9 Cigarettes

Mohamed awoke on the rooftop a little before dawn and ate the honeyed nuts he had saved for his breakfast. Mohamed was not his real name. He had forgotten the name his mother gave him just as he has forgotten her. It was as if he had been born one day nine years old with the knowledge of how to make a beggar face, weave a camel from a palm leaf, and say “I didn’t do nothin.” in five languages. He stood on the edge of the roof and peed down the rain spout watching the dawn break over Marrakesh. He had ten dirhams and nine cigarettes. He couldn’t decide if he wanted a yogurt, a plate of steamed snails, or a pastry. If he kept the dirhams and sold the cigarettes and if he could find the American and sell him more woven camels at three cigarettes apiece, he could sell those, buy hashish and still have ten dirhams. He was rich.
As the crackling loudspeaker blared the call to prayer he made his way down to the street careful to avoid the other boys and the men who tried to catch them. He stood in a doorway in the souk humming a song he heard on the radio and lit a cigarette. The yogurt stand would open in an hour and the old man would take three cigarettes for a yogurt. That left five. If he couldn’t find the American he could try the German couple from yesterday but they only payed one cigarette per camel and they made him make six but only bought one. The shops were opening and the dealers and craftsmen were setting up. Soon the souk was a hive of activity there were radios playing and people talking, hammering tin, working sewing machines, and foot powered lathes.
Mohamed was the first customer at the yogurt stand. The old man smiled at him and said “You know I don’t take cigarettes from the other boys, only cash. But for you little Berber…whats a satim to a cousin” “Thank you sir.” he replied The old man said this every time, and Mohamed was never sure what he meant. He crouched down behind a basket stand and ate watching the cafe for the American.
The first time they met he tried to steal his wallet. The American slapped his hand hard and Mohamed started swearing “merde, je n’ai rien fait…Yo no hice nada ..Shit, I didn’t do nothing.” “Yeah ya did you’re tryin to steal my wallet.” Mohamed rubbed his hand and put on his best beggar face.
“You are American? Madonna, Cat Stevens.” Sam laughed “Yeah I’m American. Excusez-moi garçon, un croissant pour mon ami.” The waiter was visibly angry that Sam had asked a street urchin to sit down at the cafe but he brought the croissant and asked Sam if he wanted another cappuccino. Mohamed pulled out a small palm leaf camel and said “you buy? Five cigarettes.” “Three.” Sam replied. “ Are you from Taghijit? That’s the only place I’ve ever seen those.” “Four.” Said Mohamed. “Three.” Sam replied. Mohamed put three more camels on the table and Sam picked two and gave the little boy six cigarettes.
“Give me one dirham.”
“I gave you a croissant and six cigarettes.” Sam laughed “And now you want money?” Sam felt bad that he had slapped the boys’ hand even though he was a thief. He could feel the waiter becoming more and more angry. So to get rid of the boy, he handed him ten dirhams under the table and said, “For your mother. No for you vous famille. Savy?” He waved the boy away and went back to his book. The waiter came to the table “No good. Rats. One time OK. No more. Savy?” “Savy.” Sam replied.
Mohamed waited everyday to see the American again and he was sure today would be the day. As the sun rose higher over the square Mohamed sat in the shade behind a basket stand weaving his tiny palm camels and watching six boys surround groups of tourists and maybe they got three dirhams between them. He had no need of company and no desire to split his money. He knew they would take his if they could, so he watched them like a mouse watches a cat. He always knew where they were and made sure they didn’t see him. He thought of himself as a ghost no one knew him and no one could see him unless he wanted them to. He knew every street kid, every hustler, every pervert, every religious fanatic, and every cop. He had the square, the souk, and all the people in it mapped out.
He was weaving with extra care as he was also waiting for the Germans to come back and this time he was not going to settle for less than two cigarettes apiece before noon. If he couldn’t sell them he would drop his price to one so he could sell the cigarettes and buy hashish before dark.
He went to the roof top of the crazy woman’s house everyday at sunset knowing the other boys were scared of her. Her name was Hala. She was a wealthy widow with no sons who even the sanest vendors in the souk thought was a witch. Sometimes she would leave a melon or a few dates on the roof for Mohamed even though she had never actually seen him. But Mohamed had seen her: buying food in the souk, haggling over the price of a new frying pan, he followed her for days to see if she really was a witch. One day he watched Hala try on hijabs one on top of another and looking at herself in the mirror. The vendor was furious but knowing she was a witch he couldn’t say anything. So she kept layering them ten, twelve, twenty scarves. Then she put them all back and didn’t buy any. That was the day Mohamed followed her home and took up residence on her roof.
In the dark night they always knew where each other were. He could tell what room she was in and whether she was happy or sad by what was on the radio. She could tell when he was staring out at the square with its fires, storytellers, and snake charmers or sitting under his dirty tarp smoking hashish and singing the songs he made that day.
Buy noon he had sold five camels to a group of Spanish tourists for five cigarettes apiece, and begged three dirhams. He bought a full gram of hashish, a bowl of steamed snails, and a large bag of honeyed nuts. His work was done. And he still had the ten dirhams. He thought of buying a gift for Hala he looked at the silver earrings and the silk hijabs, he looked at shoes and frying pans. He thought if he could sell five camels a day he could save three dirhams and in six days he could buy her a set of Tupperware. Mohamed looked out at the square from behind the basket stall. The boys were gone to the bus station to beg. He walked past the orange juice stand to the cafe where the American was drinking coffee and smoking hashish with a Berber guide who he knew to be fairly honest. “Hey American.” “Bonjour mon ami” Sam replied. Mohamed didn’t need to beg he wasn’t selling anything he just wanted to say hello to the kind American. Seeing Mohamed the waiter didn’t hesitate. He walked up to him and started yelling at the boy to leave. Mohamed tried for a second to explain that he wasn’t begging, that he only wanted to say hello to the American. The waiter punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground. Mohamed stood up, defiant tears of rage streaming down his face. He walked off and the cafe returned to its conversations and cappuccinos. When Mohamed returned holding a brick only Sam noticed him at first. But in a moment it seemed like the whole square was watching him standing there huffing and sobbing waiting for the waiter to walk outside. Sam walked up and put his arm around the boy turning him around away from the cafe whispering “Tranquil mon ami, tranquil” Mohamed looked across the busy square and he could see Hala watching from the basket stand. He dropped the brick and ran through the back streets of the casbah and up the stairs to where he knew he could be alone. Crouched in a corner he lit a cigarette, ate some honeyed nuts, and sobbed until just before sunset.
He made his way across the square and into the souk without being seen by anyone. He climbed up the wall to the roof and there in the corner under his tarp was a clean rug, a pillow, and clay pot of roast chicken and couscous.

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