This story begins decades ago, in a very different time. I’ve honestly forgotten a lot of the little details, so I’ve gone ahead and filled them in. I don’t think you’d ever notice though. Besides, I won’t have to tell you what’s true.
I was twenty-five and finishing up my Peace Corps service in Morocco when my friend Matthew came out to visit for two weeks. I had known him then for nearly five years, although I had never really considered him that close. In fact, as I reflected on the day-long bus ride up from my little village in the Sahara and through the savage crags of the Atlas mountains to where he was flying in on the coast, I realized I barely knew him at all. We had met in college and shared many of the same friends, but had never ventured much beyond getting drunk or stoned together at some crowded dorm party on a Saturday night. I couldn’t even say if we ever had a conversation alone. But it had been two long, difficult years full of frustrations, so I was looking forward to spending time with someone from my old life. I thought it would do me some good.
I told him to take the train from the airport outside of Casablanca and meet me in town. The station was surrounded by slums, and I remember sitting on a concrete bench waiting for him as a woman wrapped in rags rummaged through the trash. Her whole head, then her shoulders, then her entire torso would disappear into the dark bins, only for her to emerge minutes later empty-handed and covered in grime. I watched her do this in one trash can after another while I tried to recall my friend’s face, but two years here had put a surprising distance between me and such memories. I was afraid, when the train finally pulled up and people poured out, that we might not recognize each other, that too much had changed. As the platform emptied, though, I saw him come out of a train car lugging an overstuffed bag. He waved when he saw me, then walked over and offered me an awkward embrace. Afterwards, he breathed out a long sigh of relief and, meaning it as a compliment, told me I looked just the same.
He had grown thick, I noticed, had filled out the way former athletes often do: his arms and legs a bit wider, his neck a bit shorter, like a tire that had been inflated too much. He still had the same shock of red hair though, the bright color of a new penny, that he had been teased about in college, now curled even longer around his ears. I watched it bob in front of me as we walked through the narrow streets of the medina, toward the Hassan II Mosque. The king had built it on the edge of the Atlantic several years earlier, intending it to be second in size only to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, but had run out of funds. Still, it boasted the largest minaret in the world, an impressive tower sixty stories high, decorated up and down with intricate geometric figures and topped with three golden orbs. It was definitely a sight, the only one I thought worthy in all of the city, so I had agreed to take Matthew when he asked.
As we went by, Moroccans would stop whatever it was they were doing and openly stare. Occasionally, bold children would run out and try begging for a pen or piece of candy with their pigeon French. I swatted them away, surprising them with a few phrases of Arabic, but they mostly looked at Matthew, who sauntered on obliviously with his bloated pack, wide-eyed and in wonder at this strange new world. I could find nothing to admire. The medina was the old city, although it had long ago turned into a slum, its snaking streets and alleyways wet with raw sewage and rotting meat and vegetables, its inhabitants hobbled with deformities, all of them underfed. Around it, Casablanca sprawled out, an unplanned tangle of roads and cheap cement buildings crumbling with neglect, their white paint hidden beneath dark layers of soot. I intended to leave this place as soon as possible and return to the undeveloped country beyond, where the poverty was at least woven up with the rugged beauty of the land, and so I watched Matthew warily as he stopped and took out a camera.
What he saw was an old woman, her whole body bent beneath a large pile of sticks, which she had strapped to her back and kept in place with a long and flowery sheet. She was walking toward us, the sticks swaying gently with each step, shouting out every couple of feet since she could not see ahead. Matthew raised his camera and took several quick photos, then we both moved aside to let her pass. Close up, I saw her yellow eyes flick over us.
As soon as she was gone, a man approached us in a long brown djellaba, a bright blue scarf tied tightly around his head. He began speaking to Matthew in rapid strings of French, punctuating his speech by pointing at the camera, then off to where the woman had been. Matthew looked at me helplessly. Both our backs were to the wall. A crowd was quickly gathering — passing merchants leaning on their donkeys, a few children selling cigarettes — so I asked the man what he wanted in my most polite Arabic. He went silent as he studied me, then got right to his point: That woman was his mother, and he wanted money for those photographs. Either that or he would take the camera. He turned toward Matthew again.
I laughed and touched him on the shoulder and called him my friend, then slipped a few dirhams into his palm. While he counted, I told Matthew to put his camera up and tried leading us both away, but the man immediately grabbed my elbow and demanded more. I could see the crowd watching us everywhere. “Of course,” I said, smiling. “How much do you want?” But I didn’t bother waiting for his response. I threw a balled-up five dirham note on the ground, then pulled Matthew’s arm and began to run. The street filled with shouting, both angry and encouraging, as we made our escape. Some of the children even ran after us. After taking a few turns, though, and passing through a group of gray-bearded men filing into a mosque, we crossed a wide road and ran out into a clearing, where an ocean breeze blew.
The slums were behind us and we were alone. Up ahead, the giant pillar of the Hassan II minaret rose, its blue and green tiles on fire against the evening sun. Like a horn, the call to prayer suddenly burst out from it, filling the sky with its plaintive tune. Although I was still rattled by our brief encounter, I had always loved the call’s woeful song, the way it could sound distant even as it enveloped you, and I stopped to stare and listen. Eventually, I looked over at Matthew, but he wasn’t there. He had begun walking toward the minaret, his camera back out, and was taking more photos in the failing light. I watched him turn around and wave excitedly at me, then shout something that I couldn’t understand. I stood there a moment longer, listening as the last words of the call echoed out, then sighed and started to follow him.
Joining the Peace Corps had felt almost like a joke. I grew up in a family whose idea of travel was to drive the hundred or so miles to my grandparent’s house, stopping at the same McDonald’s each time. Later, I didn’t even bother applying to another college besides the one in my hometown. I guess because of this, everything about the Peace Corps seemed tinged with a sense of the unreal, the way billboards for exotic vacations look when you’re stuck in a car. I remember sending off an application, smiling my way through several brief interviews, then suddenly sitting in a dark plane that smelled like cigarettes, flying to a country I had only barely been aware of before.
I told all this to Matthew the next day as we rode a bus south. We had spent the night in one of those cheap, unadorned hotels us volunteers were forced to frequent, where the beds were little more than a few pipes welded together to fit a thin mattress and sheets, and had come up with a plan. I’d suggested we start by traveling down along the coast, stopping along the various surfing and fishing villages until we reached the old fortress town of Essaouira. From there, we would take the road east through the argan fields to Marrakech, then either keep heading south, over the Atlas mountains and into the desert towns, or turn back north toward Fes. If we had time, I told him, we could even go all the way to the Rif region, in the country’s northern tip, where I’d heard other volunteers talk about a small town hidden in the hills that the Moroccans had covered completely in blue paint.
What I didn’t tell him was how difficult this journey would likely be. Neither of us had the means to rent a car, which meant that we would have to rely on buses and taxis to get around. These so-called grand taxis consisted of an aging fleet of Mercedes sedans run by a cabal of suspicious and stubborn men. They could almost always be found in some field on the outskirts of towns, where they would mill about until they had swindled enough travelers to make a trip. All of them had made certain modifications to their cars (missing window cranks, cut-out cushions) so they could stuff two passengers in front and four more in back, yet they would still talk themselves dry in their attempts to get every coin from your pocket, especially with a white man in their crowd. Two of us would make them even more bold.
For all that, the taxis would drive between towns fast, if not a bit recklessly, and knew how to bribe the police. The buses, on the other hand, while cheap, were ancient and lumbering vehicles prone to all manner of breakdowns that made traveling an onerous and sometimes dangerous affair. On the slick mountain roads during the fall and winter months it was not uncommon to hear that one tipped and plunged down a cliff. Elsewhere, you had to worry about the usual thieves and pickpockets and occasional drunk, as well as the other passengers, many of whom had never been in an automobile of any kind before and would spend much of their bus ride bent over, heaving wetly into plastic bags.
We had been traveling for several hours, though, with no incident so far. The grim buildings of Casablanca were long behind us, replaced by the soft hills and fields of the central plains. Olive trees and almond trees, as well as a few grape vineyards, twisted up haphazardly just off the road, often accompanied by short, lumpen houses made out of palm leaves and packed dirt. A draught blew in from the Atlantic several miles to the west. On the horizon, far off in the southeast, I could see the faint peaks of the Atlas begin to rise up like waves.
I hadn’t spent this much time alone with another American in years, and had been afraid that the two of us would have little to talk about during these rides. To my surprise, however, Matthew turned out to be a cheerful fellow traveler full of disarming conversation. After exhausting a line of questions about the likes of Marrakech and Essaouira and the other towns on our trip, he started catching me up on his own life. “I found out teaching middle school wasn’t the right career for me,” he told me, shrugging his shoulders and laughing, although I had no idea he ever thought it was. Instead, he said he ended up going back to work for his father, who owned a drywall company in New York. It was a family business and his father was old-fashioned, so he made Matthew lug giant sheets of gypsum around the city, learning how to break and cut them, then hang them up. His hair, he said, would be white with sheetrock at the end of each day.
Eventually, he was helping his father out in the office, answering phone calls and scheduling appointments, then organizing the books. “We didn’t really get along,” he admitted, but said he was still grateful for the work. All the while, he was saving up his money so he could do something else. I remember thinking how strange it was sitting on the bus with him as he talked about these things. They were so normal, I thought. How many times had I hid in my house while a dust storm blew in from the Sahara, heaving sand against my windows and turning the sun from orange to auburn to a muddy brown smudge, while I imagined everything that I was missing? I had been certain I’d made some kind of mistake.
Matthew’s voice changed when he mentioned his father’s heart attack, but only for a second. He seemed determined not to let this affect his mood. “Afterwards,” he said, “my mom and I decided to sell the business. We both got a little money and I wanted to do some traveling. That’s when I heard about what you were doing and looked you up.”
He started asking about my experiences over the past two years. I think he was happy to turn the conversation back toward me. I’m still not sure why — maybe it was the admiration in his voice or the tragedy of his story, or maybe it was just the fact that I only had two more months to go — but I made the decision to tell him the truth of the matter. The landscape outside was rolling away ahead of us with no end in sight, so I stared off and told him how things had gone wrong.
It wasn’t so bad at first. I arrived in the country with two dozen or so other volunteers, and we were immediately shipped off for several weeks of training in a dusty little town whose name I couldn’t pronounce. Other than an older couple who mostly kept to their own, everyone else was around my age. We were all nervous and eager to prove ourselves, so we formed quick friendships and became secretly competitive. Between language classes, we would often sneak off to the market, where we would pretend to be interested in the merchant’s bad art and garish pieces of clothing so we could practice new phrases and try to bargain them down. At night, we would sip tea and stare up at the bright desert sky, our voices filled with ambition as we discussed the projects we would soon begin.
All this passed quickly, and before we were ready we had said our goodbyes and scattered to the various poor villages across the country that had agreed to take us in. I was assigned to one of the furthest, a sorry patch of buildings anchored to an army base overlooking the Sahara, where bored soldiers would drive their trucks around in circles, raising up dust. When I arrived, a snaggle-toothed man introduced himself as some sort of government official, then took me to the house of his cousin, whom he said I would be living with for the next few months. I remember the cousin, a short and stocky man with a nervous laugh, shaking my hand violently when he saw me, then holding on as he showed me off to his sprawling family. I waved, but they just sat around their small television, staring up at me with no expression at all.
In addition to the wife, there were six other children, plus one or two nephews who came and went. Their house was made from bare cinder blocks cemented together and stabbed through with rebar, which sprouted out from the walls and ceiling like weeds. In this way, it was no different from the other homes in town, all of which seemed to be in a constant state of construction as money ebbed and flowed. However, unlike the other families, I soon learned that the cousin did not work. Instead, he somehow supported his wife and children on an old army pension, which he was now more than happy to supplement with my rent. He gave me their single spare room and his wife cooked me large, inelegant meals filled with potatoes and accompanied with greasy discs of bread. Sometimes, they would try to speak with me, but they would always lose patience with my poor Arabic and go back to just pointing urgently at different objects while they shouted their names.
By the third month, I began to notice that I was missing things. I was still living out of my suitcase in the spare room, which had increasingly grown more disarrayed. In addition to my clothing and books, I had lined the walls with various items — pots and pans, an old countertop stove, a woven reed basket, a small rug — that I had accumulated in anticipation of moving out. This hadn’t come to pass. Although the cousin, along with his snaggle-toothed relative, had shown me a few dilapidated houses (one was filled waist-deep with mud), they had eventually thrown their hands up and said there was nothing to do. A housing shortage, they explained. It was just after this when things began disappearing. A shirt. A few forks. They were small, inconsequential, but I grew suspicious. I decided to start locking the door to my room when I left, although there was no way to know if I had the only key.
I tried throwing myself into my work, but there wasn’t much for me to do. I had signed up with a sector of the Peace Corps that worked with artisans, and I occasionally heard reports from my colleagues who were happily engaged with dagger makers and rug weavers and other exotic trades, but there was none of that in my town. Instead, all I was able to do was organize a few poorly attended English classes, which my students mostly used to ogle at me and yell taunts. Meanwhile, more of my stuff went missing. A care package my parents sent me was ransacked for its candy. Any coins I left in my room instantly vanished. My suitcase was left open, rearranged. I began wearing my distrust more openly, spending less time with the cousin and his family, avoiding any conversations (my Arabic was gradually improving), and sometimes not even bothering to come home for his wife’s meals. It was a small town, so other people noticed. The cousin started to ask why I was leaving, then eventually demanded that I stay. I pretended I didn’t understand him or just ignored him outright. Relations between us became tense. Even his children wouldn’t look me in the eye.
As luck would have it, one of the shopkeepers had taken note of my predicament and cleared out two rooms above his store, then offered them to me for a fair price. Moving in felt like more than an escape; it felt like I was finally given permission to breathe. However, it didn’t take long for the cousin to come back into my life.
I was in my home early one morning when I heard a knock on my door. I rarely had visitors, especially unannounced, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when I saw him and his wife standing there. He was wearing a tattered brown jacket and, as was the custom, she had wrapped herself several times in a long length of black cloth. They nodded hello and quickly, uninvited, elbowed their way inside. There, they both began talking rapidly, slipping between Arabic and their native Berber dialect, which I didn’t understand. What I eventually picked up on was that they were asking for money. You owe us, they said. It was absurd, and I began shaming them, using the same phrase — hshuma — I had heard them use to scold their children before. Almost at once, they backed off and started shaking their heads. They claimed I had misunderstood them, and said they were just on their way to see someone who owed them money. Not me. They went on to compliment my house and offered me some friendly recommendations and advice, then departed just as quickly as they had come in, a haze of confusion in their wake.
I told myself not to think about it. I wanted nothing more to do with them, so what would be the point? Besides, by then I had begun meeting with a local association that was working to rebuild the youth center, an imposing cement building slowly decomposing in the center of town. They were a small organization, just five men, but were friendly and would pronounce their Arabic slowly so that I could follow along. Not long after the cousin’s visit, though, I noticed that they began having meetings without me. I would walk in and they would already be deep in conversation, speaking so quickly I could only pick up every other word. Something had changed. They shook my hand when they saw me, but would nod absently if I tried to interject with a suggestion. As a result, I started to show up less often, and eventually stopped meeting with them at all. A few weeks later, I watched them put new paint on the youth center from afar.
I tried searching out new projects and talking with other associations — a women and children’s charity, a craft cooperative — but by then the rumors about me had spread. I was untrustworthy. I stole money. Some were even saying that I was a spy. I considered confronting the cousin directly and accusing him of everything that I suspected, maybe even make a scene, but I didn’t. Instead, I just sat in my house, reading books and smoking hashish until I was numb. Afterwards, I would write long letters back to my family, describing the obscene desert sunsets, the nighttime packs of wild dogs, the forehead bruises the especially faithful wore, the way the donkeys screamed, never once mentioning in all those pages how pissed off and despondent I’d become. More or less, this was how I passed my two years.
I don’t remember what Matthew said when I was through telling him all this, but we were almost to Essaouira by that point. The ocean had opened up ahead of us and looked like a pool of rubies in the evening. We were both ready to get off that bus.
We gave ourselves three days to explore the city. I’ve learned that in the years since our visit, Essaouira has built itself up to be some sort of resort town and is now quite the tourist destination, but I can recall being impressed with it even back then. Unlike in Casablanca, its medina was cool and clean, a maze of brick pathways and whitewashed buildings lined with fish stalls and small restaurants and little hole-in-the-wall merchants whose colorful displays spilled out and took up half the road. There were trees, real ones with branches you could climb on and canopies that cast shade, as well as a couple beaches soft enough to just about fall asleep. All of this was organized around a tall weathered fortress that jutted out into the Atlantic. For a couple dirhams, you could walk to the top and see its old cannons, which two hundred years ago had pointed toward fleets of Portuguese and Spanish ships, but now only looked out at the small blue boats of the local fishermen, wobbling in the sea.
We spent our first day just wandering the city, taking our time along its narrow alleyways and wide dirt avenues, stopping to sip tea leisurely at the cafes or to examine the wares of some store. Each merchant greeted us effusively in whatever language they guessed we spoke (mostly French, but sometimes Spanish and only once English), then would begin shoving their products toward us, insisting we feel the softness of their leather or the tight weaves of their rugs. I had become used to this desperate aggression, but was worried Matthew would make the mistake of showing too much interest or lingering too long. Thankfully, he was keeping a close watch on his money and, besides a few cheap trinkets, was never tempted by anything. We would walk in and listen briefly to the salesmen’s enthusiastic speeches, then all I had to do was start speaking in Arabic to shut them up.
After so long in the desert, it was wonderful being here. The weather was warm, but manageable, and the locals seemed familiar enough with Westerners to leave us alone. Mostly, though, I was in love with the seafood. I dragged Matthew into restaurants and made him stop into the markets, where I bought baskets of fresh snapper and shrimp and calamari that the Moroccans then grilled over open propane tanks and served us with soda and thick loaves of bread. Sometimes, I even ate the little unidentifiable fish the old women battered and fried in pans of olive oil by the beach. I couldn’t get enough. Matthew would stare at me, barely picking at his food, while I stuffed myself and described for him the endless plates of potatoes and goat meat I had survived on for the past two years.
I was enjoying his company. They said that after going through an experience like the Peace Corps, you might have a hard time relating to friends and even family the same way you once did. In fact, I’d heard stories from other volunteers who, after taking Christmas vacations home, had practically kissed the ground when they’d finally flown back into the country, such was their relief. That didn’t seem to be the case here. Maybe I had to squint my eyes a little, but it felt like we had mostly picked up where we had left off. He filled me in on what our college buddies were up to, caught me up with some local gossip, and we both took turns telling old stories I was surprised I could remember so vividly. For a little while, I forgot how lonely I’d been.
What we didn’t talk about was our conversation on the bus. I had no intention of bringing up Matthew’s dead father and, from what I could tell, he felt the same. Likewise, I was grateful he never asked me anymore details about my service or how I had spent my time. I had two months left and this was almost beginning to feel something like a vacation. It was as if I was finally coming to after a strange and disturbing dream.
We decided to explore the fortress on the third day. We paid a man standing guard with a rifle, then walked through the narrow stonecut entrance and started climbing up. The walls were high and thick and notched every few feet where a cannon, each the size of a small car, sat peacefully. Here and there, groups of small children scuttled over and mounted them, pretending to fire deadly shots at the seagulls hovering in the wind. We strolled past them, admiring the view, then went down some stairs and into a group of low stone buildings contained tightly within the walls. At some point long ago, they may have been used to house soldiers or store weapons or hold animals of war, but now were the concern of the few tourists stalking about with cameras, taking careful photos of the decay.
It was fragrant down there. The rich smell of wet dirt mixed with the ocean salt in the wind, as well as the nascent scents of bird shit and incense that seemed to be everywhere. Occasionally, I would also pick up the unmistakable odor of hashish, a sharp smell not unlike shoe polish or certain types of burning leaves. I began looking around. Although hashish was general all over Morocco — sometimes a thick reek leaking out from under a doorway, sometimes just a note in the breeze — it was strange to find it in a place like this. A young French family walked past laughing and, if the scent hadn’t still been there, I would have worried my mind was making it up.
We turned and wandered down a corridor defined on its right side by one of the fortress’s thick outside walls. At its far end, a Moroccan boy, tall and lanky but no older than fourteen, sat on a stone, casually puffing one of the cigarettes he was selling from the box at his feet. He looked up as we approached and asked in Arabic if we wanted to smoke. I could smell the hashish on his skin, and wondered aloud if he was selling anything else. He nodded, then gathered his box and flicked his cigarette and made a motion to follow him.
He led us to a small pocket in the wall where the old stones had crumbled, then had been further chiseled away. Deftly, he ducked through, then yelled from the other side for us to do the same. I looked over at Matthew, whose face showed trouble and demanded an explanation. “Have you ever smoked hash?” I asked him. He frowned and shook his head. I told him that while it’s nothing like the pot we used to smoke, it’s at least worth a try, then assured him that I’d done this before, although that wasn’t entirely true. While I had purchased hashish often in the past two years, I had only ever bought it from a shopkeeper in my little town, a man whom I had sworn to silence by sometimes bringing him a bottle of cheap liquor, which he sipped with secret relish late at night. However, it was a measure in Matthew’s trust in me that he just nodded and put his camera up.
Outside, the boy led us down a steep path that fell off on one side into a morass pierced with sharp black rocks shaped into wild figures by the waves. Ahead of us, a cluster of gray cinder block buildings grew up unevenly beside a fallow beach. The boy stepped down the path quickly, toward the tiny village, as we struggled to keep up. Around us, the burnt odor of hashish blew.
We followed in silence while the boy took several turns between the buildings and then disappeared behind a thin curtain draped over an entrance cut into a wall. After a few tense moments — I could sense Matthew’s unease — his small head once again appeared and invited us inside. We walked into the darkness, which immediately opened up into a small room filled almost entirely by a folding table flanked by two men. One of them studied us with sleepy indifference, while the other sat on a pile of bricks holding a long and elaborately carved wooden pipe. A third, round and bearded, sat at the table next to a knife and a large lump of hashish that looked, at first glance, like a loaf of fresh bread.
“You want to buy some kif?” the man at the table asked in Arabic, looking between me and Matthew, then behind us at the boy. “How much do you want?”
I opened my wallet and searched my pockets, but all I had was ten dirhams and a few small coins. I asked him what that would get.
“Nothing. Twenty dirhams a gram.” He looked at me dismissively. The man behind him put a match to his pipe and blew out a gray puff.
I turned toward Matthew. He was leaning against the wall as he studied the scene with incomprehension, clutching his camera bag by his side. I apologized and asked him if he had any money I could borrow. He stared at me for a second, then pulled out a small billfold he’d concealed beneath his shirt and handed me a fifty dirham note.
I passed the money onto the large man, who looked at it, then picked up the knife and began slicing into the soft chunk of hash. Before he had hardly begun, though, the boy started shouting in a frenzy and waving his arms. The sleepy man in the back suddenly woke up and pushed his way out, hitting me hard on the shoulder and scampering off. The other two men became frantic as they tried to gather up the loaf of hash and money and their various other implements they had scattered about the small room. The boy yelled several more times, then he also disappeared. It took me several seconds to comprehend what he had been saying, but then I looked at Matthew, who was watching me with wide-eyed alarm. “We’ve got to go,” I told him. “It’s the police.”
Out in the narrow dirt pathways, other people were also shouting and pushing to get past, all of them eager for escape. I didn’t think about where we were going; I just ran and took turns at random, looking back every so often to make sure Matthew was still there. We eventually found ourselves struggling along on the soft sand of the nearby beach. Waves, warm and gentle, lapped up indifferently beside us. A group of small children went past, each of them stumbling about as they sniffed at a glue-soaked rag. We stopped and sat. There was no one else around.
Once our adrenaline had gone down and we had taken our bearings, Matthew and I made our way back through the village, toward the path that led to the fortress above. I looked, but could find no sign that anything had happened. The streets were mostly empty and silent, filled instead with the lunchtime scents of tagine and fried seafood, in addition to the lingering smell of hashish. Meanwhile, Matthew walked ahead of me, veiled in his own terrible silence. I was not used to being deceived and felt awful and knew I should say something, at least promise to pay him back, but I could not find the words. We proceeded up the hill like this, my mind whirling, and ducked back through the hole in the wall. Unexpectedly, the boy from before was there waiting. Without saying anything, he pressed a block of hashish into my hand, then ran off.
A black thunderstorm hovered on the horizon in the morning hours of the next day. We were once again on a bus, passing through the dry plains east of Essaouira, traveling toward Marrakech. I leaned my head against the window and watched the dark clouds seethe and writhe far off, their great smoky mass pierced occasionally by a blue spark of lightning, and knew this to be a warning of the rains that would flood the hard desert towns throughout autumn, then fall as sleet and ice higher up in the mountains, where they would eventually block off roads and villages and entire swaths of the country as the winter turned them into thick drifts of snow.
I thought back to the second month of my stay with the cousin, when a rainstorm lasting four days had passed overhead. An old riverbed ran through the town’s center, dividing it up into two halves with its path of large and ungainly white stones. By the end of the first day, the water had found its way back into its bed, covering the stones with a swift and healthy stream. By the second day, it had become a malicious black torrent that ran right up to its banks. I remember the townspeople gathering at its edge and watching in astonishment as the braided waters frothed and carried off whole cars with as little difficulty as a child might pick up a toy. The rain kept on falling without end. By the third day, I was working alongside the cousin, his sons, and dozens of the town’s men to shore up the banks with bags of dirt and sand gathered from the surrounding desert. Beside the roar of the river we worked in silence, stopping only to go inside briefly and eat a bowl of soup and warm ourselves by a fire before walking back out into the rain. By the fourth day, when the storm began letting up and we’d seen that the water had failed to breach its embankments and flood the town, we shook each other’s hands and congratulated each other with a sense of goodwill and camaraderie I was sure would last my entire time there.
Watching the thunderstorm brew, I considered relating this memory to Matthew, but decided against it. We had barely said two words to each other during the whole ride and didn’t think this was the best way to break the silence between us, which had become prolonged. After the previous day’s incident, we had retreated back to our hotel rooms to wash and rest up and (I hoped) recover somewhat. After only a few minutes, though, Matthew had knocked on the door separating our two rooms and said he was going out for a walk. I asked if he was sure and invited him to stay and smoke some of the hashish, but he declined and said he wouldn’t be gone for that long.
I sat on the small porch our two rooms shared unrolling the tobacco from a pack of cigarettes and wrapping them up again with loose crumbs of hash. Below me, a street market pulsed with people doing their afternoon shopping, with the sounds of the shopkeepers shouting out in different languages to the few tourists who walked by. I watched and listened, lighting one hash cigarette after another until a gentle cloud of blue smoke unravelled around me and the world once again felt alright. Like I had often before, I let myself marvel at the fact of me living in such a strange place for so long, and wondered if there’d be a time when I missed it all.
I awoke in the copper light of evening as the call to prayer echoed loudly off the empty streets. Hungry and still hazy from the hashish, I went to find Matthew, but he wasn’t in his room. In the hotel’s lobby — an open courtyard crowded with small tables all arranged around a fountain filled with green water and several struggling fish — I asked the manager if he’d seen a red-haired man. He frowned and shook his large head and looked for a long time at the scattered pieces on the chessboard before him and didn’t say a word. However, his opponent, an older employee, pointed out toward the direction of the ocean and said he’d seen a man like that walk that way some hours ago.
The sun was falling quickly and by the time I’d made it out to the water the only light was what little came from the half moon. Lacking a good idea, I began walking along the beach, toward the distant shadows of the villages that curved southward along the coast. The night was tranquil, the only sound the soft bubbling of the surf, but I knew I was not alone. Like ghosts, figures passed by me or sat up on the sand silently as I drew near. Some were obviously couples, stealing themselves away to go wander hand-in-hand in the dark. Others, though, took the shapes of solitary men. I thought of stories I’d heard of long-ago volunteers getting robbed and beaten badly in situations not unlike this. However, as best I could in that strange blackness, I studied the men for any features bearing a resemblance to Matthew, while still keeping my distance.
I found him perched up on a dune, facing the ocean, silhoutted against the star-pricked sky. We were maybe a mile or so down the beach, in an area where the flat-packed sand gave way to soft, sloping drifts decorated with trembling clumps of reeds. My hashish haze had long ago turned into a gnawing hunger and fear, and I was annoyed at having to walk this far out. When I called his name, though, he did not seem the least bit surprised. He simply stood up and slid down the dune and nodded hello. Even in the weak light, I could tell that he had been crying, and whatever words of reproach I had prepared for him instantly vanished. We walked back to the hotel without talking, where he promptly excused himself and went to bed. The next day, we woke up early and left for Marrakech.
I watched the storm clouds advance steadily throughout our trip and, when we arrived, a light rain was falling throughout the city and forming slick rainbow puddles on the roads. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to convince the beggars outside the bus station to abandon their normal spots and converge all at once beneath the covered awnings where the buses pulled in. This added to the general hysteria of our arrival as they rushed over and pushed and shoved each other trying to get a good vantage to stretch an arm out for a coin. Such was their commotion, the attendants stopped unpacking the bags and luggage from the bus’s bottom compartments and began beating them back. The beggars howled and yelled, as aggrieved as hurt dogs, but eventually gave way.
As Matthew and I were getting off the bus, though, one must have slipped through. I heard a sudden cry and turned and saw Matthew staring down at a legless man in tattered dress who had fashioned a kind of wheelchair out of a piece of wood padded with rags and what looked like several small shopping cart wheels. He scooted alongside Matthew in this contraption, holding onto his leg with one calloused hand while, with his other, he reached up and pulled at his clothes, the whole time speaking in some wordless mix of sounds and gibberish I’m sure only he understood. I searched my pockets for something to give him that would persuade him to let go, but before I could one of the bus attendants came up and raised a cross-shaped tire iron and struck him hard and square on the head. The metal rang out and the legless man softened and crumpled in his seat. He then released a long and craven moan of such haunting animal intensity that I still count it as one of my clearest memories, even after all these years.
The incident seemed to affect Matthew similarly, since he looked about frightfully afterwards even as he shrugged off any of my concerns. To cheer him up, I decided to take him to the Jemaa el-Fnaa, an enormous square in the center of the city frequented by merchants, snake charmers, fortune tellers, magicians, prophets, and hucksters of every conceivable stripe, as well as the tourists attracted to its strange and enduring medieval charm. I had visited this spot only once prior, where I had walked up to a crowd of gathering Moroccans and witnessed a man at their center take the hands of an old withered woman who was ranting and raving, place an open Koran into her palms, recite a few mysterious phrases, then stand back while the woman coughed violently until she spat out several more vicious words and expelled a cherry-sized lump of dark coal. As the crowd gasped, the man immediately lit the demon lump with a match, igniting it with a phosphorescent green glow while the stunned woman sat down and watched in reverent silence.
I told this story to Matthew on the way over, hoping to distract him and get him looking forward to the rest of our trip, but when we arrived we found that the rain had emptied out the square save for a few wandering salesmen hawking overpriced umbrellas. Wet and tired, we ducked into one of the covered cafes that lined the square’s edge to wait out the storm. For a long while, we sat in silence together amid the cafe’s general chatter and the low thrum of rain on the tiles outside. Several times I tried to start a conversation, but I could think of nothing to say. Then, all of a sudden and quite abruptly, Matthew asked me what I’d hoped to get by coming out here. The question caught me off guard, so I told him the truth: I wasn’t sure.
He laughed. “Didn’t you want to help people? Isn’t that why people join the Peace Corps?”
“Of course I did,” I said, feeling suddenly accused, like I had to defend myself. I went on to mention the English classes I had organized, the students I had helped tutor, the countless dinners where I’d had to answer an endless array of inane questions about Americans. It may not have been much, but that had to amount to something, I thought.
Matthew nodded at all of this and smiled, but didn’t respond. This only annoyed me more.
“What are you trying to say?” I asked him, sitting up in my chair. “That I haven’t done enough?”
“I don’t know.” He paused and held his breath. “But it does seem as if you don’t really like it here that much.”
He said this very matter-of-factly, without any apparent judgment or derision, as if he had merely been pointing out the color of paint on the wall. I knew I had upset him after the incident with the hashish, but I had no idea I’d given him this impression. I was surprised and confused, and I asked him if he was angry with me.
He shook his head. “I just don’t think I knew what I was getting into over here, and wanted to see if that had been the case with you as well.” For a moment, it seemed like he was going to add on to this thought, but then he didn’t. Outside, the patter of rain had finally stopped. The cafe was beginning to empty out, and he asked me if I was ready to leave.
The rest of the day, I kept thinking about this conversation, becoming annoyed by it, then just curious, then genuinely perplexed. We checked into our hotel, then spent the evening walking around the Jemaa el-Fnaa, which had since become filled with lighted carts and vendors selling soups and fresh-squeezed juices and long skewers of blackened meat. Matthew and I wandered from one to another, marveling at the dense crowds that had come out after the rain, occasionally stopping to sample some food at a stall. At some point, I remember him giving me his camera, then stepping a few feet away so I could take his photo. Standing there, with his red hair and American clothing, surrounded by Moroccans, I realized how unfamiliar he looked to me.
“What did you want to get from coming out here?” I asked him, but this was much later, in our hotel room, after he had gone to sleep. I stared across the room in his direction, where he was sheathed in darkness, and waited for him to stir. He never did, so I just lay there, listening to his breathing, aware of a space between us that I had not noticed before.
Marrakech (along with Fes, Meknes, and Rabat) is one of the four imperial cities originally built by the old Berber empires that stretched north and south across Morocco and into the Andalusian regions of Spain. Although farmers had occupied the area since ancient times, its official founding as a city came in 1062, when a man named Abu Bakr ibn Umar, chieftain of one of the nomadic tribes and cousin to the Almoravid king, began holding court there. As was common in that violent time, he died soon after, but not before his cousin had established Marrakech’s first mosque, thus inaugurating several centuries of construction, expansion, and development, interrupted by the occasional siege or periodic exchange of power. A thousand years later, this has produced a city buffeted by so many different historical eras and styles, and rooted as equally in the feudal cultures of the Sahara and old Islamic caliphates as it is in more modern colonial powers like France, to make the tourist walking through it now wonder at all the events and identities one place can endure before it eventually collapses under its own weight.
Marrakech was my favorite city in the country, and I was glad to be back. My previous visit had come a year or so into my service, when I had stopped into the town during a trip to the coast. For months, I hadn’t done any work and had barely even left my small apartment, and so I was eager to stretch my legs some and explore. I spent a day wandering through the city’s old ochre walls, thick forty-foot-tall ramparts built long ago by various kings and caliphs eager to protect the gold and other riches that regularly flowed up from as far south as the Sudan, and let myself get lost in its intricate medina, the largest marketplace in the country by a significant measure. I was twenty-four years old then and, after feeling like little more than a failure since I’d arrived, had finally found something I could count as an accomplishment: I was in a strange and ancient city, several thousand miles away from my home, and I did not feel afraid.
It was during this trip that I stumbled across an unlikely pub hidden deep within the turns of those countless, unnamed streets. By all accounts, this place shouldn’t exist, but I remember very clearly looking up and seeing the sign, an old wooden board decorated with bright painterly flourishes and inscribed, in both French and English, with the word “beer.” Although not officially illegal, alcohol could normally only be found in either tourist hotels or unmarked shops shamefaced Moroccans would sneak into and out of, so I was suspicious of what seemed at first like some elaborate hoax. However, I stood outside long enough to watch two other men of indiscriminate origin walk in, and I decided to enter myself.
Inside was a dark room taken up almost entirely by three long tables, where various men, both Moroccan and foreign, sat having boisterous conversations over drinks. Several of them glanced in my direction, but their gazes did not linger, so ordinary all this was to them. I remained there in the doorway marveling at this odd sight, then walked up to the short bar carved into the wall and ordered a beer. The bartender, an Englishman with an unkempt mustache and round rosy cheeks, handed me a pint, and I asked him what this place was.
He pointed to a plaque on the wall. “Been around since the forties, just after the war. To my understanding, a couple old soldiers started it, and it’s been a place for expatriates of all types ever since. Are you a tourist?”
I took offense at this and shook my head, then began telling him about the Peace Corps.
“Oh well you should talk to John over there,” he interrupted, gesturing to someone behind me. “Hey John!”
An older man, slightly gaunt but with the prim and stately look of a missionary, turned around in his chair.
“This fella is in your Peace Corps!” the bartender yelled, nodding toward me.
“Is that so?” John said. He came over and introduced himself, shaking my hand cordially, then said he had served himself, all the way back in sixty-three. “The first year Peace Corps came to the country,” he said, quite proud of himself. “It was a wild ride.”
Then he sat down on the stool beside me and began telling me all about it. He worked as something called an irrigation supervisor in the plains outside of Marrakech, where he helped farmers dig out canals and water their crops and build wells and catchment systems for when the weather turned dry. He was responsible for an area that covered five different farms, which amounted to well over a dozen square miles of land. To get around, he bought himself a horse, named it Dorothy in honor of his old dog from back home, and made daily rounds of his farmers, eventually organizing them into a collective so they could share their resources with one another and help each other out in hard times. Soon, more farmers joined in, and John’s purview expanded further until it edged closer to twenty miles in total, not counting the distance he had to trek from his home.
“After a while of this,” he said, “it got to be a little too much for me and Dorothy, so I traded her in for an old motorcycle, moved into the city, and made the commute to check in on them twice a week. By then, though, most of the farmers had become pretty well self-sufficient, so I started to turn my attention to other work. On a hunch, I began buying up rugs and lamps and other knickknacks for next to nothing and shipping them back home, where people went crazy for them. By the time my service had ended, I’d already started a little business. Almost forty years later and here I am.” He set his empty beer down at this conclusion and raised a finger for another, then turned back toward me. “So what about you?”
I was not untruthful and described for him the many disappointments I’d experienced so far, detailing my troubles with the cousin and his family, the various associations, the swirl of rumors that surrounded me and my presence in the town. I remember the older man nodding along sympathetically as he listened, patiently letting me unburden myself of these frustrations. When I had finished, he shook his head and expressed his wonder at how much had changed since he’d first arrived. “It’s become about money,” he said, waving around a dismissive hand. “If you don’t have it or can’t get it, they won’t have much use for you.”
This statement seemed very true at the time and, in the months afterwards, became an odd but enduring source of comfort for me. Many of the failures I had previously felt and been personally abused by could really be attributed to forces beyond my own small control. This helped give me a more liberating sense of ease with my situation: things were how they were here, and there wasn’t much I could do.
A year later, as I walked through the same streets with Matthew in tow, I thought again about this conversation. The last of the rain had blown away and left long cotton contrails high up in the air, and Matthew had woken up that morning in a mood to explore. We went to the Koutoubia Mosque and looked for a long time at the woven geometric patterns etched into its sandstone walls, simple when viewed up close but ornate and almost infinite just a few steps back. We toured the Menara gardens, as old as the city itself, where rows of olive trees touched canopies, their unripe fruit still hard and smooth as river stones. Afterwards, we paid seventy dirhams, which I thought was an exorbitant amount, to enter the newer, but more magisterial Majorelle Garden, an exotic collection of cacti and palm fronds and vines sprouting flowers still in full neon bloom, all growing around a small house painted in a shade of blue so bright it brought to mind electricity. Matthew spent a good deal of time taking photographs here, and when we left we had to walk past a large group of men kneeling piously over improvised mats (shirts, sheets of cardboard) for their evening prayer.
We went back through the Jemaa el-Fnaa, which was once again filled with the variety of hucksters and charlatans I remembered from before, one of whom stood beside a chair and a small table covered in sharp implements, shouting out to anyone who passed his services as a dentist, and I suggested to Matthew that we grab a drink. He seemed surprised.
“Where are we going to do that?” he said, looking around, as if he had simply not noticed the bar.
“I know a spot,” I said, and quickly told him about my experience from last year, leaving out the old volunteer and our conversation, and assuring him I knew how to get us back there, or at least very close.
We walked into the medina, which hugged the square on one end, and entered a pathway covered high up with lashed pieces of bamboo. The day’s fading light showed red through their slats and cast odd shadows on the golden lanterns and mountains of colorful spices the merchants were still selling on either side. I led Matthew further on. The path soon narrowed and the shops turned from tourist fare to unadorned local stores trading only in the ancient essentials of the place. We passed a tailor bent over in a space no larger than a broom closet, as well as a junk dealer covered in grime. In one corner, where a line of butcher shops were getting ready to close, dozens of feral cats had emerged to fight over the bloody chicken scraps left on the floor.
I suppose I was angry with Matthew. The whole day his comments from the previous evening had gone unmentioned, and we’d proceeded as if nothing had changed. He’d even reverted back to his boisterous self and had spent much of the day peppering me with questions about this or that as we played tourists in the streets. The truth, though, was that I was resentful for the implications he had made. What right did he have to judge me for what I had or had not done here? Why did he assume, after one week, he knew as much as I did after two years? I hadn’t really thought it out — would John even be there? — but bringing him to the pub felt suddenly important. I wanted him to see there were other people like me.
But first I had to find it, which was proving more troublesome than I had hoped. Although I still had a general idea of the direction I had taken, as well as a memory of a few landmarks along the way, nothing seemed familiar in the growing darkness and soon we were lost. While I could have stopped to ask someone, in the unlikely case they even knew about it they would never have admitted such a thing. Instead, I just took turns at random, hoping for the wretched sameness of each small pathway to become something recognizable and concealing my disappointment when it did not. Eventually, Matthew asked if we were going the right way.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted, then thought better of it and told him that it had to be near. We walked on a while longer. The road we were on narrowed until it was no wider than the span of our arms, and any sign of shops all but disappeared. We were in an old residential area. The buildings on both sides stretched up in various states of either construction or deconstruction, it was difficult to tell. It reminded me somewhat of my town.
Matthew spoke again: “I think that man is following us.” He nodded subtly to a figure keeping its distance.
I had noticed him before, loitering among the crowds of tourists near the medina’s entrance, then hanging back later on as we descended into its streets. He’d probably call himself a guide, but was really one of those men who would spring up suddenly on unexpected foreigners unfortunate enough to have become lost, posing as a friendly local willing to help lead them out. Only when he’d taken them to the medina’s entrance would he extort them for whatever cash they had. I told Matthew not to worry about it, but this did not comfort him.
“Do you know where we’re going?” he asked more forcefully, making little effort to hide his annoyance.
I stopped. Small animals scuttled in the darkness around us. The moon shone like a seam through a blue drift of clouds. I was not afraid, but I knew that Matthew was, and I remember feeling secretly happy for this. If I couldn’t find the pub, then I thought maybe this was the next best thing. Let him see for himself some of what I’ve gone through, I decided. I told him I wasn’t sure where we were.
He seemed relieved. “Let’s head back then. Do you know how to get back?”
Predictably, the man chose this time to appear. “Are you lost?” he asked in English, walking up to us with a smile. He stopped a good ten feet away, experienced enough to know he might spook us by approaching any further, and showed us his palms. “This is my home, and I know it like the backs of my hands. Perhaps I can help?”
Matthew looked at me, but I remained silent, so he turned toward the man. “That would be wonderful,” he said. “Can you take us to the square?”
“Yes, of course,” the man said, stepping forward. He was dressed in an expensive djellaba festooned with thin stripes, although his teeth, like many Moroccans, were yellow from tea.
“I think I’m going to keep looking,” I told Matthew. “But I’ll meet up with you later. I can get back on my own.”
The man looked disappointed and asked me if I was sure, then began to describe how large the medina was. He shut up when I told him in Arabic that I did not need his help.
“What’s wrong with you?” Matthew asked in an angry half whisper, leaning toward me. Then he added, as if continuing our conversation from before, “This is what I was talking about.”
I could think of nothing to say to this, so I remained silent as Matthew left with the man. When they were gone, I turned and continued down the other direction, annoyed and frustrated and well past any hope of finding the pub. I’m not sure how long I walked. I saw only a handful of other people — dark figures who crouched in doorways or passed quickly by. For a while, a few stray dogs followed me, but they ran off as soon as I picked up some stones. Eventually, I emerged on the other side of the medina, where a road curved along to the newer neighborhoods beyond. I walked alongside it, exhausted. When a taxi drove by, I waved it down frantically, then said nothing when he charged me twenty dirhams too much for the ride back to the hotel. My anger by then had turned into a gnawing anxiety; I was certain I had let Matthew come to some harm. However, when I opened our door, I could see him shift slightly in his bed. Neither of us said anything as I entered, and we were soon both asleep.
The next morning, Matthew told me he wanted to travel south, away from the big cities, and see the small desert towns. The day’s light was already burning through the room’s thin curtain, and Matthew was busy packing up. I sat up in my bed and watched him stuff dirty socks and shirts into a black plastic bag, then asked him if he was alright.
“I’m fine,” he said, smiling, cheerful once again. “I’m just tired of the cities, I guess.” He tied off the two loops of the plastic sack and stuffed it inside his pack.
“I meant after last night,” I said, then stopped. I didn’t want to admit that I had knowingly let him go off with someone I did not trust, so I just asked, “What happened?”
“Nothing really. He was a nice guy, spoke amazing English. Wanted to hear all about New York when I told him I was from there. He said he had an uncle who had moved to the city a couple of years ago after winning some green card lottery. Have you heard of that?”
I nodded. It was often the first thing that Moroccans mentioned to me. Everyone seemed to know someone who had emigrated to the U.S. this way, and they were always asking for my help filling out a form or answering a question, thinking it could be them next.
“Anyway,” he continued, “he got me back to the square, then I came here and went to bed.” He zipped up his pack and looked at me. “What about you? Did you find that pub?”
I just shook my head. I felt myself getting agitated toward Matthew again, although I knew I had no good reason. In fact, I was relieved that nothing bad had happened to him. Still, there was something strange in the way he had brushed off my concerns, a certain casualness that I did not trust. And if everything was indeed alright, why was he suddenly in such a hurry to leave the city? I wondered what he was hiding from me.
However, I did my best to dismiss all this as the idle concerns of someone who had been in the country too long. Besides, by then I was also ready to leave the cities and return to the desert, where I’d at least learned how to get by. I got up and quickly gathered my things, and we left for the bus station again.
I remember that day was warm and clear and, even for Morocco, uncharacteristically bright. It was the end of summer and the sun seemed to reflect off of every surface, as if intent on making a final impression on us. When we arrived at the station, though, we learned that the rains from two days ago had moved up the mountains and caused several landslides, blocking off the road. For the time being, all buses heading south were canceled. The fat man behind the counter told us to try our luck with the grand taxis, then slammed his window shut.
The taxis were located in a dirt lot scattered with trash and rotting food remnants across the street. They were parked neatly in rows around the perimeter, a square of mostly identical thirty-year-old brown Mercedes, save for the slight personal touches (bright red tassles, a different-colored door) each one displayed. In the center of the lot, a large and rowdy crowd had gathered, no doubt caused by the bus cancellations, and was yelling at a small man wearing a vest and holding a clipboard, which he would occasionally and with no great hurry look down and consult before pointing people toward this taxi or that. The drivers themselves, all middle-aged men in grease-stained clothes, stood just outside this crowd, shouting out their intended destinations and chain-smoking their cheap cigarettes.
We fought our way through to the man with the clipboard, who was arguing with an old woman about why she couldn’t take her two chickens onto the taxi unless she paid more, and I told him we wanted to go over the mountains, as far south as possible. He glanced at us and shoved the woman aside and looked over his list, then gestured toward the direction of a taxi and yelled out “Ouarzazate!” One of the drivers, a man wearing a sweater and knit hat despite the heat, and whose age I knew was likely ten years less than he looked, waved us over. Four other passengers were waiting beside him. He informed us, in French, that the price would be one hundred dirhams a piece.
“How much did you pay?” I asked one of the other passengers, a skinny man with a patchy black beard. He just looked away.
“One hundred,” the driver said again, this time in Arabic. He held out his hand.
“We want to pay what the rest are paying,” I said, growing impatient. I was in no mood to deal with this.
“The price is one hundred each,” he said again. He looked at Matthew and repeated this in careful French.
The other passengers were watching all this with great attention. Their bags were packed up and they were ready to go, but I was not willing to give in. After two years, I felt owed a certain level of respect and I was not afraid to fight for it. I refused to let him take advantage of me.
“We’ll pay the normal price,” I told the man. “Or we’ll ride with somebody else.”
He let out a dry laugh, displaying a marvelously red set of nearly toothless gums, then repeated his price once more.
Normally, I would have kept at this, threatening and haggling him down until we were able to agree on a halfway decent fare. But I knew he would never budge with Matthew standing beside me, which meant I would have to follow through on my promise. I thanked the man and told Matthew we would be riding with someone else.
“Here,” Matthew said, taking out two hundred dirham notes and handing them to the driver, who plucked them away happily. The other passengers breathed out a sigh of relief and began climbing into the car. I looked at Matthew, unsure of what to say to him. I felt vaguely as if I had been betrayed, but he just shrugged and said he was ready to go.
We rode in the back, mashed up against two of the other passengers — the skinny man and a larger fellow wearing a farmer’s robe as thick and course as a gunny sack — while two plump women wrapped in pastels squeezed into the front. After a brief fuel up, the driver gunned the small Mercedes out of Marrakech and pointed it south toward the mountains. The road sloped up at first gradually, then suddenly, narrowing among steep and curving paths cut long ago into the dark granite walls of box canyons and long escarpments populated by immense and precarious boulders. Within an hour, the temperature had dropped by twenty degrees.
No one spoke during this ride. Instead, we listened to a tape of strange Berber music, all syncopated drums and mournful singers, that the driver played loudly and flipped twice, while we struggled to readjust ourselves after each hard turn. I was seated next to the window and spent this time staring out of it, counting off the few landmarks I recognized as I brooded over the past several days. I was disappointed. I’d wanted Matthew’s visit to be different. I had hoped, I realized, that it would be a turning point, a means to begin processing what I had been doing here. I wanted him to be a bridge to my life back home. Instead, he’d made me ask myself whether I had done any good in the first place, or if I shouldn’t have bothered at all. His question came back to me: What had I hoped to get by coming out here?
Beneath all of this, though, I was upset. I didn’t feel like I had to defend myself or my time here, especially from someone who had arrived less than a week ago. For that matter, I didn’t feel like I had to keep acting polite. The driver eventually stopped his tape so that the only sound was the loud rumble of the engine and the occasional slip of tires on mud, and I decided to ask Matthew something that had been bugging me.
“Why had you been crying when I found you on the beach?”
Matthew was silent. We were sitting so near I couldn’t easily look over at him, but I felt him shift in his seat. “Do you think it was about the hashish?”
“Was it about the hashish?”
He let out a long sigh. “It was and it wasn’t.” He paused while the driver slammed on the brakes, narrowly avoiding a large truck that had suddenly appeared around a sharp bend. “My family didn’t want me to take this trip,” he said. “My mom, especially, thought I was wasting the money we got after we sold the business. Mostly, though, I think she was afraid something might happen to me. I mean, after my dad…” His voice trailed off. The driver took a turn and began climbing up a steep ascent. The entire car shook. “I needed to get as far from there as possible,” he continued. “She knew that. And with you out here, and the Peace Corps, it sounded perfect. But, like I said, I guess I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
I felt bad for him, but I was still annoyed and wanted him to say it. “So what were you getting into?”
He kept staring straight ahead, toward the steep road. The car had slowed down to a crawl. Something burned. “I wasn’t looking for a vacation,” he said finally. “I didn’t want to just sit on a beach. But I didn’t expect to come all the way over here and start breaking laws or yelling at shopkeepers. Or, for that matter, get lost and treat the locals like shit.”
The disdain in his voice was too much. “How much did that local end up charging you?”
“You knew he would do that.” This time I could see him turn his head.
“It’s happened to me before.” A troubled silence followed. The car continued struggling up the road. “I’m really sorry,” I added, trying to sound sincere. “I don’t know what to say. What kind of place did you think you were coming to?”
“I actually think I had a pretty good idea. I just didn’t know about you.”
There was a loud pop as the car crested the hill. Threads of black smoke began floating up from the hood. No one spoke as the driver pulled over and got out. I looked through my window, where I was astonished to see the mountains open up to reveal the wide expanse of a valley, thin white streams flowing down its sides like lace bunting, all of it green and verdant save for a few eager patches of golden-brown trees. I was reminded of the days just after that first rainstorm, when the townspeople were still assessing the damage and shoveling water from their homes. In the desert around us, a vast carpet of pale blue and white flowers had sprouted from their hiding places and stretched themselves up from the dirt. I remember climbing to the cousin’s roof to look out, overcome by how suddenly the land had transformed. Then, two days later, the flowers were gone. All of this made me wonder how Matthew could claim to have a good idea of what kind of place this country was.
The driver got back into the car and told us that the engine had overheated, then pointed to a village located about halfway down the valley and said we would stop there. He put the car into neutral and, very slowly, we began coasting down. Matthew asked me what was going on.
“It looks like we’re going to be stopping for a while,” I said, still staring out my window. I didn’t care to look at him.
The driver steered the car down the hill cautiously, but skillfully, and soon we were pulling into a small group of mud and straw buildings that had been fashioned into a kind of waystation for any weary travelers passing by. There was little hut outfitted with payphones, as well as a store selling the usual sheep’s milk and soda and cheap chocolate candies. There was a garage decorated all around with dismembered car parts, where two men sat on stacks of tires smoking cigarettes with blackened hands. Opposite to this, a cafe had been constructed on the area’s only plot of grass. Its doors were flung open, and I could see the silhouettes of men gathered around and yelling at a small TV.
While our driver headed over to the garage to see what help he could get, and the two women went to the store, I walked with the skinny man and the large robed passenger to the cafe. Matthew followed close by.
“How long do you think we’ll be here?” he asked as we entered. Despite the open doors, the inside of the cafe was dark and gloomy. Clouds of flies flitted around the tables and counters, and nearly all of the men turned from the soccer game they were watching and looked at us as we sat down.
I sighed. “I don’t know, Matthew. It could be a couple minutes. It could be a couple hours. Maybe we’ll be here all day.” I was not trying to hide my impatience. I looked around for someone who could get me some tea.
“Do you think there’s even a hotel around here? Where would we sleep?” He sounded nervous. Most of the other men in the cafe had turned back toward the game, but several were still glancing at us curiously.
A waiter appeared from a room behind the counter and I waved him down. “Maybe nowhere,” I said to Matthew, looking at him. “Maybe one of those men has a spare room for us. Do you want me to ask?”
To this, Matthew said nothing.
The waiter, who was just a boy, walked over and greeted us and I ordered some tea. When he returned, moments later, carrying a tray with two glasses and an old dented pot, he told me that it was good we had stopped when we had. Several miles up, the road was completely blocked with mud. I gave him a dirham and thanked him, but decided not to share this news with Matthew yet.
“Sometimes,” I said instead, pouring us out the cloudy tea, “you just have to wait and see what happens in this country. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy trying to control everything. You have to let things work themselves out.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing these past two years?” he said, picking out the bits of mint leaves dancing around in his cup. “How has that been?”
Something happened on the TV behind us and the men let out a loud cheer.
“You have no idea what the last two years have been like for me,” I told Matthew irritably. “You don’t know anything about this country. You barely even know anything about me. I didn’t just come here after college to run away. I came here to see what I was capable of, to see if I could even do it. And I did. That doesn’t mean everything worked out like I wanted it to, but I did it. You don’t know what that’s like.”
I felt flustered and stopped. Matthew didn’t say anything. He wasn’t even looking at me. Besides the buzz of the flies, the room had gone silent. Angrily, I said, “Why did you even want to come here?”
“Look,” he said quietly, nodding toward the TV. The soccer game had disappeared, replaced by a sober news anchor speaking in a dialect I could not understand. All the men were listening carefully. Some were bent anxiously over their knees. The screen changed to the image of two white towers, plumes of black smoke pouring out of one of them, a long diagonal scar cut into its side. The sky behind them was bright blue. A quick blur appeared, and the other tower let out a sudden magnificent explosion, like a flower blooming, followed by identical streams of thick smoke. Someone unseen gasped. Several of the men turned from the screen and looked at us. We did not look away.
It would eventually take us days to find out the bare details, weeks to piece together the story, and just like everyone else, the ensuing months and years to make sense of it all. Even then, it still seems incomprehensible, no matter how many times it’s explained. I don’t mean I subscribe to any of the conspiracy theories, but I remain convinced it is an event that exists beyond interpretation. I suppose this is why I often return to that day.
We sat there for a long time together, watching those surreal images and unable to find any words. At some point, I remember Matthew going out to try the phones, then returning moments later with the news that they didn’t work. I remember he didn’t seem all that displeased. Our tea turned cold and the boy came by with another, then that turned cold, too. After a while, I thought of our driver and stepped outside. For a moment, I was struck by the simple fact of the sun’s steady movement, by the way the changing light spilled down the valley and colored the trees — endless boughs of pine and juniper and scattered oak all glowing aflame.
I found the driver standing outside the garage, simultaneously supervising a villager change his oil while he argued with another man, presumably the garage owner, about how much he owed. He told me — occasionally interrupting himself to spit some instructions at the poor villager or to once again inform the owner what he would pay — that the repairs were almost finished, but unfortunately he had no choice but to return to Marrakech because of the road. I thanked him and walked back to the cafe.
By then, the TV was just rotating through the same several images, seemingly chosen for their dramatic effect, and interspersing this with dubbed-over interviews with American officials, on-the-ground witnesses, sullen experts in various fields. Most of the men weren’t even watching anymore. Instead, they had turned the volume down and broken up into small groups, where they crouched together and, in low voices, conversed. Matthew remained in his seat, slumped over and staring not at the TV, but at some point far past it, the expression on his face equally far away. I sat down and told him about the road.
“I used to work there,” he said in response, then offered up no further explanation. His expression did not change.
“Used to work where?” I finally asked.
“There,” he said, nodding toward the TV. A clip of the two towers still churning out smoke flickered up from the screen. “I’ve been in both buildings, worked up as high as the eighty-fourth floor. Those people were some of our biggest clients. When we sold the business, we still had a couple projects going on there, too. Installing walls, insulating, painting. At least a dozen guys, I think, though I’m not really sure.”
I felt like I shouldn’t say anything. We both kept looking at the television. It was cycling through another clip of people running from a wall of debris.
“Have you ever been all the way to the top?” Matthew continued. “I went once. My dad took me. I think I was only about fifteen. We stood up there for an hour while he pointed out all the buildings he’d worked in. He’d tell me what year they were built, how many stories they were. He’d make me guess what went on inside. The city felt infinite back then, bigger than the world.”
I sat and listened. He didn’t sound particularly sad or angry. He was just talking, the same way one might talk about what they’d eaten for lunch. On the TV, a woman cried.
“What are we going to do?” he asked.
I’d noticed the men were turning around once more to look at us, their glances several beats longer than simple curiosity, and it took me a moment to realize that Matthew was only asking about the taxi. I opened my mouth to tell him we’d get that money back, when one of the men stood up abruptly and walked over to us.
“Are you American?” he asked in Arabic, looking at me. He was a fat man and his face was enormous, as round and plain as a dinner plate. The only real features on it were the sharp, sandpaper bristles clinging to the soft folds of his cheeks and chins.
“Why do you think that?” I asked, backing my chair up some. I was a little intimidated. His entire body blocked our view.
The man remained standing there, breathing heavily while he regarded me, then Matthew, with slow turns of his head. There was something almost bovine in his appearance, a placidness that I was afraid could ignite into anger in a moment’s notice. Perhaps satisfied by what he saw, however, he turned his body and pointed at two figures across the room. “That’s what they told me,” he said.
I recognized them immediately as the men we had rode up with. They weren’t looking in our direction. Instead, it appeared as if they were getting ready to leave.
“We are,” I admitted, throwing up my hands. “We’re on vacation. And I think our taxi is just about ready…” I made a show of looking outside with an anxious expression and began to get up. I motioned for Matthew to do the same.
“He is going back to Marrakech,” the man said. “But I can drive you onto Ouarzazate if you want. I know a different way.”
I stopped and looked again at this man. His mass was enshrouded in a large navy abaya, a kind of robe that resembled a dress shirt whose material fell all the way to the floor. Over this, as if to further emphasize his bulk, he wore a ratty tweed blazer at least two sizes too small. It was a normal get up, one I’d seen men wearing a thousand times before. But on him, the exaggerated proportions of his outfit seemed designed, like a scale model, to render the recognizable strange. Even the brimless prayer cap perched on his head looked unfamiliar somehow.
“What’s going on?” Matthew was still sitting there, oblivious. He kept running a hand through his hair.
I quickly told him what the man had said, sure he would share my skepticism. Instead, he sat up and said that was great, that was perfect, and began smiling and nodding enthusiastically at the stranger, communicating as best he could.
“No,” I said, panicking, then again in Arabic to the man: “No, we can’t. We already paid the taxi driver. We can’t afford another ride. Thank you. We can’t.” But all this accomplished was to get the man, now determined, to walk from the cafe and across the lawn to the taxi, where the driver was still arguing with the garage owner while the four other passengers looked on. From our vantage, we watched him insert himself into their conversation (an easy feat for his size), then say something that caused the driver to gesture wildly and begin speaking in rapid clips. This speech did not last long, however, as the man casually leaned on the hood of the taxi while he listened, causing the entire car to groan and tilt forward as if in pain. Soon, having come to some sort of agreement, the man shook the driver’s hand, gathered up our two bags, then walked back with them to the cafe. There, he presented us with four twenty dirham notes, explaining that he would keep the fifth for gas, then told us to follow him.
His name was Abdelrahim, we learned later, driving along the lip of the valley, the three of us crammed uncomfortably into the front seat of his truck. I rode in the middle, staring up at the reddening sky, the long pewter shadows cast by the clouds, while I jostled continually against Abdelrahim’s dense frame and listened to him talk. He was a herder, he said, someone who sold goats and sheep and occasionally larger animals to the scatter of villages in the mountains and southern hills. (Confirming this was the pungent odor, as rich and unmistakable as tilled earth, that enveloped us.) He had driven up and sold the last of his animals right before the rains, then had remained in the mountains while he waited out the storm. It was just today that he was trying to decide whether or not he should attempt a return. Then fate, he said, had intervened.
He began talking excitingly, saying that while he had seen Americans before — mostly cruising by in sleek tour buses or taking photos of strange things — he had never actually met one in person, much less spoken to one. He quizzed me about how I knew Arabic, then asked why we had chosen to come, of all places, to Morocco. Afterwards, bent over the steering wheel but turning often to look at me, he unburdened himself of what seemed like a lifetime’s worth of curiosity. How was it, he wondered, that so many Americans lived in such large houses? Was it true that all of us owned guns and could shoot them wherever we wanted? Were there any Muslims there? What did we eat? I answered his questions as tersely as possible, avoiding the details, and yelled at him more than once to keep his eyes on the road. The day was quickly growing dark and I was exhausted. More than that, though, I was full of resentment. Our trip, our argument, what we had seen on the TV — I did not want to be here, sitting next to this man, going God knows where. Beside me, Matthew said nothing and just stared ahead.
After climbing a rise, the road dipped below us and continued straight until, about a quarter mile away, we could see it disappear beneath a violent mess of mud and rocks that fell into the valley like an enormous tongue. Rather than slow down, Abdelrahim kept driving and yammering on, leaning forward on the steering wheel while he let his truck pick up speed. We were just approaching the mudslide, now more of an imposing wall, when he suddenly pulled the truck sharp to the left, plunging us into a narrow dirt path hidden nearly entirely by a heavy canopy of trees. “Yella!” he shouted — “Here we go!”
We began descending into the valley, moving along a steep switchback carved into the forest that Abdelrahim had to navigate slowly in order to avoid the larger rocks and limbs that stood in our way. As he concentrated, his conversation dropped to a series of low mutterings, occasionally punctuated by a painful groan when we scraped against something or started tilting too much to one side. However, he always followed these incidents with an encouraging comment or a report on our progress. This part wouldn’t last that long, he said repeatedly. We’re almost there!
I didn’t know what he meant by this, though, and my annoyance quickly blossomed into a real fear. Where was he taking us? I looked over at Matthew to see how he was doing, but also to comfort myself. I’m not sure if it was because of pure ignorance of the kind of situation he was in, a shock from the events we had witnessed earlier, or, as I’ve come to suspect in the many years since he and I took this trip, from that tenuous sense of perspective and distance that’s only attainable after great loss, but he simply sat there, a shadow of a smile across his lips, as unconcerned as I’d seen him since he arrived.
We traveled along that crooked path, turning and zigzagging downward, for close to an hour until the road leveled out some and widened, then finally opened up to a clearing cupped by steep mountains on both sides. Ahead of us, Abdelrahim pointed out a collection of small mud and straw buildings built along the bank of a river. He told me, shouting his words over the thunder of the water, which grew louder than even the dirty rumblings of his truck’s engine as we approached, that he’d come across this village by chance several months ago. They were a nice people, he assured me, although they were very poor — he’d succeeded in selling them only a single goat, and even that had to be done in partial trade. However, if we were lucky, we might be able to stop in for a meal. After all, he was certain they had never seen an American before.
When we drew closer, though, it became apparent that the village had not only been abandoned, but had been done so in haste. All of the lights, save for a few scattered lanterns, were extinguished, while doors and shutters alike lay ajar. Confused flocks of chickens roamed the road and fluttered clumsily out of our way, only to resume pecking at the bits of trash and food scraps strewn everywhere. Other than their dumb clucking and the churning roar of the river, there were no other sounds.
We continued along slowly, passing by more mud homes that appeared similarly abandoned, until the road curved down toward the water and the reason for the villagers’ sudden escape became clear. Now well past its banks, the river had turned into a mesmerizing black current, its heaving waters crossed all over with bands of violent white froth. As quickly as it was flowing, it was still rising, and in the several minutes we sat watching, its water creeped up and began devouring a mud hut until it pitched over and melted into its waves. Even worse, Abdelrahim pointed toward several smaller tributaries feeding into the river, all of which were pouring down from the mountain and crossing over the road ahead of us, washing it away.
As soon as we had registered this, Abdelrahim stepped on the gas. To my horror, he shot the truck forward and steered it in the direction of the first stream.
“What are you doing?” I shouted at him, but it felt ineffectual. His round body was tensed and his face was set, although he did manage a quick chuckle and an assurance that it would be alright. Matthew sat up and gripped the truck’s dashboard, then stared ahead with a determined expression. I tried to do the same.
We hit the water and immediately I felt the truck sink slightly and lurch to the left, as if a passing car had suddenly swept us off the road. I looked over and could see, perhaps thirty feet distant, where the stream dropped off and met the black river in a riot of white foam. Below us, the running water vibrated against the tires and floor. Abdelrahim held the steering wheel, though, and we moved forward, inching through the mud and the water with a steady pace. All of us held our breath. Finally, the front wheels found dry gravel and the truck jumped up and emerged on the other side. Wasting no time, we began proceeding onto the next stream.
We crossed the second much as we had the first, perhaps even with greater ease. By the third, we felt confident enough in the truck and its ability to ford these fingers of water that we sat back some and relaxed. Wider than the first two, this stream gave us ample opportunity to study our situation. I marvelled at the sight of being surrounded by so much swirling water, the whirling eddies that formed as the current struck the side of the truck and spun haphazardly away. I followed the water with my eyes to where it spilled out of the forest, falling from some hidden pathway down the side of the mountain, and wondered how often it had cut this same direction before. Could the villagers have predicted it? With a little foresight, could it have even been prevented? My mind skipped along to the projects that were possible here. I glanced over at Matthew, noticing that he, too, was watching the movements of the water, lost and happy in his own private reverie.
In this fashion we continued on, advancing slowly along the road, interrupted often by these muddy streams of run off, and sometimes even by slick passages of mud itself, while we kept an eye on the encroaching river and raced against the failing light of the day. I remember the sun had long since lowered itself behind the mountains, casting us in their immense shadows and giving the world that blue metallic luster it turns right before it goes dark, when we encountered a stream larger than any that had come before. Abdelrahim stopped the truck and we looked out. Perhaps it was actually two streams drawn together, merged into what approached a river of its own making, but it seemed immediately doubtful we would be able to pass. Abdelrahim said as much and suggested we wait to see if the water would go down. I translated this for Matthew, who shook his head and got out.
This was strange, but neither Abdelrahim nor I said anything. Instead, we watched him walk off along the river-stream until we could not see him, then we sat and stared at the dark tips of water dancing in the truck’s headlights. Some minutes passed before Matthew returned with the news that, fifty feet up or so, there was a shallow bend where we could likely cross. “And I think we should try it, since it’s just going to get harder once it’s dark,” he emphasized. I told this to Abdelrahim, who nodded slowly and with some effort, then turned the steering wheel and took the truck off the road.
It was as he said it: an elbow in the path of water where sand and sediment had collected and made what appeared to be a passage in the murk. While the current still looked strong, a tangled pile of branches and sticks trembling just upstream interrupted the worst of it. Along with the dying light, however, it also created a sense of urgency for us to act quickly, lest our opportunity be lost.
Abdelrahim muttered a short, woeful prayer and looked with pleading eyes up above, then curled his round fingers around the wheel and eased the truck in. I could not will myself to look. Like before, I felt the water catch us and toss the truck a few feet before we found solid ground, although this took several seconds longer than I would have preferred. Abdelrahim cursed and gave the truck more gas, and I heard the engine sputter angrily as it struggled against the pull of the stream. “We’re doing it!” Matthew yelled out, and I uncovered my eyes. A sea of dark water surrounded us like rough cuts of glass, glinting with a brief and terrifying clarity as it rushed through our lights. Beyond this, I could make out the other side. As best I could tell, we were almost halfway.
We continued plodding forward against the logic of the water, Abdelrahim making slight adjustments with the current while he appealed continuously to God. Besides an incandescent glow tracing the very tops of the mountains, it was now almost completely dark. I was not happy to be in such a predicament so close to the end of my service. However, I could not help but recall that other river from almost two years ago, and thought it strangely poetic for my time here to both begin and end with a flood. If there was a God, I thought, surely this was evidence of his sense of humor. To my surprise, I heard myself laugh.
Very suddenly, the front of the truck fell forward, as if tripping over an unseen curb, and our progress stopped. Abdelrahim twisted the wheel and pumped the gas pedal, but the tires just spun below us, uselessly slopping up water on both sides. More alarming than this, though, was the dark water now leaking in from the bottom seams of the doors. I had to lift my feet up when I felt how cold it was.
“We’re stuck!” Abdelrahim shouted, wrenching the wheel more aggressively and staring down at it as if it had just uttered some grave insult. The water kept splashing in.
“We have to push!” Matthew yelled, then began turning the crank to lower the window. With surprising deftness, I watched him pull himself out of the opening and jump into the black water. He sank nearly up to his waist, then grabbed the door to steady himself and held out a hand. “Come on!” he said.
Cursing now myself, I quickly emptied my pockets of whatever I could, then took his arm and climbed out. I dropped into the water and gasped at the shock of it, then stumbled as the current pushed me around. The soft mud sucked at my feet, pulling me below. Matthew had already made his way to the front of the truck, where he was bent over the fender, trying to get a grip. I joined him, and together we held the cold hard steel frame while the tires turned and splashed us and we struggled and pushed. It did not budge. We tried again, then another time, Abdelrahim growing increasingly frantic and yelling at us to hurry, but it was no use. We both stood up, breathing hard, soaked and exhausted, and looked around. Water was everywhere, a wrinkled shadow flowing endlessly out of the darkness. I felt my heart sink.
Matthew shouted something I couldn’t make out, then began half wading, half swimming over to the stack of sticks and branches sitting just upstream, now barely a silhouette. He paused briefly to turn and tell me to follow him, which I did, although I was unsure what he wanted to do. Once we were both there, however, standing waist-deep in water beside a pile of twisted pine limbs, his plan became clear. We started pulling at the sticks, untangling them and throwing them away. At first, they seemed nearly knotted together, but after removing several of the larger branches, the pile began dismantling itself in the stream. Soon, the entire stack shuddered, then collapsed and fell into the current with a soft and satisfying gulp. Suddenly unimpeded, the water pushed against us with renewed energy, nearly picking us up. We watched this wave slam into the truck, rocking it back and forth while Abdelrahim continued gunning the engine and spinning the front tires in mud. Then, in a single terrifying instance, the water simultaneously lifted up the back of the truck while pushing it forward, where it found better ground. We swam after it, heartened by the sight of its two headlights emerging out from the water and lighting up dry rock. When Matthew and I reached the other side, Abdelrahim helped pluck us out and lead us to the bed of his truck. Sodden and nearly delirious, we laid down amongst the straw and sheep manure and stared up. I must have been cold and shivering, but I don’t remember feeling a thing. What I do remember is that the night sky had finally appeared by then, and it was clouded with stars.
Our path continued afterwards, impeded only by a few comparative trickles, until we began driving up a long sloping road that led back to the original valley ridge. Abdelrahim had found an old blanket and given us his jacket, and Matthew and I sat together in silence, swaddled up for warmth. We stopped only once, on a cliff overlooking the soft lights of Ouarzazate, where Abdelrahim laid out a rug and prayed. When he had finished, we descended quickly down from the mountains, to his home on the outskirts of the city, where we slept comfortably in a small spare room that smelled of earth, and did not wake until well into the next day.
Islam, by most reputable accounts, did not arrive in Morocco until roughly the year 680, when the first soldiers of the Umayyad Caliphate rode in following their recent conquests along the coasts of northern Africa, then occupied by factious coalitions of Berbers and Byzantines. This was fifty years after the death of Mohammed, when the warring tribes of the Arabian peninsula had at last consolidated under a single caliph and commenced a rapid expansion that would produce an empire, at its greatest extent, nearly five million square miles large. While the first few decades of their Moroccan rule were rocky, by the eighth century, the locals had come to prefer the relative stability of the caliphate and were converting to Islam en masse. Even as the Islamic center of power switched from Umayyad control to Abbasid, then broke up in the new millennium into an increasing number of fractured, autonomous states, Morocco remained the westernmost outpost of the Muslim world, which was why it received the name al-Maghreb, a word that can be translated alternately as “the sunset” or “the west.”
Abdelrahim told us these facts over breakfast, casually reviewing the long history of the country and taking generous pauses so I could translate for Matthew what he said. He told us about the various dynasties that had come to power — the Almoravids and Almohads, the Marinids and the Wattasids — and how none of them managed to rule for more than a couple hundred years. Even the current king’s family, he told us, the Alaouites, which began consolidating the country under their first patriarch, Ismail Ibn Sharif, in 1672, soon had to give up control to the colonial powers (first the Portuguese, then the French and Spanish), before finally crawling back just fifty years ago. Maybe it would take another fifty years, he told us, maybe as long as a hundred, but they would eventually be gone, too.
When we had finished eating, Abdelrahim insisted on showing us around his small home. He took us outside, where he had constructed large pens lined with stacked rocks for his sheep and goats, within which were small shelters made from dirt and dried palm leaves that the animals all crouched under to keep cool. There was also a chicken coop built out of spare cinder blocks and old crates, then another pen, this one for a pair of donkeys that stood without moving in the noonday sun.
Abdelrahim lumbered ahead of us, talking with aimless pleasure about his animals and farm, obviously very proud and eager to show off. That such a simple herder could talk as effortlessly about long ago empires as he did about his own plot of land amazed me, and I wondered at how I could have underestimated him. All the events of yesterday then rushed back to me, as if from out of some forgotten dream. The flood. The landslide. The strange and spectacular explosions we’d all watched together back at the cafe. I looked over at Abdelrahim, who was gently stroking the ear of one of his donkeys while Matthew watched, and reconsidered whether he had really been talking to us about the past at all.
Although he was disappointed to hear it, Abdelrahim nodded and offered to drive us to the bus station after I told him we wanted to get back on the road. He dropped us off in his truck, which still reeked of river water, a damp stench that clung stubbornly to the air, and waved us off as we embarked on the last leg of our trip.
We decided to continue further south into the Sahara, where we visited the small desert villages that dotted the landscape, each of them hugging a tiny oasis choked with palms. We went to Aït Benhaddou, a fortified village built along an ancient trading route, where merchants from throughout Africa had once stopped on their way to Marrakech centuries ago. We paid two Berber nomads fifty dirhams each to take us to the dunes at Erg Chigaga, some of which rose sixty meters high. They pulled us along on a pair of camels, ornery beasts that spit constantly and would not hesitate to bite an arm, and we camped out in the open air, cradled by the soft golden sand, listening to the nomads sing their old songs and beat on their drums, a sound inseparable from the rhythms of the heart.
Somewhere out there, thousands of miles away, we both knew the gears and pulleys of this world were at work readjusting to the weight of events, but neither of us mentioned a thing. Instead, we talked about ourselves. Matthew told me more about his father, a man whom he hadn’t felt that close to, whom he’d actually fought with frequently and, he admitted, had secretly grown to resent. Sitting on the crest of a dune, which we had climbed up to watch the sun rise, he described how his father had begged him, practically, to come work for him after Matthew had quit teaching, had called and cajoled him until he’d finally said yes. Matthew said he had been worried. He didn’t understand his father’s sudden, uncharacteristic neediness until he’d moved back and got to work.
“Business was bad,” he said, staring off as the first light on the horizon bleeded out. “And my dad had no idea how to deal with it, so he just became angry and worked everyone harder than he should. I guess all that took its toll.”
By the time Matthew had stopped hauling sheetrock and got a look at the accounts, there wasn’t much more to be done. He tried to convince his father to cut his losses and sell off the business, but of course he refused. It became the final reason why they could not get along. After his father had died, Matthew told me he’d discovered that things were even worse off than he’d thought. He still managed to sell the business, but for a sum far less than it was worth, an act he said carried the absurd notes of a betrayal, although it was all he could do. He gave most of the money to his mother, then used the rest for this trip. In a sense, it was the last thing his father had given him.
We took a bus through the dust-filled transit towns of Tinghir and Tinejdad, then turned north at Er-Rachidia, beyond which I did not mention lay my village, only a hundred kilometers east. What I told Matthew instead, traveling through the Mid-Atlas, on our way to Fes, were my favorite memories. I told him about the second year I held English classes, when I gave up on the high school students and only taught adults. I’m not sure whether the women (no men ever came) learned anything, but they at least listened and tried, happy to just hang out somewhere outside their homes.
I told him about the two friends I eventually made in town. One was a shopkeeper who sold milk and cigarettes and other small groceries below my house, and who would let me sit with him in the evenings, watching the TV he kept in his store. The other was a French teacher, a Berber man named Adi, who insisted I come over to have dinner with him each month. I would give his two children a quick English lesson in exchange, then we would eat his wife’s meals while he talked to me candidly about whatever topics — history, politics, world affairs — that came to mind. He treated me like an old acquaintance, rather than some strange foreigner struggling to get by. He was the only one who ever did that for me.
In Midelt, a cold mining city set on a plain in the mountains, where we stopped for lunch, I told Matthew about my first Ramadan. It began in December, a few weeks after I’d arrived in the village, and I decided to fast alongside everyone in a show of solidarity. During the day, I sat around with the cousin and his family, taking naps and staring at the television while we waited for the evening muezzin to call out. As soon as he had, we would break our fast with a date, then spend the next several hours feasting on bowls of soup and bread and sweet flaky pastries, then would fall asleep and wake up just before dawn to do it again. Word soon got around about what I — a non-Muslim — was doing, and I began receiving invitations from each corner of the village to come break fast. Later, I learned that such acts of kindness are looked at with particular auspiciousness during Ramadan, but at the time it felt like the people had all decided to embrace me and welcome me in.
I told Matthew about how, shortly after that, the rain started falling and the river swelled and flooded and nearly breached its banks; about how I had helped haul the bags of dirt and sand and had watched the violent water rise for four days. I told him about the flowers afterwards. I told him that was the last time I felt a sense of belonging before my troubles began.
We reached Fes, where we relaxed until we had to board the train back to Casablanca for Matthew’s flight the next day. Although it had become more difficult, by that point, to avoid any news of what had happened — every cafe television seemed tuned into the same replays, and I kept hearing snatches of alarmed conversation about airplanes — it no longer mattered as much. We had been traveling for close to two weeks and were both exhausted, but I remember this time as one of the happiest of our trip. We had done what I understood Matthew had come out here for in the first place: we had escaped, and were both ready now to reemerge.
We spent a pleasant several hours walking around that medieval city, filled with the familiar snaking pathways and colorful stores, then I rode with Matthew as far west as the capital, Rabat. We made vague promises to meet up again when I returned to America in a little over a month, then shook hands and said goodbye, and I realized for the first time that this part of my life was finally coming to an end.
I have since calculated that I was in the country for a total of seven hundred and eighty-two days. During that time, I watched nine volunteers from the original two dozen or so who had arrived with me leave, the first departing almost as soon as she’d seen her village, having decided that this life wasn’t meant for her after all. The others went away for a variety of reasons, whether illness or safety or simple personal dissatisfaction with the job. Out of stubbornness, I stayed throughout my entire service. I could have left earlier, but I’m happy now I never did.
Afterwards, I went home and began the long process of unpacking that experience and trying to fit it back into my old life. This was hard at first. I found that few of my friends had much to say to me about it, while my family would only talk about those years with an odd type of reverence I knew was meant to mask their confusion about why I went away at all. Over time, though, I began to think about it less. Gradually, the experiences I had with the Peace Corps receded until my memory of them felt more like a story some other person had told me, rather than two years I had lived myself. I soon became reluctant to even mention it, dreading the polite nods and predictable questions that always followed, and instead learned to keep it more or less like a public secret, like a long ago youthful indiscretion you won’t deny, but neither will you broadcast. The only exception I make is when someone hears where I was when the planes hit. When that comes up, I like to tell them about what happened after Matthew left.
When his train had pulled away and I was alone, I decided to stay the night in the capital, then go visit the Peace Corps headquarter office early the next morning. It was located in an old French mansion left over from Morocco’s colonial days that Peace Corps had since decorated with a collection of colorful flags and banners, but had otherwise kept the same. I had only been a few times before, but I knew it was a place where other volunteers often passed through, and I thought it would be a good idea to stop in. If I was lucky, I might even run into one of the volunteers I’d come into the country with, many of whom I hadn’t seen since we’d left for our villages. I was eager for any news.
When I walked through its gates the next day, however, I was surprised to find not just a few other volunteers, but what appeared to be the country’s entire collection milling about on the grounds and huddled up into small groups, all of them talking urgently and shaking their heads. Many of them looked scared; some of them looked angry. I recognized a lot of them, although they had either gained or lost weight to such a degree that it was difficult to match them up with my memory. I wondered if the same was true for me.
I soon learned that the day after the attack — which was what everyone was now calling it — the director had summoned the country’s volunteers to the headquarters in order to ensure our safety and mobilize us in case we had to evacuate. They had called our homes and informed our host families, and it was only out of pure luck that I’d decided to drop by when I had. I began talking to the other volunteers, each of whom seemed to have heard different rumors about what was going on. There was talk of mass celebrations. Someone else mentioned riots. All of us were afraid.
Then word got around about a scene outside the U.S. Embassy, just a few blocks away. A group of us decided to go check it out. We walked through the streets of the old French neighborhood, each of which was lined with an incongruous mixture of palm and oak trees, and listened for the tell-tale shouts of angry protestors or the violent clashes of a terrifying mob. We were all eager to find out what was really going on. This world was changing faster than any of us had anticipated, and it now felt like, despite all we had done here, that we were suddenly in danger of getting swept right up.
When we got there, though, the Embassy was quiet. We began walking around its long perimeter, marked off by a black iron fence, looking for some sign or warning of what was to come. I thought about how the last time I was surrounded by so many other volunteers, we had just received our village assignments and had spent an entire evening getting drunk together as we discussed everything we hoped would happen over the next two years. Looking around at them now, I didn’t know what each person had been through — whether they had surpassed their own expectations and made some sort of difference, or whether they’d simply endured through their disappointments like me — but here we all were. They had called us ambassadors during training, part of a select group who would learn the ways of another country and get to know its people like few other Americans ever would. Now, years later, for reasons none of us could have anticipated, we were searching for something awful lurking around the corner. I thought about how, unfairly or not, this would be how many of us remembered this time.
But that wasn’t true. Someone yelled out and pointed, and we rushed over to where the spectacle was revealed. Leaning up against the fence, hundreds of them scattered along for dozens of feet, some of them piled on top of each other, still more fluttering softly on the ground, were flowers, blue and white and golden, almost as if they had simply sprouted up from the rain.
There wasn’t much to say after that. We stared at this sight for a while, then we eventually all left to finish up the few weeks that remained of our service. I passed by the Embassy once more on my final day in the country, although by then the flowers were gone. It don’t know how long they stayed there — perhaps only a day, perhaps longer — but it doesn’t matter. I can still see them now.
I lost touch with Matthew and never met up with him when I got back. If I ever see him again, though, I plan on telling him this story. I think he’ll like how it ends.