Unreal

Story and photos by Bryson Keltner

I stepped on to the hot, busy streets to the sound of car horns and Arabic.

I saw them, and they saw me, but in a different way than I had ever pictured myself. I was white. Male. American. But for the first time in my life, I was a minority – and a hot commodity. No sooner had I set foot on the main street of Casablanca, I instantly stuck out. Every cab driver in Morocco wanted to get me in their car. Every shop owner wanted to offer their entire stock.

I was white, so I was powerful. I was a traveler, so I was rich. Obviously I was a movie star because my white teeth and shiny sunglasses said so.

But my cohorts were not.

I realized the other rich, white, movie-star American men were getting the same treatment. However, every individual who didn’t fit those categories was transparent. It was then that I realized what I had. Unadulterated privilege.

****

Before embarking on my Aladdin adventure that would consume the next few days, I and the rest of my group – fifteen travel-bugged study abroad students – had to purchase train tickets to Marrakech. The other males of the group wanted to venture off to see some attraction on the way to the station – I honestly don’t even remember what – but females don’t walk alone in Morocco. So, I decided to go with the ladies.

I–again, a white, American male–paraded through the streets of Casablanca with five college women. People stared. People whispered. I was not fully aware of the comment’s meaning when I received the first offer.

“How much for blonde one with pretty teeth?” he said.

He was as tall as me. Much darker skin. His clothes weren’t elaborate but they weren’t rags by any means. He was wearing a well-tied, maroon turban. He spoke with confidence.

“What?” I was genuinely ignorant of what he was asking.

“Light hair. How much for the girl?”

I barely knew the woman to which he referred. Her name was Kristi. She was from Colorado, I think. Probably a sorority girl. Pretty. She was oblivious to his offer as she looked at a merchant’s pottery.

I managed to speak. “Uhmm. Not for sale.” I rushed the ladies away from him.

It continued. Throughout the walk to the station I received offers for my haram – for my property. The ladies were unaware of most of the comments, but they knew I was having uncomfortable encounters with some of the local men.

“You sure attract a lot of attention,” one of them said.

Every browser was confused as to why I wouldn’t take an offer. One man beamed, “They’re too expensive. They’re white.”

I arrived at the train station with sweaty palms and rancid anxiety.

****

People saturated the streets in Marrakech. Each had a story. Venders. Food cart chefs. Weavers. Tea makers. Snake charmers. Drummers. Dancers. Painters.

Cooked lamb, pomegranate juice, freshly-cured leather, and the unmistakable rank scent of urine combined to make a smell that I will never encounter in my own world.

It was all like fiction to me–like I was walking through a movie and the people were just actors in costumes. Unreal.

Unreal was the man peeing on the outer wall of my hotel.
Unreal was the rhythm the musicians had as they twirled the tassels on their hats while keeping perfect time on their instruments.
Unreal was the unidentifiable but delicious meat I had on a stick.
Unreal were the children’s smiles when they would approach and ask for some spare change.
Unreal was the woman who smacked her little girl because she didn’t receive enough dirhams from the rich Americans.
Yes, all of this must have been purely imaginary.

****

After spending the night in Marrakech, my group of travelers and I boarded a small bus to our next destination, which was excruciatingly farther than we had imagined. We sojourned through the Atlas Mountains for about eight hours on dirt, basically single-lane roads with no guard rails. So, with every car we met, we held our breath and didn’t look over the edge.

We arrived at our final modes of transportation at dusk. They were lying in the sand, resting and looking at their new travel companions.

There is no comfortable way to ride a camel. A horse has a glide, for example; its gate produces an almost circular motion for the rider. Camel humps go straight up and down. I was sore for the remainder of the trip.

Nevertheless, I sat out with my fellow explorers, donning the turban and Moroccan pants I bought the night before. I held on tightly as my camel stood up and the nomads began leading us through the Sahara.

****

We trekked for an hour before reaching our camp. It was small, but welcoming. It had a few large sleeping tents, a dining tent, and a restroom tent. We settled and the nomads prepared dinner–I think it was couscous and chicken, although I’m not sure now and I wasn’t sure then. After that, the night took a turn.

The nomads had our group get in a circle. They served each of us traditional Moroccan tea with smiles and thick accents. Then, we shared. They wanted to know where each of us was from, but then they wanted to know about home. I listened to stories from Hawaii, Connecticut, Kentucky, and so on. I described my hometown and how I grew up as the natives and fellow adventurers listened curiously. Then, it was their turn.

The nomads, who had gotten us there by camelback and embraced us with Muslim hospitality, described their home. They painted Morocco, proudly accepting its pitfalls and its glories, and then they said their home was ours, too. They meant that for the rest of our lives, we are welcome there.

****

I have more vivid memories from my time in Morocco. The way I couldn’t sleep while in the desert. The way we danced under the stars to the sound of the nomads’ drums. The way the Sun arose like never before over the dunes. However, the process of getting to that place changed me.

I realized I am privileged. I have undeserved advantages in my everyday life, and they’ve been there since the day I was born. Morocco, however, pushed them out into the open. They’re unfair, and since I have those privileges, it’s my responsibility to help those who do not have them.

I realized the world is much larger than I had expected. As with everywhere I travel, I went into Morocco ready to embrace the differences in culture, but subconsciously connecting it to my home culture. The connections were miniscule.

Although the people in Morocco live completely differently, they welcomed me despite my differences. I am, in fact, not rich. Nor am I powerful or a movie star or a pimp. Those nomads in the desert saw that. They shared their culture and I shared mine–both respectable, and now both real to the other.

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