Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace 1037 1565 José Sotolongo

I’m going to Morocco. I feel I must, even without my husband Ron. “Are you crazy?” he said when I told him I thought we both should go. “Two men, married to each other, in Africa?”

“It’s Morocco,” I said. “It’s safe.”

“Read the news. They’d just as soon stab you as look at you.”

I think he’s being unfair. Morocco may not be as liberal as Europe, but it can’t be as bad as he makes it sound. And I want to go because of my daughter Julie, who’s engaged to a Moroccan.

I was born in Spain and, no surprise, my genetic analysis reveals I’m four percent North African, thanks to the Moors who conquered and governed much of the Iberian peninsula for nine hundred years. Although, actually, I was surprised. I’m Caucasian, like the rest of my relatives. I guess four percent doesn’t get you very far in your melanin allocation.

Ron and I have been to Spain three times, visiting relatives. We’ve explored the Celtic north, the Basque country, and the Moorish south, the most vibrant and colorful area. But we’ve never been on the African continent. Still, the prospect of Julie marrying a Moroccan, potentially the father of our grandchildren, seems like a compelling reason to go. I also want to show her with action, not just with words, that I care about her and her choice of a husband.

Julie wants to introduce her fiancé to us, and Ron and I are meeting them for lunch. Ahmed is a dark-skin Arab, Julie’s already told us, from Marrakesh. She told us by email, addressed to both Ron and me in the salutation but sent to my email address and directed at me, as is her habit. I know you may not approve, but this is not negotiable she wrote in her message. I was disturbed by this. Never have I expressed any disapproval of black or brown people. So where is Julie getting this from?

Julie is my daughter from my first marriage, to Nora, which ended when she was two years old. Through the years, as she became more able to converse, so she became more facile in her criticism of me, tangentially or directly, and always cutting. Of everything I had done. Of having married her mother Nora if I knew I was gay. Of not sticking to the marriage after she was born, regardless of the unhappiness it would bring to Nora and me. Of not seeing her enough, even though Nora had been granted full custody and had moved to Florida after the divorce, a three hour flight from New York. Julie didn’t care, she had said last year, while a senior in college, that as a nurse I got paid just enough to live on and gave me little time off.

So this allegation—no, accusation—that I may not approve of her marrying a black man is just another gauntlet thrown at the ground between us. I hesitate to hope, way too optimistically, that she’s finally running out of truth-based invectives to sling and now she’s just making them up.

The restaurant Ron and I have chosen is in Chelsea, not far from our apartment. Julie and Ahmed will be coming into the city from New Jersey, where they have lived together for several months. It’s a Wednesday night and this Peruvian place is quiet, perfect for conversation, and moderately priced, something we’ve taken into account after deciding we would host.

We arrive before Julie and Ahmed, and Ron asks for the wine list.

“What if he’s Muslim?” I ask Ron after the waiter walks away.

“He probably is, with a name like Ahmed. What of it?”

“He probably doesn’t drink alcohol.”

“That’s okay,” Ron says. “We won’t twist his arm.”

“You don’t think he’ll be offended?” I ask. “I don’t know how these things work, his sitting at a table where wine is being served. And Julie probably won’t have any either.”

Ron snickers. “Give me a break, Javier.”

When Julie walks in, the man with her is so much older I can’t believe that’s Ahmed. He’s about her height, five six, with greying black hair and close to forty, near Ron’s age.

Julie actually hugs me and Ron, something she hasn’t done in years. After they sit down, the waiter brings the wine and four glasses, fills them. Ahmed picks his up and says, “To meeting both of you. Cheers,” with a trace of a British accent.

The layers are gradually peeled away. Ahmed imports rugs and carved objets d’art. He and Julie met at a party. Ahmed is not planning to stay in the United States. He has applied for a residency in Canada and plans to settle there, eventually becoming a Canadian citizen. He says only “I,” not “we,” when he talks about emigrating. And it’s Ron who verbalizes the question I have. “And Julie, will you become a Canadian citizen too?”

“Probably,” she says, and leaves it there.

“Any ideas for a wedding date yet?” I ask. Julie shakes her head, shrugs, and looks at Ahmed.

It is Ahmed who says, “There are some things to iron out yet.”

“Such as?” I ask.

Julie says, “Let’s not go there now. We’ll let you know.” Her tone does not invite further exploration.

After a pause, when Julie’s chide has dissipated like nasty cigarette smoke, Ahmed says, “There are just some minor issues with timing. My parents are very religious, and we need to plan a date that avoids the holidays, like Ramadan.”

Ron says, “So you’re Muslim.”

Ahmed says, “I am.”

“Well, I’m glad you can partake of the wine,” I say.

“Well,” Ahmed says, “we come in many versions.” He smiles and looks at Julie, whose eyebrows are up.

Ron nods, grins, and raises his glass. “To secularism,” he says, and Ahmed nods and drinks.

At no point do I mention I’m going to Morocco. I don’t want to seem patronizing to Ahmed, and I’m concerned Julie in her current mood will misinterpret my curiosity to see the country as pandering or, worse, suspicion about the culture.

After dessert, Ron asks for the check and takes out his wallet. Ahmed offers his credit card but Ron says “Absolutely not,” and I let him play the host. Ron has drunk most of the bottle of wine and is slightly tipsy. When we say good-bye outside the restaurant, Ahmed thanks us for dinner, and we shake hands. Julie says nothing and air-kisses Ron and me.

On the walk home, Ron says, “Ahmed’s a nice enough guy.” I don’t answer anything right away, unsure I really got to know anything of substance about him, what he’s really like, and Ron adds, “It’s too bad about his looks.”

“What do you mean?” I say.

“Well, he’s short, and dark, and too old for her. Oh, well.”

I can’t bring myself to say anything that won’t result in a fight. I’m older than Ron, and the difference in their ages is about the same as ours. And I don’t like this overt verbalization of his prejudice about skin color, something he’s shown before. The rest of the walk is in silence.

The next day I email Julie, It was so good to see you and meet Ahmed, trying to build on what seems to have been, on balance, a congenial, successful evening. Later that afternoon, instead of emailing me, she calls me. Her first words are, “I wish the two of you wouldn’t make assumptions about people because of their race or religion.”

“I wasn’t making assumptions. I was just pleasantly surprised he drinks alcohol.”

“Oh, Dad,” she says, and hangs up.

I’m stunned, and it dawns on me suddenly that Julie said “the two of you” even though I was the one who made the comment about alcohol. I wonder if she thinks I’m bigoted because of some off-hand remark Ron might have made in her presence. It could have been anything. A black politician on TV, a news item about a racial incident. At home, I don’t routinely reproach him for his racial stereotyping, although I’ve said “Please” and “Stop that” at times. Who knows what he might have said in Julie’s presence at some point, a convenient way for her to continue her animosity towards me by association.

Two weeks later, on the day of my trip to Morocco, Ron takes my suitcase down to the sidewalk to wait for the car service I’ve arranged. While we wait, I consider saying, “I wish you were going with me,” because part of me really does want that. But most of the pool of my want is filled with the water of—what? Exasperation? Disgust at his tempered bigotry, roiling just out of sight? How does an educated man, an administrator in a major hospital, hold on to that prejudice? And does he think I’m too old for him, now that I’m in my fifties?

“I wish you were going with me,” I say when the car arrives, because suddenly the regret of doing this without him overshadows everything else.

“It’s only a week,” Ron says. “It’ll be over before you know it.”

He kisses me and hugs so hard my lungs exhale involuntarily.

At the airport, I find my tour group: thirty people clustered behind a woman in a blazer holding up a sign. It’s hard to tell if there are any other solo travelers. I open my guide book and start reading about Marrakesh, the first of only two stops, the other being an overnight in Casablanca for our flight home.

Reading a brief history of the country in my book, I’m reminded that Morocco was once ruled by Spain, and that there are still three Spanish city enclaves on the coast, across the Mediterranean from the Iberian peninsula. My enthusiasm is renewed, and I consider that Ron, who loves Spain and its culture, might have actually enjoyed this trip.

Marrakesh: mosques, gardens, city walls, bazaars. Smells, colors, and street music spin wonder and enchantment. On the last afternoon, we’re on our own, and I decline an invitation to join two fellow travelers to explore parts of the city the group hasn’t seen. I venture out on my own, and after an hour I go into a tea house and sit at a small table. There are several other men in groups of two or three in the small, dimly lit space. The walls are red brick with tapestries hanging here and there. I seem to be the only non-native. A young man comes and takes my order. When the tea comes—a spicy mint infusion—I open my guide book to see what else I might enjoy these last few hours.

A figure appears in my peripheral vision, a man standing by my table. I look up. “Okay if I sit here?” he asks in English with a heavy Arabic accent, the “r” in “here” reverberating.

I look around and see that every table is occupied. “Of course,” I say.

“American?”

“Yes,” I say, and leave it there. Too complicated to dust off my Spanish origin, which might or might not be viewed favorably here.

I close my book. This man is a little older than me, with a dark, heavily lined face and hooded yellow eyes. His black hair is wavy and streaked with silver here and there.

“How long you visit here?” he asks. The young waiter brings his tea, although he hadn’t ordered yet. Obviously a regular.

“Five days. Today is my last day in Marrakesh.”

He sips his tea. “Ah.” Sips his tea again, noisily. “And you like Marrakesh?”

“Oh.” I close my eyes and nod slowly. “Very much.”

“Five days too short.” That “r” again. “First time?”

“Yes.”

“You come back.”

We drink our tea, and another customer stops by our table and the two of them have a smiling exchange, a few words.

When the other customer leaves, the man says, “You have seen the Bahia Palace?”

The name sounds familiar, but I haven’t come to it. “No. I haven’t had time.”

“Very special place. You have time this afternoon?”

I hesitate. I have no idea where it is or how to get there. “I don’t know. Is it far?”

“No, not far. I show you.”

He signals the waiter and pays him. I take out my wallet, but the server shakes his head, bows and leaves. “You are guest. I pay,” the man says.

“Thank you.” I have seen this in films, but it seems odd, awkward. I’m also not sure if there is some other reason at play here for his interest and resolve to be on my guard.

His name is Omar, he tells me, and doesn’t question my Spanish name when I tell him. He finds us a taxi, exchanges a few words with the driver, who looks at me in the mirror. The driver is like a madman in chaotic traffic, and at the end of the trip Omar pays the fare despite my protests.

The Bahia Palace is indeed grand, although surprisingly rectangular, almost modern in its design, and not at all like anything else I’ve seen on this trip. Inside it’s all marble, colorful tiles, and brass, and the gardens and reflecting pool are magnificent. In my mind, the landscape is what Eden would be like, with orange and olive and fig trees in orchards surrounding splendid architecture. Omar is clearly proud, enjoying my awed expression, and I begin to understand his motive is simply to show off his world to a visitor.

Back inside the main palace, he shows me the harem, where several beautiful rooms housed the eight wives of the sultan long ago.

“Eight,” Omar says, smiling. “Too many for me.” He chuckles. “You would like eight wife?”

“No,” I say. “Too many.”

“One for me, one for you is enough, no?”

I shake my head. “No wife for me.’

“No?” he says, and looks at my wedding band. “But this?” He indicates the ring on his finger.

“No wife,” I say, and nothing more.

Omar’s smile disappears, the banter extinguished, and he exits the harem and goes out into the garden again. I follow.

He is standing at the edge of the long reflecting pool, a small pavilion made of rose-colored stone at the other end. Omar appears lost in pondering, eyes on the symmetrical, ornate building opposite. I stand beside him, and he doesn’t acknowledge me, but on his face his eyebrows are formulating a question. With his eyes straight ahead, he says, “In your country, a man can marry a man. Yes?”

“Yes.”

Omar nods. The sun has descended while we were inside and is now just above the date palms surrounding this part of the garden. We seem to be the only two visitors left at the site. “Is time to go,” Omar says.

There are two taxis waiting outside, hoping for fares back to the city center. We get into one and Omar says something to the driver. We are silent otherwise until I say, “It’s almost time for dinner. Will you join me? As my guest?”

Omar says nothing for a minute, which I take as an angry refusal. But then he says, “My wife is waiting for me for dinner.”

I nod, although he’s looking straight ahead through the windshield, and then I say, “She can join us. Also my guest.”

Omar glances at me, and I think his face has relaxed maybe a little. He takes out his phone and makes a call, speaks briefly in Arabic, one short sentence, and listens for a few seconds before he grunts a response and ends the call. “Is okay. I go to dinner with you. No wife.”

The taxi goes to a part of town that is familiar, near the hotel, I think. It stops in front of a restaurant that, unusual for this neighborhood, has no English on its sign, only Arabic. When we go inside, the space is bustling, and we sit near a family of four. The two children are talking to their parents and gesturing, happy, and the mother comments and nods and the father eats.

Omar appears somewhat tense still, and he is silent. I ask him about his family. Any children? He has a son who is single and manages Omar’s store, a souk that sells women’s clothing and toiletries in the main market. There is also a daughter, who is married and lives in Fes.

“No grandchildren yet?” I ask.

“No. Maybe one day.”

I tell him I was married to a woman once and have one daughter, but no grandchildren. Omar’s face visibly relaxes, and his voice, which has been at a low pitch since the reflecting pool, brightens again. “How old your daughter?” he asks.

“Twenty-three.”

“Ah. You have time for grandchildren.”

When the chicken and goat tagines arrive, along with stewed lentils and bulgur wheat, we fall silent. The meal is excellent. While we wait for the bill, Omar says, “I think you are very lucky man.”

“Why?” I ask.

Omar shrugs, and a small smile appears. “You have everything you want.”

I examine the accuracy of this statement, and see that it falls short. I am not sure how much access Julie will allow me to her children, if she has any. And as a possibly explosive complication, there’s Ron’s nascent animosity towards Ahmed. But I sweep those disturbing possibilities out of my mind. I’m still in Marrakesh, and I’m having a fine time.

When the bill arrives, Omar pays with my money, as we had agreed. Outside, the air has cooled, and most of the pedestrians are tourists. My hotel is not far. Omar speaks of going to New York someday. But he also wants to go to Paris, London.

“Not Spain? It’s so close.”

He shakes his head. “I have been. Is okay. Too much like here.”

I’m not sure why at first, but this comment triggers a sadness that this evening is coming to a close, and that I am leaving for Casablanca tomorrow to go home. Then I understand, because he’s right. I have been unexpectedly at ease here, and it’s because this part of the world is the source of much of the culture of my birthplace.

We stand on the sidewalk outside my hotel, and Omar’s brows and nose cast sharp dramatic shadows on his cheeks from the bright lights of the canopy. I thank him for all his kindness, and we extend our hands to shake. Omar engulfs my right hand in both of his, a clasp. His index fingers caress my wrist in the tenderest, most seductive way, a shy call for rescue, even if it’s temporary.

Header photography © Grant Yun.

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