Malak Chapter One

Chapter One

Strangely, it’s windswept at sea, heavy seas, the ferry lifting occasionally out of the water, and seconds later yawing back down, bringing us all tumbling with it. I can see what the pilot’s up to, heading out for a short while, bearing the brunt of the Atlantic swell on our starboard side and slowly swinging around so that the main body of our voyage will be along the North African coast heading directly at, cutting into, the much smaller waves as she steams towards Tangiers. It will probably be sunny once we land, the same as it was in Spain. It’s all misty along the shoreline; I can scarcely make out the breakers at Sidi menhari bursting onto the rocks. Maybe it’s me. I brush my face, my eyes, with the back of my arm. It’s incongruous for a guy with my walk in life; all my returns are blighted in the same way. My arrivals at home, and now, as I begin through the mist to discern the shape of the east, minarets––buildings, and a hill a castle––in the distance an Iman calls the faithful, and I catch the occasional smells––good, bad, and delightful, mysterious––I have returned. The last thing I remember in this land is kissing the face of a young boy who loved me, appreciated me for an instance, and I am happy.
He had crossed from Tarifa, in the municipality of Cadiz. Just thirty-five minutes on the fast ferry served to bridge the gap between West and East, between two radically different cultures and ways of life. Morocco was changing, her culture a near to morbid victim of the West he mused, a historical war to achieve world hegemony. Globalisation, but Pete didn’t give a damn any longer; as far as he was concerned, it was all rotten, wherever you went, not the people, the real people, but the clowns who purported to represent them. He came through customs; his passport had already been stamped on board, during the crossing. As he emerged from the customs house into the bright sunlight, the general official guides, many of them clad in their yellow chilabas and gold tasselled bright red fez, offered their Ali Baba’s tours of the city and surrounds. We work for the government, was their slogan; Pete was amazed at how gullible people were.
He made his way through the phalanx of waiting guides, drivers waving placards offering their services, and a flotilla of waiting taxis, and then turned onto the commercial quay to make his way through the many articulated lorries parked there, down to a rough-looking makeshift café at the end of the dock. He sat down and ordered his food. Drowsily, he watched with one eye open, the other closed against the sun and the world, shutting them out, but wary like an ever-vigilant mastiff. The nearby sounds came to him in a muffled reality, and the further off ones as a murmur drifting lazily in the lethargic heat of the day. The occasional boat arrived or left, or just workmen sluggishly moving around, probably radically underpaid.
An unusually large powerboat turned into the immediate wharf area and, cutting off its engines, glided towards a landing with some steps up to the quay. The crew handled
her alongside silently, using boathooks to pull and stave her off, while a fifth occupant gathered his belongings and readied himself for shore. The man leapt from the boat. As he landed, his knee seemed to buckle and give way, so he threw himself sideways, apparently to avoid the sharp pain that was shooting up his leg. He fell onto the stone surface in the way athletes know how, and before anyone could react, he had recovered his stance and demeanour so that it seemed as if it had never happened. He hefted his seaman’s bag onto his shoulder and strode off briskly, although, under scrutiny, it was noticeable that he walked with a limp, just the tiniest of limps.
The food arrived, a round unleavened oven scorched loaf of Berber bread, and a chipped soup-plate filled with steaming semolina and chickpeas. Pete laid the paper he was reading down on the bench, next to where he sat.
“Shucran.” He thanked the waiter politely bowing his head and broke the bread.
It was a hot, blistering African day. Pete accepted the sweltering semi Saharan sun as did the locals. It was the will of Allah, as were the dust, the filth, the interminable attention of the flies, and the snotty four and five-year-olds cockily holding out their little hands and swearing at him gaily if he refused to give them money and told them to go. The fact that he had just been served a mouth-watering meal fit for a king from a quayside shanty café, which hardly seemed to exist, also seemed of divine providence.
The boat the man had jumped from had long since disappeared into the shimmering haze hanging over the bay, heading out as if towards the Spanish coast and nearby Tarifa, but swerving sharply round in a glistening mist of salt and spray to set course for Sidi Menhari on the Moroccan coast. A luxury power-boat, equipped with four big outboards. Pete was no expert, but 200 HP per motor seemed too speedy a craft for fishing, and the young guys manning her were perhaps police, military, or even smugglers, but most surely not workers. This part of the port area was full of lorries, many drivers patronising the shanty café eating their couscous and tajines. There were Germans and Spaniards; Frenchmen, men hailing from all over Europe and from North-Africa, carrying their loads to and from the vast African continent.
Pete stood up and stretched. It was early afternoon, a good time for a walk to help the food settle. He looked up the slope leading to the Kasbah. It ran from the port and into the darkness of the Arabic archway that was the entrance to the souk. The arch also served to house various small shops in its merciful shade; selling Halwa, the traditional sweet almond-based Moroccan cakes, and others selling Caliente2, a savoury bread-like food cooked and served from a large round tray. He climbed the hill and out of the scorching sun into the shade of the old arc. The road forked to the left, going up past the Moulay
1Bismillah, Arabic word meaning, “In the name of God” used in this case as a blessing of the meal.
2 Caliente is a spongy type of bread or tortilla made from chick pea flour served in a big round tray.It is served as a street delicacy in many places including Gibraltar,Tangiers and South America.
Ibrahim mosque to the Zoco Chico; and to the right a narrow, labyrinthine winding road wending its way under more and smaller archways.
Many years ago Pete had come to the bar, or tea shop when he left the hospital. Weakened, vague, and lost, with a tendency to get emotional. He had sat down exhausted amidst the canary cages hanging on the white walls around the outside of the bar. Completely drained, Pete fell into a trance-like reverie with the chirping of the birds and the soft breeze blowing up to the souk, soothing his troubled spirit. After some time had elapsed, the bartender awoke to his presence, a resultant shouting match erupting. Smelling strongly of marijuana a man came out to him, a long red Chilaba covering his small skinny frame. He looked like a character out of Repin3’s painting “Cossacks letter,” villainous, shifty, and birdlike with darting eyes.
“What do you want my friend?”
He just looked at Pete. He got no answer and stopped to read the look in his eyes, his gaunt face. “I’ll bring you chai, chai nana4.” He sent a boy to fetch six pieces of Halva, and he placed them for him on a small brass plate. When Pete awoke much later, the man, Abdul, was still there watching over him. He took him to a guesthouse nearby. They refused payment for the chai that morning, and every day that he went and sat there they continued to decline. The years had gone by, and he found that he always came there without even thinking about it, or realising it, whenever he arrived in the port. It wasn’t as if anyone greeted him. He would just come and sit down. They would glance at him, and if he returned their look, they would smile in a friendly fashion. Then they would serve him chai and slowly men would say hello, shake his hand. He was, after all, not from the barrio5, he was an outsider. Pete desired to do something to be part of these people perhaps find someone in need and for him to do something real to help. He had spent his whole life helping people or fighting for ideals, but they had lied to him, and he had gone along until it was so obvious it made him sick. There were other places where he would like to help more than here, but now he was here. Perhaps his grain of sand would be a start; who knows, probably Allah will show him what to do he mused, he’s the man here.
This time was as every time before. Except that it was many years later. Inside full of men and loud talk. Pete glanced in, and they looked questioningly, unsmilingly at him; he frowned to himself, but not a single face was familiar. All the seats were taken except the chair where the owner would usually sit. He backed out and sat in what had been his habitual place against the white wall.
A familiar face stooped to look into his. “Hello, my friend, you look well, where you been so long?” Pete started up, but the man silenced him with a gesture.
3 Ilya Yefimovich Repin the great 19th century Russian painter, born in Chuhuich Ukraine. His painting is titled “Group of Cossacks writing an insulting letter to the emperor of the turks.”
4 The traditional mint tea drunk in Morocco.
5 Spanish for neighbourhood, a word also used in Morocco.
“They are planning something.”
Abdul spoke guardedly; he had a tendency, in Pete’s experience, to dramatise everything. There was a mock villainous air about him, so that Pete, despite himself, was always amused. “Better we stay here with the birds. These people, they are not from the barrio.” He leaned over whispering, “They are traffic people.” The years had not changed him.
“Police, you mean?”
He laughed, wheezing, knowingly, showing his single tooth.
“No, no, not the police, never police. Traffic people, drugs,” He whispered urgently. “They are waiting for someone, someone big and dangerous. Better not look when this person come.”
“Put your head aside, not look.” So Pete looked away, as did Abdul and the others sitting outside. Everyone looked studiously at the canaries. He peered cautiously out of the corner of his eye as a group of heavyset men walked rapidly toward the bar.
“What is this Abdul? Not look? This is ridiculous; I’m not looking away, it’s hardly the king or anything. Abdul! Look at me, stop this.”
The other man slowly looked around and sheepishly smiled. “Ok, you are right, I make a movie in my head, but all people here do this, these are not good men.”
Just then a last man came walking towards us and the bar. He was slender, casually dressed in a designer hoody, jeans, and Nike shoes. As he approached, he smiled at them.
“Salaam Aleikum, la bas Alek6” as he said this, he put his hand to his heart and then up to his forehead, touched it with the flat of his palm, and then proffered it to the heavens, to Allah.
“Aleikum Salaam, Alhamdulillah7,” they replied in unison, and he completed the greeting. “Alhamdullah” Then he strode into the café. Abdul looked at Pete resignedly and shrugged his shoulders.
“That, my friend, was the man I did not want you to see. He is like Shaitan8, Satanas.”
“But I’ve seen him before,” Pete retorted. He had the slightest of limps, which brought it to mind, he was the man who leapt from the boat.
As they walked up the hill past the Zoco Chico9, it was already evening, and the loud staccato wail from the muezzins started off, building up speed in a fashion reminiscent of a 1920s record player. The street of the souk was crowded, and the call to prayer made
6 Traditional Arabic greeting.
7 All praise and thanks to Allah.
8.Evil creature, the devil, in the Islamic culture.
9 Zoco chico, small square.
not a dint on the humming hive of activity. They dodged scooters and barrows, even a small van which uninhibitedly hurtled past the shops, confident that the crowds of walkers would somehow get out of the way. Abdul just sidestepped without even thinking as he simultaneously greeted all the shop owners, who stood ready to swoop on any passing tourist. Pete did his utmost to avoid Abdul’s best attempts to introduce him to the whole street. It was a relief to reach the Zoco Grande and a petit taxi10 to take him to Hotel Wadi al Quibir.
Abdul shook his hand on the other side of the street to the hotel. As usual, he seemed loath to come too close to the hotel’s entrance, to be seen with a foreigner. Pete theorised that perhaps he saw himself as a shifty-looking type and Abdul, to tell the truth ideally fitted the profile, though it later transpired that the head doorman was a distant cousin. After the salaams to all and sundry, Pete went to his usual room––large, bright, airy––a metal stairway down to the pool, which it overlooked. It was an old property and enjoyed the charm of a typical hotel of the area and period. An ornate reception led on to an enormous salon with the original walls sofas and carpets still intact. The bellboys wore uniforms of yellow trousers and shirts, with a red fez riding jauntily on their heads; like stepping out of a movie set in colonial times.
The salon’s French windows were habitually open so that guests could step out and enjoy the evening cool sitting at tables and chairs, appreciating the breeze blowing off the old pool and gardens and the scents released by the jasmine. The lawns and flowerbeds were carefully manicured by an old gardener who remembered the visits of the Sultans11. His grandchildren would often come to play in the pool as Pete lay reading on the grass. They were lively but respectful, as were most of the children he met here now and again, making them a delight to Pete’s ear and easy to live with.
Pete sprawled across the big bed, lying on his back, just listening to the hum of activity from the streets below. The smells of Morocco, honeysuckle, and Azahar wafted in from the gardens on the sultry evening breeze. Suddenly he felt excited; he was back.
For a day he wandered nonchalantly around the old city buying trinkets, but only after spending hours haggling over the prices. Sometimes he would leave a shop, only to return two hours later to make a slightly higher offer. Just to let the shopkeeper know that he was in no hurry, that he was going nowhere, and that, yes, he would buy but at a fair price. One shop owner, a patent insolence in his mocking smile, remarked, “Sir they are no longer available,” nothing more by way of explanation.
Pete bowed his head humbly, “The will of Allah, all praise and thanks to him.”
The shop owner was taken aback by the other’s humility, so untypical for a westerner. He frowned thoughtfully, “Oh I am so sorry,” he stuttered with a changed face. “There is
10 Petit taxi is a smaller taxi which can only operate in town and not on the motorways, much cheaper.
11 Mohammed V. Sidi Mohammed ben Yusef, or Son of (Sultan) Yusef, upon whose death he succeeded to the throne. A member of the Alaouite Dynasty. On 20 August 1953, the French who were occupying Morocco at the time forced Mohammed V and his family into exile on the island of Corsica.
an error.” He shouted words of Arabic at a bewildered assistant, “Ahmed, why did you tell me the Gnaua12 stones, the ones on the string, had been sold, you dolt?” Looking at me, he said in French, “C’est pas le couteau le plus afile du tiroir13.”
Ahmed looked at us, a look of total bewilderment on his face. Long seconds later the penny appeared to have dropped; then he busied himself searching and produced some slippers. The shop owner, incredulous, started screeching and beating him about the head with the slippers as they disappeared into the back of the shop.
“Forgive me, your Excellency,” fawned the repentant and subdued Ahmed to a patient Pete, who was by now sitting enjoying a glass of chai nana, which had miraculously appeared for his refreshment as he waited. “Inshallah, the stones will be here,” he whimpered as he did his make-believe rummaging. When the stones were eventually produced, Pete inspected them to ensure they were the same ones he had seen earlier. The shop owner insisted, “Yes, my friend, they are the stones for which we agreed on the price of two thousand dirhams.”
“Fifty dirhams I offered. You then asked for one thousand and nine hundred. You said that Gnaua was very rare now, not like in the sixties. At this point, I left for some pressing business in spite of your offers to further review the price. And now I have returned and am willing to pay you one hundred dirhams for the stones, even though it seems high to me.”
“I will do something special for you, my friend, as you are a visitor and friend to the city for so many years. Ahmed, give me the stones. Here, take them, and these real leather handmade slippers for your comfort, and give me only one thousand dirhams. I will have a quarrel with my brothers over this, but for you.”
The shop owner sauntered off to the street, but Ahmed was in and out. He could hear them conversing, something about the Jamal, the word for camel. Grinning, knowing that he, Pete, was the Jamal, he could nearly even hear the owner saying, “Well, is the Jamal14 going to cough up or what?” In Spain, it was El Guiri15, o el Pajaro, the bird. He got to his feet slowly. “Thank you very much for your hospitality, I have more pressing business and must run.”
“No, no, please, tell me your last price.”
“No, really, I have people waiting for me to sign a paper. I really must go.”
“Okay, okay, give me five hundred dirhams.”
12 Gnaua or Gnawa a mystical ethnic group from Northern Africa. It´s members practice ritual dances to go into a state of trance.
13 An expression which indicates that the assistant is not overly bright. ; he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
14 The camel, the shop owner is using the word despectively.
15 El guiri, a despective term used in some Spanish speaking countries to describe a north european or north American.
“I’ll give you three hundred, and the slippers are included.”
“Four hundred, my friend, not for you, not for me, and the slippers are included.”
Pete made to leave wordlessly.
“Okay, okay, give me your hand. Three hundred dirhams. You are ruining me.”
Well, the Jamal has turned out to be a nasty Jamal, a hard-bargaining Jamal. He thought, amused, as he waited in silence for the stones to be handed to him, then for the slippers, which were produced with much shoulder shrugging and patent resignation.
He walked down the alley, his new acquisitions in a black plastic bag, “I bet I’ve been stitched up anyway. Probably could have had them at a hundred dirhams. I bet they’re rubbing their hands in glee, having a good old cackle the owner with that Ahmed. Ahhhh Ahmed, in the end, they are all Jamal.”
He tried to ignore Abdelkader’s driving skills as they drove out of Tangiers through the early morning rush hour traffic, eager to start, to sail through the magic of Morocco “sin rumbo.16” Just travel, see and stop when he felt the need to eat, sleep, or to be amongst people.
Riding sedately in a beaten-up old Mercedes taxi driven by another of Abdul’s cousins, Abdelkader. Up, past “California” and the king’s palace, then through the ancient pine trees of Smillet. Here the old colonial road of Sidi Masmouti joins the new road. On the right is the Atlantic and looming up in the distance the unmistakable shape of the old empire’s nostalgia: Gibraltar, the rock. The road signs in Arabic and European herald the imminent appearance of the lighthouse of Cape Spartel17 and the Caves of Hercules.
The car suddenly stopped, Abdelkader gesticulated and explained to Pete in Arabic that the wind had blown a three-wheeled vehicle off the road and into the massive storm drain. Pete figured it out for himself, as his knowledge of the local dialect was very rusty. He kept promising to go to school for a month in Fez, eventually, as a mark of respect. He tried to help the stunned, perhaps concussed, driver. Abdelkader was still yelling, sometimes into the phone and otherwise at them. The driver asked why Abdelkader was so upset; after all, he was the one who had the accident. He looked straight into Pete’s face grinning.
“Do you think maybe he is mad?”
“Maybe, he was grinding his teeth loudly as we drove.”
16 Sin Rumbo. Without a fixed route or destination.
17 Cape Spartel, A promontory with lighthouse marking the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar.
“Who knows, a dog could have bitten him, or maybe his wife threw him from the house,” snorted the man. The ambulance arrived, a really smart affair with two uniformed, very efficient medics. One of them asked, “Why is he laughing?”
“Maybe the shock,” said Pete.
On the outskirts of Asilah, the driver slowed down and parked. He took his prayer mat, laid it on the pavement by the car, and knelt to pray. The smells of meat cooking, new bread, spices, and nana––mint–– occasionally wafted by on the breeze; it was a tantalising aroma, and Pete was suddenly starving. He followed the scent to the end of the square where people were sitting at tables and on the walls of the unkempt flowerbeds, and not at any particular café. A local sauntered up. One of the wonders of Morocco is that there is always a multilingual guide everywhere you go. They have to be paid, but the investment is mainly worthwhile. Out of the crowd or the alleyways, everywhere, they suddenly appear and stick to their chosen clients like leeches.
“Hello, I will translate.” Pete ignored him.
“Buy the lamb, the howli, in the boulangerie18, ask to mince once, only once not more. Now! Give me one euro, only one.”
“Not very shy, are you? Faster than a Rumanian accordion player, three chords and out comes the hat.” Pete went into the butchers. The man behind the counter ignored him, so Pete’s new friend ordered in Arabic;
He said to Pete, “One kilo I have ordered, okay? And I am not Rumanian; I am Moroccan.”
More Arabic, very guttural, sounding aggressive but it all sounded aggressive.
“Everything okay?” enquired Pete.
“Yes, okay, I tell him you are my old friend, so he not give us shit.”
“So next time I come on my own?.”
“Now he remembers your face; he will always give you good now,”
The kitchen was a disused building plot, the only empty one amongst the shops. The aroma and smoke emanated from a makeshift open-air counter, behind which were various trays of burning coals and cinders. The chef, an old turbaned man, handled all the many skewers loaded with howli, lamb, which created billows of smoke and sparks as he
18 Butchers in french.
flipped them loaded with meat over to the uncooked side and banged them down onto the charcoal.
“Watch out for his hands, so he does not change our meat for another ”
The turban seemed to have understood? He suddenly emitted a long roll of very throaty Darija, the local Arabic dialect, with glaring eyes and a waving handful of skewers.
“He is just asking if you want kefta, not everyone has kefta, some have kebabs. Once we see our kefta cakes, we can go to the shop for our Berber bread. Don’t worry; he´s clean, all germs will die in the fire.”
At the town of Lamalai, an old Spanish stronghold, Pete made the driver go right through the old port and down to the Spanish square next to the sea, the zoco and Medina. He was lying on the seat, the kebabs and Berber bread lying next to him. It was while he was there at the improvised open-air cookhouse that the sadness, the guilt, and its accompanying exhaustion had arrived, unbidden as was its wont. When they arrived at the square, they carried him: Abdul’s cousin Abdelkader the driver, and others who came running to help. He walked as well as he could, and many hands held him up. It always amazed him to see the brutality which was so prevalent at moments suddenly turn into tenderness, kindness. But it was, perhaps only because he was a stranger and a foreigner at that. The thought crossed his bemused mind, and he pushed it away, his demons were ever-present. Whenever again, would he be able to accept things as they happened? Kindness, the good stuff at least. Stop questioning the whys and the reasons. He staggered through the Medina, the posse that was carrying him, narrowly avoiding the stalls selling fruit, meat, and fish.
“Latifa,” he said, speaking as in a dream. “Latifa.”
“Yes, yes, Latifa,” they knew her. “Latifa, Latifa,” they chorused and laughed raucously. At what, Pete had no idea.
They stopped, an unruly band of men holding up a seemingly drunken giant amongst them, they asked at the kiosk; they knew her there, yes. A child knew her door, then other children, they were leading the posse, and Pete staggered in their midst, not seeing or hearing, just aware of the black mist, the blackness that he could see through but which was all of which he was aware. The children ran ahead and were pulling at his arms, and others were knocking on a door, and then Latifa was there, and she made them carry him upstairs.
After some time, he realised where he was. She brought him tea and put a blanket over him. Slowly the mist started to lift, the sadness began to go, but he was worried as always after the depression, concerned because he was not in control.