Frank and I called him Boy Boy because he was wearing a Boy t-shirt the first time we met him on Place Djemma El Fna in Marrakesh. That was just ten years ago though everything has changed beyond recognition since then. He looked about twelve but was, I think, fourteen. He wanted dirhams from us to play in the video games arcade located in the basement of the cafe where we hung out adjacent to one of the important El Fna mosques. He’d been given the t-shirt by a European man. When we explained to him that “boy” was the English for garcon he said, in his breaking adolescent voice, “Je ne suis pas un garcon. Je suis un homme.” He made a big impression on the two of us, a nice smart kid with a loveable face and some street smarts. His best friend was a glue sniffer, also nice but neither smart nor pretty.
Those early visits to Marrakesh were largely to do with the Gnoua Brotherhood with whom we were working. In more recent years I’ve gone back alone, once renting a medina apartment that I didn’t much like, principally staying at the CTM Hotel which is right on El Fna. I always get to see Boy Boy at some stage during my visit – he’s street life and I’ve been addicted to street life since I was eight.
When he was sixteen he was a full time ace face rent boy, obviously in the grip of some drug addiction because all he frantically wanted to talk about was doing business. He never quite took it on board that I was only interested in him from a friendship point of view. There was no talking to him then. When I said I wanted to take some photographs he thought I meant dirty photographs, seemed pleased that I’d finally seen sense. I explained that I just wanted to take some pics of him walking around El Fna. Then he obviously thought I was weird but he showed up the next day on time with a fresh haircut and his best shirt on. That was the only time during my visit that he seemed to be the same nice kid that Frank and I hung out with just a few years earlier. He was sombre and petulant as he posed, taking the photographs very seriously. He told me that something very unpleasant had happened to him the night before but he wouldn’t say what. He didn’t look too great at that time in his life – he looked worn out. I wondered if I’d ever see him alive again.
Eighteen months later he’d come through that rather frantic stage though he was still on the game. He told me that his real name as Taha, that Mustafa was just his rent boy nom de guerre. He looked way better, healthy with the makings of a big ass, a little like a member of one of those Paisley Underground bands complete with check patterned bell bottoms and paisley shirt. He was fun to hang around with again though he was drinking heavily. When I showed him the photographs I’d taken during our prior encounter he had no recollection of meeting me or of doing the photographs. We went to the movies a lot – he liked martial arts films and shouted his encouragement during the fight scenes. He told me that he’d tried girls and didn’t like them, that he preferred men. This time around the only problem was that he was surrounded by heavy pimp-style individuals obviously trying to take advantage of his film-star good looks and exuberant personality. They assumed that I was one of his tricks and that the two of us were doing business without including them in on the deal. There was an ironic feeding frenzy – when poor people think they’re being done out of money they lose it.
I saw Taha two days ago. Now he’s a tough looking young man, hanging around close to Hotel de Paris, one of the more expensive hotels near El Fna. He works with a gang of tourist hustlers waiting for the busloads of suckers who now decamp in front of Hotel de Paris – they used to stop on El Fna but traffic is now barred from there. He has followed a typical trajectory for young Moroccan petty criminals. The starring roles end when you’re twenty, you get good supporting roles later. It’s irrevocably downhill all the way by the time you’re thirty.
I don’t think happiness comes into it but, no doubt, he was happy playing those forgotten video games. He was already a man back then.
Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.