Fes from Oliver's Travels 2
The diplomats sitting in front of him openly scoffed at the American theme. The valley of love. “Pffff. Love! America! Ha. Love of power and oil! Love of money and murder! Ha ha. Sheesh. Love. Love of guns and corruption.”
Oliver wondered why they were speaking English. Maybe they were from Saudi Arabia or Dubai? Why was the American part of the program so insipid? This was the International Sacred Music Festival. Each country should only be represented by its most powerful and inspiring musical artists. Yet the vocalists had thin voices and sang painfully out of tune. Every one of the preceding performances had been strong and imaginative. The Far Eastern martial artists had just now flown across the stage in their vivid costumes, revealing tremendous strength and speed. The deep, haunting background music placed them out of the earthly realm and into the land of myths. And next comes this bullshit? Some Sunday school choir that hadn’t even practiced?
She whispered. “You are American then, after all. Do not be hurt. They do not know you. They know only the actions of your government. There are many things I would change about my government. But for me, it is even more hopeless than it is for you.
“I understand,” she added, compassion warming her clandestine missive.
He turned to look at her in amazement. She was only a pair of eyes and long eyelashes looking out from a deep blue niqab.
“No!” she warned. “Do not look at me. I am forbidden to talk to you.” The two women to her right stopped whispering and turned to look at her.
She stared straight ahead at the stage as though deeply immersed in the performance. Satisfied, they turned back to their muted conversation.
“Nice costume,” she remarked in an accent he now deciphered as both British and Arabic. “But it does not disguise your light.”
Oliver had not shaved for days. He wore a long robe and a fez to the King’s Palace. He had picked them up inexpensively in the bazaar. He glanced around. Except for his green eyes, he looked pretty much like the other young men there.
“They talk of you in the medina, you know. They say you have the light of Allah in your eyes.”
He was startled by this revelation.
“Follow me after.” Her voice was silky and low. “Discreetly. Mark my door. Walk past but return when you are certain no eyes watch.
“Knock very lightly.
“I will let you in.”
Oliver was under her spell.
Why did he attract such dangerous women?
Although he believed in its transcendent quality, Oliver became anxious for all the talk of love and harmony through music to end.
At last he was following her, though at a discreet distance, challenging in the many twists of the medina. When her door closed, it seemed he was alone in a deep silence, broken only by the padding of starving cats slinking about her alley.
Oliver passed by her door slowly, giving the household time to settle. He wasn’t keen on being in the medina at night. He turned the corner. It felt like someone was watching him. This alley appeared empty except for the ubiquitous cats and a cluster of young men smoking. He passed them silently. They did not look at him, but he knew now that they marked his presence.
He walked on again until he was out of sight. Four thousand unmarked alleys and few of them running perpendicular. He had to be very aware to find his way back to hers. Building after crumbling sepia building, undifferentiated from the next.
The intensity of her soft eyes burned through him. He would find her.
What if he knocked on the wrong door?
He was wary and felt observed, but he did not sense danger here. He would be more likely to be shot knocking on a door at night in America. Still, he could not be seen knocking at her door.
She had changed into a silky maroon kaftan embroidered with deep purple scrolls and a reverse color-schemed headscarf. He liked that. Stealthily, he followed the drape of her long robe up the dark side stair, ducking at the top into a small room lit by candlelight. She motioned him to sit on the small couch upholstered with a fabric woven in rich hues of gold and wine as she quietly closed the door behind him
“May I offer you something to calm you?” she asked.
“Your voice soothes me.”
She let the thought linger in the air.
“We do not have alcohol here. It is my brother’s house. But he does have hashish.”
He picked up the ceramic ashtray from the end table.
“Ahhh,” he said. “That explains this then. ”
“Do not turn that over,” she dared, mischievously.
When he did, he was taken in by the intricate sculpture of an alluring angel.
“Is this your looking glass? You left your reflection here.”
“If it were, I would be in very much trouble,” she answered, “because it would show that the work is my creation. And we are forbidden from creating images of sentient beings.
“This is difficult for me,” she explained in slow syllables, “because my inclination and skill are in sculpting human and animal forms. I should have been born a Hindu,” she laughed.
“This art is a very serious violation,” she whispered. “Its disclosure would bring difficulties on our household. Had my father found my work while he was alive, I would have been sold to a tribe of Berbers. I cannot imagine living without any materials but sand and sheep’s wool. Maybe camel hair.
“I must trust you with my secret,” she implored. “My art is everything to me. I could not survive here without this expression. And I must survive here.”
“You can trust me.”
“Would you like a pipe?” she asked, pulling a small pipe from behind some vials on a nearby chest of drawers. She lit it with a match from a candle and handed it to him. “It is strong.”
He inhaled lightly, its perfumed scent intoxicating him. “Mmmmm. It is peppery.”
“Yes,” she agreed, accepting it from him, taking a small hit herself and returning it to its hiding place.
She removed her headscarf and thick shining black hair tumbled to her shoulders.
There were no other seats in the tiny room and she sat down next to him.
“May I touch your hair?”
She giggled. “So it is true that the sight of a woman’s hair provokes a man’s desire?”
“No more than your eyes,” he answered, looking intently into hers.
“Or your lips,” he murmured, leaning forward to kiss hers, his left hand sliding up the nape of her neck and burying into her hair. His right hand embraced her as he guided her downward onto the couch beneath him.
She did not resist, but instead kissed him passionately.
They spoke only with their eyes and their bodies. Toward dawn he slept. She shook him lightly to wake him, motioning that he must leave. He followed her down the steps to the front door to the alley.
“May I know your name?” he whispered. “And how to reach you.”
She shook her head no. Her gaze was sad, wistful. “We each simply must keep the light we have shared in our hearts,” she whispered, closing her door behind him. He heard the latch click shut.
Oliver walked quickly down the alley and then back to his hostel.
He slipped up to the roof and listened to the haunting call of the muezzin echo across the medina, joined by another and yet another, the unnerving discordant wails conspiring to shut her off from him forever.
He touched his chest to feel his heartbeat and took a deep breath.
It was the bloody goat heads and the evil-looking hooves hanging from hooks above them, the fresh slabs of meat almost still pulsing, blood trickling down the stone in front of the butchery, the flies swarming between the butchery and the fruit markets, landing on the piles of fresh dates, the cherries, the rows of olives, the smell of donkey offal and kerosene permeating the crowded market under the awning driving home the realization that he had not slept. And though it was mid-afternoon, he had not eaten. He had wandered aimlessly, taking refuge from the heat in the mysterious dark stores that sold potions and animal skins, hammered copper and tin utensils, leather and rope sandals, kaftans and hand crafted jewelry. He had wandered past table after table with mountains of honey covered filo pastry.
He returned to the corner just inside the Blue Gate near the baths where he could sit and eat. The man with the weathered face and old eyes had nodded to him earlier when he passed as though he was an old friend. He greeted him again, nodding to a chair and asking in English, “Tagine? It is our specialty.”
“Sure,” Oliver nodded.
“Ah fek,” mumbled Oliver hoping that it sounded like “please” rather than “ah, fuck.”
His waiter looked amused.
Oliver downed his water and two cups of tea in no time flat. The waiter set a ceramic bowl in front of him, lifting its lid to a steaming aromatic stew. He seemed very proud.
Oliver nodded. “Blessed be to Allah,” he said solemnly, bowing his head.
The man refilled his water glass and returned to his standing position, erect and dignified in his clean apron. Here he could watch the stream of pedestrians and offer the curious a look at the menus he held close to his chest.
His waiter offered a dessert of flan and though Oliver had a certain passion for flan, he was satiated. He declined, paid and left, heading back into the medina.
“Pssst,” a man grabbed Oliver’s elbow. “Over here,” he said, pulling him to the entrance of a corridor. “Your woman friend is waiting for you here.”
Oliver looked confused.
“Yes, yes,” the man assured him. “She is here waiting. Come. Come in.” He led Oliver down the hallway and under a decorative archway into a tall room filled with woven rugs. Colorful rugs were hanging on the walls, on the floor, draped across chairs and in tall bolts against the walls.
“Here. Sit here. I will bring you tea.”
He went out and another man came in and began unrolling a rug. “Look at this one. Do you like this one?” he asked. “My sister just finished weaving it. My brother tends only sheep with the finest wool. Come here. Look closely. We have the finest quality rugs in the medina.”
Oliver obeyed. “Do you see how well the ends are woven? My sister learned from our grandmother who learned from her grandmother. This rug will be an heirloom in your family.”
“I am backpacking,” said Oliver, pointing to his rucksack. “I cannot carry a rug with me.”
“Of course not. No, of course not. You just choose the one you like best. Even two. I ask my brother to give you a special deal on two.
“We can send them to America. No problem.” He reached behind him and pulled out The Book.
“See here,” he said. “Read this,” he said pointing to handwriting in the ledger. “We have many happy customers from America. Look, this man is from Chicago.”
He pronounced it “Cheek-a-go.” Oliver looked skeptically at the ledger with the effusive thanks ostensibly from American tourists. Had they really returned again after their rugs had been safely delivered in America? He supposed it was possible someone had copied their correspondence.
This ledger had a few letters taped to it, so it was a bit more believable than the one he had seen in Tangier.
“Where is my friend?” Oliver asked.
“My brother will be right back,” the man answered. “Do you like this one better?” he asked pointing to one on the wall with a slightly different geometric pattern and lighter colors. Oliver did like it. It would look fantastic in a beach house. Actually, it would look good in Greg’s living room. And the darker one would be a thoughtful gift for his father. He could use some life and color in his dismal apartment with the cheap brown throw rugs from the dollar store.
“This one is three hundred dollars, but I can offer you two for just five hundred. Where do you want them shipped?”
His brother returned with a pot of mint tea and three cups.
“Where is my woman friend?” asked Oliver.
“She was here. She said she would be back.
“Wait for her,” he advised, pouring steaming tea from a silver pot into china cups.
“Write down the address,” the salesman directed Oliver, handing him a notebook. “I will find the cost of shipping. It is not much. How soon do you need them there?”
Oliver hesitated. “No hurry,” he replied. Oliver wrote the two addresses, uncertain whether this was a good idea or not, but thinking that his friend would arrive before he finished the transaction and they would leave. He could always return tomorrow after thinking about it.
The salesman left with his notebook. Oliver pressed the man who had drawn him in. “Where did she go?”
“Oh, you know American women. They like to shop,” he smiled. “She is next door. Stay right here. I will bring her.”
Oliver stood up, put his tea cup down on the table and slipped out with the two men shouting behind him.
“I will return tomorrow,” he shouted back, disappearing into the passing crowd.
It was early evening when he finally climbed the stairs of the dar. He pushed back the gauzy veil to his small room, its sequins sparkling in the dying light streamed through the open doorway at the end of the hall. Should he go back up to the roof?
With a deep sigh, he lay down on the lemon bedspread draped over his cot. His eyes closing, he saw a glass set next to a frosty pitcher of water sitting on a bejeweled cloth on the bed stand. He sat up, poured a glass of water, had one long drink and fell fast asleep in the welcome breeze from the fan in the hallway. He thought he heard the call of the muezzin, barely audible above the whir of the fan.
The young Asian woman who had slept next to him was standing over his cot. “Do you want to go to the palace with me? I think you do.
“I would like to see the dye vats and the leather drying too. Let’ s go. Freddy has laid breakfast out.”
“I want to change. I’ll be down in a minute. Please request tea for me,” he told her, turning his back to retrieve his clothes and toothbrush from the backpack under his cot.
He didn’t especially want to hang out with this woman, girl really. Or to pay to see the architecture of some palace. The dar he was staying in was super cool. He really liked the open grille work of the bedrooms overlooking the courtyard where breakfast was being served.
He would like to see the tanning and dying operation though. And wouldn’t mind seeing the Berber’s sheep wool turned into textile.
His love’s languor lingered on his shirt, her floral fragrance kissing him as he pulled it ever so slowly over his head.
Oliver did not know what provoked him to sing out loudly, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge. Some day I’ll make it mine.” The notes echoed true. Bob Dylan had been traveling with him since Tangier.
A couple afternoons later, though he had walked miles and miles, he still had not found her.
Yet when he rounded the corner, he was again enchanted. Maybe all of the rugs really were magic carpets, but one had to enter the alternate reality from whence the djinni operated.
He again felt her seduction in the enchanting music filling the alley.
A lithe, young Arab was leaning against the blue and gold tile behind water fountain, strumming a crude string instrument. The minor chord had reached deep into Oliver’s soul before he thought to resist.
His friend, or possibly a brother sat relaxed on a low wall shaking a rattle with deep bells. Its rhythm ricocheted back and forth across the alley between the stone buildings.
Oliver was grateful that he had slipped the mouth harp in his pocket. He thought he might take a long walk through the park outside the Blue Gate and then see what was on the other side of it. He pulled out his harmonica and slowly sat down on the stoop of the store they were facing… and he played with them for a long time.
Oliver did not see the locals as he had read in his Moroccan phrase book. Predictably, he heard the American woman whispering to her husband of her good reason for mistrust.
Yes, they could be relentless in their hounding, but the reason was to take care of each other. Even if all you needed was toothpaste, better to buy it from one of his mother’s eighteen brothers than a hotel gift shop.
And if the uncle wasn’t in his booth, he would swiftly find him or someone else vending toothpaste.
Still, he had to give up on finding her eventually.