Muhammed, the loom worker, is my friend and one of the smiliest people I have ever met. He has a wonderful smile, lighting up his face and lighting up my spirit. He is also one of the most Muslim of Moroccans, climbing out from under the loom to don his djellaba and rush off to the nearby mosque at every call to prayer. He also delicately asked one day if we could cut the music off the laptops – the ‘boys’ in the shop were showing me some local singers – as there were special sung prayers going on at the mosque, all the while apologizing profusely.
He sits there working that loom all day, from 9 to about 6, with a short break for lunch – sitting on the floor of the shop at the back – and even shorter breaks for the mosque runs. One whole day’s work results in one shawl or scarf (though they are quite large) – and he has to concentrate quite hard on the fine threads, although is often looking up and flashing me one of his smiles to reassure me.
We communicate largely by smiles, as Muhammed has no English or French and until recently my Arabic was limited to greetings and asking how much? (so I got quite good with the numbers too).
I have another friend in the shop – Mustafa – who speaks very good English, and so he generally does the translating when Muhammed and I want to get on to anything more complex than enquiring after each other’s health.
It was quite of a challenge, then, when Muhammed asked me to his house for dinner, to meet his wife and children. He told me (through Mustafa) that his home was about 3km away and that we could walk there, and we agree to go at 6 that day (like all Moroccans, Muhammad has a fancy mobile, so I presume he phoned to warn his wife).
Muhammad has a bicycle and the ‘walk’ home turns out to be a 45-minute canter, charging across busy roads and weaving through people and donkeys and carts and bikes as the sun goes down. We slow down when we get to an area where the streets are just teeming with activity, every shop a fascinating display for me, but no time to stop and look …
Finally we are heading down an alley and ‘dar’ (home) is at the bottom. Muhammad calls up the dark stairs ‘Maryam!’ and a young girl – his daughter – comes down and lights me up the stairs with the help of a mobile … for Muhammad has once again rushed off to the mosque.
Upstairs I find one room the size of an average lounge, on one side of which there is a low coffee-style table, two sofas and a big TV, and on the other a large double bed: it is clear the whole family live and sleep in this room. Yusuf, the six-year-old, bounces about cheekily on the bed and Miriam introduces me to her mother Leila – at least I think she does cos Miriam doesn’t speak French or English either (she IS only 9).
Leila brings in a tray of mint tea: we are waiting for Muhammad’s return and our lack of a common language is trying. We focus on the tea and sugar – I make big faces about how disgusting tea is without sugar as the men in the shop have started this, and we all laugh. Maryam fetches her French homework book and I try to help, but someone has already filled in the answers and they are all wrong!
Out goes Leila again and I realise that there is a communal kitchen on the landing, where there are also washing facilities. She comes back with bowls of harira soup and plates of dates and Muhammad, at last. There is also bread to dip into the delicious harira, brimful of chickpeas and cumin and lentils (this is a vegetarian one).
This is dinner for the family, I realise, although Yusuf’s not having any – he´s too busy showing off his acrobatic displays on the bed.
Then I feel a need for the facilities. I say ‘toilette’ and know they will get it, but they all look alarmed. ‘Amara!’, says Leila, and then, as I make for the landing, ‘Amara!’ repeats Muhammad with more urgency. Then nine-year-old Maryam hands me a towel and I think ‘Amara’ must mean loo paper and that I need to use this, so I take it and make for the place. ‘Amaraaa’, squeals Maryam as I go to open the door ahead … and then I hear noises inside. Aaah, ‘amara’ means occupied!