It was a hot, dusty afternoon in late August. I had just returned to El Hajeb, the village where I had taught English for a year. I'd been away for the summer: a few weeks of being surrounded by Volunteers old and new at that year' omnibus training program in Rabat, the capital. El Hajeb was a big come-down after all that. I was the only American in town, and though I'd been quite happy with that for a year, coming back to it all at once was a shock. I hadn't yet rediscovered any of the parts about it that I liked.
I spent most of the afternoon writing letters, catching up on correspondence that had piled up in my mailbox while I was away. I was also conveniently avoiding the heat, and, to some degree, the village itself. At that moment it didn't feel like the place I wanted to be. I stayed inside the thick, cool, stuccoed walls of my fine house. You see, mine wasn't the mud-hut Peace Corps experience. I lived in the upstairs apartment of a beautiful colonial period villa in the part of the town that had been built by the French. Walnut trees lined the avenue outside, and I could hear boys throwing stones up into them, trying to knock down the ripening fruit.
A cool breeze from the mountains picked up late in the afternoon, intimating that it might bring some clouds our way, along with a shower or thunderstorm. I took advantage of the cooler air to get a little exercise and walked to the post office. I felt fortified now after the hours of seclusion, ready to withstand the stares of the children, and the cries of "Christian! Christian!" that often accompanied me on my walks in the village.
The post office offered the usual experience: a cluster of people mashed together in front of the sullen clerk, all thrusting their business in his face with the line of less determined off to one side, standing patiently in the belief that they would be waited on sometime. I joined the line, not yet feeling up to the cluster experience. It took ten minutes or so, but this way I could stay inside the thick American shell that I still wasn't willing to come out of.
When I started back, the rain was looking like a sure thing. The breeze had become a wind. Little dust devils were whirling around in the dirt streets, and withered leaves twirled down from the sycamore trees that formed an arcade over the wide, dilapidated street. Dark clouds were bearing down from the mountains to the south. I picked up my pace, thinking that now I'd have to hurry to get in before the rain.
Down the street, coming towards me, was a woman wrapped in a turquoise jellaba. I recognized her as my downstairs neighbor. She wasn't veiled and her hood was off: this was only a walk in the neighborhood and she wouldn't be subject to the prying eyes of students. As we continued towards each other, we were nearly jogging, trying to reach our destinations before the rain. Under these circumstances, the normal greeting rituals - which could run a few minutes of chattering even with someone you saw all the time - would be overlooked. We only exchanged smiles and hello, how-are-yous as we passed.
"Please tell Aisha to put the goats in the shed, it's going to rain," she shouted at me over her shoulder as she continued on her way.
"OK," I said.
In that moment, such a feeling of elation! And why, over something so small and trivial? Because she said it in Arabic, not in French. Because she didn't slow down or dress it up for speaking to a foreigner. Because she said it to me in the same way she would have said it to one of her own children, or one of her other neighbors: without formality, without any awareness that she was talking to someone from the other side of the world, but just saying it the way she normally would say it. Because after all I was only her neighbor, no one strange or special. I was just the guy who lived upstairs.
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