I was doubled over, panting and dripping sweat in the doorway of a cafe in a small town in southern Morocco. I’d been planning all week to meet up with Idris and go to spend time in his village. But first I had to find the camping gear I’d stashed under a rock ten days earlier. My taxi was late getting in from Tafraoute, and I was panicking. I picked a shop front at random and threw my backpack in front of a row of men watching soccer and smoking.
“Watch this for me,” I yelled over my shoulder, “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes!”
It took me 45 just to scramble up the hillside to my gear stash. Someone had used the ground nearby as a toilet since I was last here, but my folded tent was undisturbed. I checked my watch. Idris would already be wondering where I was. He’d needle me for not having a cellphone. I sprinted down the hillside and hitchhiked some old jalopey to get back to Tirhmi, the town where Idris and I had agreed to meet.
My bag was still there on the floor of the cafe, Barcelona was still down two goals. Idris was nowhere. I hiked up and down the main street looking lost. If you’re a white guy south of the Souss, this is a good way to stick out in a crowd.
After several tries with a payphone I got through to Idris. “Idris!” I said, “I’m sorry I’m late! Where are you?”
That phone conversation became a recurring joke over the next week:
“Remember when we agreed to meet at 1:00 and you showed up at exactly 1:00?” Idris laughs.
We are in his living room in the village, munching dates with two of his cousins. There’s been a lull in conversation so he’s seen another chance to bring up this subject. He turns to the Berber speakers in the room to repeat the joke:
“And he’d taken a taxi from Tafraoute and ran as fast as he could to make it to the cafe at 1:00!” He nudges me on the chest with the back of his hand. “You’re on Moroccan time now,” he gives me my daily reminder.
The cousins laugh. I act cool and reach for a date. But Idris’s hand darts out, blocking me.
“Don’t use your left hand!” he reminds me.
Idris is charismatic and charming, with a wonderful sense of humor. He doesn’t have the same acute sense of humor as his twin brother Hamid, but for Idris, a constant state of good humor is part of being a devout muslim. But that’s not why we joke with each other. He and I both recognize humor as the surest way to relate to one another.
At ten o’clock the next morning Idris and I were sat perched like kings on a cliff above the deep gorge where the seasonal waters were rushing busily deep in the chasm. A band of villagers were busy up top of the hill fixing the roads damaged by the January rains. The bees were busy at the blossoming almond trees. But Idris and I were on vacation.
“Remember when we went swimming down there?” Idris asks me, pointing to a hidden hollow down in the gorge.
I do remember. That had been two years before when all I had wanted was some photographs of the village, had met Idris, and suddenly found myself neck-deep in village life.
But I’ve never been here in February before. I like the scene in the gorge far better now after the rains, now that the torrents of water are hurling in the deep, and grass has sprung up between oregano and cactus, and the frogs have crept out to give tongue to their seasonal romances.
Idris’s phone rings and he answers it quickly.
“The police are waiting for us,” he says. He springs up and jerks his head for me to follow him. As we skip down the ankle-busting rock face he continues,
“That was my brother on the phone — he says the bees are awake and are buzzing around the house. You’d better put your scarf over your face.”
Since I first became friends with Idris, I quickly had to come to accept that there are things that I must constantly struggle to understand, and never to argue. But I’ve also grown tired of being led around like a pig with a ring through its nose. Plus the imminent encounter with the police has me high-strung. I scrounge for some ground on which to assert myself. I say with authority,
“But bees only attack when provoked. It isn’t necessary to cover my face.”
Idris just looks at me out of the corner of his eye. He says: “American bees…”, leaving the sentence to finish itself.
I cave in. Obediently I start to wrap my scarf around my head in the style I’d been taught by Idris’s father. A whole lot of fuss about nothing, I’m thinking. Idris stops to make another phone call. When he finishes he says,
“It’s better to be safe. My brother is coming to give us beekeeping masks.”
I take off my scarf. Trying to understand Morocco is like losing foothold on a loose rock, reaching for another one and finding that one loose as well. Just then the village appears around the edge of the cliffs, the sun darts from behind a cloud and I remember I’d rather be here right now than anywhere else in the world. My annoyance cools to a low simmer.
Top-heavy in our beekeeper’s helmets, we march down the donkey track to where the gendarme is leaning against the fender of his car, looking authoritative and impatient. Idris whispers through his mask:
“Hey, I know this gendarme. He is a good man; he knows my father. He respects the people of our village.”
I greet the moustachioed officer with both salaam alaikum, and throw in a bonjour just for good measure. I hand over my passport. Then I remember I’m still wearing my beekeeper’s mask and I quickly take it off. The gendarme has a string of questions for me.
“When did I arrive in the village?”
“This morning,” I lie.
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“A hotel in Tafraoute,” I lie.
That morning Idris and I had planned out all the bullshit I might have to feed the cops. I never got a solid idea of why they can’t know I’ve been sleeping in the village until today. Idris tells me that in Morocco, you can trust the police but you lie to the gendarmes, who are different from the police in some way — he doesn’t explain that either.
Apparently this gendarme is only here to ensure I’m in this village of my own free will. Earlier that morning Idris had said to me,
“My mother said to me I look like Osama bin Laden with my beard, and that’s why the police are worried. She is a joker, just like Hamid.”
I’ve given up all hope of understanding the situation. Right now I’m just hoping I don’t have to bribe the guy.
The gendarme doesn’t ask for anything more besides my father’s full name and my mother’s maiden name. This kind of old fashioned “papers, please” police work makes me feel like I am being quizzed by superintendent Louie from the film Casablanca. I get my passport back and the guy falls into informal conversation with Idris’s father. As Idris and I turn to head back to the house I see that his mother has been watching the scene. She catches my eye and presents a large rock she’s been hiding behind her back. She gestures with her head toward the cop’s car —
“Want me to smash his windshield?” she motions.
I burst out laughing. This tiny lady knows more than anyone how to make me feel part of the family. Then she says something to Idris, who becomes excited and translates for me,
“Come on, my sister and her husband Yusuf have arrived at our home!”
We run up the driveway, which is hard for me in my borrowed shoes. In the doorway of the house is a man not much older than myself, dressed in impeccable white attire which looks like the kind of thing you would wear to look good for your in-laws. This must be Yusuf.
On his forehead, above a handsome face and big eyes, is a painful-looking bee sting.