The blessing of the stork

Driving here helps me to forget. I know the route well, with its curves and canyons.

The blessing of the stork

Driving here helps me to forget. I know the route well, with its curves and canyons.

‘Omar, how much longer do you think it’ll take?’

I’ll answer, but a maniac is trying to overtake. It’s a blind spot, one of many on this pass.

‘Madman!’ I shout, pressing the car horn. I know a man who crashed his car here last year. He survived, but his wife complains they no longer have any work. ‘Another fifty minutes,’ I respond to my English passenger, ‘there’s a lay-by, we can stop?’

‘We’d rather get there direct. With the sunset at six,’ the Englishman adds.

I want to stop. I want to punch something. I don’t get paid for what I want. My friend, Fouad, tells me to lighten up. ‘You’ll get tipped, but you have to smile.’ But what would he know, he’s in Montreal? And I’m stuck here, with a woman I no longer recognise.

The Englishman in the back is tall, the woman sat next to him is holding his hand. She looks reasonable, not like Moroccan women. I shrug my shoulders to release the weight of my head. It relaxes me to think of a man smoothing away the stress from my nape, of someone clearing a path full of sand.

As the road sees us climb, sunlight dapples on to the pisé-clay huts below. High on the hill are a few trees, from this angle a mix of bronze and coppers, like the Dirhamsin my pocket. There’s Usaden, passing by.

Habibi, As-Salam-u-Alaikum,’ I call out of the window, slowing almost to a halt. Usaden grins that toothless smile of his. He’s one of the few remaining Jews here.

Abrid n ighudayn,’ he calls back, holding his staff aloft. Dressed in his ankle-length tunic and chalwarloose trousers he acts more Berber than me, with my green polo shirt. He’s a good man; toothless, but honest.

He’s not the only Moroccan man to lose his teeth. My prosthetic is because of mother; she hits me. Despite the gold cap, my smile is probably my best feature. The Greek tourist I had in here the other week said as much. There are other men like me in town. But without a wife, I don’t have any respect. It’s just mother and me. Me and her illness.

The Englishman’s wife is looking vacantly out of the window. He keeps on checking his mobile phone. Every time I try to meet his gaze, his eyes are absent. I hate myself thinking these thoughts, but it doesn’t make any difference. I’m as arid as the desert. Beneath us, the valley is the grainy brown texture of the Harsha bread I bought from the bakery. Some of the trees are the green of broccoli, their heads sprouting out. On the ridges the junipers are wilting and grey, like the clefts of hair that tumble down when my barber gives me a shave. The Asif Ounila trickles past, what is left of it.

Fouad is right about many things, but I can’t ‘chit chat’ as he calls it. Not when there’s no conversation to be had. I feel too old for this. I want to bundle over the boulders, traipse by the side of the river, imagine it flowing again, when Yedder, my older brother and I used to play here, when he and father were still alive.

For hundreds of kilometres this land stretches. East, to the Sahara. I travelled there once, but that was when I was twenty-one and things were confused. A Dutch man I met talked about ‘new opportunities’. Camels, tours for Europeans and ‘plenty of money’. It turns out I misunderstood. We pass abandoned ksourto the left and to the right. Some of the homes hang precariously, others appear suspended in flight, all of them camouflaged into the salmon-pink rocks. It’s hard to distinguish the sheep dotted on the hilltops from the shepherds who herd them.

‘Can you see that?’ I ask the pair. There are a pair of mud mounds, one larger than the other, like a tortoise rising from the earth.

In Telouet, we park and I lead the way to the Kasbah. The ochre ramparts have the stability of sinking clay. Palms that surface behind them only have a few remaining leaves, yellow and diseased.

‘Okay, lots of mud. And brick. Like the place we saw yesterday. Just bigger,’ the woman says.

As-Salam-u-Alaikum,’ I greet the man selling tickets. ‘Remind me your name, we’ve met before.’

‘Iken,’ he says, shaking my hand. In the distance, the High Atlas rise to the west, the snow that fell this winter scarcely visible on the mountain tops. In the foreground a minaret is shrouded with the hay and manure of a stork’s nest.

‘Oh, yes. Tell me, where are the storks?’

‘No doubt still in Madrid. Or Tunis. Eating junk food in landfill, who knows? They’re not flying here this year. Not even to the Sahel.’

‘Fewer? Still?’

He extends out his palms. ‘Their flight has changed. Women are having fewer babies. Fewer storks, fewer blessings.’

I raise my face to take a look at the sun, but its penetrative stare forces me to look away. For February, it’s unseasonably hot. I take a step inside; not a soul. Through wrought iron grills, we see shrubs the charred grey of cigarette ash.

‘Too much going on down there. And not enough, if you know what I mean,’ Iken says, walking in behind us. ‘There are over-grazed fields, but my father keeps on saying, ‘what’s the use? What’s the use?’’

Clouds crouch down on the soft purples of Toubkal, the tallest peak. A murmur. I turn to see the couple whispering, but a second later, another echo; a distant rumble.

Yedder used to love coming here, playing in these halls. We would fight over which one us would take the hand of a concubine. Father would do business in the village, but we ran around, running our fingers across the heavy cedar doors. It’s been twenty-five years this year. Since the floods in Ourika. Mother constantly asks for Yedder, asks him not to go to the restaurant. I tell her everything will be alright, Yedder knows how to take care of himself. There’s no point letting on, no point admitting anything.

‘I think it’s time to head back,’ the Englishman instructs me. A loud crackle reverberates. As we hurry back to my car, I look across the valley to the Zaouia. That’s where Usaden’s grandfather is buried. Back then, we all lived together. How did father describe it? ‘We coexisted.’

‘There’s a story that has been told in this town for years, son, and I believe it. King Hassan once came to the Asif Ounila. He asked one of the elders who came to greet him what type of blessing would be useful to the local villagers. You know, for the river. And you know what one said? He asked the King to let us all stay here in this community, please pray for our Jewish brothers to stay here with us. And you know what happened, years later, when the Jews left for Israel? The river dried up. When those last Jews left, dry. No water left.’

At the time, I told him my friend Usaden was a Jew and he could help, but father shook his head.

Mother will no doubt want me to wash her hair when I return. I’ll have to cook her dinner. I twist the dial to speed up the windscreen wipers, the thunder’s getting closer.

‘I’m not so sure about this, should we stop somewhere?’ asks the wife.

‘What do you think, Omar?’ Her husband looks at me direct.

‘We must carry on. It will be dark in an hour. We can’t drive easily after that, not up here.’

There are schoolchildren walking precariously close to the road. The water is gushing down. There are no run offs here, nothing to absorb the rain. Of all people, I know that. I have an image of mother last night, showing me her dripping underclothes.

The Englishman can’t get reception on his phone and tightens the grip of his fingers into his wife’s hand. I have to get through this next ten kilometres. When we get to Tamdakhte, if things haven’t improved, we can rest at Usaden’s home. He understands me. Knows what I’m about.

‘We think something has happened to your brother,’ my aunt told me. It was August 17th1995. Not the kind of date you forget. He had been there – in Ourika. He was there for a job. It was one of those days we all wanted a release. The heat was immense. Ait Benhaddou

‘He didn’t have a chance, they say,’ my aunt added three weeks later. The restaurant terrace he worked in simply washed away. The flood waters overwhelmed everyone, most of all us. Yedder was the strongest member of the family. Or maybe that is the inevitable filter through which we see the dead, we project on to them our own abandoned dreams, and admire qualities they didn’t possess.

Years later, I did see him, in my dreams. His voice was the noise you hear when you’re under water, swimming by the falls. It was the noise I used to hear when he would duck under me, playing games. When he would pull down my swimming shorts from underneath, when we were bobbing up-and-down, close to the spray in Ouzoud.


It’s going to be hard to return before dusk. Forty kilometres to go. I strike something with my back wheel, something immovable. A railing saves us, I get out, and there’s a donkey shaking its head, shedding itself of the rolled carpets tied loosely to its back. The rugs unfurl across the road, emerald greens and golds, patterns of soaking squares and diamonds.

‘We haven’t got time for that, sorry,’ the Englishman cries out.

‘Let’s move these carpets from the middle of the road!’ They’re even heavier than I expect. The weight needs three of us to carry them to the side.

‘But what if a car doesn’t see us?’, shouts the woman.

I pull the man by his coat sleeve but his face his etched with fear. My instinct is to look up, I hear rocks getting dislodged. ‘Get back in the car!’ I shout, dropping my end of the rug.

A pick-up truck falters as it moves past. I turn the keys in the ignition and we’re off. I speed by and overtake the truck. I won’t let this happen to us. I won’t let my mother lose another son.

When the Dutch man gave me money, I bought magazines. At his apartment, I looked at the internet. There were others like Yedder, working with tourists, doing their best. Flash floods. As aunt said, he didn’t have a chance.

My sodden shoes are heavy on the welcome home mat. I enter the bathroom and look in the mirror, taking a towel to dry my hair. I have a nice smile but I don’t have nice eyes. Not as nice as my brother’s.

‘Was that Yedder I heard come back?’ mother asks.

‘No, Mama. It’s me. Omar.’

‘I’m frightened, I heard so many noises. Horrible noises,’ mother says, hugging me tight.

‘We’re going to be alright.’ I console her. Her hair’s dripping wet into my chest, I see her soaking feet. ‘Mama, come here, let’s get you dried up.’

‘Yedder, I knew you would return. To your father and I.’

‘Yes Mama, I’m here now.’

‘So the floods didn’t take you? You did come back?’ She looks up at me in disbelief and starts to stroke the curls of my own wet hair.

‘They didn’t take me, Mama. I got out. Just.’



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