Writer finds ‘no problem’ in Morocco means ‘watch out!’

Friday, April 23, 1999 | by

SHERWOOD L. WEINGARTEN



My recent trip to Morocco apparently fell under the curse of Mustapha's Law.

Mustapha is a Sephardic cousin of Murphy, whose lone axiom seems to be that if something can go wrong, it will.

Leaving for the airport, I stumbled over a curb, plopped face down and scraped my wrists and palms. Dirt stubbornly clung to the left knee of my favorite traveling pants.

At JFK, no tickets awaited me at the Royal Air Maroc counter. Two long lines and one hour later, I discovered them at the Lufthansa desk, not a happy place for a Germanophobe.

The flight to Casablanca from New York was uneventful—until a chubby Moroccan boy threw up in the aisle inches from where I sat. The male attendant was compassionate and soft with him. I wasn't.

"No problem," said the steward.

It took me no time to learn that "no problem" is Morocco's most popular phrase. Decoded, it means "watch out!"

My luggage disappeared, naturally. No problem, except that my worsted trousers made my thighs itch like crazy from the heat.

My suitcase finally arrived—along with that of four other Jewish journalists on the expedition—many hours later. But I didn't have to wait at all for the dead flowers that greeted me in several vases.

At my first hotel in Marrakesh, the Hotel Les Idrissides, the shower head fell off and struck me on the shoulder. I decided to bathe instead. So what if the tub was incredibly narrow, if my bones fit but my skin was pinched?

No problem, even if hardly anything in Morocco worked the way I remembered it had in the good ole USA.

In a unisex bathroom in the La Maison Bleue restaurant in Fez, I was forced to call for help when the door wouldn't open from the inside.

In contrast, my door wouldn't lock from the inside at the Hotel Safir in Rabat, the country's capital. There, too, the TV remote didn't work, the toilet seat wouldn't stay up, and my phone refused to let me call out.

One of the other journalists did me one better: He visited the bathroom of the minister of tourism and could locate no soap or toilet paper. And still another writer found his rear end wasn't sculpted properly for the rectangular hole in his room's toilet seat.

When leaving for Fez, officials herded us to the wrong boarding gate and a plane flying to Algeria, not exactly a prime destination for tourists of the Jewish persuasion.

No problem, no problem, no problem.

But the pièce de resistance had to be the flight back to New York from Casablanca.

First, 400 of us grew hot under the collar (and the rest of our clothes) imprisoned four hours on the jet waiting for an air-conditioning intake valve to be repaired on the tarmac.

When they finally released us, our lunch vouchers bought only water and a dry French roll with a single slab of what suspiciously tasted like Velveeta.

I also realized that the duty-free shop was a Moroccan money-free zone, too: It didn't accept dirhams.

Back on the plane a couple of hours later, we were told—what else?—there was really no problem. That was at least eight full seconds before all the electricity went off as the jet taxied backward.

The next day I flew to New York without a hitch—if you discount the dysentery bug I picked up somehow.

Mustapha, by the way, is a persistent son-of-a-gun. At JFK, a menacing-eyed Iraqi with rolled up prayer carpet and a pencil-thin mustache and beard, looking like the worst villain ever conceived in an editorial cartoon, sat next to me. He pulled a book on Islamic fundamentalism from a bulging shopping bag. Then he left his packages and wandered off.

I was sure he was a terrorist who'd end my trip by blowing my body (and anyone unlucky enough to be near me) to wherever a homemade plastic bomb could send it.

Nothing exploded. But we didn't take off for four hours. For reasons unclear to this very moment, the TWA pilot never showed up. A backup guy sped 200 miles from near Philadelphia and arrived 2-1/2 hours later to lead us to San Francisco. It was only 4:30 a.m. New York time when I arrived home—sick, exhausted, dazed.

I couldn't have been happier.