As I sifted through a pile of second-hand sweaters on the sidewalk, two children, maybe eight or nine years old, extended their dirty hands towards me. One wore a tank top and greasy cut off khakis, the other was dressed in oversized shorts and a coat branded across the chest with orange letters J-A-C and K-E-T split by the zipper. Both held an empty plastic bag. As they begged for one dirham, the equivalent of about ten cents, the sweater vendor shoo’d them away. Before disappearing into the evening crowd they dug into a public trash can and chucked garbage at the vendor, who told me they are street kids, orphans probably, who sniff glue all day.
I stopped in a medina shop to pick up some last minute souvenirs for my siblings’ kids and ended up purchasing some “illegal” colonial coins. Modern currency is not supposed to leave the country, but older coins are what’s usually confiscated at the borders. I couldn’t resist the beautiful artwork—a Star of David flanked by Arabic script, the Muslim year, and a French slogan. I might have merely gawked, but the man who was helping me said his daughter lives an teaches in Carrboro, NC, and I was inclined to spend a couple extra bucks. We exchanged emails and that night I got a message from her; she offered me Arabic lessons when I get home.
The next morning I caught a cab at 5am to catch a flight to Casablanca. I’d connect there to Lisbon, where I’d stay one final night before heading home. Chatting with Mustafa, the cabbie, was a perfect way to end my stay in Tangier. We spoke in spanish and he told me all about his wife and two kids. He was an artist, but said now his family was his focus. One day he’ll paint again, not until his kids are grown. “How many kids do you have?” he asked. When I told him, he asked how old I was and said, “You are still young. You can still be a father. I will pray you have at least one. Insh’Alla.” Funny, I had been thinking about the same thing.
At the airport I checked my backpack because I knew the connection in Casablanca was tight and I didn’t want to deal with it through customs. Plus, I had two bottles of olive oil from my friend Habte and was uncertain of the airline’s carry-on rules.
The plane took off on-time, then flew east and away from Casablanca as passengers hit their call buttons to ask why. The flight attendants didn’t know and seemed concerned too. The flight was supposed to be 50-minutes to Casablanca, but there was no way we were going to arrive as scheduled. But this was the least of our worries—we were nearing Algerian airspace and with all that was going on there lately with extremist groups, I considered the worst case scenario. Folks shouted from their seats, or got up and demanded information. One guy kept asking the flight attendants if they knew who he was, and didn’t they realize he could make their lives miserable. From what I could tell, he seemed to be the plane’s biggest direct threat. I figured we were all powerless, and until we knew what was going on there was no sense getting all crazy.
The plane descended while the pilot announced that we were landing at the Oujda airfield, 20k from the border. We’d stay no more than 10 minutes, then take off again for Casablanca. A man next to me said such unplanned stops on Royal Air Maroc was unheard of, but he wasn’t worried—he’d be my cue if and when the time came to freak out.
Though the landing was smooth, the pilots quickly slammed the brakes as a black, unmarked bus with tinted windows sped to meet us. The front cabin door opened before the mobile stairway was placed. The plane filled with cool air as we waited. I heard footsteps outside, some muffled conversation, and then at least two dozen muscular, zit-faced men in blue Adidas sweatsuits boarded, swaggering down the aisle. The pilots had apparently diverted our flight to stop and pick up some regional soccer team. Most of the passengers audibly sighed their relief, then seemed delighted to share the plane with the future of Moroccan fútbol. But this stop presented a problem. I knew that even if I successfully made my connection in Casablanca, my unlabeled backpack would not. Heading back to the US tomorrow made matters even worse.
Sure enough, I was right.