I've posted this elsewhere before, but it always strikes me as a good blog around the summer solstice, so I'm reposting it here.
Summer Solstice, 2008: Marrakech, Morocco.
Noel Coward wrote that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun. Yet here I am, neither English nor mad, staggering about Marrakech’s pink-tinted Kasbah during the height of summer. As above, so below: the heat from the cobblestones bakes the soles of my thin shoes; the noon-time sun broils my scalp. My companion stands bargaining outside an artist’s shop, which spills into the road. I don’t understand the attraction. The artist paints on rough wooden paddles in what can generously be classed a “primitive” style. I slouch against the cool stucco wall across the street, hugging a sliver of shade and feigning interest from afar.
My friend calls for me to come over and see something; his voice is raised with excitement. Unenthusiastically, I haul myself into the merciless sunlight.
“The artist gave this to me and said it was for you,” he says. “How did he know?” I look at the rectangular board he hands me.
It’s a painting of a robed fortuneteller, her face veiled bandit-style. She reads cards for two women, who lean, rapt with attention, over her shoulders. I blink, dazed by the heat, and ask the artist in my Tarzan-esque French where it was painted. He tells me the fortunetellers are in the Djmaa el Fna – Marrakech’s main square. I’ve never seen card readers there before and don’t find them in the square that night. But later, as the heat fades, I revive enough to puzzle over the crude painting, which the artist gave me as a gift.
What intuition had led the artist to give me a painting of card readers? And are those actual Tarot cards in the painting? The blobs of color are suggestive, but it’s impossible to tell.
Back home in Casablanca, I do an Internet search for: “Tarot Morocco.” I learn that Paul Foster Case, ex-Golden Dawner and founder of the Builders of the Adytum, speculated that the Tarot originated in the 1200s in Fez, Morocco – positing Fez to be a center of Qabalistic philosophy. Current thinking on Tarot place its origins in Renaissance Italy, though the image of 13th century Moroccan Qabalists hiding their esoteric teachings in Tarot cards is intriguing.
One month later… Witchcraft Island, Casablanca.
The Marabout of Sidi Abderraham is a big name for this tiny spit of land, which only becomes an island at high tide. Foreigners have flippantly dubbed the place “Witchcraft Island” and the name has stuck (at least in the low-brow circles in which I travel). Morocco has a reputation for black magic and this “island” off Casablanca’s coast is something of a fortunetelling Mecca. It houses the shrine of a Sufi saint, as well as fortunetellers and magical healers, catering to pilgrims who’d like a side of mysticism with their prayers. It’s also less than a mile from my house in Casablanca – a definite inducement to exploration.
When Moroccans tell me about the island, they speak of women who melt tin and read your future in its twisted designs. Two acquaintances, however, tell me Tarot readers are there as well and that I should by no means pay more than twenty to thirty Dirhams for a reading.
I visit the island at low tide, not trusting the ferrymen with their pocket-sized boats to get me safely there and back. Picking my way across the slick rocks of the tidal pool, my muscles unknot in relief when I reach the island’s whitewashed steps. At their top sit a scary-looking pit bull and an Italian-speaking youth. The latter listens to my request and points toward the home of a card reader. The dog glances at me with disinterest and yawns, releasing a thick stream of drool, before sinking its head back upon its paws.
I pass through a curtained doorway into a dwelling not much bigger than a closet, and which has miraculously been divided into two rooms. The fortuneteller (card reading is only a part of her repertoire) tells me her name is Fatima.
She directs me into the inner sanctum and to a low bench covered in rough and rumpled blankets. As I begin to sit, the blankets beneath me shift and the tousled head of a small girl emerges. I launch myself into the air and upon re-entry manage not to land on the girl, Fatima’s daughter.
After haggling over the price (I cave and Fatima gets the 100 Dirhams she initially requested), she brings out a deck of cards, about half the size of a regular playing card deck. Fatima shuffles and draws two cards, then instructs me to tuck the cards and my 100 Dirhams inside my right armpit and say out loud, “my heart, my vision.” How many sweaty armpits have those cards been inside? Nevertheless, I do it, then pass both money and cards back to her.
Fatima cuts the deck into three piles and turns the top card in each stack over. “This card is your heart,” she says, tapping the top card of the first stack. She puts her finger the top card of the middle stack. “This is your thoughts. The last is your vision,” Fatima says, indicating the final pile.
These three cards become a sort of theme for what is to come. She looks at each carefully and reshuffles them back into the deck, then lays out a matrix of cards, five by five, to represent my heart issue. The top card in each column represents the subject, with the below four cards as a sort of commentary. She then reshuffles and repeats the process for my thoughts, and my future. I was skeptical when she said I’d be traveling (I obviously wasn't from Morocco). But then she told me that I’d be starting a new and rewarding project and that I would see something terrible (I did and I did).
Seeing my interest in her cards, and likely taking pity on my rotten bargaining skills, she sends her daughter running outside. In a few minutes, the barefoot girl returns with a cellophane-wrapped deck identical to Fatima’s – a gift for me. I later learn the cards are produced locally. They are based on the “Spanish National” pattern and upon playing cards imported into Morocco by Camoin of Marseille (1760-1971) and Grimaud of Paris.
It’s a funny little deck, with pips numbered from one through seven followed by three court cards – pages, knights, and kings – numbered 10 through 12. There are no ladies, no eights and nines, and no Major Arcana – this deck is used for games and cartomancy – it’s not Tarot, by any means. But there’s something oddly evocative about these little cards. The clubs are actual clubs rather than those funny clover-like things one finds in regular card decks. And the Page of Coins has a white goat sketched into the background – it must have some meaning though I’m baffled as to what that may be. None of the other court cards have animals in them.
In the audio book, “The Process,” Dan Pelletier advocates using regular playing cards to practice Tarot, translating Minor Arcana meanings to the suit cards. I try it with my Moroccan deck. It’s easier than I expected – the Moroccan suit cards are much closer to the Tarot pips than are those in a “normal” deck of playing cards. And I like the funky, occult vibe of this deck, with its riotous colors and flimsy cardboard.
Back to Marrakech
Another month passes and I return to Marrakech, hunting the Djmaa el Fna for card readers in the afternoon heat. I’ve been told the fortunetellers are behind the snake charmers, but I only find ladies aggressively wielding long syringes filled with black henna.
I beat a hasty retreat.
At night, however, the card readers appear. I sidle past snake charmers taunting cobras, their mouths sewn cruelly shut. Crowds form a raucous circle around the spectacle. Behind and apart from this tumult, upon plastic pastel-colored stools, squat the card readers. Thick veils bisect their faces; their eyes are rimmed with coal. One older woman has a lumpy knit hat upon the cobblestones before her. A pack of cards, bones and beads lie inside it. Smoke from the tajine and kabob stands blows between us. I step forward, sit down across from her.
Her eyes crinkle in a smile. I cross her palm with silver.
Fortunes are told, mysteries revealed, wonders promised.