Arabian Night

Our rental car was pulled over by the side of the dusty road on the way to Essaouira, a port city on the Northwest coast of Morocco. A stern Gendarme in pressed khakis, a carbine rifle strung across his chest was poking through our belongings in the trunk. A grating with sharp metal teeth had been employed, preventing my father from continuing on. I was wearing purple harem pants and a filmy purple and yellow paisley print shirt. I had a bright blue kerchief over my hair, and leather sandals on my feet. I had a glob of Moroccan hashish wrapped in tinfoil in my pocket. I watched the Gendarme extract a long carved wooden hash pipe with a small clay bowl from my bag. He sniffed it and called over a compatriot. They began muttering in what might have been a mixture of French and Arabic, and I remembered my father telling me a story about how he had enlisted Interpol to find the son of a good friend. The boy had been discovered in a Moroccan jail. He had been arrested for possession of drugs. I swallowed. My father produced passports. He had on khaki trousers, a white polo shirt and a madras jacket. My mother had a scarf over her hair and enormous sunglasses. She pulled down the vanity mirror and applied a fresh coat of lipstick. She was annoyed by the delay.

“What are they doing, Martin?” She asked in an exasperated tone. We had crossed the Atlas Mountains in a snowstorm, and the heater in the car was faulty. There were no guardrails on the curving mountain road. Each time a truck descended toward us with horn blaring, a swarthy be-turbaned driver leaned out the window and shook his fist, swerving dangerously close to our car. My father had to back us down to the widest part of the road for the truck to pass. Twice, the front and rear tires on my mother’s side of the car slipped over the edge. Below us rocks and debris and the skeletons of rusted out vehicles littered the mountainside.

My two younger sisters, in matching navy blue Danskin shorts and pink short-sleeved Izod shirts stood next to me. Both wore navy sandals.

“I don’t know,” my father said slowly. He looked over at me, knitting his brows together with suspicion, but said nothing.

One Gendarme came toward my father. He had my hash pipe in his hand.

“And what is this?” he asked.

“I’ve never seen it before,” my mother snapped, leaning across my father.

“It’s mine,” I said. “I got it at the souk in Marrakech. It’s a souvenir. Do you know what it is?”

I turned to the second policeman.

The Gendarmerie began to speak in tones, signifying accusation and mistrust. I knew they were asking why the hash pipe smelled as if something had been burned in it, perhaps quite recently, perhaps earlier that very morning. I lifted my arms.

“That’s the way it was when I bought it,” I explained. “I got a djellaba too. Would you like to see it? It’s in the back.”

The Gendarmerie looked us over: an American family on vacation, passports in order, no visible contraband. They flattened the steel toothed barrier and waved us on.

“The very idea!” My mother sniffed.

Just then my sisters squealed excitedly. They pointed. “Look,” they said, “goats in trees!” White goats were standing in the branches of the trees lining the road like fluffy outsized Christmas ornaments.

“They’re Argan trees,” my father explained. “Goats love the nuts.”

“Oh, I want a goat,” my sister Tina breathed. “Oh, I want a goat.” She continued the goat chant all the way to our hotel. Outside the Riad Mumtaz Mahal hotel, there was a large metal cage of chattering monkeys. My sisters burst from the car and raced toward the cage. They reached their hands toward the monkeys’ outstretched claws just as my mother was shouting, “Girls! Stay away from those filthy—-!”

A particularly vicious monkey reached through the bars of the cage and grabbed a hank of my sister Tina’s blonde hair and pulled. Tina screamed. The monkeys’ keeper snatched up a stick and whacked the monkey’s arm until it let go.

“I hope they make a good, strong whiskey sour,” my mother sighed.

“Girls, and Amy, why don’t you go to your room and rest before dinner.”

“I thought I’d investigate the souk,” I said. I was looking for more hashish. What I found was a handsome, young, brown-eyed Moroccan prince, who introduced himself as a college student studying at Eaton. He had tapped me on the shoulder, as I was considering a complicated henna tattoo for my hand. “Please,” he said, holding aside the voluminous folds of fabric that were draped over the entrance of his tent. Beautiful Berber carpets lined the floor. Colorful tapestries reminiscent of Aladdin adorned the walls. Multicolored spices in shallow earthenware pots lay on oval brass trays. The air was pungent with cumin, saffron, cardamom and turmeric. They served us mint tea from an ornate silver teapot, dried apricots and dates. His name was Toumi Said. His spotless white djellaba was embroidered with gold thread. His teeth gleamed.

“I would like to meet your parents,” he said. “I would like to speak to a typical American family.”

“Why don’t you come for coffee?” I suggested and gave him the name of our hotel.

I was reclining like Princess Lalla Fatima in a long silver dress, silver sandals on my feet, lolling on low cushions in the hotel restaurant’s dining room.I had eaten sardines, couscous, and chicken with vegetables cooked and served in a bright, earthenware tagine with the thumb and first two fingers of my right hand.

My mother was asking if my sisters would be interested in riding a camel or galloping horses along the shore. She was consulting her guidebook.

“Here’s one,” she was saying. “Zouina Cheval.”

I rolled my eyes and groaned.

A waiter bent down to my father, then nodded toward the front of the restaurant. Toumi Said was approaching, the hood of his fresh cream colored djellaba thrown back to reveal sparkling eyes and curly black hair.

“Ah, I met someone in the souk today,” I said, sitting up.

“Really? What sort of person would that be? A camel herder?” My mother demanded.

“Actually, he’s a prince.” I said. “And, here he is.”

The prince extended his hand toward my father, who looked uncharacteristically surprised. My mother and sisters began to giggle uncontrollably, huddled together on the soft cushions like child conspiracists.

Toumi Said slid next to me, his slim brown fingers close. My father beckoned our waiter and ordered tiny cups of strong, bitter Moroccan coffee. Toumi smiled politely. My mother and sisters continued to giggle, tears streaming down their cheeks. I imagined galloping an Arabian steed bareback down the beach abreast of Toumi Said, my family a distant speck fading rapidly from view.

“And what does your father do?” My father asked.

“He is a banker, sir,” Toumi Said replied, a tone of deference in his voice. “Perhaps you have heard of the Attijariwafa Bank? It is held by the Royal Family, of which I am a part.”

Silence, as everyone took this in.

“And you, sir, what is it that you do?”

My father smiled. “Mostly,” he said, his arm sweeping in a wide arc to include my mother, my sisters and me, “I try to manage them.”


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