Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 7 No. 4 | Winter 1985 (Seattle) /// Issue 14 of 24 /// Master# 62 of 73

At theWaterWheel By Jess Piper ILLUSTRATION BY JIMMY JET Iwent in the evenings to sit with the boy where the blind camel turned the water wheel. It was cool under the white dome. The only sound was the clop of the camel’s hooves and the elongated groan of wooden gears. After the hubbub of the day, the shoulder-to- shoulder crunch of the market place, the secretive tangles by which the boy earned money, there was a boundless tranquility in the measured plod of the beast and the steady creak of the wheel. The camel wasn’t really blind. No doubt some ancient predecessor was. Both for the sake of local legend and to keep the irritable creature from biting, small woven cups were tied over its eyes. Sightless, it trod in perpetual circles to raise water from a spring that lay below the city. Bright chiffon scarves of chartreuse and crimson trailed from its bridle as knobby knees bent and with exaggerated precision stomped the whitewashed floor. According to local belief, the spring rises from the same source as the sacred spring of Mecca where for countless centuries the desert tribes came in pilgrimage during the holy season. So deep is the belief in this common source that a pilgrim can visit the great mosque here seven times to fulfill the hajj to Mecca that is the once-in-a-lifetime duty of every Muslim. No wonder then that visitors drink from murky terra cotta cups on the window ledge... to drink of the water guarantees one will return. Drop a few millime in a cup for the camel on the way out and providence is assured. It is this confluence of coolness, peace, and providence that lures the boy here in evening time. He tells me he’s a student, that it’s toliday time or he would be away at the government school. But his faded sweater, shrunk above the wrists from repeated washings, his reluctance to write out the Arabic words he is teaching me, and his evasiveness about his home convince me of the reality of his situation. I think he grew up on the streets, one of the legion of North African kids who learn how to say "Donnez-moi un stylo’’ before they can converse in their own tongue. On the streets they vie for the ear of the tourist. . . ” 1 will show you the Turkish fort, the Roman bathes, I can get you a djellaba for the true price.” They grow up running circles through the souk, checking in from stall to stall where they’ll get a couscous or tea in return for errands or herding in the tourists who have succumbed to them. They’re underfoot when the stalls come down to lend a helping hand or to retrieve the loaf that rolls away. Every place where there is slack in the system is known to them, every cool unspoken-for corner, and the hours of all arriving buses. What would these places be without the gamins who are everywhere? Even in the smallest town, a sweet brown face will find you, a sleek brown hand will slip into yours. “Bonjour, Madame, et bienvenue chez nous. ” They are as eager to show their knowledge as they are to gain the few millime. They will drag you for endless hours through the convoluted lanes of the market place, and into the heart of the old town. Into the steamy forges, the recking tanneries, the bustling studios of the weavers. Out into the cool sweet luxuriant and rhapsodic gardens that surround the spring under the palms. Past ragged women with babes-in-arms and one-legged people who hold out their hands for alms, past the white-dom ed tombs of the marabout holy men, past the mosques and the slaughter houses, and past the Ministry where every day at four p.m. the Mercedes line up to await the sleek-suited guardians of ‘socialist reform.’ The Romans came, the Arabs, the Turks, the British, the French. . .for thousands of years strangers have been alighting on these shores to fulfill their various desires. The gamin is proud of having digested and filed all requests and on knowing where in the oasis or marketplace a stranger can find satisfaction. “My uncle will make you a carpet at half the price...” "Come to my house... my mother will make you the true Arabic coffee...” “I know a good Arab man who will cook couscous and make love to you..." “I have an arrangement with the guard.. .you will see the rooms a tourist can’t see. .. ” In a crack in the sidewalk beside a vendor’s stall, grains of semolina fall from time to time. The gamin will tell you how many will fall in a month. Windfalls, ironies, and the greed of others, these serve more surely than charity. The boy appears in the morning when I leave my hotel. He finds me in the cafe next door. Or I wander into the souk, and suddenly he is clucking in my ear as I finger a scarf or a bracelet. “Not here... I can get it for a few millime.” I thought he exaggerated until I tried to buy a date-filled mekrouthe from the vendor beside the Medina gates. The boy had bought one here for twenty-five millime. Now I watched in horror as the vendor pocketed five-hundred millime. The cookie sat in my stomach with guilt and discomfort until I found the boy and blurted out my confession. He shook his head and scolded me. “I told you not to buy. They know me.” 18 Clinton St. Quarterly