In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.
“Can I have your phone number?” The taxi driver didn’t waste much time.
When I explained why that wasn’t possible, he asked if I was a Muslim.
“No. I follow Jesus the Messiah.”
He pondered this through several streets of traffic. As he pulled up to the curb to drop me off, he spoke again, “You should read the Qur’an.”
I sighed. “I do read the Qur’an. You should read the Bible.”
He frowned and shook his head at me in the rearview mirror as I handed him the fare.
In light of his suggestion, my own suggestion had been logical. But apparently only to me. “Why not? Are you scared?” I punctuated my challenge with a cheerful goodbye and a hasty exit.
This morning was my morning to go shopping in the old city. The sights and smells of the old city had remained unchanged for centuries and had certainly not changed in the year and a half of my absence. There is a forever skirmish between fragrant and repulsive: baking bread, roasting chicken, urine, a blend of fresh spices, rotting fruit, soaps and perfumes, trash.
Rather than the narrow cobblestone streets accommodating their pedestrians, tourists and residents alike pressed in close to accommodate the streets.
“Where have you been?” several vendors called to me as I bustled along. Did they– could they?!— really remember me?
To my disappointment, I had forgotten how to bargain. No longer was it a matter of easy banter and good deals; it felt exhausting and cheap. Fortunately, shopping didn’t take long since I could only buy what would fit in my backpack between my clothes.
I caught a taxi to my friend’s neighborhood only to find that Khadija and her neighbor, Fusia, were out studying. They would be back soon, said Khadija’s niece. I sat in the salon, watching TV and wondering how my two eighty-year-old friends were doing in their studies.
Suddenly, the door opened and everyone piled into the apartment. There were hugs and greetings that came so fast that I could only repeat “Praise God” and laugh. Someone made tea. Another ran out to buy cookies. We talked and watched a Turkish soap opera until dark.
“I’ll walk with you,” Fusia said. She held my hand and led me along the street. “We’re going to go see my grandson. He will be sad if he doesn’t see you.”
What I didn’t realize was that her grandson’s boxing class did not allow interruptions. Two women screened everyone who entered, and one looked like she could flatten anyone who crossed her. I was making plans for a polite retreat when Fusia asked if her friend all of the way from Spain could just greet dear little Ali.
“Of course! Come with me!”
And so I interrupted the boxing class, a whole room full of gawking children and their annoyed instructor. Ali ran over to kiss me. His cheeks were pink. Mine may have been too.
Only after that, I was allowed to get a taxi and return home.