FEB 11, 2023
They walked through to customs and two officers uniformed in light brown shirts, beige pants and peaked caps with black visors that matched motioned for them to approach.
"Bonsoir. Bienvenu Au Maroc!"
There was an upbeat note from the customs agent, who oddly presented a slightly serious demeanour.
"Customs. We have to inspect your luggage. Do you have anything to declare?"
The accent charmed Banou while the others were now weary of the bureaucracy. Gwafa stood between the officer and the boxes.
He handed over the two manifests, one for the private business, and the other accompanied by the official authorisation document from the French Embassy crowned by the golden ornate diplomatic emblem. The first customs officer foremost read the shorter manifest and promptly ignored the luggage it declared. The second officer stood in subordinate repose as he waited for instructions from the first.
"Verifier!" the first one ordered the second one, as he handed him the second manifest.
The second officer counted them and noted one extra one with the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom.
"Hey, this one is unlisted!" he exclaimed.
Gwafa explained it was listed on the first private manifest and that it was just a routine transport side job. Indeed, on the first manifest, it was the third item listed. The officer stamped both the manifests and offered a slight bow. Gwafa returned the bow, and the porters pushed the trolleys away from customs towards the main door. Banou casually picked up the British diplomatic bag before they were out of the terminal and concealed it amongst their luggage. So far, so good.
Outside the terminal was controlled chaos. Energetic tour operators, enthusiastic taxi drivers who vied for customers and spaces to park their taxis that clanked and hooted noisily, lest they fall foul of the hawkeyed traffic officers, eager western tourists with red tomato faces flushed from the sudden climactic change, locals on their way home, policemen who managed the chaos, busybodies, likely spies and the intelligence officers that hunted them, men in djellabas and red fez hats that were tasselled, women in different coloured abayas, it was an incessant exotic mania. The circus found them, and they were barraged by brokers that offered transport bids that forced them to literally push through the crowd and the busybodies that proffered to be local guides. "No" did not seem to deter anyone's determination.
"Wait here and watch the stuff. Let me find the embassy guy." Gwafa told the gang.
A thick wave of tedium suddenly struck Banou head-on and she momentarily bit her lower lip as she craved a cigarette. Mapacha and Mzee Tembo scouted the infinite faces as they wondered where Gwafa had gone after he hadn't returned in the first few minutes. It was nearly ten minutes before a black Peugeot 404 pickup with a black aluminium topper and the designated blue diplomatic number plate approached them. Gwafa and two other men were huddled in the cabin.
A skinny diplomatic functionary with a peculiar look dressed in a pale sand-brown summer suit approached them. His thick eyebrows and thin moustache seemed to crowd his delicate face and made it appear smaller than it was. His driver, a harassed-looking burly Moroccan dressed in a white shirt and brown trousers gave them a curt wave and then quietly stood by the pickup. Despite his rigid look, the diplomat broke out a smile that put them all at ease.
"Bonsoir. I am Étienne," he greeted.
Without hesitation, he turned to the driver who unlocked the topper and then wordlessly motioned to the porters to load in the bags and boxes. Étienne pulled out a yellow pack of Laurens, drew out a cigarette, lit it, and then, as the boxes were loaded into the topper, confirmed and ticked the seal serial numbers on the manifest. The rich tobacco smoke finally broke Banou who pulled out her own pack and lit hers up. Gwafa followed, and they stood for almost a quarter of an hour and watched the porters fill the topper. When they were done, Etienne, with unfashionable diplomatic arrogance, peeled a series of dirhams and thrust them into the hands of one of the porters.
"Divisez ceci entre vous."
He then took out an envelope from his inner breast pocket, opened and extracted a chit from it, that he signed and handed to Gwafa.
"C'est bien! You can process this here or in Josephine, whichever works for you. D'accord?"
Gwafa nodded in agreement.
"Merci Capitaine Hamada." He turned to Banou and gave her a cheeky smile. "Good evening mademoiselle."
He did not bother with Mzee Tembo and Mapacha. The starter of the Peugeot 404 screeched painfully before the engine started its famous bleat and the driver turned it around and drove off. Banou faced Gwafa in surprise.
"Wait, you are a captain? A real military captain?"
Gwafa smiled as he deftly bypassed the question.
"Let's get out of here."
He motioned for a taxi, and a sharp driver spotted his wave, then fired up his yellow Mercedes 240D and drove up to them. Its diesel engine idled noisily and soft plumes of black smoke gently coughed from the exhaust.
"Salaam," Gwafa greeted him.
"Taksi? Fin ghadia?"1
"Outil Balima. Shhal?"2
The taxi driver's smile faded as the uncertainty grew. A 'local' local? Not one of those locals that lived abroad. He tried his luck and spouted out the immodest tourist rate.
"Bzef, khou-ya!"3 Gwafa harshly countered as he vigorously shook his head.
The taxi driver knew he had been had and he drastically dropped the rate. Gwafa smiled and agreed. He jumped out and smiled at them as he loaded their bags. Mzee Tembo jumped in the front while the others squeezed into the back. The driver turned the key and the starter groaned and kicked the diesel engine to life. Slowly, he inched his way out of the airport, turned the yellowed brights on and headed away from Salé, across the princely Moulay El Ouafi bridge into Rabat.
Rabat. The jewel. Hued in a thousand colours. This gateway to the mysteries of Morocco ushered voyagers with open arms. The gang's eyes darted at the wonders of this novel city, and could not refute its splendour. Nestled on the mouth of the Bou Regreg on a tidal estuary that stretched upriver, the waterway proper emerged from the Middle Atlas, and eventually separated Rabat from Salé, before it streamed into the Atlantic. The metropolis' regal boulevards were lined by graceful palms that waved their trunks to the mild tune of the breeze. Round them, cars from practically every corner of the globe traversed the tarmac and revealed a prosperous mechanical era. Rabat's refinement was displayed by the electricity that connected the concrete and glass towers. Its customs were festooned in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants and displayed in their garb, celebrated in their multi-religious prayers, spoken by their Darija and Berber tongues, heard in the thousands of stories that existed for centuries, traded in their souks, enjoyed in their meals and enhanced by their hospitality. This was a city on the rise.
At a junction, they were held up by a traffic policeman dressed in a khaki green uniform that bore a large silver crown on his breast pocket, a white peaked cap with a black visor that matched a white belt with white sleeves on his forearms. The taxi eventually made its way to Avenue Mohammed V, and finally stopped across the Parliament at the famed Hotel Balima. It was reputed as the first hotel built in Rabat, and its 1920s art deco facade was a testament to that. There were seventy-one elegantly decorated hotel rooms to pick from and four now would be temporarily inhabited by the gang. An overeager porter in a maroon coat and black pants scrambled to meet them.
"Salaam. Welcome to Morocco. May I take your luggage please?"
That cheery Moroccan disposition presented itself in the hotel's eager ambassador.
They smiled at him as he loaded the bags onto the trolley and wheeled it away through the arch into the reception. Gwafa cleared with the taxi driver and they all trailed their luggage. The smiling receptionist in a similar uniform to the porter greeted them.
"Salaam. Welcome to Morocco."
"Do you have single rooms available?" Mzee Tembo asked.
"For all four of you? Yes. How long will you be staying for?"
"A couple of nights."
"That is fine."
"How much per night?"
They negotiated the rate, and the receptionist pulled out four registration forms that he distributed to them. Mzee Tembo looked drained as he paid the deposit and collected their keys. The receptionist instructed the porter to take them up to the third floor. Up they went with their luggage in tow, and they eventually entered their rooms.
Mapacha, fatigued from the journey sat on the bed for a moment and reflected on the journey to Morocco. From his room, through the open window, he could hear the cars drive past with the occasional klaxon and loud words spat by enraged drivers. The room, despite being well decorated did not please Mapacha. The deep red theme felt too vibrant to him. He unpacked his clothes and then slowly peeled off what he wore, and a moment later stood underneath the soft warm water of the shower and washed away his exhaustion. The water felt pleasurable, but, it could only be momentary as they had to meet for dinner downstairs and firm their plan of action.
Banou too was contemplative, as she stood with a cigarette at the open window of her room and leered at the pedestrians. She focused on a short Moroccan with a white djellaba and red fez out for what seemed like a stroll alongside his veiled wife who wore an identically coloured djellaba. Her exotic eyes darted back and forth through the narrow slit of her niqab. She wondered about the young Moroccan men in slicked hair who wore suits in the oppressive heat, or the laden backpacker group that eagerly marched from the train station, perhaps in search of affordable accommodation. What were these people's stories and their lives? Where were they from? What of their families? What about hers? Did they even remember her?
Then her paranoia kicked in. Had an unseen person at the airport observed them and caught wind of their scheme, and perhaps even trailed them to the hotel? Did the opposition know that they had smuggled in guns and stolen merchandise concealed in the diplomatic bag? Had a client from her previous career seen her, and then pointed her out to a companion? From the window, across the busy road, she could see the monumental lights of the Parliament. The cars, American, European, Japanese, loud motorcycles. . . she walked away from the window, bashed the half-smoked cigarette into the ashtray, slowly undressed, and looked at herself in the mirror as she struggled to find pride in the reflection. She walked into the shower and let those thoughts play out there.
1. Taxi. Where would you like to go?
2. Hotel Balima. How much?
3. Expensive, brother!