“Be kind, for whenever kindness becomes part of something, it beautifies it. Whenever it is taken from something, it leaves it tarnished.”
Last week the Islamic world observed the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Over three days, shops were closed, bars with alcohol licences grew cobwebs in their windows, and the streets of Tangier were peaceful, if only the tiniest bit windswept.
‘It’s just like Christmas,’ a friend had warned the week before, ‘no one will be available to work and it’s important that they don’t,’ she went on to add.
Rain fell a lot over the holiday, and when I woke on Thursday morning I peeped through the curtains to find a sky full of sun, breathing a sigh of relief, a tiny piece of normality had returned. ‘Thrice weekly,’ otherwise known as Twinkle Toes, came on Thursday rather than Wednesday – he had a disco to host at his house on Wednesday night, in honour of his mothers birthday.
The man with just one tooth who sells shampoo, gas and booze in the ‘barcal’ across the road, was back from four days in Agadir. Fresh faced and cheeks flushed with colour, he was ready to launch straight back into Darija lessons, shouting my order back at me in the local dialect through the tooth, as the boys who stack his shelves giggled in the background at my pathetic attempts to gargle words from a place in my throat that has never been utilised.
Mohammed who minds the street was almost beside himself with joy when he saw the doors open at the barcal; never one to say no to a tin of Flag, I found him celebrating on the street corner as I walked home on Thursday night. That evening, men gathered around the fruit stand near the carpark and smoked kiff pipes together, free again after three days of family.
Nightfall comes early these days, but thankfully Autumn in Tangier is nothing compared to Paris; it’s warmer, and the days are clear when its not raining, with views across to Spain simply breathtaking.
This piece had originally taken a different turn; I had written about eating cous cous one night in the family home of the boy who saved my kitten; the kindness shown by his mother and the way in which he translated from Darija to English, and when I had words to say (I was struggling to get a word in either way, but that is another conversation for another day), they were translated back in Darija.
His mother showed me a video on her smart phone of a Clydesdale horse galloping through a field, and I smiled at the randomness of that particular moment.
I’d spent all week penning a piece about hospitality and the rapidness at which Moroccans speak, drive, and deal with each other. At times, I feel as though I’m witnessing the biggest fight, only to see two men blow each other a kiss before going on their way. Darija is loud, it’s fast, and it is littered with French and Spanish words in a hangover from a bygone time, pre independence.
Last night, as I was about to press publish on the original piece, the doorbell sounded particularly loudly. Expecting Twinkle Toes to arrive with a new special light bulb for a huge glass star in the entrance hall, I was in the midst of pouring a glass of wine and preparing a slice of cheese.
My hair was scraped back in a scrunchie for the first time since I was about 12 years old, and a fascinating documentary about Lisa Brennan Jobs, daughter of Steve, was playing on the BBC. Moments prior, I’d finally brought in all the laundry from the clothesline on my small kitchen balcony. Rain was forecast for the morning, and as the chilly nights set in, it’s always a race to get things into the flat before they are too far gone in the evening chill.
The kitten scattered at the sound of the doorbell, as she always does.
Opening the door with not nearly enough caution, I found a well dressed man with a guttural voice speaking to me in Arabic, not Twinkle Toes as expected.
‘Hamo…’ he explained after we’d finished formalities and thanked God for both of our wellbeing, ‘Hamdulillah’ we’d said in unison.
I then responded in broken French that I didn’t actually know what he wanted, ‘I am Virginia,’ I told him, cross that my documentary hadn’t been paused before I stood up from the kitchen table. ‘What do you want?’ I asked, to which he again responded ‘Hamo,’ and that he was here to see my house and eat dinner.
‘I don’t know you,’ I explained in French, probably saying that I have never known him, tenses are not a strong point.
With that, he held his hand up to silence me, before making a call on his phone. ‘No, who are you calling?’ I asked, adding ‘you can only call Rashid, the guardian of the building.’ But, he was well on his way telling someone that ‘Hamo’ (he) was ‘here’ and ‘she’s’ ‘definitely not an Arab’.
Sans headscarf and wearing a pair of dungarees teamed with orange desert boots (colour is not an option with big feet, but they’re rather nice) and a matching woollen jumper, I couldn’t have looked less like a nice Muslim girl – more like a presenter of a children’s television program.
As he hung up, he kissed his hand and waved me goodbye with a smattering of words that I couldn’t begin to understand, before making his way down the stairs, ‘goodbye, I’m sorry,’ he finished in Darija, and I shut the door behind him.
Racing straight to my laptop, I pressed pause on the Brennan Jobs documentary. I’d missed all the juicy bits about the wealthiest man in the world’s daughter, and her struggles with being the child of the man who invented the machine on which I was typing this. Then, I reached for my Arabic dictionary, searching the word ‘hamo’ with complete urgency.
Who was he, and what did he want from me?
‘Father in law,’ the dictionary explained.
The poor man, who I’d observed had rotten fingernails but a rather nice shirt, had come all the way up five flights of stairs to meet with his son and new daughter in law and see their house, only to find an Australian woman holding a kitten, linguistically challenged, and dressed like a pre school teacher.
Last week I sat in my favourite smoked filled cafe on the boulevard with views across to Spain, and I reflected on the kindness that I see each day in Morocco as I build a life here. I’d planned to write about my endless struggles with language and the kindness always gifted to me by Moroccans.
I have to listen so hard when I’m spoken to in accented French, and I squint like a child at an ice cream stand when Darija is spoken to me and I’m lost, like a mapless explorer in the Sahara desert, when anyone speaks in Arabic.
But no one ever laughs at me- I am encouraged and appreciated when I make any attempt to communicate, as funny as I may sound.
Sipping on my coffee as I planned this blog in the smoke filled cafe, Gloria Gaynor came onto the television and sang ‘I will survive,’ which opens with the only too familiar lyrics ‘At first I was afraid, I was petrified…’ and I suddenly found myself singing along out loud. An older man sitting at the table beside me smiled, saying, ‘I love this song, it is the favourite song of my husbands sister,’ going on to sing at the top of his lungs ‘At first I was afraid, I was butterflied…’
In that moment, I observed the innocence of language, reminded that I am not alone in the never ending struggle that I face each day with a barrage of words that I have to listen to with complete dedication and determination. In English, he was only trying to sing ‘At first I was afraid, I was petrified,’ and that Gloria Gaynor ‘is the favourite singer of my sister’s husband’.
As Ben Lee sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘we’re all in this together,’ and as the prophet said, ‘be kind, for whenever kindness becomes part of something, it beautifies it…’
I hope ‘the father in law to be’ found his son and new daughter in law last night, and that they enjoyed a lovely dinner together.
For he, was probably as ‘butterflied,’ as me.
Pictured: a mop drying in the window of a local mosque.