Fortuna reds, tented bivouacs, liquid wails, furtive looks, abandoned clauses, water lilies, sunbaked fields, manic grins, fairy-tale mountains, hash boys, les voyageurs & Morocco.
The spot was at the edge of the village, on the far end of the clay flats where they’d set up the bazaar before iftar—four or five youths standing behind a lumpy embankment in brazen contrapposto, smoking Fortuna reds and passing around a water bottle, breaking the fast with eight fingers left in the day. They’d hang out until the donkeys and the pickups started rolling in, and then they’d call it a day. So if you needed smoke, and everybody did, you went and saw them between three and five. There was a urinal-like etiquette to the process. One by one, grown men in djellabas would cross the flats and approach the youths in their pale skinny jeans and Nike T-shirts, and before any deal went down the youths would offer their water bottle or maybe a cigarette, and the grown man would look both ways and then duck down behind the embankment, coming up five seconds later with a furtive look. As if you had to break a divine law before breaking an earthly one. Hash in hand, they’d walk back across the flats, a little more relaxed than before. Every week I watched Lahcen cross those flats, and he never did like the other men, not once. No water, no cigarette. Nor did he ever acknowledge these weekly victories over temptation. He’d merely smile and show me the smooth brown egg in his palm, declaring it to be of la bonne qualité, alhamdulillah, and we’d shake hands. Sometimes, if we went on the later side, we’d catch the distant wail of the Asr Adhan on our way back towards the village, and we’d stop somewhere along the flats so Lahcen could unfurl his turban over the red dirt, straighten his shoulders and begin to pray.
Sometimes, Asr found us in the orchard, wandering under the shade of date palms, among mud-brick walls and vegetable gardens, a long way from the glare of concrete and sheet metal that waited back in the village. Or we’d be on the far side of the orchard, where reed thickets and low dunes gave way to a brackish swale, bathtub warm and dense with water lilies, a place Lahcen grandly referred to as la rivière. Out there, beyond the range of the muezzin, Asr didn’t find us so much as Lahcen found Asr. He used his fingers to measure the numbers of hours until the next salah, resting his pinky against the horizon and counting upwards until he brushed the bottom of the sun. I’d see him standing on a nearby dune, stacking one hand on top of the other like a mime building a wall in front of himself. N’est-ce pas parfait, he’d say, shrugging and directing his eyes toward the heavens, mais, inshallah. Behind Lahcen’s surahs there splashed the sound of his boys playing in the warm water, laughter mingling with the lilt of prayer, and the moment he finished he’d go jackknifing back in, the three of them screaming and giggling like they hadn’t seen each other in months. Later, dragging himself out of the water and spreading his turban over the sand, the boys nestling their heads into the deep hollows of his clavicle, he’d close his eyes and sigh like a man who couldn’t ask for more. He told me these were the moments he’d missed most back when he’d been working, spending weeks at this or that tented bivouac in the desert, where the nighttime rustle of canvas and sand was a poor substitute for the sounds of home.
Maybe true faith precludes a sense of irony. Maybe he just didn’t know the word for it in French.
Although I think Lahcen preferred to be away from the house around Asr. That last, hungriest corner of the day was when he and Fatima typically had their fights. Afterwards Lahcen would shake his head and talk about les enfants and l’argent. C’est difficile, he’d say. He never remarked on the fact that fasting is expensive, or that Ramadan is the hardest month of the year to find work, or that the month is bracketed with a pair of festivals that demand the purchase of new clothes, fine foods, gifts. Maybe true faith precludes a sense of irony. Maybe he just didn’t know the word for it in French. Either way, their fights usually ended with an attempt to contact Margaret. Lahcen would unearth the prepaid phone she’d purchased for him nearly a decade ago, in which hers was the only number, and we’d sit around the table with expressions of carefully tempered expectation, listening. And then, at the inevitable sound of her voicemail, Lahcen would lay hands on his boys and raise his eyes skyward. Peut-être demain, he’d say, inshallah.
Peut-être, inshallah. Maybe, God willing. Sometimes it was peut-être demain, like when Margaret failed to pick up the phone. Sometimes it was peut-être le mois prochain, like when Fatima wondered if the Sahara Adventure Company would ever offer him his job back. And sometimes—like when Esa used to ask if they’d ever buy back the Peugeot—sometimes it was just peut-être, inshallah. Though Lahcen told me it had been nearly two years since Esa had asked such a thing. Back when Esa believed the sale was temporary, he’d gone through a phase of drawing bicycles, or rather drawing one bicycle, using Margaret’s photograph as a model, producing hundreds of sketches until one day he decided all of that was over. Showing me the torn-up photograph for probably the dozenth time, Lahcen said he wished he’d kept some of the drawings, too. He said they were good. Le garçon est très intelligent. Trop intelligent, he added, smiling unhappily.
He kept that letter separate from the others, stashed between the pages of his French-to-Arabic dictionary, still in the airmail envelope it had arrived in, along with the photo Esa had destroyed years ago, and, gathering the torn-up little squares in the dust, Lahcen began to arrange them, glancing back towards the entrance of the house in a way that seemed involuntary…
During the day, the village was deserted streets, long shadows, spectral lines of rooftop laundry, the wail of an infant behind a dark curtain. Walking from A to B, Lahcen would sometimes run his fingertips along the burning ribs of some corrugated steel shutter and remark that it was très chaud, vraiment. Then he’d nod forgivingly at the sun, as if he understood the complexity of its position as both giver and taker of life, alhamdulillah. But following Asr, when the sun turned red and approached the horizon, the village would come out of hiding and form a ghostly, scattered procession, everybody moving in the same direction, like a silent whistle had been blown. At the edge of the village, a sunbaked field the color of dried blood and all cracked up like a broken plate. Where the hash boys had stood two hours before, now there were trucks, blankets, donkeys, vegetables, chickens and people, and as we trickled into its midst our silence would dissolve into raucous noise, a collective affirmation that Maghrib was near, and the hard part of the day was almost over.
While the particulars of what we bought mostly depended on what was pas cher vs. trop cher that day, our shopping always ended before a pair of rusted pickups, parked back to back and overflowing with watermelons, hundreds of them, bigger than babies and greener than mint and piled into wobbling, fairy-tale mountains. He’d shoulder one after another, holding them up to his ear, tapping along the sides to sound them out. Sometimes he found the right one on the first try. Sometimes it took twenty minutes. When he found a winner, he’d hold it up to my ear so I could hear what he had heard, and then he’d grin and shake my hand and declare it to be of la bonne qualité, alhamdulillah.
He’d merely smile and show me the smooth brown egg in his palm, declaring it to be of la bonne qualité, alhamdulillah, and we’d shake hands.
In the final minutes before iftar, with the five of us seated around the low wooden table and the last heat of the day beating against the bare concrete walls, time slows to a drip. The room itself seems to drip, full as it is with silence and hunger. The boys, too young to fast, fidget and wage a little war of knees and elbows until Esa hits Ayoub too hard and Fatima swats them both upside the head, her arm moving independently from the rest of her, which sits cross-legged, eyes closed, mouth set in a thin, chapped line. Lahcen’s bald, dented head shines with sweat, and his hands shed little flakes of hash and tobacco as he works the mélange down the neck of a hollowed-out cigarette. Little sounds cut across the room like rain paths on a window: the crinkle of cigarette paper, the scootch of a butt. And just as you begin to wonder if time will ever flow again, it does, and it begins to sing—that tremulous, liquid wail, pouring off the minarets, flooding the streets, lifting the room like a rising tide until we find ourselves suspended above the concrete roofscape, Allah’u akbar. Fatima opens her eyes. Lahcen smiles. Bismillah, he says, pouring a thin stream of tea from a great height. We echo the benediction and slurp greedily. Lahcen fetches the watermelon from the icebox and carves with great ceremony, always handing the first wedge to Esa, who looks up at his father like there’s nobody else in the world. Lahcen ruffles the boy’s hair, takes a sip of water and lights his joint, filling the room with bittersweet chocolate smoke. Alhamdulillah, he exhales.
During the languorous hours that followed, when the children played in the street and Fatima gathered the flatbread she’d spent the day making, stacking them in bundles of ten and arranging the bundles in wicker baskets, one under each arm and the third balanced on her head as she strode into the dusty evening, bound to return an hour later with empty baskets and the jingle of coins in her pocket, coins to be counted twice and blessed once, alhamdulillah, regardless of what they added up to—during those hours Lahcen would sometimes produce the tattered manila envelope containing les voyageurs, ghosts of visitors past. Zinc-nosed Germans, dreadlocked Argentinians, Englishmen, Bengalis, even once a girl from Beijing—he’d leaf through the letters and photographs like the pages of a storybook. Most of the photos had been taken inside the house, and they formed a gap-toothed account of the last decade. Most of the letters were written in Google-translated French, interspersed with imaginative spellings of inshallah, alhamdulillah and bismillah, comparing M’hamid’s climate to their own home (hotter!), discussing recent progress in schools and careers (things are good, allhomduleelah, but so busy!) or else expressing their desire to come visit again (maybe next summer, enshahlluh!). I asked if anyone ever did come back. Oui, Lahcen smiled, pulling out the Margaret section.
Lahcen said it would’ve been easier if he’d been angry, said the only thing worse than the sadness of a child is the sadness of a child who believes he must behave like an adult.
Margaret, her hair beginning to gray, standing next to a young Lahcen, beaming at the base of an enormous dune. Margaret holding an infant Esa, the TV running behind them, some forgotten headline frozen in time. Margaret getting older, smiling from her balcony back home, London’s brutalist sprawl in the background. Margaret, her hair fully gray, standing between a half-sized Esa and a pregnant Fatima, the TV gone, replaced with a portable radio. Margaret, an old woman, kissing Ayoub on the top of the head while Esa makes a funny face, the portable radio gone, replaced with nothing. Margaret on vacation, pictured with her children and grandchildren in front of Angkor Wat, reminding Lahcen to please call if he needs anything. Margaret, Lahcen said fondly, un très bon ami, vraiment.
Mostly, Lahcen filled the evenings with hash smoke and winding stories, long pauses and abandoned clauses, and I know that even after all those hours the better part of him still resides somewhere beyond the scant vocabulary we shared. I know he was born in the desert, the real desert. I know that for eighteen years he followed the caravans. Mon vie du desert, he called those days, and he spoke of them often, late at night and during the heat of the day, maybe sitting on a low dune out by the oasis, where beyond the water the desert grew hard and flat and then it blurred, and beyond the blur the vraiment dunes began, a thousand feet tall some of them, as if some prehistoric ocean had been petrified at the climax of a storm and then left to desiccate. Or else he’d lead me into the street at night and point out this or that constellation from his youth, for which the French escaped us. When I asked him if the caravans still existed, he shook his head. Maintenant, c’est tourisme, he said, leaving me to picture a young Lahcen, with hair and teeth and smooth skin, gazing up at the stars from a place that no longer existed.
He used his fingers to measure the numbers of hours until the next salah, resting his pinky against the horizon and counting upwards until he brushed the bottom of the sun.
Of his second life, to which he’d given no name, he spoke only in fragments: women. Drinking. Trop alcohol. No Allah. Sick. I know he left the caravans. I know his parents died. Cancer for his mother. L’hôpital. Then he switched to Darija without realizing and all I made out was that on the night she died, his mother begged him for water and there was a fight with the doctor. I know his father died in the very spot I was sitting. I know it was slow. After that, he spent a long time living outside in the orchard, among the date palms, sick, drunk, dying. I don’t know how many years. His hair thinned, his teeth rotted. Until one night he vomited an oblong stone the size of a child’s fist, a hellish red thing, pulsing against the dirt floor. I’m certain that’s what he told me. A hellish, pulsing red stone. Comme un coeur, he said, mais dur. After he passed the stone, he quit drinking and his illness faded away, alhamdulillah. He was forty years old. He returned to his parents’ old house, this house, and he met Fatima. They were married a week later. Shortly thereafter, the Sahara Adventure Company set up shop in M’hamid and Lahcen found full-time work guiding the recently engaged and recently retired on authentic camel treks through the desert. Which is how he met Margaret. It was Ramadan then, too, when she’d first visited. Mais, Lahcen said, c’était plus facile. Beaucoup d’argent. J’ai un car, un television, un travail, alhamdulillah. Maintenant, he explained, gesturing at the bare concrete room, c’est difficile. Pas d’argent. Pas de travail. Mais, he pointed at the cracked ceiling, inshallah. He explained that Margaret sent money a few times a year, plus three hundred pounds at the beginning of every Ramadan. But this year, Lahcen shook his head, pointing at the prepaid phone which was older than Esa, j’appelle et j’appelle, mais… He trailed off. He never said the word “dead” or “old” or “scared,” but all three were written on his face. Mais, he repeated, raising his eyes once more, peut-être demain, inshallah.
Mon Cher Lahcen—the letter was postmarked four and a half years ago—happy new year! Inshallah everybody is well. I’m fine, but London is so cold this time of year! I just got home from a trip to Cambodia with my family (see the photo). Inshallah I can bring them to meet you and your family. My youngest grandson (in the middle, blond hair) is almost Esa’s age. I think they’d get along wonderfully. Anyway, I hope you and Esa are having lots of fun bike rides, and I hope Ayoub isn’t too jealous. Pretty soon he’ll be big enough to learn how to ride himself. It’s amazing how fast he’s growing! Anyway, please, please call if you need anything, and I’ll see you soon! Mes amitiés, Margaret
And as we moved through the days, breathing in the scorched desert air, Lahcen never failed to exhale his blessings—inshallah, alhamdulillah, bismillah—widening the jurisdiction of holiness until there was no detail of his existence that did not merit thanksgiving.
Her French was better than ours, and it took Lahcen a long time to finish reading the letter out loud, whispering so as not to wake Esa. He kept that letter separate from the others, stashed between the pages of his French-to-Arabic dictionary, still in the airmail envelope it had arrived in, along with the photo Esa had destroyed years ago, and, gathering the torn-up little squares in the dust, Lahcen began to arrange them, glancing back towards the entrance of the house in a way that seemed involuntary, and I wondered how many times he’d sat out here alone, carefully piecing the photo together until the picture emerged: a six-year old Esa beaming a gummy smile from the top of a red Peugeot mountain bike, Margaret standing in the background by her rented car, Lahcen holding his boy by the shoulders, steadying him. I could see Fatima standing behind Margaret’s camera, Ayoub just barely coming above her knees, and maybe he’s pointing at the bike, asking for his turn, and maybe she’s explaining that he’s not quite big enough yet. And, as Lahcen told the story, I could see Margaret driving out of the picture three days later, raising dust, and I could see Lahcen and Fatima arguing for weeks over what to do with the bike, until Esa finally sided with his father and they walked the bike down to the bazaar one evening, just the two of them, and sold it for a fraction of what it was worth. Or maybe Esa rode and Lahcen walked behind him. I know they both walked back, the squeak of wheels replaced with silence. Or maybe the drawn-out notes of the muezzin. Lahcen explained that Esa falsely remembered wanting to keep the bike. Très difficile. For his seventh birthday, he’d asked for it back. Begged, practically. And when that birthday came and went, and the reality dawned on him, there’d been no tantrum, no screaming, no tears as he tore up his drawings and the photograph that inspired them. Rather, he did it with the very serious attitude of a child who has determined that a once-dear fantasy was just that: a fantasy. Lahcen said it would’ve been easier if he’d been angry, said the only thing worse than the sadness of a child is the sadness of a child who believes he must behave like an adult. I could see Lahcen as he watched Esa tear up the photograph, could see him stooping to pick the pieces back up, his face carved with the same expression he wore now, an expression that could be mistaken for resignation but was in fact faith—that skyward tilt of the eyes, that wheezing inflection born of the certainty that there will be other bicycles, if God wills it, peut-être, inshallah.
The month dragged on. Weeks into days, days into hours, hours spent waiting for the sacred minutes that told them apart, waiting for adhan, waiting for iftar. Waiting for Margaret to pick up the phone. In the morning we’d pray Fajr and head to la rivière, past the burnt clay flats where youths in Nike shirts sold temptation and old farmers sold watermelons, past the orchard where Lahcen had spent his second life, out to the edge of the desert where he’d spent his first. Camels grazed along the silty banks, and back west Mount Zagora broke the horizon as a vague and perfect triangle, a child’s rendering of a mountain. In the east there was nothing to interrupt the blinding run of the desert. We splashed around the warm water, Lahcen pausing now and then to measure the hours with his palms. We broke for Dhuhr, splashed some more, laid ourselves out in the burning sand. When the sun began to sink, we dragged ourselves back into the green-black wall of the orchard and out the other side, where the heat obliterated everything but the hazy outline of the village and our long, surreal shadows stenciled against the dirt. And as we moved through the days, breathing in the scorched desert air, Lahcen never failed to exhale his blessings—inshallah, alhamdulillah, bismillah—widening the jurisdiction of holiness until there was no detail of his existence that did not merit thanksgiving. Lahcen blessed the small victories and the manageable losses. He blessed murderous heat and lukewarm swimming holes. He blessed prepaid cell phones and reassembled photographs. He blessed the warbling mercy of Maghrib Adhan, whether it found him at home with his family or trapped on the side of the road beneath the red gaze of Ramadan’s last sunset, running his eyes from east to west across the vast desert, blessing what he saw in that shimmering emptiness.
Where the hash boys had stood two hours before, now there were trucks, blankets, donkeys, vegetables, chickens and people, and as we trickled into its midst our silence would dissolve into raucous noise, a collective affirmation that Maghrib was near, and the hard part of the day was almost over.
Eid drew closer, and its proximity eased nothing. Time became like Achilles and his tortoise; each passing hour seemed to reinforce the impossibility of true motion. Lahcen and Fatima fought with an intensity that went nowhere. What if the money never came? What of their debts? What of the festival? The fights were short and loud and they ended without victory or defeat. Just a gloom. Afterwards, Lahcen would turn his palms up at the ceiling and shake his head. C’est très difficile, he’d say, qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire? What can we do? And Fatima, though she spoke no French, would nod commiseratingly. Calling Margaret became a daily ritual, and in the final week before Eid, Lahcen took to leading us in prayer before each phone call. Didn’t matter if Asr was five minutes away. And as we stood in a line in the center of the room, Lahcen pausing after each verse, sometimes after each word, to correct Ayoub, gently placing his hands on the boy’s lymph nodes to show where the ham in alhamdulillah was supposed to come from, a slight error in pronunciation being the difference between “all praise is for Allah” and “all destruction is for Allah,” I wondered if he felt that Margaret’s absence was the result of some failure of his, some deviation from the straight path.
The night before Eid, we sat outside the house and smoked till our eyes got heavy. Lahcen was quieter than usual. Inside, the children were snoring while Fatima sat cross-legged before the table, mending the best of their clothes with needle and thread and scraping the grime from their sneakers. The following night, we’d have iftar at the mosque, the whole village coming out to celebrate the end of the longest month. Everyone would bring food, arranging their contribution on long wooden tables laid out for the occasion. Gifts would be exchanged. Children would bring their new toys, chasing after each other in freshly purchased sneakers and crisp, brand-name clothes. Some would ride new bicycles. A few would even straddle their first motorbikes, gunning the engines while their friends ran circles around them and screamed with envy. Everybody would be laughing and smiling and quietly assessing their friends and neighbors. For weeks to come, that would be the talk. It wasn’t only a question of success, Lahcen explained, of who did well this year and who didn’t. C’est la foi. The faith. Et moi, je comprends. L’argent n’est pas la foi. La foi, he said, tapping his heart, c’est ici. Mais, pour mes enfants? Pour Esa? C’est difficile. He shook his head and traced his fingers in the dust. He said the other children would talk. He sighed, stubbing out his joint against the bottom of his sandal. C’est difficile, vraiment. In the silence that followed, he sat tracing his fingers through the dust, and then, as if suddenly remembering something, he went into the house and came back out holding this melted-looking, pockmarked lump of iron, no bigger than a golf ball. He took the knife from my pocket and held it a foot from his other hand, and when he let go, the blade snapped to the iron and clung there. He said he’d found it as a child in the desert, half-buried along the ridge of a dune. Un météore, he said, pointing up at the stars. It must have weighed five pounds. He didn’t say anything more about it—just kept turning it over in his hand, like he was trying to determine exactly where it might have come from, what strange trajectory had brought it here. He was still sitting outside when I fell asleep, and I remember hearing the slow crackle of another joint, the scratch of his lighter, inhale, exhale, the distant chatter of stray dogs, the snoring children.
The Milky Way hung over us like an old strip of gauze.
It was still dark when Lahcen nudged me awake, pressed a finger to his lips and beckoned me to follow him outside. The Milky Way hung over us like an old strip of gauze. He wore a manic grin, barely able to contain himself as he pulled the prepaid phone out of his djellaba and held it to my ear, and I began to smile too, listening to the voicemail Margaret had left an hour ago, explaining that she’d been on another petit vacation with her family, this time to China—un petit vacation, Lahcen echoed, in a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that type voice—and she’d only just gotten home and was mortifié, vraiment désolée for having missed his calls, this year’s Ramadan had utterly slipped her mind, and she desperately hoped Lahcen and his family were having a lovely holiday and lots of tasty iftars, and oh, she’d wired four hundred pounds through Western Union. Lahcen beamed. Alhamdulillah, he said as the gorgeous lilt of Fajr Adhan came down through the empty, silent streets, and for the first time that month he prayed Fajr on time, at 4:27 in the morning. When he’d finished, he gave me a mischievous grin. J’ai une idée, he said, once again beckoning me to follow.
We walked to the edge of town and stood on the side of the road with our index fingers pointed down at the asphalt as the predawn twilight slowly lifted and the sun began to rise. The first car we saw stopped for us. We sped through the empty desert roads, past bleached-stone wadis and isolated stands of date palms, the lonely triangle of Mount Zagora growing larger and more distinct until we passed it and it began to shrink in the rearview mirror. Three hours later the car pulled into Ouarzazate, the only real city between M’hamid and Marrakech. Lahcen thanked the driver and we went off to find the nearest Western Union. Even before he had the money in hand, Lahcen was too excited to answer my questions or tell me where we were going. Instead, he just grinned and shepherded me along from one place to the next, as if he were giving me a tour of his brand-new, lottery-purchased mansion. We bought new clothes and shoes for the boys, plus a soccer ball, plus a set of coloring books. We bought five new djellabas for Fatima, each one softer and more beautiful than the last, plus a set of vegetable peelers and a little stereo so she could listen to music while she worked. After each purchase, Lahcen would release a flurry of alhumdulillahs and bismillahs, and a few times he just started laughing. We broke for Dhuhr and afterwards we counted the remaining bills. Lahcen held up his index finger and raised his eyebrows, and it really did look like at any second he was liable to just start floating. I followed him to a bike store, the only one in town, perhaps the very store Margaret had visited four years ago, and, alhamdulillah, there hung in the window a brand-new, fire-engine-red Peugeot mountain bike. Lahcen didn’t even haggle. He merely insisted that they throw in a pair of training wheels. Ayoub, he grinned.
Mon vie du desert, he called those days, and he spoke of them often, late at night and during the heat of the day, maybe sitting on a low dune out by the oasis, where beyond the water the desert grew hard and flat and then it blurred, and beyond the blur the vraiment dunes began, a thousand feet tall some of them, as if some prehistoric ocean had been petrified at the climax of a storm and then left to desiccate.
By the time all was said and done, there was just under ten dollars left. We were so weighed down with gifts, we had to catch a taxi to the edge of town. With four hours till iftar and a three-hour drive ahead of us, Lahcen’s giddiness morphed into nerves, and as we stood by the side of the road he tapped his foot impatiently against the pebbled shoulder, glancing anxiously at the slow-sinking sun, perhaps second-guessing his decision not to tell Fatima where he’d gone, perhaps imagining the Maghrib Adhan pouring down into M’hamid without him, leaving his children to attend the feast in their shabby secondhand clothes and their worn-smooth sneakers, Fatima livid, Esa depressed, Ayoub confused. His face was near panic by the time a Toyota pickup pulled off to the side ahead of us, and we tossed everything in the bed and crammed ourselves into the front seat, Lahcen’s eyes fixed on the western horizon as the truck coughed into gear and we sped back towards home.
Four hours later, kneeling by the left-rear tire, examining the bent, rusted nail—a nail that had made itself felt as a gradual list, a slight disharmony in the hum of speed, a growing sense of wrongness in our relation to the road and finally in the unmistakable whump-whump-whump of deflated rubber—I thought how small it was, this misshapen piece of iron that had traveled an unknown distance for unknown reasons, only to enter Lahcen’s life and become unforgettable. And as we stood once more on the side of the road—our fingers pointed stubbornly at the asphalt, half-a-thousand dollars’ worth of gifts piled up between us, the dusky shimmer of Zagora behind us, the looming geometry of its perfect little mountain, the red setting sun, the staggering breadth of a desert that swallowed everything, the look on Lahcen’s face as time slipped away from him—I wondered how we would’ve looked to the cars that passed us by, except the road was empty, and if we hadn’t known better we might’ve thought the earth quit turning, as it sometimes did in the minutes before iftar, and we might’ve gone on believing that right up until the very last moment, when the haunting notes of the Maghrib Adhan poured off the edge of a distant minaret, flowing across the purple twilight and the still-warm sand, breaking softly against our ears, telling us that time pressed on and Ramadan was finally over. Alhamdulillah, Lahcen whispered, straightening his shoulders and beginning to pray.
Following high school, Caleb Berer spent six years as an itinerant line cook, during which time he had the enormous privilege to live, work and hitchhike on five continents. In 2018 he moved to Washington, DC, and spent two years experimenting with pickles. He’s now an undergraduate at Columbia University and lives in Harlem with his partner, Makda. He also serves remotely as the fiction editor for Potomac Review, a literary quarterly based out of DC. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Spring 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Zakariae Daoui