It was the time the dustcarts stopped coming and the city was on its knees.
We both arrived with posies. Kenzi held rosemary, a hardy aromatic, while I had wilting mint.
“Mint’s useless, Tarik,” she said. “Too weak!”
We’d arranged to meet inside the bar because the stink outside was unbearable. Nobody fixed open-air meetings anymore. Once upon a time we complained that Casablanca’s streets were areas of hostility, negotiation or, at best, guarded glances. The strike, though, rendered them wholly no-go.
Even the staunchest public space campaigners– who piped slogans like Share Our Streets and Pavements for Everyone – didn’t bother trying anymore. Too many overflowing bins.
My recollections of Kenzi had her down pretty positively, but we know how low light, fatigue and drinking affect memory.
Anyway, she walked into that grotty bar looking absolutely stunning. Stunning and sort of nervous in a funny way – all flitting and fidgety. Had we been walking, she’d have tripped over. Had we been eating fries, she’d have slopped mayo down her flowery dress. Had we been on bicycles, God only knows. But we were sitting, there in the grimy saloon, she switching her numerous bracelets between wrists, clattering them on the table. She was fun to watch, a fireside moth without the tragedy. Without so much of the tragedy. And I, the paralytic I am, made little movement, sudden or otherwise.
Slow…maybe I’m just slow.
“Kenzi – what are you drinking?”
Speciale, our local brew. Some describe it as watered-down water, others swear it beats imported stuff. Either way, it’s cheap. I liked that she went cheap with me, that she was OK in that dingy dive of a place. I’m fond of Casablanca’s worn-out bars but I’m not claiming to be I’m-so-proletarian. I have an alright job in advertising. I have a mortgage. Sometimes, I even wear a suit. But our city of five million was up to its neck in its own rotting rubbish and the only places open were some solemn cafes and shady drinking houses.
I wanted to ask Kenzi, straight out, the question that had led me to message her after all this time. But it felt too early on so I talked about the strike, as everyone did.
“So, it’s been two weeks,” I said, fingers turning my beer bottle clockwise. “How are you manging?”
“Well, I’m just like anyone stuck in a fortnight of trash, I guess… “ she began.
“Well, no, actually. Kind of awed.” She paused, eyes sparking as they had when we’d first met. “And fascinated at the same time!”
And she was off, talking again.
“You know, Tarik, fourteen days means the contents of eighteen hundred dust trucks is in our gutters. And no hope of a dustman materializing. Not even one. Vanished like by magic!”
She snapped her fingers, jewelry like windchimes.
I smiled at her gleeful take on what was, to all intents and purposes, doomsday.
“You think the Palace will do something radical soon?” I asked.
“Who knows?” Kenzi shrugged, then she bent in and hissed, “Is that what they’re saying?”
I couldn’t tell if she was bluffing.
Rumours ran rabbit-like through our city of murmurs, where neither official declaration nor hearsay is entirely true. The authorities announced that it was simply a pay-related strike. Darker mutterings told of disappearances, attacks, and abductions.
Claims varied. Some said the missing garbagemen were victims of terrorists, others described murderous highwaymen. But my favourite story blamed a posse of sorcerous prostitutes who’d charmed the rubbish collectors into abandoning their families and now had them living in naïve bliss in mountain caves. Gossip fled through the city’s passages. Fear was nice and fat.
Whatever the reason, the upshot was that all dustmen refused to work and that, weirdly, united all of us Casablancans. There we were, one minute so conscious of our different states and statuses, the next fused by the despair of communal trash, from soiled nappies to trimmed hair to tagine leftovers, it sat and leaked and festered.
Nobody got special treatment. Even the cawing upper classes lost their habitual exclusivity. Even the dogs and cats, no strangers to trash, were appalled. They sighed, like the rest of us, clasping noses beneath paws.
Stink is remorseless, indiscriminate. It gets everywhere and so, just as people did centuries ago (and still do in Moroccan tanneries), we took to carrying herbal posies.
Kenzi ground rosemary between fingertips, sniffing.
“You hungry?” I asked vaguely, signalling the barman for two more Speciale.
“Kind of,” she said. “Though I admit this stench is an appetite-killer. “What to eat… and where?”
Restaurants were closed. Nobody could bear creating more peelings, nor discard another delivery of fish. Roaches glowed with joy in the refuse, rats scampered readily up into toilet bowls, anything with a skin twitched with proliferating gnats.
Instead of eating, we smoked like a pair of burning fields to mask the smell. I’d started smoking again solely for that reason. I rationalised that if you have to suffocate, at least let it be in the name of hedonism instead of decay. Kenzi’s bangles clanked as she drank, chattering with delight about how the refuse cultivated a new kind of wildlife by her apartment block.
“Animals aren’t scared now that us humans are out of control – just incredible!”
She was ludicrously enthusiastic.
“There’s a whole new ecosystem forming – cats hunt rats who’ve got so brave that they pounce on those grubby storks that feed on trash and then they all get stung by rabid mosquitoes.”
Her zeal was too much. I gathered some guile and asked my question.
“Do you know anything about the burnings?” I interrupted.
That stopped the yakking. I should learn how to make small talk before delivering clangers.
She glanced at her phone. Pressed the central button. It lit her face, her black eyes letting go of carelessness for something troubled.
“What do you mean?”
“You know – that they’re going to burn the trash out of the city.”
“I heard rumours,” she said, gaze low, “but why are you asking me?”
I should also learn to be subtle.
“Everyone’s talking about it.”
“I thought of your Dad… you said he works with the authorities.”
“Dad’s from the road building department,” she bristled.
“I didn’t mean to be nosey,” I said.
She looked at her phone again, then back at me
“And besides,” she jerked her smile on, “he got fired two months ago.”
“Shit, Kenzi – I’m sorry.”
Slow I may be, but I still manage to be clumsy.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Disguised blessing, believe me.”
And she was off again. Chanting her background, her family’s sufferings, the whole lot.
I leaned closer and closer. She grinned more, each time I edged in. I watched her incantating mouth which never, never stopped talking. I wanted to catch her flying hands, hold them down, stop some of the movement. But two soldiers walked in.
We snapped up straight drawing in our hands. The soldiers scanned the bar, they scanned us and the collection of tables hosting beleaguered punters who sat fazed and vague.
The state had deployed the army to manage the situation. That is what happens under such circumstances. Troops were sent onto the streets to clear up what they could, protect who they could, and regulate public activity. Not enough, though, in a city that generates 3000 tons of trash per day. Can you imagine 3000 tons of trash? Can you imagine shifting it, disposing it, destroying it, hiding it?
And it was even more complicated. Since time memoriam the refuse tips out of town had been the revenue source for literally thousands of scavengers who make a living from salvaging garbage. Drive back from the beach at sundown, windows snug shut, and you’ll see silhouettes of foraging families and skinny sheep atop the mountainous tips. It was a territorial affair. Livid disputes would break out when one trespassed onto another’s zone. Policing all that had been problematic enough for the state, but now, now the system had been upset.
The rummagers who chose to wait for the handful of dustcarts that made it out to the refuse mounds, driven by a few scared soldiers, would battle tooth and eye over the deliveries. And then, when there wasn’t enough trash delivered, the scavengers began descending onto the streets.
The political domain of rubbish had totally lost balance.
The military was instated to keep Casablanca from tipping. Martials were everywhere. They knew of the threat of revolt, of confrontation, of fire-starters. They were unsmiling.
The soldiers in our bar lit a cigarette each, examined the punters, and left. I watched them close the door, then looked at Kenzi who whistled a sigh, rounding her lips into the most flawless ‘O’.
I should backtrack here to tell you we’d slept together once before, just in case you’re wondering if this is leading to an oh-wow love scene. That was already done after a late-drunk party where she’d started talking, long and confessional, about her sibling disputes and frustrations at the HR firm. I’d listen until she’d run out of words then I’d ask some small, open question and she was off again, speaking at tremendous speed before losing her thread, trailing like a deflating balloon.
It had ended in bed, absolutely electric.
Neither of us called, nor even messaged, the next day. Not even a lame emoji. Maybe it was a cat-mouse game, maybe a mouse-mouse game. There’d been no direct contact since, but here was Kenzi, back again and talking, talking, talking. All that big, dark ringed hair and beautifully lined jowls.
Two more Speciale. The beer was working through our empty bellies and that’s when she leaned in and said
“Tarik, mind if I ask you something?”
“Of course not.”
“Don’t think I’m weird.”
“And don’t lie.”
“I rarely lie.”
“Do you ever feel you’ve met your double?”
I didn’t lie or say anything else right away. I thought maybe she was on about that closeness you get when the chemistry is raging. The kind that makes you use terms like soul mate or other half.
I finally managed, “I know that sense of…connection?”
Her right hand propped her chin, the left lay flat, intruding onto my half of the table. I hooked my index finger into hers, she tightened hers around mine.
“No, not that! I know that connection. And, by the way, it’s purely chemical and ephemeral.”
My finger loosened of its own accord – was that disappointment? – but I caught it and held on.
“Well… I’m sure there’s a certain amount of cold science that plays a role but still…”
“No I’m talking about seeing someone as your double. You know what a double is – not you but your duplicate. Like you get the impression they see the world, sense it, like you do.”
“Like a body double?”
“No!” she huffed, frustrated.
I was frustrating.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m slow.”
“I get that double feeling with you. It’s like I look at you, talk to you and, I don’t know why, I feel like it’s me.”
I recalled looking at myself in the mirror before going out. How I’d bemoaned the grey tinge and bumps on my skin, how my beard was collecting some white hairs, showing them off against the black.
She, needless to say, had a stubble-free face. She had a really fabulous face, actually, but you could see that there were riotous things going on behind it. Maybe that’s what she was talking about.
“I guess I could try being you for a day,” I said. “Will that do?”
“Oh, never mind,” she smirked, shaking her head, rolling her eyes.
We smiled. Drunk was good. Our fingers were back together, tighter, climbing around wrists. I was thinking about sex even though it was hard to imagine amid the miasma.
Love in the dump.
She leaned forward again, swallowing a gulp of beer.
She whispered: “Do you think it’s true, what people say they’re planning?”
I looked at her and knew.
“You’re talking about the fires,” I murmured back.
“Yes,” she said. There was dread in her clasp, and also thrill, because people are as beguiled by fire as they are fearful.
Our pulses punched at one another.
I, too, leaned in.
“Yes,” I said very low. “I believe it’s going to happen.”
Our eyes blazed with the vision. I admit, then, that I could see my own mind behind her eyes.
“I believe they’re going to do it.”
We looked at our empty bottles. She pressed the central button on her phone.
“It’s nearly Nine,” she said. “We’ll have to go.”
Curfew. We had a curfew since the strike. The word curfew comes from the French couvre-feu, fire-cover, a term coined in the middle ages to avoid incendiary.
We left the bar, the penultimate punters. The pavements were all scattering, gnawing, scuffling and rarely was it human but we were the brave that night. I was brave with Kenzi and her bounding curls and endless voice.
The truths of a city are palpable in its public space. You can tell everything about a people when watch them in their own streets. If they march, if they huddle, if they stoop. If they look, if they talk, if they acknowledge.
We weren’t supposed to be out, let alone holding hands, but who cared anymore?
“I’m sorry I said that thing about being your double,” she said. “It was weird. I should stop talking sometimes. It’s corrosive.”
“No.” I said. “It was your talking that I liked when we met.”
“Yeah and then you never messaged me.”
“No, you neither.”
“It felt like there was time to wait,” I said, defeated.
“Right!” she blurted a giggle. “Me too. But now, there is only now, right?”
We walked and walked, watched only by mute soldiers. Sentries to the rot, all boots and helmets and cladding and masks. We, though, we were flowery dress and cotton shirt and her handbag that kept slipping down over her bracelets.
Casablanca’s two remaining possibilities were fire or plague. The risk was a simple calculation and casualties were certain. In-street incineration would doubtless lead to asphyxiation and flames escaping control. Plague, though, is worse. Plague is contagious, from person to person, parasite to parasite, and it infects water pipes – all the pipes that ruthlessly link us all together, whoever we are. Plague remains civilisation’s most malicious threat along with famine and war. All three were at our feet as we skipped through a burgeoning wasteland.
The burning would begin soon. Just as the Great Fire of London, in three days, eliminated the capital’s plague, so it could here, four centuries later.
The bars closed, the lamps faded. Street lighting was restricted, for darkness drew fewer winged, gnashing creatures. Even indoors, switches were pressed to off and blinds wound tight. We thought of air raids recounted by grandparents, we remembered the pitch excitement of power cuts..
We acted like we knew where we were going as we searched for some staunch clingers at life. And there, in the black, we saw something leaking from a doorway. We followed it, two thirsty insects. Above the entrance was written Chez Momo. Smoke crept with stealth from the door, that peeling door, which we pushed softly with flat palms.
Tea and shisha. The whole place was breathing with steam and smoke, consumed and exhaled through lips and nostrils. It was like arriving in some rebel paradise when you thought anathema was your only way home.
Life perseveres, all the same.
We took the only free table, low and square by the door.
“What flavour?” the waitress marched.
“What is there?” I asked.
“Rose, violet or mint,” she said, looking the other way.
“Mint,” said Kenzi. “Obviously we’ll have mint.”
I lay my arms over the back of the sofa, Kenzi leaned her curls into my hand and, for a short while, she shut up. She watched the ambling girl assemble the equipment, the tall shisha, the foil, the mint-scented blocks. The girl poured water in and lumped off.
We smoked, we blew steam at one another, we said how it was so soft, so unsatisfying compared to tobacco.
The manager came over.
“We’ll be closing soon,” he said, gruff and grey.
Kenzi’s eyes locked on him.
“We have the code,” she said.
We smiled at one another. All this time, we’d both had the code. The ignition code.
“Ok,” he said. His face somehow took on some light. “Yake three bottles at the bar. Fifteen dirhams a-piece.”
That’s how the burnings began. The authorities were too late for the people, the people who’d threatened to ignite their own city because they could wait no longer. There at the shisha bar. There, Chez Momo, who was long dead or, perhaps, had never existed, we watched them prepare the empty bleach bottles, filling them with petrol. The punters lined up. We lined up with the punters.
We took the bottles burbling with gasoline out into the dying city and we held our lighters in our pockets. We prepared to set alight to all that we knew, knowing that there would be death and tragedy, but also release. Knowing, above all, that after it was all gone, something would come back.
I watched Kenzi pouring and pouring as she ran, bangles jangling, whistling some inappropriate song, a nursery rhyme, I think it was. She hopped in a long, squiggly line along the mucussy pavement with the ease of a ladybird, arms whirling like wings, fluid gulping from her bottles. I watched her dance and spin, way up the street before she turned, curtsied, bent, and lit her path.