Three Vignettes in the Shadow of COVID

~ Illustrations by Ken Wahrenberger ~

 


Before Curfew

A strong gale was blowing down Boulevard Hassan II as Abdelfattah paced the sidewalk in front of a shuttered café. Since the school closed where he worked as a guardian and parking attendant, he had been at home with his wife and three children, surfing precariously above the tide of anxiety that rose as quickly as his income had dried up. He was not salaried like the rest of the staff, and now he stood waiting for a teacher whom he enjoyed chatting with, this time for moral and material support.

“How long do you think it will last?” he asked the young man who sat on his bike with one foot on the curb. “Mon dieu, it can’t go on like this until September, I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The lines in his forehead seemed deeper beneath the brim of his baseball cap, and his voice, which could have belonged to a 1970’s radio host with its nicotine smoothness, betrayed more than a hint of exasperation. And exhaustion. After all, there would be no trillion-dollar stimulus plan for Morocco, maybe nothing at all even after the sudden largesse of the King trickled down through shadowy hands.

abdelfattah drawing

On a normal Friday afternoon, Abdelfattah would be in front of the school with a cigarette poised between his fingers, sitting on a thin piece of cardboard that doubled as a prayer rug. As the shiny, German-made automobiles dropped off and picked up their children, he would jog up and down, accepting with graciousness whatever metal dropped from their soft hands before the window slid silently up again. Still chic with his knock-off Ray Bans.

“Not even my own brother and father, wallah…” he shook his head, not looking at the bills in his right hand. Curfew was about to fall. Two uniforms were approaching on motorcycles as the wind carried off his parting blessings.

by Sam


In a Comfortable Rhythm

Psssst! Pressure cookers whistle from home to home like clockwork three times a day. Bells for summoning deities tinkle periodically and mothers chat across rooftops after taking the wash down. Little children aren’t allowed on most roofs it seems, but teenage jump-ropers come up and older uncles and aunties walk laps and swing their arms energetically. In Kathmandu the lockdown is being taken seriously but without drama. Masked people even mingle outdoors, which they weren’t able to do during the lockdowns of the last Maoist insurgency, apparently. But the money will soon run out as the nationwide closure is extended on a weekly basis to prevent alarm. The rhythm might be changing.

Opening the windows to let the incense clear out, Zak goes to the roof to look out at the city and bow to the Great Stupa, half visible from the three-story building where he took a room when it became clear that leaving Nepal would be impossible. He came on vacation to meditate and find inspiration at the holy sites of the Buddha. Having passed up repatriation flight offers to America, he considers himself very lucky to be “stuck” where he is. Had he made it to India as he‘d planned, things might not be so calm, and had his flight back to Thailand not been canceled he’d be subject to the 100°F afternoons of Thailand’s hottest months. Slipping into the rhythm of meditating, praying, studying Tibetan and eating two meals a day, the lockdown lifestyle couldn’t be better actually. (Now if only he could renounce his iPhone!) For those content in solitude and accustomed to somewhat austere lifestyles, little has changed. And if the local monastery’s library opened just one day a week, then Zak’s “normal” life would be complete. But this will do.

zak stupa drawing

Looking out at the springtime city, smog-less for three weeks now, it doesn’t look like the earth is trying to shake us off, but that seems to be the reality. Zak recalls the seers’ forecasts that predict this coronavirus being the start of a much longer and darker night for the world. Knowing this makes political defeats and everything else a bit easier for him to accept. And he’s accepted all of it by now. All that’s left is to get cooking.

by Zak


Playing the Blues Away

It was a few minutes from the hour on Sunday afternoon as Robin checked her computer to see how many participants would tune in for her live lesson: A Klezmer Tune a Week. So far, it had had overwhelmingly positive reviews from her devoted students, many of whom she used to see in person. Happily confined to their home in rural Upstate New York, she and her husband were grateful for the timely, and long-awaited, installation of high-speed internet.

As teachers, they’ve been spared from the tsunami of unemployment that is sweeping the rest of the country. For the time being, knowledge is still in demand. However, even the most recalcitrant old-school profs must finally face their encroaching adversary: virtual teaching. 

Luckily, Robin had already shown students from Australia to Iran how to make the clarinet laugh, growl and wail from the comfort of home. In fact, she was enjoying “social distancing.” Her new internet enterprise was becoming a hit, and isolation was nothing new in the house set 15 minutes from town, surrounded by deer who gamboled with undiminished bliss. 

klezmer mom

“But it’s sad when you don’t say hello to people, when you can’t chat with a friend at Latte Lounge,” she mused.

Even for those left high and dry, the honeymoon is giving way to hints of exile. It didn’t help that more people shot fearful glances from above their face masks at the grocery store, that some didn’t wear masks at all, or that moontape continued to be maddeningly scarce.

Poised with her clarinet in hand, she took a deep breath and said to herself: this will be easy. In the corner of her screen a small window reflected a transformed musician, framed by the art of her beloved home, and still quite beautiful. 

by Sam

Homage to the City of Flowers

As a newcomer to a city whose best days are at least ten years gone, it’s not quite nostalgia that you feel. There is longing, of course, but for something you can only imagine. It’s unlike what I feel for the humanity of the Kasba or the calm radiance of Sablettes Beach, experiences stolen by Lockdown. Then again, memory and imagination are both acrobatics of the mind in the present, so maybe the nostalgia is the same.

This morning, I woke up early feeling unusually energized – first I went to the roof to greet the day, but found it insufficient to impart the fullness of the morning’s beauty, so I put on shoes, a mask, and snatched my citywide hall-pass. On the street, I made it all the way to the Ali Ben mosque, but walking felt inadequate too, so I went back for my bike, the Greenway AKA the Black Bullet. Gliding silently down Boulevard d’Oujda on the Bullet, wearing my knock-off Adidas tracksuit as camouflage, everyone but me snoozed through the first hours of the day’s fast. The streets possessed a numinous tranquility beneath the dual effect of the pandemic and  Ramadan; it felt like skiing alone through virgin snow.

The winds carried me first to La Falaise, the Cliffs, where lovers meet by day and thieves scheme by night, or so I’m warned. Closed for quarantine, but open enough for my bike to slip past for the first time since mid-March, I rode along with my attention divided between the potholes and the magnificent Atlantic that slammed unseen on the rocks below. Memories stirred of how the Greenway’s maiden voyage was to the Cliffs with Ken, shortly after we’d bargained the price down from 3000 to 1700 D’s at a mechanic’s shop up in Hassania – a steal for a single-speed racing bike that was clipped off the streets of Europe and shipped south. That was a glorious day. This morning, the air was clear enough that the Casa skyline easily rose into view across the curve of the coast. In the middle of the urban sprawl, gargantuan Hassan II Mosque stood arrogantly in the waves, taunting Nature to contend with the symbols of man’s religion, as if his book of proof were more powerful than the ocean that constantly erodes the mosque’s foundation. 

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La Falaise
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The Greenway’s maiden voyage

Through the streets near the port, I cruise past all the fish restaurants with their identical blue awnings, menus, and signs saying Fermé. Ahead is the Catholic Church for the city’s many Résidents Français, a petit morceau of Europe where boys and girls wear shorts and play together beneath the old churchyard trees. Perhaps reluctantly, a police officer stands outside guarding the tiny French planet behind the gate.

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Port Restaurants
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The Park

I swerve to the left onto a narrow street edged with dust and debris from the construction of titanic buildings that will house glitzy new apartments. The height of these brick and mortar skeletons, draped with cranes and scaffolding, makes this street chillier and darker than the rest except for at midday. Maybe they’ll restore some of Mohammedia’s faint pulse when they’re decorated and inhabited.

At the top of the wide esplanade known simply as Le Parc, is the old Miramar Hotel (built in 1927) that belonged to King Hassan II and then later his son, the current ruler. It was Mohammedia’s only 5-star hotel, and in 1942 General Patton headquartered there when American troops landed at Mohammedia in Operation Torch. Owing to mismanagement, it was closed some years ago. At present, the hotel looks like a mirage, a crusty edifice crowded in by a jungle of trees and plants, and swarming with birds for whom Mohammedia was historically a trucker stop along the Great Migration. It ought to be restored if only because a whole city goes to seed when a main landmark is empty and dilapidated. 

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The Hotel, overgrown and off limits

My morning tour doesn’t ascend out of the flatlands of the centre ville with its humidity, higher prices, and government buildings. It doesn’t pass the train station whose massive panneau d’information can now display all the day’s departures at once because there are so few. It doesn’t climb up to Al-Alia, the Heights, where first impressions were made and where the price is right. Instead, it weaves through the confusing French streets of this industrial beach town, back through my building’s door which is always ajar, marches up the stairs and leans at rest against the wall before 8 a.m. 

I cannot speak for whatever bureaucratic vendetta drained Mohammedia’s parks and beaches of their funding, and thus their greenery and liveliness, in the years before I came. When my parents were visiting, they recognized the near-total vacuum of art and culture in Mohammedia, and mused that this is what Oneonta could become: pretty enough and livable, but lacking in vitality. “It is a quiet, comfortable city,” I was told at the Casablanca hostel where I stayed after landing with my backpack, suitcase and sitar. 

That it is! and I do love Mohammedia even though it doesn’t have the charm of Essaouira or the storied past of Salé, the pirate haven of olden days; even if there’s not one cinema for its population of 200,000; even if I feel like a foreign observer after eight months; even as I grow nostalgic for it while I’m still here. It’s one of the only places I’ve lived where my drive to move on has evaporated into the striking blue sky. 

In Search of Spring

Silence, allow me to disturb you for 1,008 words. There’s been so much time, such full time, but so quickly it’s tomorrow, and tomorrow again. It’s an in-between time, a liminal space that gradually gives way to a new normal. Off the bus, back on the street, but this time as tourists in a city we used to live in. We don’t love it, that’s for sure, but we’re hoping the cherry blossoms of spring will redeem the heaviness of winter, and that people will lighten the hell up. When spring comes. 

As denizens of the liminal space, we ought to inspect our surroundings. First the word: the in-between. In Tibetan, it’s called the bardo. Between death and rebirth, between sleeping and waking. In the synapse between each inhale and exhale, it is that space defined only by what it is not. In the Book of Natural Liberation Through Learning of the Between, better known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the arc of a soul’s journey is mapped out from before death, to the days immediately following, and then beyond, past the shore where those monks and friends stand chanting “Take heed! take heed!” as the roar of time pushes onward. If the soul is powerless to see through the red winds of karma, powerless to WAKE UP in the phantasm of the bardo, which itself marks the end of the dream of life, then it takes another form. Animal, human, hungry-ghost, demigod… Buddhists have their categories, and each one has its obstacles.

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The Six Realms of existence in the Wheel of Becoming

Karma dictates that you choose your own fate. Or, as my favorite prof Robert Thurman says, karma is evolution. At the end of Plato’s Republic, in the Myth of Er, souls are gathered to select their rebirth, each one deciding according to the limits of their evolution through past experiences. Remembering his inferiority to Achilles, Ajax chooses the birth of a lion where he can be the most fearsome of animals if not of men. Agamemnon recalls his hatred for the human race and its misery, and picks the life of an eagle. The last to choose is Odysseus, renowned equally for his intelligence as for his suffering. He has known the emptiness of glory, so he takes the quiet life of an ordinary person and says he would have made the same choice if his lot were the first. “No photos, please.”

While perhaps heroes and hungry ghosts all have the chance to self-realize in the moments after death, Buddhists believe that only humans have that capacity all throughout life. Right now. And now. Yet we’re so distracted by our desires, our needs and even our language. It’s like trying to cut across two lanes on the Jersey Turnpike to Exit, whereas in the bardo all the traffic is stripped away. That’s where we are now, but as we cruise we’re still drawn by this vision of earthly renewal and repulsed by that of each new headline, each hard look at The Facts. Some have it much easier than others, but everyone still has their own message to hear. 

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Not the Jersey Turnpike

Between wondering what mine is and performing in the world of appearances, performing for my students whose unique energies are now sequestered within a range of pixels on my screen, a dream of the future comes to mind. We have a spring festival more glorious than any elder can recall! We taste the sweet air and decide to order more of it! The Green New Deal is mainstream policy, not the least because we’ll need a New Deal. As we patch together the tatters of the economy, maybe governments worldwide will choose to use only those strips that are lightest, most efficient, and LEED-certified. So the vision goes.

Or maybe our moment will come when the air darkens again, and this time we notice it ourselves. After all, lines on a graph, no matter how precipitous, can never stir hearts like lived suffering. Like a plague. Although, for Pharoah, it took ten of those.

We have to be realistic in this in-between. When it comes to realism, also called the Absurd, who better to ask than Albert Camus? In his novel The Plague, the citizens of Oran struggle and adjust as the Devil’s whip flails the air above their city, killing and killing. But after a year, when the disease breathes its last in a main character’s lungs, the exultation and the mourning of the masses make them forget that the bacillus never dies, it only retreats. Though reborn, they’re not quite enlightened. “Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people ‘were just the same as ever,’ but this was at once their strength and their innocence,” Camus writes.

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What we’re in is more like the impossible edge of a shadow: the penumbra. A penumbra exists, but strangely. Without an intrinsic, bounded self, it is not this, not that. We see it only in relation to everything else. Just so – no clear beginning and end dates rise to meet our grasping minds, though I will remember where I was on January 21st when I saw the NY Times notification about an “unknown virus.” At a departure gate in the Rabat Airport, about to be a tourist in a city I used to live in. 

How is this moment so different from that one? In twenty years, we’ll have markers for the life and death of this non-living virus. But now that we’re all here, can we acknowledge that they will be fake? We’re still processing WWII, which “ended” in 1945, and no date will grace the tombstone of American democracy. Every idea that is born and blow that is struck seeps through the bars of Historical Event.

We are in-between, but that’s only partially true. So, when will we change and make good our promises and visions? I imagine if you awaken in the bardo, you know yourself and simultaneously the in-between as wisps of a dream. The time is now. And now. 

A Dog, a Piercing and a Tattoo

Not far from the train station in Rabat there’s a café called Autour du Nil. Though it really means “Around the Nile,” my sophomoric French translated it to “Surrounded by Nothing,” which still seems more fitting. Inside, grainy recordings of Arab music blare while the owner sings along, puffing from a pipe and shimmying through the cigarette haze to kibitz with each customer. His little dog sits patiently by the door, his little dog whose name stands out amid the scrawl of my journal because the owner took the liberty of adding it himself: Skypie. His name is also there on the page in the same font that alternates between capital and lowercase letters, complete with a signature beneath: Khalil.

Khalil’s left earlobe is pierced with a tiny red stone, like mine with a small silver hoop, and an amorphous black tattoo shows from his left hand, middle finger adorned with a jade ring. This is by far the most unusual older Moroccan man I’ve met in a most unusual Moroccan cafe, but more than I could have hoped for after turning down a new street quite literally for the hell of it. Romantically, I think to myself how there’s always a gem like this at the end of a road you take when you’re feeling inspired, adventurous and full. They proliferate for the seekers and those who say ‘yes.’ Or maybe just for me; none of my English-teaching cohort would stumble in here where there’s old men and no WiFi, though I admit, it was the first thing I asked for when I entered. My millennial ass nearly walked off when Khalil’s eyebrows drew together at the sound of “weefee,” but turned back when the realization of what I’d just seen dawned on me. No one here has a dog, a piercing and a tattoo. No one lives quite so freely, dancing in a cafe unknown to Google Maps with the music turned up loud, I thought from the opposite street corner.

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us,” says one of my inspirations, Joseph Campbell. Adjusting this wisdom down to the scale of a sugar spoon, I decided the laptop could wait another day. “A tea, please.”

“No tea. How about an Espresso?”

Bon, let’s make it half and half, qahawa nass-nass.” 

By then, I knew I wasn’t there for any reason of my own choosing, so I let Khalil write in my journal and buckled in for the double strike of caffeine and a second-hand cigarette high. Cackling above the din, he informs me the singer is Algerian.

The barista section looks like someone’s kitchen at home, unsurprisingly like that of an old, pre-internet man. Papers strewn and dusty, a desk lamp and some hoary candles standing tall above a counter of assorted tzotchkes. It reminded me of the refrigerator in the Wood Bull antique shop where I used to work, whose equally zany owners, Kip and Judy, often talked about their Moroccan travels across five decades. 

Khalil proudly calls out in English, his voice like Don Corleone’s but louder: “Salim, how was the coffee? I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the compliments. Make it perfectly!” Another café nass-nass appeared on the table, half espresso, half steamed milk. 

This feels as close as I’ve come to the Morocco of the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, the Morocco which congealed out of smoke rings while I sat somewhat cluelessly in my senior dorm on Riverside Drive. Molded also by Kip and Judy’s tales and my lurking Orientalist imagination, this was the place. Khalil’s eyes sparkle in the lamplight from behind the counter – the look of a man in his element. The soundtrack changes, it’s a singer from Fes, dead in the ‘90s, the patrons grumble confirmation from under their mustaches.

Above me is a drawing of the man himself with his dog, sketched by a friend’s hand. They stand in the doorway with its old, 8-faced green glass lamp dangling, and beyond the threshold is a sea of clouds. I wonder which one I’m perched on right now, surrounded by nothing. Occasionally Khalil comes by, bends over my writing with his reading glasses, hand on my shoulder. We’re both getting a kick out of this. 

“I love my king and my country,” he mutters in French and Darija, making me laugh in disbelief. But I stop under the force of his steady gaze, unsure if it’s a joke. There’s a surprising amount of military paraphernalia Around the Nile, so much that I think it must be ironic. After all, the police barracks around the corner ensures most of the clientele is flag-sporting pork, sitting alone or being noisy from within their dark uniforms on the small metal chairs. Khalil chums it up with all of them, leaning against the walls covered with burnished artifacts of an older kingdom: ornate brass hunting horns, powder kegs, lamps, more pictures of the King, and gilt verses of the Qur’an in frames not quite straight.

I just don’t get it. This whole scene is puzzling even as I resist the need to “get” anything at all.

But what I do get, after a few more visits including one with my whole family, is that Khalil is another citizen sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, between desire and convention. When last we met, he bellowed cynically that his favorite customers come in, drink their coffee and piss off. Then, with genuine softness, how his mother is his whole world. This time his guttural French was perfumed with spirits as it wafted over the small granite tabletop. Ear pierced and unmarried, Mom, Dad and Zak were quicker to guess the truth than me.

Strangely feeling like I had the upper hand, I searched his inscrutable gaze for subtext and meaning, trying to glimpse the depth of his experience simmering beneath mentions of Thailand, Spain and France “il y a très longtemps.” Maybe this is the mark of charisma, but all that reflected in his yellowed eyes last Monday evening were good stories untold and a trace of pain.

Reality slaps, and slaps again

Feeling a little pent up, I threw on my coat and went out the door with the excuse of seeing about having our pitiful carpet cleaned – the first step in a patently bourgeois mishap. I made it down one flight of stairs before crossing my chest with the SpectaclesTesticlesWalletWatch genuflect, then bounded back up when my wallet missed roll call. I wasn’t expecting to need it, but it has a comfortable presence in my pocket all the same. 

On the street, every passerby breathed a soft presentiment, except the children bouncing home from school in their white lab coats. The sea breeze, filtered by a hulking oil refinery, brought fumes. Ahead I could see a man whose blue and black jacket I knew well, walking in the same direction as me across the street. We’ve spoken before: his smooth, but incessant French always draws me in for a few minutes before I inevitably bow out, almost impolitely, like slipping away from an elder family friend brimming with so much experience they never stop sharing it. His fluency stands out from the rest of the mecs in the neighborhood, and, to be fair, I learn more than just language from him. But like the old family friend absent-mindedly turning down the dial in their hearing aid, his fluency also conceals the need to speak to someone. And Taariq’s (fictional name) words further conceal the need for money, which he expresses as casually as possible when I begin to slide up the street toward my building. A coffee at a cafe, that’s all, and I always give him enough, something just short of folding, feeling the wedge it drives between us. A wedge that was always there, but had to be uttered at last.

But on an aimless excursion, you (or maybe just I) try to keep it light as the breeze, passing through as if the world were a simulation that functioned as normal, only without any hangups, nothing too heavy or tedious. Here begins the loathsome tale of the well-fed and fancy-free. 

The street itself, taken just before I met Taariq for the first time.

Seeing Taariq not see me, I listened to two opposing voices in my head for a second and a half, then turned on my heel to take the long way. It felt better, now, walking more truly alone with the anticipatory phantoms of conversation no longer a possibility, and thus silent in my mind. The wind still reeked.

When I got to Mohammed the Grocer’s, he was immediately there. Walking purposefully with his eyes fixed ahead, though just fixed enough that their peripheral intent was palpable. Suddenly he changed from justpassingby to fancyseeingyouhere: “come away a bit, I want to talk to you.” The image of an inwardly fuming grade-school principal, whose single beckoning forefinger could inspire Hitchcock, flashed before me as a weight dropped in my stomach.

Viens,” he said again, from just beyond the invisible but existent threshold of the grocery stand. 

Playing it cool, I said hellohowareyou, where can I find a carpet cleaner, fool that I am, pretending to ignore his eyes which screamed, “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK.” He had a fast, wild look in his face, and when he took my arm to lead me ostensibly to the Lavage across the street, I felt an angry force in his touch. I shrugged him off, turning back to the safety of Mohammed’s vegetable domain, lighter and protective even if, or perhaps because, Mohammed still calls me Ken. 

Just as quickly, Taariq disappeared, and I bought two oranges in a feeble attempt to make it seem like that was why I’d come there, smiling through my anxiety. Before leaving back the way I had come, I gave my change to the old, half-blind man who always sits in front, and who had mouthed a kind “Salaam, kulshi bikhair?” to me somewhere in the haze of the encounter. 

take that, Instagram!

Oy! Taariq must burn at my financially secure demeanor, passing through his country like it were an amusement park, my blue passport ever at hand to whisk me back to some imagined paradise with its favorable currency and unique depravities. But maybe that’s taking it too far. Fear clouds judgement so consistently, yet that beast in his eyes was Hunger all the same. What it does to him it would do to me, just not this time. So, I scamper off to my safety, my roof with an oddly large orange to snack on, a brutally industrial horizon to muse at, muse about my place in this human forest that unveils its jarring darkness and danger so seldom to me. I muse about the faraway shape of my friend who prowls his sidewalk in front of the salon as if held there by a curse, a trapped and suffering being who makes an easier study of Great Compassion from a distance. 

P.S.: My last words preceding this post were an exhortation to recall abundance, now, just a day later, I’m confronted with its unavoidable limits. Rather than take it back, I prefer to cope with the contradiction. 

Translating Christmas

I wonder what Jesus would put under the Christmas tree. Dates from his native Palestine would do it for me, and perhaps also a beatific scarf or sweater! For others, a newspaper, a book, or a map coded toward self-realization and compassion. Alas, maybe my sweater wouldn’t make the cut after all. 

If he were buying for someone in Morocco, he’d have to translate the card from his native Aramaic into Moroccan Darija, a mix of Arabic, Amazight, and French. To decorate the tree, he’d have to take a taxi to the big box stores on the edge of the city where the capitalist ritual of Christmas appears most clearly: how many people here are really going to buy all those garish decorations? The workers wearing red hats with a limp white pompom on top stare at their phones. 

For dinner, Jesus might sit down to eat a kefta tagine of beef, tomatoes, eggs and cumin, sparing the Christmas ham for believers in other corners. Above all, he’d have to explain why, on this most ordinary of Wednesday’s in December, there was an uprooted tree with gifts underneath it in the middle of a house. And someone else would have to explain to him what some old man with a beard, a red onesie, and a sleigh of reindeer has to do with his birth in a manger. Even us Americans over here would be hard pressed on that charge. 

Blvd Mohammed V in Rabat
Blvd Mohammed V in Rabat

In spite of the 70-degree weather and the absence of Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey, I managed to remind myself throughout the day to be extra generous, kind, and hopeful. And I always feel how an act of generosity momentarily erases the ego, for you see the truth that the happiness of another is intimately bound up with your own, that in fact, they were never separate to begin with. Maybe this is how I would explain our Christmas to Jesus.

Dates and chocolates to Mohammed the grocer and Rachid the parking attendant; a short sitar serenade for my friends and a 40% tip for a plate of beans; they aren’t much, but they’ve helped to make this day sacred.

Alhamdullilah, may we always recall abundance! 

A karmic walk with thee

In the painfully short interval between the day we were told who we’d be teaching, and the first day of classes, my roommate and I were crossing the train tracks, heading home. Codes like YL3, T14, and Int4 had been hurled at us, codes that poorly concealed the fact that we’d be teaching English to little children, teens, and adults. The city swarmed in the heat as we climbed uphill, through neighborhoods that seem to exist universally beyond the train tracks, through Mohammedia. My chest felt tight, less from the pollution and the incline, more from the thought of standing in front of a classroom of people. Checklists, rubrics and Uncertainty crowded my mind as we meandered among the sights and smells I had imagined myself immersed in. Not work, which loomed over us at last with its penumbra of Adulthood. Confining, it tastes like a dirty word to me even now.

Conversation looped round and round, and we decided to turn down a new street thinking it would be more direct. In fact, we ran out of street altogether. Passing through the little gate at the end, we walked into what looked like a park at first, then an orphanage, and finally a school. I’m sure we were trespassing, but there’s a privilege you usually have as a white, American duo looking somewhat well-dressed and woefully out of place. Across the courtyard, we merged into a tide of students going home and with them we squeezed through the far gate onto a street near where we’d started. Students shouting, running, being awkward, being friends – I turned to my roommate and asked, “Do you know much about karma?”

students at my school

We’d been in the country for less than two weeks and were still probing each other to see how parallel our personal rivers of Experience ran. Mine ran through the Bhagavad Gita, through yoga and diverse musical traditions; it veered sharply away from the self-assured, “practical,” and disenchanted departments at college; it went through a restaurant in Upstate New York where, during the summer, I’d cooked and worked alongside witches and yoginis who whispered blessings over their food before leaving it at tables. Isn’t it so much more fulfilling to live by the magic of coincidence? isn’t that such a better way to make meaning in life? 

We walked on with our foreign gait, speaking our foreign words, snippets of which echoed behind us in the pitch of students’ voices, exaggerated and accented – we were leaving a school. Dressed like we would be in our school, standing out like we’d be in our school, uncertain in our newfound authority like we’d be in our school. “Doesn’t it seem like these kids have materialized out of our conversation?” 

As I’ve learned, karma is a process of evolution, not retribution. There is no Invisible Hand that comes to smite you for wrongdoing or shower you with flowers for good deeds. There is no Him and me, this and that; there is only your intentions, actions and reactions, all working together to guide you into your reality. And now our reality was school, waiting for us even after a wrong turn onto a dead-end street.

“Smh karma I’ll never understand you,” Ken texted later on, making me laugh and forget the knot in my chest.