Stories to do with the Moroccan Dirham contain within themselves the pain/torture endured by Moroccans and the bliss/rapture enjoyed by visitors to their country. You just love Morocco until you get to know it well - then you love-hate it just like a native. 10 Dirhams comes to #0.63 or $1.09.
Morocco is the ideal idler's country and the Dirham is the ultimate idler's currency. Visitors to Tangier sometimes wonder why the city's coffee shops are full of dapper and hectic looking chaps, none of whom seem to do a tap of work but who, nevertheless, sip coffee, smoke Marlboro, gossip, go for laconic strolls down Boulevard, and then return to their chosen watering hole for further idling. A good espresso in the best cafe costs seven Dirhams. Around 6pm these dudes saunter off in the general direction of the family home. If they live any distance away they'll hail a Petit Taxi; this'll set them back about five Dirhams. A large meal, stewed to death by a thrifty wife, awaits them.
You get good bang for your buck with the Dirham. What passes for economic life is prejudiced on a people who, because of sloth or dismal poverty, need to stretch and tease out each and every one of those beautiful looking coins.
I lived in Tangier in 2001. Each morning when I left my apartment I was greeted by filthy urchins all of whom pleaded for, "Wahid Dirham! Wahid Dirham!" One Dirham! One Dirham! Closer to my own watering hole, The Cafe de Paris, slightly older boys bleated, "Kleenex Dirham!" and did a roaring trade in packets of bootleg Kleenex. When I walked down Boulevard I encountered Thirteen, who was Hamri The Painter of Morocco's personal Sancho Panza. Thirteen is an amoral tourist hustler of the most disreputable kind - he never wanted anything less than fifty Dirhams.
I subsequently learned that unless a Tangier street boy brought home a substantial amount of money each night, his mothers might kick him out of the house and let him sleep on the streets. Hence their desperate urgent need to get one measly Dirham out of the European passer-by.
An eleven year old boy offered me a blow job behind the CTM Hotel in Marrakesh for fifteen Dirhams. Sex tourism is a cancer eating away at Moroccan life. Many of the European and American expats left in Tangier are there for the slightly underage sex on sale for between fifty and a hundred Dirhams a night. Many of the unmarried middle aged people - of either sex - who holiday in Morocco are going there for cheap sex. The Dirham was used throughout Arabia and the Levant in pre-Islamic times. The word traces its origins back to the Roman denarius.
The best value for money in the whole wide world is a night on Place Djemma el Fna (The Place of the Mosque at the End of the World) in Marrakesh. There they've got the blue, funky desert music of the Gnoua Brotherhood of Marrakesh. Brian Jones worked towards a long-lost album with them at the same time that he did the Master Musicians of Joujouka album with my old pal Hamri. Plant and Page played with the Gnoua on their Unplugged project. For five Dirhams you can, sitting in their circle. benefit from their rhythms for a while. For twenty Dirhams and a couple of Marlboro, you can stay all night, listening to men who've worked with the Led Zep boys and with innumerable other Western vagabonds searching anxiously for the funk.
I was sitting around a table in a Dublin millionaire's pad with, amongst others, the good actor Jonathan Rhys Myers. Johnny'd been impressing me with his reasonably good Moroccan Arabic - he spends lots of time there. As I made to leave he slipped a piece of paper into my pocket. I thought he'd given me his phone number or something and I thought this was weird. I doubted that he wanted a role in my next movie. When I got home I took out the paper and saw that he'd gifted me a twenty Dirham note.
You can't exchange the Dirham outside Morocco. All the notes and coins feature the ubiquitous image of the current king or his equally unsavoury father.
Rhys Myers' gesture was a good joke but it's a difficult joke to explain. I guess you need to put in a lot of time in the country to get it. I spent the money on a coffee each for me and Thirteen at the Cafe de Paris the next time I was in Tangier. Then I gave Thirteen the change.
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.