City of Coincidences


Several days a week I would go to a little Internet café down under Avenue Mohammed V.  I’d do my business, talk to Allal, pack up my satchel and go back to my apartment. Allal managed the café and helped people get online, mostly students. Inevitably, they went to a porn site; he would make a commotion and throw them out. I always told him, ‘don’t worry about pornography; worry about the ball-bearings in those bombs made by
Salafia Jihadia.’

“It’s the government, I have no choice,” he always insisted, but then repeated the government grievance, “Too much excitement leads to chaos.”  This is always the fear of sex in this country: women are too excited by nature and men get too excited watching the women get excited, and in all the excitement the society falls apart.

Allal always believed I was his friend, but it wasn’t so.  I couldn’t bear the weight of his friendship. The truth is, he was too kind and considerate; too guileless. I felt like a monster whenever I was around him.

Occasionally, I’d drive him home, in a much more distinguished neighborhood than I would have thought. I never saw his wife, only his children. On one of these drives, honoring my fascination with terrorists, he gave me a tour of the ‘other Casa’, including the Toma district, where the May 16th bombers came from. “Ignorant kids trying to get to paradise,” he said and showed me the mosque where they were recruited and the ramshackle neighborhood where they lived — that vast ruin of tin roofs, some built up against the 20-foot high wall of the factory where all the king’s furniture is made.

Occasionally, we had lunch.  I always paid. After a while, Allal seemed to expect that and I began to feel obligated. We talked about his family, mostly his children.  His wife was ill, and as I remember there was a brother dying from something or other. I listened out of one ear. I tried to appear sympathetic, but it was a sham.  All the while I was thinking, ‘what do you know of the world? Where have you been except on the Internet? I can’t stand your innocence.’

Allal told me once he wanted to go to America, to North Carolina, to see the ‘blue mountains’.  I explained that they weren’t really blue; it was just an optical illusion. But he didn’t care, he was obsessed with the idea of blue mountains.

What a romantic you are, I thought to myself.  

I told him little about my life, only where I was born, a little about my time in academe, and how I came to Casa, “the city of coincidences” as I’ve come to call it.  I rarely mentioned my wife, beyond her Paris upbringing and certainly not her name or that she worked for the Bank of the Maghreb on the square. I saw Allal in there one day at the caissiere’s window; I could only imagine that if he knew Madeline was up in the mezzanine he would find some way to ingratiate himself.  He always seemed to be looking to leverage his friendships.

Actually, Madeline was barely my wife — I suspected she was seeing someone else, someone closer to her own age, most likely a certain Dutch diplomat. Frankly, I didn’t care. We kept going out of habit, and necessity.  After all, I’m stuck in this country. Where else can I go? I have only the last of my pension.

And Madeline?  She had reached middle age and become unpredictable, and a mystery.  “Camels crossing in the night,” she would say, with her wry smile. “Isn’t that what we are?”

It all came to a head one day when Allal suggested we go to the luncheon buffet at the Farah.  The hotel is popular again, although all these years later no one has forgotten the suicide bomber who blew himself up outside the lobby.  As my friend Lublin put it — she’s one of the prostitutes who works the hotel’s nightclub — “I’m always waiting for another explosion.”

So off we went, but then I realized I’d forgotten my satchel in his café.  I told Allal to go on and I would meet him at the hotel. It took me several minutes. As I came back down the road I noticed a crowd standing outside a bar.  I thought they must be watching the Lions in the Africa Cup, but as I got closer I saw they were focused on something in the road. I understand a little Darija and heard someone say that a woman had been thrown out of the bar.  Someone else said she’d fallen down. A man who appeared to be the bartender was shouting about how the woman was drunk and no good.

“This is your ummah”, I scowled to one in particular, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my sanctimony.

I moved closer and caught a glimpse of Allal on his knees next to the woman.  She was lying partly off the curb, head thrown back in the gutter, her left arm stretched out, resting in a pool of blood. There was a wicked cut on her forearm.  She was dressed in pants and mustard-colored Moroccan shoes. You could see she was European.

The bartender would not stop yelling.  Someone suggested an ambulance. A woman in her haik, completely covered, walked past shaking her head. “We all hate each other,” she said under her breath. “It’s true.  We’re lost.”

Meanwhile, Allal had taken off his coat and put it under the woman’s head. He was stroking her hair.  I was struck by how gently he did that. “Call an ambulance,” he shouted, but not in a panicked voice.  

“Dearest Allal,” said the woman, kissing the back of his hands again and again.  “It’s a miracle you found me.” For a moment, she turned her face to the crowd. It was Madeline, and clearly she was in love.