The old man – Lahcen – is like a phantom presence in the house. I forget he is there, except for the two minutes a day that he comes out of his room to go to the bathroom. He takes about two steps a minute, dressed in his long-sleeved kaftan (a sort of shirt-dress that comes down to just above his ankles), a little knitted cap on his head, and his socks. He holds his dark, misshapen and wrinkled hands in front of him and thus struggles to the bathroom. No one helps him. The rest of his day and night he passes sitting or lying on his bed in his room, watching Moroccan public television. He hardly interacts with any other member of the household. He says little, sometimes calling out a name, and no one speaks to him – except when they walk into his room to turn down the television. The interactions never sound friendly. He yells (I’ve even seen him kick Alma for turning down the sound), and they yell back. They treat him like an angry old man, which he probably is – but I wonder what came first.
I went to Marjane tonight with Khadija, Manal and Mustafa – a big supermarket right on the edge of town that sells everything from industrial-size grocery items to clothing and appliances. I notice that the prices say very little to me. Everyday items range from 12 to hundreds of dirhams, but I have very little index for it. When I calculate how much something would be in dollars, everything seems immensely cheap – very roughly, you take off a zero and get the dollar amount, and for some reason that process seems to make everything dirt cheap in my head. I have to remember, first of all, that the dollar isn’t worth that much anymore at all. And second, that to a Moroccan these prices are much steeper. I don’t know how much because I am not sure of the average monthly salary here, but a cheap washing machine - something that I’m pretty sure is a serious purchase in any country – is about 2500 Dirhams. To think that I spent half of that on minutes for my phone without a second thought…
I think Khadija is illiterate. After an aisle or two at Marjane I began to realize she was asking Mustafa for the price of everything, though it was printed clearly on every shelf. I guess in a sense it’s not surprising that she cannot read; she must be at least 70 if her fifth child is 42 (Amma gave me the lowdown: her father is oldest, then Fatima. Then Manal, then another sister who lives in Marrakech, then Alma, then two boys who are in Italy and the UAE, respectively) – and 65 years ago, in the middle of the protectorate period, the average Moroccan girl did not routinely go to school.
I am getting sick, I think, which is unpleasant. My nose is congested, I have a headache, and that feeling that my head is about to explode from sinus pressure. I wonder if it’s something going around – Khadija and Alma have both been complaining of headaches. I know I am sensitive to these things when I am stressed and exhausted – and I guess I am both. I feel a lot better, but this week – the voyage, the adjustment to being here, the stress of being a guest in strangers’ house – has been tense, and the sleeping schedule has been erratic to say the least. First of all Moroccans seem to sleep very little (which becomes a lot more doable because of all the lounging around and napping after lunch that is done), and sleeping together in one room does mean that I wake up whenever anyone else gets up – like at 4 am, to pray/eat. This they don’t do quietly. The light is turned on, people talk – I wake up.
Anyway, I hope it passes by without doing too much damage. If I take it slow tomorrow, maybe it will get better.
As luck would have it, though, my host mother seems to have chosen these same few days to serve meals that feature, shall we say, less conventional animal products. Yesterday I was given liver for lunch, for dinner that evening at 11 pm, Khadija served what I think was the foot of a cow, and tonight around the same time, she gave us what I think came from some animal’s spine. Only the shape of the bones gives me any clue as to what all this is, and on the plate I saw what I really suspect were vertebrae. I am trying to get away with eating as little as possible, despite continued urgings to ‘khoudi, kouli’ (‘have some, eat’) – when I am feeling under the weather, unfortunately I am not at my most culinarily adventurous. My host family loves this stuff though – the meal is not over until all these weird bones are sucked clean of all juices.