|A cry from the heart|
We were just about to finish an intimate and highly emotional dinner party with a chocolate mouse cake specially prepared for the occasion. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the waiter preparing café and brandies. Monsieur A, our host, slowly took a sip of a remarkable French chateau wine; he leaned forward. In a slow deliberate voice, in which I detected a subtle harshness that boarded on naked aggressiveness, he said. “ Now you know my story, you must understand that my grandson has to be circumcised at birth. Surely you agree?” I looked at my wife’s beautiful classical French face. Her visage was radiant from the excellence of the dinner and the subdued light from the table. Her eyes denoted an interrogatory appeal of why we were being asked to give an opinion on such a delicate subject.
Three weeks earlier my wife and I discussed going to Morocco for a five-day holiday. We thought of taking our youngest son Benjamin. The idea was to go to Rabat and slowly wind our way up the coast by train to Tangiers. It was some years since we had been in Morocco and if we went we wanted to take our time and enjoy the beauty of two cities, and see something of the countryside. At the time my wife was working with a French interior decorator that had been born in Morocco. Once she heard of our plans she insisted that when we got to Tangiers we called on her great and dear friend Monsieur A. Apparently he was known throughout the city under that name. She told us he owned some hotels in Tangiers and was quite a local personality. Apparently she had recently done some interior decorating for one of his hotels. All we had to do was to give her the date of our arrival in Tangiers and she would contact Monsieur A. She just knew we would all get on well together; he loved having company. In a funny sort of way it was her enthusiastic insistence that decided us on taking the trip. Dates were given, and we left for Morocco.
We arrived in Rabat, armed with an appointment three days later with Monsieur A at one of his hotels in Tangiers. My wife’s decorator friend had told us nothing more about him other than he was a local personaliity. The mystery man was in the future; the present was exploring the treasures of Morocco’s capital. We had picked an interesting time to travel in Morocco, as it was Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. This means the nation’s fasting begins at dawn and ends at sunset. The city was engulfed in slow motion, there was a perpetual movement towards the Mosques, and for the most part the shops were shut until late in the afternoon. The city is modern, with well-aired boulevards, dominated by magnificent palm trees. There is a harmony of architecture that makes sight seeing a pleasure. We admired the cities elegant statues, drank quantities of mint tea, and had endless discussions in the medina. One of the highlights of Rabat is the Casbah des Oudia. Sitting on the Casbah’s café terrace over looking the mouth of the river Oued bou Regreg seemed to make time stand still. In the distance one can see the exotic gardens of Sale. The light and colors of North Africa are bewitching, they are both soothing and disturbing. The harmony of light and color is pacifying, whereas the intensity of the sun makes the environment seem hostile and disturbs the balance. I have a great urge to try and capture these moments on a photograph, but my results are always disappointing. I find it better at some quite moment in the future to close ones eyes and call upon my memory.
On the third day we took the early morning train to Tangiers a distance of about three hundred kilometers. The train was delightfully slow, spotting at most places along the route. We saw the mighty Atlantic Ocean sparkling in the morning sun, throwing up great white cascades of water on to sandy beaches. We passed the many orange groves that line the train tracks. At several stops on the route young boys shout at the carriages. You open the window; throw down some money and up come oranges freshly picked. The boys have to be quick as the owners of the groves often chase them. There is nothing quite like a fresh orange still warmed from the sun. Well worth watching the boys playing the game of hid and seek amongst the orange groves.
The occupants of our carriage proved entertaining and interesting. We were soon on intimate terms, with promises to visit their homes and break bread with them. One was a schoolteacher going up to Tangiers to a seminar. He was pleasant man and gave us a detailed account of the Moroccan educational system. Another passenger was an officer on leave for ten days going home to see his family in Larache. His conversation was of particular interest to my youngest son as he was in the anti drug section of the coast guards. We heard about fast boats, mid-night raids, smuggling, and the great difficulties of controlling the Moroccan coastline. He was so insistent that we spend a day with his family we nearly got out at Larache, but the curiosity of our rendez-vous with Monsieur A was foremost in our minds. We politely declined. The last two passengers were a young married couple going to Tangiers for a five-day honeymoon. They held hands the whole length of the trip and kept themselves very much to themselves, only occasionally joining in the conversation. We all arrived in Tangiers in good spirits.
The station in Tangiers is near the docks on the shorefront. Our hotel was situated a five minute walk along the beach. Without any fuss we found ourselves being welcome by the hotel’s concierge. He was a small, courteous man that displayed old world charm and manners. “Welcome you are expected, Monsieur A is so sorry he cannot be personally be here to welcome you, but he is away on business today. He expects you for dinner tomorrow night at eight o’clock in the hotel’s dinning room. I trust you had a safe journey. Please follow me I will show you to your rooms.” Within minutes we found ourselves being ushered into an elegant suite of rooms over looking the Straits of Gibraltar. On the night table was a bowl of fruit with a personal message of welcome from Monsieur A. Our mystery man was taking on an interesting profile. I casually asked the concierge if there were many other guests. He told me it was not really the season, as Ramadan had not quite finished, consequently the hotel was not full. He left us with a sweeping bow saying, as we were special guests he was personally at our service. Once the door was closed we looked around the room, elegant and in good taste, the bathroom beautifully appointed, French windows opening on to a small balcony that projected itself over a view of the beach. In the early afternoon sun we could see boys playing football on the beach. The weather lent itself to walks on the beach rather than lying in the sun. In the distance I saw some camels carrying heavy loads, no doubt going up to the market. Tangiers for me has always conjured up an image of smuggling, transition, broken hearts and desperate people. Maybe I am too influenced by that remarkable film Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman…. “here’s looking at you kid.” The whole atmosphere of the city is pervaded with a profound expression of the first stepping-stone from Europe to the continent of Africa.
We send the evening and most of the next day exploring the secrets of the city. We sat in the gardens of Malcolm Forbes villa listening to the guardian tell us stories of the fabulous parties that had been held there; of the time Elisabeth Taylor had been a guest with her latest husband. It was the night of a thousand eyes as a message had traveled through the medina saying there was a price for the best photograph. The villa had been surrounded by hundreds of cameras waiting for a view of the star; history relates the photograph was never taken. We watch the sun set over the terrace of the cafe Hafa, a magical moment. We spent a few hours in the medina. Here Benjamin and I were subjected to an interesting experience. We found ourselves in an alley that only specialized in selling carpets. On either side of the alley were small shops showing their wares. All we could see were carpets to the right of us, carpets to the left of us. Each merchant bowing and ingratiating himself on any tourist that passed through the alley. The catch phrase was, “ come, no need to buy, for the pleasure of yours eyes.” I had often wondered how an individual store could make money as they are all grouped together like a flock of sheep waiting for something to happen. Maybe it was all one family? As we were out of the hot sun, with a few hours to spare, why not try and find out how the system worked. We soon found a merchant that could not stop talking. He had been in France and seemed to love everything French, except by his reckoning the French tourist did not spend money. He told us they were ten different families in the alley, some shops specialized in certain carpets, but the majority of the stores were general carpet merchants. He went on to tell us that the basis of good business was to have good merchandise and good prices. But the secret is to try and be different, have something that attracts the buyer. With a flourish of his hand he point to the large stuffed camel placed at the opening of his store. “That,” he proudly said, “has brought me many buyers.” By this time we were sipping mint tea and were being treated like blood brothers. He told us business so not so good as Ramadan was just finishing, it would be another three weeks before the tourists came. Then as if struck by some divine hand his face lit up and a foxy smile crept across his lips. “My friends,” he said “ I have a great idea, you seem so interested in how our businesses run, why not for the next hour take over my shop.” Engrossed in his thoughts we heard him say, “let me see you will needed caftans to fit the part.” Five minutes later my son and I were standing there dress in a caftan ready to take charge. Our friend gave us a quick lesson on his pricing system, swearing us to secrecy that we would never disclose the method. I am true to my word, so no further explanation is forthcoming. With that he skipped out of the store saying, “Good bye, I will see you in an hour.” We stood there looking a bit ridiculous, wondering what to do. My son suggested he crouched next to the camel, and as I was the older man I should remain in the back of the shop. We waited, we watched, the few tourists that passed, looked at the store, made some remarks and passed on. We needed some animation. I suggested that my son started calling out, “ we speak English, special prices for fellow countrymen.” That seemed to attract a little attention. It certainly caught the eye of my wife would had come to find us; she was a little amazed to see us in the local costume. Her first thought was that we had gone mad and bought the store. When she heard what had happened she retired to a safe distance to watch. The hour never seemed to end, you need a lot of patience, but nevertheless we ended up by selling a small prayer mat. The owner came back delighted to learn about the sale and suggested we came again tomorrow. Over mint tea, poured with relish to celebrate the sale, we politely decline his invitation.
It was time for our dinner with the mysterious Monsieur A. On the stroke of eight my wife and I walked into the dinning room. Monsieur A stepped forward and introduced himself. He was a man in his late sixties, early seventies. Short, with a large, intelligent face, one immediately noticed his brilliant eyes, like two little diamonds shinning out of his swarthy facial skin. He had a large nose that dominated his face, at the same time it give his visage strength and character. His suit fitted him to perfection, covering up a corpulent body, decidedly tailor-made. The overall appearance was one of elegance and refinement. He bowed to my wife taking her hand towards his lips. As I shock hands with him I noticed the smoothness of the skin as though he was wearing finally cut silk gloves. Obviously he was a man that had the habit of taking very good care of himself. He indicated a table in the corner of the restaurant that had been special prepared for us. I noticed three waiters were attending the table, in addition to the Maitre d’Hotel. Clearly this was going to be a special occasion. The table had been dressed with infinite care, crystal wine glasses, fine French china, and a bouquet of flowers in front of each place, elegant silverware. The waiters were proud of their effort; they received our congratulations. As we sat down Monsieur A said, “My wife sends her apologies, she did not feel well.” He immediately continued, “Madame you are so beautiful you remind me of my youth in Paris and the time I got married to my French wife. It is uncanny.” He spoke excellent English and his voice had a deep baritone sound. The dinner seemed to be starting of on a strangely intimate and interesting note.
In the early stages of the dinner we talked about French politics, the European community, Moroccan politics and of course our mutual friend. Monsieur A was an excellent conversationalist, with a wide knowledge of the world’s geopolitical scene. But I sensed the way he kept looking at my wife all the time he wanted to talk about more personal matters, those personal intermit thoughts that touch the heart. All this time we were being served food of exquisite quality and wines from the finest French Chateaux. We were just about to start on a beautifully cooked Chateaubriand when Monsieur A moved slightly forward on his chair and said, “ Madame please forgive me for looking so intently at you all evening but your lovely classical French face brings back so many memories. Let me tell you why.”
“ I was born in to a prominent Jewish family from Fez. My father was a rabbi and a well-known personality in the community. I am the eldest son. I had a strict Jewish religious upbringing, based on our culture and beliefs. No doubt my father thought I would follow in his footsteps. At the appropriate age my father arranged a marriage for me with a young women from a well-known family in the Fez Jewish community. Our family was delighted, nobody asked my opinion. This marriage convention was determined in the depths of time and handed down through the generations. Two months before the fixed date of my marriage my father decided it would be a good idea if I went to Paris for a month. He innocently thought it would be a way of broadening my horizons before taking the serious vows of the marriage ceremony. Little did he know that one decision was to change my life forever? I distinctly remember him saying, “My son it is right you should go to Paris and see another part of the world, before you settle down.”
I was delighted and descended on the city of lights with an eagerness and anticipation of an explorer coming out of the desert after many months of hardship. I was to stay with an uncle, who proved to be everything you would expect of a bachelor living in Paris. Within days I was completely drowned in the city’s beauties, the airy boulevards, the magnificent buildings, the side- walk café, the Parisians, I had never seen such beautiful women. Just imagine a Jewish young man from Fez loose in Paris with an uncle that loved going out in the evenings. Our periods at the Synagogue were kept to the strict minimum. The inevitable happened, I fell deeply in love with a French Catholic girl from Brittany. I had never experienced this feeling before, she not only captured my heart, but my soul, my very existence. I worshipped everything about her; my life seemed to have no sense unless I was in her presence. She felt the same. My uncle was distinctly worried knowing in a few weeks I was getting married in Fez. This resulted in long telephone conversations with my father. The sojourn was cut short and I returned to Fez. Once back in my hometown I realized I could no go through with the arranged marriage. My only wish was to return to Paris and be with my heart’s desire. I had left her promising I would return. Can you imagine my family’s shame, their anguish, and the disrespect for our culture, beliefs and heritage; this had never happened before. They tried to reason with me, explaining the problems, calling on my duty to family. To no avail, I could not be reasoned with, I was completely under the spell of my French diva. My father saw it was no good arguing, my mind was made up, my ambition was to persuade the French girl to marry me. He made a short speak, its echo I heard to this day. “ My son, leave our house, you have chosen your destiny, never come back, that is my decision.”
“I immediately left for Paris. There I found my goddess had returned to her family in Brittany. I remember thinking at the time the difficulties my extravagant passion was creating. She came from a Catholic family, my Jewish background would not be considered acceptable. I had no job, and on the top of that disowned by my family. I left for Brittany with a heavy heart. If you ask me today to tell you how I persuaded her family give us the blessing to our marriage I would fail in the task. Maybe it was that old hackneyed phrase “ love conquerors all.” We were married, our desire and dream had come true. My family did not come to the wedding.
The next important decision was where to live. I could not find work in Brittany, impossible to return to Fez, we chose Tangiers. The period was two years before the Second World War. I found a job selling textiles. The stay in Tangiers was supposed to be only temporary as we both thought America was the country in which to make our fortune and live far from our respective families. The War was to change all that. Tangiers became an open port, with a French section, English section a German section and later an American section. For a young man of the city who spoke many languages it became a fresco of eternal commerce. Each Nation had its particular needs for luxury creature comforts; the price for those luxuries was high. The supply side was one of daring, tenacity and contacts. Three qualities I possessed in spades. It was an exciting time and I learnt a lot about human nature. The stories I could tell about precious secrets and intrigues would lighten up many a dark winter nights. My influence grew in statue; my bank account in consequence. I bought apartments, hotels, and stores. Because of my faith I tended to play in the shadows of the cities personalities, but my presence was often felt. Our dream of leaving for America disappeared into the distance.
My wife and I had two daughters. The son that never came was maybe the price we paid for all the anguish we caused our families. Our daughters benefited from a liberal education, mostly in France. They participated in the university world and today both have excellent careers. The eldest is not married, but her sister is married into a well -known German protestant family. This decision gave me many sleepless nights, but there was nothing I could do or say. At that time I realized my fathers worries all those years ago. After the wedding I sent a message to Fez asking to see my father, who by now was a very old man. Permission was granted, I returned to Fez for the first time since my marriage. Long ago the fire and passion of youth had disappeared, my pilgrimage was with bowed head and a determination to show my family that I had not forsaken the values and heritage of our culture. It was the last time I saw my father, but just before leaving he gave me a collection of old books and manuscripts that according to our family’s tradition should be given to the eldest son for save keeping. It was a sacred trust, in keeping for the next male generation. We never talked about the past, he never asked me if I was happy and if I had made the right decision, but in giving me these manuscripts it was his way of saying he still believed in me. As I left for Tangiers tears came to eyes. In the twilight years of my life I often ask myself if the arrogance and passion of youth had led me astray. The weight of my family, my religion and culture lay like some gigantic cross on my shoulders.”
Silence descended on the table, it was late, and the restaurant was empty except for us. The waiters stood back in the shadows not wanting to disturb our conversation. Slowly in an emotional voice Monsieur A took up the story, “ now you understand. My son-in-law and his family are adamantly opposed to circumcising my Grandson at birth. My daughter is confused, on the one hand she wants to align herself with her husbands family, at the same time she realizes the important for me. I am tormented; my grandson must be circumcised at birth. I have inherited the sacred trust of the documents to be passed on to my grandson, before I die this must be done. My friends, surely you agree? .” Tears came to his eyes. My wife extended her hand across the table and touched his arm. He looked at her and said, “ thank you for listening, by being in your company tonight you gave me the image of my youth, it has greatly helped.
We left Tangiers in brilliant sunlit. Looking down over the city from the window of the plane I felt an enormous regret we had no answer for Monsieur A. His story had deeply touched us. We left it suspended in time, we never asked what had finally happened.