El Hajj Mohammed

I met a man from the Middle Ages, and was blessed to meet him again last week in Morocco.

Mohammed is 70 years of age, too complex, bizarre and multifaceted a man to describe.

Let’s say, for the sake of succinctness, that Mohammed is a gentle mafiosi farmer with a passion for and proficiency in making things grow.

Mohammed’s appearance belies his strength, somewhat like Master Yoda, speaking in a high register with confused grammar and ancient knowledge. His wiry frame ends in strong calloused hands, with fingers thickened from decades of hard farm work, usually holding an unfeasibly large spliff between them, steadily emitting smoke like an incense stick.

When you are with Mohammed, you are on Mohammed’s time, doing Mohammed things: learning about plants, planting offcuts, wandering through souks haggling for vegetables, hiking up mountains listening to his crazy stories, cooking meals to his exact specifications.

“More oil!” Mohammed demands as the pot bubbles over onto the hob.

My friend Tom’s horticultural interest is piqued by Mohammed’s ancient knowledge, learned from his father, who learned from his father, and his father before him, reaching far back into a time when such things were done with religious precision.

Tom walks over to a tree with Mohammed. “You see this one?” Mohammed asks in his high-pitched voice, breaking off a few short twigs, “You catch this one, and you plant, and it grow biiig, big – too big!”

“No, Mohammed,” says Tom as Mohammed forces the offcuts into his hands, “I keep telling you, I can’t bring these back to Guernsey.”

“Ohhh,” Mohammed says, his demeanour hardening and eyes boring into Tom’s, “You argue?”

Mohammed does not own a phone, and hardly seems to comprehend modern culture and technology. Life still plods along at a medieval cant.

He is utterly unselfconscious when he says rather concerning mafiosi-like things about people he does not like.

“This one,” he says of a mentally infirm fellow badgering him, “this wahhhn, he talk too much.”

The next day that man’s legs were broken.

All of Mohammed’s spare time and waning energy is spent planting trees and flowers and fruits, trying to make Morocco more bountiful and beautiful. Walking with him through the blue maze of Chefchaouen, he will gesture to a tree, “You see, this waaahn, we plant him with my father.”

Walking through the tight winding streets, Mohammed’s presence seems magnetic, either repulsing people wearing looks of concern, or attracting others who are fawning and eager to greet and compliment him.

Walking towards Mohammed last week, he recognised me, and goes in for a handshake, embraces me, and kisses me on each shoulder, almost delicately.

Mohammed’s beady eyes often look further into your soul than you wish. As he laments some outrage of old, some crime of the French or Spanish colonisation or Moroccan royal family, or some individual who ‘make action on meee’, he will then ask rhetorically, “Do you think this is good?” His eyes lock into yours as the question hangs in the air, suspended by his spliff smoke. “Nooo good!”

If your attention diverts for but a second, Mohammed will cattle-prod you with, “Asma!” – which means ‘listen to me’ in the local dialect.

I make tea for the group, but first and foremost, for Mohammed. Moroccans like their tea obscenely sweet. Rather than sugar cubes, they have sugar bricks, of which they put several into one pot of tea.

I bring the tea outside onto the terrace. Mohammed is sat down, leaning forward telling a story to my companions, signature spliff in hand.

Sitting down, I go through the process of thrice pouring the tea into a cup, and returning it into the pot, beginning to do so confidently, with a flourish.

Out of respect from Mohammed, I pass him his cup first, eagerly awaiting his verdict.

Sipping the tea, Mohammed’s face distorts in disgust.

“This is nooo tea!” Mohammed decries. “This is hot shower!”.

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