Baby lion, Imohagg
It was a beautiful spring day. I left Tangiers early as I wanted to drive along the coast. The Atlantic breakers, which in winter could reach mammoth proportions, were tiny white ponies tripping in gaily and fizzling out magically as they ran up the sandy beaches. The small river that always caught my eye because of its broad meanderings was more swollen than usual, although in a very sedate fashion. It was very much a countryside river although it was close to the coast, making its steady way to join the glistening waters of the Atlantic.
It ran through fields with high shoulders, alternating with soft, accessible banks and allowing the cows and sheep that grazed on the tough grass to wander into its waters to drink and bathe, on the hotter days which would soon come treading on the heels of the gentler spring ones. Only one or two kilometres further along, just before arriving at the Coastal town of Asilah with its blue-washed houses, the road crossed the estuary of a large river.
The waters merged dreamily with the gently waxing sea and its petit white-crested wavelets, spotted with the occasional sandbars, which were either being born and growing or dying and diminishing depending on the time of day, as the water unceasingly washed away at their phantom shores.
The camping site of Les Sables Dór where we had spent many of our childhood summers was abandoned and the holiday shacks were being pulled down in preparation for yet another garish development of beach dwellings. What they were doing was beyond me. Surely seeing the Spaniards destroy their own sun coasts with overdevelopment should have taught them a lesson. But it was happening everywhere, as long as there was a potential market for the properties.
On the other side of the road, it was countryside. We went over the fields one day with my father and mother, Tanamart and I, on a discovery trip. To our amazement, we stumbled upon a long, straight road. We had never seen anything like it before. It seemed to go on for miles and miles. In some places, weeds grew through cracks in between the paving stones of which it was built and at the edges were large stones, buried deep, which held the paving slabs together. Volcanic concrete, probably Roman, my father said, the road had been constructed nearly 2000 years ago.
It dawned on me, that this was what I had been taught, but not really understood that the Romans had not just made incursions into North Africa, they had actually made it into a Roman province. The word Africa was a Roman word derived from the Berber word Afri; dear Lord, for how long had the West held sway over us and was still doing so onto the present day?
The Madrassah started on Monday through to Thursday. On Friday, the children left at midday, as it was the official day of prayer for the whole community. My days for teaching English there were Monday and Thursday afternoon for two-hour periods. There were two new children, one a small younger girl, and her elder sister. I knew who they were. It was the little ragamuffin from the fence and the girl who came to find her; something must have happened in their lives. I asked them to stand up and tell the class their names.
“You first, please,” I said to the elder girl. She stood up, blushing fiercely, and whispered. I more or less lip-read her name, and then I announced it to the class as she looked at me gratefully and sat down.
“Her name is Murdiyyah,” I announced.
“And I am Malak.” The smaller girl had leaped to her feet and, holding her head proudly and looking straight at me, introduced herself. Her record showed her age as five going on six, yet her face and attitude told me otherwise. Two girls tittered loudly. I got the class to welcome the newcomers, who settled in. I said nothing to Malak about the fact that I knew who she was. She occasionally glanced at me enquiringly and expectantly, readied and anticipating my questions, which I was in reality very eager to pose. I decided, however, that she would tell me herself if she wanted to in her own time. The next day that I attended the school, I noticed that the two girls were sitting on their own in a corner. Not knowing really what to make of it, I let it be; time, again, would tell. Teddy lived in the car now as I neither knew how to give him to the girl, or what to say to Saul.
I heard the screams and shouts even as I emerged from the school. I could see a crowd. When I got close enough to detect what was happening, I dived in recognising the fact that they were children, probably pupils. As I pulled them off each other with the help of a passer-by, I was momentarily shocked to find that the little wildcat I was holding back, her features contorted as she threatened and growled and fought to get free to punch again, was Malak. The other man held her sparring partners, the two boys, with another boy and a girl, who were also involved, looking on bashfully. Her opponents, worse for wear, one of them with a blackening eye and scratches, looked as if they had been fighting a tiger cub, but the other side was far from unscathed, as Malak’s pretty dress hung in shreds. An old man came out of the shadows.
“I have seen all, may Allah be my judge. I saw the boys running after them; she is a tiger that one. The other children came behind them, they pulled the ribbons in the dresses of the girls, and they pushed and kicked them, said terrible things, called them she-camels. Suddenly she turned, and it was something to see. She went for them fearlessly scratching and punching and kicking, yet silent all the while. Then I came, but another younger man was faster. Are they not from here? Are they people of the desert, Imohagg, free people? Then all would be clear.”
“Thank you, sir, thank you,” I said, but there was no stopping him.
“The little one, she is brave like the Imohagg, like the mujahideen. She has the soul of Abd-el-Krim, Inshallah, her life will be sweet, as she also has beauty, although this can sometimes bring out the evil in men.”
There were still children and people hanging around looking. I was mesmerised hearing the old man, but I had to cut him off with a smile and a brush of his hand. His ancient, weather-beaten face, lined with a hundred creases, lit up with an understanding smile.
“Go home! Go home!” I said, waving my hands at the crowd fearing to see a Gendarme suddenly appear. Then I saw Malak. She had turned away from me. I could see her little shoulders heaving as she gathered what was left of her dress around her, and Murdiyyah was trying to comfort her. She wept silently and suddenly ran off with Murdiyyah chasing behind calling her name. I blessed the old man and took off in the same direction they had gone. As I ran, I thought I heard a voice calling my name, shouting in Arabic, hailing someone. I stopped and listened. Again I heard it, a call. I looked back and saw the old man, now in the distance, waving his stick vigorously in my direction and pointing at something. It was at a man who stood beside him. I strained my vision trying to make out who it was; the man was now running towards me, so this time I heard it.
“Moon, Moon!” I was astounded. Only one person I knew would turn up out of the blue calling me Moon, what he was doing here was a mystery. He had a knack for appearing at the most unexpected moments. He came up to where I stood and started jumping around throwing feinted punches at me, some not so feinted. It was his sheepish British way of greeting an old friend.
“What are you doing here, Ruben? I had you down as playing soldiers somewhere?”
“Got bored, went over the fence, AWOL. Thought I’d say hi before the MPs show up.”
Ruben was a friend I had met in Spain about two years ago when my father was injured. His father, Ruben, and other friends saved my life on more than one occasion. He was an idiot, though, although a nice one, with a tendency to dramatise.
“Come on,” I said setting off again at a lope. “There are two little heartbroken kids I must catch up with.”
“Here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go o, here we go,” Ruben chanted out at the top of his voice as we ran down the street. People out for their evening walks looked at us to see who it was, and what the ruckus was. We turned down a side street on our way to the Medina and where I knew the girls lived. Then I saw them; they were up against the wall outside a bar hemmed in by two men. It was lucky I noticed, and it was only because, as I passed, Malak shouted at the men as she tried to escape from their grasp. The child was trying to push through the two, yelling in her little girl voice as she did, but I saw the larger one grab her quickly by the neck and pull her back, her shouting turning into a squeal, seizing my attention. I stopped and went up to them. One of them was big and fat, and the other tall and hard-bitten; in fact, they both looked extremely nasty bits of work.
“Nice friends you’ve made for yourself, Moon, not even the foreign legion would have them.”
They smelled strongly of drink, and as I came up, turned around to face me without letting go of Malak, who the big man had grabbed roughly by the neck with his calloused hand and held as if she was a rag doll. She fought pulling with all her might at his hand, finger by finger, in an utterly futile attempt to release herself. I wondered insanely whether they had been drinking champagne or straight rum.
“What’s on the football today?” I thought I could probably defuse things, but they didn’t seem to relax at all. Anyway, I wasn’t very chuffed at how he was holding Malak. But then he was her father, and we were in Morocco, and I had no right.
“What do you want?” the big man growled.
“Is there a problem here?” I asked politely.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I am the teacher from the Madrassah,” I said, “and Malak and Murdiyyah are my pupils.”
We had an audience made up of other patrons of the bar sitting at tables in the street, as well as curious passers-by. It seemed that everyone was participating, listening in; I heard the word madrassah uttered by various voices in the crowd.
“I am the father of these girls,” he slurred drunkenly, and the echoes came back various times. “The father, he is the father.” Then, he suddenly and unexpectedly backhanded Murdiyyah with his free hand as if to assert his fatherhood. She screamed and fell, and as I tried to get through to comfort her, the other man grabbed me aggressively by the shoulder. Wrong move, I thought. So much for defusing the situation, as a forgotten Ruben kicked over the two nearest tables and amidst screams and the sound of breaking glass landed a flying dropkick right in the face of the father, who fell heavily onto yet another table, smashing it with his weight.
“Teach you to hit little girls, you dirty piece of shit.”
I elbowed the other man, who was still holding my shoulder viciously with a downward lunge into his face. He went down, but as the father started trying to regain his feet in spite of his fall, I realised these guys were hardened seamen, and their mates would probably turn up, so Ruben and I would have more on our hands than we could handle. I grabbed the girls by the hands, and we ran, with Ruben bringing up the rear. He was laughing.
“What a to-do, what a welcome. If I’d known, Moon, that you were up to your usual tricks, I’d have stayed away.”
“Hold on, Ruben, let me think.” We were walking now, just approaching the place where the girls lived. “I really can’t think what to do; we can’t just leave them here. Did you have to kick him? Set the cat amongst the pigeons now.”
A woman walking ahead of us turned as we approached and the girls ran to her. It must be their mother, I thought.
“Should have carried on, should have walloped the cad — what a lowlife. They’re just kids; the smaller one is still a baby, more or less. Moon, they’re just kids, I couldn’t just let him do that. Anyway, it was a good chance to practise my kick.”
The woman turned on us just as we got to their door. “What have you done? For the love of Allah, now he will kill us. What have you done?” she wailed, tears pouring down her terrorised face. That set Murdiyyah off also crying loudly; people were coming out of their doors to watch. The muezzins suddenly started up. I got the impression that many of the neighbours watching were gloating, inwardly celebrating that the misfortune they suspected they were about to witness was someone else’s. A woman with a baby slung on her back came walking through the alley carrying her shopping. And then they came. I knew they were coming because people started to dart back into their doorways to watch from a more sheltered position. Marching up the alley they came, there must have been a dozen of them, carrying sticks and cudgels.
“Bloody hell, Moon.”
The big man, the father, was at their head, and he went straight at the children’s mother. The two girls were standing with her, holding onto her, the woman with the baby stepped in the way as he charged, and he stopped, her bags fell and scattered their contents. Lettuces, carrots, oranges, all rolled down the gutters.
“Mohammed! Stop this madness,” she screamed.
“She is a whore; she is a dirty animal like her offspring. They have found foreigners to seduce with their lies, to destroy me. I will kill them all.” He pushed at the woman with the baby, and I leapt frantically to save them from falling. Ruben threw himself at the father, but suddenly his friends with their cudgels were amongst us. There was lots of screaming, and I was doing my best to protect the woman and the baby. I could hear Ruben yelling, and I knew we were going to be beaten, severely.
I lifted my arm to block a stick that was hurtling toward my face; it never struck. I saw my assailant crashing against the wall. I realised someone else, someone silent, but someone who was evidently on our side––a massive man––had arrived on the scene. Those of the attackers who were able to reach him via the narrow alley, rushed and lunged at him malevolently with their weapons of choice, only to receive kicks or blows from the foot, hand, shin even his head, from the man whirling silently and at the speed of lightning. And when all were lying still, broken heads in puddles of their blood, or cowering in the shadows, or running for their lives up, back through the alley from whence they had come, he kicked at the neighbour’s doors screaming.
“Hyenas, bloody hyenas,” he kicked one door violently, then another, until we were alone: the crying women, the children, Ruben, and myself. Ruben moaned loudly, nursing his head.
“You all right, Ruben?”
“Yeah, I’m just moaning with relief.”
The man came to where the woman with the child lay by my side and lifted her and the baby with a tenderness entirely at odds with the rage of the fearsome man who had minutes before put paid to the aggressor’ s intentions. To my surprise, the girls ran to him, and he turned, gathering them both up also into his big arms, kissing them gently, fondly. “Gather up all the groceries and come with me all of you, quickly.”