None of us could have guessed what Hussein was thinking, the day he lay down in the middle of the thoroughfare, blocking the entrance to the solar energy plant with his skinny torso. For a while, he lay there motionless, a tall man descended from mountain Berbers, his stick-thin limbs poking out from the sleeves of his djellaba, where you could see the pockmarks the doctors had left behind when they vaccinated him as a child. At first, we shared laughter over our friend’s odd behavior. Yet, the longer we stood there, the more worried we became. Between us, there towed an undercurrent of apprehension.
‘Wey, Hussein!’ called Adil, the butcher, jogging down the road from his shop. In his hurry, he’d forgotten to stow his meat cleaver, gripping it at his side like a natural extension of his hand where it caught the sun’s angry glint. ‘What are you doing down there? Getting a tan?’
‘Wey, Hussein!’ the teacher Hamid called, arriving on his midday break from the secondary school where he taught English. He looked at us skeptically, inquiring as to whether our friend had spontaneously lost his mind.
‘Just wait till his wife hears,’ Saida, the café cook, grumbled. The black kohl she rubbed on her eyelids had smudged from kitchen smoke, giving her a grim look of displeasure. She spit out the side of her orange-toothed mouth, stirring up the cloudy dust on the pavement. ‘Wey, Hussein!’ she called, ‘What happened, eh? You get run over by a camel?’
Soon, a small caravan of white Peugeots arrived, idling in the road behind us. Inside them, the ten Spanish laborers who’d been hired by the solar energy firm sat, looking confused. They were traveling to work from the hotel where they stayed in the nearby city. From the cars, they poked out their heads, lifting the tinted lenses of their sunglasses to try and catch a glimpse of the commotion.
‘What’s this?’ one of the drivers, a Moroccan, shouted. We recognized him as a man from the city where the foreigners were staying. He climbed down from the driver’s seat, hustling across the pavement in his eagerness to investigate.
‘What’s he doing there?’ the driver yelled, pointing venomously, ‘Taking a nap?’
‘He thinks he’s Gandhi or something,’ Saida mocked, rolling her black ink eyes. She pointed, outlining the arched entrance to the energy plant, a monochrome rainbow painted in desert orange. ‘He’s protesting,’ Saida explained derisively, saying aloud what the rest of us quietly dreaded admitted. With this, the driver nearly lost it.
‘Protesting?’ the driver cried, gunning for Hussein, ‘You…!’ And in three swift strides he stood over our friend’s head, stopping short of kicking him with his heavy boots. ‘Think you can lay there when I have a job to do? I’ll run you over and backwards, you jackass!’
In response, Hussein kept silent, keeping his face glued to the road as though it were the softest pillow.
‘Calm down, hothead,’ Saida exclaimed, hobbling over to face the angry driver. Years ago, she had been waiting for her sister in the center of town when a taxicab struck her, producing the odd gait from which she now suffered. She was, therefore, most sensitive to the cause of pedestrian safety.
‘Just go around him,’ she pleaded, outlining a path with her hands.
‘And what?’ the driver shouted, shaking his open palm as though he wished to strike her, ‘End up in the ravine?’
Indeed, the river that flooded annually was now dry, leaving in its wake a gulch of craggy rocks. Of course, it would not have been impossible for the man to maneuver his vehicle around our misguided friend. Perhaps, in his rage, it was simply the inconvenience that provoked him.
‘I give him one minute,’ the driver shouted, holding his finger in the air to show that he meant it. He trekked back to the van and began revving the engine. Thankfully, a pair of gendarmes soon arrived, keeping the driver from making good on his promise. Together, the officers approached the spot where Hussein lay, tapping him with the toe-end of their boots.
‘What’s going on here?’ they asked us. ‘Has this man taken ill?’
‘Physically? No,’ Saida said, placing her hands akimbo upon her waist. ‘Mentally?’ she added sarcastically, ‘Now, that’s a different story.’
The gendarmes gave an impatient look. The schoolteacher Hamid stepped in to explain: ‘One of your officials came here promising jobs for these men at the energy plant,’ he told them. ‘Instead, they hired those foreigners,’ he said, motioning to the Peugeots full of confused-looking Spaniards.
‘Who knows what they even need the foreigners for?’ the café cook grumbled, rubbing her hennaed finger across the rows of her sensitive teeth. ‘Aren’t they using the sun to make electricity? Does the sun have a preference for foreigners?’
To his comrade, the one officer muttered: ‘We can’t have an old man lying in the middle of the road.’ He nodded, indicating the local crowd gathering. ‘If we move him today, he’ll just be back tomorrow, yaki?’
His partner nodded. They both hoped to avoid a similar telephone call from the chief of the energy plant, a paranoid man who had witnessed the crowd gathering from his office through the lens of his binoculars. Together, the policemen bent over Hussein, dragging him up by the armpits. When our friend was upright, we could see that his face was resolute. He avoided looking at us, instead keeping his eyes locked on the horizon, as the gendarmes pulled up the sleeves of his djellaba, stowing him in the van bearing the king’s insignia, and whisked him away to the place we called Hotel Prison.
After the gendarmes had gone, Saida hurried to tell Hussein’s wife what had happened. Upon hearing the news, her friend cried out, beating her palm-brush broom against the floor. Flies descended in the courtyard, hopping from bread loaf to teacup in tiny acts of pilferage. In the back room, a goat bleated, staring bug-eyed from the place in the ground where it had been tied with a rope to a stake.
‘They’ve only taken him to Hotel Prison,’ Saida burped to her friend, her gastric reflux acting up in the afternoon. ‘Free meals, no work,’ she added, an invisible cloud of gas escaping her lips, ‘Sounds like a vacation to me.’
‘What do you mean?’ Fatima berated, feeling sick. ‘A vacation? My husband is a prisoner!’ Fatima buried her face in her hands, sobbing ferociously. ‘Without him, I have nothing!’ Saida looked around her friend’s home, empty except for a stack of blankets in the corner, a bag of flour in the kitchen, a photograph of a dead relative nailed to the wall.
‘I married a stubborn mule,’ Fatima wept, feeling uncharacteristically sorry for herself.
Saida looked out the open door of the courtyard, peering out over the desert. Originally, the place they’d taken Hussein had opened as a hotel, one meant to accommodate tourists on the way south. From the outside, it was a beautiful structure, built from tall columns of pink stone, the walls glowing warmly at sunrise and dusk. Ultimately, when the tourists bypassed the hotel for one in the nearby city, the building was transferred to the bureau of prisons, the only administration with outposts this far south. For a while, the mudir maintained it as a vacation resort for the families of his prison bureaucrats. But, when the money for upkeep ceased flowing, the pool was eventually drained, the guest rooms converted into cells.
‘There will be better schools for your children,’ the government official who came to our village with talk of jobs promised. ‘No more concrete outhouses. No more electricity going in-and-out. No more struggling to find work,’ he said, stretching his arms out, laying down a smorgasbord of ink-stamped papers before us on the table. ‘Sign here, and the rest will be taken care of.’ As we could not read, the schoolteacher Hamid repeated the documents aloud to us. In exchange for jobs, the solar firm wanted access to our groundwater. For what purpose, we hardly knew. What use had the sun for water?, we joked. Yet, the last laugh was on us, for what little groundwater we had was drying up, and still the electricity flickered on-and-off.
Fatima groaned, thinking of the horrible food her husband would have to consume in prison.
Aloud, Saida wondered: ‘I heard they have a cinema in the basement,’ she said. ‘Rumor is there’s a room with velvet tables for gambling.’
With the image of grubby prison food still in her head, Fatima went to work in the kitchen, ignoring her friend’s idle chatter. In the evening, she walked off with a stack of fat bread she had prepared, thumbing a ride along the main road in the direction of Hotel Prison.
‘I came to see my husband,’ she told the guard in the booth. The guard, a thickset man, put down the newspaper he’d been reading, giving the village woman a skeptical once-over.
‘Here, have some,’ Fatima said persuasively, taking a round of stuffed bread from her satchel. She pulled back the top to reveal it was layered full of shining fat, onions, tomatoes, peppers. In the end, the guard waved her away, ignoring the gibberish pouring from her mouth, a village language not spoken in the city he was from. Outside the gate, Fatima looked up at the hotel, wondering which room her husband was confined to, if he could see her below, though the windows were mirrored to reflect the hot sunlight and there was no way to tell.
The next day, Fatima returned to the guard booth, this time bearing a tray of tea cookies she had traded with a neighbor for one of her blankets. Again, the guard waved her away, though not without taking a handful of the cookies she offered. Finding no trucks headed in the direction of the village, Fatima walked the ten kilometers home, her bunions aching in her ill-soled shoes by the time she reached home, feeling hopeless while she pumiced her feet over a bucket of well water.
The third day following her husband’s arrest, Fatima took the goat staked in the courtyard with her to the street. After struggling to overpower it, she managed to hold it down. Determined, she grabbed the knife from her pocket and reached over its throat. When she released her grip, the goat jumped back to its feet, perhaps not realizing it had been killed. Afterwards, when it fell to its side and its heart ceased pumping, Fatima again went to work.
‘I came to see my husband,’ she told the guard in the booth, this time unveiling the delicious stew she had made. She cleaned the goat thoroughly, making sausage and liver kebab, the tender meats all gleaming inside the pot with fresh oil and plump, juicy tomatoes.
‘Bi’smillah,’ the guard said. Usually, such an array of specialties was reserved for the big holiday. The poor woman, desperate to see her husband, had made the sacrifice early. Greedily, the guard dived into the pot. After a few bites, he rolled his eyes, waving the old woman on.
‘What are you doing in here, grandma?’ the second guard rushed to ask, coming at her from behind his desk in the main entrance. He stopped her in the hallway, marching her back outside to his colleague in the booth. Between savory bites of roast, the guard explained the situation, laughing, waving his friend over to join him in the meal. With the two preoccupied, Fatima hurried back inside to look for her husband before anyone changed their minds.
The long hallway filled with cells was emptier than she expected. What few prisoners were kept there were mainly old men, all lying upon musty cots, staring blankly into space and groaning. One toothless prisoner reached out to her from behind the bars, shouting obscenities that provoked his neighbors, who also began heckling. It seemed to Fatima less like a prison than an insane asylum, and she walked quickly down the hallway, pulling tighter the lizar she wore around her head so that only one of her eyes was uncovered.
When she found her husband, he was lying on a mattress of pillows overlooking the empty pool.
‘I spend day and night cooking for you,’ Fatima said, pulling out the extra food she had kept from the guards, ‘and here you are, napping like a king.’
Astonished, her husband looked up. Angrily, Fatima stopped him before he could begin to chide her for coming.
‘Did I marry a crazy person?’ she demanded, weeping softly. ‘How is it you are the only one from our village who ended up in this place?’
She removed the lid from the pot she’d saved, holding it against the bars to feed him. Seeing her husband in his cell, she felt a deep pang of sadness. Hussein, overcome with pity for his aging wife, placed his forehead against the bars. Still, he did not understand the passion that had overcome him three days prior, a feeling unknown to him his entire life.
‘How long will they keep you here?’ his wife asked pitifully.
‘Only one month,’ he said, looking into her brown eyes full of tears. For a while, he stood there, dipping his hand into the pot through the bars, contemplating her sadness and his own misfortune. When he had finished eating, he begged his wife to return home and not worry, as he would be home before she knew it.
Later, when Fatima returned to the village, Saida came to ask her friend what she had seen.
‘The pool is dry,’ Fatima said, scratching her arms where a bed bug had made its way into her lizar. ‘The guards ate all my good fat bread.’
‘What about the game room?’ Saida probed.
‘Game room? What game room?’
Annoyed, Saida pressed her. ‘What about the movie theatre?’
‘Movie theatre? There is no movie theatre,’ Fatima responded incredulously. ‘There’s barely even electricity. I tripped and practically killed myself walking around.’
‘What about the dining hall?’ Saida persisted, ‘I heard there was a dining hall, one with chandeliers.’
‘Dining hall?’ Fatima huffed, amazed at her friend’s stupidity, ‘Do you really think they would treat prisoners so well? There is no dining hall in that hotel. There is only misery.’
The next week, crazed by the long hours spent alone, angry with her husband for abandoning her, Fatima again decided to thumb a ride along the main road in the direction of Hotel Prison.
’What are you doing here?’ Hussein asked, horrified to see his wife standing outside his prison cell with her bedroll gathered in her arms. ‘Guard!’ Hussein called, shouting to the one who had unlocked the cell and let his wife in, turning now back down the hallway as he munched on the remainder of the tea cookies she had brought.
Fatima looked up at her husband defiantly. ‘Now I’m protesting you,’ she declared, throwing down her bedroll on the dusty floor, ‘and staying here until you’re free.’
Frantic, Hussein began banging his hands against the iron bars, making such noise that the other prisoners joined in, creating a metallic cacophony that rang down the hall.
‘Do you really think he will listen?’ Fatima laughed. ‘You don’t even have tea cookies to bribe him with,’ she pointed out, feeling the first bed bug creep from its hiding place and bite into her ankle. She sighed, resigning herself.
‘You left me alone out there,’ she scolded, pulling out the knitting she planned to finish over the coming weeks, ‘How could you do such a thing?’
Hussein shrunk down to the floor, placing his chin in his hands. How could he even begin to explain himself? It was all much bigger than he could put into words. He was tired, for one. Daily, he watched his wife sweep their dirt floor with a palm-brush broom, and it made him feel they were being ignored. Rarely had they money to leave the village. In fact, Hussein realized then, now was one of only a handful of times in their long lives they had been outside the village together since their wedding day.
‘It’s pretty up here,’ Fatima eventually declared, looking out the barred window over the empty pool. ‘Like being on a ship.’
The purple desert sky was fading to a deep blue, and the Anti-Atlas indeed looked much like capped waves arising from the ocean, though the couple had only ever seen such waves in movies.
Outside, one of the guards sat beside the empty pool, playing music on a battery-powered radio. Hussein couldn’t remember the last time he had seen the sky so beautiful. He remembered, right up until the moment the gendarmes arrived, there had been a quiet commotion in his body, one he had rarely experienced in his life: a stirring in his center. He felt it now, watching his wife knit on the floor of the prison cell. It mirrored the beauty of the desert at sunset, captured by the soulful reckoning of a person’s dreams. He stood there breathing, listening to the hot desert howl: the rally-cry of being alive.
EMILY ZIDO is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Jimenez-Porter Writers' House. From 2012-2014, she worked as a teacher in southern Morocco and is currently working on a story collection dedicated to her many friends there. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.