You can read part 12 here.
Dedication of this chapter goes out to the SOFREP family’s favorite, Mr. Yankee Papa!
I was intentionally up early the next morning to set out and do a bit of clothes shopping before I caught my train to Mechan. I stepped out onto the damp cobblestone alley into the barely lit day. There wasn’t a thing to be heard save the distant call to prayer. That’s just the way I wanted it as I headed through some alleys of residential Tangar.
I pressed my way through a gap in the corner of a stone wall and presented myself to some laundry hanging just ahead and rocking in the morning breeze. I quietly plucked a djellaba (GELL-la-ba) from the line, rolling it quickly and tucking it under my arm I skated away… like a rat!
A djellaba was a unisex robe that is customary wear by most everyone in this country. I wanted to look like the rest of the Romans in this place, at least from the standpoint of a cursory inspection. I fancied the day before that I might need a lid to top off my homeboy garb. With that understanding, an unattended fez from the hotel made its way into my bag and bolted…like a rat!
Slipping a final time into my hotel room I affected a final change of clothes into my newly acquired wearing apparel. I assessed that my American jeans and polo shirt were still clean enough as I rolled them up and seated them in my pack. I looked at my high-end hiking footwear and wondered if I shouldn’t get some ‘Roman sandals’ as they say in songs about being from Oklahoma.
Hell no; sandals don’t get along with walking long distances, so I would just have to continue styling in my Salomon trail blazers. As I passed the front room clerk behind the podium I reached for the bill of my hat to tip to the clerk, not thinking that a fez has no bill. The clerk looked at me in my local garb almost in horror. That didn’t look good; maybe this wasn’t a great idea.
I squeezed between two houses because I saw grass and sand behind them. I just wanted to have a look at something that wasn’t construction. There lay a sand dune of approximately 15 feet high. I scampered up to have a look. There were wide expanses of desert that pleased the eye. I stood with one leg on the crest of the dune, and one leg slightly down the dune… my hands on my hips.
The air was morning-cool, and an up-and-coming breeze whipped at my djellaba such that I feared it might rise to the height of my waist and threaten my modesty. It was great standing there. I pondered briefly whether I looked more like Omar Sharif or Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia, realizing at the moment that it mattered not who I looked like, rather who I FELT like.
Being as early as it was, I took to sitting at a cafe table sipping mint tea and bottled water right there in the same cobblestone alley where my motel was. I heard a ‘clip clop clip clop clip clop’ sound coming from the upper end of the alley. I turned my gaze to spy an Arab woman dressed in very western wear descending painfully in black heels. She wore a business casual skirt that was light pink and came to just below the knee.
Her blouse was white and tucked. Over it a matching light pink top with long sleeves. Her hair was cut short and curled, though it was coarse and black and likely did not favor the iron. She carried a black purse with a strap. I couldn’t help but just sit there and watch her cobble her way over the stones, staring carefully down the entire time. I watched her with intent to spring up and help her up if she were to actually fall down.
She made it well and faded into the background. I collected myself and headed down to board my train. At the bottom of the alley was an exchange that I had not noticed before. I changed some paltry Dollars to Dirham and thought of the tongues of my shoes. It was a comforting feeling, to say the least.
With ticket in hand, I stood in my djellaba and fez, awaiting transportation. Down the line of folks bellied up to the edge of the concrete landing, I noticed that the western-clad Arab woman was also in the pack for the train. “Looks like all Gawd’s chillins be headed to Mechan today, yes-um.”
The ride was uneventful; I didn’t try to interact with anyone and nobody paid me any mind, probably other than how ridiculous I may have looked in my djellaba, fez, and Salomon rock crunchers. “Eff them,” I thought, “I’ll never see them again” I consoled, and I left my fez right there on my head.
The train stopped far too early, and people started getting off. I joined them, but not without a modicum of not-knowing-what’s-going-on-induced panic. I quickly engaged a gentleman to find out that we were switching trains for our final leg to Mechan, and that our next train was not here yet.
I milled about with the rest of the group. I pushed my way out of the throng to get some open space to wait in. The space I found was also occupied by the same western-wannabe Arab woman standing and talking with a Berber woman in blouse and black tights. Her hair was light brown, wavy, and pulled back with a clip.
They looked or at least appeared to be watching me and chatting. Not wanting to commit the quintessential man sin by imaging that all women were watching me and wanted me, I pushed my way back into the crowd to again endure the waft of odd body smells.
Boarding our second train I made my way to a compartment that looked to seat about eight comfortably. There was a single man there sitting and slumped forward at the waist, his arms touching the floor. “Poor bastard,” I mused, “he must be car sick,” and I bungled my way in through the sliding door and slammed my western ass on the seat opposite him.
Eventually, the man sat up. A trickle of folks worked their way in and filled the compartment to capacity. I noticed the Arab and Berber woman coming down the aisle. When they got to our compartment they looked at me through the plexiglass and, though the compartment was clearly full, they shoved their way in and wedged themselves into seats next to me.
Up close the Berber woman was irrefutably stunning to the extreme sense of the word. Her eyes were a light bright brown like her hair, and she was just… plain… gorgeous! It was awkward nonetheless. I entertained the people in the compartment by reciting the ridiculous and worthless phrases in Arabic I had memorized from a travel language primer I had studied. The phrases amounted to:
Please come to my house on Sunday for a game of chess.
Please wash it, gas it up, and check the oil.
Has the road ahead been washed out by rain?
Do you carry spare parts for this American car?
I’ll see you later in the blessed hours following the morning prayer.
The roomed howled and my self-appointed female company was amused to the point of giddy. Everyone was having a great time… except for car sick boy. He was glaring at me, and in fact, he had been glaring at me ever since the point where he sat up from his slump. It felt like we were headed for a knife fight. It alarmed me when I suddenly realized I would not be able to kick wearing that stupid djellaba!
I couldn’t stand it: “Quoi faire que t’apres me garder comme ca, padna”
He answered back in French: “You Sir, you disrespected me when I was in prayer”
“Oh, my Lord!” I answer sincerely, “Sir, I thought you were car sick,” and the room erupted in booming laughter. He slowly put on a grin, followed by a toothy smile, and we shook hands like we were going to be best friends forever. I do admit, and not at all begrudgingly, that I had the best time of the entire journey on that train ride.
By God and with honor,
All photos in this essay are courtesy of Wikipedia