Malak Desert Child.
Chapter One, PETE
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 roughlooking 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 soupplate 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 almondbased Moroccan cakes, and others selling Caliente, 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 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 Repin’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 nana.” 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 barrio, 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.
“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 Alek” 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, Alhamdulillah,” 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 Shaitan, 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 Chico, 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 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 taxi 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, one time, 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 trousersand 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 Sultans  . 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 hewas 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 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 tiroir.”
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.
12 Gnaua or Gnawa a mystical ethnic group from Northern Africa. It´s members practice ritual dances to go into a state of trance.
“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
Jamal going to cough up or what?” In Spain, it was El Guiri, 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.”
“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 English herald the imminent appearance of the lighthouse of Cape Spartel  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 at Pete grinning.
“Do you think maybe he is mad?”
“Maybe, he was grinding his teeth loudly as we drove.”
“Who knows, a dog could have bitten him, or maybe his wife threw him from the house,” retorted 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 boulangerie, 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 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 Larache, 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.
Chapter Two, Malak
Pete lay back against the wall of the small sitting room holding the steaming tea in his hand, welcoming the pain of the heat against his fingers. The smell of mint was heady as he put his lips gingerly to the rim of the hot glass and slurped at the sweet liquid.
He was in the best and the most prominent room in the tiny house. All around was wall seating covered with brightly covered cloth. The only table, of the type thrown together for sale to the tourists in the medina, a burnished yellow metal plate resting on a spindly wooden affair. The people here prided themselves on the size, quantity, and luxury of the tearooms in their homes. This one was very humble, and she knew she was fortunate to have one at all.
The baby had been screaming for several minutes, and the man made a few lethargic attempts to entertain her; it was a little girl baby, he knew because she wore pink. Everyone knows boys wear blue and girls pink, but even here deep in Islam? He tried feeding her with a piece of bread, the Berber type off the big round loaf. But the infant screamed even louder, so he gave up.She was red in the face.
Maybe I’m a monster to her; any more yelling and the neighbours will rush in and lynch me.
The woman picked the baby up and hung it suspended from her head in a long scarf. The screaming stopped and became gurgles of laughter. The man felt nothing though. The screaming child didn’t touch him, didn’t irritate him, and he was at peace. He knew and trusted the woman; she was kind and well-intentioned. Her house was spotlessly clean although draughty and cold, but a solitary electric fire brought some warmth and cheer to the room.
As she cooked in her minuscular kitchen with just one burner on a historic gas stove, and the baby swinging from her head, she spoke incessantly in her pidgin Spanish. The man ignored her; it was probably the baby to whom she was talking. He didn’t understand anything she said, he never had. She hadn’t changed; she would communicate with him when necessary with gestures and pushing or pulling him.
The woman had been his friend for years, ever since he scared off the man who was hassling her in Tangiers and took her to his flat. She had been carrying a small battered case, so he knew that she had nowhere to go. Her name was Latifa, and she became his willing slave, in his home, for the several months that he lived there.
From sunrise to dusk she’d cook, clean, prepare, and follow him around the house. He would leave dirhams on the kitchen table and, after lunch, the change and receipts would be there waiting for him to check. He never did, he didn’t care. Then one day he left, leaving her with some money and amongst friends. She was broken, he had never had her, never wanted her, and she had never been anything to him but a girl needing a friend. Over the years he had always sent her money from wherever he was, and she would always let him know where she lived.
The man’s name was Pete. He wanted to be in a wilderness or a desert just surviving in the way he was so good at, but the solitude would weigh heavily upon him, and he needed someone when the blackness descended. He didn’t want much, just a girl of the kind he had always loved. Strangely enough, he had only ever loved Russian girls. He was made to love and care for a woman, a traditional breed of man unwilling to move with the times, although acutely aware that they had changed and that he would one day need to move forward.
Over the years he came to know that the stranger, the misfit, was him. Pete couldn’t adapt to the new western woman and her foibles, her arrogance, and male traits. He came to see that in Spain the hereto downtrodden Spanish Maria was wreaking long overdue revenge on her masculine counterpart, after years of abuse at his oft-times cruel and unfaithful hands. Pete, an outsider, a child of a more evolved and structured culture, with its ideals of fair play and good manners, which he practised as his moral code, was shocked to discover that his Spanish partner had grown to hate him purely because he was a man. He watched on confused, as he realised that men had become a form of prey to her and her kind.
No longer the days of passive courtship. Now they, the women, were the predators; they selected, they destroyed egos and spirits. He concluded that, of course, this had all been designed and would be followed by the era of the pulling down of all the constraints and taboos painstakingly erected by our forefathers for the protection of our societies. To the degree that humankind in the Western world would be finally subjugated to the wills of the senseless superbrains who ran the consumer giants. Pete could see all this, you didn’t need to be a genius, but it seemed to him that the majority of people in the West were blind or mesmerised by what was happening.
Latifa pulled at his arm, and he drowsily opened his eyes. The earthenware dish was heavily laden with semolina cooked with young tender lamb, vegetables, and chickpeas. She gave him a spoon, and he started to eat straight from the dish in Moroccan fashion. The baby was on the carpeted floor with a little girl of some five or six years of age who must have come to the house while he slept.
As he ate, he noticed the beautiful facial features of the child and her long thick hair. Even though she was dressed in rags and dirty, her face smeared and her hands black, the child was striking. She glanced at the food, still attending to the baby, and even though she looked away, her eyes wandered back to the overladen dish. Then she’d put her chin out abruptly as an inward gesture, a self-correction, and look elsewhere.
She’s starving poor little cow, Pete thought, but proud, amazing a five-year-old urchin with a gutful of pride.
“What is her name?” He pointed at the child.
“Malak” she replied. “Her mother works, so she and her sister are on the streets all day.”
“So what’s the problem with school?”
“No money.” She said something about him to the child, who turned and looked at Pete. Her teeth were white and perfect, and her smile entirely unexpected in a face whose total lack of expression must have been the child’s only weapon against the evil and negligence which was happening around her, and which she instinctively knew was so, so wrong.
“Give her couscous.”
“No, she will have what we leave.”
So he went to the other room and found a plate and a fork. He stacked the big platter high with semolina and placed it before the child, who fell on it like a wolf cub, using her hands to devour it ravenously. He gave her bread and a Coke.
“Malak!” he said loudly, and she looked up but continued eating. “Tell her to stop.”
Latifa, his friend, spoke sharply to her and the girl stopped and looked at him. “She says she is sorry.”
“She has nothing to be sorry for, just tell her she will make me happy if she uses the fork.”
Latifa spoke to her, and the little girl listened attentively, humbly. Then she laughed, a peal of heartfelt mirth, looking at him, and Pete, caught unawares, grinned back in spite of himself. She ate the rest of the food with the implement, experiencing some difficulty. As she ate, she kept looking into his face and gently laughing. The man was smitten with the child. Her beauty, wisdom, and pride were amazing for a little girl living in abject poverty. And, of course, he realised that the child somehow was aware of her power as a woman to be, of her loveliness and charm, and knew how to use them given the right opportunity.
She knew instinctively, intuitively, he thought, that he was the type of man who would love children and hold sacred their right to be children. Of course, there was also the possibility that she just believed that foreigners were the greener side of her particular river.
“Latifa, the girl is filthy. She’s probably covered in lice and fleas also,” he muttered.
“They live in a cave. Her mother earns money to eat, only one hundred euros each month, and now the father has made her pregnant again.”
He put his head into his hands. He couldn’t help; just sweeten the moment for the child, and even more, for himself. No longer able to take on other people’s problems, He was not so long back from death’s door, weak physically, emotional, and with all his affairs in a mess.
“ I must sleep now, take her to the Hamman. Here are some dirhams. Get her scrubbed and her hair cut. Oh, and buy her a dress and underclothes. No, two dresses and a few sets of panties.”
“And her sister Murdiyyah. She is also dirty, and she is eleven.”
He groaned. Latifa had a good heart and to her, Pete, like all foreigners, was wealthy. Whenever Pete had ever wanted to help Latifa with one of the various people she often took under her impoverished wing, it always became the never-ending story. He wondered if the reality was that people, seeing that she was a kind soul, often mistook it for stupidity and took her for a ride. But then she shouted at him for his caution, for his distrust.
“Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? Allah, Allah sees all.”
He finished up realising that for a deprived person in a country with no social security, life, mere survival was a continuous struggle, and without the Latifa’s of this world, many more would perish than did.
“Yes, take her also,” he grimaced. “And please let me sleep now.”
He awoke to the sounds of children playing outside in the alleys. He thought of how people, human beings, could make wars on each other when they knew children were playing in the same street or town square where they dropped their targeted destruction.
He had listened to some children speaking––fourteen or fifteen-year-olds––in a square by the port when he had been in the city. They were just kids, and strangely they were mixed: urchins and also well-attired and beautifully-spoken children; they seemed all to be together. They were preaching peace and love, and against the misuse of technology. Many people had sat down with them to listen, and Pete also sat with them fascinated, wondering who they were. There were children of all ages, many of them street dwellers.
Then some uniformed police came running up, and the children fled. One man, presumably a plainclothes agent, had seized the ankle of one of the young speakers. It was right beside where Pete was sitting. The boy, of about fourteen or fifteen years of age, was struggling to escape, screaming, and the man was viciously punching him, trying by the looks of it to hit him on the tender area between his legs. Pete kicked the man from behind in the same way in which the man was trying to maim the lad. He yelped and doubled up releasing the boy, who immediately broke free. The youngster, turning as if in afterthought, smiled his thanks and beckoned to Pete to run with him, but Pete was tired, so he went quickly down some steps and melted away into the surroundings as he always did. That was just yesterday or the day before. He kept remembering the kids and smiling to himself.
But now he could also hear the sea breaking on the rocks just below the Kasbah, the sound coming in through the small high window in the room. He could make out the salt in the air and the smell of fish, so he left the house and walked down to where the fishing boats had just come in, and the fishermen were selling their catch.
It was still sunny, but a sea mist had descended over the port and beach area, giving it an air of mystery, of enchantment. The magic was broken by the Moroccan haggling going on all over as trading took place. The fish was selling well, especially the big pieces, and, as he wandered, men hailed him in Arabic or Spanish, waving fish, octopi, and nets full of prawns before him. Pete smiled and thanked them, shaking his head; if Latifa had been there, they would have bought two or three good fish––bass or grouper––to take home. Sea bass cooked on an open fire, or a whole monkfish, or grouper, the inevitable Spanish mero. Life wasn’t bad, and he was hungry again.
He saw a family, a woman with two girls and a baby in arms, arrive to buy fish. As they came closer, he saw it was Latifa. Then the two girls came up to him smiling; he was confused, bewildered. Beautiful girls, their hair covered with silk hankies in a time-honored way. He was taken aback as the older one kissed him on both cheeks, and then, only then, he realised who they were, and Malak ran at him and threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. Pete took her and held her at arm’s length. He felt quite emotional, a lump in his throat. He thought he was with his family, his woman, his baby, and his beautiful daughters. All the fishermen were looking on, smiling and laughing, calling schuina schuina. “Beautiful. Beautiful.” And Pete looked at the little girl.
“You are beautiful, Malak, so lovely.”
She couldn’t understand, but knew what he said and ran off to Latifa, suddenly bashful.
Latifa took him by the arm and pointed, “Fish?”
Pete nodded, so the bartering began while he, looking around, spotted Murdiyyah, the elder girl, who had taken charge of the baby. He smiled at her.
“Hello,” Murdiyyah smiled back at him, and as she and Malak stood together playing with the little girl baby, Pete felt so happy and full.
I don’t deserve this, why don’t I? just because I can’t cope? No, you fool, you could if you do as the shrink said and took the lousy pills. What is it anyway that I deserve or don’t? It’s nothing, just a couple of kids. I put my hand in my pocket, fix them up for a few days, and now I feel like they’re mine. But they are mine, as much as anyone else’s. They’re mine to love from afar.
You know if it came to the crunch, I wouldn’t mind dying for them if it would make them safe and happy. I would see that I had meant something to someone. I feel better now than I have for a long time. You are indeed sweetening these moments for me, little girl. I will see how far I can go in bettering yours before the enormity of things climbs on my head before it all begins to drown me again.
Some men walked past; one stopped to buy fish. Another man who was standing back told him what to get. It struck Pete as strange. They were all well dressed, quietly spoken, and big, and the one who decided on what fish to buy was in the middle as if they were guarding him. Pete glanced at them as they strode towards a restaurant, where presumably the fish would be cooked. They walked in a body around the decider but, for a brief instance, they parted to enter the building, and Pete could see the decider distinctly. Pete smiled as he noticed the man’s way of walking, with a limp, just the tiniest of limps.
 Bismillah, Arabic word meaning, “In the name of God” used in this case as a blessing of the meal.
 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.
 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.”
 The traditional mint tea drunk in Morocco.
 Spanish for neighbourhood, a word also used in Morocco.
 Traditional Arabic greeting.
 All praise and thanks to Allah.
 .Evil creature, the devil, in the Islamic culture.
 Zoco chico, small square.
 Petit taxi is a smaller taxi which can only operate in town and not on the motorways, much cheaper.
 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 expression which indicates that the assistant is not overly bright. ; he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
 The camel, the shop owner is using the word despectively.
 El guiri, a despective term used in some Spanish speaking countries to describe a north european or north American.
 17 Cape Spartel, A promontory with lighthouse marking the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar.
 18 Butchers in french.
 19 Public baths.
Cast of Characters
Masuhun, otherwise known as Moon, a schoolteacher of English in both Christian and Muslim schools.
Afra, Masuhun’s father. Kella, his mother. Tanamart, his sister. Saul, his little brother. Fatima, the cook. Tintziri, a distant relative who is helping in the house.
Malak, a feisty small girl who lives in poverty.
Murdiyyah, Malak’s sister.
Tanirt, Malak’s mother.
Mohammed, Malak’s father who is a drunk and wifebeater.
Jeeda Hazzah, Mohammed’s stern mother, and Malak’s beloved grandmother.
Ruben, Moon’s unusual English friend.
Pete, a stranger who takes an interest in Malak.
Latifa, Pete’s friend, and also a friend to Malak’s bullied family.
The Sheikh, the arch-criminal who walks with a limp.
Phoenix, An employee of the Sheikh and their boat driver.
Khizr Chenouali, A Major General in the army, Paratrooper battalions.
Captain Hannachi (hadji Hadji), an aide to the general.
Omar Chenouali, the general’s son.
Ferhat, Chenouali’s school friend
Rania, Ferhat’s sister and child bride of Chenouali, mother of Omar.
Farid, a sergeant in the para’s, his wife Hafida, and his children, Khalil, Sami, Meriem, Farid
Usman Dan Hilderica. Tanirt’s father and Malak and Murdiyyah’s grandfather.
Salaheddin. A Tuareg tribesman friend of Tanirt.
Modibo, Tribesman who Pete meets in the desert; Mamadou, his brother; Askiya, the witchdoctor of their tribe.