“There’s no easy way to tell you this, Richard, but Carine didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.” But there was no need for my mother to say it. I’d already figured it out as soon as I regained consciousness in the private clinic Maarif in Casa-blanca, Morocco. Looking to my right, the only other bed in the room was empty. My lovely fiancée Carine was dead.
I had been taken to the clinic by ambulance from our riad renovation project in Azemmour, some 85km south of Casablanca, after a terrible accident involving carbon monoxide [CO] poisoning produced by a two-foot diameter charcoal grill.
Our 110m2 renovation project felt huge, with three bedrooms (one on the terrace), a kitchen, giant double salon and room for three bathrooms. There was a superb double terrace with an elevated view overlooking the Atlantic, Morocco’s biggest river the Oum R’bia, and miles of beautiful countryside – truly a stunning vista.
Dar Ben Abderrahaman IX was an ancient property in need of some serious love and attention, but after living with Carine’s abusive family of Congolese immigrants in a small south London flat for months, we were absolutely ready for it. We left riding pillion on my new 500cc Piaggio Beverley, making it from London to Azemmour in six days…
London to Portsmouth was relatively straightforward, albeit scarily windy and not boding well for the 36 hour crossing on P&O’s ageing Pride of Bilbao. Roll, sway and heave, heave roll and sway – force eight winds, all the way. A friendly sounding Popeye type with a raw, authentic, seafaring northern ac-cent welcomed us aboard, telling us to expect “an uncomfortable ride”, but not to worry because he was deploying the invincible ship’s giant stabilizers even before our departure from port. Looks of Titanic concern all round.
On our eventual arrival at Bilbao, the sky was still grey but all the heave-ho had now heaved, the stabilizers had been withdrawn, and we were free to disembark with green-white faces, empty stomachs, a collective great sigh of relief and relatively subdued excitement about the trip ahead.
Beverly was loaded to the max, and we didn’t have enough money for stop-overs in Spain, so we decided to just ride and ride as far as we could, heading south. A broken fuel gauge meant filling up every 200km, providing some respite for a coffee, ablutions, and a quick argument across our map of Spain. As it turned out, it was a relatively straightforward north-south mission: Bilbao to Marbella – 900km in one long day. We rode at a steady 120-140kmh, by-passing the centre of Madrid, then via Toledo, Linares, and through the end-less sun-baked orange groves of Grenada. Finally, we headed down a long stretch of spectacular open, winding roads until the horizon presented the twinkling amber lights of Marbella – that classic El Dorado for ex-pat Brits in the Sun.
An easy south-easterly track on dual carriageways through endless expensive yet unappealing tourist developments took us from Marbella directly to Al-geciras, where we rode aboard a ferry for the 45 minute crossing to Tangier, Morocco. After an initial taste of backsheesh at the douane [customs], where they have created jobs for unofficial ‘helpers’ to fast-track new arrivals to the police check, the trip down to Azemmour was another north-south affair – a serene 380km of pristine autoroutes.
By now, the Moroccan sun was beating down – if this was typical of a mid-October afternoon here then perhaps we’d made the right choice. Fortunately the auto route road signs are translated from Arabic into the English alphabet – not that this meant much with place names such as Moulay-Bousselham, Tnine-des-Chtouka, and Lbir Jdid. Guided by the 200km fuel mark, we made a final stop for more Shell before reaching Azemmour at 4pm, only to be miraculously greeted by our Moroccan man-with-a-van, Mustafa, who we had found in London and instructed to ship all our worldly possessions, including my golf clubs, computers, and a bed, door-to-door to Azemmour.
Needless to say, despite the procuration we had provided him for the douane, Mustafa was unable to tell us just how fatigued he was [we could smell it], and how he had fought with the douane to avoid confiscation of all our goods, and how we should now pay him a further €400, and if it had been us rather than a Moroccan at customs we would have paid double that. De-spite the dubious scrawled receipt he flashed in my face, I told him that we would be making several more journeys [lie] and that I would recommend him to many of our friends in the UK who were also planning to move here [lie]. And anyway, I only had €100 to give him [lie], and we too were ‘fatigued’ and starting to smell [true], and now we did not have enough money to eat tonight [a final lie]. And all this, in sign language, pretty much broke his heart.
Azemmour’s Medina is breathtakingly enchanting, with most locals wearing the traditional unisex, long hooded robe reaching down to the feet [djallaba], and slippers with no back or heel [baboosh]. Built where Morocco’s biggest river the Oum R’bia meets 35km of pristine Atlantic coastline, the Medina is a random, bizarre maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient C16th ruins.
Walking through its streets leaves one with a sense of biblical times. Kids play marbles or football with airless balls, and cats are everywhere on the sloping cobbles, with older women exchanging Medina gossip over the communal water fountain, dressed in pajamas and dressing gowns all day long.
Shuttered ‘boutiques’ are well stocked for the essentials, if rarely open. Selling single cigarettes and individual sachets of everything from shampoo to Nescafé keeps the dirhams turning over slowly but steadily each day. You can also buy a single loaf of fresh bread [hobs], just delivered by ancient bicycle from one of the several communal ovens.
These ovens are at the heart of the Medina community, and lend a real charm to life here. Women prepare their bread loaves or sardines at home, then place them on large trays which their children carry through the maze of tiny Medina streets to the oven. At dinner time, their return journey leaves an appetising scent of freshly baked bread or grilled fish as you walk home to eat.
There is a mains water supply here, but most can’t afford it. Azemmour has 40,000 occupants, and virtually no work. The only children toys are marbles and those empty footballs – no coat-tugging brats here, nagging for a PS3. But this lifestyle is a real eye-opener, built entirely around the family and the core Islamic tenet of sharing. Here, even the poor give to the poor, perhaps more generously than do the well-off. It is written in the Quoran that beyond the necessities of shelter, food, and clothing, excess income should be put aside and distributed among those less fortunate than oneself.
The next three months in Azemmour, we both agreed, were the funniest and most enjoyable of our lives. Carine was initially reticent about moving to Morocco, largely due to its reputation on women rights, and the thought of having to cover her whole body Muslim-style in a hot climate. But her strength in overcoming these was impressive. She was proud to be the only black in Azemmour, and was adamant that she would wear exactly what she wanted (though I did notice the odd pair of trousers replacing a miniskirt).
I met Carine in one of the most ‘raw’ parts of South East London – New Cross – where she was managing a local pub. One night there was one highly unsa-voury young local drinking way too much, until Carine decided he’d had enough and suggested it was time for him to go home. You could see that he wasn’t going to accept this – especially from a young black girl and in front of his friends – and like something from an action film he produced a gun from his coat pocket and pointed it straight at Carine’s head. Sitting nearby at the end of the bar, I froze. But totally unphased, she looked him directly in the eye and said: “Go home to your mother, and if you’re going to come back, bring a body bag!” We never saw the character again, but the incident made quite an impression on me and I asked her out – feisty and attractive. Dangerous.
Our renovation project was planned and executed on the spot, except for some cursory planning permission to ‘renovate the facade’, which we had secured on the last of our four-day house-hunting missions to Morocco. In fact we now realised that we wanted to convert our house back into a riad, which involved far more than the facade, namely the demolition of two large square holes in the ceilings to give direct access from the ground floor salon to the sun and stars above. Our budget was tight, certainly not allowing for a professional architect, submission of any formal plans [no way – an English friend here waited over a year before getting clearance to demolish one meaningless interior wall in his Medina house!] or contracting a team of ‘professional’ builders. With their impeccable reputation as genius artisans, we thought we’d tap into the local Moroccan talent and put a little back into the Azemmour economy, so we set about employing our own crew.
It was rather like producing a comedy film – Carry On Azemmour – with each tradesman paid daily according to the speed and quality of his work. This seemed to have a direct correlation to the size of his biceps. Our spreadsheet was produced and updated daily in pencil on one of the few remaining walls. And somehow, we were getting away with it – on target for six month completion, and just about on budget.
After another hard day’s work one December night, we spent a fun evening cooking some kefta kebabs for the neighbor’s kids. Carine was complaining that she was cold, so after dinner at around 10.30pm, I took the two foot diameter charcoal grill up to our newly completed terrace bedroom, parked it at the foot of our bed, and spying just one or two last dying embers I left the door slightly ajar to err on the side of caution. Tragically, at some point during the night, Carine must have felt the cold and tapped the door shut with her foot, leading in turn to ten hours of CO poisoning, putting me in a deep coma and putting my very special young soul mate to sleep forever. Game Over.
At 8.45am the next day, our neighbor Abdel Kbir was in prayer to Allah and had what he describes as a “shuddering sensation”. He just knew something was wrong. Looking out of his window, he saw our building crew stood outside our riad door and knew that they should normally be inside by now, working. Rushing downstairs, he shouted at our chief builder Omar to smash through the heavy front door with a sledgehammer, and they all ran up the 42 concrete steps to our roof terrace room, where through the closed glass door they could see us both, lying prostrate and unconscious. Well, I was unconscious. Carine had been dead for three hours or so, still cuddling Ben, our 20-day-old Staffie.
I was dragged down the 42 steps on my back, barely breathing. Someone was sent to find help and returned with a local off-duty fireman who arrived and gave me mouth to mouth on our doorstep. Someone else was despatched to summon one of the two ambulances available in the El Jadida region. Ten men then carried me on a stretcher of paint-covered wooden building planks to the ancient Medina ramparts, where naturally a huge crowd had gathered to see this strange foreigner thrown into the ambulance. I was taken 13km to El Jadida hospital, having a major seizure en route and falling deeper into coma. This hospital had none of the necessary ventilation equipment to keep me alive, so the British Embassy were contacted and they arranged to have me taken by private ambulance 85km north to the clinic Maarif in Casablanca [as seen in the film Babel], where I had another seizure and began my long stretch, deep in coma.
It was 41 hours before I opened my eyes, rapidly and as wide as they could go, before springing bolt upright, tugging out various leads, and triggering a loud buzzer. There was no shouting or rushing around. Slowly, the clinician came to my bedside, gently reconnected everything and told me where I was.
As is often the case with coma, the patient’s initial recovery (‘awakening’) is a result of aural stimulation. For me it was the sound of a clinician’s voice, qui-etly praying to Allah on a mat across the room. Then the unmistakable ping of a drip and metronomic beep of my heart monitor. Bizarrely, my initial state of mind was euphoric, almost new-born, as if nothing in the world could or would ever matter – as though I had never experienced stress or pressure of any kind. This must be the Islamic promise of Paradise. Then, as if to confirm it, the majestic grand central mosque Hassan II of Casablanca began its haunting, celestial lunchtime call to prayer.
To my parents, who were with me in the clinic, I appeared to be making a miraculous recovery – walking around, chatting away, my memory evidently in-tact. The only thing my mind had blocked out was the accident itself, and obviously the last 41 hours of coma. I later learned that this condition is Post-traumatic Amnesia (PTA).
I was keen to see Carine, perhaps not quite yet believing that she had gone. So I insisted against the clinic’s advice that I should be discharged, and my parents took me in a grand taxi back down to Azemmour, where I had to make a police report, and then down to El Jadida morgue where Carine’s body lay on a trolley. We had from time to time discussed death, and Carine had always said she just wanted me to kiss her on both eyes and tell her that everything would be OK. It was an incredibly hard thing for me to do on my own, but I was happy to kiss her gently and to see no painful expression – just peace.
My parents were now eager to take me away from Azemmour, so after waiting for the autopsy and police report we flew from Casablanca via Lisbon to Faro for some recovery time at their villa in Portugal. Again, I felt and appeared to be fine, but then it started.
Initially, I noticed myself that things were going wrong when I wet the bed in my parents’ villa. Then I turned as red as a beetroot, started slurring my speech, and became unsteady on my feet to the point of collapse.
The best analogy I have found is to consider the brain as a highly complex traffic system. When the delayed, full effects of CO smash and grab the central nervous system, it is the scale of disruption one might expect from a mas-sive earthquake or a bomb exploding at a busy intersection. Imagine the devastation of a bomb in your brain. Unfortunately, once our brain cells have been destroyed, they are gone for good.
But our brains, weighing an average of 1-1.5kg, are simply phenomenal – far more powerful than the world’s biggest computer – and we only ever use a tiny fraction of this power. The neurons in the damaged brain, presumably feeling redundant after its injury (mine was classed as ‘severe’), then zip around looking to make fresh connections with other under-utilized brain cells, until some degree of normality is hopefully restored to the central nervous sys-tem, allowing the victim to mobilize, speak, remember faces and events, and to plan and organize his or her life.
Lasting recovery has to be facilitated by a process of rehabilitation, which in itself can take many months or even years. My first 14 weeks back in the UK were spent in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, where for six weeks despite the as-sistance of 20 truly amazing doctors and nurses, I was doubly incontinent and could not walk, talk, eat (my truly angelic sister Julie had to spoon feed me) or even cry. My parents flew over to visit me from Portugal but the first time they arrived I didn’t really know who they were. How hurtful for them. It is not just the victim that suffers from a severe brain injury, but the whole family.
In hospital, my hypo mania was manifesting itself in some, er, ‘interesting’ ways. When a patient apparently ‘lost’ his slippers from the bedside locker, they were inevitably to be found, together with his pajamas and dressing gown, in mine. There was another incident when a patient recovering from codeine poisoning kept telling me that he could tell I was an army officer. How he knew this was beyond me – presumably it was my pristine dressing gown (probably his) or new slippers (almost definitely his). So I played along and told him in whispered tones that I was Special Air Services (SAS), just back from Iraq. The next day he beckoned me to his bedside and indicated silently that I should listen. Nothing. Listen harder! Sure enough, there it was – a gentle, regular ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh’. He told me to take cover, as undoubtedly what we were hearing was the apocalyptic sound of an Iraqi helicopter des-patched to catch me. Even in my fudged brain state, I found this a little hard to believe. And sure enough, a nurse later arrived to take my blood pressure and explained that the helicopter was, in fact, his bedside fan!
From Huddersfield I was lucky enough to be referred to the Daniel Yorath House Brain Rehabilitation Unit in Leeds. After eight months of expert neuro-psychology, physiotherapy, speech, language and occupational therapy, I felt almost well enough for discharge, albeit taking with me a diagnosis of hypomania and a prescription for lithium. Apparently I am the only person known to have survived 10 hours constant exposure to carbon monoxide. The head neuro-psychologist at the Unit, Dr John Freeland, once said to me in his ever-genial, calming American tone: “You’re incredibly lucky – one in a billion. Next time you’re heading for Vegas, take me!”
But before Vegas, for me, it had to be back to Morocco – I was already addicted to this crazy, colorful and totally absorbing culture. And anyway, I had a riad to finish. So back I came.
To observe Islamic life is fascinating. The majority of Muslims are strict adherents to their religion, and the 5-a-Day calls to prayer are widely observed. Only the most stalwart Muslims with well-developed Islamic beards respond to the call to prayer at the break of dawn, around 6am. There follows a weary-looking slipstream of worshippers around noon, many just out of bed, and then a more sincere-looking crowd at 3.30pm. At 6pm you notice a greater number, until at 7.30pm they’re out in full force with their traditional hooded djallabas and baboosh, marching purposefully to their local mosque for the final prayer of the day like Freemasons heading off to the Grand Lodge.
After their visit to the mosque, many Muslims – still dressed in their djallabas and baboosh – seem from what I’ve seen – to make a b-line to the local su-permarket off-licence to stock up on Casablanca’s finest bottles of Flag Special beer, as if to commit an immediate sin for which they can absolve them-selves tout de suite at tomorrow’s trip to the mosque. In the supermarket these men behave like animals at the till, pushing and shoving and acting drunk even before they’ve got the beer home and flipped a lid off a bottle. Alcohol forbidden in Islam? Right. Maybe once, but now they seem more than happy to watch those Muslim dirhams roll in. A hint of hypocrisy here, perhaps?
There’s no way you could call this way of life organized chaos. It is chaos in its purest form. Pure comedy, every single day. When I observe Moroccans mak-ing a complete hash of the most straightforward task, I often tell them straight-up: “You couldn’t organize a piss-up in the Flag Special brewery”, but this just gets lost in translation.
The way vehicles move around the country is astounding, shocking, and frankly suicidal. There are the beautifully decorated short-bed trucks, which aren’t very long but are loaded vertically to 50 feet with anything from an en-tire household’s possessions to sky-high bales of hay. Mind-boggling. Keep back!
Inter-city passengers can gamble on the equally suicidal Grand Taxis. The Grand Taxi is an obligatory ancient Mercedes in an equally obligatory state of disrepair. You pay seven dirhams (up front – ie no refunds!) for your place and take your chances. Not just with the vehicle, but with the SIX other people joining you for the ride – two up front with the driver and four squashed impossibly into the back seat. Fishermen fresh off the boat, or builders just off-site provide the most interesting nasal sensations.
Grand Taxi drivers will inevitably perform at least one death-defying maneuver during your trip, usually waiting to approach a blind corner on an incline before attempting to overtake an overloaded Mitsubishi which then accelerates as if in a race with your vehicle. Inevitably, just as we draw up [too] slowly alongside Mitsubishi Maniac, the high shadow of a bus full of worshipers driven by an equally manic Moroccan sweeps around the corner directly before us.
There is no way we’ll make this. In my mind’s eye I see a newspaper photo of the tangled wreckage of this seemingly inevitable imminent accident; maybe even a clip on the TV news if there’s enough carnage. But at the very last second, our ‘driver’ sees the danger and slams down on his spongy, failing brakes, throwing us all towards the windscreen. No airbags here. There is silence in the taxi – a mixture of disgust at his driving and speechless relief to be alive.
Petit taxis, which circulate constantly within the periphery of each Moroccan town, have a more local charm but similar level of danger, with their shot suspension and unreliable brakes. They carry a payload of three people and normally some perilous-looking bit of luggage thrown on the roof by the person who has taken the seat in front of you. The urban roads are strewn with giant potholes and pedestrians who appear to be asleep where they stand. This can make for a very unpleasant journey, beset by dangerous obstacles which seem to arrive every three or four heart-stopping seconds. Seat belts are considered an unnecessary luxury for passenger safety, as these are ‘professional drivers’ who have passed the Moroccan Government’s Test of Confidence – something I’m sure can be bought off the peg like everything here with a quick backsheesh.
Pedestrians carry perhaps more of a threat than any mode of transport, but they’re mostly a threat to themselves. They choose the middle of the street over the smooth, new pavement every time. There are at least three reasons I have established for this apparently suicidal tendency: First, as my Moroccan friend Azziza pointed out, they don’t understand what a car is. Not what it is, exactly, but what a ton weight of metal is capable of doing to a fragile Moroccan woman carrying a baby on her back. Second, the promise of ‘no win no fee’ insurance has to be tempting. Possibly more likely is the third, more spiritually driven approach: they just say “Insh’Allah” [God Willing], close their eyes and walk on in the knowledge that Allah will protect them. And judging by the literally thousands of near misses I have witnessed here, He usually comes up trumps, “Hamdullah” [Thank God].
Local buses are extremely cheap, safety issues notwithstanding. Someone recently informed me that these buses have no parking brake – unbelievable to me as a former London bus driver myself. But it’s true, and one can see the conductor jumping off the bus to place wooden chocks in front of a wheel whenever the bus is at a stand on an incline.
If you’re driving yourself in Morocco, the Auto routes of Maroc are brand new and impeccable. They are being built on the orders of King Mohammed VI as part of His Plan Azur – mission tourism. With an envious eye towards southern Spain and Portugal, His Majesty has created this plan with the objective of bringing 10 million tourists each year to Morocco, and now looks odds-on to succeed, with over eight million arriving here in 2008.
The auto routes during low-season are usually deserted, with most large wagons preferring to risk the free but highly dangerous ‘N’ roads. But even here on the auto routes there are surreal sights to behold, such as old-timers from the countryside crossing to pick herbs from the central reservation. Families ignore specially built foot bridges and oncoming 120kmh traffic from both directions in order to drop off their kids at a nearby school and make the treacherous crossing back home just until the school ‘run’ at 3pm. You will dodge the fam-ily then look up after 200m to see a footbridge occupied by five lonely-looking cows. They stare down woefully, wondering whether this is a suicide opportunity worth taking or whether it’s better to await the inevitable sword.
But my preferred form of transport here is undoubtedly the donkey. With or without a cart, donkeys have an undeniable beauty – full of adorable cute-ness. On the side of any road in Morocco you will see donkeys loaded with whatever goods they might be transporting: olives, oil, vegetables, scrap metal, fish, reclaimed contents of dustbins – anything.
The Arabic word for donkey is ‘Hamar’, and is widely used as a term of abuse for someone considered to be doing something stupid, or to be incapable. But I know better, and when my wife calls me ‘Hamar’ I just say ‘Shokran’ [thank you], because from everything I have seen the donkey is the epitome of reliability and intelligence. They say here that the sometimes painfully harsh sound of a donkey’s bray is telling you that the beast has just seen Satan.
I met a wonderful donkey once in Tardouant, near Fes here in Morocco. I called her Jenny, as this what female donkeys are called. Jenny belonged to an equally wonderful family of three generations living in a house built of earth. Utterly detached, with no mod-cons to speak of: two electric bulbs, a classic toilet/shower area built from mud, and no water. Water here has to be brought in from the source. Fortunately, there are many sources of water in this region of Morocco, but to reach the nearest involves a donkey ride of about one kilometer, up stony tracks and then down on through an impossibly romantic glade.
Once in the glade, you catch a glimpse of sunlight glinting from the source – tantalizingly close now in the 40 degree heat. But to reach the water, Jenny has to negotiate a 40m ledge, perhaps 10 meters above the ground. There and back, the return leg fully laden. We watch in admiration as Jenny slowly but steadily prances with purpose and grace along the ledge like Olga Kor-but on the beam, until she reaches the coveted source. On arrival, she has her double panniers loaded up to spilling point, and makes a steady, safe return back across the ledge and all the way back to the house without losing a drop from her bulging leather sacks.
This performance of ‘donkey ballet’, with its soundtrack of crickets, was pure tranquility, and the lifestyle in this part of the country was a pure pleasure to behold. No phone, no internet, no filth, no hassle. One could not get any fur-ther away from the chaos of London than this, I thought as we followed Jenny slowly back up the road to the house, where the smell of freshly cooked bread from the ancient bildi clay oven in the courtyard welcomed us home. Lovely.