Looking for Abdelati
Here's what I love about travel: Strangers get a chance to amaze you. Sometimes a single day can bring a blooming surprise, a simple kindness that opens a chink in the brittle shell of your heart and makes you a different person when you go to sleep--more tender, less jaded--than you were when you woke up.
When my relationship with Michael got too complicated, I did what I always do under such circumstances: fled the country. I know some people think this isn't the healthiest possible way to deal with personal crises, but I figure it's my life, and if I want to run from it, I can.
My wandering habit began in childhood, when I was obliged to trundle myself back and forth between my dad's house in Kansas, where I spent the school year, and my mom's California apartment, where I passed the summer and winter breaks. To everyone's surprise, I loved the journey. Whenever my hand passed from my parents' protective grip into the cool, neutral grasp of a flight attendant, I felt a reckless, giddy thrill. As I grew older, my meanderings led me farther and farther afield. I'd stay put for a year or so, begin to build my career as an actor-slash-writer, and then off I'd go. As I traveled to increasingly poorer places, I began to volunteer. I didn't like feeling like a parasite, and the work connected me to a community and gave me a sense of purpose. It also allowed me to stay a long time without spending much money. I picked coffee in Nicaragua, met with human rights groups in Guatemala, dug ditches in the former Czechoslovakia, and tilled the land in rural Maine.
This time, I was headed for Africa. After a year of exhaustive research, I'd located a suitable volunteer project in Ghana, a small country on the west coast of the continent, which was renowned for the friendliness of its inhabitants. The organization I was going to work for was extremely flexible. It operated year-round, offering two- to three-week construction projects in villages across the country. On each project, a team of foreign and Ghanaian volunteers worked in conjunction with the villagers to build something: a school, hospital, women's center, or other public edifice. I had little knowledge of construction, but I'd worked on similar projects in the past, and I knew they'd take anyone. Somebody's got to shovel and carry, and what I lacked in strength, I made up for in endurance. I'd considered projects that might've made more use of my skills--teaching English, for example--but those required a commitment of at least a year, sometimes two or three.
I decided to travel to Ghana the long way, taking in as much of the world as I could en route. I flew to Paris and wended my way by train through the sun-soaked fields of France and Italy, then caught a boat to Morocco, where I'd signed up to spend two and a half weeks planting a public park in an ugly industrial city called Kenitra. Seventeen grubby days later, our group of fourteen Moroccans and five foreigners had transformed an uneven plot of dust-dry land into a relatively level one. We'd accomplished this with our shovels and, ultimately, a tractor, which appeared on the last day to finish off the remaining third of the ground. Why it hadn't appeared earlier remains a mystery. The next group, our project leader informed us, would plant the grass and the trees.
When the project ended, I hooked up with a young Spaniard named Miguel for a week of exploring before hopping a plane to sub-Saharan Africa and my next volunteer adventure.
Miguel was one of the five foreigners on our project, a twenty-one-year-old vision of flowing brown curls and buffed golden physique. The fact that his name was Spanish for Michael felt like one of the universe's cruel little jokes. Although having him as a traveling companion took care of any problems I might have encountered with Moroccan men, he was inordinately devoted to his girlfriend, Eva, a wonderfully brassy, wiry, chain-smoking Older Woman of thirty with a husky Scotch Drinker's voice, whom he couldn't go more than half an hour without mentioning. Unfortunately, Eva had to head back to Barcelona immediately after the three-week work camp ended, and Miguel wanted to explore Morocco. Since I was the only other person on the project who spoke Spanish, and Miguel spoke no French or Arabic, his tight orbit shifted onto me, and we became traveling companions. This involved posing as a married couple at hotels, which made Miguel so uncomfortable that the frequency of his references to Eva went from half-hour to fifteen-minute intervals, then five as we got closer to bedtime. Finally one night, as we were getting set up in our room in Fès, I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "Miguel, it's okay. You're a handsome man, but I'm over twenty-one. I can handle myself, I swear."
On my last day in Morocco before heading to West Africa, Miguel and I descended from a cramped, cold bus at 7 a.m. and walked the stinking gray streets of Casablanca with our backpacks, looking for food. Unlike the romantic image its name conjured, Casablanca was a thoroughly modern city, with rectangular high-rises sprouting everywhere and wide boulevards already jammed with cars. Horns blared, and the air was thick with heat and exhaust. My T-shirt, pinned to my skin by my backpack, was soaked with sweat. We were going to visit Abdelati, a sweet, gentle young man we'd worked with in Kenitra. He was expecting our visit, and since he had no telephone, he'd written down his address and told us to just show up--his mother and sisters were always at home. Since my plane was leaving the following morning, we wanted to get an early start so that we could spend the whole day with him.
Eventually we scored some croissants and overly sugared panaches (a mix of banana, apple, and orange juice) at a roadside café, where the friendly owner advised us to take a taxi rather than a bus out to Abdelati's neighborhood. A taxi would only cost fifteen to twenty dirham, he said--less than three dollars--and the buses would take all day.
It took us an hour to find a cab. When we did, the poker-faced driver informed us that the address which Abdelati had written down for us was somehow suspect. When we got to the neighborhood, he told us, he would have to ask directions.
"Here we go," Miguel whispered, rolling his eyes. "Eva would hate this."
The first person to whom the driver showed our scrap of paper was a policeman, who scratched his head and asked our nationalities, looking at our grimy faces and scraggly attire with bemused tolerance. After some small talk, he pointed vaguely toward a park a few blocks away, where a group of barefoot seven- or eight-year-old boys were kicking a soccer ball. Our driver walked over and asked where Abdelati's house was. One of the boys told him that Abdelati had moved, but he could take us to the new house. This struck me as odd, since Abdelati had just given me the address a week ago, but since a similar thing had happened to us in Fès, I chalked it up as another Moroccan mystery and didn't worry about it too much.
The little boy came with us in the cab, full of his own importance, squirming and twisting to wave at other children as we inched along. The roads were narrower now, sometimes barely wide enough for the car to pass through. Finally the little boy pointed to a house, and our driver went to the door and inquired. He came back to the cab saying Abdelati's sister was in this house visiting friends and would come along to show us where Abdelati lived.
Soon a lovely, delicate-featured girl of about fifteen emerged from the house. I was surprised to see her dressed in a Western skirt and blouse, since Abdelati's strong religious beliefs and upright demeanor had led me to think he came from a more traditional family. Her skin tone differed from his as well, reflecting Morocco's complex racial mosaic. Whereas Abdelati appeared quite African, his sister was an olive-skinned Arab. She too joined us in the cab and directed us to a white stone house a few winding blocks away.
We waited in the yard while the girl went inside the house and returned, accompanied by several cousins and a brother-in-law, all of whom greeted us with cautious warmth. Unlike the girl, the older female cousins wore traditional robes, though their faces were not veiled. There's a wide range of orthodoxy in Moroccan cities, caught as they are between Europe and the Arab world. This family seemed to encompass a generous portion of the spectrum.
We paid our taxi driver, and I tipped and thanked him profusely, until he grew embarrassed and drove away.
We were ushered into a pristine middle-class Moroccan home with an intricately carved wooden doorway and swirling multicolored tiles lining the walls. The mother told us in broken French that Abdelati was out, but would soon be back. We sat on low cushioned seats in the tiled living room, drinking sweet, pungent mint tea, poured from a foot above out of a tiny silver teapot, and eating sugar cookies. (Tea in Morocco is like Guinness in Ireland--it has to be poured from the proper height in order to be aerated on the way down.) Different family members took turns sitting with us and making shy, polite conversation, which frequently lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Whenever anything was said, Miguel exclaimed, "Que pasó?" with extreme eagerness, and I dutifully translated the mundane fragment into Spanish for him: "Nice weather today. Tomorrow perhaps rain." At this he'd sink back into fidgety frustration, undoubtedly wishing Eva were there.
An hour passed, and as the guard kept changing, more family members emerged from inner rooms. I was again struck by the fact that they were all light-skinned Arabs. How did Abdelati fit into this picture? Was he adopted? I was eager to find out.
After two hours had passed with no sign of Abdelati, the family insisted on serving us a meal of couscous and fish. The food was a delectable blend of sweet and savory, with plump raisins, cayenne pepper, slivered almonds, and loads of garlic.
"Soon," was the only response I got when I inquired as to what time Abdelati might arrive.
"You come to the hammam, the bath," the young sister said, after we'd finished lunch. "When we finish, he is back."
"The bath?" I asked, looking around the apartment.
The sister laughed. "The women's bath!" she said. "Haven't you been yet?" I shook my head. We'd had our own facilities on the volunteer project. The bathroom in our low cement dormitory had spigots from which we filled our buckets and dragged them into the toilet stalls to bathe.
She pointed at Miguel. "He can go to the men's; it is right next door."
"Que pasó?" said Miguel anxiously, sitting up.
"She wants to take us to the baths," I said.
A look of abject horror crossed his face.
"The-the baths?" he stammered. "You and me?"
"Yes," I said, smiling widely. "Is there a problem?"
"Well . . . well . . ."
I watched his agitation build for a moment, then sighed and put my hand over his.
"Separate baths, Miguel. You with the men, me with the women."
"Oh." He almost giggled with relief. "Of course."
The women's bath consisted of three large connecting rooms, each one hotter and steamier than the last. In the innermost room, you could barely see two feet in front of you. The floor was filled with naked women of all ages and body types, sitting directly on the slippery tiles, washing each other with mitts made of rough washcloths. Tiny girls and babies stood in plastic buckets filled with soapy water--their own pint-sized tubs. The women carried their buckets to and from the innermost room, swinging the pails like elephants' trunks. There they filled the buckets at a stone basin from a spigot of boiling water, mixing in a little cold from a neighboring faucet to temper it.
In a culture where the body is usually covered, I was surprised by the women's absolute lack of inhibition. They sat, mostly in pairs, pouring the water over their heads with small plastic pitchers, then scrubbing each other's backs--and I mean scrubbing. Over and over they attacked the same spot as though trying to get out a stubborn stain, leaving reddened flesh in their wake. They sprawled across each other's laps. They washed each other's fronts, backs, arms, legs. Some women washed themselves as if they were masturbating, hypnotically circling the same spot. Two tiny girls, about four years old, scoured their grandmother, who lay spread-eagled on the floor, face down. A prepubescent girl lay in her mother's lap, belly up, eyes closed, relaxed as a cat, while the mother applied a forceful up and down stroke to the length of her daughter's torso. At the steamy heart of the baths, where the air was almost suffocating, a lone young woman reclined, back arched and head thrown back, soaping her breasts in sensual circles. With her stomach held in and her chestnut hair rippling down her back, she appeared serene and majestic--a goddess in her domain.
Abdelati's sister, whose name was Samara, was amazed at my spiky, close-cropped hair. She called to a couple of other girls, who scooted over on their bottoms and ran their fingers through it, giggling.
"Skinny!" she exclaimed, poking at my belly. "Il faut manger!" She made eating gestures with her hands.
Turning me around, she went at my back with her washcloth mitt, which felt like steel wool.
"Ow!" I cried out, "Careful!"
This sent her into gales of piercing laughter, which drew the attention of the surrounding women. They joined her in appreciative giggles as she continued to sandblast my skin.
"You must wash more often," she said, pointing to the refuse of her work--little gray scrolls of dead skin that clung to my arms like lint on a sweater.
When it came time to switch roles, I tried to return the favor, but after a few moments Samara became impatient with my wimpiness and grabbed the washcloth herself, still laughing. After polishing the front of her body, she called over a friend to wash her back. The girl scrubbed valiantly, while Samara giggled and sang.
"What was it like in there?" asked Miguel, when we met again outside. He looked pink and damp as a newborn after his visit to the men's baths. I wondered whether his experience had been anything like mine.
Excerpted from Somebody's Heart Is Burning by Tanya Shaffer. Copyright © 2003 by Tanya Shaffer. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.