Oujda exists at the very east of Morocco. Hours and hours from Fes, piles of cream dessert-like rock that folds in deep and deceptive wrinkles like the fur of a bulldog.
There is nothing to break the sepia tones; a tree in darker brown, a house in caramel mud, a man in muted rust. To punctuate the train window scenery, a mosque, in fresher rock. Its square minaret, fawn or white against the mountains, brushing the lowest of the day´s clouds.
Oujda´s approach is signalled by black plastic bags. Urban detritus cast aside and blown into the desert until caught on previously unnoticed tufts of spiky grass.
Oujda begins with red.
The sun sets as a the train begins to slow, stains the buildings like blood orange juice. Train tracks take us past the heavy industry into the poorest backyards. A street game of football stops to watch the train´s faces against the window.
We stride the streets; an odd couple, I with Moroccan colours and features but backpack and she in neat Muslim dress but translucent skin and European details. "You are attractive," she says but before I can blush she adds, "to these men who see you carry so much and see you are strong." They are practical, if not romantic, the Moroccans.
Alone in my room, I dance and giggle at the hard wearing felt carpet underfoot and the promise of a reliable hot water timetable. I carry my dance outside, dismiss a Bollywood feature film for being too gory and follow the Hindi music instead to the heart of the medina.
The streets are crammed with practical items and blinking wall decorations of Mecca. It is all the sensual allure of Morocco without the hassle. I feel safe blending in with the people, the scenery. I wander the tiniest back streets, fall into dead ends, find myself in front of people´s front doors. Tourists are infrequent here. We´re neither a nuisance nor an interest.
In the morning I walk the same area, different streets, before the crowds begin to bustle. Children´s hard-soled shoes hit the clay with a noise like donkey hooves. But the mules themselves are still, overloaded, or shuffling, bearing the day´s tomatoes or oranges. Sleepy-eyed, gentle ears revolving, blocking the alley crossroads at awkward angles.
Over lunch I hear the call to prayer. The TV is turned down. My harissa steams in front of the open doorway. I watch the last men scurry to the mosque, the others shuffle by; men in tweed suits, women with black plastic bags. The sick and the poor, eyes downcast, face shielded, hands in crippled outstretch.
Full-bellied, I force through the labyrinth and find tiny Medina mosques. Boys with salesman voices offer charcoal for the poor, jiffy lighters cut to small pieces for the rich. Necklaces of dried figs sit alongside impossible piles of peanuts, carefully balanced olives. Off the main street, I peer into dark doorways and catch for an instant, sleeping donkeys, rows of chickens forcing eggs. Men at lathes send woodchips wafting into muddy puddles while the knife sharpeners sends arcs of tiny fireworks into the air.
Lost beyond the side streets, I am in the larger roads of rich residential areas. Strong stone structures with gardens for courtyards. Men sleep in front of the gates, feet bare, swollen, scabbed. Cats poke heads under iron fences or stroll confidently alongside me.
I walk the same road twice, remembering the puddles and oil spills to avoid, the table legs of European-style cafes and Coke ads in Arabic. Finally, I find the centre ville
. The clock tower always showing 1150, stains red as the sunsets.
The colour falls onto minaret and minaret. The tomato donkey passes me. The shout goes up to sell faster as the sunset deepens.
Oujda ends in red.Photos of Oujda