Six o’clock in the evening. The Berbere Palace Hotel is a
fortress, a fortified oasis with solid turrets and crenelated walls,
bringing to mind European medieval castles, but for the imitation pink pisé,
a mixture of adobe, clay and chalk. A tall lobby, a reception obliging
in full livery, coffered marble, tiles and mosaics in lively colours,
the tinkling of fountains. Inside there lies a placid and intricate
network of sham passageways swayed by palm trees, where you could never
get lost despite the labyrinthine feeling of the clay huts, courtyards,
galleries, corners and fresh-water pools, imitating Berber kasbahs. 405. This is my door. A bedroom covering 20 square metres, doors decorated with sebka,
a small high-walled courtyard, where by night there is nothing but sky,
which in the desert is as beautiful as it is wounded, as if pierced by a
hail of arrows. A lounge with a sofa covered with an Islamic print,
with pieces of fruit and canvases of women dressed in the traditional affagou. Two bathrooms, two televisions and two enormous air-conditioning units, that roar like the mouths of dinosaurs.
the tiredness gets to me, or before I let it, I take advantage of the
day’s momentum and get changed to go running. A shirt, shorts and
trainers. Nothing else. I do not even have to take off a watch, a
bracelet or chain, as I do not usually wear them. There are no marks on
my body, no tattoos, no piercings. This absence of adornment, which some
might attribute to chastity, is not the result of some firm principle,
some personal code that has become an instruction, a self-commandment, a
rule of life. I wish to live as I came into this world. No. I
have just found myself here, like this, at this stage in my life. It was
not planned and I was not aware of it happening. Perhaps in the future
I will become a surfer, scattering tattoos and exotic plaited-leather bracelets over my body. Or a punk,
with pierced ears. In truth, there are times in my life when I am
overcome by a feeling of fullness that is almost virtuous, like some
cleaning of the soul, when I feel like I felt when I came into this
world. But it is not when I am naked; it is when I am running, on hot
days through forested mountains, with the breeze and the freshness of
the trees, with no shackles on my skin. When I am running without a
shirt, in just shorts and trainers.
I trot gently along Avenue
Mohammed VI, where the hotel is located. Wide, long, dry, no traffic, no
people, with that placid air of residential and hotel zones away from
the hubbub and chaos and smell and humanity that are so intense in
Morocco. At the end of the Avenue rises the Taourirt kasbah,
erected at the gateway to the desert, a meeting point ideal for trade,
where goods and traders from the Atlas and the valleys of Draa and Dades
have converged for centuries. Modern Ouarzazate was established as a
French garrison in the 1920s and as an administrative centre of the
Protectorate. Then came the cinema business and the Atlas studios, and
Ouarzazate’s CV swelled as a body-double for Tibet, Rome, Somalia and
Egypt. Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Babel, Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus of Nazareth have all passed this way.
My legs and my strongbox,
which is what I like to call my heart and my lungs, are awake and
active, and I feel like they will let me run freely, with no need to
warm up. A warm breeze is blowing, the sun has burst and is reddening,
the atmosphere is perfect. I am running by inertia with no idea of where
I am going. I have not looked at a map of Ouarzazate, I am just paying
attention to what I am running away from, so that I can retrace my
I plunge into the city. I was not plunging before, but I am
now. Because here starts the hullabaloo of the streets and the traffic
and the bangers and bicycles and the motorbikes carrying two or three,
with no helmets and a rider browsing his mobile. Plunge because it is
like getting into a swimming pool, but not bathing or swimming a calm
breaststroke in the undulating waters. It is like diving straight in,
feeling the hit and momentary bewilderment, the sudden water, broken up
into streams shot like torpedoes that crack around your body. Bathing is
going for a walk. Plunging in is running.
Houses of clay adobe
with lintels and palm-tree pillars, narrow windows like battlements,
shady porches, pavements packed with passers-by, vendors hawking their
wares, their shapeless vegetables and tarnished tomatoes lacking that
brilliant, artificial supermarket perfection, with all the ugliness of
something found in the ground and not a laboratory. Women wearing burkas, women wearing chadors, women wearing hijabs, women wearing their religion on the inside and women with no religion. Men having tea after the Asr
prayer, sitting in terraces with steaming cups filled with mint leaves,
sipping the boiling brew straight to their stomachs. Strong younger men
in the prime of their years, looking on lazily—aggressively, maybe—,
leaning against porches and watching the world go by, as if waiting for
it to do something. Although deep down they are not waiting anymore. Hittistes,
they are called. People who hold up the walls. And that is just what
they do, like props holding up palm trees. They remind me of the young
people of my country who emigrate, leaving their youth behind, but an
extreme, dilapidated version.
Children are playing football in
shirts from Madrid, Barça and Bayern Munich in little sand-and-gravel
squares with homemade goals: two planks and a crossbar made of scarfs
and old vests tied together, sagging in the middle. I stop to watch them
for a moment, admiringly. They play with skill, as if they have magnets
on their feet, seriously and with commitment, arguing when there are
incidents, in the absence of a referee. They kick up dense clouds of
dust that stop me from clearly following the progression of the game.
And I think about all this dust, all the dust that they are inhaling,
not just this evening but yesterday too, and every day of the year. And
then I think about Mustafa’s insistent coughing. Perhaps he likes
football too, perhaps he played in gravel squares as well. And then,
before I leave, when the children notice my presence—a young
sporty-looking foreign man, who could even be a European football
scout—I think about all of the children playing right now in Africa, all
of the potential Messis and Ronaldos doing amazing things on gravel
pitches with goals with crossbars made of material, never knowing the
smooth feeling of football on grass. I think about all those children
who leave behind their childhoods to hold up walls and watch the world
go by, the next generation of hittistes.
I start running
again. And this time I kick on, heading back to the hotel. I run on,
thinking about the children. I run until I stop thinking about them,
until I am only doing one thing: running. And slowly, gradually, I up
the pace. A climb, 200 metres to the Taourirt kasbah. Cars are
roaring past me, close to the pavement. I run past a Moroccan man
struggling up on a bike, axles squeaking. I smile at him. He smiles at
‘Come on, Come on!’ I encourage him. He smiles even more and keeps pedalling, trying to keep up with me.
shorten my stride, increase frequency, stoop down and take on the hill.
I push hard, leaving it behind. My quadriceps are burning, reminding me
that they are there, and that they will be giving up if the pushing
continues. I reach the top and start down the other side, and my legs
breathe again. The Moroccan man catches me up with a double smile,
freewheeling past me on the pavement, between cars buzzing like giant
diesel mosquitos. He raises his fist in victory.
‘Power!” he cries.
laugh, and raise my fist too, before watching him disappear into the
bustling roadway. Soon I am on Avenue Mohammed VI, running fast now,
about 20 km/h. At this speed, three minutes and I am shattered. Now my
lungs are really going. I can feel them like overinflated balloons, like
bellows. I can feel them breathing—me breathing—and the blood, which is
also my blood, pumping hard, swelling my veins, pushing out sweat that
drips down my temples. I can feel myself, I can feel myself working, I
can feel my gears turning like a natural android, like the heart of a
solar thermal power plant. This is running, getting away from the
invisible inertia of living, of breathing, of beating, of operating
without knowing it
It is easier to laugh when you are running. It
is easier to cry. Getting angry, screaming, whatever. Feeling is easier,
as if it were a question of pulses, of rhythms, of blood drenching your
feelings and refreshing them, shaking them, waking them and lifting
‘Come on, it is time to live.’
I feel drugged, as
if I have had a fix of what drug addicts call happiness, without going
deeper into details. But not drugged in the sense of dazed, or comatose.
No. Drugged in the sense of stimulated, fresh, purged from the inside
as I stand under a hot shower, a powerful jet like a hose making my back
and my neck and face tingle. Beams of red light shine through the
window onto my head, illuminating the clouds of steam that have been
filling the bathroom for some time now. I am so relaxed that I do not
know when to stop, when to move to turn off the tap. Finally, spurred on
by some vague thought process in the unseen flow of my consciousness, I
turn the knob. I get out and wonder for a moment about which towel to
use, whether this morning’s will be dry or whether to take one of the
other two I can choose from. I do not know what time it is, I do not
know how long I have been in the shower.
I feel relaxed, and I
will keep feeling that way during dinner in the hotel with my fellow
writers. An Italian meal on the terrace, with a gentle breeze, candles,
palm trees, illuminated pool and waiters waiting to refill your glass.
Dinner for 230 dirhams, about 23 euros per dish. Everything is
paid for except for the drinks, a select French wine chosen by our
Danish companion Carsten, who has an experienced palate. A pleasant meal
during which we discuss the events of the day, share experiences,
during which I spend a lot of time listening, firstly because the
conversation is full of bits of lives much more widely travelled than my
own, and secondly because my English really is not much to write home
about. And so I learn more about writing, about the world of writing,
about Liz’s projects, a British writer who has a son of my age and who
talks to me about her worlds and her characters with the authority of
someone who has had a lot of them, and a shine in her eyes belonging to a
I head for bed. My relaxation has turned into tiredness. I walk alone along the passageways of the hotel, under the stars. I think about Noor,
the electricity towers marching away from it like shackled giants,
towards the desert, towards the Atlas Mountains, towards the sea. I
think about the energy and the heat and the light that they carried with
them today, I think about the buzzing and about where it will
all go, and about where it will not go, and about where it has never
I get into the envelope, as my grandfather used to say,
happy to shut my eyes, and when I turn off the light, that thing that
always happens, happens. There is a light still on, one of the many that
illuminate hotel rooms. I get up to search for the switch.
Maracaibo, Venezuela. UTC -04:00. Local time 11:15 PM
circuit breaker clicks. Instantaneously, barely perceptibly, another
beat that suddenly stops. The electric has had another heart attack.
Sighs, curses and oaths against the governments rise
out of the silence that has engulfed the hallway. There is confusion
again, something small and embryonic, until patients and family members
again get used to the dark and the absence of that sound, the
omnipresent mosquito hum. Power cuts are barely audible, a second and
everything is silent, but it seems to Maria like the sound of
electricity melts away, like an ambulance siren running out of battery.
gets out of her seat in the half-light of the hospital, opposite the
maternity ward at the end of the corridor. She folds her arms across her
belly, used to its flatness now, not realizing that something is
missing, a smooth delicate balloon. She feels a shiver of worry, her
initial blindness fading as she gets used to the absence of light.
‘They made us poor, now they want to turn us into bats. A country full of bats.’
makes the observation. A young man stripped to the waist and covered in
tattoos, hooked up to a drip. His voice, hoarse and muted, speaks to
all of us, rising above the whispers and murmurs that have invaded the
Red lights are flashing here and there. The lights of mobile phones flick on. The words Emergency Exit
remain, an island of light at the end of the passageway. The abandoned
beds start to emerge, along with wheelchairs, patients sitting up or
lying down, leaning against racks with serum and drugs bought by their
own families, on the black market or at bare-shelved pharmacies. They
all crowd together like rubbish around the banks of a river, leaving the
middle of the corridor clear, for use only by nurses in short scrubs
and latex gloves. They refit drips, help solitary patients, making sure
that everything continues as normal.
Someone opens a window at the
other end of the corridor, and the cool of the night seeps in. The
streets whisper, horns sound and dogs bark in the night. The city
without light seems motionless. A crippled, radio city that can only be
heard, isolating the hospital with blind man’s sounds. A certain
normality quickly returns to the corridor.
‘We should go in.”
‘Wait for them to say.’
peeps through the door of the neonatal ward. The windows seem to look
into a dark, moonless, starless night. She tries to make out the
incubators, the equipment, the cables, the nurses. She cannot see
anything on the other side. Other mothers crowd around her and their
presence, the concentrated concern of mothers with premature babies,
some connected to respirators, forces her out of the group, her chest
tight as if she were short of breath too.
Hugo watches her, seated, a lit cigarette in his hand.
‘Wait for them to say,’ he repeats.
he calmly breathes out his cloud, turning his gaze away to the
corridor. He has always found it easy to adapt. He gets into the
routine, even before you could call it a routine. He finds it easy to
get used to things. Recession, unemployment, empty shops, political
disputes on the television, daily protests and the repression of
Chavista collectives, shortages of medicines and diesel to power the
generators at public hospitals, in a country where crude oil seeps out
of the ground.
Hugo’s is a deep-set indifference that Maria
admires, accepts and loathes, all at the same time. The loathing is done
in secret, of course, although her feelings are at times betrayed by a
cross look or an angry excuse. He gets them, then dismisses them in his
usual desultory way, although Maria thinks that he saves them up for his
explosions of rage, which are rare and arbitrary, sometimes making no
sense at all. She stopped seeing him as a protective shell some time
ago, hardened by the punishments and trials of life that in Hugo, a
country boy who grew up with four sisters and no daddy, seemed charming.
Perhaps she has not seen it since they were courting, when everything
Now, after a wedding and a seven-month pregnancy,
as she watches him with his cigarette, his shoulders hunched beneath a
stripy shirt, small in the half-light of the hospital, more than a
shield she feels like she is carrying a crust of resignation.
‘Last time they lost three kids,’ she tells him.
‘They all needed a respirator. Our Fredy can make it on his own.’
turns her gaze away and sucks in the dense air of the hospital, a
mixture of disinfectant and geriatric urine, so thick that it feels like
you are ingesting it, not breathing it. She cannot bear to see him like
this, defeated, dulled. She cannot blame him; the wait would kill
anyone. Including him, although he smokes as if he were out with
friends, and does not get out of his seat. But sometimes Hugo is too
much for her, wearing away her patience like no one else can: not her
parents, not her girlfriends, not even the screaming, disobedient
children at school. No one. Sometimes she feels like she has had an
allergic reaction to living with him. Maria sucks in more air, and again
shoves away that fear of the future, that conjugal vertigo.
have been five power cuts so far. Two of them, the latest this morning,
lasted more than an hour. Five power cuts since Fredy was born, after
thirty weeks, weighing 1.9 kilos, just 40 cm long.
‘Ladies, you can come through.’
are addressed by a thickset nurse that the couple know from the night
before. Behind her, the door to the neonatal ward is still swinging.
Maria breathes, but this time it is different: she lets the air go,
instead of holding it in. Some of the mothers stumble as they push to be
the first into the room, but common decency prevails and the situation
goes no further. Maria is also hurried, lifting her head and looking
towards the black opening to the room. The queue advances with baby
steps, little pushes, and she turns around before going in. She is
surprised by Hugo’s look: open, focused on her. Shining in the darkness.
He has woken up.
The neonatal ward feels like a heat pod. Placid,
serene, silent. Anyone would love to go in there. But their
nervousness, haste and concerned gazes searching for their little ones
prevents them from thinking too much about it. They scatter amongst the
incubators, all turned off, some with the glass broken and a sign
reading Out of order. The vital signs monitors seem confused;
no heart lines, no temperature, no blood pressure, just the black of the
screen and the flashing of the emergency lights.
The children who
are connected to respirators are being attended to by nurses. Maria
again sees them with the apprehension of the first time: fragile,
slight, eyes closed, alone in their glass boxes like quarantined
animals, their bronchial tubes so tender, so immature that they could be
paper bags. The nurses are pumping by hand, pressing the insufflators
to inject oxygen-rich air into the pipes. They work rhythmically,
constantly, taking it in turns to rest, tense and serene. Glistening
brows show that they have been doing it for a while.
Fredy, isolated in his incubator, with closed eyes and a woollen hat.
His hands are moving in doll-like spasms, as if they were motorized.
Perhaps he can sense the hustle and bustle, or the lack of heat, or the
increased humidity in the capsule, which is no longer comfortable
because it is no longer his mother. A nurse appears and opens the
sterilized eiderdown. Her hands invade the glass case and take the tubes
out of Fredy’s nose.
‘You can take him out now, miss.’
wells up again, even though it is the fifth time she has been called
in, to hold him in the dark and share her warmth. The kangaroo method,
they call it. She feels his featherweight body, his weak floppy muscles,
his skin so fine that it seems transparent; you can see the blood
vessels running underneath. She does not know why she is crying, but she
feels something deep and warm rising up to her eyes. Post-partum
hormones, they say, upsetting her, making her laugh and cry on the same
day. Perhaps she discovers it right then, as she moves towards the boy
and wraps him in her arms, as she feels him curl up, brushing against
her tummy, burrowing into her, as if he wanted to get in. The power has
been cut, and he needs to feel his mum.