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The Flood

Sep 4

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9/4/2010 2:04 PM  RssIcon

 The Flood by David Young

I found out how much it rained in the desert after just three months.  I was stationed in a small town in the southeast corner of Morocco, on the cusp of the Sahara, as a volunteer for the Peace Corps.  I learned of my assignment two months into my training.  To great fanfare, the program director gathered together the 30 trainees in my group and placed a map on the wall.  With each name he called out he placed a colored pin somewhere on it.  Clusters of reds, blues, and yellows began to form.  When my name was announced, I watched his hand move to a far corner of the map and pierce a brown desolate area.  Nine hours from Fes, twelve hours from Marrakech, the nearest city (if you could call it that) was an unfamiliar transport hub named Er-Rachidia.  My new home was Boudnib, a desert village less than an hour from the Algerian border. 
I arrived several weeks later.  When I stepped off the bus it was early afternoon and hot.  The town had one paved road, but it was covered with a layer of sand and dust that swirled about in tiny spirals.  A member of my host family, a genial government worker named Lahcen, met me at the station and began showing me around in his dented tan Peugeot.  The new buildings were made of concrete and painted the color of rust, but most everything else had been shaped from mud.  Cracks ran along the walls like veins, a testament to the harsh effects of the sun.  Lahcen stopped in front of a cafe and we got out for tea.  In the heat, the yellow liquid poured like syrup, but I smiled and accepted a glass anyway.  He took a sip and laughed.  “Welcome to Boudnib, now you wait until winter.” 
When winter came, three months later, I saw what he had meant.  The storm clouds unfurled from the Atlas mountains to the north and replaced the rich blue desert sky with a dull pallor of grey.  The temperature soon dropped and the air, as dry as it was, became painful to breathe.  The clouds stayed above us for weeks, refusing to budge, as if they were just setting a mood.  Sweaters on top of sweaters began to appear on my Moroccan friends.  They knew what was coming.   
It started to rain in February.  At first, it was pleasant waking up to the gentle patter, if only for the difference.  Others enjoyed it too: at the cafes, the men stopped talking and just watched the rain fall; neighbors I had never seen before left their doors open and stood staring out at the sky; little children splashed in the puddles and their mothers ran after them screaming and holding their veils.  Long after everyone had gotten wet though, the rain kept falling.  It was never a hard rain.  It always fell gently, almost respectfully, over us.  It just never stopped.  After several days, the roads could absorb no more and they yielded.  Rivulets formed down their sides, blocking stores and flooding intersections entirely.  The men rolled their jeans up above their knees and, still wearing sandals despite the cold, stepped around the water in long complex paths, balancing on the highest stones.  Soon, even these efforts were in vain—everything turned to mud.  It was impossible to escape: if you did not slip in it, it would suck at your shoe, demanding penance.  The blue rubber sandals that were sold for a dirham or two and worn by everyone began to show up in the streets, abandoned and half-buried.  The rain kept falling.  People still stood beneath their balconies and stared blankly out at the storm, but they were muttering a word I had never heard before: fiyadon.  Flood. 
“Nabil! Come! Come!” I followed my host brothers outside, behind the house.  In drier weather, the house stands along the embankment of the river bed, a half-mile wide pile of white rocks emerging from the desert to divide the town in two.  As far as I could tell, the river did not have a name, nor did it ever have water.  The only things I'd seen it hold were the tables and tents of the traveling salesmen who came every Sunday for the weekly souq—the outdoor market—to sell whatever tools, clothes, and spices they could before moving on to the next town.  
The rest of my host family were standing beneath a tree, shaking their heads.  My host mother had brought a hand up to her mouth and was talking to herself in her native Tashleheit.  When she saw me she pointed out in front of her and said, in Arabic, “Nabil!  The river!” 
The new river was violent, as if to make up for the months and years of its bed's idleness, but it had not reached the homes yet.  It threw up angry white tips of froth and pulsated in a thousand places at once, like some great living thing.  Trash and debris were caught everywhere on its surface and made it seem almost sinister.  The river shouted at us—a deep and steady roar—but no one said anything back.  Instead, we just watched Abd Jalal, the youngest brother, pick up stones from the ground and throw them out into the water. 
The rain stopped after two weeks, but the river kept flowing.  For three days afterwards, wherever I went in town I could still hear the river.  Though the roads had turned soft with mud and many of the older homes had collapsed under the weight of the rain, Boudnib had been spared the worst.  The people returned to the lives that they had always led—arguing politics at the cafe, gossiping at the public ovens, stopping friends on the street for a long warm greeting—but the river refused to be forgotten, humming along in the background, like a reminder of how quickly everything can change. 
* * * 
I spoke too soon.   
We must have lost electricity at night after everyone had gone to bed so no one noticed immediately.  I knew it the moment I woke up: the family had not turned on the television.  That morning, more neighbors than usual rapped on our metal door and I joined my host parents as they poured them tea, carefully dividing it among a dozen tiny glass cups and serving them from right to left, as was their tradition.  Everyone was talking about the rumors.  Losing electricity was not an unusual thing, it happened often enough for the local stores to always carry a box of candles ready for sale, although there was talk that this time it could last for much longer than a day or two.  If we didn't have electricity, that meant soon we wouldn't have water either.  But there was an even bigger problem. 
“The bridge to Er-Rachidia fell.  The river hit it.  It's gone.” A man I had never seen before said this and smiled in defeat.  He had a long face interrupted by the thick bristles of an unkempt mustache he tugged on occasionally.  He wore a neatly pressed blue djellaba that he must have taken particular care of to not get muddy.  Later, I learned he was a grande taxi driver between Boudnib and Er-Rachidia, and had seen the destroyed bridge himself.  It was a small but essential passage over the river about ten kilometers outside of town.  It was old—the French probably built it over fifty years ago—but no one had ever thought of it collapsing.  Now that it had, the discussion turned to what this meant. 
“We will not have our souq.  We should buy vegetables now, before they are gone” 
“Flour too, for bread.” 
“Prices are already rising, I saw Boujmin at the market.  He said he had no choice, nothing is coming in anymore.” 
They began asking how high the prices had become and the room filled with numbers and clicks of disapproval.  There was nothing to be done; it was going to get worse. 
That evening, I walked across town to have dinner with another family.  Despite whatever troubles there had been recently, it was a beautiful Moroccan night.  The air was crisp and filled with the sounds of life the rain had brought out—the tremulous croaks of frogs hiding in the mud walls, the higher pitched whine of the locusts they ate.  Above me, a billion stars pierced the darkness.  The Milky Way's brilliant streak—or the river of milk, as the locals called it—ripped through the sky like a seam about to burst.  In the distance, I could still hear the river, yelling and thrashing.  Somehow, it sounded different this time, but I paid little attention and walked on, enjoying the moment.   
The next day I went to look at the water.  The river was still there, purring slowly between the white rocks, but it was disappearing, being reclaimed again by the desert.  Instead, the angry drone—like a chant—was rising from behind me.  I followed the sound and recognized what I had heard last night.  In front of the town hall, a drab cement building with a long Moroccan flag hung around it like a sash, a group of men marched in a circle shaking their fists.  Beside them, a line of women watched from the curb, shouting encouragements.  Each of them held a yellow bed sheet around themselves that caught in the wind and billowed out like a sail.  I held back and tried to make out what was being said. 
“Dead ... government ... help us ... gone ... gone ... gone ...” The chant was fervent and  much too quick for me to understand.  I was out of my element.  Still, I know what I heard.  Dead?  The flood had been bad, but it had not broken the banks of the river.  Who had died? 
The protesters continued for several more days.  They lined the streets with their slogans and jumped on top of each other in their excitement.  They succeeded only in bringing in the army to watch them.  With the soldiers there—tall skinny men with determined faces and guns that looked too large for them—their circles grew tighter and their shouts became louder.  The doors of the market had closed and we still had no electricity.  Water still flowed, but just barely.  Lines of people with buckets were already forming at the public wells.  The town—my town, as I wanted to think of it—was growing more tense everyday, and I began to worry.   
* * * 
I was weak, I admit it.  I went looking for an out.  I called Peace Corps and asked what they could do for me.  For me.  I was in danger I thought, so they should help me leave.  They should rescue me.   
“Just stay for now.  You'll be all right, but keep us up to date.  And if anything changes, call.” That was all they gave me. 
There were now army helicopters flying low over the town, something many locals had never seen before.  Most disappeared quickly, but sometimes they stopped and hovered.  When that happened, men and children alike scraped stones off the ground and threw them into the sky.  It was amazing and, like an explosion, would happen suddenly.  The thwak thwak thwak of the helicopter was all it took for people to drop the papers or bags or food they had been carrying and look up at the sky for something to aim at.   
It was easy to question what I was doing there.   I was living with these people, breaking bread with them, suffering with them, but this was not my ordeal.  I was a bystander—a visitor to a place I would eventually leave behind.  There was no going back for them; this town was everything.  How could I, who had nothing to lose, even bare to face them?  I was scared. 
My friend Simo wanted to show me something.  He took my hand and we walked into the  farms at the far edge of town.  Date palms stretched high above us, their trunks lined with serrated notches the boys would use in the summer to climb, barefoot and nimble, until they could chop loose the bright orange clumps of fruit that clung to the tops.  Between them grew olive trees and sprigs of alfalfa, along with an array of vegetables set into tiny individual plots.  All of it was fed by the river that ran alongside us, bubbling into the crude ditches that irrigated the land. 
I had to step carefully.  The river was still high here and the mud was thick.  My eyes were cast down, making sure the ground did not claim my shoes—though they were already ruined—when Simo tapped my shoulder.  I looked up at him and followed his gaze. 
It had been gorgeous, in its way.  It was one of the first places that I had been taken to when I arrived, and the handful of times an outsider had come to visit, I had shown them the same honor.  Ksar Boudnib, the original town, was built hundreds of years ago.  It was a series of homes, each made with stacked mud, that interlocked and wove together to form a giant unified structure.  Covered passageways, narrow and low, connected the homes and cooled its inner chambers.  Even in the throes of summer, when the heat collected into silver pools on the horizon, its depths offered a respite. 
The massive wooden doors at its entrance were the only thing that remained, the river had taken the rest.  Faded patterns were carved into their panels, as if to celebrate better times, though the effect—lone doors standing in front of the mass of wreckage, the incomprehensible pile of wood and mud and dirt and metal—was closer to a gravestone's somber remembrance of the past.  I could still see people climbing in and out of the mud, slowly placing items in a sack, trying to salvage whatever they could.  They already had so very little, but to lose even that, it wasn't fair. 
“Only 23 died, out of about 300, so they were lucky.” Simo said.  “God spared them.” 
“Where will they go?” I asked. 
“Where can they go?  This is their home.  Some are staying in the town hall, others with family, but no one knows what will happen.  They cannot stay here, it is done.  God will help.  He will help.” 
* * * 
It happened quickly.  The bridge was rebuilt and the electricity returned.  The protests stopped and the people went back to the work of a small town.  The displaced families remained in the town hall for several months afterwards, but their numbers slowly dwindled.  Occasionally, I went with my host father to help feed them.  They were living in a crowded room and slept on the floor, side-by-side, but they were not unhappy.  When I saw them they would smile and poke fun at my strange foreign habits.  In spite of everything, they were grateful for what they had. 
When spring arrived, several weeks later, the desert revealed what the rain had hid: a carpet of flowers, lush yellow-green meadows such as even the Moroccans had never seen.  Muajeejana.  Our miracle. 

1 comment(s) so far...


Re: The Flood

Wow David. Loved the story man. Good vivid detail and a story with a beginning, middle and end. Just may be the winner. Hope all is well, man. Talk to ya.


By Charley Silverman on   9/6/2010 4:19 PM

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