The TSA agent looked at Ben’s boarding pass. You been there before? he asked. No. It’s different. He looked almost pained. Just different.
We followed impatiently the electronic map on the plane as it charted our course from San Francisco across a wide swath of the world with the accuracy of a child’s drawing, marking cities like Reno and Abilene.
We landed in a new country, a new continent, in the same clothes. Guards in pale blue uniforms, sharp shadows from a noonday sun and an intricately designed façade from the 60s.
Customs. Listed on the form as profession—writer. The woman, who eventually stamped my passport and allowed me into her country, was sternly curious. She pointed at the word and gave me a toothy, menacing look. Journaliste? she asked. No. I could feel myself blush at her frankness.
Jetlag, lost luggage, dirty faces. We were bone-tired but it faded in the searing light of midday. We wandered Rabat with our friend Amine, sipping street drinks of lemon and sugar cane, sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. Foreign words swirled around us, the hard sounds of Arabic and the finesse of French. When you’re not paying attention it’s difficult to distinguish among languages you don’t know.
The calls to prayer sounding off in the night, like a herd of goats or ambulances, woke us every few hours, one muezzin picking up where another left off, mapping the religious surroundings. Jetlag is tough to shake in a country with mosques.
We met Abdel through luck, though we didn’t know it at the time. The taxi dropped us outside the medina walls, the labyrinthine streets unnavigable to cars. There’s almost no point in mapping the narrow Escher-like streets, no meaning to a street name that no one uses. Abdel saw us ask the driver for directions to our riad to no avail. He offered to lead us there and with no alternative we followed, skeptical. He paused at a stooped entryway, the thick wood and metal door shut. He pushed it open to reveal a mosaic palace, empty but for a man serving tea. Abdel offered us “Moroccan whiskey,” a joke repeated too often but hospitably. He suggested he show us around the next day for whatever we were willing to pay. He wore Ray Bans and a thick sweater in the heat and showed us the tomb of the kings, the necropolis, the best place to eat lunch.
Abdel led us through the medina selling leather goods, turtles of all sizes, birds, meat, baked goods, and sundries. Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday celebrating Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of Ishmael, approached. Families purchased live sheep to slaughter and roast, a metaphor for Ibrahim’s oblation without a reprieve. Herds of sheep pent in the souq, playing and eating and sleeping and braying. In the next stall, a small mountain of charcoal to cook the animals for sale.