surfing the stardust

Marrakech Express – January, 1969

We were about 3 hours out of Casablanca when we killed the man.  The late afternoon winter sun was hazed in the southwest, casting shadows that reached out to the road.  I had slept the night before in a corn field; huddled in my old army down sleeping bag, thinking about rats or getting knifed.  The dirt clods were annoying and I wondered about bugs.

I had left Florence Italy, where Pete from school and my sister Meg were staying. I had the sleeping bag and $15; on my way to hitchhike across Europe and down to “Casa-Casa”.  I was going to buy $10 of hashish and take it up to Frankfurt where I’d sell it out of the Club Voltaire.  I figured I could get half a kilo for that.  I had left Ital two days after New Years.  It was winter and cold across France and Spain; even Morocco was cool.  All the fields in the flat plains lay fallow and as we drove south in the high cab of the freight truck we looked out on nothing but an occasional bare tree and the grey-brown horizon; a scrubby place really.

I had started thumbing in mid-morning and it wasn’t until mid-afternoon that the large lorry pulled over.  As I climbed up the 3 steps I saw that it was a man with his teenage son.  They might have been hauling feed or food or lumber in the back of the 10 wheeler – they never really said.  I climbed over the boy and settled back in the middle of the wide bench seat.  As we pulled back into the two lane tarmac road we began to chat a bit in broken french.

The thing was that, for what seemed like hours, we had seen no one; or what seemed like no one.  Empty fields of stubble, an occasional donkey, rough contours – ugly land, and every once in a longish while a person in the distance.  That part of the country is called the Labrikiyne – part desert – part scrawny bush fodder for goats – thorn scrub – empty.  The road from Casa-Casa to Marrakech runs through this for about 150 miles or so.

The driving man and his boy had picked me up around Settat.  The young fellow began peeling oranges and passing the wedges to his father and me.  It was warm in the cab and the lorry seats comfortable.  I think about the father and son sharing this job; how they both must have looked forward to the day when the son would first climb behind the wheel to drive down a real road on a job.  The dad asked where I was from, what I was doing in Maroc, what America was like, where I was going.  He was warm to me and gentle.  I think he was proud in front of his boy that he was clever enough to pick up an American no less!  We were relaxed and enjoying the ride.

The bleak land rolled by.  As we passed an hour or two the mid-winter sun sank in the western steppe.  I was happy they were going to Marrakech – there were very few cars on the road and it could have taken another two days at the rate I’d been going.  It was the type of late afternoon light that could have produced swirls of birds flying in the middle distance – I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw such but I don’t really remember.

The next day I recalled distinctly that at just about that moment I thought to myself: “It’s starting to get dark now.  He’ll have to put on his lights soon.”

Immediately as that thought flashed through my head I recognized in my peripheral vision that he was pulling the light switch on.

As if a movie screen suddenly blazed into light we realized that walking down the middle of our side of the road, and no more than 20 feet in front of our hurtling truck, was a man.  In that instant we seemed to recognize several things:  it had indeed gotten dark and night had fallen; that the peasants of this land yet lived in a world where trucks and paved roads and running lights and road noise were in a different universe; that by his drab jellahbah this was such a peasant; and that he was about to die.

The father yanked the steering wheel hard to the left.  We slammed into the man anyway at 50 mile an hour.  As our truck lunged to the left we realized there was a van coming towards us in the other lane.  As it desperately tried to escape by heading for the eastern shoulder, we slammed into its rear panels, sending it sliding over into a low ditch.  We left the road and went ourselves into the ditch and came to an other-worldly stop.

It is often said that life was cheap in these far off places in those days, but regardless, the three of us knew that our lives had changed.  We sat immobilized by shock for some time.  Dad checked boy, me; we were OK, no physical damage.  I climbed over the kid and climbed down his side of the truck.  I looked behind us.  The van, about the size of a VW bus, had run through the ditch and crashed head on into a tree.  In the dim twilight two or three men wobbled and stumbled out of the van.  They must have been hurt somewhat, but they all were walking, even though it was with lurching, halting, side to side staggers.

The six of us slowly gathered around the body lying alone and un-bloody on the road.  The boy had come over too.  The father told him to get back in the truck.  Everyone was talking in Arabic – I had no idea what was being said.

After not a long time I noticed that instead of just five or six of us that now there were twelve or fifteen people milling around.  The father was pacing up and down by his lorry; he was very upset and swung his arms in frustration and anger.  The guys from the van kept walking back and forth between the dead body and their vehicle.  Soon I realized that a small crowd had built:  men, women, in twos and threes and alone – they were emerging from the dark background of the empty land.  Soon here were 20 or more…I was amazed.  In my dim memory forty-plus years later it seems that the women were ululating in the night – I imagine they were not, but maybe they were.

I noticed a car pull up, coming from the Casablanca direction.  About then the father and the driver of the wrecked van, who had been intensely talking in a heated way, began to yell at each other.  The torrent of guttural Arabic syllables spread out and up into the tree limbs.  The van guy was pulling on the father’s shirtsleeve, turning him around and pointing to the wrecked van.

The father kept his composure as long as he could and then finally, in wretched anger, turned to the dead man and, opening his arms, palms upward, to where he lay, screamed in arabic: “You damned and heartless animal! All you care about is your fucking car?  Look, look, look what I have done!  I have killed this poor man.  Don’t you care a whit about him??”

By this point my brain was working again. I became aware that, bizarrely, out of the empty, blank desert night several dozen people had now appeared.  Where had they been?  Where had they come from? The angry arguments went on in the center of the growing crowd.  Of course I didn’t speak Arabic.  But there was little doubt what was being said.

A man in a dark western suit, with an open collared white shirt, moved to my side.

He asked in French, “What are you doing here?”

It was one of the men who had gotten out of the sedan from Casablanca.

I said I was thumbing a ride with the man who was driving the truck.

He said “You shouldn’t be here.  It’s no good.  You need to get out of here. Anything might happen.  It will get crazy – fou!”

I told him I agreed, imagining how the blame could easily be pointed at me.  I said I needed to go towards Marrakech.  As he looked around at the restless crowd, partially lighted in the headlights from a couple of other vehicles, at his 2 companions, at the arguing men, out into the dark beyond, he said to go quietly and slowly back to the edge of the crowd and then over to his car, whose doors had been left ajar.  He told me to lie down on the floor of the back seat and to wait.

I had at some point gotten my small pack and sleeping bag from the truck cab and I retreated gradually into the dark and slid over into the car, crawling into the rear.

Within a few minutes the 3 businessmen returned and climbed in – one in the back – his legs pressed somewhat over me.  I felt a great exhale of fear as the doors closed and the interior went dark.  The car slowly pulled away through the shepherds and farmers and women and youngsters who had mysteriously assumed human shape out of the scrawny, scrubby plain.  After five or ten minutes I sat up.  Their drive continued; questions; answers; “strangers and wayfarers together”.

It took about an hour to get to the next town, where they let me off near some trees along the railroad tracks.  I didn’t want to leave but there was no choice.  I pulled out the sleeping bag after picking a spot with some shelter from the highway.  Sleeping was hard – I kept waiting for the police search which never came.  I got up the next morning and made my way to the train station where I paid 20 cents and caught the third class morning train down to Marrakech.


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