“Truce is better than friction.”

Street sign

Follow John Prin on Twitter Like John Prin on Facebook Connect with John Prin on LoopDesk Connect with John Prin on Linkedin
 
Home Articles Personal Essay & Nostalgia Articles My Brother's Keeper, Moulay Brahim
My Brother's Keeper, Moulay Brahim
Written by John Howard Prin, LADC   

July 29, 1971. Palm trees stood like stately pillars outside the ancient walled city of Marrakech, Morocco. The morning sun beat down mercilessly. My wife Susie and I perspired like moist melons in the 110 degree heat. Arab women wearing formless robes and purdahs (veils) passed us carrying baskets of fruit to the noisy market where beggars, missing teeth and legs and homes, wailed for coins.

Our destination was Ouarzazate, a provincial capital some 250 kilometers away in the Sahara Desert on the opposite slope of the High Atlas Mountains. We were seasoned hitchhikers after four months abroad, travelers in our mid-20s from the United States having thumbed our way so far through Britain, France, Switzerland, and Spain. By noon we were 30 kilometers into the dusty foothills of these red mountains, when a donkey-driven cart loaded with fresh straw passed us by. Our last patron, a man driving a dilapidated tractor, had turned off the main road hours ago.

Hours passed.

As we watched the sun inching its way toward evening, a rickety Renault came into view. Crossing our fingers, we stuck out our thumbs. The Arab driver peered at us carefully, slowed down, and stopped. He must have thought two Westerners in blue jeans and work shirts with long “hippie” hair presented an odd sight. Another Arab man riding with him hopped out and held the door open while Susie and I struggled to fit our backpacks into the confined space.

But the driver's appearance made us hesitate. He was toothless, foul‑smelling, unwashed. He rattled off something in Arabic to the second man, who then looked at me as if sizing me up.

"I'm not so sure about this, Johnny," Susie whispered.

I nodded, frowning. The alternative of sleeping out under the stars was marred by the craggy terrain and the nocturnal presence of lizards and snakes. Turning to the driver, I spoke in broken French (French is the European language of Morocco), "Monsieur, you are headed for Ouarzazate — no?"

"Oui...oui!" he exclaimed. He made it seem there could be no doubt.

Shrugging, we got in. Susie sat in the passenger seat next to the driver and I jammed myself behind her in the back seat next to the second man, who seemed a bit friendlier than his companion. Within minutes Susie reported, "The driver just touched my knee, Johnny." Her tone was simple, but shaky with alarm. The driver apparently sensed this as well because a rapid exchange in Arabic with the man next to me followed.

Since the driver's French seemed no better than ours, might he be confusing what I had said about going to Ouarzazate? Certainly he didn't look like a long distance traveler. He and his friend were not dressed as many Arabs, in djellabas and baboush (kaftans and leather slippers). Rather, they wore farming clothes and appeared to be of the hardy Berber mountain breed.

"If he tries it again, we'll ask him to stop the car," I muttered. Before I finished the sentence, the driver unceremoniously turned right at a fork in the road leading away from the main road. Susie and I both sensed we were in trouble. For about three kilometers we jostled up and down.

"Monsieur," I said, "is this the way to Ouarzazate?"

"Oui...oui!" he reassured us, indicating it was a shortcut. He turned to look back at the second man, who also nodded, a bit too enthusiastically. The smell of alcohol on their breaths now became apparent as they laughed boisterously. Drinking alcoholic beverages is prohibited by the Muslim religion and these men appeared to have no qualms.

"He just did it again, Johnny."

"Okay, that settles it." I demanded that the driver stop and let us out. He ignored me. We bounced along the rutted gravel route another few yards. "But, Monsieur!" I protested. "This is not the main road!"

He shook his fist and turned livid purple at my reproach. Was this madman kidnapping us?

"It's obvious they're trying to rape me or rob us, Johnny."

In ironic contrast to our soaring fears, the dusky mountain peaks, green with summer foliage, passed us placidly outside the windows. At each bend, our frightened eyes gazed at the sparsely populated area inhabited only by secluded farms and a meager farming village. We were indeed strangers in a strange land. Up ahead, perhaps two or three earthen shacks joined by a flimsy fence formed a roadblock, a dead end. I patted Susie's shoulder. Now, I bet, is when they will attack us!

As the driver stopped, we pushed our backpacks outside, got out, and jerked them on. Staring at the men in defiance, we made an abrupt about‑face and started walking.  No thank yous, no good byes.

Instinctively, I clenched my fists. Let them come after us and I'd fight with fury.  After fifty steps we looked back. Barking dogs greeted the two men. A hundred steps later we dared to breathe, and 500 steps later we reached a bend in the road, with our backs to them and everything they represented. Though we still didn't feel safe, we felt free enough to work out a plan: don't stop, don't camp out, don't sleep until returning to the main road. We estimated that goal would take us until three or four in the morning.

As the full darkness of night was blanketing the serene rocks and peaks, we walked through the meager village. A group of young children watched us, then dogs, and finally some curious adults. "La bes," we said to everyone (a customary Moroccan greeting that means "no harm"). Suddenly a man's hand gripped my upper arm, squeezing it firmly.

"You are stranded, my friends?" His schoolbook French was easily understand-able. I looked but couldn't see his face; it was pitch black.

"We're just passing through," I said.

His grip tightened on my arm. "You are far off the main road, mon frere (my brother). If you wish, I will arrange for a taxi to take you back to Marrakech. Otherwise you and your femme (wife) are welcome to stay and share our house. My mother will be honored.

"A taxi?" sighed Susie. "Out here?"

"Merci," I told my anonymous friend, jerking my arm away. "But tonight we continue on our way."

We walked ahead another half kilometer until we heard a swooshing sound.  Bicycle wheels suddenly were churning behind us and the bicyclist zoomed past us, then stopped and deliberately blocked our path.

"Mon frere!" the same young man shouted. "You must accept my invitation.  Please, monsieur. My mother will not let me come back without you."

"His mother, right!" Susie humphed, insisting we stick to our plan.

"I think we should accept. I think he's being honest."

"Please, monsieur," he begged again. "We promise that you will come to no harm.  Tomorrow, after you have eaten and slept, you are free to go."

In the moonlight I saw for the first time that our Good Samaritan was really only a boy, not a man, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old. Like Susie, I was fully aware of danger, too, but a voice within me said to trust him. A still, small voice.

"All right," I told him. "We will go with you."

Susie objected more strenuously but I put my arm around her and calmed her.

Extending his hand, our new friend grinned, his smile visible in the moon's dim glow. "I am pleased, mon frere," he said. "My name is Moulay Brahim. Welcome to our village." We shook hands.

Moulay led us back to the village where a frail girl, waiting in the weeds, came out to retrieve his bicycle. We paused at a steep incline and followed him down a rocky cattle path as he lit matches so that we could find our way from the road on through vegetable fields to his house. After what seemed a half-hour we arrived. It was utterly dark, coal‑black as a cave.

First came the sound of heavy wooden hinges. A massive plank door opened.  Inside, under a roof of stars (the house had no ceiling), on her haunches tending a tiny fire, knelt an ageless woman, barefoot and tattooed, wearing her finest, shiniest beads.

"Meet Mama," said Moulay. "Mama, these are our honored guests." Standing up, she greeted us, bowing elaborately first, then kissing both of our hands.

Awed, Susie and I watched her prepare supper. Steaming pots of cous‑cous and boiled tomatoes were cooking on an open fire. She placed these dishes on a low, just‑off‑the‑ground circular metal table. This was their only furniture. Moulay lit a candle on a pillar, the only artificial light. He invited us to sit on fiber mats spread out on the earthen floor. Above us stretched the wide open starry sky.

I couldn't help thinking, God is watching over us.

An hour later, a dessert of fresh figs and mint tea completed the meal. The combination of extreme excitement and strange food had rattled us gastronomically.  Mama offered us some of her hand‑picked medicinal herbs. Our conversation continued late into the night. Moulay solemnly promised that the two men who had waylaid us would be dealt with sternly; he knew who they were by our description. Then came talk of our homeland, especially America's vast cities, skyscrapers, and freeways – were they really as huge as the photos showed them?

From dark crannies, meanwhile, rabbits scurried up and gobbled down morsels scattered on the floor. When it came time to sleep, we said good night and stretched out on mats in a tiny utility room near the cages for the rabbits and chickens.

The next morning we did not feel recuperated enough to travel to Ouarzazate.  Moulay was jubilant. He invited us to tour the village and acted as our guide. Showing us fields of onions and groves of pomegranates, he gave us an insider’s tour of the village mosque, the river where the villagers obtained water, and landmarks such as the general store and new granary. After lunch we went swimming in the cool, lazy river, joining two dozen naked boys. Picture‑taking and a game of checkers with Moulay passed the time while Susie helped Mama slice vegetables for supper. That evening, drum music and dancing by a crowd of neighbors topped off another of Mama's huge meals.

The following morning we once again set out to reach Ouarzazate. Mama packed us a lunch of flat bread, figs, and hard‑boiled eggs. Moulay looked sad to see us go. We, too, felt sad to leave. By now he seemed as much a brother as my own brothers back home.

"Vive, mon frere!" he repeated, escorting us out of the village.

"Vive, mon frere!" I replied, over and over, hoping we could someday repay his generosity and Mama's. At exactly the point where he had stopped his bicycle two nights before, we paused to say good bye. We embraced, then stood in somber silence.

"Mon frere," I finally said, hugging him. "Tell Mama we will always remember."

"Oui. Please remember this humble Muslim village," Moulay said.

"Always," replied Susie and I in unison. I felt a wave of warm feelings, of gratitude to God for this Muslim brother. At the time I did not believe in Jesus, but I sensed the Holy Spirit’s gracious hand on our lives nevertheless. And this memorable event would replay in my memory years later when I came to know Jesus personally.

Moulay waved goodbye for the final time. Susie and I looked back while walking away, sensing deep in our hearts a soothing peace that passed earthly understanding as we watched him and his tiny village disappear, a peace that stayed with us and confirmed that we are all our brother's keeper.

Thanks, Moulay.  Bless you, Mama.  Thank you, God.