“Man am I hungry,” I think to myself. It’s 9PM and I’m sitting inside of a police station in Oujda, a mid-sized Moroccan city near the boarder of Algeria. My two travel companions and I were planning on staying in Saidia, which was described to us as “a trendy Mediterranean resort town.” However, when we arrived there several hours earlier, we found a desolate beach strip with lonely prostitutes looking for work. We were forewarned that the next closet place to stay, Oujda, is not the type of town you want to find yourself late at night, yet alone, without somewhere to sleep. But we had no business being in Saidia, just as we would have no business being in Atlantic City in January. So we pushed on to Oujda.
Oujda was more unwelcoming than we imagined it would be. The streets were empty. The people that were out, you did not want to talk to. The first hotel we stopped in had no stars. A no frills kind of place that had come to terms with its identity. Perhaps better then the “★★★”hotel that has dirty sheets and cockroaches, perhaps not. I interrupt two men in their early forties, deeply engaged in a low volume conversation, and inquire about a room:
I say, “Do you have a room?”
He slowly lifts his head and looks at me, “Yes, there is a room.”
I respond, “Great, is there a bathroom?”
He replies, “No.”
I inquire further, “You mean there is no bathroom in the room?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“Is there a bathroom in the Hotel?”
We leave the bathroom-less hotel confused, hungry and ready to settle for just about any bathroom-equipped lodge. We find an acceptable spot and hand over our passports to the concierge, so that he can record our information. One of my travel companions, however, had given his passport to the car rental agency as a deposit for our car. He only had a copy of his passport. He also had a copy of the unique ID number that is stamped into his passport by the Moroccan government. Usually this flies. The concierge records all of the information and there isn’t an issue. But we were in Oujda.
Because the boarder between Algeria and Morocco is not open, Oujda, and other border towns have become smuggling hubs. Cheap gasoline, winter coats, half decent cheese, other goods and people cross into Oujda illegally from Algeria daily. If you want to stay in Oujda without a passport, then you need written permission from the police.
Without anywhere to turn, we walked two and a half blocks to the police station. Standing outside the station was a friendly toothless police officer with an automatic machine gun.
“Salam Awlaykum” I say.
“Walaykum a-Salam!” he replies.
“Where are you from?” he inquires.
“America,” I respond.
He gets very excited, “Where in America?” He points to each of us.
Washington, Florida and “New York, I’m form New York,” I say.
“I have a brother in New Jersey! That’s close to New York, right?”
I figure that it’s best to be as friendly as possible with the police officer and I reply, “Yes, it’s really close to New York. Just across the river.”
He directs us into the precinct and makes some phone calls. Another officer shows up and starts the arduous process of getting written permission for my travel companion to stay in Oujda for the night. The friendly guard returns and asks for a piece of paper and a pen. We give it to him. He hands the piece of paper back to me. It has a number on it.
“It’s my brother’s phone number in New Jersey. You should give him a call when you get back to the States.”
I reply, “Of course, of course…”
“What should I tell him?” I ask.
He says, “Tell him I say hi!”
He turns around and starts walking away, I call out, “Wait! What’s your name?”
He looks confused, and perhaps even suspicious of my question, “Why do you want to know my name?” he blurts out.
I say, “When I call your brother, when I’m back in America, and want to send him your regards, who should I say sends his regards?”
Looking at me as if I’m stupid he says, “Tell him that his brother the police officer in Oujda, Morocco sends his regards. He only has one brother who is a police officer in Oujda. He’ll know who I am…”
It took another two hours after that encounter for us to get permission to spend the night in Oujda. We were grilled by the head officer on duty about why we were in Morocco. Why had I been to Mauritania, four times…and in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and why, just why the heck, were we in Oujda. Finally, after being handed written permission by the commanding officer, we held our breath as we tiptoed to the door of the police station.
“Wait!” yells the commanding officer.
I reply, “Yes, sir?”
There is a moment of silence. Then he says, “Where did you park your car?”
Relieved by the nature of the question, I say, “Up the street about two blocks away from the station.”
He replies, “Yeah, it’ll get broken into there. You should really move it.”
I reply, “Thanks for the advice.”
He says, “Of course. Enjoy Oujda.”