Writing – stories

Aid el Kebir

‘You don’t go to Morocco to relax’ they said and I was inclined to believe them. Everyone I asked who had been had the same stories – being hassled for sex and drugs and money, the extreme poverty, the shit covered squat toilets, discomfort, sickness. The literature tended to support this view – Kenneth Williams getting the crabs; Burroughs cowering in drug-induced paranoia; the cast-adrift characters that populated my latest discovery, the wonderfully vicious short stories of Paul Bowles (still at that time living in Tangier).

But I was not surprised either. Morocco had then a glamour that cheap flights, ‘charming riads’ and second home buyers have destroyed. It was still a place where anything might happen. It was outside Europe, yet closer than Greece. It was cheap, hot and alien. And that’s what I wanted.

So I expected flies, harassment, unsanitary hotel rooms and a few days flat out with Montezuma’s Revenge Maghreb style. I expected to be disturbed by the poverty and afflicted with that most nebulous of tourist complaints, culture shock. I got them all…and more – I got sheep.

In Tangier you lose yourself in the maze of winding streets that climb out of the Petit Socco, shrugging off the advances of peddlers, dope fiends and ‘students’. Cries of ‘un stilo’, ‘pssst’ and, surreally, ‘Asda prices’ follow you up dark alleyways. Once, climbing up to the Kasbah, a young man pulled a knife. But he lacked conviction. On the beach, as I tried to write, a scrawny waiter pulled a hand sized block of hash out of his trousers and dared me to say I didn’t want any. In the bustling streets of the new town two snotty kids – eight or nine but they looked younger – wheel-barrowed a bleating sheep across a busy road, each holding a rear leg.

From Tangier we took a rickety bus through the Rif mountains and gazed down from perilous roads onto rooftops piled with tons of drying hemp. Waiting for the bus to start we watched a sheep being strapped to the roof rack.

Having taken refuge from the medieval pong of Fez el Bali in the cool white marble courtyard of the Cherratine Medersa, an astonishing oasis of contemplation, we emerged again into the slatted light of the teeming souk only to be forced back into a fig stall by a handcart loaded down with four sheep.

And as I traveled through Morocco from north to south sheep became a kind of theme. Amidst the strangeness their treatment didn’t seem bizarre at first. No more peculiar than a woman in full black burka squatting in view of everyone outside the town walls to take a piss, or the street dentists in Marrakesh, or the man who fixed the puncture in our white Renault 4 hire car with a flat iron hot-wired into the mains. As I said before, strange is what I wanted. But the sheep business got under my skin. In the Djem el Fna in Marrakesh, full by night of jugglers, pick pockets, stalls selling everything from shoes to gas fridges, snake charmers, one string lute players wearing dark glasses like some desert Lightnin’ Hopkins, in the flickering light of braziers and through clouds of aromatic smoke I spied a moped driven by a lad with two sheep hung precariously over its crossbar. In the relaxed coastal town of Essaouira a donkey, followed by a small boy with a large stick, struggled through the main gate, the Bab Doukkala, with sheep hung like panniers on either flank.

That was it. I made it my mission to find out what it was with the sheep. I established myself in the Hotel des Ramparts and went in search of answers.

The hotel manager could tell me nothing. I got the feeling that maybe I was asking the wrong question or that, despite the fact he wore an incongruous Clash tour t shirt, an insufficient language proficiency was getting in the way. This was certainly the case with the kids who frequented the pool tables in the cafes of the Place Moulay Hassan; but I also suspected that the question I wanted answering was too obvious – this mass outbreak of ovine harassment was culturally as unremarkable as queuing might be to the English.

I finally got the story from a Belgian couple in a patisserie and here you must forgive the ignorance of a young man. I should have heard about Aid el Kibir. Even though in my day primary schools didn’t teach the world’s major faiths, I’d just finished a history BA (admittedly specializing in the Ancient & Medieval period) and had no excuse for not researching Islamic festivals before traveling to a predominantly Muslim country. But there it is.

I sat eating mildly humble honey cake while my Belgian chums explained

…that Aïd el-Kebir or Aïd al-Kabïr, the great festival also known as Aïd al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice, marks the annual ending of hajj (which takes its lunar place on the 10th day of Dhou al Hijja – last month of the Muslim calendar) and commemorates Ibrahim’s biblical slaughter of the scape-lamb for his son Ishmael.

…and that to commemorate this total submission to God by Ibrahim each family, according to its means, sacrifices a sheep or a ram, or occasionally a cow or goat, by beheading (l’égorgeant), lying it on its left flank with the head turned towards Mecca.

Of course a poor country like Morocco tends to export its male workforce (many have made a fortune as grocers in Belgium) and those men return to their families for the holiday and bring their sheep with them.

The next day, the day of the festival, I awoke early and went for a walk. Opposite the hotel a brazier was smoking and, standing in a doorway, a man methodically sharpened a long knife with a stone. After breakfast I ventured out again. The brazier glowed and was crowned with a charred sheep’s head. Blood ran down the gutters. A group of men stood smoking. One turned to flick his cigarette butt into the road. His apron was blood splattered. An ovine hitman.

There are two codas to this sheepish riff.

Later that day I sat eating a bowl of Harrira soup and watched on TV as the king (was it Hassan II?), immaculate in white, slit the throat of a particularly fine and fluffy animal that wore a kind of barbers shawl (presumably to protect the royal whites) in front of a long line of generals and dignitaries.

Some time after I returned to the UK there was a story in one of the Sunday newspapers of a diplomat – maybe from Turkey – who left his suburban house early in the morning of Aid el Kabir carrying a sheep. He took the creature down to the road (imagine those net curtains twitch!), produced a carving knife and cut its throat, presumably aligning the animal towards Mecca in the prescribed fashion. The sheep’s blood drained into the gutter. I imagine he was entirely nonplussed when the old bill turned up to arrest him under the Food Hygiene (England) Regulations.

 

TAKING LIBERTIES

Gut stood looking out of the kitchen window, blind to the thirteen story view. The pyramid tower at Canary Wharf stood like a beacon to the high tide of Dockland development across the water. Between it and Gut’s south Bermondsey tower the debris of Rotherhithe, leavened by the bright blue tube steel construction of the New Den, its verdant green field incongruous amoungst the decayed warehouses and urban grime.

Gut turned from the window and looked at his mobile. The background radio spluttered ragga beats and intermittent radio comment. Two men sat at the table gripping mugs of tea in their fists. A cardboard box stood empty on the table; a green canvas workman’s bag below.

“I’ll have his fucking balls,” said Gut

The two men sat silently, staring into their mugs.

“I’ll have his balls,” said Gut.

“The first thing…” he looked at the two seated men. “Late. What I said.  About time keeping. Fucking late.”

The distant sound of raised voices filtered down from another flat. Gut turned back to the window and stood silhouetted in the slate grey morning light.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

The two men had approached Gut as he sat watching the racing in the old spieler above the Arif restaurant off the Old Kent Road. A regular haunt for Gut who felt out of place in the loud, flashy establishments that now dominated the street. He could get the bookies on the phone and the old Turk who ran the place guaranteed a degree of privacy.

But the two men talked their way in and approached Gut one Saturday.

They were what Gut, with an unlikely turn of phrase, might have called ‘callow youths’ if he’d been asked. One had red hair, pale skin, the type that burned badly in the sun. The other, shorter and dark, wore a small goatee on his lower lip. Both wore standard issue jeans, trainers. Sloppy dressers, Gut thought, recognising the casual uniform from the terraces of a thousand football grounds. Except they all sat, these days…

The proposition sounded dodgy from the start. Anyway, he’d packed in the heavy stuff years ago. No banks, no shooters. Not interested. But the two young men flattered him, they knew his reputation, what he could do, and in the end Gut found himself saying alright, whatever. Looked around at the peeling wallpaper, the stained formica table tops and moth eaten imitation velvet curtains thinking, I’ll regret this one.

————————————————————————————————————————————————

The doorbell rang, approximating the old Sinatra song ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. The red haired man stood without looking at Gut, who had turned at the sound of the bell, and walked out into the hall. He returned with another, dark haired, with a Mediterranean cast. The red haired man took his seat at the table, the dark man stood grinning, swinging a set of car keys at his side. Gut walked over from the window and stood so close the bulge of his stomach pushed the other backwards a step. The dark man held Gut’s eye. They stood silent for a while, staring.

“You’re taking a fucking liberty.” Said Gut

The dark man shrugged, saying nothing, smiling.

“Jesus,” said Gut. He turned away. “Jesus. One Yugo fucking Slavian liberty taker, and Tweedledum and Tweedle fucking Dee.”

“Serbian,” said the dark man, the smile gone.

“What?” said Gut

“No Yugoslavian. Serb. From Serbia.” Said the dark man.

“Look,” said Gut, swinging on the smaller man. “Look, don’t fucking start.”

Gut pulled out a chair and sat at the table.

“Let’s get on with it.”

He hefted the canvas bag onto the table and took from it four pairs of surgical gloves.

“Gloves,” said Gut, handing them around.

“Pockets,” said Gut. The four men emptied their pockets of coins, keys, a pocket knife, cigarette packets and lighters, mobiles into the cardboard box.

Gut held up a mobile, wiped it with a tea towel.

“Nicked,” he said. “For emergencies”. He pocketed the phone.

“Watches,” said Gut. He looked at his. “Nine fifty one”. The others set their watches. Gut handed round the cloth and they wiped the glass faces of each watch.

“Right,” said Gut. He pulled from the bag a sawn off Purdy, a Luger and a Czech Skorpian machine pistol. He handed the Luger to the red haired man, the shotgun to the man with the goatee and kept the machine pistol in front of him.

“Right,” said Gut. “Shells”. He handed out spare rounds. “Take these,” he said. Gut handed out four plastic Halloween masks, witches faces with long noses.

Gut stood. Each man put his weapon, mask and ammo into a Sainsbury plastic bag and stood.

Gut looked at the three men, three tense, pale faces.

“Jesus,” he said. “Lets go”

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

Gut looked at his watch again. Ten-thirty. The car, a red Sierra, was parked in a hospital loading bay in St Thomas Street, close to the Borough High Street junction. Gut walked down to the high street and stood looking south towards the Borough. Gut’s side of the road, the east side, was closed off with traffic cones, a contra-flow system in operation. Traffic stood gridlocked in the northbound rush hour.

Gut looked at his watch again. Ten thirty two. The re-surfacing vehicle, a yellow monster belching smoke that ripped up the tarmac and replaced it with new, stopped and pulled into the curb. The driver swung himself from the cab, removed helmet and ear protectors and walked towards the works hut.

Gut walked swiftly back to the Sierra. He opened the front passenger door, swung in and said “two minutes”.

The red haired man leant forward from the back, peering through the windscreen.

“What’s happening out there?” he said.

Gut said nothing.

“Cops about?” He looked at the goatee bearded man.

“Too many people about,” he mumbled.

Gut half turned in his seat. “Shut it,” he hissed.

“But,” said the red haired man.

“Fucking shut it” Gut looked at his watch, turning back.

“Go,” he said, quietly.

The dark man gunned the Sierra, pulled out, just catching the lights, and swung slowly around the corner then, accelerating, through the line of cones, onto the new, still steaming, tarmac, dodging works vehicles. The wheels span, spraying grit and tar. The driver hit the brakes and the Sierra jolted to a halt, short of the curb. The acrid smell of hot macadam seeped into the car. Gut already had the door open.

“Go,” he said.

Traffic on the other side of the road moved forward sluggishly. Bored, commuter’s eyes followed the Sierra.

Gut pulled on his mask. He turned a witches face towards the men in the back.

“Go,” he said.

The two men sat, frozen, in the back of the car.

“Fuck,” said Gut. He kicked the car door open, grabbed the machine pistol from the bag on the floor and ran across the pavement towards the Halifax door.

The three men sat in silence in the car. The driver turned and looked at the two behind him. Smiling, he reached behind his seat, grabbed the plastic bag, pulled out the Luger and slipped the gun into an inside pocket of his jacket. He laughed. The two men in the back looked at their feet.

The door of the Halifax burst open. Gut catapulted out, the Skorpian in one hand, a bag, full, in the other. The dark man leant across to open the passenger door and gunned the engine. Gut hauled himself in, the car already moving. The door slammed.

“Go,” shouted Gut.

The dark man shot the car through the cones and onto the open road. He threw the Sierra into a hard left turn, off the main road, then almost immediately a right, wheels squealing, into a council block car park. Another right out of the car park and then left into the traffic of Great Suffolk street. The car slowed, the driver checking his mirrors.

Gut pulled off his mask, breathing heavily. The dark man tooled the red car carefully around the Bricklayers Arms roundabout, in to the Old Kent Road, keeping the speed down. He looked across at Gut.

“Got a cigarette?”

Gut grunted and sat unmoving.

The dark man shrugged. Still staring at Gut he pulled the car over to the curb, into neutral, handbrake on, engine running. He released his seatbelt and opened the door.

Gut stared back at him. “What the fuck are you doing,” he said.

The dark man shrugged. “Cigarettes,” he said. He got out of the car, walked around the front still looking at Gut, walked into the newsagents.

Gut shook his head. “I don’t fucking believe this,” he said.

The clipped percussive explosion of a gun shot, just audible over the sound of traffic.

The dark man walked casually out of the shop, the Luger hanging loosely from one hand, a box of two hundred Rothmans in the other. He walked around the front of the car and swung himself in. He carefully put the gun underneath the seat and ripped open the carton, extracting a pack. Tearing the cellophane he took a cigarette and lit it with the car lighter. He gunned the engine and looked at Gut.

“No money,” he said.

He eased the car into the traffic.

“I’ll fucking have you, you spick shit,” Gut looked straight ahead, spitting the words out.

The dark man swung the car left at the Dun Cow. He put his foot down. The Sierra leapt forward. He took a set of lights on red, swerving to miss a 78 bus. Fourth gear, 60 mph, the car hit a mini roundabout, two wheels off the ground. The driver fought with the wheel, almost getting the vehicle under control, engine whining, then clipping a parked van, swinging broadside across the road and smashing through a fence and into a coach park, front off-side wing tearing off in a shower of sparks.

The engine cut as the car settled onto its shocks, miraculously not turning over.

Silence, broken by the hiss of the engine.

Gut moved. He lifted the machine pistol and the plastic bag with the money from the floor and shouldered open the door. He half pulled himself out, then turned to look at the three men inside. The driver slumped forward over the steering wheel, blood dripping from a deep gash in his temple. His cigarette, still between his lips, smouldered.

The man with the goatee spoke: “Gut…”

“Shut it,” Gut whispered, his voice hoarse with tension. “Taking fucking liberties,” almost to himself. Then, turning on the two men in the back, “You,” he said, “you came to Me. You,” said Gut “came to me. You came to me and you fucking bottled it.”

“Gut,” said the man with the goatee beard.

“Shut up,” Gut shouted. “Shut…”

He lifted the gun and shot the man with the goatee beard in the face. Gut backed away from the door, walked around the front of the steaming bonnet, and shot the red haired man through the rear side window. He wrenched open the buckled door on the driver’s side, pulled the unconscious driver half out of the car, placed the Skorpian barrel against the back of his head and squeezed the trigger, emptying the magazine.

Gut stood for a while, breath coming shallowly, looking blankly at the car. The machine pistol shook in his hand. Gut threw the gun away, over the red Sierra. It clattered loudly on the concrete. Gut turned and walked away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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