Wednesday, April 1, 2009


“It's almost time," he says.

“What will happen?”

“I don’t know. Maybe everything will just stop.”

“Even us.”

He is silent. Wraps his arms around her from behind, and together they step closer to the edge. She gazes twenty-stories straight down. Vertigo threatens to sway her, but he holds her tightly. It’s cooler up here. Sydney’s concrete and glass towers seem to trap the heat below them. She looks at the streets, alive, swarming, crawling, overflowing with life. The noise of the crowd drifts upwards intermittently on the breeze, a dull murmur from where they stand alone on the roof of the office building. It amazes her that a city can sustain so much without destroying itself.

“In the Book of Revelations, John talks of the Second Coming of Christ. They say there are signs in the world today that it’s near, that the end is coming. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, landslides…”

“There are people that find hidden messages in the Bible, bible codes,” she replies. “They spell out the future in ancient letters, and they say they can predict the end.”

“Some say the end will come by fire, others say by ice, who knows?”

“Yes,” she agrees. “Who knows.”

“Tomorrow everything that relies on a computer could crash around us, infected by a millennium bug. Imagine a world, even hours from now, with no computers – all that electronic money, gone, no trains running, businesses at a standstill.”

“Imagine,” she says, and takes off her dress. “And all because programmers tried to save computer memory all those years ago, used two digits instead of four.”

“Zero zero instead of two zero zero zero.” He pauses, unbuttoning his shirt. “It doesn’t seem like it would matter.”

“It probably doesn’t matter,” she says. “They said they’re fixing it. Maybe it wasn’t even a problem to begin with.”

“People still worry though,” he says, and pulls off his jeans.

 “Ancient Mayan calendars predict the end of this cycle, the ultimate end, will come in 2012.” She unclips her bra, and turns to face him. “Maybe it isn’t tonight, perhaps we’ve still got a few years left, perhaps more than a few.”

“We might even do it to ourselves – nuclear war, mass anarchy, germ warfare…”

“Maybe when the end comes, whenever, however it comes, we’ll survive. Only our culture, our society will be destroyed.”

“We can’t go on like this forever,” he says. “At some point it all has to end, why not tonight?”

“Why not tonight.” She takes off her earrings, places them carefully next to the bottle of champagne. “Do you think though, in the end, it will be so predictable?”

A pause.

“They say it will storm tomorrow,” he says.

They have said it all before, but never tire of talking about it – mythology, religion, technology – as if through repetition some previously unseen meaning might reveal itself. The potential for an apocalyptic end brings them closer than they have ever been. At night, they lie awake, whispering conspiracy theories to each other, sweet nothings that linger between them on warm breath, drawing them closer, until morning comes. And tonight, on the eve of the millennium, they make love on a thin blanket, spread over sun-soaked concrete, and say it all again.

“Not long now,” she says.

The cool breeze stops, and it seems that the city is holding its breath with them. They watch the second hand move inevitably toward the hour, and they hear the countdown begin. Each tiny, precise movement of the second hand is a moment of time they can’t reclaim.

And then…



Somehow she feels cheated. She looks at him, but he stares into the far distance, as if unaware of her presence. They sit alone from each other now, on the flat, concrete roof, hearing the distant cheers of the crowd, the muted explosions of the fireworks, the crackling of the glittering rain falling from the sky over the harbour. There is a gulf of unfulfilled anticipation between them.

The word ‘Eternity’ blazes across the bridge, and she wonders how the people who stockpiled bottled water and canned food feel. Imagines them, scattered around the planet, hidden in basements, cellars, bomb shelters, huddled around portable televisions, awaiting the apocalypse. What would they even do if they survived? Eternity is a very long time.

A breeze carries the soft burning scent of sulphur from the fireworks to the rooftop where they sit. The smell reminds her of childhood.

“Did you know the New Year began three hours ago on Kiritimati,” she says.

“Where’s Kiritimati?” He looks over as if noticing her for the first time since the New Year began.

“Christmas Island. It’s in the Pacific.” She stands, self-consciously with her back toward him. “The English conducted nuclear tests there in the fifties.”

“Oh.” He stares at the bridge, still spewing fireworks into the night sky.

“Kiritimati only moved west of the dateline in 1995. When we were in our twenties it was the last place to experience New Years Eve, today it’s the first.” She pulls her dress back on, and hugs herself tightly. “It’s funny how things change.”

He doesn’t reply.

Everything we believe is a human construct, she thinks. January first held no relevance to the natural world, to any greater order. It was simply a point at which to begin, chosen by humans thousands of years ago. Does he actually believe in it all? She doesn’t really believe in bible code, or the Mayan calendar, or the millennium bug. But she holds onto the conspiracies, searches them out obsessively. She ignores her scepticism when he whispers far-fetched theories to her at night, finding comfort in the paranoia, the way others find comfort in religion.


Someone they met somewhere once, maybe twice, is celebrating in a warehouse on the edge of the city. They leave the rooftop, and pass through the dark and empty offices, where computers quietly murmur to one another. She feels remotely safe within the soft electrical hum of latent technology. Too soon, though, the elevator delivers them to the ground floor, and she is back amongst the heat and the crowds on the street. She looks up at the height of the building they have just exited. Even from below it makes her dizzy.

As they walk to the warehouse, silent, distant, alone, she thinks back to earlier that night, before she left her apartment. The cobwebs of long-gone spiders hung in the corners of the room, and the crumbling bodies of flies were thick on the windowsill. She couldn’t understand how she hadn’t noticed them before. They had been so focused on the upcoming millennium, obsessed with the theories they lay awake and talked of at night, that she hadn’t noticed much lately. She had stared at the bodies for several long moments, but couldn’t bear to clear the tiny corpses. There was something monumental in the sheer number of them, something sacred. Yet she couldn’t bear to be near them either, their presence testimony to what she wanted to believe. Instead, she had simply left them where they lay.


They cross the busy road to the warehouse. Tonight the building seems a living being, full of bodies, light, and sound. There is the suggestion of something hidden behind the brick façade punctured by dozens of windows. Some are lit, with figures moving through them, but others are dark, empty. She wonders who is sitting behind each blank opening, watching them. Perhaps, she thinks, she’s paranoid.

“We could just go home.” She stops outside. The low sound of music, and people talking drifts down from a broken window.

He doesn’t reply, but keeps walking, and so she follows, picking her way through the people that spill from the doorway. The stairwell is crawling with couples, crowded amongst empty bottles, plastic bags and crushed plastic cups. From what she can hear over the distorted electronic music they talk of the future, the promise of the new millennium. She stays close to his back, as he pushes ahead towards the second floor.

“You look so great!”

A girl she knows reaches for her as if to embrace. She stops, but doesn’t reach back, and wishes that she were anywhere but here, that she was alone in bed. The people here are more acquaintances than friends, people she knows because they go to the same places she goes, live in the same places she lives, and eat at the same places she eats.

“Happy New Year.” She summons a smile, but the girl has already lost interest in her, and started talking to someone else.

He continues up into the space at the top of the stairs, and she hurries after him, not wanting to be alone amongst the crush of people.

Everything has been painted white – walls, tables, chairs – and she feels as if she is hovering in some indeterminate place. The electronic music is louder in here, more distorted, infused with white noise. It fills the space, enveloping her on every side, the sound almost a physical presence. People are draped over every surface, huddled in groups. Like the groups in the stairwell everyone is engaged in intense conversation. Some move, swaying abstractedly to the music, a few dance.

In front of her, a projection plays on the blank, white wall. It shows people moving, dancing, talking in a different room, another blank, white space, almost identical to the one they are in. She stares at the life size projection, watching the flickering scene play out before her. Shadows cut through the image as people walk past the projected light.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Kiritimati?” He doesn’t look at her as he speaks, but stares at the projection, talking loudly over the music.


“That island. Why didn’t you say something about it before?”

“I don’t know. I thought you knew, or assumed or something. I thought it was common sense. Can’t we just go home?”

“Were you pretending up there tonight? Pretending all these months to believe in something? Telling me what I wanted to hear?”

“Don’t tell me the thought that none of it was real never crossed your mind. Deep down you must have known.” He continues to stare at the projection, as if not even listening to her. “You’re not stupid,” she continues. “You just liked the idea that it was all going to end, that tonight was it.” She pauses, aware that each word she says further shatters the illusion of their relationship. But she can’t help herself. “In a world where nothing makes sense, it gave you some kind of meaning to hold onto.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“I wanted to believe it too.” She hates his hurt expression. In it she can see his belief that the possibility of an apocalyptic end means more to him than it does to her. She hates the sound of her voice. The more meaning she tries to give her words, the emptier they seem, but she continues. “The theories, the belief, it made everything seem more significant.”

“Even us.” He turns away from the images on the wall, and stares at her. He looks different, like a stranger.

“Yes,” she says. “Even us.”

He walks away, and before she can follow him, another girl she recognises from somewhere hugs her and presses a plastic cup into her hand, “Happy New Year!”

“Happy New Year.”

“What an exciting time to be alive, the potential of a new millennium!” But she isn’t really talking to her. Already the girl is grabbing the arm of a passing man.

“Yes,” she agrees. “Who would have thought?”

The girl walks away with the man, whispering something to him, and he laughs.

She sips cheap champagne from the plastic cup she was given. The finality of her conversation with him hits her, but she knows everything she said was true. Everything that came before the conspiracies seems pale in comparison to life through the lens of paranoia. She wonders what will give significance to events, people, relationships and life now that the theories, the potential for a sudden end, is gone.

People press close to her, around her. Their bodies slide past her, and she can feel their sweat on her skin. She looks around for him, but he could be any one of the dozens of faceless figures under the flashing lights. At the far end of the room, a large fan pushes smoke and sweat-heavy air towards her. The smell of humanity suffocates her.

She walks from room to room, searching for him. But each room is the same as the last, and she loses herself in a maze of identical white spaces. Finally, she pauses in one that feels familiar, and recognises it from the projected film. There is a projection in this room too, in which she recognises the first room. She looks up and sees a camera mounted in the corner, a small red light, and its eye staring down at her, recording every detail.

In the flickering image on the wall, she sees the girl who gave her the drink in the plastic cup, still talking to the other man. Her viewpoint becomes that of the camera recording them, and as she watches, he pulls her close and kisses her. The girl pulls back, laughs, and then leans in again. She whispers something to him, and he leads her out of the frame.

Then he walks into the frame. He stops, filling the space where the couple had been moments before. Her mind zooms in, focuses on him. He is by himself, like her, holding a plastic cup. He isn’t looking at her, but staring at something. She realises he is looking at the projected image of the room she is in, and wonders if he sees her.

A lightness comes over her, and she feels separate to herself, somehow outside of herself. She raises her arm, waving, and in the projected image he distantly waves back. Lifting her plastic cup to the camera, she smiles. A virtual toast to the New Year, she thinks, a farewell to the past. He lifts his cup in turn, and smiles.

People behind her walk in front of the projected light, filling the image of the other room with shadowy figures. When the image returns he is gone. She walks, lost in her thoughts, back through the rooms. She finds stairs that lead to the roof of the warehouse, and realises she wants nothing more than to be outside.

A few people are scattered, but nobody seems to notice her. She sits on a couch at the edge of the roof, breathing in the city air. In the distant shimmering city skyline she searches for the building on which they sat, but from here all the towers look the same. She remembers meeting him, last year in June. It had been at a party in a warehouse, just like the one she was at now. They had found themselves together, alone. That night had been spent talking, drinking, smoking, She couldn’t even remember how they had had started talking about it, about the upcoming millennium. The lure of conspiracy and paranoia bound them together, eclipsing all else.


She listens to the distant sounds of the city. Cars from the road below create a muted rush that could almost be the ocean. She closes her eyes and focuses on the sounds, but the cars refuse to become the ocean no matter how hard she concentrates. When she first moved to the city the noises had kept her awake, but she got used to them eventually, they had even become comforting. This morning she hears the constant noise of passersby, a plane far overhead, and the party below. She sits there, on the roof, listening to the traffic and the other noises that make up the life of the city for what seems like a very long time, almost an eternity.

When she opens her eyes she is alone on the roof. To the east, the sun is rising over the city skyline. Someone once told her that the sunrise never used to be so beautiful; it’s only pollution in the city skies – a chemical sunrise was what they called it. To the west, the sky is still dark, the light of the sun yet to touch the shadows. She walks down into the crowded warehouse, but doesn’t look for him anymore. Instead, she smiles to herself, and begins the walk home alone, full of the possibilities of a new millennium.



- Xaouen – Chaouen -

To the outsider, to myself, everyday life within the walls of the medina[1] of Chefchaouen is a performance in a dream. The stage against which life is set, a twisting labyrinth of blue and white washed streets below the sleeping grey Rif Mountains. Here, in Chaouen[2], a part of me slips, with no conscious thought, into this performance, and I exist outside of myself. Here, in the Kingdom of Morocco, I am an observer of place, of self, surrendering a part of myself to Chaouen, into hidden places behind walls.

Allah Akbar[3]

You sit on the train, watching life unfold through the window, as you begin your journey back to Chaouen, the small city under the Rif Mountains in the northwest of Morocco. It has been three years since you fell in love with the place.

Through the window you see two boys standing, half naked, on the highest point of an arced bridge baring itself to the sky. They wave as the train passes; brown bodies silhouetted against the sun. At the base of the bridge, women, bent under the weight of small children, lay freshly washed wool to dry on the banks of the river, and sheep graze nearby.

    In a field of wheat, men and boys work bare-chested in the heat of the day. A camel moves lazily amongst them. The train passes, the farmers barely registering its’ existence – a distant movement on the periphery of a life that doesn’t belong to you.

    The train pulls into Fes late that night. You exit the station. The push of people. The sea of voices – Arabic, French, Spanish, English, even Japanese. Djellaba-wearing touts wave dubiously authentic identity tags, proclaiming themselves as official guides. They do not understand the word ‘no’. Taxi drivers fight for passengers, and passengers won, horns blaring, they fight to exit the car park.

Ash-hadu al-lā ilāha illallāh[4]

Mid-morning, the bus leaves for Chaouen. You sleep as it exits the city, and awaken to a landscape so vast it reveals its scale only when a house occasionally rises from it – once whitewashed earthen walls collapsing under the weighty burden of time, flat roofs sprouting grass, flowers and even small trees. These houses don’t sit on the landscape, but within it.

A riot of colour explodes in your thoughts. Orange trees, thousands of them, growing from a carpet of yellow flowers. A vivid azure lake flat beneath grey mountains, met at its shore by red earth and green grass. It disappears as suddenly as it appeared, leaving you wondering if it were all a vision.

A middle-aged Moroccan man named Omar, a fellow passenger, welcomes you to Morocco. Before he leaves the bus in Tetouan he asks for your Australian address in so he can write to you, get to know you better. Full of sleep you scribble it on a scrap of paper.

Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasūl allāh[5]

    The mountains overlooking Chaouen fold in on themselves seductively, creating hidden crevices that long to be explored. Chefchaouen literally translates as look at the horns (mountains).

    The Kasbah, Al Kasaba, rises against the inky night sky in Plaza Outa el Hammam, the walls impressive in their imposing simplicity. A row of identical restaurants lies opposite the Kasbah. They serve tajines, couscous, grills and mint tea – Morocco to her will always be mint tea, sweet as love. In summer thousands of Spanish tourists descend on Chauen. But now, in January, they are quiet. You walk behind Plaza Outa el Hammam to a small room set into a wall – they serve only harira – broad-bean soup flavoured with oil and chili – bread and olives. As you eat, the voice of the Muezzin reciting the Adhan[6] is carried by a gentle breeze, as it is five times daily. You likes the structure it gives each day.

    That evening you sit on the roof terrace of the Pension la Castellana surrounded by the empty black silhouettes of the Rif Mountains. Below dogs bark and on a nearby rooftop a confused rooster crows. You can hear the sounds of the cafes where men gather to smoke, drink mint tea and watch football on television. The Africa Cup is on, and the cafes are full. The absence of alcohol here creates a sober calm that is rare at home.

Hayya ‘alas-salāt[7]

The African sun gently beats down upon you. The sun seems so much closer to the earth in Africa. You are idle within the bustle of others occupied with idleness. Elderly men wearing djellaba walk arm in arm against the red backdrop of Al Kasaba. Two groups of children carry faded mattresses through the square. A young Spanish family of dreadlocked hippies juggles beside the fountain. Cats hiss at each other beneath her table – they fill every Moroccan city – unnoticed, yet cared for, a part of the city. “Sweetie. Mermaid. My sweet mermaid,” the waiter, Hassan, addresses you when you order.

You lose yourself in the twisting maze of the medina. Five-hundred years of history are built into the medina. You try to place yourself in the fifteenth century when Jewish and Muslim refugees from Spain founded Chaouen after the fall of Al-Andalus[8], but you know only now. Whitewashed walls tinted with countless shades of blue recall those medieval times. As you wander, children playing in doorways and alleys call out to you in Spanish Hola. ¿habla español? The whitewashed walls melt into the cobbled labyrinth; meeting the shadowed alleyways with the intense blue pigment that is for sale, displayed in hessian bags in many of the hundreds of stalls that line the crowded, narrow lanes.

You see a tub crawling with tiny turtles. “What are they for?” you ask.

“For your good breathing, you keep in your house. You buy?” The thought of smuggling a living turtle into Australia makes you smile.

Hayya ‘alal-falāh[9]

You sit on the sill of an arched opening in the top room of the Kasbah. The room is empty but for parabolic shadows cast by the late afternoon sun – the thick red earthen walls keeping the interior cool. The Kasbah is an oasis of lush gardens, and fountains. Moss grows thick and bright on the walls, and pink flowers hang from overflowing trees.

Through the arched openings in the walls the fairytale landscape sits before you, and behind the rolling green, the grey majesty of the Rif Mountains. To your right is the red roofscape of Chaouen, crumbling white and blue walls over which carpets are aired, and terraces criss-crossed with lines of drying clothes. From a distance the beat of a drum echoes through the medina.

As the heat of the day disappears you walk to the ruined stone mosque that sits lonely on the peak of a hill before the mountains. It was built by the Spanish then left to fall to ruin by the Moroccans. You walk through Bab al-Ansar, the eastern gate, and past the cascades of the Ras el-Maa, the flowing stream where women wash clothes and children play. You walk up the hill overlooking Chaouen on a trail lined with cacti. The walls of the mosque have crumbled, windows are falling, and the sun sets behind the mountains, washing the whole of Chaouen in the flat blue light of dusk. Small children play around the mosque, goats are herded past, and a group of Moroccan youths smoke a delicately carved kif[10] pipe. The potent smoke drifts through the night air, and you feel you are taking part in a carefully constructed performance.

Allah u akbar[11]

Soon, local people begin to recognize and talk with you – you feel most visits to Chaouen are brief, and in the tiny medina a face soon becomes familiar. You meet twenty-three year old Kamal. He works in a carpet shop run by Abdelhak Garanti – his business card reads Exposition Artisanal Local et / Marocatne Tapis Ancien et Moderne / Expédition Pour Tous Payes.[12] Kamal, like most Moroccans, speaks Arabic, Spanish and English. He sometimes accompanies tourists into the Sahara, and has picked up Japanese too. His words tumble from language to language, and his conversation is scattered with phrases heard in American films – easy peasy lemon squeezy, in a while crocodile, see you later alligator. He tells you often “we all brother from another mother, you sister from another mother.”

You watch Bollywood bright Egyptian films with Kamal and seven other men, crowded into a windowless concrete room. Posters of Spanish football teams cover the walls. A poster of a lush rainforest covers the back wall – a window into another world. The tiny room is filled with a single bed, television, motorcycle and large sewing machine – The young man with heavy eyes who lives here is a tailor. He draws continuously on a long kif pipe. The men are quiet and respectful around you, and you feel safe.

You spend time also with a Berber man from the Sahara, Yusuf, in his shop full of silver trinkets. You drink mint tea from ornate glasses with him in his shop, and later you visit his tiny concrete room. You drink more mint tea and listen as he tells stories from his life. All evening, as he talks, he fills, and smokes, and refills a kif pipe. Yusuf is in his forties, but looks older. He has a fourteen-year-old son he has never met. Yusuf shows you photos of his son who lives in Spain with his American mother. He tells you that he sometimes speaks to his son on the phone. When his son is eighteen he wants to meet his father. It is difficult to imagine a meeting between a Spanish schoolboy and his toothless father who rides camels into the Sahara, where the women in his family weave the blankets and make the silver trinkets he sells in Chaouen.

Whilst you talk Yusef’s mobile phone rings constantly, and every time it goes unanswered. “My mother,” is his explanation. He tells you of the pressure of having to provide for his family – every time his mother calls she needs money, and it is money that he does not have and so cannot give. There is sadness in his words, and you say “It’s hard, I know.” but you don’t.

Lā ilāha illallāh[13]

Of course, beyond the walls of the medina, another Chaouen exists—the Ville Nouvelle[14]—a world of cars, new suits and nine to five jobs in office towers. But to an outsider, to myself, in the Kingdom of Morocco it is the exotic chaos of the medinas that will gently seduce you into their hidden places behind walls.

[1] Found in North African cities, a medina is a distinct city section – typically walled, it is the old part of the city and consists of many narrow, labyrinthine streets. In Arabic, the word medina can be translated simply as city or town.

[2] Chefchaouen is often referred to affectionately as Chaouen, or the Spanish Xaouen

[3] God is The Greatest

[4] I bear witness that there is no lord except God

[5] I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God

[6] Muslim call to prayer, recited five times daily by the Muezzin.

[7] Make haste towards prayer

[8] Under Muslim rule Andalusia was known as Al-Andalus, and the name applied to a much larger area than the current Spanish province. Muslim rule of Andalusia was completely conquered in 1492 by the Catholic driven Spanish Reconquista.

[9] Make haste towards welfare [success]

[10] Much of the marijuana in Morocco is grown in the Chefchaouen region, and the locals openly smoke. The local people will often tell you that it is the best kif in the Rif.

[11] God is greatest

[12] This roughly translates to Exposing local artisans / Ancient and modern Moroccan carpets / Forwarding to all countries

[13] There is no lord except God

[14] The New Town