Road to Morocco (Joni's publishing parable du jour)

Long story short, we were standing by the Pillars of Hercules on the Rock of Gibraltar when Gary pointed across the water to the northern coast of Morocco and said, “It’s Africa. You can’t just look at Africa and not go there.” (This, in a nutshell, is why Gary Rodgers is the love of my life.) We’d been backpacking around Europe for two weeks with Malachi and Jerusha, who were still young enough to be pressed into adventure. Accidentally ordered raw beef once, but otherwise enjoyed a spectacular run of Mr. McGoo’s blind luck. Emboldened, we hiked back over the bridge to Spain and blithely boarded a ferry.

This was a few months into that multi-phased goat-pluck known as Operation Desert Storm, and the Self-Terrorization level was at orange. (You know. Yellow = boy cries “wolf”, orange = boy cries “WOLF!”, red = boy shoots chihuahua, which could be construed as wolf-like. Mission accomplished!) We knew that additional FBI warnings had been issued for Northern Africa, but we didn’t know that this meant Americans were not allowed on certain boats and had to pass through Moroccan police checkpoints. Announcements were made in Spanish and German, so for all we knew they were just saying, “Americans, please get with it and be bilingual.” Not only did we have no money, we didn’t know what sort of money one is supposed to have in Morocco. Having spent the trip watching dolphins instead of belaboring the language barrier in the ship’s information booth, we’d failed to get our passports properly stamped. After getting lost in the bowels of the boat, stuffed in a freight elevator, and chased through the commercial vehicles deck, we stumbled out into the profoundly foreign metropolis of Tangier.

“Here come the Stupids!“ Malachi announced as we made our way along the crowded pier. “Feel free to kill us for our passports!”

I was reminded of a scene from The Road to Morocco.

“We must storm the place!” says Bing Crosby.

“You storm,” says Bob Hope. “I’ll stay here and drizzle.”

As teeming darkness fell, tens of thousands of people milled the streets, and none of them looked like us. I fervently prayed, “God, favor the foolish. Send someone to guide us.” Not twelve seconds later, an elderly man stepped over to me and said, “Mrs. Ma’am? I am Muhammad Sharif. I am here to guide you.” (That’s what I call service. Thanks again, God.)

"Mom," Malachi said sharply. "Do not make eye contact."

Mr. Sharif assured me he was “fully authorized” and proffered business cards on which were written gushing endorsements. More superlatives than the back of a Tom Clancy novel. Too good to be true? Of course. But between him and the Dark Continent, Mr. Sharif was the least terrifying option. We crammed into his cousin's tiny taxi with Jerusha sitting on my lap (and Malachi unhappily on Mr. Sharif's) and headed downtown. After dinner and a flame-throwing, horn-blowing, belly-dancing, Big Fat Berber Wedding sort of floorshow, during which Jerusha may have actually gotten married to a Korean man, we returned to our “inexpensive, but perfectly safe!” hotel, where I slept with our passports and a can of hairspray under my pillow.

The next morning Mr. Sharif led us down ancient streets overflowing with saffron, flowers, tall leather lamps with iron frames, goatskin shoes with pointed up toes. In a rug shop (“No, no! Art gallery! No pressure to buy!”) the owner served mint tea and pushed a photo album into my lap. “Look! Bruce Springstein! We don’t hate Americans here!” he protested too much. “See here? Sting and the whole Sting family!”

Gary told him politely but firmly that we were absolutely not buying a rug and really must be going. But Mr. Sharif, we were icily informed, had gone to the mosque to say his prayers, leaving us to “enjoy the educational presentation.” Our God-sent guide later helped us enjoy similar presentations on Berber spices, “pharmaceutical” herbs, and embroidered caftans. By the end of a long day traversing alley after alley of aggressive vendors, I felt a certain sorority with the plucked chickens strung up over a cart of ox hooves. But what a day. What a trip. What a life.

This is exactly how I feel about my publishing career so far. Had I known then what I know now, had I been able to decipher the warnings and see the obstacles across the water, I’m not sure I would have attempted it. Perhaps it was for the best that I just plowed on in with nothing but the clothes on my back, which left me no choice but to scuttle under the cargo doors and climb over the fences. You see this place you want to be. You feel compelled to go there. And the only way is with no reservations. Is a can of hairspray an effective weapon? Not really, but you could get some business done with it if you had to. Drizzling be damned. We must storm the place!

Perhaps God favors the foolish because we have in common with Him an illogical and unrelenting faith in the goodness of people, and we’re willing to step out into the world armed with only that. Yes, the people who present themselves to guide you have their own interests at heart. Why shouldn’t they? That’s what makes the world go ‘round, down in the casbah and up on 53rd Street. It’s all about commerce. You’ll be happier and more prosperous when you learn that haggling is a dance, not a slap-fight. There’s no evil agenda to oppress writers. The brusque editor, the sharky agent, even the snarky book reviewer – they’re just selling their rugs, peddling their chicken feet, pushing their ox cart.

If I’d seen the warning signs and done my homework on the markets and the industry and the odds up front, I would have seen that I my chances of making it in this business were virtually nil. The dire predictions about the future of books are as constant as the uncertain winds that blow between the skyscrapers of Houston and the Pillars of Hercules. Continuing in this career is about as sensible as wandering over to Africa like unsuspecting Gumps, unmindful of the world turning beneath our happy little ferryboat—but what else can I do? I need a leather lamp to go with that rug we bought.


I love the parables. Keep 'em coming!

Publishing is indeed a strange and exotic land, but it's always an adventure!
Anonymous said…
And by the way, the rug looks fabulous...

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