By Glyn Hedeg
"Go and fetch some water Hassim," my mother said. I picked up the buckets and started to walk down towards the river. As I did so I overheard her talking to her aunt.
"At least the well is safe now. It hasn't collapsed for two years." "That's because of the cement," my uncle butted in. He was visiting from Marrakech for a few weeks.
I didn't hear my great aunt Durrah's reply; the door banged shut behind me. I could imagine the ensuing discussion. She was good with Baraka, and made sure every chicken possible has its blood let onto the stone in the wadi. She used the correct Arabic prayer of course, so the meat would be Halal.
Whether it was Durrah's sacrifice to the water spirit or the cement, the well was safe, and I expected it to stay that way.
I was not yet a man, but definitely no longer a boy, and enjoyed my strength. I lifted the buckets high as I walked passed some of the smaller children, and ran a few steps every now and then, just because I could. I noticed some of the older girls watching me, and it felt good.
I had just returned the water to the kitchen when I heard my younger brother's shout.
We had been hearing the engine sounds coming down from the mountain for most of the morning. The track goes past our village on the main route from Mzouzite to Ijjoukak. The wadi floor is wide, and the river crosses the road many times. Each time the rains come, the river changes. Durrah puts this down to the capriciousness of the Jinn, but my uncle says it is caused by the force of the water. It means the road can be treacherous, but the lorry axles are a metre above ground, so can navigate large holes. I ran to the edge of the village, joining the other children. The lorry was a large open top used for quarry work, full of bauxite. It came on slowly, taking care over the parts of the road that had been disturbed. When it was a few hundred metres from the village I, and some of the braver boys ran out to it on the wadi. We waved at the driver. I pointed to the back and shouted, "Insh Allah?" I wanted to know if we could climb on.
"Eyeh," was the positive reply, along with a large grin. We didn't need more encouragement. Soon we were hanging onto the sides, shaken by every bump and turn. Ghani, my best friend fell, but when I looked he had moved clear of the wheels and ran behind waving. As the lorry moved into the good part of the road in the village, we jumped off and ran to the front.
"Shukran, thank you" we yelled, as we followed him to the small square at the centre. As the driver climbed from the cab, I approached him.
"Salaam O alaykum."
"O alaykum salaam."
"Will you come to my house to eat?" I asked. As the oldest, it was my privilege to invite him to our home.
"I will. My thanks."
I led him to our house, while my brother ran ahead to warn my mother. The kettle would be boiling by the time we arrived.
"Ahlan wa sahlan." My mother greeted the driver as he came through the door. He removed his sandals in the small uncarpeted area, then sat against the wall with his legs politely outstretched. I sat cross legged between him and the kitchen. From there I could see my mother preparing the tray for tea, and my father watching. I felt safer knowing he was there, in case the driver was not what he appeared.
Rahaf, my little sister, came in with a bowl, towel and pitcher, so the driver could wash his hands. The jug was slightly too heavy for her, but none of us degraded her by offering to help. After she had poured water for us, she took everything back to the kitchen. My father praised her for a job well done, and gave her a hug. My mother came in with the small table and tea. After setting it up, we moved around it, and she poured the cups. As usual, the tea was too weak, so she tipped it back into the pot so the water would pass through the mint, leaves and sugar once again. The next cups she poured were nicely yellow, with a good froth. We slurped the sweet, syrupy tea noisily to show our appreciation, and made small talk. The driver was called Sabri, and had six children in Marrakech. The oldest was about my age and the youngest a baby. As the second cup was poured, my father came into the room, having decided to trust the man. We all relaxed, the driver included, and the conversation continued.
"Will you be travelling on today?" my father asked later in the afternoon.
"I may. I have made good time, so can take my ease."
"Then stay. We have space for an honoured guest." I was not surprised by this turn of events. We often had guests, as it is improper to turn away one who could be an angel. Sabri accepted, and I went to prepare my room, as that was where he would sleep. It didn't take long to put my blanket on the floor, and get a spare from the women’s room.
"Go and choose a chicken for our meal," my father told me when I returned. I was slightly disappointed, as I wanted to hear more about life in the city. I carried one back and found my great aunt, to help her down to the wadi.
Once the chicken was bled, she took my wrist and held out a new set of beads for me.
"It's time you had greater protection."
She laughed. "Young man like you? All that raw power bursting to get out?" Her gaze dropped to my shoulders, then lower.
"Shukran," I muttered. I blushed and looked down so she wouldn't see, then put the new beads around my wrist before removing the old. We returned to the house in silence.
"The rains have started," Sabri said to me as we settled down for the night. "You'll need to be careful on the wadi." "Thank you," I replied, slightly disgusted. Did he think I was a child? We were always careful. The river was fed by rains in the mountains, and could go from nothing to a torrent that would sweep away a horse in a few minutes. We all knew to seek high ground the moment we saw water running on the surface. I think he heard something in my voice, as he changed the topic.
"Do you like music?"
"Oh yes! But we can’t always get batteries for the radio."
Sabri rummaged in his bag and brought out a portable.
"Shall we listen?"
It took a while to find a station with good reception, but the music was good and it was very late when we finally slept.
The next day, Sabri left after breakfast. My father suggested he could stay the full three days, but he would not. "It's Hassim. Seeing a fine young man like him reminds me of L'arbi, my oldest boy." I was pleased with the compliment, but made a ward with my hand in case anyone put the evil eye on me. Jealousy can be very powerful. Durrah can remove it, but it takes time, and the pain does not go until the process is completed.
Sabri promised he would be in touch, and we followed him out of the village as far as we dared, which was less than usual with the river still flowing.
As we arrived back at the village square, we saw some foreigners. All four were wearing trousers, even though two were women, and they all had hats in spite of the day being cool. Their hair and skin was lighter than mine, and one of the men had flecks of a darker colour on his arm. They were completely soaked from the waist down, as if they had waded in the water, and I saw they were shivering.
"Salaam O alaykum."
"O alaykum salaam."
"Come to my home to dry," I invited. It wasn't until I motioned with my arm for them to follow, and repeated, "Come," that one of the men responded.
"Shukran." He spoke with an accent, but I could understand him easily enough. When my mother saw the state of the four, she was horrified. "Ahlan wa sahlan. Come in quickly. You must get those clothes off. I will find you clothes to wear while yours will dry."
I noticed none of the foreigners responded.
"Do you speak Tashelhite?"
"Little only," said the man who had responded before. "Parlez vous Francais? Anglais?"
"I don't understand."
"You must get dry!" My mother intervened and physically dragged one of the women closer to the stove. My sister had started the fire in it when my brother had told them we were coming, and it was already nice and warm in the room. The foreign woman spoke to the others, and they all moved as close to the stove as they could. "Hassim. Go and get your uncle. He might be able to speak to them." She was right, as usual. I ran outside and found him in the first field with my father and some of the men, discussing next year's planting. "Uncle, please come. There are some foreigners."
"Certainly. Do you know where they are from?"
"No, but they can speak a few word of Tashelhite."
"That’s unusual. I wonder what they are doing here." He didn't speak as we walked back to the house with my father.
My uncle was able to speak French and Arabic fluently, which was how he had got his job working for the police. After a few minutes with the foreigners, he told us what he had found out.
"They are English, but speak French. The older one lives in Marrakech, and has learnt some Tashelhite. He plans to start a school in Ijjoukak in a few years."
"Never mind what they plan to do later," interrupted my mother. "Tell them we will give the women some dry clothes while their others dry out. The men too, if they need them."
My uncle immediately passed on the information. The two women went out with my mother. Both the men decided to stay, so we all sat near the stove.
The older man looked at me. "I need practice Tashelhite. My name is John. What's yours?"
"Metsherfeen, Hassim. Pleased to meet you."
"Metsherfeen," I replied automatically. "Who is your friend?"
"His name is David. The names of my other friends are Lucy and Samantha."
"They are welcome."
"My car sticks in the river." I must have looked confused, as he repeated, more slowly. "My car, it is sticking, in the river."
"Your car is stuck!"
"Yes, my car is stuck. The river got big. The dirt is under the car."
"In the morning. We tried to drive over the water."
"Uncle?" He looked up from his conversation with David. "The man's car got stuck when the wadi flooded."
My uncle started talking in French again to John, but was interrupted by the return of the women. My mother was beaming, and the women were smiling. I wasn't sure why, but soon found out. "Lucy can play guitar, and Samantha has a flute! They have promised to play for us tonight." I knew my mother spoke no other languages, and
wondered how she knew.
"You men, go and sort out the car, while we prepare for tonight. We will have a party in the square." She placed her hands on her head and hips, and gyrated slowly while ululating loudly enough to be heard all across the village. "We will share music and dancing."
My uncle and father grinned as she burst into her customary laughter. "Go! The sooner you are gone, the easier it will be for us to prepare." She all but pushed us out into the street in her hurry to get everything started. My brother was sent off to round up the men, and to ask the women to visit my mother.
"Hassim?" It was my father. "Go and get two spades from the shed, and come with us." It wasn't until I returned with the spades that I realised what my father had said. I was going with the men. I was so happy I almost jumped in the air.
John and David came with us, their wet clothes still drying in the morning sun. They showed us the way up to their car, forgetting that there was only one way up the mountain, and the car was soon clearly visible. It wasn't actually a car, but a minibus. They had tried to drive through the river while it was still rising, and the water had come into the bus through the back doors. When the engine had stalled, they couldn't get it going again, and the silt had piled up under the bottom, filling the whole gap. When the water went down and the engine restarted, the wheels
couldn't grip. We had four spades, and started to dig. As the owner of one of the spades, I made sure I got in first, but soon gave way to the older men, who had more skill and strength. It was hard work digging under the minibus. It took about an hour to clear most of the mud, but the tyres still couldn't get enough grip to move the bus. Then I noticed the water beginning to flow. I pointed it out to my father,
expecting him to move everyone off the wadi immediately. "We still have some time before the flood," he said calmly. I looked around nervously. I didn't see anyone else worried, but touched my beads anyway, muttering the charm. "Allah y-auni, God, protect me."
"We should all push," my father declared, "And use the spades to lever the wheels." I ended up right in the middle of the back of the minibus with two men either side. The spades were at the back of each wheel, and men were assigned to lift them and force them forward. "Three, two one, Push!" The shout came from John, as he pressed down on the accelerator. The minibus rocked and surged, and we all tried to make it move. The wheels spun again, sending mud flying behind onto the men at the sides. Then the bus lurched one more time backwards, and as it started forwards again, the wheels caught, and it flew away from us. Most of the men moved with it, following it as it scrambled over the rocky path to the higher part of the road. I stood catching my breath and watching with pride, knowing I had helped.
"Hassim!" The shout came from my father, up by the bus. I looked at him gesturing, then heard a roar behind me. The rain in the mountains was on its way down. The wall of water caught me before I could even think of moving, and as it hurled me away I thought I saw clear water shaped roughly like a man centred in the brown of the wave.
I had vague feelings of being pushed, prodded, kissed and carried. I woke to the sound of rain and my great aunt performing a dhikr with her prayer beads. I could feel a pain in my throat, and my legs and arms were sore. I opened my eyes slowly. I was in my bed, with several blankets wrapped around me. Dullah was sitting on the floor, rocking backwards and forward as she recited the names of Allah.
"Auntie?" I croaked.
"Hassim? Ham d'Allah! Praise God! Hafa! Come quick! Come quick!" She eased herself up from the floor slowly. I guessed she had been there for some time.
"Can I have a drink?"
"Eyeh. I'll get one." My mother came in as my great aunt left. She was wide eyed, not knowing whether the news was good or bad. As soon as she saw me sitting up, she ran and hugged me, tears in her eyes.
"My boy, my boy, my boy."
"I'm all right," I told her. "I'm just thirsty."
She let out a strangled laugh, before I saw her calm herself down.
"You have been asleep for two days."
I must have looked disbelieving, because she repeated. "Two days, Hassim! I thought we would lose you." She removed the blankets from me and helped me stand. Apart from feeling like I had run too far, I couldn't see what the fuss was about, though if I had been asleep for two days, it must have been serious.
"Did the doctor come?"
"Not yet. He will come soon. The English will call on him when they arrive at Ijjoukak. They left yesterday."
Then something else occurred to me. "I missed the party?"
"The party?" Now it was my mother's turn to be confused. "We didn't have a party. Not with your accident. We shared the food and people ate in their homes. We ate it with our guests. David had the place of honour. He was the one who pulled you out of the water."
"Understand, I was not there, but your father told me. As soon as the water hit you, David ran into the wadi. He was swept along too, but he swam to you and lifted you above the water. He was able to get you back to the bank, where the other men helped you both from the water."
"How far did we travel?"
"Only a few hundred metres. David pushed water from your chest and breathed for you until you breathed for yourself. Then they brought you home in the minibus. I changed your clothes and brought you here. Durrah stayed to watch you."
I was quiet for a while, but didn't have much time to reflect as my great aunt came back with a drink and the rest of my family. She also brought some of the special food saved from the party. I ate and drank between hugs, hearing more detail. I had woken up just before midday, so we moved to the main room to eat. I was still hungry, and ate half of a loaf of bread with cheese and tomato. My mother had cleared away and brought tea when someone knocked on the door.
It was Ghani. Some travellers were passing though on their camels, heading for Mzouzite, so he had welcomed them to the village in my absence. They had a gift to us from Sabri, who had left it with a shopkeeper in Ijjoukak. Ghani left with a grin, and I knew the whole village would soon know I was back.
Sabri's parcel was fantastic. It had flour and green tea for my mother, some batteries for my father, which were the right size for both the radio and our torch. There were sweets for my brother and sister. For me, there was a football. It was leather, and had a Manchester United symbol on it. It came with a pump and a repair kit, which I knew would be useful given the sharpness of some of the rocks. I finished my tea quickly. "Mother, can I go?" I was unsure if she would keep me in. "Yes. Be careful on the wadi." She smiled to show there was trust in the command, and I grinned back.
I ran down the street, feeling better than I ever had before. I had escaped the Jinn. Next spring I would be working in the fields as a man. But for now I was the oldest boy in the village, with a brand new football. "Come and play!" I called out to the others as I ran. "I have a new football. Come to the wadi with me!"
- - -
I live, work and play in rural Wiltshire, England. I write software for a
living, and stories for fun. I enjoying playing, laughing and fighting
with my children, and cushion fights are a regular part of the family
Labels: Glyn Hedeg