Nothing stirs this early in the morning, not even the light. The city lies silent and dormant under the spell of night and only a few lonesome shopkeepers beckon the steely blue dawn slowly rising from the Eastern sky. A shadow forces its way along the rusty bricks of a home, its fringes urged to life by the soft light of dawn. The shadow stops at the feet of a man. He looks up. He bids adieu to the stars soon to be veiled by the opaque shroud of the sun. A cold crescent moon hovers above the city, a crooked tooth suspended in a nascent smile; the end of Ramadan is near. The man moves onward, his shadow trailing close behind him. He navigates the maze of streets like an experienced sailor. There is a woman hunched over on the cobblestone floor, her hand stretched out to no one in particular but everyone else. Alms, she cries, alms for the poor. A black scarf is wrapped around her head. Loosened by her gauntness, it falls just so it hides her face from the passerby. She hardly notices the man place a small silver coin in her slender hand. The man is late. The adhan erupts from the minarets, Allahu akbar, allahu akbar, echoed by the countless mosques scattered throughout the ancient city. The salat is better than sleep it cries, summoning the faithful from the Citadel of Dreams to the Citadel of Books, the Koutoubia. The man enters the mosque, at once the largest in the Kingdom. In there, they call him the Hajj, the Hajj Nabil, though his feet have never left the Red City. In there, the man is known for his piety. In there, the only conflict within him is between Allah and his own mundane distractions. The man stays in the jami' from sunrise to sunset, reading, meditating, contemplating. After the isha’ prayer, Nabil leaves, and he becomes once more that man, that shadow, creeping through the crimson streets under the stars. He enters the home of one called his mother, of one called his father, of those who threw him out because he dared defy them. In there, he’s known as Ayoub, like the sick prophet who bore illness with patience. Sbr, Sidi Ayoub, Sbr, his mother would sing to him whenever he fell ill. In there, he’s known also as 'zemel,' as the false man, as the ‘f****t’ who dared bear a prophet’s name. In there, he exists only on holidays, those days when extended family could not be tolerated knowing of his ‘sickness’ and his family pretended that he still lived at home. In there, Ayoub eats his fill of iftar, he dances to the ‘oud of his older brother, he covers his fingers with the sticky sesame seeds of his mother’s shebakia, he almost forgets he’s not wanted there. In there, he falls asleep in his old room, on those old cushions softened by child’s play and the heavy slumber of his teenage self. Ayoub forgets he’s not wanted there.
The doors crash open with a mother’s cry. ‘Hamar! You dare think you are welcome to sleep here? Zemel! You bring shame to me.’
The man runs from his old home. ‘Zemel’ echoes in the streets and the crowded minarets. ‘Zemel’ echoes in his shadow. Out here, the man is nothing. The young shabab snicker and hiss and smooch the air as he passes. They know his secret. They all know. Out here, the man is Fatima. His white qamees is a virgin’s gown, and he is game to be spoiled when no one’s around. They crowd around him like laughing clowns, their sadistic grimaces stretched across their faces like cellophane. Out here, the darkness is so thick it can be worn. The trees crown above them, their gnarled branches clawing at the sky, grotesque beasts dancing in the pallid moonlight. The man gapes upward, the naked stars before him, the moon in a distant cosmic milk somewhere in the realm of the divine. He cries but no one hears him. Out here, no one hears him. Out here, everyone is blind. ‘Fatima is beautiful.’ ‘Fatima is divine.’ ‘Fatima is mine.’ They circle around him like beasts around their pray. The man weeps, the man prays, the man clamors for his God he invokes five times a day. Out here, God is blind. They drag the man deeper into the trees, deeper into the park under the shadow of the crescent. The man mourns his corporeal soul, deflowered and defiled by the hypocrisy of Man. They throw him on to the ground. They swarm from every direction, sifting through the trees like snarling insects. Out here the man is convicted, out here the man sees trial, out here the man is sacrificed. After they all get their fill, they leave him, his clothes cast aside like ragged blankets, his eyes fixed blankly on the final holy moon of Ramadan. Who hears his cries for salvation? Who dries the tears he weeps? Who calls for justice against the men who ensnare him? If not the trees, if not the looming minarets, if not the moon innocent in its complacency— then who? Who shall tell the story of the man when no one listens? Who shall weep for him? No, nothing stirs this late at night, not even the slightest sliver of light. The shadow crawls along the dimly lit sidewalk of Avenue Mohamed V. Tears as black as ink stream from its gaping eyes. The shadow weaves its way through the winding streets to the cobbled stones where the beggar woman is slouched over like a sack of couscous. ‘Alms,’ the shadow cries, ‘alms for the love of God.’ The loose scarf is wound tightly around her head. She cannot hear the shadow. She sleeps gently in the night, the silver coin deposited neatly in the folds of black cloth on her hair. The shadow creeps onward as dark as night, back into the place where it came from, back to where the man resides in the turbulent citadel of his dreams, back to where man meets shadow. In there, the man is known as habibi. In there, the man is loved. In there, the man returns each night from the nightmares outside to rest once more with the one man who listens, to the one man who dries his tears. In there, they can be lovers. In there, God can see.
Adhan: Muslim Call to Prayer
Allahu Akbar: God is Greater
Jami': Large Mosque
Isha': Night Prayer
Zemel: Offensive Term for Queer Man
Iftar: Meal to Break Fast During Ramadan
'Oud: Arabic Lute
Shebakia: A Sweet, Moroccan Pastry Made of Sesame Seed
Shabab: Young Men
Qamees: Religious Shirt Worn to Mosque by Men in Morocco
Habibi: My Lover/My Dear