The Middle of the Road (Is Trying to Find Me)

“You know nothing until you’re there. Nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. You know nothing of another person, nothing of another place. Nothing nothing nothing. With this knowledge – that you know nothing but what you see – things get more complicated.” — Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity! p. 228

I know New York City is not a place to be compared to, or reckoned with for that matter, but a necessary observation, of how pedestrians walk in their respective urban jungles, must be noted.

The streets of NYC are alive with walkers, talkers, bikers, and motorists of all varieties at any given hour and most of the time New Yorkers have a place to get to, to be on time and present. The in-between magic of getting from here to there is lost on this magnificent breed of productive people, tourists not included.

As a New York pedestrian approaches a crosswalk and sees the familiar red hand “stop” symbol alerting them that oncoming traffic maybe approaching, the usual protocol goes something like this: 1) Pause, look left and then right; 2) If no cars are in sight, proceed with caution; 3) If a car is approaching, wait… until it’s clear, regardless of the color of the crosswalk signal. It’s a pedestrian’s city, but there is an element of respect and mutual understanding between motorists and walkers, even if it does include some honking and cursing every once in a while. Bikers are a whole different culture I’m not too familiar with, so we’re sticking to the timeless art of the strut.

“We want the world smaller and bigger and just the same but advancing.”

Generally, Americans don’t wait for a crosswalk light to turn green in order to proceed (unless you’re a suburban eight-year-old walking home from school and a man in a neon orange vest guides you to safety). That is not to say New Yorkers are careless or negligent in their walking habits (please refer to step (1) of the protocol). They understand the dangers of crossing on a red light and adhere to the rules, sorta. But sometimes there is no need to oblige the red hand; after all, we have places to go, people to see.

“They begged to be despised.”

Everything in Israel, it seems, is negotiable (except for national security). You want a better price, it’s totally customary to haggle; you want something that’s not for sale, ask, no, demand, and you shall receive. There are rules but they are considered to be mere suggestions by this breed of fantastically spirited, albeit at times annoyingly so, people.

Israelis are infamous for their impatience and inability to queue in an orderly, civilized manner. Waiting in line for their turn is an absurd idea, despite being the last one to arrive at the bank. If they see an opening, if the person who has been waiting in line for 30 minutes hesitates, if he’s not fast enough to jump up from the comfortable waiting room sofa, the common Israeli will go in for that opportunity… that’s just how it’s done – no shame, no guilt, no waiting. The person who was snubbed can complain about it, but generally the one that cut has the upper hand and will respond with something along the lines of an insincere, semi-apology: “I didn’t see you there, you should have been faster.” Sometimes the retort is a bit more pompous: “This is really important, I will be fast. Clearly you have more time to wait.” Then there are the sneaky ones, the Israelis with less chutzpah, who try to squeeze in between people, hoping no one will notice. In general though, there is no authority figure to bring order to this chaos, this cultural way of getting things done in the land of milk and honey.

“How much disbelief, collectively, must be suspended to allow for tourism?”

But when it comes to crosswalks, Israeli pedestrians have a very unique protocol that defies their pushy, negotiable characters. Their irreverence for order and rules, especially queuing or waiting in any way, all of a sudden manifests into the perfect, law abiding citizen when crossing the street.

The protocol: 1) Full stop (regardless of the color of the pedestrian light); 2) If it’s green, they walk, simple enough; but here is where it gets interesting, 3) If red, full stop, no looking left or right, no negotiations, no walking, no pausing, no hesitation – complete stand still. The silence is awkward, the tension palpable, precious time disappearing into thin air, but they stand with their hands in their pockets and wait for the little green man to signal “walk.”

The same people that think their time is more relevant than mine at line in the grocery store and in a country where everything is indeed negotiable, will not cross the street unless some authority figure (the automatic light) tells them it’s ok to do so. I don’t get it. What is it about crossing the street that makes this the one vortex of life in Tel Aviv where Israelis don’t want to argue and willingly agree to abide by the rules, in a very strict way no less?

The person standing on the other side of the street sees me walking gingerly along, defying the crosswalk light and getting to the other side of the street with no problems. We look each other in the eyes as I approach, horror written all over their faces: “The chutzpah of this foreigner!” they must be thinking.

“All we wanted was another continent, as soon as possible.”

The Middle East is a busy place and Arab countries are no more patient then their Jewish counterparts. And, if I may say, there seems to be fewer traffic rules in urban cities such as Amman, Ramallah, Tangier, to name a few I’ve visited. But nothing prepared me for the dusty, sweltering, and congested pink labyrinth of Marrakech.

Morocco is its very own beast, very separate from the Middle East and not your regular Arab city because of it’s heavy French and African influences. Also it’s a European tourist hotspot, unlike Tunisia or Egypt, which are also at least partly located in North Africa. The souk (market) located inside the Medina (old city) is an an endless row of of shops, both indoor and outdoor, selling leather goods, jewelry, tapestries, souvenirs, lamps, art, slippers, woodwork, old vintage coins – the list goes on and on as do it’s endless stalls of merchants. The stench of trash cooks in the scorching sun, the cut open, bright red flesh of baby goats, cows, and pigs hangs outside butcher stands with flies buzzing everywhere, like some kind of cursed plague or epidemic wafting in the air. Motorcycles whiz by, cars honk, salesmen try to lure you in to buy Argan oil and spices, very aggressively forcing you “just to look” when really they won’t let you leave until a purchase is made. Snake charmers and their voodoo carnival-like charm, sugar coated nuts sold on every corner, sweet mint-tea, hash for sale from shifty teenagers trying to score a few MAD dirham and the African rhythm of drum circles all together combine for a glorious confluence in the Medina’s overwhelming vibrant Djema el-Fna (central square). An overload of sensory stimuli: The pink is breathless, but the stale, dusty air of the old city walls also makes it very hard to breath.

Outside the timelessness of hustlin’ barterers, snake charmers, and the magical Sultan arches of the Kasbah, is a modern bustlin’ city, with expensive sushi restaurants, McDonalds, malls, hotels, gas stations, you name it. And with the usual roar of modern life comes the heavy flow of traffic and gangs of pedestrians – the Nike’s of the tourists and the stilettos of the women in charge. There are crosswalks located at most major intersections but very few traffic lights and practically no crosswalk signals flashing green or red. This lawlessness is far from the grid-like rationality of New York City pedestrians and a world away from the Israeli street-crossing poster-children. I was definitely overwhelmed, filled with hesitation at every junction: The deflated pride of my chutzpah quickly vanished and I had become a law-abiding walker.

When in Pink, Walk.

So I waited for a slow down of traffic before crossing the street. But in Marrakech there are few openings and I ended up waiting more than walking, hands in pockets, signaling to locals my embarrassing tourist status and inviting unsolicited sales offers.

“Just don’t hesitate and keep walking, don’t pause, don’t stop, just walk,” my travel companion Max advised me when he noticed I struggled to keep up with his long-legged pace.

The New Yorker in me became frustrated with  all the precious time lost waiting and hesitating to cross the street – how absurd! Eventually, I gave it a go… I stepped out onto the crosswalk, slowly, one foot after the other. Slow and steady wins the race – no hesitation, no pauses, no looking left or right. My heart pounding with adrenaline, I walked to get to other side. To my astonishment the cars simply stopped for little ol’ me… in the middle of a road in Marrakech, Morocco, North Africa, AFRICA.

There was no screeching of the brakes, no angry cursing from drivers telling me to get out of the way; I didn’t even hear any honking – all I heard was the pulsating beat of the city’s interior cavity, pumping out cars like blood circulating from a human heart. It was organic and natural – we walked together, me a few steps behind the American brute but no less fluid in my movements. Mesmerized by the flow of this chaotic energy and peaceful calm, that small element of fear was still present making it all that much more exciting.

I’m not sure about the cultural implications of the differences between New York, Israeli and Moroccan pedestrians, but for a minute there, the rush of adrenaline really made me feel a little less like a tourist and a little more in tune with the people and motorized vehicles, which took on their own life forms, inhabiting a pink urban jungle.

“Then again, at this point I really don’t know if we’re seeing anything or missing everything… the air here, though, is different enough, so that’s something.” — Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity! p. 126

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