The two men sat at Café Hafa and ordered two mint teas, a sort of tradition in this part of the world. Since the 1920s, artists and writers from all over have been coming to this café to drink mint tea, smoke hash, and stare out over the straight separating Spain from Morocco, and, by extension, Europe from Africa. The Beatles, Paul Bowles, Bill Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Jack Kerouac, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, The Rolling Stones, Tchicaya U Tam’si, and Tennessee Williams once gazed out from the comfort of the tiered patio of this café cut into the hillside—sweet mint tea resting on a tiled zellij table, a kif pipe in hand, the smooth, warm waters of the Mediterranean invading the frigid, choppy waters of the Atlantic, the hollow sound of a friendly laugh escaping on the constant breeze. They all sat here at Café Hafa, pondering the idea of place, of distance, of culture and where all these things intersect.
Here, on this tiered patio looking north to Spain, maybe more than most other places, worlds truly collide. Europe and Africa, Christian and Muslim and Jewish, Arabic and Spanish and French and English and Amazight and Italian and German and Darija, Old World and New World, West and East, Past and Present and Future they all meet here, at Café Hafa and order their mint teas and sit down and have a smoke. But, as you might expect, it’s rarely calm at this intersection of culture, language, religion, place and time. More often than not, someone fails to yield the right of way and there is an accident or an explosion or a death.
The waiter walks down the patio stairs holding a wood carrier full of hot tea that has been poured into glasses brimming with clean, bright mint leaves. He pauses to plunk down a steaming glass in front of an old bearded man, a gnawa musician maybe, before meandering through crowded tables, down another flight of stairs and to the next tier, sweat forming on his brow, stopping in front of a group of five older British tourists, where he unloads the rest of his wood carrier full of steaming, sweet tea. Each time a glass clinks on a tile table in front of an expectant customer, a local or a tourist, he mumbles bessaha—may you be blessed.
They did not talk much, the two men. They rarely talked much. They were comfortable in their shared quietude, their privileged economy of words. Often, as they traveled together, they experienced moments of individual revelry, some small appreciation for the sublime. One of the beauties of this friendship they had recognized early on was that they allowed each other the silence of space required for reflection, a silence neither of them realized they had needed. Vacuous words were not uttered to fill, what might be for others, an uncomfortable quiet. They reveled in this silence and in this shared quietude they could hear the voices, the voices that were quiet, meek and on the fringes of consciousness.
The bees descended, buzzing about the teas, sucking on sugar and mint. The two men moved their seats back and shrugged their shoulders. They would allow these bees their feast, uninterrupted by the swiping of hand and arms. They gazed back over the strait and Spain. The bees continued their buzzing. The distant hiss of where the Mediterranean violently clashed with the Atlantic slithered up the hillside. The waiter had disappeared back up the stairs, leaving each client of the cafe the small memory of his quiet blessing.
From where they sat, they could make out the houses of Tarifa. Spain was that close. For decades, the view over this strait, to Tarifa and Spain and Europe, has been synonymous with hope, the desire for change and the idea that a better life was waiting on the other side. The people of this place want to leave, to sail across these waters, to swim the violent strait to Europe. The West Africans and the people of the Maghreb call this partir, but there is a sense to that French word, partir, that does not exist in its English counterpart, “to leave.” With partir, there is an implication of coming back. One only really “leaves” a place to which one wants to return. The people of this place, of Morocco and the rest of Africa, want to partir for a better life, knowing that someday they will return. They will want to return.
Did the waiter want to partir? Was a better life waiting for him on the other side of the strait? Did he know that every year thousands of people drowned trying to swim north through the waters where the Mediterranean warred with the Atlantic, where Europe and Africa stared across a blue line at each other? Or was he content clinking mint teas in front of tourists, uttering a meek blessing?
Below the comfort of the tiered cafe, a bloated body washed ashore. It was the stuff art was made of. Tragic, sad and tattered. A cadaver filled with lost hope, the noxious gas of unmet expectation. An unrequited life.
The two men listened to the screams as they slithered up the hillside with the hiss of war. Someone had returned, perhaps to a better life.
Lucas M. Peters is pursuing his M.F.A. at Goddard College while living in Morocco. His writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Newer York, Creative Nonfiction, Journey Beyond Travel, Barefoot Running, The Pitkin Review and various other websites, magazines and fora. He is now a professor of English Literature and Composition at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. He can be found on the web at www.lucasmpeters.com.