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Queen of the Kasbah This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

By , Brattleboro, VT
First day, January afternoon, Morocco.

My old pen, a journal, some thin clothing, and a Polaroid camera: all set. Mom had said to keep the weight light. I listen to her in these cases; she is an awesome traveler.

It is our first afternoon here. Yellow and blue: the bright buildings are showing their height pointing toward the sky. They're made of sand, or something like it. As for the sky, I wish I knew what magic ingredient it is made of.

Eating, sitting on this wide terrace, I see the crowd of people like bugs, running around the square. We're high up and the heads down there look like colorful balls rolling around the pavement. I feel like a king, and sitting high above Morocco's poorer population, it is a miserable feeling.

People look so busy. Time's money for them, although time is plenty but money is never enough. I wish I could gather some superpowers and fly down and raise them from the puddle of their lives. Wealth feels heavy on my sweaty skin.

Strong smells, delicious tastes, and strong colors all over, Africa is magic!

Dad takes pictures of every fragment of beauty we encounter, and he takes thousands of pictures. Despite the beauty of many views, the trash mixes with bodies in the shadows of the streets popping out dozens of times a day, revealing the poverty.

Mile after mile, desert is around us: incredible dunes and the green oasis are an appetizer to us, now starving for our daily discovery. Our noses are glued to the Jeep's windows by our own pushy interest.

Some bizarre words written on a old iron sign make Dad believe it is time to pull over and start walking. The dust makes vortexes in the hot air. After several awkward stretches, I start admiring the view of the dark-sugar mountain that act like a huge shadow behind the coarse surface of the Kasbah.

That whole modest majesty amazes me. It's made of mud: dirty mud that has taken the shape of civility. Thousands of ancient tiny hands have made out of a nasty land this beauty that is now attracting me.

I start making my way toward it.

I realize that strangely Dad has stopped taking pictures: the overture of his green eyes is all I see when I turn back. New and wild – that's all we're here for.

The image of the old castle gets even more incredible when life gives a voice to the view, and to the abandoned brown street, by throwing a crowd of humans running toward us.

“Needa guide? Do you?” “Have dinero?” “Money!” “Pencils?!” The sparkly voices of children please me, breaking the silence. But the pleasant feeling crashes fast: they're all naked, boys and girls with dirty faces, accumulating around us. Some are laughing or shouting; others are pulling on our clothes. All of them are deeply moving my quiet amazement. One is holding a soccer ball. A game was probably on before we arrived. The ball is not even round; it is old and nasty like a dirty piece of candy run over by a train. Poverty takes up all the space left in my thoughts: Nobody in the universe deserves this.

We enter the Kasbah.

We walk through empty, orange streets with tall walls and dust on the ground. The kids' voices lower, their faces become more serious and responsible, as if the Kasbah, their town, is a well-known prison cell.

Feeling like black bugs in our straight line, we continue through the narrow streets. Like dirty mice, we make our way through filth and stink; the shade in the corners is unthinkably nasty.

No parents are around, no “Don't be late tonight!” or “Dinner is ready, honey.” Some of the kids are giggling as I try to figure out where we are going. Mom and Dad don't seem to be around anymore.

The delicious spicy smells on the luxurious terrace where we ate that morning feel very far away and the flavor of its memory almost loses its value.

“Malika! Malika!” the children scream at a girl lying on the street corner next to a broken wooden chest and some smelly animal bones.

They point at her; there must be a story, something special about her. Her particularity is recognized by them. Curiosity again leads my steps. I start thinking that, somehow, this is where my group of children was leading me.

While I try to understand what all the shouts are about, the parade becomes deflated, the ball gets kicked with a heavy sound, and most of the children make their way through the alternating lights of the narrow streets.

Malika, still basking in her importance, is throwing sticks and rocks, as if she wants to dig a massive hole in the opposite wall. I find her beautiful, despite the rage printed on her skin in scars and bumps. Her wide eyes look deep against the darkness of her skin. Malika, painted on that dark wall, wearing her dress covered in bizarre blurry flowers, spitting rage, hypnotizes me.

At once, she stops, observes my presence, and starts rolling her eyes over my clothes with some curiosity. Her gentle movements suggest an eagerness for my presence. The dull queen of the Kasbah makes me feel accused and impotent for not being able to give her fairy tales or delicious sweets. She stares at me, making me notice the dark around her eyes, making me realize that no delicate soap has ever cleaned them and no sweet lullaby has ever shut them.

Malika doesn't talk; she never will.

Not having anything better to share, I hand her my only pen. The pen that wrote about every trip I've taken, every weekend or adventure since my eighth Christmas, now delicately and slowly rotates in her fingers. Then Malika looks up and smiles. Bright and colorful explosions, gratitude and wonderment, all in a short, shy smile.

Malika stands and disappears in the shadows. She leaves me with the hope that something might finally change for her, that the power to smile will never die in her, the power to stand up will never fall in the shadow. With the sunbeams getting weaker and the silence growing deeper, I keep staring at the path drawn by her toes, her image still painted in my mind.


Home, January 30th

The road, the clouds were still here today when we got home. After what I've seen, those clouds that caused me so much sadness now seem less miserable. Africa has changed me. When I unpack, sand covers my floor, painting a bit of Africa in my room.

The goal of lightweight traveling is furthered by the absence of my old pen, which more than making the bag lighter is making my soul lighter, is making me feel less in debt to the poverty and those children.

It is a debt I plan to fully repay during my lifetime.

I'm glad I gave my pen to Malika. I don't know if she will ever escape her poverty. I don't know if she will ever be a president or own a big company. I don't even know where she was going that day. I don't know, and I don't even think it is important. I gave my only pen to Malika. It was time for her to start drawing her life. I will never, ever forget her smile.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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