Long ago in the happier world of the nineteen nineties, there lived in the ancient city of Marrakech a young man called Radouan al Uld Billah; short for Radouan-Jannat ibn Ibrahim ibn Abbas ibn Hassan al Uld Billah, who had recently managed to buy a small two-story house hidden in a corner of the Medina; the house of the last great poet of Marrakech, Chaiir el Hamra, dead now for forty years. The place was sparsely furnished: a trestle table, a long wooden bench and some oaken stools. Nearby a small room contained a cot, an ancient roll top desk, three walls of book shelves stacked with leather bound volumes in Arabic and French and a faded photo of King Mohammed V, the father of King Hassan II. On the fourth wall hung a lute and a drum and beside the desk a Kanoun.
Dawn was breaking. The remains of a meal littered the table: empty glasses, wine bottles and a package of Zig Zag cigarette papers. Thin wisps of smoke drifted up from the white ash of a burnt out cooking fire – evoking the memory of an abandoned Bedoui campsite, a more carefree age in which to contemplate timelessness, make love and maji with words and song.
Circling the trunk of an ancient lemon tree which grew in the courtyard, a large gray cat with golden eyes, stretched, sharpened its claws on the tiles, and sidled over to a mound of white wool blankets. The Muezzins had just finished their calls to prayer and Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, echoed through the city. Mohktar, a strapping youth of sixteen yawned, got up and performed his ablutions, slipped into a white cotton gandoura, spread out a prayer rug and knelt down. Still half-asleep, Radouan opened one eye, watched Mohktar skeptically and wished he could spend the whole day there; one whole, uninterrupted day. But it was not to be, of course, for today was April 12th, 1998, his thirty-sixth birthday and within the hour he was due at an old country house, the Ksar of his friend Baroness Minna. A big celebration, because it was her birthday too, her seventieth, and there would be an exhibition match between his team and one from Argentina.
Mohktar finished his prayers, put a Miles Davis tape on the new sound system Radouan had purchased and made some coffee. Radouan got up, stretched, splashed himself with water from a pail and shaved in front of a small mirror above the tap.
“Now I must go out among the foreigners,” Radouan said at last. ‘Really I would like to spend the whole day here with you - you know that - teach you to play the Kanoun, and we could decide what to do here. Look at the dust. I’ve had this place now for more than a year and it's time to fix it up.…everywhere the paint is peeling and there is a crack in the fireplace chimney. But today I have a big match and as I am captain of the team it is important that I be there early so I must leave very soon.’
After slurping their coffee in silence, Mohktar helped Radouan into his jodhpurs, helped him squeeze into his high black leather boots and a white pullover emblazoned with coat of arms of the team’s owner, an Englishman called Rupert. Then he watched approvingly as Radouan strode around the lemon tree several times, getting used to his uniform. ‘I need something to cover all this,’ he laughed with embarrassment.
Nodding thoughtfully, Mohktar produced a dark grey Jellaba, which he threw over Radouan’s head and pulled down over his jodhpurs until only the tips of his boots were visible. Then Radouan pulled the hood over his head, and kissing Mohktar affectionately many times, locked the door behind him and walked down the derb to where his car was parked.
At the polo ground he was greeted from every quarter with smiles and waving hands. Over at the small grandstand he could see the Baroness Minna welcoming her guests, directing them to a tent where Bull Shots, Bloody Marys and a full-on English breakfast were laid out. Only his friend Antonia was missing: she was going to miss his birthday because she didn’t want to see her ex-husband Rupert, the owner of Radouan’s Polo team - how stupid, he thought, how unnecessary.
The match was not easy; the Argentines were a formidable lot, well trained to work together, whereas players on the team Rupert had assembled horsemen from Britain, France and Morocco didn’t always work well together. In the end, however, Radouan prevailed; broke a tie at the last moment with a long shot and victory was theirs. Later, around the Baroness’ pool, a buffet lunch was served. There were toasts, salutations and a panegyric delivered by a famous poet from the Lebanon. Everyone danced to an orchestra playing hit tunes from the 1970’s. And as the afternoon light began to fade and the last of the guests departed, finally Radouan and the Baroness found themselves alone before the tall windows of her suite in the tower room of her Ksar, Dar el Chems.
©Elwyn Chamberlain 2006