by Henry Reichard
I am writing now without knowing what I want to write, knowing only that I need to write, because writing has always helped me to make sense of myself. In this moment I am insensible. A part of me has been insensible for three weeks: since Ourika Valley, since driving away from a Berber village on a red slope of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, since the old Berber artisan who approached me on the side of the road and sold me a worthless rock for ten dollars. The artisan’s name is Uman, and I do not like to think about him. But I have set the rock on my mantel (I could not bring myself to throw it away), and this morning and last night and the night before I picked it up and looked at it and remembered the circumstances of its acquisition. Maybe writing will help me forget. Maybe after I have written the story down I will not need to carry it with me. But first I have to remember.
We went early. It was a Tuesday morning, and it was supposed to be dim and cloudy but was actually clear and beautiful — a photographer’s clear morning brightening around us, the hard May light lying evenly on the red hills and green pines and yellow ferns, a few misty mountains rising in the distance, the murmur of a river growing louder as we left Marrakech and approached Ourika Valley. I was in a van with seven other reporters from The Yale Globalist, and we were coming to the valley to see the Berbers, the indigenous people of Morocco, who are nomadic and often live in the mountains. A few of us were writing articles about them. We drove quickly over the countryside and kicked up dust on the dirt roads, but when we came to the valley we drove slowly, because the roads were thin and the mountains were beautiful, and when we stopped to look at the mountains the dust settled around us and stained the clothes we had brought from America.
The van stopped at an abandoned Berber house, and we got out and met a boy who offered us bracelets of twined clover for loose change. His name was Elias, and he was very thin. We got back in the van and drove along the mountain roads, and on the side of every road there were women in hijabs trying to sell tourists the chipped bowls, misshapen figurines, and threadbare rugs that had been rejected by the merchants from the city. The van stopped at a village at the base of a mountain, and we got out and followed a Moroccan man up a hiking path that led to a waterfall, and when we came to the first rest stop none of us spoke Arabic, so we pretended that we could not understand the beggar who cried out to us. We climbed the path for half-an-hour, and as we climbed everything receded. At the end there was only the sound of silence and the sound of running water.
That was the morning. In the early afternoon we ate tagine at a little café beside the river, and a pair of men with lutes came out and sang for us and bowed when we gave them a dollar apiece. Then the van left, and we saw more mountains and drove past more cottages pushed together as tightly as the stones in the riverbed, and children in torn clothes pointed to us and said things to each other in Arabic. A few of us told our driver that we wanted to ride camels. So we drove away from the village and kicked up dust on the roads and by mid-afternoon, when the clear sky was finally starting to become cloudy, we had come to a curb where half-a-dozen camels scowled at a line of tourists. I did not wish to ride a camel, so I waited beside the van.
Uman came to me carrying three mud-colored rocks the size of baseballs. He wore a ragged tan robe, and he stooped but carried no cane, and his skin was parched and wrinkled, as if the mountains had drawn the excess water out of him over the years. When he smiled at me I saw that he was missing most of his teeth. I had seen rocks like his before. They were available at almost every stall in the valley. They were hollow, and there was a crack running through them: if you pulled the two halves apart, you would find that they were filled with glittering crystals. They are called geodes, and they are probably worth fifty cents apiece.
I did not wish to buy a geode, so I told Uman — before he began speaking to me — that I was not interested. “But only look, sir,” he said, unperturbed, as he drew up beside me. “Look at this one.” And he held up one of the muddy rocks and opened it, and inside it was filled with jagged quartz.
The camel-riders would be gone for another twenty minutes, and I had nothing better to do. I followed Uman to a blue car on which he had laid a metal tray and a wooden box. On the tray and in the box, there were the sort of souvenirs no city merchant would buy from a village artisan: a pile of geodes, a dozen pairs of rusty earrings, a few necklaces, a couple bracelets, some half-carved stone animals, a leather wallet with a hole, and an unremarkable stone box just large enough to hold a pair of the earrings. Uman picked up the box, caressed it, then handed it to me. “Look here,” he said, his voice high and wavering. “Look at this. Nothing like this in Marrakech. Nothing like this in the city.”
What followed was like many of the conversations I tried to have in Morocco. Uman had a merchant’s English: he could answer questions about his wares, but he could tell me nothing about himself. (“How long have you lived here?” produced only a blank stare.) Luckily I had a friend with me who spoke French, and Uman’s French was better than his English. With the help of the friend, I learned that Uman had lived in Ourika Valley for over forty years, that he could not afford to live in Marrakech, that he had learned English by bartering with English-speakers, that Ramadan was an especially hard month because there were fewer tourists, that he had five children, that his children had children of their own, that stealing was the worst thing a Berber could do, and that if I bought some of his handicrafts then he would not have to steal to feed his family.
My friend had grown uncomfortable, particularly when Uman pointed to his expensive camera as an example of something a thief might steal. Since then he had held the camera tightly, the way a foreigner learns to hold his wallet in both hands within one of Marrakech’s light-fingered medinas. He thanked Uman and turned to me. “I think you should give him something,” he said.
I think you should give him something. The idea had come to me before my friend voiced it, beginning as a hollowness in the stomach and deepening as Uman continued speaking. As it happens, I had been hoping to find a poor Berber artisan who spoke English in Ourika Valley. I was writing an article about the Berbers, and I had already interviewed Berber activists and officials in Rabat and Marrakech. They had shown me slideshows of notable Berber protests, or given me novels they had written about oppressed Berbers, or told me how their people’s language and culture had been repressed first by the Arabs, then by the French, then once again by the Arabs. I had thanked them and had learned from them. But they were not the sort of people I wanted to write about.
I wanted to write about Berbers who knew oppression personally, as a hunger that never quite faded, a torn shirt they had inherited, a sick child they could not bring to the doctor. That was part of the reason I had come to the valley, and it was the reason I had decided to talk with Uman. It was just, the people I wanted to write about did not want to have articles written about them. They wanted money to buy dinner. And I was a Westerner with money to spare.
There was something else that troubled me. An anecdote I had heard a few months ago, in America, that had clung to me like a tick since I came to Morocco.
The anecdote was about a journalist who had a high moral compass. The journalist did not want to be one of the paparazzi who shadow celebrities around glitzy hotels, or to become an insider who reports on the powerful within white-walled Washington. He wanted to tell the stories of the downtrodden. And so he travelled to a refugee camp in Africa, and in the camp he found what he wanted: a pair of families, poor and underfed and nearly without hope, who were trying to get to Europe.
The journalist settled down and began to study these families, and over time he grew close to one of them. He grew so close that he found he was unwilling to do nothing as the family festered in the camp. And so he discreetly arranged to have them evacuated, and he gave them the money they needed to pay their passage, and a few months later they had left Africa. The journalist did not mention this to the newspaper he was writing for. What he had done had violated his status as a reporter, an impartial chronicler of events. He stayed in the camp. The family he did not help lost their child. And he wrote a very moving story about them.
I would not be able to write a moving story about Uman. I knew almost nothing about him, far too little to make him a character in an article. I would probably not be able to find him again. Very well. Let him be the one that got away. I pulled out my wallet, removed a one-hundred dirham note — a little more than ten dollars — and handed it to Uman. I asked him if that was enough to buy the stone box.
Uman had tensed slightly when he saw the thick wallet. “This?” he asked, indicating the box. “No. This box is seven hundred.”
Only the other day, a smiling wood-carver in Marrakech had convinced me that a pair of ornate boxes in his shop were each worth three hundred dirham. I had haggled him down from four hundred and fifty and felt proud of myself…until I saw boxes just like his available for one hundred and twenty at a fixed-price market. The encounter had left a sour taste in my mouth. I did not intend to repeat it.
“Seven hundred?” I repeated, feigning incredulity. “That’s far too much. I can only do one hundred.”
“But this is a very nice box,” Uman responded. “See? See the markings?” He held up the box and traced his finger along a simple yellow engraving.
“One hundred,” I repeated.
“Six hundred,” he conceded. I shook my head.
Uman stared at me, blinking his eyes. We haggled for another minute without budging. And then something seemed to break in him.
“Give me little money,” Uman pleaded. He dropped the price to five hundred, but he would not go lower than that. “Give me little money,” he said again, holding the box in both hands. “Only look — look at the markings.” Once again he placed the box in my hands, pointed out the engravings. I admired it, then handed it back. He looked at me with wide eyes, as if he were lost and did not know how to move forward. And I realized that this was not the haggling of the Marrakech wood-carver. This was the haggling of a man who might not have eaten this morning, and wasn’t sure he would eat tonight, and had children and grandchildren he might not be able to feed if he didn’t sell something to me.
I am worried now that you will not forgive me for what I did next. Let me tell you something about myself. The week before, I had read a book of nonfiction by Katherine Boo about what it is like to be poor in India. A single image had stayed with me: an old man, a scavenger with a car-mashed leg, lying in the mud on the side of a highway, calling out for help to someone, anyone, and a continuous stream of cars and pedestrians passing and not stopping, from dawn to late afternoon, until finally a police van stops, and a pair of other scavengers lift the old man into it, and the corpse is driven to the morgue. I had read Boo’s book, and with a reader’s certainty I had known that I would have stopped. But in the same week, I had walked with a friend through the medina of Rabat under a noon sun, and we had seen a turbaned man in a wheelchair, his right leg bloody and festering, and he had held out his hand to us, and we had looked away.
You see, I had been the victim of a curious con that is played on almost everyone who reads stories about people who do not help beggars. It is so easy for us to sneer at the protagonists of such stories, so easy to tell ourselves that if we were the story’s hero, we would do better. But we see the beggar in the story every day, and we do nothing. We do nothing because it is uncomfortable to give directly to someone in need — far less comfortable than giving indirectly, to a drive to house the homeless, or a program to end world hunger, or even a charity across the street. We walk into the charity, and we are greeted by a receptionist who thanks us for our donation, no matter how much it is. We walk away appeased. Perhaps we tell our friends that we have given something, done our part. And we do not stay up at night wondering whether, if we had given $10 more, the smiling receptionist would have had enough money to buy breakfast the next morning.
“Give me little money,” Uman repeated. He had stopped trying to sell me the box and had switched to the necklaces and rusty earrings. “You see these? Nice for family, nice for sister, nice for mother. Here, take.” He tried to press the new souvenirs into my hands.
“I can only do one hundred,” I repeated firmly, drawing away from him. And it was a lie, because I had another six hundred and fifty dirham in my wallet.
“Give me little money,” Uman said. “You have euro? Give me euro. Give me dollar.”
How did I feel? It is contradictory to resent oneself for not giving while, at the same time, resenting another for asking. Let it be contradictory. That is how I felt.
“Only one hundred,” I said again. I picked up one of the geodes — one that sparkled green and violet on the inside. “Is this one hundred?”
“That one is three hundred. This,” he added, picking up one of the white-sparkling quartz geodes, “this one is less, only two hundred. Both are five hundred.” He held the pair of dirty geodes out to me.
It was too much. My friend had fled and the camel-riders were returning and the van-driver would be impatient and the desperation in Uman’s voice was frightening me and finally I told him to keep the one hundred dirham I had already given him. I began to walk away.
Uman called and followed. For a moment, a ludicrous fear passed over me. (I was a foot taller than Uman and at least thirty years younger.) He caught up to me, still holding the pair of geodes.
“Please, take them,” he said, and he pressed the two rocks into my hands. “No, please. Take them. Have a good day, sir. Have a good day.” Once again the old man’s eyes were twinkling at me.
I walked away. I was one of the last into the van. A car had passed a minute ago; we could hear it rumble down the road, and the dust it had kicked up, red and thick around us, was drifting slowly back to the dirt. We drove away from the camels, and Uman watched us go, and I looked back at him as we left, and in my lap there were two dirty rocks.
We play such amusing games with ourselves in memory. Already, even in the van, I was thinking that perhaps Uman had plenty to eat. Maybe that story about hungry children and grandchildren, that plaintive look, was a standard ploy, and I was just a credulous foreigner. Have I made myself sensible? Have I got it right? I do not know. I know only that it is easier for me to remember Uman as a dishonest merchant than as a desperate father. And I distrust easy memories.
I picked up the geode that glinted green and violet. A dirty rock, with a crack running through it, but inside it was beautiful. I handed the quartz geode to my friend. A gift for the translator, I told him. “Oh, thanks,” he said, looking uncertainly at it. Then, a few minutes later, “Thanks, but…I don’t really want this.”
“Neither do I,” I replied. We were quiet then, as if we had seen something indecent and did not want to talk about it, and the others in the van were also quiet, as if they had seen it too. I put my geode down and looked out the window. It was all so beautiful. The villagers in the valley tilling a tiny field, the bridge crossing the far-off river, and overheard the open sky, dark now, bloated with rain.
Henry Reichard is a senior in Silliman College. You can contact him at email@example.com.