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al-Madina

Helsinki-Marrakech
by Cia Rinne
  
published in the portfolio al-Madina with photographs by Pentti Sammallahti, Kristoffer Albrecht and Joakim Eskildsen, Helsinki 2003
  
Marrakech, en mai
l'an n'importe quoi
  
Jamila laughs and takes my hand. "Come," she says, and drags me along with her, past the two men who talk to each other and turn their heads to watch us without interrupting their conversation, past high walls, under coloured cloths that hang above the streets, past herb sellers, above whose woven willow baskets the spices crumble off as strong scents, and very closely past a motorcycle with poultry tied to its carrier. Then through the sweet fragance of the craftsmen’s street in which the wood turner works, while his granddaughter is catching woodshavings in the air, and finally past an odd window display of variously shaped pink dentures. Jamila’s djellabah flaps wildly while she rushes through the narrow streets of the medina. People greet her, she answers loudly, and then turns around to give me a wink. I have to make an effort to keep up with her. Jamila has grown up in the medina; she knows every corner in the quarter, and unexpectedly turns left or right into new small lanes.
  
The streets become narrower, and the walls older, until the murmur of the streets finally stays far behind us, and we hear only our own steps clearly. Here, there are just some women shouting out to each other, a boy who holds a metal figure tight in his small hands. Jamila grasps a massive old door in a grey wall, turns a heavy metal key in the lock, and opens her home: “Marhaba,” she says, and smiles.
  
Dream of my mother, who, supporting herself on crutches, walks in front of me through a museum with old paintings, and asks me to open the door for her. Behind the door there are fields. She continues to walk on her crutches, and asks me to open the following door, too. Behind it, again, there are fields. And behind each door I open, there are nothing but fields, wide fields. Finally I ask her whether we could not turn around, since behind every door, there would just be “winter gardens”.
   
Jamila asks me inside, and with her dark eyes looks at me expectantly. A patio, onto which the light falls from under the roof edges down onto the worn tiles, is the heart of the house in the oldest quarter of the medina. A young woman appears in a doorway. "Fatima," she introduces herself, and laughs just like Jamila. In a dark corner, at a little distance from the big empty room, there is a well out of which Jamila draws up cool water in a visibly dented bucket. “For coffee,” she says, and nods towards Fatima.
  
The dim room, to which the doorway leads, does not resemble a kitchen in any way. At one end of the rough stone floor there is a bed with coarse cloth, at the other a dark cupboard with mirror doors. Next to the bed, some battered leather suitcases, piled on top of each other. Otherwise, the room is empty. ”Please, sit down,” Jamila says, while she lifts one of the suitcases onto the bed. She opens the straps, and looks for family pictures between clothes and scarves. Finally, she draws out a wrinkled envelope containing some bleached photographs with jagged edges: Jamila and Fatima’s parents in the park when they were still young, with their first daughter, the little family, together with their second daughter. A pale sun, or perhaps time, has blurred the print.
  
Again back in one of the museum halls I leaf through a thick book of plates; the tissue paper rustles. On one of the paintings I spot a familiar scarf. I look closer: the girl wearing it is my sister. As I look up from the book, she stands in front of me. She had not said anything.
  
Jamila takes a pot out of the cupboard, a knife, and kneels down to prepare a meal of potatoes that hang in a sack on the wall. Slowly, she peels the bulbous tubers, cuts them into long pieces, and lets them fall into the hot pot of oil, in which they sizzle until the whole room smells of food, and Jamila has to rub the steam from her eyes.
   
We carry the bowls through the patio into a room opposite the kitchen, in which a television is buzzing with constant snow, the wires unsteady in the outlet. We eat the fried potatoes with Jamila’s son who has come home from school, and then climbs the stone stairs that lead under the roof where he and his cousins sleep. Fatima counts a few coins in her hand, disappears, and returns after a while, with tobacco rolled into fine thin paper. We drink terribly sweet coffee while the TV continues buzzing by itself.
  
Then we are out in the winding streets again, this time to go and see Jamila’s husband. He works in the hammam. “Salaam,” Jamila shouts into a room. It is entirely covered with wood shavings, and an overwhelming heat rushes towards us.
  
“Aleikum salaam,” a husky voice answers. Jamila’s husband Abdellatif steps carefully through the piles of shavings into the light, and pushes a cap out of his face, which is blackened with coal. There are beads of sweat on his temples. Abdellatif is busy all day keeping the oven of the womens’ bath going. He shovels one load after the other into the glowing oven, and in between sorts the piles of shavings. Jamila exchanges some words with him, then cigarettes. We say goodbye.
  
Dream of a glass doll that is in the house across the street, and which I have to rescue because it has broken. Barefooted, I rush down the stairs, across the street, and into the cellar of the other house, where I find the glass pieces. I spend the whole night gluing them together. The following morning, the glass doll is standing next to my bed.
 
“Je crois que j’en ai dans un tiroir,” says the man whom Jamila has just asked for a bandage. She has stepped into a piece of broken glass, and wants to wash her foot. The man behind the desk gives us a sign to come along with him. We follow him out, past some houses further down the street, passing through a narrow lane into a backyard, out of which a strong scent of spearmint streams towards us. Under a thick tree children are playing. A screaming boy wearing suspenders runs after a girl with long braids, who in her outstretched hand holds a glittering picture up in the air.
   
The man talks to the women who sit on thick cushions, sorting chickpeas. One of the younger women brings a pot and pours water over Jamila’s foot. An elderly lady looks out of the house, observes us for a while, and then waves at me to come: “Henna?” she asks, steadily holding my hand and looking at me with screwed-up eyes. “Oh no, thank you,” I say, “we do not want to disturb.” Disregarding me, she starts mixing a strong smelling paste of henna with lemon drops, while the children from the backyard enter her tiny room, and some of them climb on the soft yellow-golden bed to watch her activities attentively. As she takes an enormous syringe out of a drawer, I suddenly feel sick. I have the feeling not being able to breathe, and peer through the doorway for Jamila, who is deeply engaged in conversation with the woman who is bandaging her foot.
“Would it be possible to do this outside?“ I ask, and the little wiry lady grabs my arm, as it turns out, not to drag me along with her, but to support herself. She is fragile, and I help her to sit down on one of the cushions. The man who brought us here has returned to his café. One of the girls takes my hand. Concentrating, she begins to draw fine green patterns on my hands from a thick syringe.
   
Meanwhile, night has fallen. An oil lamp is lighted, and hung on the tree, a woman brings a tray with ‘cornes de gazelles’, sesame biscuits and mint tea. I feel more and more sick, and finally I cannot hold it back. I vomit into a water rivulet that leads from the backyard into a black hole in the wall, while a young woman holds an oil lamp, and I try to concentrate on not destroying the henna decoration. The women behind us clap and laugh: “Bébé, bébé!”
   
Dream of a bird I have carried, and of its wings at which I marvel. I hold it in my hands and find it so small. I will certainly lose it from sight.
  
“Tomorrow we will go to the hammam,” Jamila says, and then our ways split into opposite directions through the medina. She walks home with a bandage on her foot, me with both hands tied with white gauze bandages. “Do not remove before tomorrow morning,” the woman had said, and Jamila nodded, agreeing.
  
At night, the streets of the medina are bathed in yellow light from variously shaped lanterns. From somewhere the music of Star Bidawa is heard. After an infinite odyssey through the labyrinthine streets, during which I pass a blue door at least three times, the source reveals itself. The music drones out of a little shop with shelves up to the ceiling, in which only young people work.
   
Dream of an evening at our friends’ house. We are sitting at the table with Lebanese dishes and excessively tall candelabra, when our friend suddenly gets up, opens the window, and steps out onto a roof terrace with white marble sculptures. He wears four ties of different colours, alternately swings them around his neck and says, again turned towards us, “I want to lead a more surrealistic life.”
  
As I wake up I notice that the beguiling scent of orange blossom has secretly filled the entire night. Together with the awakening noises from the streets it no longer seems half so strong; as if too many senses were clearing each other out of their way.
Slowly, I follow my memory through the medina, past jute sacks, the scent of which, despite the bustling, seems many times stronger than before, past the wood turner who nods at me with his round face, and past the repulsive grinning dentures.
   
Suddenly, a lunatic with wide open eyes for some reason starts to run after me, and threatens me with rotten oranges. I run as fast as I can, jostle through the crowds, motorcycles and full loaded carts. I run like mad, through a gate, and almost fall over some sandals straight into a mosque. As I turn around, the lunatic is gone. The people, mosque visitors, beggars and passers-by stare at me aghast.
   
In the same room my parents are sitting, at either end of an oversized sofa. They do not converse noticeably, but are occupied with the toys that are lying in between them on the sofa. They look like innocent little children.
   
Finally, I am standing in the narrow lane, into which no light falls, in front of Jamila’s door. It is closed, and stays so even after persistent knocking. A neighbour woman calls out to tell me that Jamila has left to see her mother in the mountains. “When, do you think, will she be back?” “In the afternoon perhaps, maybe at night.”
  
My friend Amir is shooting stones into the sky together with the policeman who lives across the street from him. The policeman has a lunch break, has taken off his jacket and pistol belt, and lent Amir one of his slingshots. They stretch the rubber out far to bounce the nasty stones off the branches. The policeman lives in a little room in which he heats up water on a gas flame to wash himself, and prays five times a day. He has to look out for the street urchins every night who roam around at the city gate. On his wall there are colourful pictures of his family and other private sacred relics. Suddenly, Amir understands that the policeman is aiming at birds.
   
I am waiting in the mens’ hammam for Amir to get ready. Night will fall soon, and the womens’ bath is already about to close. Women are walking around with buckets, wiping up. The hammam guard observes me through the thin glass of his ticket booth. I am sitting on an unsteady wooden bench, lifting my feet over the mop of a round lady, who is sprinkled with fine steam pearls. “Do you want a shower cabin?” he finally asks, and holds a jingling bunch of keys through the window. “Absolutely,” I say, and then I am standing under a jet of water in the mens’ hammam that someone has heated the whole day, just like Jamila’s husband in the womens’ hammam.
  
Dream of a world map, that at first sight looks like the usual ones, but on closer examination reveals certain incongruities with ordinary maps: all capitals have been switched. And as a result, Rabat is not situated in Morocco, but in Finland, Tokyo in Chile, and the capital of the Congo is Berlin.
  
Helsinki-Marrakech © Cia Rinne 2003
   
 
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