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Mustapha

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.

     A few years ago, while I was in the middle of Casablanca gridlock, I spotted a shortcut going off to the right. I didn’t know where it went, so I swerved and accelerated up a narrow alley, which tapered as it went.

     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 traffic hurtles toward you in the other direction – cars, trucks, carts, bikes, trikes, blind men, wild dogs, donkeys, geese, chickens… everything you can imagine.

     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 I had ever seen.

     I slammed on the brakes.

     Screech. Wheels locking.

     Then, wounded 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.

     Nudging a hand out into the sunshine, I motioned 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 seven 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.

     Mustapha likes to work at the end of the garden on a patch of empty land. His tools are almost non-existent, little more than a hammer, a ruler, a file and a welding torch.

     I often find myself concluding that he’s a magician.

     I’ll go down and check how he’s doing, only to find that the work hasn’t yet begun. But then, checking the next day, it’ll all be finished, with Mustapha sitting beside it sipping a glass of sweet mint tea.

     Last month I copied a page from a book of geometric designs. Mustapha is far too polite ever to complain, and very modest in every he does. But I felt he needed something extraordinary with which to show off. He looked at the page for a full minute, his eyes tracing the interwoven lines. A grin gradually moved from the left corner of his mouth to where his front teeth had once been.

     ‘Pas de problem, Monsieur,’ he whispered.

     A month later, a gate appeared, just like that — painted black and perfect. The great master craftsman handed me back the photocopy I’d given him, all soiled with dirt.

     ‘You’re a magician,’ I said.

     The ferronier looked at the paper, then gate, then me.

     And, slowly, he blinked.