Username:

Password:

Fargot Password? / Help

Tag: Marrakesh

22

Morocco Lost in Translation

Last week a close Moroccan friend and I met for our weekly cup of tea at our usual café.

‘You know how much I like you foreigners,’ said my friend, ‘but you people confuse me, and other Moroccans as well.’

Smiling, I asked what he meant.

My friend went on to tell me of how he had been received at an American family’s home in Casablanca the week before. Following that visit, he invited the American family to his own home. A series of lost in translation moments had punctuated both visits.

As someone with one foot in the East and the other in the West, I could see the difficulties and, for this reason, I wanted to present a list of do’s and don’ts for Westerners living in Morocco.

Here it is:

When visiting a Moroccan home:

  • Take a gift, however small. Not to do so when arriving for a social visit is almost unthinkable. If there are children there, take something for them, or something straight-forward such a platter of pastries. Better to take more than less.
  • Don’t expect a tour of the house, or ask for one. Bedrooms and anything but the formal salon, will be probably off-limits, unless you know the family well.
  • Don’t be surprised if the television is left on all through the visit. TV is regarded as background noise in Morocco.
  • Don’t worry if people come in and out endlessly, while you feel awkwardly rooted to one formal chair. You’re a guest and, as a guest, you’re expected to be seated while everyone honours you. At prayer time members of the host family might slip out, pray, and then return.
  • And, as a respected guest, an abundance of food will be provided. Don’t gorge yourself on starters, as there will probably be large platters of cooked meat to follow.
  • The choicest pieces of meat may well be picked out and served to you. Don’t worry if you have to leave a little, because that’s fine in Morocco – just as eating every crumb is a sign that you are still hungry.
  • Do not help yourself to drinks, but wait for your hosts to serve you.
  • If eating from a communal dish of couscous or a tagine, keep to the triangle of the dish in front of you.
  • Don’t praise an individual object in the home too much, because it may well be presented to you as a gift.
  • Don’t take wine or an alcoholic drink unless you are very certain that the hosts drink.
  • Do make polite conversation, declaring how you adore Morocco, and Moroccan culture. Don’t launch into politics or religious matters.
  • Irrespective of whether you are the guest or the host, your children will be kissed by all. And, if it’s a conservative household, men either kiss each other’s cheeks (if already close friends), and women kiss women’s cheeks. Men shouldn’t kiss women and vice versa, unless you know the family well or if you know them to be less conservative. A handshake is always a good bet unless a cheek is offered.

 

When Receiving Moroccan Guests

  • On no account serve any dish containing pork or pork products.
  • Don’t necessarily ask your guests what they would like to drink. It’s better to just serve tea, or whatever, or to pour various cold drinks and present them on a tray. Don’t offer wine or beer unless you’re pretty sure your guests drink alcohol.
  • Never eat or drink anything until you are sure that your guests have all been taken care of. And never on any account help yourself to a second helping until all guests have taken what they need. If there’s a little food left at the end of the meal, never dive in and finish it if you are hosting the meal.
  • Remember that when receiving people in your home, they are traditionally guaranteed security beneath your roof. This means that you are obliged to treat them with respect, and so it’s not the right time to launch into severe arguments.
  • In Morocco, receiving a guest is regarded as an honour for the host, and so there should be an abundance of food. Don’t worry if you have many times what will be eaten, as you will be honoring your guests. Quantity, quantity, quantity.
  • Don’t offer a tour of your home, unless the guests are close friends. Moroccans are always confused about the idea of the house tour. It’s largely regarded as absurd.
  • Don’t stress if your guests sit in silence. In Morocco, as in much of the Arab world, silence is seen as a virtue and a medium through which people get to know each other.
  • Don’t be offended if your Moroccan friends don’t send a message of thanks. It’s not something required in the culture. But, you are likely to receive a return invitation instead.
4
July 6, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Hope

A man is sitting in the shade against the battered pink city wall of Marrakech. He sits there everyday, wrapped in a fraying brown jellaba made from camel’s wool. It looks as though he’s baking, but there’s no perspiration on his wrinkled face… just a look of glazed fatigue. On the ground before him there’s a few inches of grey cloth. Upon it is a coin.
The man was born in a village in the mountains. In his youth he was strong and and lean. He would run through the valleys, streams glistening from melted snow, birdsong loud all around, laughing with his friends. Sometimes, on dark spring nights, they would sit together out in the meadows, away from the adobe homes, and tell stories. They would dream, plan adventures, swap tall tales, talk of the women they would marry and of the happiness they’d find.
Years came and went, and the man tilled the land that his father had tilled, and his father before him. He was wed to a girl from the next village, a girl with a pleasing smile and a kindness. He became a father, and the days and weeks and seasons rolled on and on.
Then one day the man’s crops were blighted by disease and by drought. The wheat and the potatoes died first, then the sheep grew weak and slipped away. The man taught his children to trust in God, to work hard and to keep on the right path.
Another season came and went and, with it, more drought. The village was at the point of starvation. One morning a trader came from far away Marrakech and offered a little money for tribal possessions. He came into the mud-brick home and offered three hundred dirhams ($50) for all he could carry away. He took the pots and pans, the chairs, the table, and even the front door, said he could sell them to foreigners who were moving into the medina down in Marrakech.
More time passed, but not as gently as it had done before. The man’s wife grew ill and she succumbed. No one quite knew the cause of her ailment. There was no money for medicine and in any case no one else had any to spare. The man struggled to feed his children and he grieved. He thought about sending word to his relatives who lived in a bidonville near Casablanca, but he had too much pride. If they were to visit him, he would have to cook a banquet in their honour. And there was certainly no money for that.
So the man sacrificed a chicken, his last possession of any value. And he said a prayer to God. He prayed that the drought would end, replaced by happiness, and that his children would know a different future, one touched with hope.
That night, the man had a dream. He dreamed of a path wending its way through the mountain valleys down to the city. The next morning, he gathered up his sons, together with what they could carry, and they started to walk.
Within a week they had reached the frenzied sprawl of Marrakech, teaming with transport and tourists. The man was too proud to say it aloud, but he missed the solitude of the valley. He found a room for them all to sleep in, searched for work, and began a new life of servility. 
With time the boys grew up and left the nest. The man doesn’t know where they are. But he lives in hope, hope that they were well, and that one day they will return, their own dreams fulfilled. His sight is not good now, but he has very little needs… a little bread dipped in oil satiates the pains of hunger when they come. He clings to what little hope he can muster. Because, as his father had taught him so long before, when the valley was green and the crops abundant, a life without hope is not a life at all.
TS
 
2
July 5, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Swamp

To know about swamps you have to travel with mules. I mean it. Without one, you can’t really understand the other.

I had never been in a swamp before, not a proper one, until I ventured to western Ethiopia with Samson, my guide, and friend. I’d picked him up in Addis Ababa weeks before. Or, rather, he’d picked me up in his taxi. I was on the quest of the lost mines of King Solomon and Samson knew about gold, or so he said… so we went off together.
The trail eventually led to Tulu Wallel, a godforsaken craggy mountain towards the border with Sudan. I knew that if we could get to the mountain, and then up it, we’d have a chance at finding a secret mine once worked by the inimitable British trailblazer Frank Hayer, back in the thirties.
So we hired mules. Half a dozen of them. And we pushed forwards on to Tulu Wallel, a cloud-capped mount protruding from an ocean of green. From the first strides, I could see that these were animals with a sense of what was going on. I am not a horseman, but I know that horses are flighty, frisky, that they can’t be trusted when push comes to shove.
Very soon the rain began to fall. Torrential rain. And then the cold came.We were in a forest by this time and it was dusk. It was a wicked enchanted forest, the kind of place where grown men feel frightened out of their wits. And that’s just what we all were, although we were putting on brave faces.
Suddenly, there was a frantic call from Samson behind. He was wrestling one of the mules forward, steering it, pulling the reins to the left. Now, the amazing thing about mules is that they find their own path, and they keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs. The best thing to do is to let them go, and they will lead you through the horrors ahead.
The problem was that we had a muleteer who seemed ignorant of the genius of his herd. He drove them straight into swamp, a kind of swamp that verged on quicksand. To watch a strong, laden beast go down into a quagmire is one of the most terrible sights imaginable. The she-mule’s front legs sunk in deep, and she went down fast. Before she knew it, and we knew it, her muzzle was plunged in. She cocked it back, wailing, heaving, as the girth bindings were slashed with Samson’s knife.
I ran forward with him, and we both found ourselves being sucked in too. What a feeling, a feeling of utter helplessness, as if the end had come. Then a second mule came forward, answering the distress of the first. It sank as well.
Darkness was upon us, the sound of bats in the trees.
No light, just fear.
We must have been protected that night by some magical force. For we all made it out alive. I don’t know how because all the odds were stacked against us. It was as if we were lifted out of there, preserved by a greater power. It may sound mad, and it does, but I have always felt secretly that we were saved, all of us, by a patron… by the patron saint of mules.
TS
0
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.
TS
1
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.’
TS
 

1
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.’
TS
1
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.’

 

 

TS

 

1
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.’

‘Gosh.’

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.’

 

 

TS

 

 

0
June 21, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Ochre

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.’

 

 

TS

 

 

 

 

3
June 21, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Black

On the east wall of the courtyard near to where I am sitting, there is a shadow. It’s unlike any normal shadow, shades of grey, because it is very very black. But the colour is not the strange thing about it. Rather, it’s that this shadow is not cast by any object. It’s a shadow without a reason.

I first noticed it three weeks ago. The bright afternoon light was beginning to wane, and the sound of donkeys baking in the shantytown was lessening with the heat. I was working on an article, feeling good about myself for working so hard, looking out at the birds swooping down onto the fountain — a single drop of water sufficient to satiate their thirst. I looked up. The birds flew off, up into the bougainvillea. Suddenly I saw it, as plain as the nose on my face… the shadow without a reason.
I called the guardians from the garden. They lined up and waited for instructions. Nothing worries them more than being called in the late afternoon. They hide down at the stables smoking and drinking endless mint tea. A call from me usually ends in a demand, albeit one couched in politeness. They sauntered in, looking sheepish. I pointed at the wall.
‘That,’ I said.
‘What?’
‘The shadow.’
Osman looked at me, frowned, cocked his head to the side.
‘Yes Monsieur Tahir?’
‘Well it’s a shadow without a reason.’
The guardians turned to take another look. They looked hard, frowned again, scratched their heads, smiled, laughed, and then all of a sudden their amusement was  wiped away… wiped away by fear.
‘It’s not good,’ said Hamza.
‘Not good at all,’ Osman echoed.
What shall we do?’ I said.
Just then, Zohra came out of the kitchen, overwhelmed with curiosity. She ordered to know what was going on.
Osman pointed.
‘A shadow,’ said Hamza nervously, ‘a shadow without a reason.’
Zohra stepped back, pushed a hand to her headscarf, leant forward, squinted.
‘Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!’ she crowed.
I asked what she meant.
‘You silly men.’
‘Why are we silly?’ I asked.
‘Because only men would waste time worrying about something like this, wasting time when there is work to be done!’
‘But I have been working. And now we are trying to solve this problem,’ I said.
Hamza waved his hands on the wall, like a child doing shadow puppets.
‘We’re making a scientific study,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Osman, ‘that’s what we are doing.’
‘Nonsense,’ replied Zohra, ‘you are wasting time. And that’s all men do, their whole lives. They waste time.’
A day passed, and the shadow didn’t move. Evening faded to night, and with the dawn, the shadow returned… very faint at first, but darkening as the hours passed, until it was very black again. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to know the reason for the shadow without a reason. So I went to get my camera. If I could get a picture of it, I thought, then I could study it more closely. I took a photo of the wall with the shadow… click. Looked at the image. Weird, I thought to myself… the shadow’s not there on film.
Just then Zohra shuffled out of the kitchen and jerked her head. A jerk of Zohra’s head is a demand for information.
‘It’s strange,’ I said. ‘I took a picture of the shadow, but…’
‘But…?’
‘But it didn’t come out on film.’
Zohra peered into the screen at the back of the camera. She was going to say something. Then her expression wavered. She looked extremely fearful. It was a look I had experienced before, one conjured by the thought of the supernatural.
I shook my head.
‘No,’ I said, ‘not that.’
Zohra nodded. She spun round and touched the walls, kissed her knuckle and said a prayer.
Anything at Dar Khalifa that has no obvious explanation, is put down to the Jinns, and Zohra is the queen of stirring up fear of them. That is, if anyone needs their imagination to be stirred — which they don’t.
I ushered her back into the kitchen. Then, with all my strength, I moved the big whicker log basket in front of the shadow. Remarkably, the patch of darkness disappeared. I smiled to myself. Zohra peered out of the kitchen at hearing the noise.
‘It’s gone,’ I said.
‘You have hidden it.’
‘No, really, it’s gone away. Vanished. Just like that.’
The maid narrowed her eyes.
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said.
Pages:12