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Archive for June 2008

June 30, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


In the far north of Pakistan the Himalayas rise up into the heavens, the rooftop of the world. The air is so clear that you can see for a thousand miles, and the scent of the valleys is the scent of freedom. The first time I saw those colossal peaks, it was from the cockpit of a Fokker-27, flying between them in air so thin that the tips of my fingers went numb.

We landed at Chitral and drove and drove up mountain tracks no wider than an axle’s length. We found villages clinging to the slopes, fir trees alive with birds, glistening streams, and children squinting in the winter sunlight. I thought I’d discovered Paradise.
In one village I was taken in and given tea. My host was a man called Attar Khan. He was one of those men whose face mirrored the hardship of his life. His skin was like a sheet of ox leather. But his smile, which never wavered, reflected a serenity, a contentment.
Attar Khan boiled up some water from the stream, thanked God for sending guests to him, and poured the first cup of tea. It was sweet, tasted as if it had been smoked through nights and days. I praised the flavour and asked about life in the mountains.
‘In the winter it’s not easy,’ said Attar Khan, pushing down his turban with his thumbs. ‘The snow is very deep and the wind so cold that we are frozen to be bone.’
‘How do you stand it?’
‘God gives us strength to do so and, besides, we have never known anything different.’
I told him that I had come from a place called London, a city where lives were sometimes swallowed up by stress.
Attar Khan smoothed a hand down his grey beard.
He smiled.
‘I have heard of it,’ he said slowly. ‘I have heard that there are trains running under the ground. And i have wondered whether this is the work of Jinn.’
It was my turn to smile.
‘Not Jinn, but engineers,’ I replied.
I asked if foreigners ever visited the valley where Attar Khan lived. Again, he pressed down his voluminous turban.
‘Last year they came,’ he said. ‘People from the country of the Jinn railway.’
‘What did they do here?’
Attar Khan stroked his beard again.
‘That was the strange thing,’ he said. ‘You see, they wanted to climb up the mountains. We asked them if they were looking for markhor or other game, but they waved a finger and said they had come to climb the mountains for the sake of climbing the mountains. We were confused. You see, here at Gilgit we only climb the mountains when we have a reason to. And your people, the ones who came, thought it made sense to climb the mountains for the sake of climbing them.
Attar Khan poured me a second glass of tea, broke open a pomegranate.
‘To have trains under the ground,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘and to climb mountains for no reason… it seems to me as if people in your country are living upside-down.’
June 29, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


Each evening just before dusk I climb up to the top terrace and stare out at the ocean. I have never lived by water before and, as a result, I have never really lived.

As evening gives way to night, night to day, and day to dusk, the waters change. They are never the same. Not for a moment. Visit the shore once in a while and you might think that the ocean was something monotonous, something fearful, or bleak. But live beside it, learn to appreciate its form, and you see that water is the most magical element. It is liquid but it is the earth.

In Arabic the Atlantic is called Badr Adulat, the Sea of Darkness. And on cold winter nights that’s exactly what it is. It broods with a blue-black rage, a ferocity that only nature knows. But then on summer evenings there’s a gentleness, an evenness about it. As I stare out in wonder, it’s as if I’m being beckoned down to the waves.

Last night when I climbed up onto the terrace, I found myself half a world away on the shores of the Arabian Sea. My eyes were fixed on the waterline, and my mind was on a sight I saw long ago. The memory is carved in stone, one that’s so much a part of me that it’s somehow rooted to my soul.

A figure as tall as a house is being carried into the water. It’s on a wooden dias, carried by a multitude of people, struggling with the weight at first, as they hurry towards the waves. The figure has the head of an elephant and the body of a man, four arms, and a mouse as a steed.

All around there are other figures, some smaller, others larger; and all around there’s a sense of something important, ancient, something we will never quite understand.

When I first set eyes on the festival of Ganpati, the immersion of Ganesh, I wondered why man might be driven to submerge something so precious as a great painted clay statue in the sea.

But last night as I stood there, the last strains of pale yellow light reflecting off the surface, it all made sense.

The ocean is a memory in itself, the pendulum of the world, a fragment of all that is alive, and all that is dead. It’s a part of us, and separate from us. It’s a friend, an enemy, a giver and a taker.

But most of all, it’s a constant, a reminder of a time when our world was simple, pure… a place free from the foolishness of man.







June 28, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Carpenter

Mr. Reda is not Moroccan. If you ask him where he comes from, he smiles very sweetly, his eyes lost in creases, and lowers his head a fraction in a bow.

‘I am from Damascus,’ he says in a voice shaped by a lifelong fondness for filterless cigarettes, ‘and I learned my English there long ago when my hair was still brown.’
For forty years or more Reda has lived wood. It’s what he understands. And the thing about someone like him is that he sees much more than you or I would in something we take for granted, like an old bit of tree.
It’s a little like a deaf person whose sight is extra keen, or a blind man who can smell the scent of winter approaching on the breeze. Give Mr. Reda a piece of wood, any piece, and he will caress it, run his yellowed fingers over the grain, touch it to his cheek. Only when he has observed it for a long while, will he say something.
And more often than not he won’t say anything at all.
He’ll just smile.
The first time I found his workshop, I felt as if I had stepped into another world. It’s the sort of place you can walk by a thousand times. And I must have done exactly that. There’s nothing extraordinary about the front… there’s not even a sign. It’s opposite the train station at Oasis, a Casablanca suburb favoured by the French, a few feet of frontage between a pharmacy and a tabac.
Reda usually sits in his windowless office at the back. When you have gone right in deep, lured forward by damascened furniture, carved wood inset with mother of pearl, he jumps out. Behind him, spewing like a vapour trail, there’s always a swirling cloud of black tobacco smoke.
I knew when I’d found him that Mr. Reda could be trusted. I knew it right away. And the way I knew was that he had a labyrinth of chambers filled with workers beneath his shop. They are a little bit like Santa’s helpers, dozens of them squashed up on narrow benches, their heads cocked to the side, faces low, chisels and mallets clutched in their hands.
A man with a labyrinth like that has no question mark hanging about his head. The reason I say that is when Mr. Reda enters the caverns, none of the workers even look up. To me that meant that they had a respect for him, an appreciation, and that he had passed on his knowledge in full.
So it was then that I gave him a huge brick of 100-dirhams notes as a down payment to build me a galleried cedar library. I sketched it out on the back of an envelope, scoped measurements roughly with my hands. Reda nodded, drew hard on the cigarette which he had just lit, and said:
Monsieur Tahir I shall make you a library that will melt your heart.’
And that’s exactly what he did.
June 27, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Ferronier

If it’s pure unadulterated skill you’re after, then Mustapha the ferronier is one of those people who’s a rare diamond of a man, one in a generation. I hardly know where to begin describing him, so I’ll start at the beginning.

Four years ago while I was in the middle of Casablanca gridlock, I spotted a shortcut going off to the side. I didn’t know where it went, so I carved my way up it, a narrow alley, tapering as it went. It turned out to be the most heavenly shortcut in a city where crazed traffic is a way of life.

The thing about Casablanca shortcuts is that you have to surge up them fast, foot flat down. If you don’t, then all sorts of cross traffic hurls itself in your way – cars, trucks, carts, bikes, trikes, blind men, wild dogs, donkeys, geese, chickens… everything.

So I was careering up that alley, teeth gritted, face in a frenzied snarl, and then I saw it: a panel of the finest geometric wrought iron work imaginable.

I slammed on the brakes. Screech. Wheels locking. Then, injured by the whiplash, I leapt out, and started to shout:

‘Who made this? Who did this work? Please will someone tell me at once?’

There was silence for a long while. Silence, except for the hooting from the traffic that was backing up behind my car. Then, after a minute or two, a passing child jabbed into a filthy workshop with his thumb.

I went in, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. I scanned the place: there were three or four anvils, odd lengths of metal, a heap of wrought iron, the stench of sulphur and of coal and, in the dingiest corner, the shape of a man.

He was bent over the forge, his short wizened outline emaciated as if a terrible illness had taken hold. In his right hand was an oxy-acetyline torch. Over his eyes were a pair of cheap sunglasses, extra dark.

I nudged a hand out into the sunshine, motioning towards the panel of geometric ironwork.

‘Did you make that?’

The figure switched off the torch. It went out with a crack. He nodded.

‘Will you work for me?’

He nodded again.

That was four years ago. And in that time Mustapha the ferronier has become a huge part of our lives. Whatever we need made, he will do it, and he’ll do it with a touch of genius. I would give my front teeth to have skill like that, mixed with a gentleness, a calmness, that allows the mind to spark, and brilliance to unfold.

He has made wrought iron beds for the children, curtain rods, tables, and garden chairs, and gates eleven feet tall adorned with the most intricate work, fire tools and screens, iron fences, display frames and bookcases, and even wooden cupboards when the iron ran out.

The only thing you have to bear in mind is that, once in a while, Mustapha gets a little bit unstable. That probably doesn’t sound good. But it’s not so bad. He likes a drink, you see, from time to time. And when he drinks, he disappears for days, or weeks or, occasionally, for months.

When friends come over to Dar Khalifa and marvel at Mustapha’s work, I hold up a finger and caution them.

‘He’ll do magic for you as well,’ I say, ‘but his magic comes with a price.’

And I am sure that’s how it always is… raw skill in the left side of the scale, and instability in the right. Think of the greats – Picasso, Van Gogh, and all the rest. Genius is, I am sure, a form of insanity. It’s an affliction, a burden, something that is couched in torment and in the most severe pain.

Mustapha went off about a month ago now. He didn’t finish a friend’s garden furniture, although I had warned her that his sell-by date was about to descent.

Sometimes Rachana finds me fretting and she knows what’s in my mind. I worry about him like a mother whose teenage daughter is out late.

When I’m in a state like that, Rachana touches me gently on the shoulder, and whispers,

‘Don’t worry, he’ll be here soon.’

And, usually, the next day there’s a tap at the door.

And Mustapha, my Picasso, is home.







June 26, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Water Seller

We have all seen them, in the flesh or postcards of them, standing in the central square in Marrakech, bright costumes, ear to ear smiles, furry goatskins full of water dangling at their waists. Think Morocco and you think of the inimitable purveyors of water. Their costumes are red, wide Berber hats providing shade, shallow brass cups polished so brightly you can see your face in them, their shoes as shiny as a soldier’s on parade.

The water sellers are so famous, so celebrated, that they’ve become icons, known throughout the kingdom and far beyond. But something has gone awry. These symbols of the exotic, satiaters of the desert thirst, have evolved. They are now so extremely famous that they no longer really sell water at all. Most of the time they make money — and loads of it — by posing for tourists in Marrakech and elsewhere. Mannequins for digital shots.
In my travels I have become obsessed by tourism and the effect it has on countries and on their cultures. Most of the time, and you know where I am heading with this, I’m not a big fan. Although sometimes a city in the middle of nowhere gets charged up with a tourist bonanza. If anyone reading this knows Nazca in Peru, you will know what I am talking about.
And Marrakech is another example. But in this case, a fine Imperial Moroccan city which was once many days journey into the desert, is now so ridiculously accessible. And for me that’s the major point. It’s too easy, far too easy, to get to Marrakech. In my opinion you should sweat blood to get there, and now you don’t have to. Indeed, there’s a Club Med just off the main square. There are other ultra-easy-to-get-to tourist destinations throughout the world, and I think there’s always a sense of wrongness about them.
Talk to me about Marrakech and I do sometimes get hot under the collar. I’m sorry, but I do. And in the grand scale of things it’s the water sellers who have both been made and been destroyed by the invasion of tourist bucks. They are richer than just about anyone else selling anything to the tourists (well, almost, slight hyperbole). But at the same time they have sold out, lost their heritage lock stock and barrel.
Just up the hill from Dar Khalifa there’s a traffic light. I spend a lot of time stopped there, staring out the car window. There’s usually an old water seler standing right there at the light. He’s ragged, his costume a far cry from his kin in Marrakech. But he’s the real thing — a man who hasn’t sold out his tradition.
What irony there is in that. You have to come to Casablanca, the seemingly most European city in Morocco, to find the most realistic vestiges of the culture. Because tourism has eroded it elsewhere, changed for natural form.
June 25, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Cigarette Man

The sign is made from an old empty crumpled Marlboro carton, wrapped around a plastic bottle, a few inches of sand weighing down the base. Beside it, squatting on the ground in the shade, is the cigarette man. You might pass him without another thought if you were in a hurry, or if like me you didn’t smoke.

But to miss him is to miss a vital part of urban life. That’s because the cigarette men perform a vital duty… or two vital duties. The first is to sell cigarettes, one at a time. If you smile they’ll even light it for you as well. The other duty, the one less known, less advertised, is as an informer.
Casablanca’s cigarette men form a network. They’re always squatting there in their places, come rain and come shine. And they see everything, know everyone and, for the right price, they’re willing to tell what they know.
The network is based on the idea that men like to smoke, and when they like to smoke they also like to chat. The more guys come and hang about, smoking with the cigarette man, the more their tongues wag in conversation. 
Spend more than a few hours observing what’s going on, and you see all sorts of people stopping for a moment to buy a cigarette. Granted, the well-heeled don’t need to stop because they can afford an entire packet over at the tabac. But the middle and lower stratas do pause, hand over a coin, light up, a visit for a minute or two.
If you need to know whether there’s a house for sale on the street, or if the man next door has a deep dark secret, or if someone’s doing building work without permission, then it’s the cigarette man who can tell you. His eyes and ears are specially honed, and they miss nothing at all.
A few days ago I was in urgent need of information. I had to know, and fast, if the telephone man had come and gone. I asked the guardians. They shrugged their shoulders, even though it was their job to know. So I asked Zohra. She rushed out of the house, ran down the lane and accosted the cigarette man squatting in the middle of the shantytown.
When Zohra came back a few minutes later, he was smiling broadly.
‘He not only came to the house,’ she said, ‘but he wondered why you have been calling France so much.’

June 24, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Butcher

In England I grew accustomed to buying meat in shallow polystyrene packs, clingfilm tight over the top, a price, weight, and barcode printed neatly onto the sticker at the front. Years passed of running down to Tesco to grab some meat. And in that time I rarely gave it any thought. Indeed, I began to think that meat came in white plastic packs, straight from the animal. Or even worse, I began to forget that it came from an animal at all.

OK, that sounds crazy, but think about it. Think how wildly de-associated we are when it comes to food production. Everything I ever bought was shrink-wrapped in plastic, or stuffed in a box. All you begin to care about is the weight and the price.
Anyone who has ever traipsed through the medinas of Marrakech, Essaouira or Fes will have seen the butchers’ stalls. Our overly sensitive Occidental eyes spy them immediately, mainly because there’ll be a large carcass hanging on a hook outside the shop. And, whether we’ll admit it, we are timid about them. (Remember than until recently, in the pre-supermarket world everyone in Europe visited butchers all the time.)
The butcher’s stall tends to have a variety of wares. There’s lamb, mutton, beef and usually a pen of live chickens. Ask for one of those and it’s weighed, killed, and plunged into a bucket of hot water to soften the feathers. A few cuts of meat are lined up, arranged on beds of fresh mint, with chunks of tripe, hooves, heads and other off-cuts spread out neatly nearby.
Moroccans love meat. Actually, I’d say that they adore meat, it’s even more than love… more like infatuation. And meat is expensive here. Even though we can afford to eat it regularly, there are some days on which we don’t eat mat at all. Rachana’s from India, where vegetarian food is regarded as a delicacy and not as an embarrassment as it’s been until recently in the West.
The other day I got talking with the butcher and he asked me what meat we liked best of all. I told him, and then I said that sometimes we didn’t eat meat, because we like vegetarian food as well, and I explained that in India veg food is very delicious indeed. The butcher’s face froze. He swallowed hard. Then blinked.
‘That must be a very strange country,’ he said. 
‘It’s strange in some ways but very interesting.’
‘But I am sure you get good beef there.’
‘Well,’ replied, squinting into the light, ‘that’s the peculiar thing. In India cows are holy, they’re not killed, but revered.’
The butcher had a cleaver in his hand. He chopped it down into the wooden cutting block.
‘To think of it,’ he said. ‘Were you to be a stranger, Mr. Tahir, I would think that you were not telling me the truth.’
June 23, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Baker

Walk through the shantytown which surrounds our home and you will see children as young as six or seven hurrying forward, oversized trays balanced across their arms. Over the tray there’s always a cloth, pulled down tight. Under it there’s a loaf of flat round dough, ready for the oven.

The children scamper fast through the narrow alleys which run between the shacks, with the trays. They run around the side of the bidonville, where the donkeys laze hobbled in the morning sun, and present them to the baker.

His name is Mustapha. His arms are scarred from the wood fire, his hair all singed at the top from the interminable heat. All day long he shuffles the loaves into the oven with a long wooden paddle, and then shuffles them out again.

In Morocco there is no food as sacred as bread. Indeed, it’s far more than any simple food. It’s a symbol of something far greater than a food designed for alimentary sustenance. The idea of ever throwing away a morsel of bread, however stale, is completely unthinkable.

In our home, a piece of bread that’s unfit to eat is never thrown away – not ever. Instead, it’s passed on to someone or to something who will have use for it.

I once wondered what happened to all the stale old bread that was unfit to eat. There must be tonnes of it created in Casablanca alone every day. After all, no one throws it away. They protect it, defend it at all costs from the dustbin, and ensure it is given a fitting end.

I never asked anyone where the bread landed up, but the question was always in my mind. Then, one day, I was strolling through the muddy junk yard in the nearby area of Hay Hasseni, searching for old Art Deco basins as I do, and I saw it… a sea of stale old chunks of bread. There was every shape and size, every colour from white to the darkest brown.

I went over. The stench was terrible, as a great deal of the stuff was rotten, or gnawed at by rats. It was winter, and the Atlantic winter climate is merciless… especially on bread.

Every so often someone would stumble up, hand a small coin to the bread guardian, and saunter off with a bag of the stuff. The guardian told me that people bought it for their cows, that it kept them healthy and free from illness even in the coldest weather. ‘It’s a sort of miracle food,’ he said.

In the bidonville, Mustapha the baker told me he knew of the bread dealers in Hay Hasseni. ‘They make quite good money,’ he said. ‘And I thank them for their work, they are honorable men.’ He paused, shuffled another paddle of loaves into the fire.

Through a kind of alchemy, Mustapha and the other bakers transform the raw dough into the magical comestible and, as such, they are regarded with special esteem. As bakers – and they are exactly that – men who bake bread, they continue in a profession which remains unaltered since ancient times.

One mention of the history, and Mustapha holds still, rests the end of his paddle on his thigh.

‘The Prophet said never to discard a crust of bread,’ he said, ‘and that if you ever see it even the smallest piece on the ground, you must pick it up and put it on all wall. Then, if a beggar is passing and is in need of food, he will not have to stoop down. Because however poor a beggar, he has dignity too.’





June 22, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Barber

Hamid the barber crouches in the doorway of his shop, a cut-throat razor in one hand and a tired leather strop in the other. As soon as a client arrives, slips across the sunlit threshold, and eases himself into the black vinyl chair, Hamid comes alive. He’s like an automaton, wound for a few moments, cued into action by the prospect of a coin and an audience.

Ask him any question and Hamid will tell you his tale. It’s a story crafted from pride, fantasy, and from an enthusiasm for dreams, conjured by the magical twilight world of his own mind.

‘We were warriors,’ he says, massaging lather into my cheeks.

‘Who were?’

‘My ancestors.’

‘Where did they come from?’

‘From the mountains, and the desert.’

‘They came from both?’

‘Yes, yes, from the mountains first and then from the desert.’

The razor was dipped in cool water, inspected for sharpness, and applied at an angle to the cheek bone. At no point in the day is Hamid ever more content than when a bristly cheek was beneath his hand. Not because it means he is making a little money, but because it allows him time to talk, uninterrupted.

‘My grandfather was from the High Atlas,’ he said, carving the blade south towards the chin. ‘He was so brave that every villager for hundreds of kilometres were fearful, terrified of just hearing his name.

‘What was his name?’

Hamid paused, wiped the cut-throat to clear the soap.

‘He was called Abdul-Kader,’ he said, filling the name with vigour like a balloon blown full of air. He said the words as I would tremble at hearing them.’

‘Would you tell me about him?’

But there was no need for the question. Hamid had already begun:

‘Haj Abdel-Kader was four years old when the chief of the village threw him a lamb bone,’ he said. ‘It was covered in meat, juicy and tender. But just as he caught in his small hands, a dog leapt up onto him and wrestled him for the bone. My ancestor was enraged, even though so young.’

‘What did he do?’

Hamid wiped the razor once again. His voice was slow and measured.

‘He took the dog by the jaws and ripped it apart, clean down the middle.’


The coiffeur rinsed my face with a damp cloth and sprayed the raw skin with rose water, before rubbing it with a cube of ice. He seemed pleased to have impressed me.

‘When you come back next week,’ he said, ‘I will tell you a story that will make your hair turn white with fear.’

I thanked him, adding nervously that I couldn’t wait. Then, just as I eased myself from the black vinyl, and fished for a coin, he said:

‘Remember, our ancestors can teach us more than any teacher ever could.’






June 21, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


It all begins with a square tile, glazed terracotta ten centimetres square, the colour of ochre. Add to this a decade of apprenticeship, a pair of hands so steady they could match those of any surgeon, a cushion of pressed felt, and a hammer with an ultra sharp edge. If you have all these things, you have what it takes to create the finest zelij mosaics in the world.

When I first moved to Morocco I thought the West had some pretty amazing tools. I used to traipse up and down the aisles in the hardware stores gawking, checking the spec of the electric drills and the angle grinders. Once in a while I’d buy one, plug it into the mains, and blow myself away with the power ready and waiting for me to abuse it.

Like everyone else who lives in the West, I became brainwashed by the system. But then, move away, decompress, and you come to understand very quickly that the names we give things, and the nonsense we consider to be important, is quite meaningless.

In the Occidental world we get all caught up with what we perceive to be power. All we talk about is how many horsepower or megawatts, or gigabytes, or amperes we have on tap. And what we forget is that the power’s not important… but what is, is the skill of hands in which the power is placed.

When we moved here to Dar Khalifa, the renovations were ongoing. They went on and on and on. And in that time I had the opportunity to observe another system at work, a system that has been honed through a thousand years and more. It’s a system that is based on transmission alone, and the idea that if you spend enough time with someone who has the knowledge, then you will learn and, ultimately, you’ll gain knowledge too.

But of course the important thing is to be in the right frame of mind from the start, or be ready to enter the right frame of mind as you progress. If you’re not ready to learn, you’ll stay ignorant. And that’s a big point. Because in the West we like to imagine that everyone is a blank sheet, ready to learn, something that’s not right at all. An athlete getting ready for a race limbers up, prepares. Only then does he put his mind to the exercise at hand.

We had several teams of craftsmen working on the house. The one which impressed me greatest with their chain of transmission were the zeligiers, the mosaic workers. There was an entire range of them, and how extremely remarkable it was. At the bottom of the ladder were a group of boys. They were about fifteen years old, fluff on their cheeks, a glint of expectation in their eyes. All they did was to move sand, cement and carry the precious tiles.

After years of struggling under the burden of the raw materials, they were permitted to sort the tiles themselves, to wash them, soak them in troughs, and to caress their hands over what would become their livelihood.

More years, and they would be taught to mark out a shape, the same shape, over and over on a ten by ten square of terracotta. There was no question of making a mistake, because given time the hand and the eye perfected the skill… a skill that would enable them to cut the mosaic pieces in hundreds of different shapes without error. And that’s how humans learn: through repetition.

Trawl the wide aisles of Home Depot of B&Q, buy into the brainwashing system, and you quickly imagine that you can do anything with a set of tools, each one with a power cord fifteen feet long. It looks so easy on the packet, or on the in-store TV display. And the mistake we are making is by assuming that technology is a substitute for skill, which is certainly is not.

During the renovations at Dar Khalifa, a man in his forties sat straight-backed on a cushion in what is now the main salon. Beside his left knee was always a glass of piping hot mint tea, and in his right hand was a hammer. All day, every day, he would chip away, cutting mosaics from ochre-red tiles. To watch him was to slip into another world, a world which surely at once existed (and probably not so long ago) in the Occident.

One morning he smiled as I watched, transfixed by the tap, tap, tapping, by the raw skill focussed on the job at hand. He whispered something. I leant forward, and he said it again.

‘To cut one piece it takes a minute,’ he said, ‘one minute and twenty years.’