Claudia Ann Seaman Award
Runner-Up for Creative Nonfiction
Arcadia High School
Morocco. Third World country. Two decapitated girls. One king.
Say shukran—not “thank you,” smahli—not “excuse me,” marhaban—not “hello.” If you’re going to Morocco, then be wary: the locals will swindle you and cheat you if you don’t keep your guard up. Morocco is not for little girls with wanderlust like you. It’s hard and dirty and rough and crude and much too tough for you. You say you want to see Moorish art? Just go to Granada instead! Spain is safe and the Alhambra should be enough to suit your needs.
But I’m going to go to Morocco, where there is a palace for the king in every city, where the largest mosque in Africa towers over Casablanca. I’m going to see it for myself.
The first milestone on my journey was Lu. The guy I met during a sunset camel ride through the Palmeraie, where palm trees act as stitches between desert and sky. Together, we donned the traditional clothing of Morocco’s Berber people. No quantity of dark blue cloth could hide our foreign features. Here, in this land, we were united by our strangeness; and this intimacy gave me the courage to ask for his tale.
Lu got kicked out of Stanford for cheating on a final when the real criminal was the siren-song V-neck the chick next to him was wearing. But he didn’t mind much. He hated Stanford because how could a boy who grew up wearing Salvation Army hand-me-downs (which already had holes before his brother even got them) fit in with the rich kids with egos larger than their fortunes?
Later, the first-generation Vietnamese immigrant became IBM’s technical director. But making a billion-dollar company richer only made him feel lifeless. Once when he was a part-time paramedic, he had to pick up lumps of brain so the family wouldn’t see it when they returned—this gave him purpose.
Now, he has sold his house and travels the world while he works (his boss thinks he’s still in Tampa). He is officially homeless. Lu traveled because he felt everything was too easy for him. He fixed the technical problem that went nine months unsolved in the enormous span of ten minutes. For lack of challenges, he developed an alcohol addiction just so he could prove he was stronger. He only drank one bottle of wine during dinner though.
“In a year and a month and twenty-six days I’m going to retire and explore the world by boat,” he told me, and he extended an invitation to his extra room should I ever wish to go anywhere. “My only problem with traveling is how much you have to say goodbye. You make a friend and then you never see or hear from them again.”
At first, I didn’t understand.
Moroccan men. Stone faces that melt into fondant when you greet them in their language, and flawless dentition for when they implore you to smile. One taxi driver is a safety hazard to the country, bounces wildly in his jalopy as he tears down the rugged streets. Curl your lips in the souks and they will swiftly answer the call—“I like you! You marry me!” And then you blush underneath your skin even though you command yourself not to.
They are the lively phantoms that haunt the serpentine streets of the medina, guessing Korea, ni hao (hello), and arigatou (thank you) when Asia passes by. You’ll squirm but hold your head up and yell dou itashimashite (you’re welcome)! Then his friends will laugh and they will watch you with amusement and respect.
Voices shouting in Souk Semmarine, Souk Kimakhine, Souk el Attarine and more, senses go on overdrive in the bustling Marrakech bazaar. Heaps of rainbow spices are fashioned into towering peaks; I ask Haakim, “What is that spice that’s colored royal blue?”
The walls of pointy Moroccan babouches are popular with the tourists. “These slippers are made from real leather—handmade! Look, see the stitching?”
Ornate lanterns of brass and silver dazzle the eyes at Souk Haddadine, giving birth to galaxies where light escapes the starry openings. Performing mad little dances in front of their stalls are the hyperactive vendors, hailing every foreigner that passes in hopes of breaking a hefty profit. They usually do. The tumult of haggling and honeyed sweetness of cornes de gazelles overwhelms my senses. The colors blur as the thrill and chaos intoxicates me with its magic.
Amani. Rough hands drowned in oil slide across my naked body. Orange blossoms and argan seeds. Is it strange that I can sense the women whose labor created this golden liquid? Shed on the hammam’s mosaic floor is my tough layer of skin—only tender flesh now. A warm towel is draped over me and hands rub serenity into my brow, gently working it in like a salve.
I open my eyes. Smile at her.
“Ça va?” she asks, repeating it like an incantation. Ça va? Ça va? Ça va?
They are the same to me—French and Moroccan Darija: foreign. But human expressions are not. Hopeful eyes and waiting smile.
“Ça va,” I say to her, and she glows with satisfaction. It’s good.
Unnamed girl. Weaving through the cars forced to a halt by the red light. Our driver rolls up the window when he sees her coming. She sprays Windex on the glass and holds up a cheap plastic squeegee. The driver waves her away. There is no money for you here.
She turns away and moves toward another car. Sprays again. The sheet of white foam melts down our window, drying into a blurred, shapeless smudge. I steal guilty glimpses of her through the smear. Red light turns green. Her silhouette could be mine in the darkness. Alone on the streets of Fes at night.
Mohammed. The face of a young boy with skin like smooth peanut butter. Fluent in four different languages—Arabic, French, Spanish, English. From twelve inches above, he pours Maghrebi mint tea and his story into my glass: the first I requested as a pretext for the second and he gladly obliged.
He works in the riad so he can one day attend law school; he wants to study civil law so he can help defend the helpless. Says the women in Morocco are not appreciated even though they are the ones fighting the hardest.
His girlfriend lives in Rabat—two hours and thirty minutes away by train—but they never seem to have time to meet. But that’s okay because they call every night and talk until everything falls away.
Mohammed is of the rare breed of human that feels everything much too deeply: three injections of anesthesia were of no avail against his nerves at the dentist’s. And when he first realized he loved his girlfriend, he exploded with emotion, and he vowed to fight for their relationship although her stepmother forbade it.
“Life is not about the way you look,” he told me before I left, “but about the emotions inside of you.”
Sara. A modern maid in modern Casablanca. The human incarnation of a willow tree—tall, slender, and graceful. She was tidying my room when I returned from dinner; the clothes I left strewn haphazardly on the bed were folded and arranged in a row. Her meticulous fingers ceased smoothing the linen when she noticed me, and she folded her arms over her little white apron and greeted me cheerfully in English. My shell broke.
As she glided around the room in her simple brown dress, she asked about America and I asked about Morocco.
She smiled when I wished I could speak three languages like her.
“Nothing is difficult as long as you have passion.”
Why someone as educated as her was a maid was a mystery to me, and my heart welled with affection for her. The room was spotless. I asked for her name and she for mine, and she repeated it to herself, slowly savoring every syllable.
Then, an inexplicable tenderness for this girl that I would never meet again swept me up and we shared a fond embrace—our first and our last. Her warmth lingered on my skin long after she left, and my heart grieved for the transient flame that sparked and died between two strangers.
America. First world country. Two political parties. Three mass shootings. A Vietnamese man and a girl sit inside a restaurant lit neon.
Lu asks, “Are you happy to be home?”
I pause. It’s been a month since I’ve last eaten from an earthenware tagine, relished in the distinctive flavors of Morocco. Before me is the best of Los Angeles’s spicy Chinese fare. I open my mouth.
I’m sad because I’ll probably never meet those people again, but at the same time I’m glad because I was blessed enough to even meet them at all. I finally know what you meant when you said travelling had one tragic flaw. But isn’t that just another facet of its beauty? To travel is to be vulnerable: to be human. Travelling makes you realize strangers aren’t just obstacles to be avoided, but fellow human beings. Human beings that bruise and yearn for love just as much as I do. If I could, I would do it all over again, even if it meant having to leave them six thousand miles behind again. Their souls have already touched mine. And that is enough for me. So yes, I am happy to be home. I am happy because I never left it.
I close my mouth. Instead, I say, “I wish I could say marhaban to all of them again.”
Many writers draw inspiration from “people watching.” We observe the people around us, we notice the quirks and traits; they are everyday people with everyday struggles. Onassa Sun honors them here, lifts them to the extraordinary.
EDITORIAL PRAISE FROM JOHNATHAN EIG, CREATIVE NONFICTION JUDGE
I love the detail. Love the dialogue. The writer has a great eye for detail. Palm trees act as stitches between desert and sky. Love it. This a rich and enjoyable journey led by a smart, eyes-wide-open guide.
Onassa Sun will graduate in 2021 from Arcadia High School in Arcadia, California. As a writer, she strives to capture the human experience with her stories and is fascinated by how writing can touch the hearts of people she might never even meet. During her free time, she enjoys reading, doing yoga, and spending quality time with her mother.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR