t too bad, actually, for three people considering the quality of the food and entertainment; plus we’d had an awful lot to drink. We ordered one more beer each and settled up the bill. Hussein reappeared and we explained that we didn’t have the funds to check out the beautiful young things. It was now midnight and time to call it a day. Hussein would have none of it: “Mustapha, Achmed, I know a special club, used only by Arabs, the girls are very cheap. We will go there.” He grinned and rubbed his hands briskly together.
Ever since taking us shopping that afternoon, when Andre bought a rug and a kaftan, Hussein had christened us with Arab names, which he always used when addressing us. Mustapha and Achmed found it highly embarrassing. Mustapha and Achmed also once again found it hard to say no to Hussein.
The Spanish couple weren’t swingers, and their hotel was on our route, so we shared a taxi. After dropping the Spaniards off we continued on to the suburbs of Marrakesh and eventually pulled up in front of a modern apartment block. The presence of the ‘special club’ was announced by a neon sign in Arabic. Steps led down to a doorway. The entrance was guarded by a doorman. Hussein got out of the taxi and spoke to him, leaving us to pay the fare. We ventured down the steps and discovered that we had to pay a fee to get into the club. Hussein was already through the door, leaving us to pay the fee.
Inside, the club was very dimly lit. There were the usual low tables and low sofas. Music was playing and some people were jigging on a small dance floor. The place wasn’t very crowded. We sat down. Hussein went to find the manager of the club, who was a friend of his. As our eyes grew accustomed to the light we could make out a man sitting on an adjoining sofa. He looked to be in his fifties, plump, bald on top and with long, wispy brown hair hanging from the sides. In the dim light his face looked a browny-grey. He puffed from a small hookah and had a young girl on each arm. The girls wore t-shirts and jeans, were clumsily made-up and giggled all the time. We got talking to the man and discovered that he was a long distance lorry driver, from Birmingham. It seemed strange to hear a Brummie accent in those surroundings. We were the only westerners in the club.
Hussein returned with three beers and two girls. Mustapha and Achmed got a girl each. They weren’t particularly attractive, and, well… Andre and I looked at each other: they seemed very young, maybe fourteen years old, although it is hard to tell at that age. I put the question to Hussein. He thought the girls were seventeen.
“No way Hussein,” I said, “they look much younger than that. Do they have ID to prove how old they are?”
“They need the money to buy school books.” With that, Hussein got up and strutted onto the dance floor, where nubiles were queuing up to be his partner.
“You buy me drink.” The schoolgirl pressed her body against mine.
We bought them drinks; some kind of lemonade stuff. The girls didn’t know much English. Andre took his one on to the dance floor. As they moved to the music the girl ground her crotch against his and whispered in his ear: “Fifty dirham”.
Hussein sat down on the sofa: “You like your girl?” No, I didn’t like my girl, and she was obviously way underage. I didn’t want to be a party pooper but by this time I’d had enough of Hussein. I told him we wanted to go back to our hotel.
“Sure, we’ll take the girls back to your hotel and maybe smoke a little hashish, eh,” another wink and leer. Sid James would have been proud of him.
I started to lose my temper. At that moment Andre and his girl returned from the dance floor. Hussein repeated his offer of girls and drugs back at the hotel. Then: “Tomorrow we go and visit my family up in the mountains, we’ll take a taxi there.” We guessed who would have to pay for the taxi. “Then I buy you a meal, my mother makes good couscous.” Hussein was a Berber and his family still lived the old tribal traditions in the Atlas Mountains.
Before we could give any sort of reply, Hussein got up and returned to the dance floor. My balls were gently squeezed and I felt a tongue in my ear: “Forty dirham.”
Andre, too, was fed-up with it all. The hours passed and the beers kept coming. Moroccan beer is lousy stuff and it gave both of us a bad head. We kept asking the waiter for our bill, so that we could leave. It never came. The Brummie guy had passed out on the couch. The girls were going through his pockets. I beckoned Hussein over and told him we wanted to leave, now. By this time Hussein was rather drunk.
“We stay a bit longer boys.” In order to entice us he produced the prettiest girl in the club. It didn’t wash. I told Hussein to fuck off. We made to leave. Hussein suddenly became very angry. He began shouting, his face an inch away from mine. He obviously didn’t understand personal space. The spit soaked abuse switched to Arabic, so that he could better express himself. Then Hussein stormed off in the direction of the toilets. The prettiest girl in the club hurried after him.
Andre and I shrugged and made our way to the bar, the idea being to settle the bill. The barman ignored us. Ah, sod them. We were just about to walk out without paying when Hussein reappeared. He’d calmed down a bit yet was still obviously angry. A barrage of Arabic was followed by our bill. We gasped inwardly but decided that discretion would be the better part of valour. Shakespeare paid the bill. Someone phoned for a taxi and ten awkward minutes later the three of us left the club. As the taxi drove through deserted streets, Hussein became quite affable again. He spoke about our trip to the mountains in the morning, and said that he would pick us up at the hotel at 9am, which was barely four hours away.
The taxi pulled up outside our hotel and we paid the driver. Things started getting a bit emotional as Hussein bid farewell to us like long lost brothers. The taxi drove away. Mustapha and Achmed stood on the cobbled street and let out a sigh of relief. After 18 hours we had finally got rid of Hussein.
Dawn was just breaking and at a nearby mosque a man sang across the rooftops, beckoning the faithful to early morning prayers. We felt no need to heed the call and tried to get into our hotel. The key we’d been given for the outside door did not fit. It was obviously the wrong key. We banged on the door for a while. No response. At that moment an elderly Arab came down the street. He spoke no English but understood our problem. From inside his kaftan he produced a massive bunch of keys of all shapes and sizes. It took him a few minutes to find one that would open the door. We gave him some coins for his services. The elderly Arab then sauntered off, in search of others in a similar predicament.
Inside the hotel we found ourselves in a dark corridor. We had to move carefully in the gloom, feeling our way along. I bumped into someone. I smelt perfume and felt a hand on my inner thigh: fifty dirham.
From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwords – note: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.