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Book News! And a Broken Fixer in Morocco
[In the voice of Professor Hubert Farnsworth] Good news everybody!
My book, Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home is now available for preorder. Copies will ship in August, but get your order in now to avoid the rush!
Here’s the link: https://madvillepublishing.com/product/passport-stamps/
Please order many copies — the book will make a great gift and worst case can replace that missing couch foot! Whatever it takes.
Also, please share widely and frequently on all your social media platforms to help get the word out. I am currently scheduling book events and will have a new website in a week or so that will have all the details.
In the meantime, the following is one of the draft chapters that didn’t make it into the final version. It details my July 2010 trip to Morocco. It highlights the importance of fixers. For those not familiar with the term, fixers are typically local journalists who work with foreign reporters, whether they are parachuting into a country for a short trip—as I was in this case—or who are based in a foreign country.
Fixers translate, help secure visas, press credentials, or other permissions, set up interviews, arrange transportation, and in the case of my 2009 trip to Pakistan, even take you to the hospital to get treatment for food poisoning.
Basically, fixers are the shoulders international reporters stand on, and they the do not get the recognition they deserve. That said, not all fixers are equal, and once in a while you run into a problem, as I did in Morocco. Enjoy.
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In July 2010, I jetted off to Morocco for my second reporting trip there in two years. En route, I had a half day layover in Frankfurt, which gave me enough time to head into the city for lunch and a visit to the zoo. To this day, that is the extent of the time I have spent in Germany.
I’ve been to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen, and other non-vacation destinations, and I’ve only managed to spend five hours in Germany, and Frankfurt certainly wouldn’t be the first choice of a German city to visit.
After the zoo, I returned to the labyrinthian airport, one of my least favorite on the planet and continued my journey to Casablanca.
The Morocco assignment should have been straight forward. I had been there before and knew the general lay of the land. Some of the people I had interviewed in 2008 were the right people for the two stories I had to report on the 2010 trip. The last thing I expected was a major fixer snafu.
A few weeks before the trip, I emailed the young woman who fixed for me in Rabat in 2008. She worked for a local publication in the city and spoke excellent English and was happy to work with American journalists, thanks in no small part to the State Department-funded trip she had taken to the United States as part of a public diplomacy program.
We worked well together during my first trip, and we had stayed in contact since then. When I reached out to alert her of my upcoming trip, she responded quickly and said she was available to work with me, even saying she was “very excited” to see me again. For reference, she was married and on the conservative side, so it was strictly professional.
I sent her a treatment of the two stories I was going to report—the increasing age of Moroccans when they get married and the social implications of that, and the lack of participation in political parties by young Moroccans. A week later she responded with an initial list of prospective interviews. In the email she talked about how much she had enjoyed working together on my previous trip and she was looking forward together again.
The day I left for Morocco (it was a Friday), I received an email from her stating that she was in Marrakesh and would be back in Rabat the following day. She would meet me at my hotel on Sunday afternoon to discuss the itinerary and additional interviews she was chasing.
I arrived in Casablanca on Saturday and spent the day roaming the medina. A few minutes into my walk, I paused and took a picture of a man selling tea. I continued on my way.
Maybe 15 seconds later, I noticed loud footsteps behind me and turned to see the tea man chasing me down. He started demanding money. I used the language gap as a tactic to play dumb. That said, I realized I had fallen prey to a classic ruse—the photogenic local who encourages tourists to snap a picture and then demands a tip. That was why the man wasn’t buying my feigning ignorance, and he continued to follow me demanding a payment of about $2.50.
As I was trying to lose the guy, a young Moroccan man walked by and explained in English that I should just give him a few coins to make him go away. He said it was a racket, but otherwise the guy would continue following me and making a scene.
I figured the kid was probably in on the scam, but I paid the old man to get him off my back and continued walking through the medina. About five minutes later, I bumped into the young man again and he asked if I was OK. I was disappointed to think that I came across as a bumbling tourist who he felt he could hustle.
Still, we began talking and I turned the tables. Within minutes, I had my recorder out and I was interviewing him about marriage and the challenges of being a young man in Morocco trying to save up enough to afford the big day.
Said was 20 and in college. He was studying economics, spoke several languages, and planned to graduate and search for a high-level job. He was a sharp guy who taught himself English and knew how to make a buck. Much of his motivation stemmed from the desire to be able to get married and build a family. He said he felt pressure to build and “prepare” himself for marriage because it’s one of, if not the, most defining and important aspects of Arab life.
We had a pleasant conversation and then he gave me a tour of the local sections of the medina. He offered to help me with my story. I told him I was hoping to find a wedding party that night to “crash” and he offered to translate. As he said during our brief interview, he was taking on any jobs he could to save up for a wedding, so he was eager to put his language skills to work and earn a few bucks.
That night I went to the corniche in Casablanca to check out the wedding clubs. I came across “Paradise,” which was one of the main wedding halls in the city.
I approached the venue and introduced myself to a man and woman standing out front. Despite a significant language gap, I was able to explain that I was a reporter and was hoping to talk to people about the costs and challenges of getting married in Morocco. They said they were the brother and sister of the groom and welcomed me to hang around.
They said that the party would get started around 11 p.m. with the arrival and grand entrance of the newlyweds. They explained that they and their family lived in France and were financially in good shape. That allowed them the luxury of coming back to Morocco and having an extravagant wedding for much less than they would pay in France. While we were waiting, the mother of the groom wandered out and said hello to me. They all seemed very welcoming.
In the meantime, I called my buddy from the medina and asked him to come translate. As I waited for him to arrive, the main event started. A crowd gathered outside the hall. A black BMW X5 covered with white streamers pulled up. A band of musicians in traditional dress assembled. A man also in exotic traditional dress stood by with a brightly decorated horse. Another group of men set up an amaria—it’s the Moroccan equivalent of the litter that carried Cleopatra.
The musicians began playing, and the bride exited the car and climbed into the amaria. Four men lifted her. As the musicians played and the crowd danced and sang, they made their way toward the hall with the groom riding the horse around his wife being held aloft.
As the people were gathering out front, I snapped a couple of pictures. After I took one, about six men, including one who looked like a linebacker, crowded around me and began talking to me in French. I again tried to play dumb and hide behind the language barrier, but one spoke some English. They said in no uncertain terms that strangers were not allowed to take pictures, despite the activity being in a parking lot in front of the wedding hall.
Everyone but the goon squad entered the hall. My translator arrived and explained to the linebacker and his henchmen that the groom’s brother and sister invited me to join the party. The dudes got angry and mean. The linebacker said that he was the groom’s brother (a blatant lie), and that I was not allowed at the event.
Mind you, I wasn’t exactly pushing the issue or making a fuss since I knew I wasn’t invited by the newlyweds, but since the groom’s brother had been welcoming and invited me to talk to people, I at least wanted to get him to come out to talk to the goon squad before leaving—if for no other reason than to defend my honor and make it clear to the brutes that I wasn’t hustling them.
My translator asked for the brother to come out, and things started getting tense. The goons were trying to get me to leave and getting angry. They were puffing out their chests and getting in my face. I saw the brother making his way toward the door and pointed to him.
He came out, and my translator and the goons all spoke with him. The brother said he had no problem with my presence, but he was overruled. The goons told me to go. On top of that, they cornered me and demanded to see my photos. After inspecting the camera and seeing that I had no pictures of the family or the couple, they cleared me to go.
Fuckers. I was pissed. The family members I spoke to before the goons arrived had been friendly and open to me getting a taste of a Moroccan wedding party. The goons were probably cranky because they were going to be stuck pumping each other after the party.
I returned to my hotel and crashed. The next day, 2 p.m. rolled around and there was no sign of my fixer. I sent a couple of emails and messaged her through Facebook as well. No response.
I tried her cell phone number that I had from my previous trip and got some sort of error message that I couldn’t understand. I sent more emails. Nothing.
The next morning there was still radio silence. I did some research online and found out that shortly after my last visit to Morocco, the country added a digit to the phone numbers. I made the correction and called her phone. No answer. I sent text messages. No response. I sent more emails and posted on her Facebook page. Nothing.
Finally, Monday afternoon, I received an email from her Gmail account.
Hello Mister Sean, i am [woman’s name], the cousin of [the fixer]. forgive my english ...i am not good at it.[The fixer] had an accident with her car and she is in a hospital with serious injuries. She told me yesterday to send you an email but i forget. she can not talk, her neck is injured too.today she become worst.she told me yesterday to give you the numbers of the persons you have to contact. i am search for the numbers. i will send you other email with the contacts
Of course, I was shocked and concerned, and my initial response was to email back asking how she was, what the prognosis was, and if I could visit or do anything to help. I received no response, nor any emails with the contact information of the people I was to meet.
That set off a frantic search for a fill-in fixer. Before I left for Morocco, a Moroccan journalist I knew in the states gave me a couple of back-up fixer contacts. I was able to reach one of them the week I left for Morocco, and she said she was flat out working on stories in the north. She said she could give me contacts if I needed any but could not do any fixing for me. The second contact never responded to any emails.
I called the first one and asked for recommendations. She gave me two names, one of whom responded immediately. She was a British-Moroccan TV reporter, and she agreed to help me in Rabat where she was based. I told her I would be arriving in Rabat late afternoon the following day, and according to the initial email I had received from my then incapacitated fixer, I had an afternoon interview with a professor in Rabat. I told the replacement fixer I did not have his contact info, and I asked her to contact him and confirm the meeting.
I also exchanged emails with another Moroccan reporter I met during my previous trip. She was the woman who introduced me to my missing fixer in the first place. She gave me a name to contact as well, and I sent an email to him letting him know that I found a translator in Rabat, but I would need help in Casablanca in a few days.
Tuesday morning, I caught a train to Rabat. I met the British-Moroccan woman and went over the contacts I had identified to interview in Rabat. She was not familiar with any of them. She also had not done anything to confirm my afternoon interview. As we continued to talk and make calls, it became clear she had no experience fixing and really didn’t want to do the job.
However, she did invite me to a small dinner gathering she was having with some other foreign journalists. She said they might have some helpful ideas or contacts.
I returned to my hotel to continue researching contacts and story ideas. I found the number for the newspaper where my wounded fixer worked. I called and a woman with modest English skills answered. She said she saw my missing fixer in the office that afternoon. Uh, what? She said she would pass along a message that I called.
I tried the fixer’s phone again. No answer. I sent another email.
I put that aside and headed off to the dinner party. There was a guy from Reuters and his wife who freelanced, a couple of German radio correspondents, a French guy who I could barely understand, and the hostess and her boyfriend, also a Frenchman who worked for a new think tank in Morocco.
We discussed my plight. They sympathized and offered a few contacts, including a woman they all considered a rock star.
Everyone also wondered as I did whether my original fixer was somehow trying to get out of working with me. The fact that her office said she was there baffled all of us. Why would she fake an accident to bail on working with me? Why not just say something came up? We wondered if maybe her husband got jealous and forbade her from working with an American man. It was a head scratcher.
The next day, Wednesday if you’re keeping score, I contacted Merieme the rock star. She said she was traveling for a couple of days but could start making calls for me. I emailed her all the story details and contacts I had, and she set to work.
I made a bunch more calls to find anyone who could translate for me the rest of the day and the following day. After getting passed off from one person to the next, I finally reached a young and enthusiastic man. Fifteen minutes later, he was at my hotel. He was a journalism student doing a summer internship in Rabat and he was gung-ho.
He started flying through my list of contacts and set up several interviews. I had him try the office of my missing fixer, and they told him she was on another call. I called her and it went straight to voicemail. It was simply bizarre.
Anyhow, after five mostly wasted days flailing around to find substitute fixers, I finally started making progress on my stories. I still had no answers to the mystery of the missing fixer, but at least I had an enthusiastic student fixer on board, and we started banging out interviews.
One afternoon I stopped for lunch in Rabat and witnessed a fascinating display of microeconomics, specifically the failure of the supply and demand curves to find equilibrium.
I sat down at City VIPs, one of the many small street-front restaurants in Rabat. It was basically a fast-food place with a few Moroccan dishes. I was the only American there, and the only person eating a Moroccan dish (I had a chicken tagine) rather than a burger or pizza or pasta.
Within minutes of sitting down, an odd assortment of street vendors and beggars passed by my table to offer their wares or solicit handouts. First was a shoeshine guy. Rabat seemed to have more shoeshine guys than any other place I had visited in the world.
The shoeshine guy was followed by an old woman begging for change, and then another woman begging for change. Then came a kid about 10-years old selling cologne, perfume, and pens. He was followed by a man selling gum and he looked like he had about six packs of gum wadded up in his cheek—interesting marketing technique. Next, a man walked by selling a mix of folded maps and large, laminated maps.
As I sat and ate, the parade of vendors continued. Five different shoeshine guys tried their luck—one asshole rudely banged his brush on my table to get my attention and not only ignored my polite “no,” but also failed to notice that my shoes were freshly shined (by the free machine in the hotel lobby).
I counted six young men who were selling pirated CDs and DVDs, three kids selling nail clippers (two were also selling key chains and batteries), three young men selling sunglasses (always fascinates me when people on the street try to sell me sunglasses when I’m already wearing a pair), a man selling new shoes, another beggar, and two men who were selling what looked like sheets or think blankets. The guy with the maps made another pass as well.
The entire time, not a single customer at the restaurant or the café next door bought anything. No one got a shoeshine. None of the beggars received anything (other than a scolding from the waiters).
I could not think of another place where I had sat out at a cafe or restaurant and seen such a large population of informal or unlicensed street vendors. It was entertaining to see it once, but it would drive me nuts if I had to spend every outdoor meal saying no and shooing off shoeshine guys and other hawkers. Given the economics of a large supply of street vendors selling the same items/services, and the apparently minimal demand, I couldn’t see how any of the vendors made enough money to even feed themselves. Sadly, that was one of the most interesting things I saw in Rabat. It’s a nice, clean city, but the most boring city in Morocco.
As my a-list fixer was getting some things lined up in Rabat, I ducked back to Casablanca for a couple of days to do some interviews on my own. One was with a friend of the 20-year guy I had met in the medina. Said’s friend was as clear of a case study you could find for the difficulties Moroccan men were having in getting married.
Jowad was 34 and described himself as “preparing” for marriage. He sold fish in the market and made a modest living. He had a small place of his own, but too small for him and his fiancé to live in should they wed.
Her family didn’t feel he was a viable candidate for their daughter. They had flown in men from across Morocco and Europe—businessmen, “successful” men who could offer a far more comfortable future for her.
His fiancé rebuffed those suitors to the dismay of her parents. She was sticking by her man—for the time being. The guy said he was worried. He knew he only had another year or two to build enough of a fortune to afford to marry her. After that, she would have to go with a better offer, even if she didn’t love the man.
Jowad said he didn’t blame her. Her refusal to accept one of the other offers had given him strength to keep working to save up the $40,000 he said would be necessary to pay for a nice house and the wedding.
He said that he really didn’t think seriously about marriage until he was 27. At that point, a combination of family pressure and “growing up” made him realize he had to get focused on his future.
To make matters worse, Jowad’s father called him weak for being so old and still single. It stung he said, as did his fiancé’s family’s efforts to find a more financially secure potential son-in-law. There wasn’t much more he could do. He had to keep working as hard as he could and hope that he could earn enough in time. He had to prove that he was a man.
In Morocco, like a lot of Middle Eastern or Asian countries, a single male is not a man. Regardless of his age and job status, he is not fully a man and respected by society until he has a wife. He can be ostracized at work in and in society—and the longer it takes to get married and enter society, the more pressure, self-doubt, and frustration he is likely to experience. The frustration is on many levels since the rules of the road in Morocco say no sex before marriage. So having to contain one’s urges an extra seven years doesn’t help (hence the underground activities like prostitution, “convenience marriages,” or man-on-man sex—just don’t call it homosexuality).
All that was why Said was busting ass getting educated and finding a good job. He didn’t want to end up like his friend—34 and slinging fish around all day and alone slinging his meat around all night.
The next day, I returned to Rabat and got to work with the rock star fixer. Merieme and I busted out a bunch of interviews for both the marriage and political participation stories. We talked to professors in their offices, and then roamed the streets and souks of Rabat drinking mint tea and talking to “regular people.”
We stumbled across a music performance in a park. It was Moroccan hip hop with political messaging and fit my story.
Merieme and I were just having a time finding material and talking about life. We were both somewhat contrarian and not fans of a lot of societal obligations like big weddings and the like.
Speaking of which, we ended up crashing a big wedding. We wandered by a catering shop that provided decorations for weddings, and after interviewing the young men loading a van with props, we loaded into the van as well and ended up outside a giant wedding hall on the outskirts of Rabat.
We staked out until people started arriving around 11 p.m. We approached people entering to see if they would speak about the ceremony and the cost. The father of the bride was happy to speak and demanded that we come inside the hall. While it was going to provide great audio for my radio story, neither Merieme nor I was particularly comfortable at a large wedding where we knew no one.
To add to the awkwardness, the father of the bride insisted that we stay for dinner.
We found a couple of chairs at the back of the hall and sat awkwardly like kids at an 8th grade school dance. However, the father was having none of that. He moved us to one of the family tables toward the front of the hall.
We sat uncomfortably at the table and smiled to the other guests who assumed the two of us were a couple. More than once, we were asked when we would wed.
Around 2:30 a.m., the father of the bride finally permitted us to leave. We bolted outside and exhaled in relief of finally getting the hell out of the party. Again, we were both people who went out of our way to avoid weddings, and so the last thing we wanted was to get stuck in an all-night Moroccan wedding party. I had recorded everything I needed by 11:45 p.m. and it took us another three hours to extricate ourselves.
We got a taxi back to Rabat and laughed all the way back, pledging that we would be each other’s sponsor to prevent either of us from having a giant wedding.
Sometime around 3 a.m. I got back to my hotel room. I pulled the bottle of Jim Beam out of my hotel room safe and had a couple of glasses to knock myself out.
On my last day of the trip, Merieme and I took the train to Casablanca. First, we went to a beach club where Moroccans were running summer camps. As kids lined up for exercises and swimming lessons, we interviewed some of the counsellors about why they were avoiding political parties and activities and instead joining social organizations like the camps.
From the beach we wandered through the city to meet up with some Moroccan rock stars. We met the band Darga in their apartment. They were one of the more popular bands in the country. They had started out playing rock with a mix of Moroccan and other world-music flavorings. Like a lot of bands do, they grew to become more politically and socially active with their music. They criticized the government and called for Moroccan youth to get engaged and find ways to help change society for the better.
We hung out in their apartment and listened to music and talked politics and music and had a great time. They were good guys and a fun way to wind down what was a weird, but ultimately productive trip.
In a way, I was almost glad that my original fixer bailed. While I didn’t enjoy the days of chaos searching for a replacement, I was lucky to end up working with Merieme. She was an absolute professional and helped me get great material, and she was a hoot to hang out with.
I worked with a lot of fixers over the years, and she was one of the most fun. Before flying home, she and I reiterated our pinky swear to never have a big wedding. Over the years, I would periodically shoot her a note to say hi, and would typically start with, “Are you still avoiding weddings?”
I never found out what happened to my original fixer—to this day I don’t know what went down. After I returned to D.C. I continued to send emails to check on her, but I never got a response. And she either blocked me on Facebook or deleted her page. Either way, it was utterly bizarre to never get an answer to the mystery of whether she did have an accident or for some reason decided she couldn’t work with me and didn’t want to explain why.
Oh, and one more reminder, buy my book! https://madvillepublishing.com/product/passport-stamps/