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‘The nasrani kept shouting, then his bike exploded’

Carl Henn cycling in Kenya

There was something strange about the bike from the start. It had a funny wobble in the front.

If you steered straight, the front wheel sort of veered around on its own. I tried to get a bike mechanic to fix it, but I was unable to explain the problem in Arabic. The mechanic stared at me as I tried to explain it with gestures. He gave me a piercing look, and had a somewhat patronizing expression.

After running out of ideas to show what was wrong, I asked if he understood. He said no; I gave up. I kept riding the bike around Marrakesh, Morocco, and it got more wobbly as the weeks and months went by.

I bought the used bike in 1981 in one of the Marrakesh souks – the local markets, where everything imaginable was for sale, and prices were always negotiable. You were expected to negotiate; a failure to do so was seen as bad form. The seller often asked for a ridiculously high price at first, and you had to counter with a ridiculously low price. Then, after being served mint tea, you would bargain fiercely to arrive somewhere in the middle. I sometimes wondered why we didn’t just skip the bargaining and set the price automatically to that middle ground. But, of course, that would mean there would be no testing of a buyer’s mettle and no chance to drink mint tea.

By early December of my second year of Peace Corps service, I’d had the bike for about a year. One day, while riding the wobbly thing along one of the medina (old city, inside the walls) streets, I saw a Peace Corps officer, Howie, from the Rabat office, drive by me. I heard he was in town and I meant to find him. I was hoping to get a ride with him back to Rabat so I could catch a plane to London.

I had made a plan to meet my sister Martha in London, where she was doing a winter quarter study program. I would have Christmas and New Year’s Day with her. We would go to pubs, where I could drink beer, and ale, and be able to talk to women my age. I was really excited.

Carl Henn cycling with friends
Carl Henn, center, mountain biking with friends Emery and Godfroy.

He passed my bike and did not notice me, but I noticed him.

So, I kept racing after Howie’s car as fast as I could ride on my wobbly bike. I shouted “Howie!” at the top of my lungs. There were two problems resulting from this sprinting and shouting.

The first was that I forgot “Howie!” was a swear word in Moroccan Arabic. Basically, I was riding along shouting the F-word at the top of my lungs.

Chasing a car on a wobbly bike while screaming an expletive would attract attention in every country. But, when you’re a stranger overseas, the effect is amplified. I was a “nasrani,” the Arabic word for a Christian, or a Nazarene. (The word was derived from biblical times).

The second was that the front fork of my bike broke clean off under the head tube. The front wheel rolled away and left me holding the handlebars — now free-floating, no longer attached to any other part of the bicycle. Without the wheel, the bike frame dropped and the pedals hit the ground. My momentum sent me flying over the handlebars, which I was still holding, only to land hard on my face. I did an impressive skid-stop on the pavement and was knocked out cold.

When I woke up, I was on the sidewalk, sitting propped against a wall, feeling woozy, with a crowd of people staring at me. I had blood all down the front of my shirt. I was still dazed, but I gathered from the conversation happening around me and the way the people were pointing at my face and shirt, that the blood was coming from my face.

I spoke enough Arabic to get the following story:

“He (the nasrani) was riding along, fast, shouting, ‘f---, f---, f---!’ W’allahi! (I swear to God) We don’t know why. These nasranis! It was very strange. His bike exploded, and down he went, landing on his face. We called the ambulance to take him to the hospital. It was our duty.

“They will put his nose back on.”

Wait a minute. What was this about my nose? It needed to be put back on? I reached up and felt my nose. The top half of it, the bony part, was still there, but the bottom half, the fleshy part, was dangling.

Just then, the ambulance arrived. I was loaded on board and soon we were at the main public hospital. I was taken, on a gurney, to the emergency room. Next to me, a young doctor and a nurse were discussing what to do about my nose. The nurse said in Arabic, “Just sew it back on.” The doctor, in a manner which did not inspire great confidence in me, said, “What do you mean, how do I sew it on?”

I’m sure the doctor and nurse attending to me had no idea that I could understand them — or that I was wishing I couldn’t.

The nurse said, “Just like you stitch the hem of the pants!”

“Like this?” the doctor asked.

I could see the needle coming toward my nose. Then up and away. I was either too dazed to feel it penetrate my flesh, or maybe they had given me anesthesia. The sewing went on for a while, then the nurse said that it looked OK. They thoroughly wrapped my entire face in gauze, except for my eyes and my mouth.

Soon after, Howie himself arrived at the hospital. He heard about the accident. He would take me to Rabat after all, because the Peace Corps nurse, Friedl, would need to do a check-up on me. I was more afraid of Friedl than I was of the Moroccan doctor in the ER. Friedl, a Belgian nurse, seemed to relish the gory parts of her job. She gave us Volunteers our shots with such enthusiasm that we called her “Friedl the Needle.”

This time, though, Friedl was surprisingly gentle. She said I looked like I was in good shape, considering my crash. She verified that I had done a skid stop on my face and had two black eyes. She said they would stay that way for a while.

What? Two black eyes? For a while? I had not yet seen myself in a mirror, but I told her she had to do something, because I would soon be on my way to London. I couldn’t go to London, hang out in pubs, and talk to ladies with two black eyes and my face wrapped in gauze bandages!

Carl Henn cycling in Kenya
Carl Henn biking in Hell's Gate National Park in Kenya.

She said, “Well, don’t worry, at least they won’t be able to see the scar on your nose. He used the wrong kind of sutures, but otherwise it looks good.”

This alarmed me. I said, “What do you mean, the wrong kind of sutures?”

She told me that usually, for faces, doctors use very fine sutures but that, in my case, perhaps due to limited supplies, the doctor had used the heavy sutures—the ones usually used for suturing body parts. She ended by saying, “You sort of look like Frankenstein.”

Oh, great. That was the end of my hopes of talking women in London.

A couple of weeks later, while I was in London, I went to a British National Health Service (NHS) clinic. They removed the sutures for free. I was afraid there would be terrible scars on my face, but I was pleasantly surprised. My nose had healed up pretty well, and the sutures left almost no scar.

When I returned to Morocco, I was walking from the Koutoubia mosque into the medina, on my way home. A shopkeeper in my neighborhood called out to me. He told me he had saved my bike for me – or what was left of it. “It was my duty,” he said, touching his heart. I thanked him and touched mine.

I picked up the remaining pieces of my bike and took them home. That was one of the great things about Morocco. A local person I didn’t even know would watch out for me, even though I was a nasrani.

Looking back, I see the whole experience as a paraphrased version of the opening line from a Dickens novel.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the winter of (my) despair, it was the spring of hope … I had a bicycle before me, (then) I had nothing before me … except cold, hard tar.

Strangers had picked me up out of the road, propped me against a wall, called an ambulance, and waited with me for the ambulance to come. One of these kind strangers had kept the remains of my bike for me. A young, inexperienced ER doctor had done a good job of sewing my nose back on. The Marrakesh hospital took care of me for free. Or, if they did issue a bill, the Peace Corps took care of it. In the end, I was well enough to complete my Peace Corps service. I had no lasting ill effects from the crash. When you are young, you heal faster, and you bounce back faster. And hopefully you learn a lesson.

The lesson I learned? For the remainder of my time in Marrakesh, I walked everywhere. No more biking!

Editor’s Note: Carl Henn is the author of “My Two Centuries in Africa,” a book written to share a more positive, balanced view of Africa than what you may see on the news.