Back to On the Road with John Tarleton|
The Many Faces of Mustafa Mohammetby John Tarleton
Lucky Hitchins couldn't quite place the face that was calling out to him as he took a lazy, late morning stroll on Avenue Ali Ben Yamani.
"Ey, 'ey, don't you remember me?" A confident, self-possessed young man called out from where he sat at a sidewalk cafe with a friend. Lucky nodded his head uncertainly. He couldn't keep track of all the good-natured local men who had come up to shake his hand and befriend him on the streets of the small seaside resort of A_______ since his arrival the previous evening. But the voice - at once gregarious and challenging - sounded familiar.
"It's me Mustafa Mohammet." In his early 20s, he was unshaven, wore jeans, a wrinkled t-shirt and designer Italian shoes. He spoke English with a rapid, streetwise accent and a jagged scar ran down the middle of his throat. "We met last night. My friends and I thought you were going to come to the discotheque. We waited for you, but you didn't come."
Lucky nodded along with what Mustafa was saying. During the previous evening, he had met a half-dozen others - many of them writers or painters - who made similar friendly offers to join them for tea and coffee. He, instead, had continued walking through the busy, bustling streets that pulsed with music and loud voices and that were caressed by soft ocean breezes.
"I had on a tie and a nice shirt, remember?"
"Sit down! Sit down!...I invite you."
It had been dusk and Lucky was walking outside the walls of the Old City watching the sun drop into the ocean. He now brushed his long, wavy brown hair out of his eyes and looked more closely at Mustafa's roguish, bronze-colored face. It was ephemeral and forever changing; at once cheerful and arrogant, accommodating yet vaguely menacing.
"Sit down! Sit down! This is my friend Yusef," he said, nodding at a quiet, reticent young man who also sat at the table. "He buys and sells old coins in Europe. His father is a colonel here in the Army. Well, have a tea, a Coke, an orange juice, whatever you like. I invite you. So how do you like Morocco? Nice, eh?"
Lucky had stopped several times on the previous night to gaze around in wonder at all the people: men cloaked in long, flowing jiribas who were huddled together in sidewalk cafes drinking mint tea and playing furious games of backgammon, and women walking down the center of streets in clusters of two and three with children in tow. They wore Western attire as often as they did traditional veils. Nothing was like the cold, lifeless Europe he had left behind when he boarded the ferry to Tangiers on that same day.
"C'est bon," Lucky assented as he sat down in a white plastic chair and accepted the orange juice that the waiter placed on the table. "La vie ici c'est tres interesant." Many of the locals were conversant in four languages - French, Spanish, Arabic and English - and Lucky fancied dropping into them as best he could.
"So you are from the U.S.A., eh?" Oh yes, I know it very well. New York City, the Bronx. I make good money there. Now I don't have to work for a couple years. Yeah, you know the Bronx. Famous place like in the movies."
"What kind of work were you doing?" Lucky pictured him washing dishes, driving cab, or perhaps working as a street vendor. His last guess wasn't off by much.
"I sold crack, right out on the street corner. We had junkies come from all over. Sometimes we had trouble and there were gunfights, like in the movies. Man, we could make thousands of dollars on a good day. And the police, they were no problem. We paid four of them off every week. $50 each."
Lucky sipped his orange juice and listened along without changing his expression. He had the habit of listening to everyone's story without passing judgement. He was a perennial student gone AWOL. Much to his parents' disappointment he had dropped out of school a couple years before while working toward his Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology. He was impatient to see the world through something other than textbooks. And, he was inclined to see the person in front of him as being separate from his other, unsavory activities.
"Yah, I learn you the town. It's nice here in A________ and I have lots of time to show you the caves and the Paradise Beach. Yah, you like it a lot."
"Did you have a green card?"
"No, I have this," he said, holding aloft a navy blue U.S. passport. "My father is an Tunisian and works as an airline pilot. And my mother was French. But I can get into the States easy, anytime. I always bring lots of dope with me. I swallow it in plastic bags before I get on the plane and then I shit it out a few days later in New York. I always dress in my best suit and tie like a rich, young businessman. U.S. Customs only checks people who look funny. I tink they must be blind from walking around with their head up their ass for so long."
Lucky shifted uncomfortably. He looked around and wondered where Yusef had suddenly disappeared to. Mustafa sensed his uneasiness and made a friendly offer.
"I'll get you some good hash, man. It comes from the Atlas Mountains. Good stuff man." Mustafa was only briefly taken aback when Lucky declined. "Yo, you got the face! I know it! You got the face, ace. Yeah, you're in the right place 'cuz you've got the face. Co'mon, I know you smoke it."
Seeing he was getting nowhere, Mustafa changed his tune; now once again gregarious and confiding. "I'm gonna help you out. I know where you can get the right clothes to wear so you can look like an Arab. Otherwise, people are going to rob you blind in this country."
In the Old City
Lucky was wearing a long, flowing, light-blue robe when he ducked through the doorway into the Mustafa's grandmother's house, which was located along one of the narrow alleyways in the heart of the Old City.
The Old City had been built as a giant fortress five centuries earlier. And its high stone walls had endured both the assaults of time as well as those of marauding Portuguese crusaders. It was one kilometer squared with immense stone turrets at each corner and five arches through which its inhabitants passed back and forth when mingling with the modern part of A________. Inside the Old City, artisans worked with an unhurried, medieval sense of craftsmanship in their storefronts while little boys madly kicked deflated soccer balls around outside in the narrow, pretzel-shaped streets that twisted back on themselves.
Lucky was amazed at gaining such easy admittance to an Arab household; "and in the Old City no less," he thought to himself. He had the sense of a veil being lifted. And he thought he was no longer on the outside - nose pressed against the window - looking in.
He went over to where Mustafa's grandmother was bent over the blue flame of a small gas stove. Bright orange carrot chunks floated atop a pot of chicken and vegetable soup that she was going to serve in a half-hour with a large platter of couscous. The stout old woman nodded at Lucky, as if she were accustomed to seeing foreigners pass through her house, and then resumed stirring the soup.
"Co'mon," Mustafa called out from where he stood on the first step of a spiral staircase. "Let me show you the view from the roof."
Lucky maneuvered through potted plants, discarded clocks and laundry lines full of drying clothes and towels as he stepped out onto the roof. The luminous North African sun shone brightly and gulls from the nearby ocean rode the cool, strong desert wind that blew out to sea. The children's voices rose above the clamor below and were in turn drowned out by the wailing call to mid-afternoon prayers from the nearby mosque.
"Yah man, you look goot. Everybody gonna treat you just like you are a Moroccan. Alls you have to do is fold your hands like this, like when you pray. And then say "salaam"."
The bright sunlight dimmed as Lucky donned sunglasses that Mustafa handed him. And the sleeves of his light-blue robe flapped against the wind. The jiriba kept its wearer cool during the day and warm at night. It was made of ___________ and fell from his shoulders to his ankles over his regular clothes. He briefly imagined himself crossing the Sahara by caravan.
Mustafa's smile was generous and encouraging. "Nice, eh? Let me show you some of my paintings. I'm an artist you know."
Lucky dimly noted that Mustafa's smile was the same as when he led him to the rug merchant's shop an hour before. Lucky had been seated in a quiet sanctuary of a room that was covered from floor to ceiling with brightly colored rugs. And, an earnest, moon-faced man served him a glass of sweetened mint tea.
"Yes, you see, we make all these rugs by hand," the man had said. "What do you think? Do you want to buy."
Lucky shrugged. He thought of unnecessary things as unnecessary burdens. He had followed Mustafa into the store when the latter told him he would have a chance to talk to some more local people about their customs and traditions. Not taking note of where he was, he underestimated how easily he could be parted from his money. When he mentioned that he did not own a credit card, the rug merchant's moustache twitched and his expression collapsed. "What kind of foreigner are you," he seemed to say. Then, the man quickly recovered.
"We take cash too, you know. Dollar? Yes? Maybe you buy jiriba? Let me show you just one. My friend, you really must have one to travel safely in this country."
Lucky said "no thanks" but followed the man into the next room anyhow. 15 minutes and 20 dollars later, Lucky found Mustafa waiting for him when he walked back out into the daylight with the folded jiriba in hand. Now, Mustafa was eagerly showing him his portfolio of paintings.
Mustafa's room was a messy domain where cigarette butts found the ashtray more by accident and discarded clothes were strewn around the mattress in the corner. The only thing Mustafa kept in order was his double-entry accounting ledger. "This is everything for the past two years," he said, before getting out his paintings. "Pretty nice, eh?"
Mustafa's paintings were simple, childlike watercolors of sunsets and mosques and the walls around the Old City. Dabs of blue and green and violet ran down the white sheets of paper. "Here, look at these," he said, spreading another stack of paintings in front of Lucky.
Yusef quietly re-appeared, stepped around a pile of glass shards, sat down at the makeshift coffee table and feigned interest in his friend's art. Mustafa pulled out plastic baggy and several rolling papers.
Lucky wondered why Mustafa bothered to refer to himself as an artist. "I like the way you use indigo in this sunset," Lucky remarked, trying to think of something positive to say.
"Here, try this keefie," Mustafa said, passing along the first joint. "It's really good stuff."
"Nah, I don't like to smoke in the middle of the day. It just makes me drowsy."
"Not this grass. It gives you lots of energy. I smoke it whenever I need artistic inspiration."
Lucky glanced down at the paintings. "Nah, I don't need it. When I concentrate my mind, I can do anything I want."
"What, you don't want to smoke?" Mustafa sparked his own joint and then his friend's. "Co'mon, this is really good stuff. Try it and you'll see."
Intrigued, he leaned forward and accepted the third joint and took a courtesy toke. "No point in abusing someone's hospitality over such a trifling matter," he thought to himself. He was curious as well to see if there was anything special about Moroccan grass. He smoked half a joint without getting a buzz and snuffed out the rest in the ashtray. "Ditchweed," he muttered to himself.
Yusef quietly excused himself to go outside. Mustafa then asked Lucky if he wanted to buy any of the paintings.
"No thanks," he said, trying to sound apologetic. "I've got enough things to carry in my backpack."
"O.K., how about if you buy the rest of this bag for 100 dirham? It's only $10. And it's good stuff."
"Nah, I don't need it," Lucky said complacently.
"O.K., then pay me 50 dirham for the joint you just smoked."
"What?! You didn't say anything about that when you offered it to me." A spendthrift traveler by nature, Lucky was painfully conscious of how much he had already gone over budget that day.
"You smoked it, didn't you? The evidence is in the ashtray. And there are witnesses also," he said, nodding at the door that Yusef had closed behind him.
"This is a bunch of shit!" Lucky exploded with the vehemence of someone who belatedly realizes that they have been artfully set up from the beginning.
"Look, pay me the 50 dirham so we don't have any problems from the people I work for."
The afternoon sunlight cut a swath through the front of the room, leaving the back of the room still in the shadows. Lucky thought Mustafa was bluffing but held his tongue. How to be sure?
Mustafa's face tightened and his dark black eyes sparkled with cold intensity. Another veil was being lifted. He sensed he was close to getting his money.
"Yuh yuh yuh know, yuh yuh yuh know, I have a real bad case of nervios. Sometimes when I'm upset, I lose control of myself and people get hurt," he added, scratching the scar on his throat and glancing down at the shards of glass scattered in front of him. His face now had a psychotic gleam to it.
6 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, Lucky was pretty certain that he could fight off any attack. Mustafa had already anticipated his thoughts.
"If there's a bunch of commotion, then the neighbors will call the police and they will take both of us to jail. Me, I don't care. Life sucks and it makes no difference to me whether I'm in or out of jail."
Lucky sagged back on the couch. Only later would he recall the look of despair that clouded Mustafa's roguish face at that moment. Legally entrapped and physically surrounded by the confusing streets of the Old City, he pondered what to do next. His newly-purchased jiriba apparently wasn't of any use. Duking it out made no sense. And if the police came, they weren't going to believe him, especially if it was his word against that of an army colonel's son.
Coming to his senses and remembering that all of $5 was at stake, Lucky wisely folded his hand. He pulled a 50 dirham note out of his wallet and Mustafa quickly snapped it out of his fingers. "That's better," he said. For him, business was done.
Though he had received an inexpensive lesson in realism, Lucky was still muttering under his breath when he saw the same engaging smile that had greeted him several hours before.
"Well," Mustafa said, "do you want to eat lunch now? I invite you."
*Disclaimer: All persons, events, incidents and locales are used fictitiously and are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, events, incidents and locales is entirely coincidental.
Back to On the Road with John Tarleton