Taroudant is two cities: the new city beyond the wall, and the old city within. The tall, hole-studded rampart winds around the old quarter like a stone serpent. This was my first Moroccan city.
Squeezing through the dark, crowded souk, past blind beggars and donkey-drawn carts overloaded with mint, the merchandise shifted from mounds of Pampers to embroidered leather shoes and unidentifiable animal hides hanging from the reed ceiling. A boy on a bike navigated through the crowd balancing a silver tray of fresh mint tea in his hand.
Take one turn down a narrow alley, stepping out of the way of a motorbike rumbling past, to find yourself in a silent aisle, a TV flashing on the floor of a rug shop, a tailor at his sewing machine in the shadows. These deserted pockets were all over the Taroudant souk, especially this time of day, with the temperature rising into the hundreds.
As I stood waiting outside the car to depart from the city, I saw a big, dust-colored mule standing aimlessly against the rampart wall. My Moroccan friend Houcine noticed me looking at it.
"You know this- un mulet? It is when a donkey and a horse get married."
I grinned and Houcine laughed his big, hearty laugh. He continued.
"People say when the female mule give birth, it means the end of world."
We drove about half an hour through the wastes outside of the city, passing goats in argan trees and young shepherds in Adidas jackets herding their flocks across the road. Down a long, dusty road through a seemingly deserted village was a sign for our destination- the Palais Claudio Bravo.
In the home of the late Chilean painter Claudio Bravo, I had a feeling of persistent nausea. The house was full of riches. A collection of crystal vases from ancient Fez, tattered Berber rugs maybe centuries old, fields of lavender and sky-high agave blooms did nothing to assuage my intense anxiety.
We came to Claudio's studio, books of photography and paintings scattered over his preserved desk, his easel still standing in the soft window light. One of his albums was playing. I sat down on a lush red sofa beneath one of his abstract paintings. Our guide, Mohammad, was an older gentlemen in a pristine white kaftan and black-framed glasses. He confided something in Berber to Houcine.
Houcine translated that I was sitting in the exact spot where Claudio had died.
I jumped up immediately. At Claudio's desk, I busied myself looking at his old things. Small stones, cartons of Marlboros, photos; remnants of an artist's life. We were shown into his bedroom. A stack of French novels remained on his octagonal bedside table, with Don Quijote de la Mancha II on top. A little red bench sat in front of the fireplace. His evening robes hung by the arabesque bathroom door.
Our last stop was Claudio's tomb. In an acid green room beneath a domed ceiling, Claudio slept surrounded by his favorite pieces of Moroccan pottery. The squeak of our shoes echoed loudly throughout the tomb. Houcine, trying out his voice, began to sing "What A Wonderful World." The rest of the group joined him in a surreal chorus, and the song reverberated above Claudio's grave. I could only wonder what he would have thought of the color of his final resting place.
As evening fell in Taroudant, merchants hawked fish the length of my arm and men strolled hand in hand down the narrow sidewalks. My friend Habib came back to the car with a stack of over a hundred eggs for his mother and sisters. We picked up Habib's father from his apartment in the city. He loaded huge sacks of potatoes, carrots, squash and mint into the back of our tiny car to take back to the village, where they lived in the summer.
In the silence of the neighborhood, distant figures stood beneath streetlights at the end of the corridor. A boy on a bicycle zipped past, and someone called out from a window. This was the gentleness of the Grandmother of Marrakech, tucked away in quiet pockets of ancient neighborhoods, hidden behind the ancient rampart walls.