Jan 15, 2005



His undoings were never a mystery to us. We could follow the inevitability like the road to Merzouga, or better the N1, in fact just as he did last March, driving to Casablanca on a whim, obsessed with flash memory, down through the city’s smoggy liver to the under city souk known as the Derbghaleff. When he heard me describe it, he immediately asked for directions, and was insulted when I told him he’d never find it on his own. “I’ll find it,” he said in that awful way he had, as though he were the master of lost and found. This isn’t like God, I said. I will, he insisted, forever impervious to cynicism. Rather than make a game of it, I drew him the best map I could. Useless, of course. He spent hours trying to find the place and finally did what I suggested in the beginning: park, get a taxi.

Derbghaleff appears all of a sudden, in a well-dressed neighborhood. You could mistake it for a vest pocket slum: an unholy akimbo, behind a wall of people, corrugated roofing, wires every which way, flocks of satellite dishes, and the kind of parking attendants you find at the Meadow Lands before a Dallas game. But no, not a slum, it’s the city’s utility drawer. It’s also an economic engine. And if you ever wonder how people survive with 30 percent employment, go there and you’ll see a stage full of entrepreneurial sprites and free-market desperados. Every model of plug, screw, and drill ever made. Up to 10 years ago. Electronica, auto Kasbah, sneaker-rama, crazy Eddie’s jabilyas, from smoothies to roosters, you can find it here. Mile high stacks of old key boards, car stereos, old clothes, cloned copies of replicas, and the usual Berber bric a brac: sconces, rumplestilskin slippers and aluminum-death tea sets. Overhead, the sound of hawkers, hip hopsters, muezzins, and groaning generators. There are upscale shops there as well, the shoes carefully laid out or whatever it is, lingerie, carcasses, silks from West Africa, Quark 6.1 and Photo Shop all on one disk. Although when you get home, likely the registration number is missing or else the disk is no good. But you’re only out $2.

For Eli, Debraheff was a revelation. It was himself as place. You might find an artifact of your soul in Merzouga or in the mountains behind Ismil, even some misquided romantic notion, but not him. His link to eternity was in these cubicle-sized shops that go on and on, and inside the shops, little display cases and littler drawers and inside those ever smaller boxes, until you get down to storage places no bigger than thimbles with tiny hatches. But all places you could hide yourself, be fragmented and compartmentalized as he was. He loved it all, and never saw through it. He didn’t see this particular souk as faux exotic. “Just a lot of shops close together,” I would tell him. “Pickpockets and black market types.”

He smiled dismissively. He was Lawrence of Derbghaleff. This was his desert of melancholy monotony and tribes to drag off across the sun's anvil to Aqaba. Of course, the sensuousness appealed to him, the genuineness of strange strangers rubbing against each other like ants around the cutting board, butting thoraxes down paths wide enough for an eight inch drainage sewer, everyone doing the hopscotch along one side or the other.

He was after Flash memory; another irony, for a man who felt he was losing his memory. One of those little lighter-sized gadgets you stick in a USB port and fill up with pictures, or in his case, articles about the early caliphates. He was fascinated by the work of the fifth-century historian Ibn Hazm, who compiled a list of “Those Among the Caliphs Who Died by Assassination and the Manner in Which They Were Killed.”

He took Fadwa with him. It was before I realized the extent of their relationship. Her parents lived in Casablanca; I thought he was merely giving her a ride. She, as it turned out, had never been to the Derbghaleff, and knew of it only through her maid.

They arrived and were overcome. There was almost too much to see, and too hard to find anything. They spent an entire afternoon drifting from section to section after having gone to every one of the booths in the electronics realm and narrowed the price down to 375 dirham they stopped at one more booth. An older man seemed to be the proprietor. Fadwa asked for flashmemory. The older man was instantly drawn to her and smiled. “So you are Moroccan, and you,” he said looking at Eli, “are….American.”

Eli was bending over watching the assistant who rummaged around, and down and behind and inside the out of sight, the assistant came back with a handful of flash memory containers.

“You’re English,” said the grey haired man. Colonel Chiron.
Eli looked up. “No.”
The colonel put out his hand. “Very glad to meet you. I know your country well.”
Eli was more interested in finding the particular color of flash memory, but the colonel persisted. “Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“ I know that. But where?”
“I was in San Diego. My first wife. We lived in El Cajon.”
“Really.” Said Eli.
“I like blondes, Very beautiful. Always sunburned. Caramel breasted.”
“What did you do there? ” Eli said, not looking up.
“Military. Ft. Benning. Lackland. Camp Pendleton. I went to them all. “
Eli found a color he liked.
“I’m a colonel,” said the colonel. “Intelligence, special forces, ranger training.”
Eli looked up again. “You are a colonel.”
“Not now. Now, I’m a policeman. I am in charge of the inspectors in the city.”
Eli was suddenly interested. The shop owner suddenly appeared, said something to the colonel and took his place behind the display counter.
“Tu veux ca,” he said abruptly to Eli.
Eli was always annoyed to be addressed informally by strangers. “Peut Etre,” he said.
The colonel said something in Arabic’ the shop owner showed deference.
He will give you a good price, said the Colonel.
“How much?” Eli said.
“What do you want to pay?” asked the shop owner, rubbing his fingers together. “Leave a little something for me, and name your price.”
“200 dirham.”
The shop owner smiled and shook his head.
“The art of negotiation is that everyone must be happy,” said the colonel. “This is about friendship not about what you are buying.”
Eli looked at the little plastic totem in his hand. He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders. “Two hundred and fifty dirham.”
“Three hundred and fifty,” said the owner. “I cannot go lower. I need something for myself.
Eli looked at the colonel.
“What does this cost in the US?” said the colonel.
“Well, more.”
“Fifty dollars, maybe for this, sixty.”
“So pay $35 and you are ahead and the shop owner is ahead. What’s $10? Don’t let pride destroy the opportunity.”
Eli didn’t quite understand the opportunity but felt the upbraided student. He quickly agreed, paid and put the memory in his pocket.
“Why don’t you come with me?” said the colonel. “I will show you the real Casablanca. But first you come to my house. “
Fadwa frowned, but Eli ever interested in “penetrating the culture” reached over and smoothed her forehead with his thumb. “We’d like that,” he said watching Fadwa. “Wouldn’t we?”
Fadwa looked back and tried to object, told him with her eyes that this was not what she wanted to do, especially considering how little time they had together, and considering that this was not a man’s whose house she would have been interested for any reason.
They walked out of the souk and it was then that Eli realized the colonel, whoever he was, had powers. A man out of nowhere, dressed anonymously, with sunglasses and broad shoulders nodded to the colonel and set out to clear the crowds. The colonel kept looking back at Fadwa who was right behind him. Occasionally, he would take her by the arm and point out something or tell her some anecdote about this shop owner or that. She in turn looked back at Eli, sometimes shaking her head as though to say, why do you do this to me? Eli watched the procession from back, occasionally losing his position. It occurred to him that the colonel’s interest was in Fadwa not himself and he made an effort to get closer to her. Once, the colonel stopped and told Eli to be watch for pickpockets in this particular area, by the clothes thrown on a heap and a smoothie stand.
Eventually, they made their way to the street. The broad shouldered man ran over the median strip and disappeared into a dirt parking lot. A few minutes later, a black Mercedes appeared. The colonel, ever solicitously, guided Eli and Fadwa to the back seat and sat in the front with his man. The car was more run down on the inside than out. The leather was ripped. The windows had been poorly tinted and were so dark that Eli couldn’t see out. Bent cigarette stubs spilled out of the ? on the console between the streets and there was the colonel’s hand, ringed, carefully manicured.
The driver got out of the traffic and headed who know where. At one point the colonel pointed to a street, and then half way down, he knocked on the window with his rings. He got out and returned after five minutes behind bags of pastries.
We arrived at his house in the California district. The black office building of the minerals industry is the landmark...

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