Although I’ve covered climate change as a journalist for twenty years, I’ve never been to one of the United Nation’s annual climate conferences. Inspired by the 2015 conference in Paris, where French and British artists organized a side conference of climate-themed writing, film, paintings, music, theater and talks, I went to Morocco when it hosted the 2016 U/N. climate conference. I didn’t go to the conference, though. I went to find people making art about the environment.
My friend Connie was the perfect traveling companion – former roommate, fellow newspaper journalist-turned-filmmaker, and editor of the first news story I was ever paid to write (a whopping $25, but hey, who’s counting?). Like me, she had long wanted to visit Morocco.
We wanted to begin, like Mark Twain 150 years earlier in his Mediterranean travelogue, The Innocents Abroad, with an overwater crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar. It seemed so romantic, even though it complicated our trek.
We had to fly to southern Spain, then take two buses to get to the ferry terminal, driving past a hillside of Spanish wind turbines.
But unlike Twain’s journey, our ship was less a step into the 19th Century and more like riding a commuter ferry in Anywhere America.
Worse – Connie and I shared a political seasickness that followed us onto land. The day before we flew to Spain, Donald Trump was elected President – a shock for two people who’d chronicled politics and presidents from Ford to Obama, and thought they knew who would win the election. And a world-changing event for anyone worried about climate change. It was hard to tear ourselves away from 24/7 news but it seemed appropriate to visit a predominantly Muslim country.
During our crossing, a handful of men unrolled small prayer rugs and positioned them to face Mecca to observe afternoon prayers. We wondered if we’d be welcomed by Moroccans, or if they’d lump all Americans in with Trump’s statements that were hostile to the Muslim world. As the Tangier dock came into view, we wondered if this trip might be the last time we’d feel safe in a Muslim country.
The day we crossed, the Mediterranean was more visible after we docked in Tangier than from the windowless belly of the boat filled with lounge chairs and a bar.
The guidebooks all warned not to hire a guide, especially not anyone who claimed to be a government-approved guide. Sure enough, as we walked down the gangway alongside the dock, an older man with a photo ID pinned to his cheap suit jacket attached himself to us, claiming government credentials and extolling his virtues as a guide.
I held onto my suitcase as the man tried to take it from me.
“No, thank you,” I said.
Persistent, he followed us down the long ramp.
“We’re fine,” Connie said.
We were almost to the ferry parking lot, when a younger man came up to us.
“Yes,” we said.
“I’m Mohamed,” he said, and took our bags. “Mohamed Ali.”
Of course, Mohamed turned out to be a guide, too, but he never asked us to hire him. The cab driver turned out to be Mohamed’s friend and they took us to the Tangier Airport, where we picked up the Hertz Fiat we’d reserved. Mohamed navigated us all the way to our hotel, and never once asked for money. We tipped him generously, and hired him for the next day.
It didn’t hurt that Mohamed was handsome – tall, thin, hair so dark it was almost black, the beginning of a beard and a soul patch under his bottom lip. And his English was perfect. It also helped that he was born right in this house in Tangier’s casbah.
“I’ll take you to the casbah,” Mohamed said. “You know ‘rock the casbah?’”
“The Clash,” Connie said.
“I have that album,” I said.
Tangier charmed away our funk. The city has long been an oasis for artists: playwright Tennessee Williams, novelist Paul Bowles, musicians like the Rolling Stones, and Beat poets and writers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg.
Tangier’s casbah hasn’t changed much since Mark Twain visited in 1869, and described it as “a packed and jammed city enclosed in a massive stone wall which is more than a thousand years old. All the houses nearly are one-and two-story, made of thick walls of stone, plastered outside, square as a dry-goods box, flat as a floor on top, no cornices, whitewashed all over—a crowded city of snowy tombs!”
The walls are still washed white in Tangier’s casbah, and every turn in its twisty cobblestoned streets reveals another peek at ancient architecture.
Moorish arches and doors carved with inlaid wood, brass lanterns and fittings, glossy ceramic jugs and pots, tiled steps and fountains, and flowering trees tucked into tiny courtyards. Homes sit side-by-side shops advertising curios, spices and rugs.
Not one street is straight or level. More like stone forest paths, they climbed or descended, sometimes jockeying for space with a sudden bicycle or compact car squeezing past casbah walls just inches away on either side. But somehow there’s still a sense of spaciousness. Maybe it’s the whitewash. Maybe it’s the clean ocean air. Maybe it’s the vibe of a real, functioning enclave.
Our guide steered us to an herb store where we loaded up on saffron and argan oil. Then, just as the muezzin began his afternoon song, to the carpet-seller representing Moroccan widows.
“I have to go pray,” Mohamed said. “My friend will take care of you until I get back.”
We sat down in a large room rimmed with leather stools, and the carpet-seller offered us mint tea – our first of many. One of his two helpers served the tea in glasses etched with silver latticework. Before us stretched a huge, white-tile floor, waiting. Empty.
Behind us and all around the room rugs were rolled up leaning against the walls where more rugs hung.
OMG, the rugs.
Square rugs, rectangular rugs, round rugs.
Room-sized rugs with geometric lines, dots, diamonds, crosses. Runner rugs with squares like quilts, each a different design. Accent rugs with pictographs of birds, animals, trees, a field of stars in the sky.
Plush Persian-style rugs in deep green and saffron gold. Intricate kilims, with thousands of knots, each handmade, in dusty rose and dove grey. Berber rugs, in bold primary scarlet, lapis and sun yellow, with half-dome patterns signifying the sand dunes of the Sahara.
Connie and I live on the cheap, politically opposed to excess consumerism, always alert for deals. The Moroccan rugs were, it’s true, a bargain, but like amateur gamblers in Vegas, we couldn’t stop wanting more more more. The rugs spoke to us, called to us, made us whip out our plastic and spend more than we’d planned for the entire trip.
When we emerged, an hour later, or maybe two, we were hung-over from the experience of wanting, choosing, narrowing our options, and making the final cut. Not bargaining, our merchant cautioned us. Never bargaining.
We were negotiating.
The road trip from Tangier to Tetuan is a 90-minute sprint past green-forested mountains flecked with modern wind turbines – a sign that Morocco was hip to renewables. The mountains to the north blocked our view of the Mediterranean the whole way.
And then Tetuan rose in the distance, like sea-washed shells piled up against the mountains. A city so beautiful it’s listed as a World Heritage site.
Bone-white buildings nestled up hillsides, and as we got closer to the city center, buildings began to flank the car. All of them white.
We had a rendezvous with environmental artist Anass, who I’d found through Green Olive, a Tetuan residency for artists from all over the world.
Finding someone in a strange city, with street signs all in Arabic was tricky. But Anass talked us to the city center over the phone in excellent English. We followed the little blue dot on my Google map all the way to the bus station, near the university where Anass studies architecture.
It was late afternoon by the time we connected, and headed to a coffee bar near the beach. Coffee is the second runner-up national drink, right after mint tea. As the late winter sun dimmed, we sipped espresso, and Anass told me about his project – making furniture out of recycled cardboard.
I’d written a story about group of middle school girls in Idaho bluegrass country. One of them had asthma and suffered every summer when grass-seed farmers burned the remaining grass stalks after harvesting the seeds to sell to China. The girls turned the grass into paper, won first prize in a science contest and went to Disneyland.
Turns out you can make paper out of any plant – gift wrap, tissues, bananas.
I told Anass he could probably make cardboard out of anything, too.
We talked about last year’s bad drought in Morocco. And how climate change could raise the sea level on Morocco’s coast, where most of the population lives. For that matter, most of the world’s population lives on a coastline.
By the time we dropped Anass at his apartment, it was almost full dark. We promised to keep in touch.
Sometimes on the road in a foreign country, you make friends fast.
We miscalculated the next leg of the trip. A lot.
After leaving our wonderful riad, hosted by another Mohamed, we burned a good hour trying to find a high vantage point from which to capture the beauty of eggshell-white Tetuan. Our search for a high shot took us into a dicey neighborhood in a village just outside Tetuan.
We didn’t feel unsafe, but definitely unwanted. A neighborhood where we felt out of place. Where a succession of men never looked at us as they herded goats up the narrow uphill road. It was unsettling.
At the bottom of the hill, a swarm of men did stare at us, but none of them smiled. Those unsmiling faces were more disturbing than being ignored.
When we finally headed south in mid-morning mist, the peaks of the nearest green-forested Rif mountains were sharply outlined.
Behind them, the farther ranges were less and less distinct all the way back to the horizon.
Just when we were about to despair of finding food, we came upon the wonderful Sed Nakhla, which billed itself as a Restaurant Panoramique. The view from where we sat on its terrace truly was indeed panoramic – a wide valley below and the Rif Mountains in the distance. Looking straight down was a fenced yard, a dog and several play structures.
We soon met the parents, Nathalie and Jacine – the blissed-out young couple who owned the restaurant. Maybe they talked to everyone who sat down for lunch, but more likely they were interested in the Westerners who’d found them. They said they were drawing big crowds for lunch every day, and the restaurant grew visibly busier behind them while they stood talking to us.
Our second stop was the famous blue city of Chefchaouen – an entire town known as a work of art.
Guidebooks showed rows upon rows of buildings in baby blue, robins egg, azure, electric, cornflower, midnight, turquoise, teal and steel.
What the guidebooks don’t show are the streets dominated by white buildings, punctuated by an occasional indigo or periwinkle, and even a pop of peach.
The streets of Chefchaouen were remarkably empty for such a famous place. Maybe Morocco had adopted the afternoon siesta during the years of Spanish rule. Or maybe the locals didn’t like all us tourists. We rambled around town taking photos and searching for its legendary beauty, when suddenly we realized it was late November afternoon, and we weren’t even halfway to Fez.
As the light began to fade even farther south, the trees receded and the Rifs rose stark blue-grey against the hazy white sky.
A few hours out of Chefchaouen, it became clear we weren’t going to get remotely close to Fez before dark. Not many tourists drive the road through the Rifs. We passed through a few tiny towns, none big enough to feature a hotel. The cell signal throughout Morocco, including among the desolate Rif road put America’s cellular infrastructure to shame, but Trip Advisor, Yelp, and the Rough Guide to Morocco had nothing for weary travelers.
Streetlights flickered on when we hit the bustling market town of Ouezzanne. One crumbling building advertised itself as a hotel, but we pressed on.
We were looking for something better. Something, Allah forgive us, a little more Western.
And then we spotted a sign for the Motel Rif. We followed the virtual map trail out of town and into the parking lot with just enough twilight left to find the office and check in with the proprietor, Mohammed the third. We hadn’t hit an ATM before leaving Tetuan, and the Rif didn’t take credit cards, so we pooled our cash to come up with 32 bucks each.
The Motel Rif was just what we needed – well-lit, sparkling clean, with reasonably comfortable beds, free breakfast by the pool, and vacancies. And cable TV – more than 400 channels from across the Arab world. No BBC or CNN International. Not even Al Jazeera English. But every Arab country in Africa, the Middle East and the European continent had at least one channel. I channel-surfed for more than an hour, not understanding a word. But I recognized the familiar formats – sports channels, political talk shows, and countless Islamic versions of Pat Robertson’s 400 Club. Most of all there were Arabic soaps, heavy on gorgeous women, heartthrob men and overly dramatic music. Just like American soaps.
The next morning, with Ouezzane in the rear-view mirror, we left the hinterland for more and bigger towns.
Restaurants, shops, and school buses, just like a road trip in America.
Especially what happened next.
Trucks passed us, flashing their lights in the universal American sign for ‘speed trap ahead,’ but we didn’t believe it until we were busted for speeding. Dozens of Morocco’s red and green flags framed the checkpoint. I tried to take surreptitious pictures on my phone while Connie explained in college French that we didn’t have much cash.
The splendidly uniformed African cops turned stern-faced. We dug deep in purses and pockets and places where we’d hidden stashes of cash, and found the required forty bucks, but it took every Euro, every Moroccan dirham, and every good old American dollar we had.
In the homestretch, the landscape changed again and again — from farm fields and roadside produce stands –
— to dusty wide open spaces and shepherds walking by the side of the road with flocks of sheep.
In the last few miles, pale gold sand dunes lined the road. Once or twice we could see a shimmering sky blue lake in the distance.
Real or mirage, it didn’t matter. It was as close as we’d get to the Sahara.
Day four of our trip, and our first two-day stop: the Riad Taifialet. It was perfect.
Except for one thing.
What Moroccans describe as the first floor is what Americans call the second floor. And to get from the ground floor to my room involved a flight of marble steps. Old school steps – at least a step and a half high, with no banisters.
Confession. I’ve been leaving out the hard parts – the impossible hunt for our lodgings in Tetuan and Fez, the frustrating searches for places to park our car, the slogs with luggage to our hotels. The truth is, they left me exhausted. Connie has better leg muscles and more stamina, even though we both had polio as young children. The thing about people who had polio just before the vaccine wiped it out is that we tend to be Type A personalities. Whatever it is, we can do it, goddammit. Even if we can’t. Or shouldn’t. Being Type A explains why I bulled my way up those ridiculously high marble steps to my room on the second floor as fast as I could. Balancing myself with both hands on adjacent walls and twisting in odd ways gave me a pulled muscle that haunted me for months. But — worth it.
Behold, the loveliest room imaginable!
Moorish architecture, multi-faceted lamps that cast soothing shadows, deep jewel-tone colors on the walls and curtains and bedspread and pillows.
A marvel of a tiled bathroom, with ornate brass towel rods and a tiled niche for soap and toothbrush.
A room so beautiful I never wanted to leave. Not to mention that I didn’t want to climb those steps again.
Two windows. One wrought iron, overlooking the interior courtyard below, and another mullioned and open to the sounds of the medina outside.
At Riad Tafialet, four flowers floated in a fountain in the middle of the central courtyard, all tiled in tiny black and white squares – not just the floor but the wall and four pillars around the sides of the courtyard.
The central courtyard is the classic riad design, four vertical floors, and above, a translucent roof open to the sky but not the rain.
Morocco is all about hospitality. Maybe all Arab countries are, but this was my first.
It started with mint tea everywhere we went. All different flavors of mint, a few tart, many sweet, most in elegant glassware, and all of them on the house. At Riad Tafiliat, our host held the brass teapot up in the air and poured from a great height, the stream of tea landing precisely in our glasses. Mint tea performance art.
Then he asked us if we wanted chicken for dinner. We did. We wanted something to drink, too. Something alcoholic.
Muslim Morocco is technically dry, but Morocco has a homegrown wine industry. The Riad Taifialet was the first place where we encountered devout Muslim hosts. They asked if we minded BYOB-ing, and directed us next door to a riad with a bar that also sold bottles of win.
We asked our host if he wanted us to open the wine and pour it.
No, he said.
Pouring the wine was work. Forbidden things are not forbidden while working.
We had dinner in “our” private dining bâyt. It was tucked on the edge of the square courtyard, built with intricately carved wood, and draped in silken fabrics and pillows.
Breakfast, like dinner the night before, was served in our bâyt – an orgy of eggs, dates, olives, tomatoes, cheeses, sweet and savory spreads, and five kinds of breadstuffs – flat tortilla-like bread, thin spongy crumpet-like bread pockmarked with holes, squareish buttery pancake-like bread, yeasty rolls, and a pretzel-shaped sesame cookie coated with honey.
That breakfast lasted us all day.
Riad Tafialet was just inside ancient Fez’ impossibly vast medina, and we’d defied the guidebooks again by hiring another guide. Our Fez guide was, natch, Mohamed IV.
Founded in the 9th Century, and home to the planet’s oldest university, the Fez medina is another World Heritage site. According to guidebooks, this was the place where unwary tourists got taken through the maze of twisting walkways and eventually – when there was no chance they could find their way out – their guide would extract every dirham and dollar the tourists had in exchange for getting them safely back to their hotel.
Mohamed IV started us in a Muslim cemetery way up one of the hills that encircled Fez. It was a great vantage point to see the medina’s vastness – more than 150,000 residents and not a car in sight. Truly a city within the city. And a great high shot.
While we stood there, Mohamed IV pointed to the distant Rifs we’d driven through.
“That’s where all the clay comes from for tagines and other serving and eating dishes,” he said. “It has no lead in it. It’s safe to eat from. Very special clay.”
Back down in the main city, Mohamed IV took us to a pottery workshop, jammed with intensely colored examples of tagines, bowls, plates, and mosaic tiles. It was more than a factory; it was a school for newbie potters to learn the trade.
We asked one man using a wheel if we could take his picture.
“Only when he is working,” Mohamed IV translated.
Same Muslim rule as opening wine.
Same Muslim exception.
The medina was filled with open artisan workshops ready to sell: weavers, who showed us their looms and woven cloth with gradations of fine, finer and finest; a shop full of intricately carved silver and brassware lamps and boxes and jewelry; and the Fez’ famous leather factory, with Morocco’s indigenous pointed slippers, leather jackets and leather purses, and compressible ottoman poufs in myriad colors of leather – “So easy to ship home!”
The view from the leather factory balcony is ultra-photogenic, which is why it’s in every guidebook – scores of huge vats filled with different colors of dye. We noticed people inside some of the vats, up to their necks in red dye or purple dye, swishing bolts of leather to make sure they dyed evenly. Mohammed IV said the dyes were all plant-derived, straight from nature, so the vibrant vats of dye were totally non-toxic and safe to wallow in.
My image of the developing world had been pollution and poisons, but Morocco was no Third World country. I was unexpectedly discovering the homegrown artisans of Morocco, who’d internalized ancient sustainable practices. Environmental art, in the truest sense.
We assumed Mohamed IV had spent the day hoping we’d drop a bundle shopping and he’d get kickbacks. All day we disappointed him as he shuttled us from workshop to shop.
When we finally asked for a chance to sit down at a café and have a cup of mint tea, he ushered us into a grand home, and led us into a large, formal sitting room, with beautiful wall hangings. Women bearing silvered glasses of tea and small delicious shortbread cookies appeared, followed by a large, genial proprietor in a long robe.
“Welcome to the Palais du Tresor,” he said. “We are a cooperative for widows and abused women.”
Same story we’d heard in Tangier. I looked again at the wall hangings in this teahouse. Connie and I looked at each other. And it clicked.
We were in another rug shop.
We’d sworn off rugs, but we were powerless. And another Mohamed got his kickbacks.
The next morning, at 5-something a.m., the muezzins woke me up. After five days, the call to prayer was growing on me. Every call was different. Some pleasant, others harsh, and quite a few were recordings played over tinny loudspeakers.
The call to prayer that morning in Fez was a symphony of voices. Not one muezzin or two, but at least four different live voices. Not one was canned.
Instead of being a cacophony of voices, it was a blending of singers. Together, they were magical. I lay in my cloud of a bed, in my sumptuously decorated room, and listened to their complex and sweet song.
Oh, the places we didn’t go.
Our six-hour drive from Fez to Marrakech was a study in missed opportunities.
One artists’ residency outside Fez was on hiatus. Another residency over the Atlas Mountains in the Sahara seemed too far away, with dicey roads. What if we broke an axle?
Instead we chose the fast road – first aiming due west to the Atlantic coast, past the ruined imperial city of Meknes. Two hours later, we hit the toll road that ran along the coast. We went south, not west to Rabat, Morocco’s cosmopolitan capitol city.
And then there it was – the exit to Casablanca.
Let me be clear. Everyone I talked to who’d been to Casablanca, and every guidebook I read said the same thing – Casablanca today is a boring, modern city of little interest to anyone except businesspeople. Yes, a place called Rick’s Café opened in 2004. But that’s not the real Rick’s Café – the fictional Rick’s owned by Humphrey Bogart’s fictional character Rick Blaine. The one with a fictional black piano player named Sam. The film that won a bunch of Oscars in 1942. That Rick’s Café is not there, and never was.
And yet, Connie and I ached to go to Casablanca. To be so close and say ‘forget it’ was nearly unbearable. So we pulled off at a roadside rest stop, technically in Casablanca. We gassed up and ordered snacks. Except for the language on the menus, we could’ve been in any American fast food joint – bright white walls and tables, and light gray pleather chairs – a few dirty and ripped. Overhead, the glaring fluorescents dialed the wattage up to 500.
We’ll always have those fries.
Just as the sun was setting, we saw the first sign for the U.N. climate conference. Full dark came fast, and we turned southeast toward Marrakech.
I was then, and still remain amazed at Connie’s determination to make it there that night. Town after town, toll booth after toll booth, she drove on, while I mapped our route and found the right amount of dirhams in change.
Three hours later, we arrived to a blaze of light.
Streetlamps on every road. Fairy lights in the trees. Glowing globes in front of hotels and restaurants. Some streets even had lines of tiny colored LEDs embedded in the pavement as if to welcome us.
Driving through Marrakech at night was dizzying. The city was a maze of diagonal streets and round squares – some with monuments and others with tall markers mapping the different zones of the UN conference. Connie and I had both lived and driven in Boston, so we knew rotaries – aka roundabouts. And we knew crazy. But in Marrakech, cars came at us from even more angles, compounding the danger.
And then we saw it – real live, honest-to-God climate art. The giant Earth with heat from greenhouse gas emissions rising off the world like smoke.
Our hotel on the far edge of town was a true oasis.
It was hidden behind a massive wooden gate, tended by a man wearing a long hooded robe that bore a remarkable resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan. Except, thankfully, it was brown.
The hotel was recently built in the style of a Moroccan monastery. Ochre-pink buildings with towers and turrets and walkways that wound from hammams where you could get a Moroccan massage, to the huge swimming pool surrounded by fruiting olive trees, to the restaurant, where they fed us lamb tagine and Moroccan red wine that first night even though it was nearly 10pm.
We settled in palatial rooms with good wifi and – for the first time since the Motel Rif – cable TV. But this time five channels were in English, and all they talked about was Donald Trump and what his election meant for Africa, Europe, and the world.
A political junkie’s delight. I felt at home.
Because I wasn’t in Marrakech as a journalist, I’d purposely avoided getting a press pass. Now that we were here, of course, it turned out there was a display of climate art inside the conference Green Zone, but without a press pass, I couldn’t get in.
With decades of journalistic hubris under our belts, Connie and I decided to crash the conference. First we had to get past the guards at the Green Zone parking lot. The rule is act like you belong, and never make eye contact. Piece of cake.
We parked and strolled to the nearest convention hall door, also guarded. We tried peeking in to see if the art gallery was there, but we were gently moved along. We tried another door, and another.
Not having badges was a problem we couldn’t fix, not when the conference was lousy with foreign ministers, heads of state, and kings. Our only hope was a combination of an unguarded door and a flock of badged attendees we could draft in with. But no luck.
So we drove to an artist residency set in a library just outside of Marrakech.
Two stories of bookshelves were linked by a spiral stairway.
The charming librarian told us the residency was unfunded, but the library remained open to anyone, because there are no public libraries in Morocco.
There was even a childrens’ nook with pint-sized chairs, books, toys and drawings.
The library was set in a carefully landscaped desert garden, with sculptures created from natural materials – driftwood benches, boughs bent into a fence, animals made of clay and wood.
Remnants of past artists in residence.
And then we became tourists.
We went camel-riding in the Oliveraie, an expanse of olive groves not far from our hotel. To complete the experience, the staff wrapped bright blue headscarves around each of us, Lawrence of Arabia-style.
In the park next to Marrakech’s main Mosque, men sold souvenirs spread out on blankets – handmade toy camels of wood and leather, caps and keychains, and jewelry. Beautiful silver earrings and necklaces of lapis and garnet and lovely stones of pale green and brick red. It was the carpet sellers all over again, but not nearly as expensive.
If Tangier was old Morocco’s city of international intrigue, Marrakech was modern Morocco.
If Tetuan was a calm, contemplative college town, Marrakech was noisy voices and jazz.
If Ouezzane and other Rif Mountain towns were insular, Marrakech’s red carpet was rolled all the way out, all over town.
If Fez was an ancient city wrapped around an even older medina, Marrakech was a city with middle class residents and world class everything else.
Marrakech thrives on tourism, but the city is clearly in the 21st Century.
Yes, flutists still charmed cobras in the city’s main square, Djemma al Fnaa –
– but the roof of the Koutobia mosque sported newly installed solar panels.
Like Catholicism, Judaism and Greek Orthodox before it, Islam had embraced the moral imperative to combat climate change.
And right there in the square, a hundred feet from those deadly snakes, Connie spotted an unofficial gallery of climate art.
An Ark’s worth of two-by-two animals in rusting metal – horses, flamingoes and dogs.
And another, smaller, melting world, with vines trailing from the North Pole, and atop it, a man in a gas mask holding the hand of a young girl in a gas mask.
The adjacent wall served as canvas for a chilling vision of the future. A huge crowd of people gathered in the heat, all with their backs to us except one man who stood facing viewers. His hands were up, as if pushing us away – a familiar pose. “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
We talked to the artist, Aziz. Connie translated in French. Aziz said, yes, he’d heard of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was his inspiration. Aziz pointed to another man in his mural, and then to himself.
“Moi,” he said. That’s me.
On our last day, we visited the garden that belonged to the late fashion designer Yves St. Laurent. Spiky cacti of all kinds rooted in sandy soil, canals and small pools framed by flowering desert plants, and pathways that diverged, reconnected and led us deep inside to the designer’s brilliant cobalt blue residence. Outside were urns of a yellow-lime green. The intense colors both shocked and cooled us in the heat of late afternoon.
We walked to a small side garden with benches set around a cenotaph honoring St. Laurent, and listened to the sounds of yet another call to prayer.