The Two Aminas

Meknes, Morocco
September 2014

Riad el MaAmina meets me by chance at the door to Riad el Ma. “Have you been waiting long?” she asks in a tentative English. “Not at all,” I reply.

We stand in the narrow lane as she fumbles with the lock of the black wooden door. It pushes open and we descend through a passage, then to the right down the stairs into the main patio.

“You were to be here yesterday,” she says. “But the strike.”

“Yes,” I say. “I came up this morning from Casa.”

Amina is one of the managers of Riad el Ma, a 200-year-old mansion across from the grand mosque in the heart of the Meknes medina. It was renovated two years ago from the ground up and is now a sublime riad with top ratings from Trip Advisor and several guidebooks. Beside the serene courtyard patio, there are two nice salons and a big rooftop terrace with a small pool and a view of the mosque’s minaret.

Amina takes me on the tour, showing me the blue room for singles off the patio and the Bebdi room upstairs. “Which is quieter?” I ask. “Blue room,” she answers. As we’re already there, she shows me the black-and-white room for three people, as well. “The blue room is fine,” I tell her.

“Meknes medina is more … how do you say? It is calm,” Amina says.Back at the patio, Amina brings me mint tea and honey cookies, along with the usual check-in form. I eat at the little bistro table while she sits across from me copying out my passport number. “My English is not good,” she says. “You don’t speak French?”

“No.”

“The other Amina, she speaks good English. She will be here after four.” She sighs and keeps writing, then passes the form to me to sign. “You only stay for one night?”

“I’m afraid so. I wanted to stay two nights, but I have to go to Fes tomorrow. It’s too late to postpone my stay there.”

“Fes is hectic,” Amina says. “Meknes medina is more … how do you say? It is calm. It is little.”

She asks me where I want to go, scribbles out the main sights on a compact map of the medina and Ville Imperiale: the medersa nearby, the Musee Janai on the main square, the covered market, the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss, and the Heri es Souani, which is way off the map. It is a very small, crammed-together map in the tiniest of point sizes, too tightly packed to be readable. No doubt, I’ll get hopelessly lost.

“Are you going to Volubilis?” Amina asks. Yes, the Roman ruins are why I came here mostly. She gives me options to get there. I can hire a driver for the day for 350 dirham, about 40 dollars. The cheaper option is to take a grand taxi (shared taxi) to Moulay Idriss town and then walk three kilometers to Volubilis and back and ultimately take a grand taxi back to Meknes.

Amina has a hard time explaining it and a harder time answering my follow-up questions. “The other Amina can tell you,” she says. “Okay?” She smiles. She has a light-up smile.

In the evening when I return for the day, Amina introduces me to her namesake, a tall, thin young woman with her hair covered in a scarf. The second Amina does speak good English. She explains about Volubilis. It is a five kilometer walk, not three, each way. About three miles. She thinks it may be possible for me to get a grand taxi from Volubilis or a shared taxi from there to Moulay Idriss if it rains. Either way, there’s a lot of walking.

When the second Amina asks me where I’m going from Meknes, she tells me the same thing the first Amina said about Fes: “It is hectic.”

I stay for dinner, a multi-course feast that the second Amina arranges, alongside the cook. There is soup, chicken and vegetable tajines, and a dessert of chocolate mousse that leaves me blissful.

After dinner, the first Amina brings me a photo album detailing the tremendous renovation of the riad, from a pile of rubble in the patio to months of craftsmen painstakingly restoring the mosaics on the walls, the patio tile, the fountain with its intricate tile work, and the roof terrace and pool. There are photos of the first Amina, opening the door, working in the kitchen, posing with the second Amina and the women who work here. In all the photos she is beaming her beautiful smile. She is proud of what they have built here and of the recognition they have received.

“I wish you a good day in Volubilis and journey to Fes tomorrow,” she tells me. “I will not be here, but Amina will take care of you. Merci. Thank you.”

Once more that smile. I wish I could stay here another night, but if I did, I might not want to leave. If only I spoke some French.

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