The seacoast road went smoothly up and down, but compared with an American highway it was eerily empty. Other cars appeared menacing on it, approaching like bullets, straddling the center strip. Along the roadside, alone in all that sunswept space, little girls in multicolored Berber costume held out bouquets of flowers—violets? poppies?— which we were afraid to stop and accept. What were we afraid of ? A trap. Bandits. Undertipping, or overtipping. Not knowing enough French, or any Arabic or Berber. “Don’t stop, Daddy, don’t!” was the cry; and it was true, when we did stop at markets, interested persons out of the local landscape would gather about our rented Renault, peering in and offering unintelligible invitations.
We were an American family living in England in 1969 and had come to Morocco naively thinking it would be, in April, as absolute an escape to the sun as a trip to the Caribbean from the Eastern United States would be at the same time of year.
But Restinga, where a British travel agency as innocent as we of climatic realities had sent us, was deserted and windy. The hotel, freshly built by decree of the progressive, tourism-minded king, was semicircular in shape. At night, doors in the curving corridors slammed, and a solitary guard in a burnoose kept watch over the vacant rooms and the strange family of pre-season Americans. By day, the waves were too choppy to swim in, and the Mediterranean was not so much wine-dark as oil-black. Walking along the beach, we picked up tar on our feet. When we lay down on the beach, wind blew sand into our ears. Off in the distance, apartment buildings of pink concrete were slowly being assembled, and there were signs that in a month vacationers from somewhere would fill the bleak plazas, the boarded-up arcades.
But for now there was only the whipping wind, a useless sun, and—singly, idly, silently in the middle distance—Arabs. Or were they Berbers? Dark men, at any rate, in robes, who frightened our baby, Genevieve. Fantastic as it seems now, when she is so tall and lovely in her spangled disco dress, she was then overweight and eight. Caleb was ten, Mark twelve, and Judith a budding fourteen.
“Je le regrette beaucoup,”
I told the manager of the Restinga hotel, a blue-sweatered young man who wandered about closing doors that had blown open, “mais il faut que nous partirons. Trop de vent, et pas de bain de la mer.”
“Trop de vent,”
he agreed, laughing, as if reassured that we were not as crazy as we had seemed.
“Les enfants sont malheureux, aussi ma femme. Je regrette beaucoup de partir. L’hôtel, c’est beau, en été.”
I should have used the subjunctive or the future tense, and stopped trying to explain.
The manager gave our departure his stoical blessing but m y f a t h e r’s t e a r s explained, in cascades of financial French, why he could not refund the money we had prepaid in London. So I was left with a little cash, a Hertz credit card, four children, a wife, and plane tickets that bound us to ten more days in Morocco. We took a bus to Tangier. We stood beside an empty road at noon, six stray Americans, chunky and vulnerable in our woolly English clothes with our suitcases full of continental sun togs bought at Lilywhite’s and of Penguins for vacation reading. The sun beat upon us, and the wind. The road dissolved at either end in a pink shimmer. “I can’t believe this,” my wife said. “I could cry.”
“Don’t panic the kids,” I said. “What else can we do?” I asked. “There are no taxis. We have no money.”
“There must be some
thing,” she said. Somehow, my memory of the moment has dressed her in a highly unflattering navy-blue beret.
“I’m scared,” Genevieve announced, clutching her knapsack and looking painfully hot and rosy in her heavy gray overcoat.
“Baby,” sneered her big sister, who attracted stares from native men everywhere and was feeling a certain power. “The bus will come,” Daddy promised, looking over their heads to the vanishing point where the road merged in the pink confusion of the new buildings the king was very slowly erecting.
A thin dark man in a dirty caftan materialized and spoke to us in a lengthy nasal language. He held out his palms as if to have them read.
“Dad, the man is talking to you,” Mark, then prepubescent and now a graduate student in computer science, said, very embarrassed.
“I know he is,” I told him, helplessly.
“What’s he saying, Dad?” Genevieve asked.
“He’s asking if this is the bus stop,” I lied.
The man, continuing to speak, came closer, confiding a breath rich in Muslim essences—native spices, tooth decay, pious fasting with its parched membranes. His remarks grew more rapid and urgent, but a light was dying in his bloodshot eyes.
“Tell him to go away.” This suggestion came from Caleb, our silent, stoic, sensible child, now a college junior majoring in zoology.
“I think he will,” I hazarded, and the man did, shaking his skeletal head at our unresponsive idiocy. Our little family clustered closer in relief. Sand blew into our shoes, and the semicircular halls of the abandoned hotel, our only home in this foreign land, howled at our backs like some deep-voiced, clumsy musical instrument.
The bus! The bus to Tangier! We waved—how we waved!—and with an incredulous toot the bus stopped. It was the green of tired grass, and chickens in slatted coops were tied to the top, along with rolled-up rugs. Inside, there were Moroccans: dusty hunched patient unknown people, wearing knit little things on their heads and knit little things on their feet, their bodies mixed in with their bundles, the women wrapped in black, some with veils, all eyes glittering upward in alarmed amazement at this onrush of large, flushed, childish Americans.
The fare, a few dirhams, was taken noncommittally by a driver, who had a Nasseresque mustache and a jaw to match. There was room at the back of the bus. As we wrestled our ponderous suitcases down the aisle, the bus swayed, and I feared we might crush with our bulky innocence this fragile vehicle and its delicately balanced freight. Deeper into the bus, an indigenous smell, as of burned rope, intensified.
In Tangier, the swaying bus was exchanged for a single overloaded taxi, whose driver in his desire to unload us came into the Hertz office and tried to help the negotiations along. Allah be praised, his help was not needed: the yellow plastic Hertz card that I produced did it all. Had I been able to produce also the pale green of an American Express card, our suspenseful career down the coast, from Tangier to Rabat to Casablanca and then through the narrower streets of El Jadida and Essaouira and Tafraout, would have been greatly eased, for at each hotel it was necessary to beg the clerk to accept a personal check on a London bank, and none but the most expensive hotels would risk it; hence the odd intervals of luxury that punctuated our penurious flight from the Mediterranean winds.
The avenues of Rabat as we drove into the city were festooned in red. Any thought that we were being welcomed with red banners gave way when we saw hammers and sickles and posters of Lenin. A Soviet high-level delegation, which included Kosygin and Podgorny, was being received by the open-minded king, we discovered at the Rabat Hilton. The hotel was booked so solid with Communists that it could not shelter even the most needy children of free enterprise.
But a hotel less in demand by the Soviets took us in, and at dinner, starved, we were sat down in a ring on piled carpets, around what in memory seems an immense brass tray, while a laughing barefoot girl tiptoed at our backs, sprinkling rosewater into our hair. Mark, tickled, made his monkey face.
This sensation of being beautifully served amid undercurrents of amusement recurred in a meadow high above the sea, where, after miles of empty landscape and empty stomachs,
a minuscule restaurant, scarcely more than a lean-to, advertised itself with a wooden arrow. We stopped the rented Renault and with trepidation walked across the grass, singlefile, feeling again huge, as when we trod deeper into that fragrant bus. We halted when a man emerged from the shack bearing a table, and a boy emerged carrying chairs. With an air of amusement all around, this furniture was set on the grassy earth, in a spot we lightly indicated. From the shed were produced in time wine, rice, kebabs, and Cokes, which we consumed in sight of the Atlantic, of beige cliffs, and of vast pastures grazed by a single donkey. We were the only customers, for all we knew, that this beautiful restaurant by the sea had ever had.
Even on the rough back road to Tafraout, into the stony hills of the Low Atlas, with the gas gauge saying zero and not a house, not a sheep or goat, in sight, a little girl in a dip of the unpaved track held out a handful of flowers. The road here had become one with the rocks of a dry riverbed, so our Renault was moving slowly, so slowly she had time, when she saw we were truly not going to stop, to whip our fenders with the flowers and to throw them at the open car window. One or two fell inside, onto our laps. The rest fell onto the asphalt beside her feet. In the rearview mirror I saw the little girl stamp her foot in rage. Perhaps she cried. She was about the age of Genevieve, who expressed empathy and sadness as the girl diminished behind us and dropped from sight.
In Tafraout, Caleb could not stop staring at a man so badly crippled he seemed a kind of spider, scuttling across the packed earth on his arms, his little body dragged between them. He didn’t beg; indeed, he moved about like a local figure of some importance, with urgent business to conduct North of Agadir, we were in our motel rooms watching the minutes to dinnertime crawl by, and became aware that the traffic on the road outside had stopped. Policemen had come quickly, and were talking to the driver of a dusty truck, a young man in soft-colored work clothes slumping against his cab with bowed head, nodding, nodding, as the police asked questions. Traffic was held up on both sides of the road. We stayed on our side, mere tourists, but interested. It was difficult to see what had happened. Some kind of bundle was eclipsed by a wheel of the truck. Under cover of the tumult when the police fetched the mother, Mark crossed the road and looked.
He was pale when he returned to our side of the road. He didn’t make his comical monkey face. We asked him what there was to see. “You don’t want to see it,” was his answer. “It was a little girl,” he later told us.
The mother was short and wore black, without a veil; she raced up and down the bare slopes on the other side of the road, splitting the skies with her uncanny keening, her ululating, while men raced after her, trying to pin her down. As they failed to catch her, the excited crowd of them grew, a train of clumsy bodies her grief in its superhuman strength trailed behind her. No American could have made the noise she made; all the breath of her chest was poured upward into the heavens that had so suddenly, powerfully struck her a blow. Ancient modes of lamentation sustained her. Her performance was so naked and pure we turned our heads away.
We had not been meant to witness this scene in Morocco. When two men caught her at last and pinned her by the arms, she collapsed in a faint.
We found the climate we had hoped for at Agadir. The beach there was a wide beach but, though the sun and sea were warm enough, almost deserted. We looked for other
vacationers to settle near and, seeing none, spread our towels not far from the seawall. Judith wandered a little away from us, gawky and pearly white in her bikini, picking up shells and gazing at the sea, aloof from the company of her parents and her siblings. Genevieve and Caleb began a sand castle.
Mark lay back and scowled, concentrating upon his tan. We only slowly became aware of the Arab in robes lying thirty yards away, his face turned toward us. His face—dark, pentagonal—stayed turned in our direction, staring with some thrust of silent pain, of congested avidity, out of the foreshortened rumple of his robes. Genevieve and Caleb fell silent at their castle. Judith drifted closer to us. None of us ventured to the inviting edge of the sea, across the waste of sand, through the silent shimmer of the Arab’s stare. So softly the children couldn’t hear, Mommy murmured to me, “Don’t look, but that man is masturbating.”
He was. Out of his folds. At Judith and us.
I stood, my knees trembling, and organized our rapid retreat from the beach, and that afternoon we located the private pool—admission a mere dirham—where all the Europeans were swimming and tanning safe from the surrounding culture. We went to the pool every day of our five in Agadir. The sun shone and there was little wind. We had found a small hotel run by an old French couple; it was wrapped in bougainvillea, with a parrot in the courtyard and a continental menu.
Not ten years before, on February 29, 1960, an earthquake in Agadir had killed an estimated twelve thousand people and devastated much of the city. We saw no traces of the disaster. In Agadir we rejoined the middle classes. We had money again. I had cabled my London bank, and they had worked out one of their beloved British “arrangements” with a bank in Agadir. The bank building had a prim granite facade, erected since 1960, but inside it had more the flavor of a livestock close. Merchants in shepherds’ robes muttered and waited at a long chaotic counter. As each transaction ripened, names were shouted in Arabic. When my own was shouted out, evidently the amount of money cabled from London was called out with it. The muttering ceased. Astonished brown-eyed glances flew along the counter in my direction. I had swelled to immense size—a prodigy, a monster, of money. Blushing, I wanted to explain, as I stuffed the pastel notes into my worn wallet, “I have children to feed.”
Genevieve liked to feed the dogs that haunted our hotel. Pets in foreign places are strange: to think, they understand French or Arabic better than you do. And they never look quite like American animals, either: a different tilt to their eyes, a different style of walking. Most of our slides, it turned out, were of these animals, out of focus. The children had got hold of the Nikon.
Excerpted from My Father's Tears by John Updike. Copyright © 2010 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, 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.