From the Red City to the White House
Friday evening I go to meet the semsar, His name’s Hicham, and he radiates friendliness, of course, a necessary quality for his profession. A large sincere smile beams on his slightly chubby face. He’s around 30, and nicely dressed with a navy suit, white shirt, and red tie. He could be a politician. I explain my situation. “I’m making good money, but my base pay is only 2000 dirhams a month, and I have to wait until my clients pay before I get paid my commission. I only have 1500 dirhams.” - “Have you considered staying in a riad?” – “Of course not, it’s much too expensive for me.” – “It’s the down season, and we can negotiate a really good price, it could be a good temporary solution until the high season. You could stay in a really nice riad for a very low price, at least for a month, and you can pay weekly.” – “OK, sounds good to me.” We visit a riad that he knows is almost empty and needing clients, “Riad Le Plein Sud” (The House facing direct South). It’s really nice. I have trouble imagining living in this luxury after what I’ve known for 4 months. Hicham speaks with the manager and negotiates, he turns to me and says “600 dirhams a week, is that OK with you?” Wow, I’m thinking, normally a night in a place like this costs that much. I don’t hesitate a minute. I pay the week’s rent and discreetly give Hicham 200 dirhams. The spice seller had told me that Hicham would need to be paid, and I don’t know how much is normal, but Hicham accepts warmly. He knows my situation. As we’re leaving I mention the fact that I can’t bring all of my stuff into the riad. He asks where my stuff is now, and I tell him it’s all in my van. He shows me a parking lot near the riad and says that I can leave the van there with the stuff in it. I ask if it’s safe, no one’s going to steal everything? He says no, there’s a guardian and I just have to pay him a little to guard the van. As well, it’s a neighborhood where there’s always a lot of life, very difficult for someone to break into the van without being noticed.
I go get Sally and bring her to the lot. I just take my clothes and toiletries. The room that they give me is on the ground floor, and opens on to the central area of the riad, where there are tables and chairs, and a small pool in a semi-circle against one of the walls. My room is small and cozy, and the double bed takes up most of the space. As well as a cupboard, there’s a small table and chair which will do nicely for the laptop, and next to it, an old vintage Zenith Stereo Phonograph with an AM- FM Tuner. It’s just there for decoration, but I check it out, it has 45 and 33 rpm settings and there’s a needle, not a diamond head, but at least it’s got one. I plug it in, and it works. I think of my 33 rpm collector’s re-edition record of Henri Salvadore, “Chansons douces”; I hadn’t even known why I had kept it, and at present, it’s next to worthless. No one here in this country could ever be interested in it. Why not bring it to my room and try it on the player?
There’s a small shower room adjoining with clean towels and brass taps and sink. Bliss. I’m in a wonderful hot shower for the first time since January. After my shower I’m thinking it will be difficult to paint here, but the comfort is great. I couldn’t play my guitar at the Berber Village because there wasn’t enough electricity. I bring the record and my guitar to the riad and I ask if it’s OK that I play, they say, yes, just not too loud.
There’s a mosque nearby; and I decide to start doing my prayers there. I’ve never prayed in a mosque before. I’ve been doing my prayers at home, and also at work. One of my colleagues, a webmaster, showed me the basic moves. The boss was really surprised to see me praying. I told her that I had embraced Islam and changed my name to Ali. She didn’t care, she said, as long as it didn’t affect my work. In fact, I’m sure that this had had a positive effect. Now, when I present myself since the 12th of May, I do so as Ali Bell. The prospects are naturally curious about an American who lives in the Red City and who has embraced Islam, it’s a good ice-breaker.
During my first prayer in a Mosque that evening, I feel very peaceful. I don’t understand any of the words, but the sound of the recital is like music. I read in the Qur’an before going to bed early, I look for a chapter I’ve read before and find it:
“Have We not opened your breast for you? And removed from you your burden. Which weighed down your back? And have We not raised high your fame? Verily, along with every hardship is relief, Verily, along with every hardship is relief, So when you have finished, devote yourself for Allah's worship. And to your Lord turn all your intentions and hopes.” Chapter 94, Ash-Sharh - The Consolation
I sleep in comfort and comforted. Indeed, after every hardship is relief.
It’s Saturday morning, just after going to the Morning Prayer, which is always before daybreak, and I’m just about to have breakfast in the central area of the riad. It’s perfectly calm and quiet, everyone is still sleeping, because it’s about 6:30 and the day is just breaking. I notice a small rat swimming in the pool, he’s very young, and about the size of a mouse. I’m thinking to myself that he’s taking a morning swim. Looking closer, I realize that he’s completely exhausted, and on the point of drowning. He can’t pull himself out of the pool, and he’s been swimming too long. Just to keep his head above water is a task at this point. I’m thinking, I want to help him, but if I try to catch him he’ll probably bite me. I go quietly to the common kitchen and find a small saucepan. I use it to gently lift him out of the water and I empty it, with him, on the tiled floor just next to the pool. I’m sitting on the edge of the pool and he’s just next to my right foot. He sits upright on his hind legs for a moment, catching his breath. Meanwhile I caress his head with my fingers and he lets me, sitting calmly. After catching his breath, he climbs onto my right foot, looks up at me, and makes a little squeaky sound. He’s thanking me. I gently pick him up, in the palm of my hand this time, and take him to my room, where I put him in the bottom of a wastepaper basket lined with a towel. He stays there to sleep just the time he needs, then he jumps out suddenly and runs away. Of course, if anyone else had found that rat, especially the manager of the riad, he was dead on the spot. Obviously, I can’t say a word about my wonder-filled encounter to anyone here.
At noon, I go to the nearby mosque again and try to follow the prayer as best as I can. When the prayer is finished, a man comes and sits beside me. “You’re new to Islam?” (It’s not a question) “I’d like to help you. Are you free?” – “I have the weekend free, until work on Monday.” – “May I invite you to my house?” – “Yes, thank you, I could use some help.” His name’s Omar, he’s young, not yet 30, he teaches classical Arabic in a public school and he also teaches the Qur’an, which he has completely memorized. As per the custom, we have tea, and he invites me to eat with him, his wife and their two children. I spend all afternoon with him. He shows me the correct way to do all of the positions of the prayer. He teaches me many things. I tell him about my encounter with the drowning rat this morning, and he tells me a story from a Hadith: "A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way, there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself, ‘This dog is suffering from thirst as I did.’ So, he went down the well again and filled his shoe with water and watered it. Allah thanked him for that deed and forgave him. The people said, ‘O Allah's Apostle! Is there a reward for us in serving the animals?’ He replied: ‘Yes, there is a reward for serving any living being.’” A simple act of kindness to save an animal can be rewarded with Heaven. I tell him about the Imam who told me that dogs have to be killed, and he tells me where the man went wrong, there is a Hadith which says “Five kinds of animals are harmful and could be killed in the Haram (Sanctuary). These are: the crow, the kite, the scorpion, the mouse and the rabid dog." The dogs which should be killed are rabid dogs, and here again, it is only mentioned “could”, and not should. Omar and me agree, as is logical, all of the creatures on Earth were put here for a reason, they all have their place, and they are all part of His creation. I’m thinking, finally I’ve found someone who can answer my questions.
That night, I put some bread and water under my bed, and in the middle of the night I hear my little friend come to eat and drink.
P.S. “Sally” is my van, which we discover in the first chapter of the book.