Chaouen, 1936

Second prize holder of the “Two Thousand Nights and Awakening” literary contest

He ran, barefoot, chased by two. His rather poor strategy to shake them off involved turning arbitrarily at every fork in the road. The walls and doors of the houses around him were painted sapphire blue. He feared he was running in circles. After all, he knew that although the city might seem blue from a street-level perspective, it looked white if contemplated from above.

The founders of the city were probably fugitives as well. That would explain why they built the city pressed between two mountains, instead of down by the river, in the valley bellow. If he were to venture a wild guess, he’d say they were in all likelihood hot on security measures. Alter all, they didn’t know whether those who made them pick up the habit of running in the first place would chase them all the way to their new homes. The horrors they must have been trying to escape from in order to choose the plight of the wandering foreigners who have to be constantly wading through the waters of the unknown over the alternative—whatever that might have been!

He wished he owned an impregnable blue fortress at the peak of a mountain in which to take refuge from his pursuers.

He entered the square. In the center stood a mighty pine tree with an almost perfect cone-like structure. The length of its branches was inversely proportional to the height at which they grew. The kasbah, with its red walls, lay to his left. Behind it, towered the big mosque. The square was abuzz with activity. It was swarming with street vendors, buyers, men, women, striped djellabas, white tunics…were those military uniforms?

He turned his eyes to the street from which he had entered the square. It was empty. It seemed he had managed to throw his pursuers off his scent, at least for the time being. Looking back to the square, he saw a few soldiers talking to some youngsters. Then he spotted the military van parked in front of the hotel at the other end of the square. Some guys were loading boxes inside of it while trying to stay unnoticed. Something fishy seemed to be going on. Their clothes looked dirty. The lucky ones were wearing torn sandals, the rest were simply barefoot. After taking a closer look at them, he saw they were scrawny. Their daily struggle to assuage their hunger was written all over their faces. “They look like me,” he said to himself.

He didn’t need to ask them where they were headed. It was an easy guess: Spain. His country was at war with its northern neighbor. Rumor had it that a pasha called Franco had emigrated to Spain to provide Spanish insurgents with military training. He had learnt how to conduct a revolution from his experience fighting against Abd el-Krim, the rebel par excellence. Apparently, Franco had asked just a small troupe of Moroccan soldiers to follow him and help him with his mission. He only relied on men for whose bravery and loyalty he could vouch. Well, if he could afford it, right?

His eyes wandered from the street he had left behind to the soldiers. He needed to find an escape route and exit the square before his pursuers arrived at it. The soles of his feet felt sore.

How could they not? How much longer would he be able to keep running?

Without giving it too much thought, he directed his steps towards the military van. The Moroccan sergeant standing next to the vehicle read his intentions from across the square and waved his hand at him to greet him from the distance. He seemed to be in his forties. Once he had gotten close enough that he could hear him, he pointed at the van and asked: “Are you coming with us?”

Before jumping head-on at such a propitious opportunity, he asked: “What’s in it for me?”

“You will be properly fed and clothed. Considering the condition you are in, that is an offer you might not want to turn down.”

“What if I said I can look out for myself. What other reason would there be for me to contemplate crossing over to Spain?”

“You will receive a daily wage. Additionally, we will teach you how to become a man. You will carry a weapon and command respect. Here, you are all on your own. Not only will you have to survive on your skills and wits alone, but you will also have to make sure not to get caught. There, on the other hand, you will be able to plunder to your heart’s content: be it a watch, cash, a golden tooth…, whatever floats your boat; and your battle buddies will be more than happy to turn a blind eye to your misdemeanors. Listen: you have to see every town or city that falls in the hands of the enemy as an opportunity to get yourself a treat. God willing, you’ll then return to your house, your bed, your wife and your blue door.”

The sergeant stopped talking as he realized that the young man he was addressing was staring at two men who had just entered the square from the street that lead to the fountain known as The Head of Water. After a brief pause, he continued:

“And if you have gotten yourself into some sort of trouble, know that no one is going to come looking for you as long as you are with us, nor after the war has come to an end. Your slate will be wiped clean and you will be able to walk with your head held high.”

He noticed that his two pursuers didn’t seem so eager anymore to hunt him down after seeing that he was standing next to the van. He cracked a cheeky grin of triumph, to which he made certain his pursuers paid heed. Afterwards, he took the hand the sergeant was offering him to help him climb into the van. He sat down next to the rest of the soldiers as the van started, setting out for Spain.

The author, Ali Al Tuma:

He received his PhD in History from Leiden University, located in Holland. He has won the El Hizjra Literature Prize in the short-story category several times and the Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity in the category of theatre scripts and plays. He wants to write a historical novel, but hasn’t found the time and motivation to buckle down to it yet.