The young man in the place where we are staying is Moroccan and comes from the desert, which he describes to me as ‘sympa’, sympathetic, a kind place. As opposed to the hustle and throng of the medina where people greet us ‘welcome, welcome,’ and return smiles with great warmth and ease and employ the most genteelly probing sales techniques in (they say) the world.
This young man is named ‘given by god,’ or ‘gifts of god,’ and we looked up his name in a list of the 99 names of Allah which, I only slowly realised as we were discussing these names with a nearby restauranteur, are perhaps not so much names as qualities. God the good, god the great, god the compassionate, god the wise. Similarly it dawns on me, belatedly, decades after the life on Java I so cherished as a child where we lived between three mosques and stayed indoors during the ferment of election week, that the prayers which play continuously in some hole-in-the-wall shops in the souk are not petitions, in the sense that I would understand prayers, in the sense I sometimes grope for in extremis and despair, longing in the depths of my pained heart to have someone to pray to; they seem perhaps more like resolves embedded in long and winding stories. And so they came upon a beautiful oasis. And there they could water their camels and have something to eat. And so god said to them…
I am improvising, here. Who has any idea what god might be saying? not even the solemn Jehovahs Witnesses who came to my door with their beguiling brochures and then, when I grew just a little too interested, felt honour-bound to warn me away from the technicolor gloriosity of the illustrations. “This only… artist impression of heaven.”
Ah – then. But god or, as I would put it, kindness, knowing, understanding, meaning, the connectivity of us with the world and with one another – a kind of exalted humanness, in fact – speaks to me in the trees and in the wind pouring through them; a sort of devotional prosperity I have dwelt in since childhood, when I used once to wander the markets in Jakarta and the coconut groves on the shore opposite Krakatau in a scintillated state of constant and ever-changing concentration.
So, Gift of God has come to the city in the north, leaving his desert homelands behind, and he tells me he has been here in Fès only three months. He had a job in another pension but it was a bad place. He came to this house a week ago. Ah! I say, cupping his shoulder with my hand, from the side rather than from above because of the war between affection and a horror of condescension. Then you have been here only four days longer than us! Yes, he says, creasing his face in a serious, shy smile.
This morning as I was lighting out across the courtyard with my books in my bag this young man approached me on his soft shoes. Would I like my breakfast now? I said, You know, thank you, but actually I think I might go into the adventure and just eat somewhere on the markets, today. Oh! he said, and dropped his head and an expression crossed his face that hurt me, as though I had hurt him.
“It’s not because I don’t like the food! It’s just – I wake up and go, I’m in Morocco! And so I just have to go out and…” On the sunstricken square my lengthy sweetheart joined me where I was so deep in the book I was reading, a book about politics that I find difficult to understand, that when he crossed the sun and grasped me by the shoulder I started. Around us gentlemen of Morocco discussed – I imagine – politics, I imagine their talk is dry and knowing and cosmopolitan, world-weary, courteous, and wise, I hear words which are the names of countries and think, they are speaking of world events. The first morning I was almost too shy to sit down and had to approach the cafe, whose restful shelter I craved, by way of a huge loop up and around the street before I could cross the road at a tentative, oblique angle and ask the courtly waiter diffidently in my execrable French, excuse me? am I allowed to come in here? even as a female? I was the only woman in the cafe, almost the only woman in the square, and when I wanted to go downstairs to the bathroom they flew into a flurry of small-scale preparations and I was handed a door handle, by which to access the second stall – for women and for, I guess, tourists, as it has a Western toilet and sometimes even a roll of paper.
The second morning I sat down in the blaring sun at a tiny table and was moved almost to tears when the man who had been sitting by me yesterday and whom I had greeted said, inclining his head, “Bonjour,” and even asked, “Ça va?”
To have a courteous neighbour, who is reading the newspaper in Arabic and a battered paperback in English; to sit in the sun, after months in wintry Deutschland – it sends me down into a contentment that is very much like sleep.
The young man in the pension, Gift of God, smiled his grave smile on our third night in Africa when we asked, where would be a good place to eat. He told us he had made a very small number of ‘connections’ in Fès, since he came here three months back alone, and his friend Mohammed runs a good place, very cheap, under the large tree which is a landmark as there are so few trees in the medina at all. “That young man has a long way to go,” says my companion as we cross the square. and for a few moments I am startled, before it clicks into place: that he will go far. We eat at his friend’s cafe, treated royally. We practice the gesture courteous Moroccans use, of a hand pressed level across the breastbone, touched to the heart, moved, thank you, I am sorry. Walking the medina I also use the fellow gesture which takes place a little lower, pressing across the tummy with my other hand, saying, “On a manger.” I hope this means, thank you, we have eaten, and use it to reply to the touts who hand laminated menus outside every restaurant (“We have wine!”) My German companion thinks the tummy is called the stummy, and recently revealed in conversation that to him this is because the stummy is the seat of all stamina. This makes sense. Stomach, stumina, stummy for short. Now I find out he is calling the guys who hawk the restaurants ‘shouts’, perhaps a better word than touts. Meanwhile in German, he says, I make ‘sweet’ childlike errors in a thicket, or fog, of laughably elaborate courtesy. Elaborate formality – to a German! that kingdom where a Keep Off the Grass sign will begin: Very honoured forest wanderers and forest wanderesses, please be advised…
So on our first week in Fès we navigate our way with his terrible French and my awful French and the few paltry words of Arabic we have learned: principally ‘choukran’, thank you (hand across heart), and ‘la choukran,’ no, thank you, to which I’ve improvised a kind of Bollywood head-waggle of the hand.
By the fourth night the influx of new sensations and sights have exhausted us and we go back a second time to the same restaurant. Mohammed greets us with cries of warmth and manifests a place to sit when almost every seat was full. He flaps the fancy tablecloth like a magician producing a bunny. I watch him do this over and over, I remember the rapid-fire thought processes and sly courtesies of hospitality work and comment, when he comes by to tip more bread into our basket, that it is like surfing. “Yes!” he says, jubilant, “exactly – like surfing.”
This man has learnt all his English by listening to customers and he asks, what is the word in German for I will be awaiting you. Germans sometimes say to him, “Vielleicht später,” maybe later, when he offers a menu. We search among our words before lighting on Ich bin für Sie da, I am here for you, explaining this is “very gracious,” making gestures of graciousness like a king. “Ah!” he says, satisfied, Moroccan: “Ah! Yes! That – is most important.” He asks us to speak it into his phone so that he can learn it, and I take a photo of the two them with their sweet heads together, listening in on one departed French or Spanish or German tourist after another, speaking in all their different voices the phrases which comprise his vocubulary, each of them adding a drop to his store of hospitality.
To my right, five Chinese students are spending the night with their phones. They are so absorbed that even when food arrives they ply their forks round it, scrolling onwards through the fascinating replacement world. A commotion of drums festers in the distance, around a corner in the narrow lane which is hung with handicrafts for sale. “Hand mad” says a sign above the racks of point-toed slippers. “Prix fixe.” I have seen tourists walking through the busy markets with expressionless faces shielded by devices set to continuously record, and I wonder how it must feel to be videoed a thousand times in a year by people who don’t seem to bother to even acknowledge one’s humanity. The students issue their drink orders (avocado juice, banana and orange juice, freshly pressed, with sugar and without) free from any thank yous or any please and Mohammed presses his palm across his heart as though it aches, saying in English, “Thank you, guys, I bring it right away, great, please, certainly.”
The clatter of drums is coming nearer and I am craning to see past the French family who have stationed themselves in the passage to wait for a table. Two men, gaily dressed in such bright robes and complex festoonments my eye cannot grasp them, holding up their tiny drums, the skin of the drum painted with henna, stamping their soft leather boots and singing splendidly – I ask if I can take their photo and the taller says, “Foto!” and they both fall to attention, and then he puts his cupped hand out and I realise I have no coins. Mohammed is passing with a clutch of creamy avocado juices from the stall across the way. On his way back I put out my hand. “Est-ce que vous pouvoir me louer un peau de l’argent pour les musics?” This doesn’t exactly mean, Can you please lend me some silver to give to the musicians? but it’s the closest I can get.
Sure, he says, without pause, digging in his pocket and showing me the coins. He selects for me and presses them into my palm: three, four dirham is plenty.
At the end of the meal we want to pay and I say, “Plus the four dirham,” and Mohammed looks puzzled. “You lent it to me, for the musicians,” I say.
“Ahh!” He shakes my hand, pressing his heart. “My friend.” “Thank you so much,” I say, “We love it here, we love your restaurant,” and behind us the French family jostles forward, scenting seats at last, and we say goodbye to the other Chinese students on our other side who have been telling us they woke up this morning in tents in the Sahara and could see the ‘galaxy’ but it was spoilt rather because there was ‘no service’.
“You went on a self-catered tour?” I said.
“No service,” the good-looking leader repeated, jabbing his finger at the sky. We walk away, tired in the stummy and thinking as we come home how extremely gentlemanly, how classy it is of Mohammed to have lent me the money for the buskers and then to have instantly forgotten the debt. Morocco seems to me so complex and inspired, I have the feeling of a rich, fine intricacy, am rejoiced to see how gently and tenderly anyone with a disability is handed up the stairs or into vehicles, I see the brutality, I feel my heart aching with the real inevitable charge of life that in ‘our kindergarten countries’ as my Berlin companion has called them this week is simply absent, or at least invisible, and when we are not afforded the luxe protection we experience as our right, we sometimes grumble at god, who has not given enough, whom we can call on with praise for sparing the floods our children, as though this were not an insult to the humanity of all the other children swept and drowned, as though the Acts of God excepted in the fine print of every insurance policy were not just and not our desserts, but rather an interruption to the service we expect, and for which we would pay nothing but our words.