by Pickett Porterfield
Sometimes you have to sit down and watch the movie.
The hotel stood on the corner of a dusty square where several dirt streets intersected just outside the crumbling stone walls of the medina. It was a small hotel, with three or four stuffy rooms upstairs and a mildewed bathroom on the roof. A colonnaded veranda opened out onto the street. All day the owner of the hotel sat at a scarred wooden table in the shade of the veranda’s arches, smoking cigarettes and sipping mint tea. His name was Osman. He was warm and personable and he spoke good English. I’d been staying with some friends at his hotel for several days and had gotten in the habit of visiting with him at his table.
One afternoon Jason and I returned to the hotel after wandering around town. Osman was in his usual spot on the veranda. As we approached he waved, motioning us over to his table.
“Sit, sit my friends,” he said. He snapped his fingers at a boy standing in the shadowy doorway of the hotel’s lobby, his signal to bring a round of mint tea. We pulled up two chairs and sat down.
“Sit and relax, my friends. It’s a nice day, no?”
“Yeah. Warm out.”
“Sit and enjoy the movie.” Osman raised one arm and motioned toward the activity in the street.
I looked out into the glare. A tired donkey, hitched to a wooden cart stacked with chopped firewood, stood across the narrow street between piles of junk and rubbish. It shook its head, flopping it’s long ears as flies swarmed around it. When the flies settled back on its face, the donkey swished its tail and leaned dejectedly into its harness. Several men walked past, jabbering in Arabic. Their flowing woolen djelabas covered everything but the cuffs of their trousers and their tattered sneakers. One of the men carried a goat on his shoulders. It hung limply around the back of his neck like a towel. A rusty flatbed truck roared past, honking at pedestrians and stirring up dust.
The hotel boy walked up to the table carrying a metal tray. On the tray were three smudged highball glasses stuffed with mint leaves, a pot of tea, and a shallow dish piled with square lumps of sugar. He left the tray on the table and turned to go back inside the hotel. Osman placed the sugar cubes on top of the mint leaves and poured steaming tea into each glass. He raised his in a toast.
“The national drink of Morocco.” He slurped loudly and took a long pull of tea. He set the half-empty glass down on the table and smacked his lips.
“Ahh.” Little beads of tea glistened in his thick beard.
He pulled a crumpled brown pack of cigarettes from a pocket underneath his djelaba and scratched a match across the tabletop. The tip of the cigarette flamed up for an instant before settling to a bright red ember. Osman exhaled thick blue smoke and leaned back in his chair. Jason and I stared out into the street, watching the movie. Osman broke the silence.
“It’s good here, yes? The life, it’s very peaceful.”
“I like it.” I took another sip of tea.
“Yeah, pretty laid back.” Jason said. We sat in silence, sipping the boiling hot tea. Osman gazed pensively at the people passing by in the street.
“You know, you Americans, you are strange people.” He flicked his cigarette butt off the edge of the veranda into the dirt.
“Yeah? How so?”
“Running around all the time. Hurrying, always hurrying. Why?” Osman waved his arm in the air above his head. “We Moroccans, we live a very long time. But you Americans, you die from the heart attack. I see it on the television.” He picked up his glass and swallowed the remaining tea in it.
“The stress, you know, it’s not good for the body.” He shook a cigarette from the pack sitting on the table and lit it. Blue smoke streamed out of his nostrils. He eyed us from across the table for a moment before turning his attention back to the street.
I rotated my glass of tea in little circles on the table with my fingers. Its overpowering sweetness had left a bad taste in my mouth. I thought about a refreshing glass of cold beer. But We’d been in Morocco for over a week and hadn’t seen alcohol of any kind sold anywhere. None of the stores stocked beer, and it was conspicuously absent from every restaurant menu I’d seen. I asked Osman if he knew where we could buy some.
“No, my friend, they do not sell alcohol here in Chefchaouen. It’s against our religion, you know.” He looked across the table at me and grinned.
“That’s too bad. A beer sure sounds good right now.”
“Well,” he said, “I have a friend, he sells it on the black market. You give me money and I will go buy it.”
“Oh yes. I buy many beers for Americans.”
“How much is it?” I asked.
“Give me one hundred fifty dirham and I bring you beer.”
“Don’t worry, my friend. I bring you back beer.”
One hundred fifty dirham was roughly fifteen dollars. It seemed like a lot of money, but the more I thought about sipping a frosty beer on the veranda, the more reasonable the price began to sound.
“I’m in,” Jason said.
“Okay, me too.” We scratched together a few grimy bills and handed the money to Osman.
“Wait here,” he said. “I come back soon.” He got up from his chair and trotted down the street before disappearing into an alleyway.
A half hour or so passed before Osman returned. He appeared suddenly from around a corner carrying a wrinkled brown paper bag under one arm. He stepped up onto the veranda and placed the bag on the tiled floor below the table.
“Beer,” he announced, with no mention of any change left over. Osman flopped down in his chair and sat for a moment breathing heavily before turning toward the doorway of the lobby and snapping his fingers at the boy to bring more tea.
I grabbed the paper bag at my feet and opened it, peering down at six cans of beer, a German brand I’d never heard of. I pulled one out and slid the bag across the table to Jason. I pulled the pop top and took a long draft.
“Tut tut!” Osman clicked his tongue, motioning with his hand to put the beer down. I quickly lowered the can and wiped beer from my chin.
“You must not do that, my friend,” he said.
“Not do what?”
“You must be more discreet. You don’t want to offend the people.” He nodded toward some pedestrians walking by in the street.
“Oh. Sorry.” I felt embarrassed, like I’d been scolded.
“It’s nothing, just keep it under the table after you drink.”
“Why? Is it illegal or something?” Jason asked.
“No, no. Not officially. But some do not approve.”
“Are you sure we ought to be drinking out here, then?”
“Yes, yes, sure. It’s no problem. Relax. Enjoy beer. Only be discreet.”
We sat on the veranda watching Osman’s “movie” play out in the street and taking quick sips of warm beer between passersby. It tasted a little stale but it was still good. When I’d finished my first one I crumpled the can and placed it back in the paper bag at my feet. I pulled out a fresh one and popped the top. As I raised the can from under the table to take a sip a policeman walked by in the street a few feet from where we sat. Osman whistled to him and rattled off what I took to be a greeting in Arabic. The policeman looked over at us. He smiled and nodded at Osman. He stepped up on the veranda and stood next to our table, leaning against a stone column and chatting with Osman in rapid-fire, staccato syllables. He wore a wrinkled tan uniform and black combat boots. A battered AK-47 hung on a sling over one shoulder. Its worn, silver-gray barrel pointed down at the ground.
I sat motionless in my chair. I held my beer under the table between my legs, hoping the policeman hadn’t seen it, and looked over at Jason. He stared straight ahead into the street, stealing quick glances at the cop. The relaxing effect of the beer was gone, replaced by the quick beating of my pulse. I thought about what the cop would do if he noticed the bag of beers resting under the table. Would he be offended? If so, would we be in trouble? I reached for my glass of tea on the table and took a long sip. It was cold and sickeningly sweet. The cop said something unintelligible and Osman laughed uproariously. I looked over at him across the table.
Jiggling with laughter, Osman shook two cigarettes out of his pack. From a pocket he produced a small pen knife. He sliced the two cigarettes lengthwise, pealed back the papers and sprinkled tobacco grains out onto the table in a little mound. He pulled off the orange filters, threw one into the street and placed the other one next to the pile of tobacco. He reached under his djelaba and pulled out a crumpled sandwich bag. In the bag was a little brick of hashish about the size of a matchbox. It looked like a solidified fudge brownie. I glanced up at the cop. He fingered the bolt of his rifle, smiling at Osman as he talked.
Osman broke a piece off the brownie and tucked the bag back in his pocket. Holding one of the cigarette papers between his thumb and forefinger, he crumbled the little block of hash and gingerly laid the pieces on the paper. As the cop looked on he scooped up the tobacco grains from the table and sprinkled them over the crumbs of hash. He placed the cigarette filter at one end and, using the other cigarette paper as a wrapper, rolled up a huge warped joint. He ran his tongue along the loose edge of the paper and twisted it with his fingers. The cop continued talking as Jason and I stared silently in disbelief.
Osman struck a match across the tabletop and held it up to the end of the joint, puffing on it like a cigar. When a fat ember glowed at its tip, he took a long drag and inhaled deeply. He held it for a moment before exhaling. Thick clouds of smoke billowed from his mouth and nose as he broke out in a fit of coughing and hacking. A pungent stench filled the veranda. Osman cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair, listening attentively to the cop’s narrative and howling with laughter at intervals.
I felt the beer can between my legs and wondered what planet I was on. Osman took a couple more pulls off the joint and then turned to Jason and me. With an apologetic look, as though he’d forgotten his manners, he reached across the table to pass the smoldering blunt to me. I shook my head, waving it off with a quick gesture. Osman shrugged, flicked gray ashes off the ember and put it back between his lips. I sank down in my chair, attempting to hide my can of beer in the folds of my shirt.
A few minutes later the cop straightened up from where he’d been leaning against the arched porch column. He dusted off his sleeve and motioned to Osman that he had to be going. Osman coughed up a lungful of smoke, waved, and sputtered an unintelligible farewell. The cop stepped off the veranda and loped down the street.
We sat for a moment in silence. Osman spat out grains of tobacco and hash and plucked at his tongue with his thumb and forefinger. I looked over at Jason. His hands were still cupped over the can of beer between his legs. He turned his head slowly toward me.
“Dude, that was weird,” he said.
“Yeah. Sort of the opposite of home, huh?”
“What?” Osman demanded. He looked curiously at the two of us. “Why you look nervous?” I said something about the cop and our beer and his hash. Osman eyed us from across the table. His lips slowly parted in a broad grin.
“You must relax, my friends.” He raised his hands in the air above the table. “I tell you already. My country, it’s a good place, no?” He snapped his fingers at the boy for another glass of tea and then turned back to the street to watch the movie.
Pickett Porterfield is a writer from the San Antonio, Texas, area. Several years ago, during a three-month trip to Europe, he spent some time exploring Morocco where he met a number of colorful and shady characters he’s since written about. Pickett’s story “The Mexican Taco Stand” was featured in The Best Travel Writing 2007, and “A Good Place” won the Silver Award for Destination Story in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.