Lawrence Russell

shotgun for a lady heading south

When I first see El Obo it's like a mirage trapped between the earth and sky, vaporous and medieval, despite the fact that it's a hybrid Moorish fortress port of the French colonial period. I'm in a Nissan SUV with an English photographer who's given me a ride from Marrakesh, south through the Atlas and the desert following the old caravan trails... magic oases and arid plateaus, sickle dunes and sand devils... horses and camels back then, bringing in spices, sugars, fabrics, ivory and gold powder for the Sultan, Ali al Magrebi, a.k.a. The Fat One. That was in the 15 hundreds, when he was doing business with the Portuguese on their Africa run. Different trade today, they say. Rockets and automatics for the warlords in the rogue states of Black Africa... and Hashish for the greedy hipsters of the Euro club scene.

Kate's her name. About 40, like me.

Hey rock star, she says, you want to be in a movie?
What sort, I say.
Art movie, she says. Roy Cocteau, the French director.

"Cocteau" isn't his real name but it'll do for now.

Never heard of him, I say.
He won at Venice, Kate says. Blood of the Beast.

I laugh.

You're thinking it's a slasher, Kate says. It isn't, I assure you. Stars that gorgeous creature who was his wife at the time... you don't know it, honestly? It's brilliant.
I dunno, I say. Acting... how big is the part?
Not big, she says. No lines.

No lines? I say. Zero? You mean, like a dummy in a costume?

This Kate lady has been around... Middle East, Indonesia, Colombia... some risky places for anyone, never mind a woman. That's why she asked me to ride with her. Never know what's in the desert south of Marrakesh. So I don't take this movie thing too seriously... just riding shotgun for a lady heading south, is all.

As we draw on the coast, there are more palms, stretches of paving. It's humid, stacks of gray cloud sitting over the sea. We pass an encampment of gypsy fishermen, here for the sardine season. Carnival buses and motor cycles, laundry strung on lines between the trucks. Kids playing soccer, men working on their skiffs. Looks normal.

Then, in the dunes, the half buried skeleton of an old bi-plane, the frame burned by the salt and sun.

Crop duster, I say.
Been there a long, long time, Kate says. Probably an old mail plane.
They fly mail in a crate like that? I say.
The French did, back in the twenties, thirties, Kate says. Ever read Antoine de St. Exupery? Wind, Sand & Stars...
She's on my list, I say.
It's he you silly git, Kate says.

I laugh as she pulls over, jumps out, runs over the sand, starts popping shots of the plane. I get out, stretch my legs. Is it my imagination or is it getting darker? A stunted man wearing a sand mask goes past in one of those carts with old car wheels, pulled by a donkey or is it a goat... heading away from Obo like a refugee. Can see the gate now. Grand Roman semi arch, the big heavy doors pulled back. Obviously the French improvised on the old Moorish structure, buzzed the ziggurats, softened the horseshoes. Massed sandstone blocks, angle cut so they lock. Square towers... and a long sea wall. Can see the surf breaking on the rocky shelf. Good location, I think... and wonder what sort of movie this is going to be.

Kate wants me to pose by the plane wreck, says she wants to do the cover art for my next CD. The way I feel these days, there won't be a next CD. Band can go screw itself, folks in L.A. too.

I let her take a couple. Even though I got my shades on, sand is getting in my eyes from the wind whipping around the dunes... and I want to get into town, take a shower. Been a lotta driving recently.

As we pass through the gate, the usual cast of the listless and the damned are hanging around the walls, squatting in the shade or sitting on the kerb, the hoods of their jalabas concealing their mutilated faces. As we pass some raise their hands in the ambiguous gesture of begging or worship. Couple of sullen militia with FN automatics stand near the sentry box smoking, like shabby Legionaries left behind in the colonial exodus.

Edge of the Medina, see a crowd swarming, some fighting. Think there's a riot going down until I see the crew with the movie camera up on the roof.

Kate, I say. You ever been in this place before?
No, she says. But I've got a feeling I'm going to like it.
I dunno, I say. Place has a strange vibe.
That's the smell of history, mate, she says.

She drives like we're riding a stagecoach into Dodge... dogs and donkeys, camels and chickens all run for cover. Where are we staying? Hotel Babar. Old joint, clean, yellow stucco and green shutters, big Nile fans rotating slowly. No, the desk clerk doesn't have a monkey on his shoulder. Great painting in the lobby though... the old walls of Obo a hundred years ago, all in sepia. Looks like a photo but it's a painting.

I'm tired, think I can sleep for a thousand years, and when I close the door in my room, maybe I do.

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