Night Shift at the Palace
‘‘Bienvenidos! Welcome. Bienvenue. Nice room with view of the Baie de Tanger?’’
‘‘You want coffee? Come.’’
‘‘Hashish? Ground zero.’’
We have no work but we walk briskly nowhere. Grizzled patriarchs in marchas. Bearded fathers in white jelabayas. Fat uncles selling sesame cakes. Boys throwing water on beggars. Waiters serving mint tea or nus-nus to men watching American movies.
Medi is pacing upstairs waiting for texts from his girl, promising undying love. Near the medina gate the blind beggar with upturned eyes sits cross-legged on the cobbles. Down the hill the twisted kid in the wheelchair lifts his palm in a nervous tick. Shopkeepers squat among embroidered slippers, leather lanterns, silver teapots and ottomans. Hawkers squat ready to gather up the corners of their tarps and vanish. Riff women in striped foutas, hidden beneath pompom hats, sell fresh cheeses wrapped in palm leaves. Pretty, scarred boys lead tired tourists to hotels for a few dirhams. Before us, the kasbah rises. Beyond, the Port de Peche lies in its stink embracing the Baie’s black waves. At the Terrace of the Idle, cold cannons point at our old Andaluz enemy, while from its benches hordes of jobless stare at traffic.
I rarely move a few yards from this dark foyer where I drink tea or eat tagine. From here I can almost see Restaurant Alelen and Cafés Tangis. To pretend I know what’s happening beyond is like claiming I know what’s going on in Medi’s head. He’s like a country unto himself; we only know the frontiers we share. The medina or port spring to life when I have time off. My village is resurrected when I return home for vacation.
Ten past ten.
The muezzin’s last call to prayer, guttural and insistent. Once it reminded me of my connection with Allah, now it grates. The call shifts, but my boredom doesn’t. Since time became meaningless have I watched the hours closely.
‘‘Medi? Going out?’’
‘‘To top up.’’
This so-called Palace is our prison. Forty-three rooms of coming and going and our cell. The stairs from the courtyard, the stone fountain, the glass roof and the painting of Rabat’s fallen mosque lost their charm long ago. We sit, stand, prop up the wall or pace. The hours gnaw. Wooden key-fobs hang like tombstones in pigeon holes above our heads. And always Petit Socco’s discord and Café Fuentes’ music; there are lulls and eruptions, but never silence.
Four minutes past eleven.
Behind the dark wooden desk, boxes of stationary are stacked. Beneath a broken sheet of glass are lists of debtors. The registration book lies open. A rolled-up Arab newspaper yellows beside a French phonebook and a glass of mint tea. An electric calculator festers in a plastic bag. Frameless glasses sit on top of curled check stubs. The desk drawer is ajar, filled with grubby notes and guests’ mobiles, a tangle of wires extending to the plug behind. The art deco clock hangs in the courtyard where leaves of faux banana and loquat sway. The studded wooden doors open onto the rest of the world.
Our homeland holds us hostage. At university, ties loosened: Aristophanes, Chekov and Tolstoy lured my imagination into dead ends. I read French, English, Berber, Arabic, even Italian, but words offer no way out. Jobs at a steel factory, a fertilizer shop and as a school administrator pinioned me.
‘‘Medi! Still awake?’’ his eyes glisten.
‘‘There’s a dream in my head called escape and…’’ he mumbles things I can’t understand. ‘‘Too tired.’’ Abruptly he turns, ‘‘Tomorrow.’’
Twenty past one.
My sentence here is more absolute than at the camp. Ten days after Nine Eleven history was against me. I didn’t re-board at Schiphol. They called my name as I dozed. When I tried to change dirhams, the teller insisted on a passport. The detention center gave us ten euros a week for cigarettes or coffee. They let us clear the church of pews on Fridays to pray. My application and my appeal failed. They sent me back to Casablanca. I was afraid; they threw me into the street.
Half past two.
Last night seven check-ins between two and eight. Everyone drives home from Europe in July. I don’t care for the rest of the world. I can’t spend my life agonizing like Medi over Elise. When I need a woman I visit Satan Street. When I want beer, I hit the Moroccan Palace. Even beggars have choices.
Almost four o’ clock.
The optional sixth call to prayer. Medi appears, eyes staring.
‘‘Give me the keys to the terrace.’’
I don’t miss home. When I’m there I grow restless. My cousin left when I was a child. She returned and cried for two days on her father’s doorstep. We were forbidden to speak to her. I crept out the second night and told her I loved her; gave her all the money I had. By dawn she’d disappeared.
The brochures lie: “the city of many stars; Delacroix, Matisse and Jean Genet.” That was a long time ago. Tomorrow, my night off, I’ll invite Room Eighteen out. Room Eighteen is twenty-six and comes from Marseilles. I’ll take her to Café Hadi with its view of crashing waves. Or to the Morocco Palace to watch belly dancers. We’ll drink cold bottles of Heineken. If she leaves, I could ask Room Thirty-four.
The door’s still open to the terrace. What was that? Allah help me.
‘‘Medi? What the hell…?’’ Allah. An ambulance.
Medi’s alive. His thigh bone’s shattered, his arm’s broken and the cuts need stitching. I’ve bought anaesthetic, thread and needles. I’ve offered blood; the registrar’s waiting for the bribe; I talked our boss into some money. The muscles in my face twitch.
Eight o’ clock again.
‘‘Morning monsieur, bienvenido. I have nice room, with view of the Baie de Tanger with terrace. You’d like to see?’’
Cassandra Passarelli lives in East Devon with her daughter. She’s published two dozen stories and been short-listed for some prizes. Her novella, Greybill, won the 2007 Books for Borges Competition. She received a degree in Literature, a postgraduate degree in Journalism, a Creative Writing Masters from Edinburgh University, ran a bakery for ten years, and set up a library for children in Guatemala. She has spent much time wandering, from Guatemala to Burma, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. These days she teaches yoga, writes, and contemplates the world from the yard where she lives.