By Suzanne Wright
It’s the best photograph ever taken of me.
In it my hair is wind-swept and I am smiling—genuinely smiling—directly at the camera. I am lying across undulating red sand dunes that evoke the lush planes of a woman’s body. This extraordinary photo is on the home page of my travel website and framed on a table in my bedroom. Everyone who sees it comments on what an amazing image it is.
I am in the Sahara desert in Morocco.
That photograph is nearly a decade old, yet I can remember every moment of that day and the other 20 others that made up my first trip to Morocco.
Before I ever set foot in the country, it was an idea, a distant, alluring dream I held for more than 15 years. I remember visiting the Morocco pavilion at Walt Disney World as a sullen 16-year old, taking what would be my final family vacation. It was summer, hot and humid and crowded; the sun was too bright. Fed up with lines for rides I didn’t want to take, I broke free of my parents and my sisters and explored on my own. Listlessly, I walked past the created worlds of France, Italy, Canada and Japan. Then Morocco caught my eye.
As I stepped under the tiled, arched entryway and into the faux medina, I was transported into a faraway land of brass pots and richly woven carpets. The rhythms of North African music filled my ears; the smell of leather goods hung in the air, filling my nostrils. The light seemed to soften, the air felt cooler. I turned a brass bowl over in my hands and fingered a tooled leather purse, admiring the craftsmanship. I stole glances at a tall, slim young man with skin the color of dusk and thick eyelashes. I dug into my pockets for a few dollars to sample the lamb couscous, licking my fingers with each fragrant bite. I felt like I was in an exotic land.
This was not Morocco, of course, just a facsimile in Orlando at a theme park overrun with screaming kids and exasperated adults. Still, there was a feeling, a feeling of Morocco that was so deeply intoxicating that it imprinted itself on my teenage brain and seeped into my bones. As I squinted into the blazing sun, something inside me shifted.
I met my family perhaps an hour later. My mother laid her hand on my forehead. “Do you have heatstroke?” she asked. “You are flushed.”
How could I explain to her that I was indeed flush, flush with the idea of this tantalizing place that had ignited in me a fever of discovery? I knew someday I would go to Morocco and see if the allure was as real as it felt on a July afternoon a continent away.
For me, Morocco is as much a feeling as a place; writing about the intense and enduring attachment it inspired—and continues to inspire—is difficult.
Morocco engaged all my senses: the brilliant fuchsia bloom of the jacaranda tree, the briny tang of glistening green and black olives on my tongue, the rough wool threads of an antique rug, the piercing call to prayer echoing throughout the day, the aroma of bistella, hen cooked in pastry with eggs, almonds and cinnamon.
I spent three weeks driving through the country with my then-boyfriend in a battered Renault rental without air conditioning. We arrived in Tangier with its tattered, fading glamour and sampled our first tagine, then traveled all night to arrive at sunrise at the stunning medieval town of Fez. We hiked the dramatic red rocks of the Todra Gorge. In Marrakech, snake charmers in Djemma el Fna, the most bustling market square in Africa, lured cobras from woven baskets. In Casablanca, we ogled the Hassan II Mosque, the largest religious monument in the world after Mecca. We compared the laid-back charms of Essaouira, a former Portuguese city, to coastal California towns. I was struck by the topographical variations of the country, from the Atlas Mountains to the Atlantic Coast. I was mesmerized by the walled Kasbahs, seduced by the kaleidoscopic activity of the medina, infatuated by the cadence of Arabic music. Piquant preserved lemons become a meal-time favorite. I bought not one, but two Berber rugs.
The Morocco of my imagination was real. My soul knew this place.
But the soul of the country, for me, was in the Sahara. At 3 a.m., we rose to join a guide who drove us across an endless expanse of sand, which changed hue from ocher to rust, as night surrendered to day. We mounted camels and began our descent of the towering dunes of Erg Chebbi; after 20 minutes we left the beasts behind and climbed by foot to the very top.
The sun was already blazing overhead. I’ve heard the desert vista described as shimmering and it was. I’ve heard the desert described as silent and it was, save for my breathing and the faint whistle of wind. I became still and pressed my body into the flour-soft dunes. I watched and listened as the tiny grains of sand shifted, understanding how this landscape morphs moment by moment, day by day, year by year.
I closed my eyes. Visions danced on my lids. Like a flashback in a film, I saw a man—perhaps it was me—bearded, deeply tanned and wearing a jellabah. I had never experienced déjà vu nor had I ever contemplated reincarnation. But on that morning, I felt as though I permeated—however briefly—the thin membrane between this world and another. I felt a deep knowing in my bones, a recognition of something, though of what I could not say.
It was then, just as I opened my eyes from my reverie, that my picture was snapped. I closed my eyes one final time and remembered the schoolgirl who, years ago, fell in love with a place called Morocco—and fell all over again.