Moroccan Mo and More Mo
Flying in over Marrakech for the first time, you can’t help but be impressed with the riveting contrasts of the North African landscape … rugged mountains, stunning coast line, hard rocky deserts, verdant oasis and sandy dunes. Oh yes, there’s also a satellite dish on every rooftop. So we land in Morocco around lunchtime, and meet a guy who we’ll call Mo No. 1. He will be our guide, fixer, translator, problem solver, problem creator, con man and raconteur for the next 10 days. He is a piece of work. Six-and-a-half feet tall, and every inch the walking, talking cliché of the savvy souk (market) negotiant. Need a rug? Mo has a cousin. Need a camel for a TV shoot? Mo knows a guy. Of course, once you drive halfway across the country to get your camel or your rug, the deal has changed, the rules have been re-negotiated and Mo is now fully in charge.Here is a typical chat with Mo:
Me: What time are we meeting in the lobby tomorrow to start our day?
Shannon (my producer): I’m thinking 8 a.m.
Mo: NO! I say 9 a.m.
Shannon: Mo, we need to start at 8 a.m. to get to the site on time and set up.
Mo: No, 9 a.m. is fine.
Shannon: But we have to be at our location at 9 a.m. We need to meet at 8 a.m., Mo.
Me: Mo, don’t look at me. Shannon is in charge.
Mo, ignoring everyone, stomps off to the van. He does not like taking direction from an American, and especially from an American woman who is 6 feet tall with blond hair and blue eyes.
Now, this may all seem trivial, but since we are paying Mo, and he is translating for us, and arranging all our trip details, his quid pro quo re-working of our agenda, which he tries at least six times a day, is fast becoming a royal pain in the ass. Everywhere we go, we have to grease his people, we stop for his coffee, we listen to him complain and we quickly realize that we need to give him credit for the idea, out loud, in public conversation. Otherwise, everything comes to a screeching halt.
Shannon: Mo, I like your idea of getting an 8 a.m. start tomorrow, so we get to the shoot at 9 a.m.
Mo: That’s what I have been saying!
Now Mo No. 2 is Mo No. 1′s assistant and driver-sidekick, and Mo No. 2 thinks Mo No. 1 is crazy. This should be a fun shoot.
So we check into our hotel and head right out to shoot in the Djemma al Fna, which is the oldest market in North Africa, the cultural ground zero of Moroccan street life, the location of the Koutoubia, a giant mosque tower, and also home to every vagrant, peddler and one-eyed con man in the city. Behind the Djemma is the old souk, a labyrinthine spider’s web of alleys and dead ends that is home to tens of thousands of little shops, kiosks and lunch counters. Anything you can ever imagine finding for sale is sold in the souk. Spice, olives, lamp makers, mint vendors, kebab stands, candy shops, caravan serai, you name it. And it’s also highly dangerous the farther and deeper you penetrate the network of streets that are purposely un-named and uniquely serpentined to allow for people who know the layout to disappear if need be, say, with a purloined wallet.
We shoot some b-roll and hit the main square at dinner hour, when all the carts roll in from all over the city, turning the Djemma into the greatest collection of portable snack carts I have seen since spending a few days on New Lane in Penang. From sheep’s heads to liver kebabs, fresh squeezed citrus juice to whole fried flounder, tagines of every type and mint tea at every turn. I am starting to warm up to this place.
Road to Nowhere
Last-minute changes … Oy vey!
For months we had been planning on a day or so of shooting in the soft sand dunes of Erfud, with a tribe of bedouins who would be doing a camel cookout with us. We would spend the day and night in this incredibly unique and stunning locale with nomadic tribespeople who live the same way their ancestors have for thousands of years. No such luck.
While we were in Madrid, a major sandstorm wiped out the oasis and put 4 feet of sand all through the neighboring village, so now there is no Erfud for us to see. But we have a theme for our next few days: we need to find some camel to chow down on!
Now, camels are the most efficient animals for domesticating in the desert, so getting some folks to part with one for a cookout is tricky. Mo says he can make it happen, and at this point we trust him, despite our best instincts. Shannon re-works our shooting dates at the 11th hour, and we set off across the Atlas mountains to Ourzazate, a hard-rock desert town that Mo not only swears is a great place to shoot some tagine and a traditional Berber meal in a local inn, but also persuades us that the local casbah (fort) is going to be a great location for some beauty shots.
We leave behind the olive groves and hustle and bustle of Marrakech and head out for our eight-hour schlep across Morocco. As we leave the city, we pass the Palerais, the Beverly Hills of Marrakech. Everyone from Sean Connery to Adnan Kashoggi have residences here. The homes are INCREDIBLE, and the idea of sitting poolside for a few weeks, being fed fresh oranges and pigeon pie is a powerfully attractive intoxicant. But duty calls. Mo is celebrity crazed and won’t shut up about a handful of late ’70s French film stars he knows. Apparently, he once drove Alain Delon around the town and thinks they are best friends. He also once escorted David Hasselhoff through Marrakech and keeps pictures of both of them in his briefcase. Creepy!
Now we have our fate in the hands of the two Mo’s … a frightening thought.
Do you know what a mahari is? It’s an old male camel that has loads of desert experience. Bedouins will tell you that you always keep a mahari tied up inside your tent so that if a sandstorm comes and wipes out everything, and all your camels run off in the night and everyone dies, you can lash yourself to your mahari and it will save your life, since invariably he will head directly to water/food and a female camel, not necessarily in that order. Mo is our mahari, and the idea that I have lashed myself to him is petrifying. I don’t trust him, and my internal radar is sounding an alert. Vigilance!
The ride to Ourzazate is awesome. Oases at 3,000 feet that have some of the most incredible orchards on the planet. The mountains reflect the sun into these 100-mile-long
notches, where snow runoff guarantees plenty of water. The citrus, apricots, melons, tomatoes and other vegetables are some of the best I have ever tasted, and every few miles there is a stand with a few farmers selling their goods. We bump into a weekly market in a little mountain town called Zerten and stop to check out the fruit vendors, the raw goats swinging from the open-air stalls, and the tagines. Mo assures us that his buddies in Ourzazate have some camel for us to check out when we get there. All the goats in the market are skinned except for the heads and feet, so prospective customers can see what type of animal it is. That way you know you’re not buying someone’s doggie when you want some lamb, goat etc. All the testicles are left attached to the carcass, because the Moroccans believe the boys taste better than the girls and the vendors want to assure the shoppers that they are buying little fellas, not little ladies. Apparently, the last customer of the day gets his portions lopped off the haunches and they throw in the balls for free. Very fair system, I think.
So back into the van and off we go, stopping in medieval little mountain towns along the way. Farmers working their donkeys do the roads, women and children wash laundry in the rivers made swift with the snowmelt, and the jacaranda trees are in full bloom for a hundred miles. Waterfalls cascade from the peaks, and Berber villages are camouflaged into the sides of the mountains – a stunning scenery, if ever there was one.
We pull into Ourzazate, sliding past the largest film soundstage outside Hollywood. It’s surreal. Every ‘Sand and Sandals’ epic ever shot has been filmed here, from Liz Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra’ to ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ to ‘Gladiator.’ We pull into the town proper, check into our hotel and learn two things:
1) The off-road Trans-Morocco road race is in Ourzazate for the night, and the town is packed with race teams. Imagine the Indy 500 going from town to town, and you get the idea. Other than the Paris-Dakar rally, this is the second-biggest race of the year and it shows. The stuff is being broadcast live all over the globe (except in the U.S.A.), and seeing all the rally cars and their teams up close is really, really cool.
2) Mo’s buddies have no camel, but we are going to make lemonade with our lemons and shoot there anyway. The search for camel meat continues, and Mo insists that he can find someone who will be harvesting one from a herd. We may have to pay big bucks, but we can eat one for sure. His bravado and self-confidence is scaring me, but all the pre-production research shows that camel is available, so who knows. I would feel better if I had a more convincing mahari to rely on. Being around Mo, I feel less and less like a savvy Bedouin and more and more like the goat at Zerten, waiting for his balls to be cut off.