Location Research In Morocco To Write A Novel (Part 2), by Jane Johnson
My first research trip to Morocco for The Tenth Gift to seek information about the Barbary pirates in general and the fate of my ancestor they abducted in 1625 in particular landed me with a great deal more than I had bargained for.
Everywhere I went I took notes and photographs, absorbing the atmosphere and details that would later populate the book. I wandered with other tourists through the old part of the city of Rabat. Little did I know then that that very experience would also find its way into the novel. I had set out to write a fully historical novel set exclusively in the 17th century. Fate took a hand and a year later, with the concept of the book changed beyond all recognition, I was to find myself incorporating modern Morocco as well as ancient Morocco into the manuscript. With a modern woman experiencing it, like me, for the first time, it had become a sort of meta-text:
The medina was bustling with traffic, human animal and machine. Just as you thought you had entered a pedestrianised area, a man on a scooter would come roaring around the corner, hand pressed exigently to his horn, and everyone would flatten themselves up against the narrow walls. Quite how the mules and donkeys coped with such indignities I had no idea, but they seemed philosophical about it, standing patiently in their traces or tethered to their posts while ever greater burdens were added to their carts or backs.
The sights, sounds and smells of a traditional Moroccan souk have not changed much since the 17th century. Traders still sell many of the goods they sold back then, the stuff of life – dates and fruit, vegetables, couscous, herbs and spices – all weighed out by eye or in little brass balances, and with such ease and grace and economy of movement that you know these are gestures that have been repeated endlessly down the ages.
I took note of the robes the men wore – gandaouras, without hoods, djellabas with – of the way they wound their turbans to frame faces with such distinct bone structures and a world of stories told by their skin.
Look at the seams in this remarkable old man’s face and the way he has screwed his eyes up against the harsh Moroccan sun. When he is in the shade, when his expression relaxes and the seams part, you can see the original pale shade of his skin before the weather tanned it like leather. I used that detail when describing my tough corsairs, subjected to the travails of wind and sun on the decks of their xebecs and caravels.
I watched men in cafes smoking shisha pipes and saved the notes for use in the novel:
A bulbous glass jar stood on the ground, half full of some clear liquid. A long tube with purple silk and tassels woven around it snaked up from this container, terminating in an ornate silver beak. As the captives were whipped into view, the corsair took a long draw, making the liquid in the glass stir and bubble. Closing his eyes, he inhaled blissfully, then exhaled a great fragrant cloud. Truly, Cat thought, seeing him wreathed about by curls of smoke, he is the very Devil, with his fierce profile and strange, dark skin, sitting there on his chair, as in on the throne of Hell, in triumph over us poor sinners.
That fierce profile had a very specific inspiration. It was the inspiration that was to change the course of The Tenth Gift, its entire structure and storyline; and my life. In all my travels I had yet to find someone who fit my idea of what my ‘raïs’ – corsair captain – Qasem bin Hamid bin Moussa Dib (or for ease Al-Andalusi) might look like. Until the night my travelling companion Bruce Kerry and I walked into a traditional Berber house in the far southwest of Morocco, around 500 miles away from where I’d been researching the novel on the north coast.
The house was a small private restaurant and we had been invited there by a group of British rock-climbers with whom we’d met up. Bruce was, by pure chance, my only friend who was free to travel in February 2005. My devil’s bargain with him was that if he’d come with me while I traipsed around Rabat and Salé on the trail of my Barbary pirates, I would take him climbing on the huge quartzite cliffs of the Ammeln Valley, a bargain that would never have come into play had any other of my friends been available.
To cut a very long story short, an imposing Berber in a crimson turban and traditional robe, opened the door and I just stared at him; and he stared at me. It was as if we’d always known one another, but neither of us spoke a word of the other’s language. That night I took note – in a notebook and mentally – of the way he wrapped that turban, of the way he shuffled off his battered mustard-coloured babouches each time he moved between tile and carpet – a gesture, like those of the market-traders, repeated endlessly down the ages by generations of Moroccan men. The food he served us – spiced lentil soup and fiery tajines, soft flatbreads and almond biscuits – were all described in loving detail in the book (by which time I knew how to make them all); and so was the plangent Berber music played by my raïs and his friends.
As for the man himself: I am happy to say that Abdellatif resembles the cruel corsair captain in looks and gestures alone, but the extraordinary connection that linked us like a lightning bolt (a true coup de foudre, as I was later to learn in French), saw us married by the end of that year. It led to my leaving London for Morocco and to living my own research in a way I could never have imagined.
Authenticity is not usually gained by such serendipity: a pure gift of fate not only to a writer but also to someone who had given up on the idea of love. Eight very happy years later, I’ve written three historical novels set in Morocco, and a huge epic inspired by the Islamic clash with the west (The Book of Miracles, due out from Doubleday next year). The Tenth Gift sold in 26 countries.
Jane Johnson’s author website: www.janejohnsonbooks.com
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