Thursday, November 30, 2017

On the Way to the Sahara

We wouldn’t have stopped if it weren’t for the donkeys.  There were a dozen or so in the pick-up truck, braying, their heads sticking from the sides.  If it weren’t for the donkeys, we would have kept going.  And then I wouldn’t have seen you again.  “Stop,” I shouted to my husband, Larry, who is accustomed to my sudden detours.   He maneuvered into a parking spot right next to the truck so that I could get a picture. I didn’t notice that we were across the road from a huge outdoor market or that the smoke of grilled meat filled the air.   I didn’t even remember that this was the town where you said you’d be.  All I was thinking about were the donkeys.
Then we heard someone shouting, calling my name.  I turned and there you were.  You were eating kebabs and grilled lamb and you started waving.  “You must join us,” you all shouted.
We had met only hours before at a rest stop on the road south of Fez.  We were headed to Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara.  You were heading south as well.  We’d be taking the same road.   I’m not sure why you started speaking to me.  Perhaps we smiled at one another.  Two women on the road.  Or perhaps it was the children playing with some puppies and I was watching them.  “Do you speak Arabic?” you asked.
I shook my head.  “Do you speak French?”  You shook your head.  “English?”
Then you asked, “Italian?”
I do speak Italian but I was surprised to hear you ask me there on the road to the Sahara.  So we found our common language and chatted as any two women might.   I told you that we were from America.  You were from Erfoud, but you had been living in Genoa for a long time.  “Why Genoa?” I asked.   Your husband had found work in Genoa in a metal factory you told me.  For some reason I assumed that the older man who sat in the front seat of the car that was stuffed to the gills with suitcases and toys was your husband, but I didn’t ask.  I told you my name and you told me yours.  “Latifa,” you said.
I couldn’t resist. “Queen Latifa?” I asked and you got the joke. We laughed.  You asked if I had children.  I told you I had a daughter and you told me I was smart as you pointed to your three who were chasing the puppies near some shrubs.  You worked as a nurses’ aid.  I was a teacher.  Neither of the men nor the children spoke Italian.  It was as if we’d found a secret language of women like Nushu, that written language of Chinese women that men cannot decipher.
And then I asked if you knew a place for lunch along the way.  We had at least a six hour ride ahead of us.  And you told me about a town called Zaida and you said there were restaurants, but as it is sometimes when I ask directions, I didn’t really listen to your answer.  I vaguely recalled the town.   Then we were ready to get on the road again. We said our good-byes the way travelers do.  Maybe I’ll see you in Zaida, I said.  And you said, yes, you must join us for lunch, but of course we knew we never would. We were just two travelers, coming together at a rest stop on the road.   We both drove on; we passed one another once or twice.  Then Larry and I stopped by the side of the road for something – a photo, I don’t recall.  And we didn’t see you again.
And now in this town where we’d stopped because I had to take a picture of a truckload of donkeys, you were shouting my name.
The five of you were seated at a wooden table.  There were dozens of these tables and grills going with all kinds of meat and the older man grabbed two chairs and you made space for us.  You didn’t hesitate and suddenly there was shouting and more food was added to the grill.  More lamb and marinated chicken and kebabs.  So much food it was hard to make room for it all.  The meats grilled to perfection, yogurt and flatbread and bottles of orange soda and pop, and olives and onions and we were all eating, scooping up the food. 
The older man, I soon learned, was your father and he had driven all the way to Tangiers to get you.  I was stunned.  That is a very long drive and he was an elderly man.   He and I spoke in French and somehow we all made ourselves understood.  Your father told me loved his garden.  I told him I loved mine.  He had been a teacher.  He had six children and they were all educated.  He loved them all. 
We ate the lamb with bread and our fingers.  You asked about our daughter.  I complimented your kids.  We were mothers and travelers and that alone gave us much in common. Then your father excused himself and disappeared.   He did not return for the rest of the meal.  When I needed to go to the bathroom, you pointed to some stairs and I went up.  On my way to the ladies room I passed a carpeted hall and there was your father with perhaps a dozen other man, prostrate in prayer.  For a moment I paused.  He was so tall and lean and silent, stretched out on the floor.
I made my way to the bathroom, then back down to where you were.   When I got back to the table, your father had returned as well.  We asked about the bill and our hands were pushed away, our money stuff back into our pockets.  You would not hear of it.  “C’est tout fait,” your father said.  It’s all been taken care of.   We exchanged addresses and said our good-byes. 
“Come see us in Erfoud,” you told me, but we would not be going back that. 
“I will call you when I come to Italy,” I promised and I believed that I would.  We drove until the road turned to sand and the GPS kept telling us to turn around.  But it was the only road.  All the way I kept looking for you, Latifa.  That night in the Sahara we arrived at our hotel, a rather sad place that had seen better days.  We were its only guests. “It’s about the terrorists,” the owner told us.  “No one wants to come here any more.”  Around the moon there was a strange white circle and before us nothing but sand. 
Years later I was going to Genoa and I remembered that you lived there.  I was sure that I had written the address down in my journal. I went through everything.  Every scrap of paper I’d saved from that trip and I never found your address.  That was when I realized that I’d never see you again.  In that brief moment when our lives intersected we had become friends.  During that week in Genoa I walked the city, thinking I’d find you.  Perhaps we passed one another on a crowded street, in a marketplace, but I’ll never know. I wanted to tell you that I don’t think I’ll ever eat a meal that good again.

1 comment:

  1. Love this !! Enchanted prose and images. And what a memorable journey