Philosophy

[Leer cuento en español]

Immensity stretches before their eyes: the infinite orange melts into the blue, which then turns pink, purple, yellow, until the tea-scented darkness begins to make inroads, a darkness that is flooded with soup and yogurt and dates and honeyed sweets and milk; and they eat for the first time all day, with restraint more than greed, grateful for another day of learning.

The party begins around seven in the evening, and there’s no knowing when it will end. Moha can’t remember how long it’s been since they were all together or when was the last time he didn’t have to gobble down these delicacies, barely tasting them — there was always a tour leaving early the next morning, and he had to sleep at least a couple of hours. Those days, when it seemed like he couldn’t slow down for a single moment, not for a miserable second, now exist only in memory. Remember? Up, down, a kiss, another kiss, goodbye, tomorrow we have four excursions, yallah, yallah, yallah. The communal experience of Ramadan with the family (his grandmother, his three sisters, his brother) fills him with happiness.

It is clear to him, fortune is smiling upon him: undoubtedly there is no better place than Merzouga to spend these uncertain times. In the cities, people are packed together and can’t even take a walk without worrying. Just thinking about it sends a shiver down his spine. He cannot conceive of life without the caress of the dunes, without the freshness of the early morning, without the whispers of Dihia in the folds of the wind.

When their hunger is sated, they walk among the hillocks now dimmed and cooled by the night. Whether whispering or silent, they inevitably sink into the overwhelming peace of the landscape. Some evenings, that little slice of vastness surrenders to the wishes of the ghaita, the gembri, the qraqeb, the bendir, accompanied by clapping and singing and dancing, and there is nothing else, no other place, no past, no future, no virus. Inshallah. The silhouette of the tea with sugar decanted from a certain height lingers until the sun’s rays shatter the dawn, and only then do the Berbers embrace sleep to annihilate some of the sixteen hours of fasting that the new day brings with it.

Leaving the dream world, Moha dons his robe, wraps his turban, and slides on his babouches, ready for whatever the new day brings. Inshallah. The desert is emptier than ever. How beautiful to be able to see it constantly only through his own eyes: he takes all this as a lesson to value what he has and repeats to himself over and over again, like the chanting of salah: who knows where this world is going to take us? At least we have time for ourselves, time for ourselves, time.

For now there is no work, but there are chores — buying this and that, feeding the camels, going to the mosque — and he strolls through the town, which is suffused with an unsettling strangeness. Not only have the restaurants and hotels temporarily closed, but there are also residents who prefer to greet each other with words alone. It seems to Moha that the salam labas bikhir is left empty without touch: if something will happen to us, it will happen to us; there is only one death, there are not two. Perhaps if anybody here got infected, the story would change, and he as well would refuse handshakes and kisses and hugs and kisses and kisses.

Ramadan has also changed, because people do not gather in large groups. All right, it’s okay: this family time is more golden than the reflections on the sand at three in the afternoon, when the sun is shining, and it’s 92 degrees, and you can’t drink. But they bear it well, because the scorching heat and desperate thirst themselves are clad in togetherness. It could be worse.

When hunger tears into him, Moha dreams that he is traveling again: he has never left Morocco, but he travels the world through the people whose paths lead to his land. On the rare occasions when he lets go of the present, he misses spending time with tourists, talking to them about the constellations, teaching them the Arabic alphabet, leaving them speechless in the Dades Gorges, showing them how to move their tongues to make the zaghrouta maghrebiya, telling them the traditions of the Berbers — or of the barbers, as he liked to call them, ever the class clown. For every nationality and every language, he has a joke prepared. Perhaps because of a life balancing on a tightrope spanning three worlds, the Berber, the Arab and the Muslim, he has a predilection for cross-cultural humor. Without those international experiences, his self-confidence would not exist, nor his magnificent command of Spanish, which he practices daily with his friends from the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, whom who knows when he will see again, Inshallah. But the insistent messages he sends to keep himself and his business at the front of their minds are answered ever less frequently.  

Now the only tourists who come arrive with their own vans, and they rigorously keep their distance. All the better. All things that happen always bring some good. Although he would never confess it, unconsciously he knows that there is a certain beauty in not watching for the thousandth time how argan oil is made, in not having six Spanish women in the van singing David Bisbal at the top of their lungs, in not searching endlessly for cheap restaurants and hammams for moneyed tourists whose first words in Arabic are walo floos, “No money.” He has not chosen this rest, but he welcomes it with open arms while, at the same time, he is ready to return at any time to enjoying the new friends from abroad that life may bring him.

The streets of Merzouga — the orange buildings, the sacks of spices, the daily hubbub, the aromas — follow their natural rhythms. The virus accentuates the sweet leisureliness of Berber life. “You have a watch and you don’t have time, and we don’t have a watch and we have plenty of time,” he always used to say, while peering at his phone out of the corner of his eye to see when the next tour would arrive. Moha always enjoyed trying to make his guests understand the Berber lifestyle, but he realizes that he himself had stopped really living it. Now he is filled with the prodigious harmony of not having to give a single explanation about his culture, of just immersing himself fully into it. He no longer has to submit to Western dictates, which he does not fully understand anyway. And what is the point of tirelessly following demands to the rhythm of tick-tock, tick-tock? It makes much more sense to let oneself be borne along by the suns, the moons, and al-Qurʼān.

In the afternoons, Moha and his friends take videos and photos of themselves jumping from the high dunes, and their wake in the sand is forever crystallized in images. Tourists love these types of snapshots, so he shares them, so that those places will not fall into oblivion. The Sahara of the 21st century is made up of sand, sun, stars, and direct messages, and like, like, like. But capturing every moment is more something for foreigners: his family doesn’t live trapped in the gallery of his phone, but rather in the present of each shared moment. What is the point of photographing his grandmother cooking if the smell is left out of the portrait? Why immortalize his sisters playing if their laughter will vanish without clinging to the image?

There are weeks of fasting left. It seems that this year Moha will celebrate Eid al-Fitr with the whole family. It seems, it seems: nothing is ever certain. Like a good nomad must, Moha lives in this day and will savor every moment until the great feast arrives, which will also be fantastic, as will the days, months, years to come. Inshallah. But those thoughts do not overwhelm him, they simply live in him as peaceful certainties. Now he just sinks his feet into the heat of the sand, feels the gentle breeze on his face, contemplates immensity and becomes engrossed in the purely spiritual.

{Translated by Adam Lischinsky}

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More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas

Love in the Time of Coronavirus