I stepped down from the beaten-up old bus and was dazzled by the headlights as I collected my bag from the roof rack. All the words not understood, and the darkness after the light was overwhelming. My eyes were still adjusting.
I heard a man’s voice, in French, offering a hotel.
‘I am English’, I said, as I moved away.
I stopped a moment, pulling out an old guidebook, adjusted my rucksack, and looked back. He was leaning against a wall, hands deep in his pockets, wool hat pulled down, shoulders hunched against the cold, scuffing at the dusty road with his shoe. Reassured by his lack of interest, I went to him.
He looked up and bowed slightly. ‘You want hotel? Cheap. Clean. Fes my city. You follow? ‘
He led me down a dark narrow street. Like a wary cat I trailed after him, wondering about my rash decision. We walked far enough for me to get anxious, but he left me safely at the hotel as soon as he had arranged my room. He refused my offered tip saying that I was welcome in his city and very politely, he bowed again and left me.
I woke to the sound of rattling buckets and looked out of my window onto the street. The sun was still low, but the sky was clear blue and bright, still a little chilly, and the café next door was just opening. I could smell strong coffee. I dressed quickly and went down. I sat at a table sipping hot coffee, making notes in my journal, and watched the street grow busier. The man at the table next to me wore a suit and very British wool check slippers. Incongruous. I tried not to stare.
I saw my guide of the night before coming towards me. He had what looked like donuts threaded onto string. A gift for my breakfast, they were fresh and delicious, and I offered him coffee. He said he would get it. When the inside of the café filled up, I realised there were no women and asked why.
‘Moroccan woman no come here. European woman is like man and lady same time. No problem. Like have two ticket,’ he said and laughed. His laugh was sudden and unexpected. He had been so constantly polite and serious. I noticed his eyes were green and looked away quickly. He told me his name was Rashid.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘I show you my city.’
We went down narrow steps through a street smelling of olives and coriander and fresh bread. He skipped down the wide, shallow steps. I was careful, unsure of their rhythm. We entered a square where he paused, bought a single cigarette, and then set off into a maze of streets.
Donkeys and mules pushed their way through the narrow passageways as light filtered down through straw mats suspended above. We visited street after street. I would have been lost there without him, delightedly lost, but lost.
In the silk district, the alleys were full of boys spinning thread onto bobbins from hooks in the walls. It was a street of rainbows. The apothecary was medieval. The shopkeeper, offering a dried hedgehog skin and herbs, told me some things were for medicine, and some for magic. Every shopkeeper who spoke any English joked with me. It was hard to know what was true.
I could sometimes hear running water. Next time I heard it I asked Rashid where it came from.
‘River runs under street,’ he said. ‘Listen. Walk back. Now walk here. Sound different your shoes? River echo. Find echo, follow river. Need no guide. I go now?’
I laugh, fascinated. ‘I think I feel safer following you than the river.’
We stopped for mint tea outside a cafe. The sun was strong now. I watched the street. Smiles lit up on shop keepers faces as tourist groups entered the street and then faded away as they passed.
After a long silence I said, ‘I could find my way here by the smells and the sounds, if I could memorise them. Here I can smell woodsmoke, meat cooking, and mint. The brass workers street is like beating gongs. The smell of cedar is strong near the carpenter’s street. The tannery stinks. The silk street is secret.’
‘No secret,’ he said. ‘Only no noise.’ I had confused him.
I looked up.
‘Why is that basket up in that tree?’ I asked, suspecting an explanation of symbolic significance.
He shrugged. ‘Wind put it there.’
I laughed, ‘I am an idiot.’
‘Not idiot,’ he shrugged, ‘New here. Hungry? You like meet my sisters? We buy chicken?’
With a freshly plucked chicken in a carrier bag we went up bare concrete steps into a block of flats. The main room had peeling plaster, soft blue and pale green. The mosaic floor was chipped and worn. Three of his sisters were sitting in a group stitching busily at a pile of Adidas trainers. Another was doing intricate embroidery. Caught off guard they tidied up quickly. He looked slightly worried about something and went out with his brother.
By the time he came back the chicken tajine with cous-cous and olives was ready. I was hungry. We all sat in a crowded circle and ate from one big plate, our fingers sticky with meat juices. It was fun. They were all so friendly and mimed whenever words didn’t work. One sister spoke good English. Rashid kept pushing the best meat towards me. His sisters laughed when I pushed some back and he pushed it toward me again, smiling. Later we walked back to my hotel through the empty streets, taking our time. The stars shone bright above us. He said he would come back in the morning.
The next day we went to a carpet factory and sat on the roof for hours in the sun on a beautiful carpet. Of course, I wanted to buy such a lovely carpet. It would be a meaningful memory back home. I paid a fair price. As we left, he asked if I was happy. I was very happy.
‘You look happy too,’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘Commission! Ten percent from this shop,’ he said, hefting the carpet over his shoulder, grinning.
I was glad.
Over the next month I spent every day with him and visited his family often. In cafes young men would ask me about visas to Europe. I tried to explain how hard it might be for them in England.
Rashid took me to see his cousins, out on a farm. It was paradise. He was more relaxed there than in the city. I ate oranges fresh off the trees. We rode a horse through the river to a quiet meadow, to rest on a blanket, talking. He doodled an imaginary house in my book. I loved his family. I didn’t want to leave them or him, but I had to.
I was near to tears at the bus station. He became polite and formal, enclosed, his face blank. I had clung to him on the back of a horse. We had leaned against each other sitting on the sedan with his sisters. I had slept in the women’s room in his home. He has kissed my hand the night before. He was a good friend, familiar, not my guide. I couldn’t understand this sudden coldness. I cried on the bus. On the plane I hid my face from curious tourists. I struggled with the carpet on the train, but it made me happy when I looked at it in front of my fire. I beat it in winter when the weather was cold and washed it in summer to dry in the sun just as he had told me. It improved the colours.
I sent a letter when I got home. He sent me a postcard. I meant to go back but I didn’t. Four years passed. When I decided I might go back I wrote to his sister to see if he was still there. She wrote back quickly.
‘My brother has been sick. We will be very happy to see you.’
I booked a flight. The only one I could get.
I arrived in Fes, late and tired, from a very long journey by bus and train the length of Morocco, from Agadir. It was dark and pouring with rain as I arrived through the old city gate in a taxi. The tarmac shone smooth in the moonlight but there weren’t many lights on. I peered through the car window as we passed my favourite café, but I couldn’t see well through the distortions of raindrops on the glass. I asked to be dropped at the hotel. The taxi driver didn’t know the way, but I did. The hotel looked run down.
I saw a figure slowly approach from the far end of the street, walking uphill, huddled in a thin plastic coat with the hood up. He looked familiar but made no sign. He kept coming. At last, sure it was him I raised my hand. He waved and walked a bit faster. Then his arms were round me. He buried his face in my neck and leaned his full weight against me, unmoving. I let him rest there. I felt like a life raft. I held him and noticed how thin he’d become. He let go of me and swung my rucksack onto his shoulder. It looked like a strain. He went in and argued with a boy behind the counter to get me my old room again. He seemed angry.
In my room he sat on the side of the bed with his head down and said, ‘No mint tea. Man in reception not friend.’ He passed me a can of Tango. ‘From café before close. In morning, I fetch you.’
He got up and left.
I was tired and puzzled. I went straight to bed, but I had nightmares and kept waking up.
The next day he came and took me to his house. He told me to walk behind him, not beside him or he might get arrested. Shocked, I asked why.
‘Later I tell you. Come now.’
At his house his sisters greeted me, but their smiles lacked sunshine. The house was shabbier. Rashid and I went and sat in his small, pale blue room with the windows wide open to street noises. His sister came in with coffee. He told her to stay.
‘She say you,’ he said, ‘My English no good.’
His sister’s voice was warm and her accent pleasant. The story she told me was neither.
‘Some tourists, they bought a carpet. When they washed it at home the dye ran. Yes? You understand this?’
‘So, they contacted Moroccan tourist board and made a complaint. The police, they went to the carpet shop to arrest the shop keeper. He paid them the bribe they wanted. They arrest Rashid instead. He couldn’t pay bribe. He went to jail for six months. Now, if he is seen in the street as a guide, they will arrest him again. There are no jobs,’ she said. ‘What can he do? My brother is a good man. He brings us our food and pays for our books to study. My father brings only olive oil and flour for our bread. My sisters and I earn only little. You understand? This is why he is thin. You see this? Prison made him like this.’
‘But the dye does run,’ I said, horrified. ‘It improves the colours. Isn’t that why the older carpets cost more?’
‘Yes,’ Rachid said. He turned to his sister. ‘See. She understands carpet.’
The next day I sat in the café with coffee before I went back to his house. I watched police in shabby uniforms taking bribes from poor market traders, moving them on if they didn’t pay. I put my notebook away. It was no place to be seen taking notes. I used to feel liberated in Morocco. That had gone, along with what was left of my naivety after hearing that story. I suddenly felt I had to be the strong one.
That evening I told Rashid, ‘I will get you out of Morocco. I will get you the visa all the young men want.’
He looked shocked. ‘You promise this? How?’
‘I will marry you.’
‘You marry me?’
‘Yes, if you want,’ I said, realising I had just proposed. ‘It won’t be easy, but I will get you out. I promise.’
‘I still help sisters?’
He laughed. I heard his relief. He took my hand and gripped it to his heart.
‘Oh yes! I marry you. Real marriage. Not only visa.’