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June 16, 2008 Time Travel Travails

Yesterday afternoon, I checked in with the shop owner to ask when the earliest tranzit of the day leaves. He said 4:30 – old time – so I set my alarm for 4:45am (new time) and went out to catch it.

Berberville is chill in the pre-dawn air. There’s a glow behind the mountains to the east, telling me that sunrise isn’t far off. I use my tiny LED flashlight to illuminate the uneven dirt-and-rock path leading from my family’s front door towards the town. When I get to the edge of the cemetery, I turn off the light; the path past the graveyard is well-enough traveled that even in the starlit darkness, it glows paler than the untrammeled dirt around it. I continue through the deserted souq lot, grateful that I’ve walked this path so many times in the light that I don’t hesitate in the dark. When I come to the main street, I startle at its emptiness. This is what Berberville would look like as a ghost town. I rarely notice the people on the street – they’re nearly always youngish men, and I’ve been advised not to make eye contact, let alone conversation, with anyone who meets that description – but even when I don’t consciously register them, I know they’re there. In the starry darkness of 4:10am, there’s not a soul in sight, and I walk through downtown feeling oddly self-conscious, like I’m intruding into someone else’s waiting dreamscape.

I lean against a dark corner between two cafés, nearly invisible in the dim light; later tranzit passengers will get to share my illusion of emptiness.

The minutes tick by, and I huddle against the chill in the air. I’m wearing the lighter of my two jackets, and I pull its hood over my head. Why didn’t I wear socks? About 4:25, I leave my café corner to stand more directly in the intersection of Berberville’s only two streets. There’s no way any vehicle entering or leaving the city could fail to pass by me.

4:30 comes…and goes. No sign of the tranzit. I begin to worry that the shop owner had meant 4:30 new time, which would be 3:30 old time. But no one in Berberville is on the new time, except me and the other PCV in town. So why are there no other passengers showing up? I understand if not many people want to take a ride so early in the morning, but if no one takes the trip, they wouldn’t run it. And for that matter, where’s the tranzit itself?

At 4:35, I hear a voice and see movement up a sidestreet. I step back into the shadows. The voice approaches; it’s a man, age indeterminate, but who is he talking to? By the time I realize he’s alone, loudly addressing the empty world, he’s spotted me.

He’s walking a wobbly line, and talking and laughing to no one. If I were on a college campus in the States, or really anywhere in America, I’d assume he’s drunk. But this is Morocco, where alcohol use is both illegal and culturally unacceptable.

…for most people. He introduces himself, asks for a cigarette, then immediately holds out the near-empty water bottle in his hand and apologizes to me for his poor English. He knows English, he assures me (repeatedly), but he forgot it because he’s been drinking all night. When I make no efforts to engage him in conversation after telling him he should be ashamed of himself for being drunk (and for thinking that I’d have a cigarette – in Morocco, the only women who smoke in public are prostitutes), he eventually gets indignant. Why won’t I talk to him? I tell him I’m tired, and lean against a wall (away from him). Am I afraid of him?! How ridiculous! He’s never hit a woman in his life, he swears in English and Tamazight. And besides, he’s an upstanding member of the community. His father is [an official in a nearby community].

For the next half an hour, he continues to talk at me in English, French, and Tamazight. I don’t want to antagonize him by yelling or walking away – and anyway, there’s no one around to hear a yell, and nowhere I can walk to that won’t run the risk of my missing the tranzit if it ever shows up. But for all his drunken bluster, he seems pretty harmless. I find myself drawing on skills from college parties to deflect his conversational forays without seeming rude. I’m not sure why he makes me think of “college” so much – maybe because of his repeated claims of his educational prowess (“I got my bac [high school diploma], you know,” he tells me at least six times), or maybe because he smells like a frat house. I ask him when the tranzit will arrive. “Assul.” Later. Every time he asks me something inappropriate, I either answer “Hshuma!” (Shame on you!) or “What time will the tranzit arrive?” They’re about equally effective in rerouting the conversation, but he never does tell me anything other than “Later.” In about four languages. Pas encore. Urta. Not yet. Assul.

After the fifth time he’s told me who his father is, and the eighth time he’s said that he really can speak English, he just forgot it because he’d been drinking all night, someone else finally approaches. It’s an older gentleman. I ask him when the tranzit will arrive. He doesn’t know, and asks my intoxicated companion. “Ts3ud.” Nine.

“Ts3ud!?!?!” I cry, indignantly. Are you kidding me?! You’ve kept me here for half an hour when you knew the next tranzit wasn’t coming for hours!??! “What about the 4:30 tranzit??” I demand. “That one left a long time ago,” he slurs confidently.

The older gentleman shrugs and starts walking the road to SouqTown, 140 km away. I guess he figures he’ll get there at the same time, and the ride will be cheaper if he rides a shorter distance.

I kick the wall, grumble to myself repeatedly, and then realize that my drunken neighbor may not have all of his facts in order. After all, he’s never told me when it would leave; maybe he just wanted the older gent to be on his way. So I ask him why he never told me that the earlier tranzit had left. He shrugs. Then he brags about his big TV set. Biting my lips and swallowing my impatience, I ask him how he knew that the tranzit had already gone. In a broken, drunken mixture of English, French, and Tam, he explains that his first cigarette-seeking expedition had been hours ago, and he’d gotten one from the gendarme who had come to see the tranzit off. This led to a tangential ramble about how the gendarmes are his friends, because they know who his father is, and hey, do I know how important his father is?

While he rambles, I think. If I take the 9am tranzit, it won’t be possible to accomplish my SouqTown business and be back tonight, which was my goal. Moreover, while my intoxicated acquaintance is undoubtedly confused about a great many things, he’s probably remembering his cigarette break accurately. Which means that I’ve been standing in the cold, for an hour, for nothing.

I interrupt his braggadocio with a quick, “Bslama,” and head up the road. He protests to my back – other cars will come along! He can flag one down for me! Everyone knows who his father is, and will give me a ride to SouqTown out of their undying respect and admiration for him! – but I keep walking. I get home, crawl back into my toasty bed, and put off (re-)greeting the day for another few hours.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, my name is Nick and my wife and I are going into the Peace Corp. We are waiting on our assignment (either Morocco or Jordan) and we had a few questions while we waited. I was wondering if I could email you and ask you a few things. If so could you send your email address to me at It would be greatly appreciated. Thank you


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