Crimson dripped down from her groin…
The fog was unfolding itself like receding tidal waves succumbing to gravity. It was a soundless night, bathed under a full moon, but the smell of petrichor persisted. Popping into sight as if by divine bidding, was a gloomy, brick shack.
The room he led her into was worse. The walls unplastered, wood shingles puncturing through the ceiling, and the floor carpeted with indiscernible remains of human filth. When he opened the door, the smell of urine wafted out.
With his eyes alone, he hinted to the corner where a girl lay on the floor. Fatima bowed her head.
Irritation still pent up in his chest, the gentleman rubbed a rag over his left knuckles, stained in red. His still eyes watched the body for a few seconds, checking for movement, then he let out an obscure sigh before leaving the maid to attend to the girl.
When his footsteps were far away enough, Fatima muttered a curse. She slipped a finger into her head scarf past her cheek to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, then entered the room. The girl, in a cream-coloured tattered dress, lay in a fetal position. Her dark hair was over her face, and she was still bleeding, her ankles now soaked.
Fatima pulled out from the pockets of her apron a small kit containing cotton, rubbing alcohol, and bandages. She crouched down next to her.
“Tsk, what did you expect?” The body stirred, not because she heard Fatima’s voice, or sensed her presence, but because she felt the air of fresh breath over her body. Fatima began treating the wound on her shoulders first. The girl let out a tiny whimper and brought her palms up to her already covered face. Fatima’s eyebrows crossed in further vexation.
“I can’t believe you, girl. Tried to rat us out? The master Ben l’Hmidi? Allah ya benti. The biggest drug lord of the country…”
With her rosy fingers, Dawn caressed the Mediterranean sky into alertness, vying the echoes of the Fajr call of prayer. Like clockwork, the first flock of vagabonds drifted out and about like stoic sheep in Ain Ketiout, occasionally checking garbage dumps for bones or dry bread. Among them was Thaalab, known only as such, for rather than just being an orphan, he had quite large ears, almost foxlike, and his demeanor didn’t do much to contradict the sobriquet, either.
He and Bahlul (also surname-free), his partner, had spent the night before on their own. Their master was an early bird, so they better get to it, but the problem was, Bahlul was with him only up until a few hours ago, when the Lallas approached them in the bar. Bahlul refused to pay 60 francs (as they were still not used to the dirham) for the night.
Thaalab spat on the ground. “The damn Tetouni. Now where’s that bastard gone?” Thanks to him, he lost the chance to have both women in the same room. Hands in pockets, he crossed the street. The fellows behind him became rowdier, but he continued at walking speed. That was until, someone bumped into him, trying to cross the same path.
“Hey!” The boy, taller than Thaalab, maybe 19 or 20 years old, grunted over his shoulder,
“Spanish police coming up that alley!” then he ran ahead. Thaalab stood in place, but still didn’t look behind him to verify the loudening hullabaloo.
This early in the morning? “Tfou, I don’t have time for this,” then he picked up his pace to an ambitious jog and followed that guy.
Bahlul was up on an olive tree. 12 years of age, just a few years younger than Thaalab, the ragged rascal retired to his former lair. Or the garden of it, anyways. There was a well here enclosed with short, cement walls and half-dead outgrown vines he’d discovered when he was 8; he’d jump the walls and use the place to hide from bullies. Eventually, he’d just frequent the spot out of habit, to fool around with friends, hide stolen goods, or to get kiffed.
When he turned 10, however, a family moved into the empty lot, building a small but convenient house. It was no big loss, as he had discovered something even better. The daughter of the household. Actually, he wasn’t sure if she was the daughter, or the servant, but he’d see her in the mornings, whenever he visited, routinely stepping out to fetch a pail of water from the well. And today, she proved obedient once more.
Smug that he has yet to be caught after all this time, he pulled back a few twigs to better his view. What started as an innocent curiosity, became a hobby. She walked gaudily, with the pail at her hips, and her sleeves rolled up. By the well, she put it down on the ledge, pausing to roll up her skirt and tighten it, as if she were preparing to wade in a lake. Her flesh glowed with smoothness, no blemishes apparent. She proceeded to put the pail on the hook and pulled on the ropes.
What was the point of doing that? The water never spilled. If you’re going to do that, just take the whole thing off. Bahlul fantasized about slapping her and dragging her skirt down. He fickly decided instead to focus on her legs and curves. Slowly, but surely, as he was learning to expect, a tingling, a throbbing, a warmth, began in his pants. She had gone back into the house by now, but he held onto the mental picture. Expansion. He closed his eyes and moved his hand downwards, and then-
“Bahlul!!” Startled, he almost slipped off his branch. The leaves shook around him. Peeping down, he caught a sight of Thaalab with his hands on his hips. “Come down you meskhot! Mr. Ben l’Hmidi is waiting for us. Or have you forgotten already?!” Bahlul didn’t answer, just rolled his eyes and started his descent.
It was just after 8 when they finally made it to the villa’s porch. For a man who lived off illegal dealings, his house sure stuck out like a sore thumb. There was no security at the gates either. Not yet at least. It took only two knocks before the door was answered. A woman in a hijab stood before them.
“Come in, my sons. You know where to find him,” Fatima said expressionlessly.
Bahlul trailed behind Thaalab like a pup. They went into the west wing, where his home office was. Inside, the shutters were still closed, creating a bureaucratic darkness, save for a bedside lamp on his desk. Ashraf Ben l’Hmidi sat on his leather chair, hunched over, elbows on the table, and clasped hands under his chin. He was reading over some documents, heeding not to the boys’ tardiness. They were lucky, they thought, he must have come across a jackpot of an order this morning.
For all his money’s worth, he was an ugly dresser though. He wore a maroon, striped suit, too small to hide his stomach rolls, and for some reason, he had tinted shades on while he read. Casually lying next to his lamp like they were magazines, were a couple stacks of graded hashish. Without lifting his head, he gestured to the boys to come up to him.
They stood firmly, arms behind their backs, Thaalab’s eyes mildly bloodshot, and Bahlul’s moving between Thaalab and the boss, the coming interaction still unpredictable. Finally, the shades oriented themselves to their eye level, his lips spread apart, and a dictatorial tone flowed out.
“I’m going to be at Abu Hafid’s today, around 10. I need a package delivered to Hajj Sami.” He didn’t complete the thought, nor was it a question of Could you do it before then? That was that, and only the rookie of the two didn’t nod his head vigorously. Ben L’Hmidi already began lowering his head again, but not without adding, “It’s in the shack, get the key from Fatima,” before shuffling his papers, a closing cue. Thaalab elbowed Bahlul to hint that he followed him.
Ashraf pulled out Le Journal de Tanger from the bottom of the pile and compared it side by side with a copy of The Times, and El País. Skimming through them, nothing of interest piqued him at first; a child found beat to death in Ouijda, commentary on Ford’s speech about the end of the Vietnam war, rumors about Franco’s imminent death. Ah, here we go.
Polisario becoming restless. Algeria threatens military intervention.
His Royal Highness Hassan II proceeds with methods of political dualism in hopes to subdue protests on the verge of breaking out in the country.
On the verge? Ashraf made a throaty, internal sound resembling a chuckle.
An anonymous associate close to the king, comments: “If this doesn’t die down soon, we may have to begin mobilization. Right now, our top priority is to push back the Spanish troops. Polisario is just a side decoy. A hiccup. A bump in the road.”
Interviewer: “What if they feel ignored, and want to retaliate?”
X: “We don’t believe they have the resources to do so.”
Interviewer: “What about Algeria? While they’ve released no official statements, we’ve gathered evidence to believe they will go out of their way to back up Polisario… what if it turns into war?”
X: “I can see that happening. But I have faith in the king and his wisdom. We won’t resort to extreme measures until pushed there. Worst case scenario, we’re looking to close borders in the Sahara and to-and-from the Tangier port in the next few weeks to put pressure on Spain…”
Ashraf pounded a fist on the desk, jingling the beads of his lamp as a result. “Politics de mierda,” he snarled to himself. This was supposed to be his year. His year God damnit! He had 50 tons of dope pending to be exported before the new year and had only 20 relocated so far. He rolled up the paper and chucked it in the metal bin underneath his legs. Straightening up, he pulled a cigar out of one the drawers. Doing it backwards, he lightened it up, then squeezed it between his lips, almost forcefully.
Some puffs later, with an agenda clearer in his mind, he got up and left the room. That officer Larache said he wanted a new car…
The boys opened the room to find it empty except for a stool and chains around its legs. On top of it sat an opaque ziplocked bag.
“What is it?” Bahlul asked with a raised eyebrow. Thaalab felt its weight and traced the outline with his fingers.
“It’s a gun. Now let’s hurry, Hajj Sami lives in Malabata.”
“What?! We’re going to walk all the way there?” Thaalab exited the shack fast, and Bahlul had to trot to keep up.
“How else? By horse?” he returned with annoyed sarcasm.
“Can’t we take a cab? And by the way, I thought Hajj Sami was out of town?”
“Well, he’s come back, you ding-dong. He threw a dinner party to celebrate his pilgrimage last week. The boss was there, remember? And we can’t take a cab. Boss says there be snitches among those cabbies. Besides, police randomly stop them to “check for papers” and we don’t want our faces caught with that lot, when it happens.”
Bahlul cast his eyes down to watch the path below his feet. Mainly because the road they were coming up against next was a slippery one. “What does Hajj Sami want with a gun…?” he murmured. Unfortunately for him, it was still audible enough. Thaalab halted mid-step and pivoted to give him a quick jab.
“Are you that naive? What’s it to us? Just keep quiet and deliver.” He flared his nostrils and resumed walking. “They say that the last cargador to ask questions was chewed out by the master…literally.” Bahlul gulped and remained silent for the rest of the trek.
Abu Hafid’s café overlooked the sea in Capspartelle. Despite the lighthouse and the caves of Hercules being in the vicinity, he did not get a lot of clients. It was almost like it was known the mob often rendezvoused there. Almost. It was just a few minutes to ten when Ashraf Ben L’Hmidi made it, his cargadores striding in behind him. An Oum Keltoum song assailed their ears soon as they were inside.
The boys went to the back to catch up with the café owner’s son while Ben L’Hmidi sat himself down. There was only one other table full that morning. Hafid came over to serve him some mint tea, then joined him.
“Si Hafid, how goes it?” Ashraf still had his glasses on, but made it seem like he was staring right into his soul.
“Iwa, what can I tell you? With trouble brewing in the Sahara, I don’t know what to think. It’d be another blow to business I guess.”
“You’re damn right it would be. Lethal in fact.” Ashraf leaned in. “Listen, don’t let that little head of yours get caught up in any of the propaganda, if they come around recruiting for any reason, you dismiss it.” He put extra emphasis on dismiss. “Pull a disability bluff if you have to.”
Hafid put his hands up in innocence. “Oh, no, I wouldn’t have dared thought it. But I can’t help wonder if-”
“I already have you covered. I started ahead on tying loose ends. You just stay here,” he pushed a forefinger on the surface, “and be the messenger. When the gentlemen come in for their hookups, you’re going to be here to send them my way.”
Hafid nodded. The song reached the part of the lyrics that went, I’m sorry, the blame is on me, then I forgot what drove us apart. He took a sip from his tea, then ventured,
“But seriously though, what do you think is going to happen?”
“This time next month I reckon Morocco will force its entry into the Sahara and occupy the territory. I proposed it just now in fact, just hoping they follow through. It’d be better than closing the borders and forcing the Spaniards into quarantine.”
Hafid blinked. That might escalate into something nasty, but it guaranteed Ashraf met his quota. If he hadn’t already known him, he’d be impressed. Ashraf scratched the side of his nose under the bridge of his glasses, waiting for another question. Hafid opened his mouth again, but they were interrupted by a shadow behind them.
“Heyyy, Ashraf,” a suited man Hafid did not recognize greeted Ashraf traditionally and then shook hands with him. “Where have you been? Your seat at Villa Josephine has been cold these days.” Ashraf smiled, revealing yellow teeth.
“Ah, I like it here.” He looked out the terrace where he saw some street kids playing soccer below. “It’s nostalgic.”
“As you like. Come by soon, ok? The fellahs miss you,” he patted his shoulder. Then to Hafid he said, “Nice to meet you,” and returned to his table.
“What a coincidence,” Ashraf said. “That’ll be your newest customer starting next week.” Hafid said nothing. His café was still empty when their conversation ended, and the song was now at to be patient requires huge patience itself.
Just under a month later, Hafid Jr. came rushing down the loft where they lived, just behind the café. He smacked the paper on the kitchen counter for his father to see.
King Hassan II calls for country-wide volunteers to cross the Sahara.
“I read the thing. They’re going to call it the Green March. See if they can force them out with pressure. And look,” he pointed at the headline. “They’re not calling it the Spanish Sahara. Just the Sahara. Well, it always was…”
Hafid looked at the ceiling. “La hawla wala quwwata illa billah.”
“What? Isn’t this a good thing?”
“It is. I’m just thinking about a friend from work…”
“So, are you going to go? To cross in the demonstration, I mean.”
Hafid sighed. “The only thing I’d cross for, is in a demonstration against Time.” His son gave him a poker face. “Never mind. Seeing as that you’re up already, why not go set up the café? Opening hours are almost here.” Now he gave him a regretful look. He perked up in realization to the music playing.
“Ugh, Oum Keltoum again? First thing I’m going to do is change the music. I don’t like this beldi stuff. I prefer Cat Stevens. Get on with the times, Ba.”
Hafid shook a stern finger. “Anything but the music. When you buy your own cassettes, you can play whatever you want.” Hafid Jr. drooped his arms and moaned.
Even less time passed before the monumental moment took place. Ashraf Benl’Hmidi was finishing up on some signatures when he heard a knock at his door. It was unusual for him to have his office door closed, so he looked up at it in confusion. Then he remembered where he was.
“Come in.” Thaalab, also uncomprehending of the closed door, entered timidly. “Where’s that mouse?”
“He got into a fight and is suffering from dizzy spells,” Thaalab lied. He’d think them cowardly if he’d known Bahlul was hungover from his first wine-tasting session hours ago. He smacked him a few times and yelled into his ear to try and drag him to the villa nevertheless, but he ended up collapsing in his arms.
“How can this be?! I need one of you to stay behind and,” his volume was rising and Thaalab shrunk in size. Then Allah be merciful, there was a sudden creak at the door, and in walked Bahlul. Ben L’Hmidi’s chest deflated. Thaalab eyed Bahlul and thanked him mentally. “Come o’er here.” Bahlul obeyed and received a key. “There are some crates in the living room; I need you to move them into the shack.”
“Yes, sir.” Ben L’Hmidi rose from his desk.
“Thaalab, you with me.”
When they were at the hill leading up to Abu Hafid’s café, Ben L’Hmidi stopped abruptly. Thaalab almost crashed into his back. He patted imaginary dust off his shirt and cargo shorts.
Ben L’Hmidi pulled out a small, rectangular, wooden box out of his pocket, opened it, and began preparing a cigar and lighter. After fitting the cigar in his piehole, he clipped the box shut like it was a portable makeup mirror and hid it away. He just stood there for a couple of seconds, right in the middle of the path, smoking. Then without turning around, he asked quizzingly,
“What do you think about the news today?”
“About the Green March?”
“Hm.” He inhaled exaggeratingly and let out extra smoke.
“I think it’s good.” There was an awkward pause.
Meanwhile at Casa Ben L’Hmidi, Bahlul successfully got the door open with his hands full. But it was the room inside that needed unlocking. Setting the boxes down, he used the key, and his newfound authority, to open it. He left the smallest box to use as a door prop first, then moved in the bigger ones. There was a man inside, blindfolded and gagged, his wrists chained to a stool, and his body scarred and bruised from forehead to tiptoe. Bahlul was used to the stench now, but these sights still took doubletakes. Though the man was tied up, Bahlul made sure to position the boxes out of his reach. His belwa was itching inside, so he took a peek at the man’s name tag before he left. It read, Lieutenant L. Darwisch.
“I think it’s good.” There was an awkward pause. Then Ben L’Hmidi said,
“I made that happen, you know.” Thaalab knew how to steer in these kinds of conversations. Besides, the boss seemed in a good mood, and he, in a courageous one. So he replied,
“You should be proud, sir. They probably are going to avoid war with this move.” Ben L’Hmidi made a few puffs, then gazed at the sky.
“Seems anticlimactic, don’t it? Concluding like this?” his eyes narrowed, scanning the clouds, as if searching for a secret transcript; he added, “Ever think there’s some fool watching us?”
This took Thaalab by surprise. “Oh, uh, you mean like a god?”
Ben L’Hmidi gave a roundabout answer, eyes still fixed on the sky. “Nah, nothing godly about this one…”
“That’s what he said.” Thaalab was out back with Hafid Jr., in the balcony of their house after his boss finally gave in to getting back to the café. The two kids smoked leisurely. Bottles of Mahou were by their feet. Hafid Jr. twirled his finger near his temple.
“I don’t think your boss smokes tobacco.” They laughed.
“Maybe. He has his oddball moments, but there’s a reason why they call him master. And he’s a darn good one too. Say, what do you think makes a fool anyways?”
Hafid Jr. shrugged. “I envision a skinny dude with glasses.”
Thaalab had nothing more to say to this, so he started to hum instead. Hafid Jr. quickly snapped.
“Not you too! Ugh, I’m tired of Oum Keltoum.”
“What? It’s classic. Plus, it’s stuck in my head.” To annoy him, he started singing the lyrics too. Living with you, living an unmatched spring between a never-ending longing, and a longing that is a beginning… Hafid Jr. brought his hands to his ears, to me, they described patience, I found it an illusion…
Still mostly drunk, Omar stumbled in Rue de Mexique. He had promised his gang some dirt on the Fawdiyan group, but instead of spending the night spying on them, he got caught up with some whores from villa Mefeles. Leaning on a garbage canister, he burps. One eye closed, he briefly rummages through the trash. He holds onto a newspaper and looks it square in the eye.
Le Journal de Tanger
Novembre 14, 1975
Madrid Accords Signed. Francisco Franco agrees to withdraw troops from the Sahara, transferring control to Morocco and Mauritania.
Omar burped again. With a languorous effort he managed an “Eh?!” He flung the paper over his shoulder. He was illiterate.
Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay