Once upon a time, in a town called Marrakesh, in a land called Morocco there was a man called Abdul. I would like to carve out a little space in my world for his simple story.
So far it seems a nice little tale. It’s incomplete and unfinished—as you may imagine—and a trifle unpolished too, but even so I have found myself pondering it recently, my thoughts drifting towards it in those empty moments that occasionally crop up during my day: on the #17 bus to Nervi, in line at the local bakery, or on mile 3 or 4 of the daily run. Out of nowhere, POP, Abdul’s story.
Maybe you, Dear Reader, can help me understand the significance. Give it a read and if something comes up, give me your thoughts. And if you’re into mood setting, put on some hot water and break out the mint tea. Make it strong. Pretend the air is hot and dry and read read read.
To be honest, Abdul wasn’t from Marrakesh originally, but rather some backwater Moroccan town south of the Atlas mountains, the name of which I never really caught. And actually, I am not entirely sure his name is even Abdul. I first met him amidst a sea of brown and wrinkled faces holding his A4 white paper landscape style just on the other side of customs at the tiny Marrakesh airport. I was a little disoriented and not sure what language to speak or even to listen for and it was noisy, so I was unprepared for basic name remembrance.
His name started out with a normal sounding English short ‘a’ followed by a kind of one-two hard blended consonant ‘bd’. After that the word just disintegrated, fell apart like wet tissue paper. I asked him to repeat it (something I would do maybe five or eight times in the days to come) but the results were always the same. Nothing. Niente. After some time I just started calling him Abdul, both in my head and aloud, and he never corrected me. But then again, Abdul was nothing if not polite.
Short and lean, with black hair, he wore thick glasses near the end of a pinched and narrow nose. His smile was nervous, like his darting eyes, and I disliked him immediately.
This was unfortunate, because he was our driver. This was the man we had hired to take us into the Sahara desert, an as-the-crow-flies journey of around 350 kilometers which, when we planned it, didn’t seem that far. What’s that? Like 215 miles? Like South Austin to North Dallas? Chicago to Springfield?
Yes. Technically. But this wasn’t a United States Highway through plains and soybean fields. This was Morocco, where a good two lane road is the width of a parking space and the speed limit is about 50 km/hour and half the distance—maybe 200 kilometers—crosses the Atlas Mountains, a winding and twisting set of a thousand switchbacks beset with all sorts of drops and landslides.
Stopping for meals, the trip would pretty much take all day. Of course we knew that going in, but thought very little of it. Brushed it off. It was going to be an adventure: our own personal guide through Morocco.
Only it turned out our driver and guide, Abdul, is this shifty guy with thick glasses who won’t make eye contact. Worse, he doesn’t have any English. French and Arabic? Fluent. English? Not so much.
Buddha’s beard, what had we gotten ourselves into? Was it too late to cancel?
The little SUV reeked. A woodsy, lemony scent that pressed in on all my senses. I could feel it on my eyeballs. After thirty minutes of halted conversation we parsed out what it was: Verbena. Lovely.
So much for a detailed and guided tour.
We were in for a quiet ride.
At least, for the first twenty minutes. Then, our curiosity overflowed at the brown little world around us and our questions pummeled Abdul like golf ball sized hail stones: Why are these kids all wearing white smocks? (School uniform.) Girls go to school here? (Yes. Of course.) Until what age? (High school.) I see spray painted on walls all these squares all in a row: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… all over. What is that? (Oh! Good question. Elections.) Don’t you have a monarch? (Yes. Local elections.)
It was stilted, but we had the time.
After a few hours, he too began to initiate conversation. He would point to a little aqueduct no wider than our SUV and he would say, ‘Irrigation. Half all Morocco water.’
‘In that little stream?’
Or at one point, about 2 hours in, ’You hunger? We stop. Berber omelette.’
We nodded. He stopped.
It went on like this and gradually the hesitancy left his eyes. His smile widened, the lines in his face softened, he maintained eye contact longer. Little by little, as the scenery rolled by, as the questions marched on, communication—I don’t know—became easier. He spoke French dotted with English and Arabic and we spoke English, sprinkled with Italian.
You know how little kids, when they are first speaking, how their parents seem to understand their little babbling whereas everyone outside the nuclear family is clueless? By the end of the long trip, I felt like that was the level Abdul and I were on. I understood his babbling. He understood mine. My dislike for this fellow waned. He wasn’t shifty, he was uncomfortable. We drove on, stopped and did stuff, drove on some more, and slowly, began to talk.
By the end of the return trip he spent more time looking and talking to us than on keeping his eyes on the road.
His life tumbled out.
Well part of it. And maybe this isn’t really a story in the traditional sense, but rather a portrait in words. Regardless of what you call it, I think about it often.
Turns out he had a daughter. Khadijah. Yes, named after the prophet Muhammad’s wife. (Does that mean this man was Muslim? It does, but let’s not let that get in the way of anything.)
Khadijah was the light in Abdul’s eyes. Every move the man made, every step the man took was all Khadijah. He had once owned a small apartment in the Old Center of Marrakesh. A happening place, full of life, sitting on the pulse of the city. But once Khadijah was of an age to attend private school he sold it and they moved out of town. He parlayed the rent differential between outskirts and inskirts and put it towards a good education.
What do you want her to do?
‘Anything she want.”
We waited to hear more. Someone in front of our SUV honked, Abdul swerved, honked himself and almost hit an old man riding a donkey. After he righted himself he turned back to us.
‘But not here,’ he said, picking up where he left off.
Here in Marakesh?
‘Here in Morocco. There is—how you say—’ he moved his arm upwards above his head slowly then stopped it, then tried again—
‘Yes,’ he nodded vigorously. ‘She go to France after high school. I want for her everything.’
University in France?
‘Yes. Life in France.’
What does she want to study? To do?
‘I no care. Just away from Morocco. From ceiling. One thing I ask. No fall love until after job.’
Will you go visit?
Here Abdul just shrugged. He already told us he had never left Morocco. The visas and passports and everything is too expensive he says. Every dollar, every euro, every dirham seems reserved for his daughter.
How do you like Morocco?
‘Oooooo, Love Morocco! Love it. Very nice.’
But for your daughter?
He shook his head. And for the first time since the conversation started, he turns back to focus his eyes on the road.