THE MAD MASSEUR OF MIDELT

The weather has turned chilly, a frigid wind buffeting us from the north. Crouched over the motorcycle’s fuel tank, I catch sight of the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa rising from the plain and flex my numb fingers. Inside the hotel, a roaring fire casts a welcome glow. We check in, throw our gear into the bedrooms and fire up the bikes for the last kilometre to Midelt.

Five minutes later we spot a shop that appears capable of assuaging our hunger. I pull up, cut the motor and slip off the helmet.

“You want a hotel, monsieur? I find you the best hotel in Midelt.”

“No thanks,” I tell the fast approaching man. “We’re sorted at the Kasbah.”

“Then come to the hammam, why not? You will enjoy a fine massage at the hammam.”

Blair, still sat astride his bike, rolls his shoulders. “I am quite stiff after the long ride,” he says.

The man senses a bite. Leaping forward, he purrs, “Monsieur, the hammam has the best masseurs in all of Morocco.”

“No thanks,” I butt in. I balance the helmet on the handlebars of my bike. “He’ll live for another day.”

I nip inside the shop to buy our customary bread and cheese. When I get back, Blair has arranged a meeting at the hammam for three o’clock in the afternoon. I growl in the face of his enthusiasm.

“Meet me at this cafe,” the man croons. And with that he vanishes from the street.

We zip back to the hotel and unpack our lunch. The cheese is a little cloying, like chewing the contents of a glue pot. I attempt the difficult feat of eating and speaking simultaneously.

“You’ve seen … what they did to Ewan McGregor … and that Charlie Boorman in that hammam in Kazakhstan … and I’ve got a bad back.”

Blair slaps another slab of cheese between some bread.

“If he comes on a bit rough,” he says, “just tell him to get lost!”

“I will,” I grunt. Swatting crumbs from my shirt I saunter from the room. “And anyway, I’ve got a mountain of washing to do before I can go anywhere.”

At the strike of three we’re back at the cafe in Midelt. Inside, it seems nobody has heard of Nadir.

“You see,” I announce, shifting to the exit.

“You mean Nordine!” shouts a fat fellow at the end of the bar.

The words pin me in the doorway. Damn that man!

In no time Nordine arrives. He marches us across a stretch of waste ground and into the suburbs of Midelt, following one dusty alley after another.

“This is it!” he declares, darting into a shabby, grey building.

We pay the entry fee to a man slumped on a stool at the doorway and pass into the changing room. Undressing to our underpants, we each grab a plastic bucket and venture into the first chamber. It’s very humid. There’s a man lifting a sponge from a bucket and squeezing the water over his chest. We edge into a second chamber where it’s warmer still. A couple of guys sit propped against the wall. They look close to death. A whirl of steam marks the entrance the third and last chamber. I step inside, tentatively drawing into my lungs the burning heat. I aim for the source of steaming water spewing from the wall, hopping from one scalded foot to the other.

Nordine snatches my bucket, telling me to go and sit in the far corner, where the tiles are marginally cooler. I do as he says, lying flat on the floor, gradually sensing the tension drip from my shoulders. When Nordine delivers my bucket, I use the cup to ladle hot water over my head. Yes, this’ll do fine, I reckon. All is well.

Though, not for long!

A weasel of a man emerges from the mist. He has an evil grin and a ribcage that could double as a toast rack. A bony finger beckons.

“What’s your name?” he crows, in perfect English.

I feel compelled to tell him.

“Come!” he demands.

Nordine smiles gleefully. Blair is already grunting as an athletic-looking chap twists his legs into sickening angles. The weasel is not getting on my back, I assure myself. No way! I’ll chuck him across the hammam if he tries any fancy moves.

No sooner am I laid face down on the tiles than my tormentor drops his full weight on my back, his knees gouging savagely. In an instant, several joints in my spine pop as the air is pummelled from my lungs. In mere seconds this man has rendered me entirely helpless.

“Relax!” he calls.

Shaking an arm like a terrier throttling a rat, he wrenches the left wrist behind my neck. Soon finding his rhythm, the unceasing crack of joints echoes off the vaulted ceiling. I simply groan when he takes my right knee, twisting it into a position it hasn’t known for years.

“You can’t do that,” I whimper.

“Relax!”

Thoroughly steamed and pummelled, I emerge into the evening sunlight feeling refreshed.

“See, I told you it would do some good.”

“Smart-ass!”

After the hammam we drink mint tea with Nordine at a roadside cafe. Polishing off the dregs of the tea, we make haste to the family house of his girlfriend, who has laid on more tea and pastries, Moroccan specialities that I’m in danger of rudely wolfing down. Later he asks us for dinner with his brother and mother, where we devour a delicious lamb tagine.

Back outside in the cold night air we say our goodbyes, forcing upon our host a gift of money in appreciation of his hospitality. It is an awkward moment. Despite my encounter with the mad masseur of Midelt I feel a little ashamed of how offhandedly I tried to dismiss Nordine earlier in the day. He wanted nothing more than our company and for us to know he was there for the future - just in case we could do some business together. In the clamour of the ‘hard-sell’, which is so often the way in Morocco, it is easy to miss gems like Nordine.

(This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in the Overland Magazine)

james marr