A tagine is not made of copper.

It was an understandable mistake to make before I’d traveled in Morocco, really.  A traditional tagine is made of a ruddy clay. If you squint and are a little drunk, you might be excused for describing a tagine as “coppery” —  if the domed top is glazed and very, very shiny.

That’s actually a good overall description of how my mind imagines a place before I travel to it: a destination as seen through the eyes of drunk, squinting.  Now that I’ve been home from Morocco for a week, my preconceptions (and misconceptions) have been swept away by actual experience.

On the other hand, let’s not pretend that actual experience eliminates the role of imagination. For now that I’m back home, I find myself once again imagining Morocco, by way of my memories.

Tagines in Morocco

Memory feels solid, but it is in fact fragile. It’s not nearly as robust as imagination, which routinely edits our memories of events. For example, we tend to remember ourselves as the central character in any circumstance, regardless of our actual importance at the time.  We often incorporate bits and pieces from similar events we’ve experienced, or events we’ve heard about, or the reactions of the people with whom we share our memories with after the fact.  Imagination can even turn memories into total fabrications.

I’ve touched on some of this before, but if this intrigues you as much as it does me, you will want to read about the memory research of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Slate ran a terrific series on her not that long ago; there’s a more terse summary in this profile in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. There’s also a chilling article about memory manipulation and Tiananmen Square.

As a nonfiction writer, unreliable memories are a professional concern; when I travel I take copious notes and routinely shoot more than 100 photos a day. But I’m deliberately not looking at any of my memory aids just now — I won’t insert the photos into this post until I’m done writing — so I can rely entirely on my imaginative memory of Morocco.

It’s different than the picture I described before traveling, that Route 66 postcard. Now it’s a series of dreamlike shadowy impressions.

I remember the intricate pattern etched into the pavement on the streets near the mosque, and then walking near to the plaza Djemma el Fna, on a Saturday night among a group of veiled women and men in jellabas. I remember wondering whether the bus that had just wooshed up had been in service during the day, since I hadn’t registered the sight of commuter buses among the petit cabs and horses and motorbikes earlier that day. I remember the gray light inside the bus, although it was probably just the window tint.

I remember eating lunch high in the Atlas Mountains, and looking up at the peaks around me soaring higher still, and realizing that if I squinted I could make out entire Berber villages up there, and people climbing up snaking, pebble and boulder-strewn roads to get home.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco

I remember the smell of rosewater on my hands and the taste of dates and almond milk. Also the smell of layers and layers of horse urine on a day that was over 100 degrees, and a wall of searing cobalt blue. And how, in my room at night,  I did not like to look out over Marrakech , because the orange glow of high-pressure sodium street lights were the same as any city anywhere. It was only by day that I could see through the palm leaves that all the buildings in the city were in the shape of cubes — either fashioned out of red clay or painted to look like they had been.

Ah, and so there’s a clue about the story imagination would like to shape from my Morocco memories.  I want an exotic story to tell; so my memory did not as readily bring up the many European women wearing tank tops and shorts against advice (and, in my view, respect), that were among the crowd near the mosque that Saturday night; nor the flushed Scottish woman who eagerly complained to me about the heat.

I did not at first remember how oppressed I felt on the long flight back home by the announcement in Arabic, which I understand not at all, and then French, which I understand some, and eventually in indifferently translated and often incomprehensible English.

I stared at the overhead sign that had Arabic script on one side, and the word Exit on the other, for hours.  But no matter how long I looked at those curving letters, I could not resolve the shapes into language.

I do know that I will eventually resolve my Morocco memories into meaning.

But I do not kid myself: my imagination will leave its fingerprints all over that process.