Night Train to Marrakech

The clash of monotheisms as seen from the cramped quarters of a sleeper car

| November / December 2005

I have always had trouble sleeping on trains. There is something about the unrelenting rhythm and hum of the wheels as they roll over the tracks that always keeps me awake. It is like a distant melody that's too loud to ignore. Not even the darkness that inundates the compartments at night seems to help. It is worse at night, when the stars are the only lights visible in the vast, muted desert whizzing by my window.

This is an unfortunate quirk, because the best way to travel by train through Morocco is asleep. The trains are flooded with illegal faux guides, who shift from cabin to cabin searching for tourists with whom to share their recommendations for the best restaurants, the cheapest hotels, the cleanest women. The faux guides in Morocco speak half a dozen languages, which makes them difficult to ignore. Usually, my olive skin, thick brows, and black hair keep them at bay. But the only way to avoid them completely is to be asleep, so that they have no choice but to move on to the next beleaguered traveler.

That is precisely what I thought was taking place in the compartment next to mine when I heard raised voices. It was an argument between what I assumed was a faux guide and a reluctant tourist. I could hear an inexorable cackle of Arabic spoken too quickly for me to understand, interrupted by the occasionally piqued responses of an American.

I had witnessed this type of exchange before: in grands-taxis, at the bazaar, too often on the trains. In my few months in Morocco, I'd become accustomed to the abrupt fury of the locals, which can burst into a conversation like a clap of thunder, then -- as you brace for the storm -- dissolve just as quickly into a grumble and a friendly pat on the back.

The voices next door grew louder, and now I thought I grasped the matter. It wasn't a faux guide at all. Someone was being chastised. It was difficult to tell, but I recognized the garbled Berber dialect the authorities sometimes use when they want to intimidate foreigners. The American kept saying, 'Wait a minute,' then, 'parlez-vous anglais? Parlez-vous francais?' The Moroccan, I could tell, was demanding their passports.

Curious, I stood and stepped quietly over the knees of the snoring businessman slumped next to me. I slid open the door just enough to squeeze through and walked into the corridor. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I glimpsed the familiar red-and-black conductor's uniform flashing across the glass door of the adjoining compartment. I knocked lightly and entered without waiting for a response.

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