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.