Cloak, Dagger & Mint Tea Skullduggery along the Barbary Coast

Posted: June 27, 2014 in Vic in North Africa
Tags: , , ,

Rabat is an increasingly modern city with fancy shit yachts in the Bou Regreg River and jazz concerts in the Roman ruins of Sala Colonia. I arrived via hired car driven by a hired driver whose only CD was The Best of Cat Stevens. My contact, smarmy bastard he was, recognized me as soon as I set foot in the shadows of the Kasbah despite my disguise as a Norwegian ex-Marxist who suffered somnambulism.

“Ali Baba!” Mustapha greeted me with an unprovoked enthusiasm. “Each day you are more and more ugly!” Mustapha was Fassi and Fassis consider themselves exceedingly clever. Mustapha, in all his cleverness, fashioned himself an expert on American humor and believed the cornerstone of sarcasm was direct insult. Forget subtlety and nuance, Mustapha’s quips were more unfiltered hatred. “Greetings, oh itchy fellow! Oh leprous one! Welcome to the Capital of Morocco. May Allah give you fever without perspiration!”

“Likewise… Dick.” I spoke, forgetting to use my Scandinavian accent.

The Marrakeshi have a joke about their clever rivals from Fes. The first time a Fassi encountered a mirror, he immediately set out to deceive his “other” (there are donkeys involved, as is standard with all Marrakeshi stories). Long joke short, the Fassi is eventually carrying the city of Fes upon his shoulders as he attempts to outclass his reflection. When witnessing in the mirror the image of a city as beautiful as his own, he dies of heartbreak… it is funnier if you are from Marrakesh.

Mustapha in wizardly djellaba, gazing over Roman Ruins of Sala Colonia

Mustapha in wizardly djellaba, gazing over Roman Ruins of Sala Colonia

The intensity in Mustapha’s eyes as he wished boils upon my tongue was such that any semblance of sarcasm, if there ever was any, was lost in the exchange. And yet – he was my host and as my host, I was under his protection. There is an old guideline amongst the French Colonialists of lore when dealing with the Berber peoples of North Africa and this guideline plays upon the honor and hospitality of the Berber culture. Read any diary of European adventurers of the 19th Century and they will remark on how the local Moroccans may not drink, but they will thieve and lie and kill… unless you are under their protection. So the guideline is this: find yourself the most disreputable warlord of the region and invite yourself to dinner. Once the water for tea starts to boil, you are considered protected, just do not depart prior to slurping down at least three glasses of sweet, minty, substance. Do not sit with your legs crossed (as I am prone to do) as this is considered to be the habit of dogs. Do not pace or mention Christians or Jews in the company of Believers. Do belch as much as possible when eating and do not fret over your tablemates using their dirty paws to dig into the couscous on the public plate before you. Do not make eye-contact with the ladies of the house; in fact, just ignore them (or risk their being banished by their fathers or husbands). Follow these rules of etiquette and you are protected as an honored guest.

This hospitality custom brings us to Mustapha – the nastiest scoundrel Africa could conjure this side of the Atlas Mountains. He spoke almost as many languages as he had girlfriends, which made him increasingly valuable to a simple-lingual adventurer, such as me. If I was to stay in Morocco for any length of time, I was going to need friends like Mustapha. I had already crossed a Teutonic madman in Casa: a liar, thief and cut-throat convinced I cheated him out of a taxi fare, even after I paid him to quit his screaming outside my hotel window. Mustapha’s associates eventually took Conrad to a cabaret where they filled him with enough drink to subdue him.

After I arrived in Rabat, Mustapha led me into the Kasbah of the Udayas, within the blue and white alleys (painted the two colors to honor both Andalusian and Berber influence) towards an agreed upon rendezvous point. Mustapha reached behind his head to the white wizard hood of his djellaba where it rested between his shoulder blades and withdrew a packet of Marlborough cigarettes, offering me one and suggesting, “Once your business is done, I can show you where the Peace Corps girls can be found.”

Non merci.” I waved off the offering. “I’ve long since learned to avoid them. And I don’t smoke.”

“Avoid?” Mustapha stopped in his tracks, nearly tripping out of his slippers. The look on his face was perplexed. “Avoid women? Yes, yes, it is known by boys in Fes, ‘Share a meal with a Jew, but not a bed. Share a bed with a Christian, but not a meal.’ You Nazarenes are known for particular appetite, no?”

“No!” I insisted. “It is only Peace Corps women I’ve learned are best avoided. As for Nazarene appetites, these I do not share.”

Mustapha nodded, smiling knowingly. “Your hands are too soft for Peace Corps women. Very hard, these women are. Like mule driver. They are very quick to lie down, like wife of mule driver.” His eyebrows peaked excitedly at the wicked notion. Mustapha eventually paused his commentary and his trot, placed his cigarettes back into his wizard hood (“Berber suitcase” he grinned) and withdrew an ancient cell phone. After umpteen seconds of pumping the relic with his thumb, Mustapha announced, “It is time.”

In the Kasbah with Mustapha

In the Kasbah with Mustapha

We entered a blue & white striped building to find a dark room with a darker-still corridor to traverse. It was quiet and the air thick with dust as if sunburnt tourists and molting snakes had a firm shake within these walls. Down a hall decorated with Berber rugs dyed with henna, saffron and clove, we traveled until we came upon a backroom with, seemingly, no other exit. Tea had been prepared and an assortment of almond cookies lain out. I was told to take a seat and five minutes later a hidden door materialized and two well-tanned Western gentlemen entered wearing shorts, collared shirts and trainers. Both men were both built for rugby, though they were of an age where most of their scrums were behind them. These were diplomats from the Australian Embassy.

“You’re Neverman, then?” The bigger one inquired with a half-sneer, his voice filling every crevice of the room. “I’m Bruce MacKenzie, this here’s Digger McKenzie, no relation!” At this, the two Aussies broke into laughter, which I matched in volume. Nothing earns an Australian’s trust sooner than to laugh heartily along with their laughter.

Mint Tea, served with gusto

Mint Tea, served with gusto

Everyone took seats and Mustapha served tea in the traditional fashion, pouring the liquid out of the silver vessel from a great height to honor the guests. Once served, I thanked Mustapha and excused him to play video games on the handheld Nintendo hiding inside his wizard hood.

“I suppose we are free to speak here?” I asked the Aussies.

“Say what you want, just know the Yanks have everything bugged.” The younger Digger McKenzie noted. “And the Chinese have the Yanks bugged, but at least the Qatari can’t hear us here.”

“Bloody Qatar. Fucking everywhere, mate.” The elder and larger Bruce MacKenzie admitted. “Why’s it you come to us and not your Yanks?”

“I am not looking for American friends. Besides, I figured you’d tell them soon enough.”

“Too right, Vic. They rang us up before your Mustapha fellow did.” Digger said candidly.

“Oi, but we got our own file on you, mate.” Bruce said, proud of his own independent intelligence network. “Canberra gave you political sanctuary some years ago. Clean record it seems, other than some fuss in Sydney.”

Faked your own death and then forgot about it the next day.” Digger was impressed, or in the least, entertained. “Brilliant, really. You must have been quite pissed.”

“What’s it you want with us, then?” Bruce MacKenzie, Under Secretary of the Australian Consulate in Morocco, cut to the chase as his sausage fingers powdered the almond cookies before they could be tossed into his great mawl.

“Friendship for a favor.” I suggested. “I can provide intel on shady characters here in Morocco.”

Bruce and Digger glanced at each other, sharing the same thought.

“Not sure we’re looking for any friends, Vic.” Digger admitted, almost saddened by my hapless cause.

“Future consideration, then? I’ll give you some intel, maybe later we grab some pints and who knows?”

“What’s your business here in Africa?” Bruce asked, leaning forward as chief inquisitor. “Not the tequila rubbish, Maroc Spirits, LTD founded by Victor Neverman. We’ve seen your permits. What are you really here for?”

“You don’t go into liquor business in a Muslim Country, do ya Vic?” Digger asked patronizingly. “Next you’ll have a hotdog cart in the streets.”

“It would be mostly exports. Maybe deal in a little spice, some saffron.” I suggested. “Look, do you want to bust my balls about my business acumen or talk shop?”

Bruce and Digger shared another look, this one a bit more solemn. They nodded for me to continue, sitting on their bench like a pair of footballers looking to knock some heads. Their combined ribcages could have fit 18 of me. Their good humor was waning…

“There is a guy back in Casa I can deliver to you. He’s an Algerian spy. His name is Conrad and he claims to be a deserter from the Foreign Legion. He’s mostly full of shit, but I know he is working for the Algerians.”

They were unimpressed. Digger McKenzie, Cultural Attaché for the Australian Consulate explained, “We’re not in the border dispute business, Vic.”

“Now if you make him a Qatari spy we’re interested.” Bruce MacKenzie suggested in a quiet boom.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” I spoke excitedly. I then mentioned the mysterious Baroness. She was playing every fiddle in the European Union, she drank vodka like a Bolshevik and she was rather stunningly beautiful, I mean, if you could get past the, umm, cold sores.

“Imagine that’s what your Ali Baba beard is for.” Digger suggested with a wink. “First line of defense against the herp.”

“How is it you said she is passing information to Qatar?” Bruce queeried.

“She picks up French newspapers, sometimes days old.” I mentioned. They waited, their opened palms expressing a desire for more. “She doesn’t read French, you see, she is hopeless with a menu. Newspaper transmission is old spy craft – the agent in the field takes a pin and pokes holes into certain letters to spell out a message. She drops the used paper in a garbage bin; her handler picks it up and later holds it in front of a light and writes down the message.”

“Fucking Qataris!” Bruce groaned and shook his head. “It’s got their stink all over it.”

“First offer of advice, Vic.” Digger leaned in. “Drop this Mustapha fellow. He’s a bad sort. We’ve got a Marrakshi bloke who’s tops.”

“Rafiq?” Bruce raised an eyebrow at Digger.

“Too right, Rafiq.” Digger confirmed and then patted me on the shoulder. “Tops.”

Which is how I found my Moroccan partner-in-crime, Rafiq.

First though, I had to end my relationship with Mustapha. I gave him the news before we parted ways outside the Tower of Hassan in Rabat. I wasn’t sure if his reaction was elated or angered. I hoped he understood I was moving on from Casablanca and would be living in Marrakesh, where his influence was nullified.

“I understand, M’sseur Neverman. I understand Allah in his wrath gave Nazarenes the heart of dogs.”

I laughed, assuming he was trying to be sarcastic. I said something about God being with him, as is custom if you can enunciate the Arabic in a non-offensive manner.

“May God let you finish out your miserable life.” Mustapha responded.

“Yep, so… Adios!”

the lads in marrakesh: Digger McKenzie, Tariq and Vic Neverman

the lads in marrakesh: Digger McKenzie, Rafiq and Vic Neverman

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