Baraka by Erin Harte

Saïd told me his grandfather had baraka. We had healers in the mountains, too, I said. My friend Kermit, for example. But the last time I saw Kermit, he had a tumor in his brain and his belly was taut and swollen like he was pregnant with a bowling ball. Like his head was some kind of ailment sponge, collecting everything he’d fixed for all those other people. Maybe that was how healing worked.

I wondered how Saïd’s grandfather died. A man proffering a basket of karamus stopped me from asking. Saïd nodded and the man dropped to his knees in the sand. He deftly liberated two prickly pears from their green skins. Saïd liked his fruit firm and tart, but I preferred the soft orange ones for their sweetness. The man talked and peeled and peeled and talked. We ate. The two men hailed from the same unnamed coastal countryside. They exchanged family trees. Their Darija lost me after that. I was invisible to them, too.

The man thrust his knife toward me. The tip was covered in orange pulp. He used it to point at the black moles dotting his fingers and wrist. I was alarmed, but Saïd laughed. The man laughed too.

“He knew of my grandfather,” Saïd explained. “He says he wouldn’t have these spots if he’d only had the chance to meet him.”
In Morocco, there’s no such thing as coincidence. Everything is destiny. This is how it works.

*****

In bed that night, I had a headache. I asked Saïd if baraka got passed along from one generation to the next.

“My dad was supposed to have it. But he was too shy.”

“And you?”

“Let’s see.” Saïd put his palms on my temples. “Baraka, baraka, baraka,” he said.

“You’re just being silly,” I said.

“Did it work?”

I shrugged. But I did feel better.

He wrapped his arms around me and told me that he remembered people coming from all over the countryside to see his grandfather. He remembered their cars. He remembered the fabric of their djellabas. There was only one bus and it came through once a week. Some people came in taxis. They were all seeking help. And his grandfather waited for all of them.

“The people would show him their hands. Then he would send them out to look for—oh, how do you call it—little pieces on the ground?”

“Pebbles.”

“Right, pebbles. You have five teloul. You find five pebbles the same size.”

“And then?” I felt like a child craving more of her bedtime tale.

“He took those stones in his hands like this.” Saïd rubbed his palms together in front of my face. “Blow,” he said. I blew. “Then he rubbed the little stones over the teloul like this. And then, gone. He was very famous.”

Kermit taught me to put wet tobacco on beestings to extract the stingers. This wasn’t healing, exactly, but it was the best I could remember and I told it to Saïd.

“B’sah?” Really?

“Yek. And Kermit took moles off my brother’s hand. Just like your grandfather.”

“He has baraka?”

“Yes.”

“Is he Muslim?”

“No.”

“Jewish?”

“No.”

“Christian?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s nothing. I mean. He believes in magic. So he must be something. He’s something.”

My vagueness seemed to satisfy Saïd. He saw magic in the world the same way I did. One night we walked along the beach and there, floating on the Atlantic, I spied a swollen orb. It was bright laser orange and two towers high. “Let’s swim out and get it. Let’s rein it in,” I said.

“It’s the low low tide,” he said very seriously. “It’s farther away than it looks. I don’t think we’ll make it in time.” He looked at the moon, then at his feet.

“Shuf,” he said. Look. Someone had scrawled something in Arabic in the sand. I couldn’t read it. Saïd translated: The Best Feeling.

I looked back at the moon, now dirty pink and out of my grasp.

“I’ve never seen that written before.” Saïd seemed pleased.

“Me either,” I said. He took my hand and we danced for a minute.

Ajamil essas.

*****

The next morning we went to the fish market. Saïd wouldn’t hold my hand in public. He was afraid of bad eyes. “I don’t believe in bad eyes,” I said.

“They’re everywhere. People are very poor here. They’re very jealous.”

Madame. Madame. Madame. A fishmonger tossed a suckerfish on the plywood to show me that it was still in life. It stuck. The rays were all belly up, bearing creepy smiles. Wooden crates, wet and rotting, held sardines, squid and eels. Pink plastic bins lined with clams bubbled. A man dangled tiny lobsters in front of my face and said things in French I couldn’t understand. “I don’t speak French,” I said in Arabic. Several of the men laughed and slapped each other’s hands. We bought a half-kilo of shrimp and waited while another man peeled them. He was fast but inefficient and I began worrying about eating shells and antenna in my lunch. I had a juice while we waited, to distract me.

“That’s my father’s boat.” Saïd’s palm on my back pushed me gently toward the edge of the market.

“Which one?”

“The bigger one. There. It’s black.”

We watched the little sardine boats moving. They were green and red and white. The walls of the Portuguese city were sand-colored. The ancient bricks rose out of the water like cliffs and it was hard to imagine that hands had built them at all.

There was shouting nearby. Behind us was an empty warehouse, two weeks from demolition. Voices inside echoed, belying their owners’ whereabouts. A tabby roused from his nap exited his nest of fishing net. He stretched into a horseshoe. Two skinny boys stumbled out of the building and the cat skidded off sideways. The longhaired boy threw a rock at the one in the Barca jersey. He missed. The rock hit the pavement and split into pieces by my feet. The boys started beating each other. They couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve.

Men ran from the fish market and peeled the boys apart. Everyone was shouting, lecturing, tsking. Hshuma, they shouted. Saïd tugged my elbow. He grabbed our plastic sack of shrimp. I wasn’t scared but I wove my fingers through his anyway. He allowed himself to hold me until we crossed through the gate back into the city.

*****

Marche Centrale was my favorite fish barbeque. The open-air marketplace was glamorous even in its dilapidation. The ghosts of banished French colonizers shopping for fresh dorad and baguettes and flowers mingled with the sun-soaked strays mewling and begging for scraps. Down the corridor, beggars cashed in their change at the clandestine liquor store. I shopped there sometimes too. Vagrants and tourists have their depravity in common.

A boy dropped a plate of tomato and cucumber salad on the table between us. We used bread as silverware. There were no spoons. I didn’t mind.

“I saw Hamouda last night in the crowd. He waved at me,” I said.

“He’s stupid. He has nothing to protest.”

“He’s not stupid. He’s sick. Anyway I’m proud of him.”

“Whatever. He has no business marching. He doesn’t have a job because he can’t keep a job.” Saïd tore the soft middle out of his round bread.

“There are other reasons to be out there. To care.”

“In your country.” The boy came back with our plate of shrimp. Saïd thanked him, then turned back to me. “Hamouda, he can’t sleep at night. He keeps my mom up. He keeps everyone up, banging on doors, shouting. He can’t work. He feels bad that he’s not like everyone else. I’ve—we’ve—been taking care of him for years. We give him all our money. If they change the constitution, so what? Who will take care of Hamouda? Who will give bread to the people who can’t put it on their own table?”

“What was that proverb you taught me? If you are a peg, endure the knocking. If you are a mallet, strike?”

Saïd leaned closer to me and whispered, “The King has palaces in every city. He has so much money. If he isn’t helping now, what makes you think he’ll change just because people are walking down the street making noise? No one’s asking him to leave. This isn’t Mas’r. This isn’t Tunis. We are the pegs.”

A dingy white cat made circles around my ankle and pawed at my knee. I jostled it with my foot but this didn’t deter the creature from his campaign.

“Anyway, what about baraka?”

“What do you mean?”

“For Hamouda. Has he been to visit someone with baraka?”

Three days later, the grand taxi bounced along the coastal road past fields of tall corn stalks heavy with snails, past seaside farms that managed to grow vegetables despite brackish conditions, past the lagoons where giant crabs took shelter, and up to the cliffs that towered over the violent Atlantic waves, until finally we came to the road to Safi. The grand taxi was an old white Mercedes with trick doors that didn’t shut all the way. With the right combination of handle adjustment and slamming, the door would catch enough to keep the passengers inside. We sat four astride in the backseat, Saïd, Hamouda, their mother and I. In the front seat, two unrelated men talked about the rising price of eggs with the driver. There were no shocks and the road was rough.

Sandwiched between Saïd and his mother, I felt safer than I knew I should. He put his arm behind my neck. “What about the bad eyes?” I asked in English.

“This is my family. Your family. There are no bad eyes here.”

As if she’d understood, Rabia took my hand and began talking. I picked up a few of the words—la robiya—the countryside, farhana—I’m happy. Saïd translated: “She’s glad you’re coming to see the countryside. It’s her favorite place.”

Rabia spoke no French and no English, so our conversations were mostly nourished by the vocabulary of food. She liked me, I thought. Enough, at least, to laugh when I brought her oranges or when I said something nonsensical in Arabic. But I liked her most because she’d taught me to be comfortable with silence.

The taxi stopped for one of the men in the front seat, then the other a few kilometers down the road. Then Rabia leaned forward and convinced the driver to take us all the way to the marabou where we might find a man whose hands might help Hamouda.

My hips hurt when we unstuffed ourselves from the taxi. I stretched left and right and touched my toes, all before I realized how unladylike my calisthenic performance was. I said as much to Saïd and he laughed. “No one expects anything from you, Amerikaniya.”

We hiked down the cliff on an old road. There were a few sparse shelters built into the rocks. Fisherman passed us in the opposite direction, carrying long poles and buckets. One man squatted precariously on the precipice, but I could tell he had been there for quite some time. The once-paved surface was weathered and pocked. I wondered how a car could climb the hill at all, when an old Renault hatchback without any back windows chugged past us. A donkey cart carrying vegetables slowly made its ascent and I wondered where the nearest town might be, where the cart was going or where it was coming from.

Soon, we came to a lagoon, hidden from view by the cliffs above. Half a kilometer down the beach a shantytown appeared. Town was a generous description. There were rugs hanging on the cliffs and houses built out of metal scraps. Junk and rocks held the roofs in place. Just beyond, a farm appeared, and two women looked up from their work to notice us.

“Wait here,” Saïd instructed and I did. Rabia took Hamouda’s hand and followed Saïd toward the houses. I walked to the edge of the lagoon and took my shoes off. I put my feet in the lapping ocean and felt the shock of icy water. Waves crashed on the cliffs that lined the lagoon. It was easy to believe in magic here.

*****

Saïd whistled. I trotted over, still holding my shoes. A man whose back curved him into an S shape smiled at me. This was Sherif, the holy man.

“Labes, bexair,” I said. He wheezed and laughed when I spoke, and I saw Sherif had no teeth.

He held up a finger and disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned he had a donkey. He pointed to a little boat that looked like the sardine boats from the harbor. The donkey boarded first, like he had done it a million times before. We found out later that he had. The old man handed Saïd the oars.

On the boat ride, I thought of Kermit. He had a long red beard that reached his belly. It had turned white in patches over the last few years. Kermit didn’t believe in doctors and, as a result, he had no teeth, a fact kept secret by his facial hair. Once my father had cut his hand on a bandsaw, and Kermit had to take him to the hospital. He was sweating when my mother and I got there and left shortly after. When I’d last seen Kermit, he held up his right fist and told me he wouldn’t release. He had a brain tumor, he felt permanently dizzy and his hands had stopped cooperating. But he wouldn’t go back to the doctor.

When we reached the opposite shore, the donkey knew he was supposed to climb out first. The old man mounted his weathered friend and started up the hill. We followed him. Near the top a group of small white buildings sprouted like mushrooms. They had blue doors and a ladder leaned against one of the walls.

We followed the man inside the smallest structure. The walls were covered with brown handprints. He gestured for us to sit down. Hamouda kneeled in front of him. Sherif took Hamouda’s head in his hands and began to pray. I couldn’t understand any of the words.

Kermit once told me that he couldn’t tell the secret of healing if he wanted to keep his gift. His grandmother had passed it on to him, and he said if he told anyone it would be gone. I wondered if Kermit still had his gift, or if he’d given it up already. I wondered how he decided who to give it to. Selfishly, I wanted it to be me. I wanted to swim across the ocean lying behind the maribou’s walls. I wanted to walk across Virginia, climb the Appalachian Mountains and tell Kermit that I wanted to know his secrets. But I had known the last time I’d seen him that they were already gone.

After twenty minutes, Sherif let go of Hamouda’s head and took a water jug and a bowl of dried henna from a corner of the room. He painted Hamouda’s hands with wet henna and pointed toward the wall. Hamouda added his prints to the hundreds that had come before. Sherif poured more water into a plastic bottle and instructed Hamouda to bathe with it when he got home.

We crossed the lagoon with the donkey. Saïd and his mother looked up the hill and Saïd offered to carry her on his back. Rabia laughed at him.

“What happens now?” I could barely find the words in Arabic to ask.

“Now,” Sherif said. “We wait.”

 

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