made in: Rabat (super limited Hassan Tower edition)

While walking from Rabat’s waterfront to its new town during one of my then/now postcard hunts, I saw two women reading an informational display in front of a tall-fenced, big-lawned garden. I hovered alongside and pretended to read. They asked me if I was headed to the Hassan Tower, too. I’d never heard of the Hassan Tower, but, yep, sure. Next stop.

So we walked up the hill together, along the garden’s fence, around a bend, past a blank-faced guard on a very still horse, through the gate, and there it was: an incomplete minaret keeping watch over the ruins of its unfinished mosque. The intact marble floors looked perfect for rollerblading.

Confession: When I visited the Hassan Tower, I had no idea that all those columns were the partially restored supports for a mosque. (I’m such a dumb tourist sometimes). It would have been huge – the second largest in the world at the time, after the mosque in Samara, Iraq.

Other things I did not know and have since read and found interesting: Construction of the mosque started in 1195, about 1,000 years after the town had been part of the Roman Empire, 500 years after the Arab Muslim conquest of the region, 450 years after the indigenous Amazigh (aka Berbers) revolted against Arab rule, and about 50 years after the newish Almohad (an Amazigh Muslim dynasty) rulers started using it as a base for attacks on Spain. Yacoub El Mansour, the Alhmohad leader at the time, commissioned the mosque to help turn the little village of Rabat into a capital city.

The tower is made of sandstone and is ascended by a set of interior ramps – instead of stairs – that allowed animals to be used to carry the materials for the upper parts of the tower. It was supposed to be even taller, but construction of the whole almost-complete complex stopped when Mansour died four years after the project started. In 1755, an earthquake destroyed what remained of the mosque’s hall.

At the other end of the complex is the more recently completed Mausoleum, where Mohammed V (1909-1961) and his two sons are buried:

I was surprised that: 1) we were allowed to enter the mausoleum of Moroccan royalty; 2) that we were welcome to gawk at the splendor of it all and take photos; and 3) that the guards consented to every cheesy photo op request.

I was still trying to get a grasp on the whole “King” thing. I’d seen the face of the current king, Mohammed VI, often enough that I’d grown fond of him: his portrait hangs in almost every establishment in the country, from shawarma shops to photo printers, sometimes in formal statesman’s pose, sometimes kissing babies. Or drinking mint tea. Or driving a tractor.

I’d also licked The King dozens of times, since he was on almost every stamp I purchased in Morocco:

But despite those coy dimples, he was still The King. Sa Majesté-notre-roi-que-Dieu-le-glorifie-et-lui-donne-longue-vie*. All over the country, Moroccan flags lined the immaculate streets of any town through which his motorcade had recently passed. Everywhere a sense of omnipresent, habitual reverence and official pomp. And here I was snapping pics of the elaborately engraved coffin of his father. Or grandfather. Or…? Who were all these guys anyway?

I left the mausoleum feeling a little overwhelmed by all the things I would have to google later. Who’s the man sitting down there next to the coffins, reading the Koran? Why did Mohammed V get his own mausoleum, and not the king before him? Was it something to do with getting independence from France? Was he the one that was Sultan before he became King? Was he a good ruler? Did he have nice dimples, too?

I stood at the landing halfway down the stairs, camera in hand, feeling very ignorant and wishing there was another helpful informational display to give me a clue.

One of the guards in the smart tan suit/red hat uniforms saw me staring out across the complex. He politely offered to take my photo. I politely declined. He insisted. I declined again. He took the camera from my hand and pointed towards the stairs. I obeyed.

When I walked back down the stairs and got my camera back, I asked to take his photo in return. He beamed.

I walked out of there, happily smiling about his happy smile, and forgot all about my to-google list.

That night I started a new bracelet, picking colors and imagining a design that would remind of that place, and, more importantly, that smile. Dark peach for the tower, teal for the gate, black and white for the tiles and for the sweet guard’s shirt and tie, plus a little bit of gold because the place was so fancy.

The next day I continued working on the bracelet during my train ride to Meknès. It was cold and drizzly when I arrived and I couldn’t find an inviting cafe anywhere in town (plenty of cafes, but none that felt comfortable to me). I hunkered down at McDonalds and worked on it some more. (Don’t hate. I wasn’t feeling the love in Meknès. Smooth jazz, mediocre coffee, and perfect french fries made it better).

When I’d given up on Meknes, I went to the station to catch a train to Fes. Two-hour wait. So I got my ticket and then settled in at one of the little round tables in the dark cafe at the other end of the train station. I ordered a coffee and looked up at the news broadcast on the huge flat-screen t.v. on the wall. The news was in Arabic, but clearly focused on US air strikes against IS in Syria.

What was he saying, this sharp-suited news anchor in his perfectly-lit studio? I watched the screen, trying to pull some information from the flashing images, the maps, the colorful infographics. What version of events was being shared here, and how it would compare to the version being told back home? I scanned the faces of the half-dozen men sitting in the cafe, their tiny glasses of mint tea slowly cooling as they watched the screen. I searched for some reaction, some sign of how they felt. They were all alone at their tables, quiet, blank-faced. Were they angry? Frustrated? With which side? And how many sides were there, anyway? Were they thinking of other ways the situation could’ve been handled? Did this mess affect their lives? Or were they wondering what they’d have for lunch?

That screen was like a magnet and as I stared at it my stomach started to hurt with the dread I feel whenever I remember that terrible things are happening somewhere all the time and that no matter how many languages I learn, or books I read, or news shows I watch, I will never know the truth about what’s going on or be able to control what happens to the people involved.

The waiter, who looked like he hadn’t smiled in years, set down a cup of coffee on my table. He placed a glass of water next to it and disappeared behind the wood-paneled bar. I took the bracelet out of my backpack and started weaving a new row. Bead by bead, the anxiety faded.

A woman sat down at the table next to me. She settled her bags and then I felt her watching my hands. I looked up at her and noticed that her djellaba was the same shade of blue as the beads I was weaving onto the bracelet. I held the bracelet against her sleeve and she smiled and took the bracelet from my hand, turned it around and over and nodded approvingly. We chatted and the t.v. screen faded away.

We were both headed to Fes on the same train, so we finished our coffees, gathered our things, shared a bench on the train platform, and then sat together on the train. She was from Rabat but lived in Fes with her husband. She didn’t have kids. And also like me, she loved being an aunt – though the sudden sadness in her eyes made me think she would’ve preferred to be a mom. I thought having two nephews and a niece was plenty. She laughed and said she thought 37 nieces and nephews was almost enough. And now many of them had children of their own already. We arrived in Fes, parted with I don’t remember how many kisses on each cheek, and sincerely wished each other well.

And that’s how it went, and how my travels continue to go. Embarrassing realizations about the gaping gaps in my knowledge followed by nice interactions with nice people, followed by spirit-dampening newsflashes, followed by a heart-warming encounter, followed by…

I finished the bracelet. Twice. The day that I finished the first one (shown in that photo from the McDonald’s) I met a sweet woman who had also recently visited the Hassan Tower, was bummed that she didn’t meet The Guard With The Smile, and wanted a souvenir to remember her story, and mine; so she bought that bracelet and I made another — taking some artistic liberties with the colors since my bead supply was getting low.

I think about many things while making bracelets, but while I worked on these two, my swirling thoughts were surprisingly focused – on thankfulness for the people I meet who motivate me to keep reading, learning, and talking with people, even (or especially) when I feel discouraged by how little I understand.

* His Majesty our king may God glorify him and give him long life. (I never heard anyone say this. I read it in Partir, by Tahar Ben Jelloum

More souvenir stories HERE.

©, 2014-2015.

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