Looking for Happy
I'm in Rabat right now, drinking mint tea at a café in the Kasbah, staring out over the Atlantic Ocean, looking a little melancholy, though maybe that's not the right word. Is it possible, I wonder, to feel simultaneously melancholy and empty? If not, I may have to choose "empty," as my heart is numb at the disbelief of Laura leaving more than it is saddened at the loss. Of course, my emotions are coming in waves, and it is quite possible that a few moments from now, sadness will overpower my denial and cripple me with grief.
A young Moroccan girl fills my cup and offers me a biscuit from a silver platter. I play with her, reach for one of the biscuits, pull my hand back, scratch my head in contemplation and then reach for another. "Tous les biscuits me paraît biens," I tell her. She giggles, picks a biscuit out for me, and I drop a few coins on her tray. "Merci Monsieur," she says and saunters off. I bite into my biscuit and brush the crumbs off my chin as they crumble.
It's beautiful here. The freshness of the ocean, the blooming flowers and sunken shrubs of the Andalusian garden and the white houses with the blue painted parapets contrast with my dark mood. So I understand misery all the more, though there would be no telling Laura that. If she could see me now, she'd call me an escapist and mean it as an insult. "Just taking a vacation," she'd tell me, "and distracting yourself from what's real."
Laura, of course, surrounded herself in a romanticized realism, and if the roles were reversed (if I was the one who had left her broken hearted and confused), she would curl herself up in a fetal position and sleep in the odd comfort of a dark closet or confined space. "Life is real," she'd say. "I want to disappear."
This is not speculation on my part. I've known Laura for a long time and so well that I can feel her movements even when she is nowhere near, and there have been many times when I have pulled her from dark confined spaces and kissed her warm wet mouth until she believed me again. This is not one of those times.
My reflection has left me lonely, uncomforted, and when the soggy green leaves at the bottom of my cup have absorbed the last of my tea, I take a photograph and continue on. The camera I wear around my neck is not so much for capturing moments and freezing them in 3x5 matte gloss prints but so I can see through another eye, filter out the unnecessary and superfluous, capture only what's perfect, manipulate my world. I distance myself by taking random pictures of whatever is in front of me, which at the moment, is an ironic perception within a perception of a man taking a picture of another man.
So I guess I am an escapist, traveling, dreaming and photographing. This is only a temporary shelter, however. It's only a crutch to ease the pain, while I search for something more permanent, more meaningful and hopefully with purpose. Like what? I'm not sure. Perhaps new sensations are waiting to be found, or old ones will be reclaimed.
I take more photographs of the Mauresque café and the entrance to the Museum of Moroccan Arts. Then I make my way to the platform on the northern end and take a picture of the neighboring town of Sale. I walk through the Kasbah in an unorganized manner, backtracking and retracing steps, though I once had an immaculate sense of direction. Those days are over. They left with her, abrupt and afflictive, leaving me a bedlam man.
I have used two and a half rolls of film by the time I leave the Kasbah and return to the Hotel Safir. I toss them into a small bin in the entranceway, as I nod my head in recognition to the concierge, then walk past the front desk to my room. It has been a long day, and the sun shining through the window does not inhibit me from stretching my body diagonally across the unmade bed and closing my eyes. Images of Laura appear behind my heavy eyelids, and I dictate her movements, control her thoughts, words and gestures, manipulating my world once again. When sleep comes, I no longer have control, and bad dreams take their own course.
An old woman on the side of the road pulls weeds out of the ground and tries to sell them to me, as I walk past. It happens so quickly. Before I know it, she is pushing a bunch of long-stemmed grass in my hand, smiling, and I find myself reaching into my pocket for some dirham. I don't know what to do with the weeds, but I feel inclined to hang onto them as the woman proudly watches me walk away. I hold them like a bouquet of flowers, sniff the tips of them and then drop them into a beggar's lap, as I turn the corner and am out of her sight. The man grumbles and glares, throws them back at me, insulted like a starving man being offered a lunch of stale feces.
The souks of the medina bustle with Muslims selling brass, silver and ceramic knickknacks, olives, walnuts, dried fruit, ottomans, handmade rugs and any number of such things. The people are friendly and eager, excited to show me their trades that they are so proud of. I give a group of school children five and ten piece dirhams and take their photos. Most smile broadly, showing off their immortalized faces; others cower shyly, unsure and scared of losing their souls.
Before I came here, I was a master's student at a university in Angers, France. I studied the great French philosophers in their original verses, focusing on existentialism. That's why I find the children so relevant to my life. If you've ever read Camus, you'll know that having no immortal soul brings freedom, because without a soul, you have nothing to lose. You can do whatever you want, and this is liberty.
Like the children blocking the camera with their binders, I'm not sure I like being free- not in this context, anyway. I'm not sure I like being soulless and mortal. I much more enjoyed being a soul mate and believing that upon death, my soul would merge with Laura's to create one eternal entity. I liked when my life was not in vain, when it had meaning. Since my life revolved around her, losing Laura meant losing this immortality, and like it or not, I've been freed at the expense, it seems, of having a purpose.
So what do I do with this nascent emancipation? How do I reclaim happiness? How do I reclaim purpose? Do I ascertain that life has no transcendent value, use freedom for my own selfish advantages to acquire pleasure and short-lived joys, even though it obliterates any hope of an afterlife, a purpose?
I am distracted from my musings by the sour look of a middle-aged Muslim man. "American?" he asks, eyeing my Guess baseball cap that has USA embroidered across it.
I hand a small child a handful of centimes and tell the man confidently and with pride, "Yes, I am American."
"Don't worry about him," another Moroccan man says and beckons me toward him, to an upside down crate where he is sitting and drinking his tea. "He does not understand Islam. I love America. I love American women. They are very beautiful, very free-spirited."
"You mean soulless?"
"Pardon?" he asks.
"Never mind," I say, as he reaches for a cup and pours tea from a brass pot. He hands it to me, and I dig into my pocket for money.
"No," he says. "It's not like that. It's a gift . . . free."
"What's your name?"
"Good to meet you, Ian. I'm Hassan."
I extend my hand toward him, but he stares past me obliviously and sips his tea. "Your English is very good," I tell him, pulling my hand back.
"I need it for my work."
"What do you do? I mean . . . sorry if I'm being nosey."
"I'm a business consultant."
"Here in Rabat?"
"No, in Italy," he tells me. "I am just here on holidays. I am from Rabat originally. My family lives here."
"Oh," I say dumbly and look uncomfortably around the medina. It has been a while since I have talked this way with a stranger, and my social skills are somewhat lacking.
"What about you? What do you do?"
"I'm a student, or at least, I was. I might have quit . . . not sure yet." Hassan looks quizzically at me and I continue. "Laura left," I say, realize that I'm probably not making much sense and then rattle on in an awkward attempt to explain myself. "I lived in France with my wife, Laura. She left, so I came here."
"So you're mending a broken heart?"
"Sort of," I say, ashamed that I have brought Laura into a conversation that was supposed to have been only about what I do. She is still so much a part of an unbroken habit, a mild obsession and me.
"Beautiful eyes," Hassan says, focusing his gaze in my direction.
"Yes," I say, thinking he's asking a question about Laura, but his gaze gets more intense and his smile, more seductive. My nerves race at the notion that he is flirting with me, and I breath a sigh of relief when an attractive blonde woman walks up behind me, drops her shopping bags in mock exhaustion, kisses Hassan's cheek and plops into his lap.
"Not here, darling," he tells her and nudges her off him.
"Oh right," she retorts in an American accent, rolling her eyes and reaching into her purse. "Who are you?" she asks.
"Ian," I tell her.
"What are you doing here?"
"Just having some tea."
"No, I mean, what are you doing in Rabat? Where did you come from?"
"Your English sounds very American. Your clothes look European, though. Did you live in America?"
"I'm American," I say. "I study in France."
"Where?" she demands, and I tell her, "Angers."
"Do you know a girl named Caroline Breining? She studies there too. We spent a few days together in Greece during Spring Break. I just wanted to know if you knew her, because she owes me money and stuff," she says, lights a Lucky Strike and then continues. "That's how I met Hassan. He bought us espressos at a train station in Milan on our way to Athens. I had run into Caroline at the Louvre, because I was waiting tables in Paris. I wanted to go to Greece, so did she, etcetera. That's why I'm here, in case you were wondering. Really, I just want to know if you know her, because I'd like to get my money back."
"No, I don't think I do."
"You're not covering for her, are you?" she asks half-suspiciously. I don't have to answer, however, because Hassan tugs on her arm and whispers something in her ear. "I'm sorry," she tells me. "Sometimes I talk too much. I'm Alison by the way, Alison Greene."
Hassan and Alison are also staying at the Hotel Safir. I run into them in the lobby the next day, and Hassan insists that I tag along with them to see the Chellah, which I had planned on seeing anyway. So we pile into Hassan's pink Fiat, and I stare out the window of the front passenger's seat with a phony cheerfulness, as Hassan drives quickly and confidently through the streets of Rabat. Alison grumbles about having to sit in the back, and Hassan ignores her.
The old gate to the Chellah dates back 800 years, and when we arrive, Hassan offers me a sketchbook and a charcoal pencil. "Dessines," he says. I shake my head politely, but when he insists, I take the book and pencil and very self-consciously begin to draw the entrance to the 13th-century necropolis that houses ancient Roman ruins and a royal burial ground. I'm no artist- normally fuss over drawing a straight line with a ruler, but it doesn't take long for me to understand that drawing the gate is not about art but rather, concentrating on the detail. The brick structure is shaped like a horseshoe and decorated with skillful Moorish ornamentation. Four turrets crown each of the two protruding bastions and are supported by corbels that Hassan zealously points out to me. The arabesque pattern in the archway would take me all day to draw, but I scribble enough to get the idea and then hand the sketchbook and pencil back to Hassan. "You come from a beautiful country," I say.
"C'est à ton tour," he tells Alison and unsuccessfully tries to pass the book and pencil on to her.
"Bo-ring," she says. "Besides, I don't know how to draw."
If Hassan is annoyed at this, he shows no indication. I take a picture of the two of them standing beneath the spandrel and tell Hassan that I have enough pictures of myself, when he offers to take one of me. Alison nags us to hurry and leads us through a portal to paradise. The path to the burial ground is lined with lush trees and blossoms of all colors. The weather is warm and sunny, exotic birds are chirping, the air is fresh, the atmosphere, serene, and Mother Nature is omnipotent. We make our way down the path to an olive grove, and Alison lights another cigarette. "You don't talk much, you know that? You're too serious," she tells me.
As she stands in front of the high sun-dried walls that protect the ruins of the burial mosque, I force a wider smile and snap her picture. The eye of the camera doesn't capture her chatty and boisterous personality. Through the lens, she looks calm and pretty. The sun reflects off her blonde hair, complementing the picturesque view behind her. She is an image of love, happiness, beauty and hope. Once I drop the camera from my hands and let it fall naturally around my neck, however, the image is lost. Alison is just Alison, Hassan's obnoxious American sweetheart.
"The minaret is a nesting place for storks," Hassan says pointing to a nest at the top of the mosque. I look in the direction of his arm and see two enormous white birds. This is without a doubt the most amazing place I have ever been, but I still feel empty and struggle to get my mood to match my surroundings.
"You don't have a girlfriend, do you?" Alison asks, staring at me with her chin tilted slightly downward. I don't know how long she has been watching me, but I am self-conscious and paranoid that she can see the languor inside me.
"No, I don't."
"Thought not . . . too gloomy . . . no offense. You should cheer up if you want a girlfriend."
"Oh, I don't really want one."
"Well, I guess it doesn't matter then," she says.
"No, I guess not."
Hassan drops me off at the hotel in the afternoon and takes Alison away to somewhere special, some place as beautiful as she. I go up to my room and pack my daypack with bottled water and my journal, then go across the street, where I pay a man to row me across the harbor to Sale. The man is old and wrinkled. He skin is dark and stiff like leather from years in the sun, but the muscles in his arms protrude with every row. He is not wearing sunglasses, but instead, has a piece of bent cardboard tied around his forehead. I think about offering him my Oakleys, but I don't. When we get to Sale, I thank him in French, but he doesn't respond. Working stoically, he rows back to town.
I sit down on the beach, take my shoes off and bury my toes deep into the wet sand. Overwhelmed at how active my brain is, I pull out my journal. I stare at it blankly and promise myself one step at a time. I have studied too much philosophy, and I know too many different mediums that philosophers use to claim happiness. It is far too much to make sense of. I must shrink my knowledge down to something comprehensible.
I know that happiness exists, because I've felt it before. It never, however, lived up to my expectations of eternity, and I think this is why I feel so much sadness. It is more miserable to know that love exists and can be taken away so easily than it is to have had no expectations. I will not make the same mistake twice. From now on, I will be flexible. As my life changes, so will my definition of happiness. I will live in the moment, not carve anything in stone and hold no expectations for the future.
I quite like the Epicurean attitude about living life for myself, acquiring pleasure and avoiding pain. I believe, so to speak, that this is the window that opened, when Laura slammed the door in my life. Now that Laura is gone, I have no one but myself to live for and have no qualms about being selfish. That isn't to say that I have to act selfish to be selfish. Being virtuous and generous makes me feel good. I can give centimes to children and buy grass from old ladies for purely selfish reasons. Camus would call this virtue on a whim. Aristotle would call this instinct and assert that with a few external goods, virtue almost guarantees happiness. He believes that a good life equals good action and that happiness is the final and self-sufficient end to this action. Virtue depends, I suppose, on what kind of mood I'm in.
Anyway, the problem with Epicureanism is that it assumes ultimate meaninglessness and mortality, and I'm not sure that I can be truly happy without a purpose. The love that Laura and I shared gave a nice definition to happiness, because meaning and immortality could be derived from it. We didn't need God, salvation or religion for an afterlife, because we had each other.
I draw a vertical line down the center of the first page in my journal, making two columns. The first one I call Want and the second Don't Want. Under Want I write: flexibility, selfishness, purpose and pleasure. Under Don't Want I write: pain and expectations. And it all looks so straightforward, until I take my black felt tip pen and cross out purpose. Though finding purpose would be my self-sufficient final good, I do not want to spend my life chasing something that may not exist. Purpose may be one of those things I just fall into. In the meantime, I'll focus on pleasure.
The next morning, Alison and Hassan are waiting for me in the lobby, assuming I will join them for a trip to see the Royal Palace, the King's Mosque and La Tour Hassan. Alison seems annoyed, when she spots me. Hassan grins from ear to ear, laughing, because we both have notebooks tucked under our armpits. "You plan to draw today, yes?" he asks.
"I hope to find happiness," I tell him, "and take some photos."
"You will join us today?"
"I don't want to intrude."
"Nonsense," Hassan says, though I can see disapproval spread over Alison's face. I hadn't even thought about whether or not I want to join them. I'm not quite sure where selfishness fits into this, but I have an inkling to be polite, to try to satisfy them, since I've not been very good at satisfying myself. Caught in the dilemma, I express gratitude for yesterday and explain that I am not feeling well and would like some time alone. Hassan wishes me the best, and as I start to walk outside, Alison grabs my arm.
"No, it's okay," she says. "Come with us, please. I want you to. Hassan told me about your wife leaving you, and I think that's so sad. I'm sort of in a funny mood today. Sorry if I gave you a bad vibe."
"You want me to come with you, because you pity me?"
"Well, yeah, I guess. I mean, maybe we could cheer you up or something?"
"Maybe," I say, and this seems to please everyone. So we pile into the pink Fiat, and Hassan drives us to the Royal Palace.
When we get there, Hassan goes straight for the palace and offers his sketchbook to a group of tourists. Alison and I stand in the middle of the courtyard. I am weary about examining the architecture that is a direct breach of utilitarianism, a happiness that interferes, a huge divide between the rich and the poor.
I flip open my journal and write: happiness at the expense of others under Don't Want. "Be generous to anyone in need," I say in the direction of the palace.
"What's that?" Alison asks.
"One of the five pillars of Islam."
"You sure are weird sometimes. You say the most random things."
"It was on my mind."
"Tell me, Ian. What it is that you want?"
"I want the level of happiness I felt before Laura left."
"What did you feel exactly?"
"Important, caring, sensual, safe, cheerful, confident, selfless and immortal," I recite like I'm reading from a grocery list.
Alison lights a cigarette and tells me, "You can always find another woman."
"It's not that simple. Laura was my soul mate. She was the one meant for me. If I can't have Laura, I don't want anyone, ever."
"Oh God, not another romantic," Alison says, holding the cigarette with her lips and taking the camera from around my neck. "Well maybe you can find happiness without love."
"I hope so," I say.
Alison takes my picture and refuses to hand my camera back. She can see right through me. She knows it's my form of escape and manipulation.
Construction of the La Tour Hassan began in 1195 and came to a halt four years later with the death of Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour. It was intended to be the largest minaret in the Muslim world, towering 260 feet. Incomplete, it stands only 140. The design on every façade displays a different pattern. Hassan takes out his sketchpad and begins to draw. Alison and I take a walk, zigzagging through the two hundred columns that mark where the mosque was supposed to have been.
I feel naked without the camera, vulnerable, and I tell this to Alison. She laughs and tells me to mellow out. "That's pathetic," she says. "You're better off without it, if that's how you feel."
"Sometimes it's hard to deal with everything at once," I explain. Then, before Alison gets a chance to respond, Islamic daily prayer interrupts us. The call of the muezzin is a screeching eerie sound. Though Alison and I have become accustomed to this ritual that happens five times a day, this call is different, because Hassan, who has ignored the other prayer summonses, stands erect with his palms open on either side of his face, touches his thumbs to his ear-lobes and recites, "Allah akbar" followed by the surah of the Qu'ran, bowing, chanting, standing, prostrating, etcetera, then sits on his heels, prostrates again and repeats the entire process several times.
"Oh my God, what the hell is he doing?" Alison asks, flabbergasted.
"Well, I know that, you idiot. I mean, why?"
Later that afternoon, Hassan drops us off at the hotel and announces that he is going to spend the evening with his family. "Fine with me," Alison huffs and slams the car door. Hassan pulls away from the curb, tires squealing. "I do not care," Alison says, watching the pink Fiat disappear into the distance. "I just do not care."
"Boy trouble?" I ask.
"It's like he's ashamed of me or something. He won't introduce me to his family. He won't let me touch him in public. He won't even check in at the hotel with me. He makes me sneak past the front desk, when no one's looking."
"It's probably just the cultural differences. I'm pretty sure Islam teaches that a girl's body is not to be touched prior to marriage."
"He told me he was Catholic. I don't know. I just need to get back to France. How are you getting back? Maybe we could buy a car or something, you know, just one of those cheap things."
"I haven't decided if I'm going back yet."
"I just don't know what I want to do."
"Lost soul," Alison says, claps her hands together and puts them next to her left ear. "Nap time," she says and excuses herself.
I go up to my room and take out my journal. My thoughts are a jumble of incoherent and contradicting ideas that only make sense to me, when manipulated and recorded. Everything is simplified and how I like it on the pages bound between the dark leather cover. My drawings are sloppy and not to scale but capture what is in my grasp of comprehension—just like my lists, to which I add external goods under Want—a big step due to outside forces perhaps being out of my control, but I think I'm willing to take the risk. After all, money and good health make it a lot easier for people, if they want to spend their days escaping the humdrum of life.
Alison is gone by the time Hassan returns from visiting with his family—presumably back to Paris, but who knows. She didn't leave a note. This vaguely disturbs Hassan. He is baffled more than anything. "Elle m'a dit qu'elle m'aime," he says, as he stands in the doorway to my hotel room. I don't know what to say to him, even though I suspect he is expecting an explanation, seeing as how I have been through it all before, seeing as how I'm the experienced dumpee.
"I think she was upset that you didn't introduce her to your family."
"Yes, but what do I do now?"
"Have you ever heard of Sisyphus, Hassan?"
"Sisyphus had to push a rock up a hill eternally as punishment for telling Asopus that he saw an eagle drop Asopus' missing daughter off at an island and that he suspected Zeus was responsible. Every time the rock would get almost to the top, it would roll back down again."
"Yes," I say. "And do you know that there's a theory suggesting Sisyphus is happy pushing that rock up that hill? According to Camus, being happy is Sisyphus' way of defying the gods, of not letting them win. He is like a child on the verge of a tantrum screaming, I will be happy! I will be happy! Be like Sisyphus, Hassan. Don't let grief get the best of you. Don't live with a heavy heart. If you let the world see your pain, you make yourself vulnerable to more suffering, but if you force yourself to be happy again, you are demonstrating strength. And with strength comes hope."
Hassan nods thoughtfully, as if I have been helpful, not trite. "You are right. I will pretend to be happy," he says and does not bother asking me how one does this. "I was going to show Alison le Maroc, take her to places like Fès, Marrakech and Casablanca. Would you like to come with me instead? We could mend our broken hearts together, eat good food, see beautiful countryside, tell stories and laugh."
"Short-lived joys," I say.
"Yes," Hassan says. "We will have joy."
Copyright © 2003 K.Cutter.