The caravan came to a halt. The afternoon had faded away, shadows lengthened and the near hills had gone deep purple. Far away, towering majestically, the Atlas Mountains caught the last rays of the setting sun. Accompanied by barks, groans and gnashing of teeth, the camels knelt down and their passengers debarked.
‘Now what?’ Nick snickered, ‘you think we’ve run out of gas?’
Youths bearing trays of hot tea appeared. Francesco chatted with a Moroccan cameraman he’d hired to tape the event, looked at some of his footage and was impressed. While the men struck off in various directions to relieve themselves, Delphine and Toni joined a queue and waited their turn at a women’s comfort station. A few minutes later, prayer rugs were distributed and as the Muezzin sweetly chanted the evening prayer, everyone faced east and bowed down toward Mecca.
Delphine looked embarrassed ‘What are we supposed to do now?’ she whispered.
‘When in Rome,’ Toni sighed… ‘I suppose we’d better get down and pray we get through the night.’
As they finished praying and got up, many of the older guests, including several Saudi and Gulf Region Princes, looked exhausted and Toni worried about the accommodations which might await them at R’hamna.
Delphine shrugged her shoulders and stared vacantly into space. ‘Long ago, I suppose travelling was always like this.’
‘Not so long ago,’ Toni replied.
‘And with huge herds of animals,’ Francesco observed.
‘And swarms of flies, I’m sure,' Delphine winced.
‘This dust is killing me, really, you’d think they could sprinkle some water,’ complained a famous old New York hostess who had joined them from a helicopter after lunch.
‘That’s what the veil is for, my dear,’ Toni said dryly. ‘Just cover up your face with something and you’ll survive.’
‘I hope there’ll be somewhere to bathe,’ the woman said, holding her dark glasses as she surveyed the scene, ‘rather like being on some Indian reservation out in Arizona isn’t it?’
Toni was furious. ‘I’m afraid I wouldn’t know,’ she replied, ‘I’ve never been to Arizona, but they’ve been organizing this fete for three months now so I’m sure...’
‘They’re all so stoned, how could they possibly organize anything?’ laughed a young Austrian aristocrat with a thick Teutonic accent.
‘But it’s the way of life here,’ cried an eighty-year old Russian Prince with a carefree shrug, his hands fluttering imperiously.
‘My body is aching all over,’ Delphine complained, ‘I hope someone has an aspirin.’
‘How much further do you think it is?’ Toni’s ex-husband Rupert complained. ‘I dislike riding these camels, you know, fleas and all that? I’m afraid my people are a bit knackered.’
‘We’re all knackered, darling,’ Toni ground her teeth. ‘Don't complain!’
‘We should have helicoptered in,’ Rupert persisted grumpily. ‘One must avoid these ethnic events at all costs.’
‘All very colorful but not very comfortable… Eh?’ tittered a fashionable young Moroccan matron.
‘You’re so spoiled,’ her fashion plate Lebanese husband said dismissively, ‘this little trek is nothing. A hundred years ago we traveled like this over vast distances... your grandfather... my grandfather...’
‘A hundred years ago I’m sure there were trains,’ his wife clucked.
The sudden high-pitched drone of horns followed by clashing symbols and drum rolls interrupted them. At last the waiting was over. Urging the guests to remount their camels, boys ran here and there in the twilight with portable steps while the beasts complained loudly.
‘Only a little farther,’ Nick shouted, ‘that’s the word.’
Then Prospero trotted up, followed by Radouan, veiled and turbaned in the Tuareg manner. ‘Ayyah...waha waha,’ he shouted prancing along beside them, his eyes glittering. ‘Are you all right? Don't worry it’s going to be a great evening... look at the moon.’ He blew kisses at the rising moon and saluted Toni and Delphine in their haoudaj.
‘Look at him,’ Toni whispered, ‘just look at him! Our Husband! I mean... What DO I mean?’
‘That he’s too much... like an over dose of something,’ Delphine replied, ‘too handsome... too outrageous!’
‘And remorseless,’ Toni added.
Delphine rolled her eyes, ‘Yes, and guiltless.’
‘And don’t forget recklessly ferocious,’ Toni laughed, ‘and perfidiously cruel.’
‘It’s hard to believe only three months ago he was falling apart in that horrible jail,’ Delphine observed.
‘Because that’s the past,’ Toni nodded, ‘he’s changed... can’t you see? He doesn’t live in the past anymore.’
‘He doesn’t live in the future either,’ Delphine observed.
‘Always in the present,’ Toni sighed, ‘physically and mentally. It’s a problem for him and for those around him... that’s why he’s dangerous... and why he’s a great polo player.’
Delphine studied Toni’s face, ‘So what are we supposed to do, divorce him?’
Toni shrieked with laughter. ‘Are you mad? Of course not; where would we ever find a man like him again? All the others would seem boring.’
The wedding harka wound its way up a dry wadi onto a broad plateau. Pink clouds melted against blue twilight under a butter colored moon. From a distance came the sound of large drums, the camel men lit torches, and ahead on hilltop after hilltop fires tended by men in blue burst into flame, fountains of golden sparks shooting high into the night sky.
A chorus of mounted singers and musicians galloped by, singing an Arabic version of Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way”.
Then another group of horsemen rode up and guided them down through gently sloping plantations of fruit trees, palms and roses, to R’hamna, its ancient walls burnished by the moonlight, herds of camels, sheep and goats bedding down for the night outside the great gate.
Boys in white jallabas were there to meet them, brass lanterns in hand, their eyes glittering shyly in the lamp light, white teeth flashing smiles.
Radouan’s mother, very chic in a pale blue cashmere jallaba with brocaded scarf, descended from her haoudaj and hailed Toni and Delphine.
‘You’re sure she doesn’t know the truth about us...’ Delphine whispered urgently, ‘I can’t believe...’
‘She’s inviting us to accompany her to the hamam...’ Toni winked, ‘says our husbands are being taken off to the men’s hamam.’
‘Thank God,’ Delphine groaned, ‘I’m covered with dust and God only knows what else.'
They dismounted and walked through the big gate into a square and down a narrow lane between high walls of polished clay pierced by narrow windows and massive doors of carved cedar wood. Joined by Radouan’s female family members, those of Hafida, and all the other female guests, Radouan’s mother pointed out how the village had been transformed since Radouan’s trial. For the wedding, all the walls had been repaired, all the drains and sewage pipes replaced and the broken mud lanes redone with paving stones from France. They passed by the entrance to the house of Radouan’s paternal grandmother, which would be his someday. A few steps further at an intersection of two lanes stood a large cube like building topped by a pyramid of Celadon green tile
‘The new hamam for us women,’ Radouan’s mother announced proudly, ‘before we had only one hamam which we had to share on alternate days with the men. Now, thanks to God above and Radouan here below, we have this new one for ourselves.’
Entering through a mosaic framed door they came to a reception room which gave way to a large changing room tiled lavender, pale green, marigold and sky blue. Around them milled women of all ages in various stages of undress, some completely naked. Removing her clothing Radouan’s mother stripped down, and encouraged Toni and Delphine to do the same.
Self consciously, Toni struggled to hide her discomfort, her real anxiety at undressing in front of other women - something she had always managed to avoid.
Delphine, on the other hand, ‘The Venus of Arles’ as the tabloids had dubbed her, was reveling in it. Naked in her high heels bending this way and that, inspecting herself and pretending to look for blemishes; all eyes were secretly upon her and it was obvious she was exciting some of the younger women.
‘What a scene,’ she whispered to Toni.
‘Yes... very nineteenth century,’ Toni observed, ‘an Orientalist painting.’
‘You’d think they’d give us robes,’ exclaimed the famous New York hostess, irritably, ‘it’s very hard... just look at some of those fat ones... really they should cover up.’
‘Darling, you must adore them...’ Toni laughed gaily, ‘they make us look good.’
Beyond the changing rooms were three bathing rooms, the loula tepid, the oustania hot, and the s’kouna hottest. They sought out the oustania. Everyone wore flip-flops. There were family groups including grandmothers and babies, clutches of old crones being scrubbed by attendants, and teenagers scrubbing each other with loofas and strong black soap, made from olive oil, the consistency of English toffee.
From time to time, Toni picked up snatches of conversation, bits of gossip and comments, about the foreign women and Radouan’s mother:
‘Everyone knows she’s a famous maji, why has she brought all these foreign women to our hamam, what is she up to?’... ‘The English one is showing her age.’... ‘The French one is zween, tres bonne’... ‘But why are they so underweight?’... ‘It’s very sad especially as some people are saying they’re so rich!’... ‘How can this be?’
After being rubbed and scrubbed, they followed Radouan’s mother into the s’kouna where clouds of steam enveloped them. Toni had been addicted to hamams in Marrakech for many years and was impressed by the style, attention to detail and cleanliness of this one.
In the hot room they sweated and doused themselves with the hottest and coldest waters, back and forth splashing each other, finally giggling and shrieking with laughter.
‘This water comes from a spring inside the village,’ Radouan’s mother explained through the steam, ‘naturally warm and somewhat sulphurous as you can tell... passes first through a fire which heats a huge communal oven where we bake our bread... so while we are bathing our bread is baking.’ Her eyes sparkled mischievously, piercing eyes that stole glances but never stared.
Suddenly Toni understood what temptations, what Oedipal complications, Radouan must have encountered with this woman; careworn at fifty-one, yet still beautiful. Beckoning Toni and Delphine to sit down on stools she poured hot water over them and scrubbed their backs. Soon Radouan’s sister Fouzia joined them; Fouzia, who must have known they were both married to Radouan!
The loofa was harsh and Delphine flinched, glanced at Toni who seemed to be having some problems herself and worried that her skin might be seriously damaged. Fouzia’s hands massaging her shoulders were like weapons; was it subconscious revenge? But no, how could that be when Fouzia and her mother were constantly laughing and chattering? Obviously their actions were automatic and when at last she began to relax, Delphine felt quite remarkable, like a rose slowly opening. Was it the majoun she’d had with her tea, was she tripping? It was like that, but it wasn’t because everything was so real!
Meanwhile, Toni was speaking Marrakchi Arabic with the whole family. As Delphine watched, she was certain they all knew she and Toni were married to Radouan - and that perhaps they didn’t care? It was in their eyes: a certain gaze, a body language, which wasn’t hostile but knowing, unexpectedly friendly and inquisitive. As though the women here had something going between them just like the men did, a whole world of friendship and intrigue that had nothing to do with the opposite sex.
After the scrubbing they rinsed themselves, spread towels on tile niches and lay down to rest. Soon Radouan’s mother came over, squatted down beside them, and tried to explain how grateful she was for all the help and assistance they had given her son. ‘You have steadied him,’ she smiled... saved his life, saved all our lives... believe me we all love you and hope you will always feel as sisters to us...’
Embarrassed by the frankness of her own confession, she looked away. Never had she spoken like that to another woman, let alone two foreign women! Was she losing her mind? As a descendant of Marabouts and Sufi saints, she needn’t offer explanations or express gratitude to anyone; yet she could not ignore the truth. ‘You have steadied and supported him through many hard times…’ she whispered, ‘I thank God for you every day!’
‘Then you know everything,’ Toni said, a quizzical smile spreading over her face.
Radouan’s mother nodded enigmatically, ‘I am his mother after all, how could I not?’
‘And you don’t mind?’
‘Not at all, not at all. Generally it doesn’t work out too well.’ She rolled her eyes and smiled mischievously. ‘More than one wife I mean... too hard for the man. But it’s really not for me to say... it’s his affair... in this case I approve, however, and by God All Mighty, the Compassionate and All Knowing I am thankful!'
‘What about Hafida?’ Delphine asked her.
‘Hafida,’ she said mysteriously, ‘she holds the destiny of this family in her hands, probably she knows in a vague way, but she is very young. If you were Moroccan, she would be furiously jealous but as you are not I’m sure she will never mention it. She is so happy that God has chosen her for Radouan... and that you have brought us all such good luck. Be assured, she will never say a thing. She could be jealous at some point, but having children will calm her down... it will calm Radouan down too and then, Inch Allah, we will all calm down.’
‘For years now, at least four generations, our lives have been so insecure. Girls like Hafida, really they do not expect to see their husbands that much... but they think of the children they will have... insurance for their old age. Who else will care for them? We have no organized, what you call public welfare system... only Religious Charities from whom we must beg; looked after by corrupt administrators who swallow most of the money. So our children they are a benediction... our salvation; or our ruin as God wills!’ She cradled Toni’s hands in hers and kissed them, then Delphine’s and pulled herself together. ‘Come, she said, ‘now we must go back to the oustania and bathe Hafida... in a special niche there for brides called Beit Lararaysat... candles in niches... come and see... we will wash her there.’
©Elwyn Chamberlain 2006