“You drive?” Rita asks me. A few of Haitham’s friends had taken me to lunch out in Casablanca while he was working. Were about to leave and it’s the first English I’ve heard in a 10 minute conversation. I answer a distracted, “Of course.” Doesn’t everybody drive?
“Ok. You drive.” She gets out of the drivers seat and I immediately panic. “Wait. What?” I attempt. She slips into the car next to us with a few friends and speeds off, hand waving out the window through the dust. I stare after them, mouth hanging open.
“You have your license on you?” Kenza, her little sister, is still with me looking at me expectantly from the back seat. I slowly unbuckle my seat belt and slip out of the passenger side. Is she serious?
Miami has earned the title of the worst drivers in the entire country, three times that I’m aware of and the worst of what I’ve seen there pales in comparison to the terror I’ve felt here as a passenger in Casablanca. Every stop sign, light, lane marker, roundabout, pedestrian, and speed bump are merely suggestions. If you need to turn left? You drive into traffic and honk til they honk back and possibly slow down. Need to cross the street? Just run into traffic and hope they stop long enough for you to escape to the other side with your limbs intact. Oh, and watch out for the bikes. There is an army of tiny motorcycle thingys that dodge and weave through it all like little curveballs waiting to take out your side mirrors and possibly small children.
Haitham drives a very nice, very, VERY fast car. I’m completely confident in his skills behind the wheel. Yet I clench everything straight down to my butt every time he hurls up behind slower drivers and honks the customary Moroccan three honk, “get the hell over or else” warning with simultaneous light flashing and swearing in Arabic. I melt like an opossum every time we survive a maneuver. Don’t they know this place is a death trap??? Also, its been a good three years since I’ve driven a stick shift. I get behind the wheel and think, “Holy fucking shit.”
I’m shaking internally and can’t seem to sort out my feet on the gas and the clutch. I know what awaits me. I’m going to war in a tiny Peugeot.
“Are you ok?” Kenza asks.
I breathe deeply and nod. “Yep, just need to get my bearings, it’s been awhile since I’ve driven a stick shift. It’s like riding a bike though, right?” I laugh nervous and realize I’m using a cheesy American saying. Jesus, I can be so Midwestern sometimes…
“But not today,” I think to myself and hit the gas.
We careen out into the fray and I follow Kenza’s directions. She’s a bit scattered and I’m getting more and more frantic. She ponders whether to take a left or just go straight as my panic level starts to hit atomic bomb strength.
“You don’t drive?” I ask nicely.
“No. I got into an accident.” She explains, ramming one balled fist into her palm. “I hit a wall.”
“Ah, right.” I spit out barely breathing, not cognizant of which lane I’m in or what direction I’m going.
“Let’s go to the mosque?” She suggests.
“Absolutely,” I agree thinking that praying is in my best interest as of right now.
As it has been explained to me, the mosque in Casablanca was the idea of the 5th king. Whether they liked it or not Moroccans contributed money to its being built and the result is an incredibly huge infrastructure of staggering height and intricate details. Fountains surround slightly tiered steps, so as one appears to float downwards to the entrance, intricately placed brightly colored tiles adorn massive archways all around. It is the biggest mosque in Africa.
Despite the size of our landmark, we miss the turn and spend a good three to four minutes in and out of the north and south sides of an unlit, death trap of a tunnel. We finally careen around a pile of cinder blocks marking the entrance, and the usual pack of street kids scurry to harass us for a parking fee as soon as I pull the emergency brake. No matter where you are, there is someone to collect a coin in exchange for telling you how fast, and in what direction to turn your wheel, all while keeping an eye out that you don’t hit another car whilst parking. Honestly?…I think Miami needs these people.
I keep my eyes down and purse in hand like Kenza tells me to as she barks Arabic to the guys. Not in a bad way, the language itself is just a bit abrasive. Plus, I stick out in ways I don’t even know. I do know that everyone that can, immediately speaks English to me. I’m not fooling anybody.
We explore the grounds of the mosque, it’s closed to the public at this hour. Dozens of people are just hanging out, and I totally get why. It is a place of utter peace and beauty. Kenza is a doll and takes a ton of pictures of me. She is so supportive and encouraging, “Anything you want to do, let’s do it,” she prods. I adore her immediately.
We leave the mosque, the peace of it follows and I feel more relaxed as we get back into the car and Kenza hashes out change from a 100 dirham. To my surprise the guy scurries off and brings exact change right back. “Maybe not the scavengers I thought,” I think, scolding myself.
We head next to Old Town Casablanca. A assortment of stalls where Kenza tells me, “They sell everything.” Crossing the street is an adventure in itself. I stop curbside and wait for people to slow down. She looks at me strangely and leads the way straight into traffic explaining on the way, “They’ll never just stop.” We skip past cars, dodging our way into the old stone structure.
They do indeed, sell everything. Silver tea sets, lamb skin leather bags, fresh oranges and counterfeit designer bags. It’s surreal and gorgeous. Time has left this place. The goods have changed, but this exchange has been going on here forever. I’m very aware that I’m an observer, but I’m also incredibly charmed. This is a different world.
Kenza bargains with a vendor for me while I stand and smile holding a few beautiful leather pouchettes for souvineers. As we leave, we both rush right into traffic and she laughs with me as we skip and dodge moving cars. “See?” She says. “You’re Moroccan now!”
“Haitham will be so proud!” I exclaim, feeling suddenly quite capable.
Behind the wheel again, I remember how much I love driving a stick shift. I even recognize landmarks. The buildings and places are slightly familiar on the route back. I relax a bit, and just drive, following Kenza’s directions. Someone roughly cuts me off in a roundabout, and I honk a few times and throw up a hand barking, “Ayyyy, come on!” Kenza smiles at me and we both laugh.
And just like that- I’ve totally got this. I shift into third, smile, and drive.