Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 32

Flawed Companions

We had little in common. I made friends easily, Duff frightened them away. I chattered constantly, giving my opinion on everything. To get an opinion out of Duff required Dominican Inquisitors. I kept fit through useful activity; Duff swore by 5BX, the Canadian Air-Force fitness programme. He was strongly muscled but narrow of body and face as well as outlook. In his swimming togs, he looked tough but not attractive. Eyes too close together, lips pursed, frowning, humourless, pinched, grudging, no apparent interest in sex, other people, or places.

I recall him in the south of Spain demanding in a truculent drawl of a young boy who wanted to practice his English, "What're y' staples?" When the poor kid didn't understand, Duff growled exactly the same question again and again, only louder each time. As I too had no idea what he was on about, I asked him. Staples, it transpired, is Canadian for the most common foods.

Spain was still hopeless for hitching so we caught buses and trains. Arriving towards evening in Seville, I had to wait for my rucksack to be unloaded. When I looked around, Duff had disappeared. Imagining he'd had an accident I wasted two days searching at embassies, hotels, everywhere. When I saw him in a café, I raced across mightily relieved. He just shrugged, indifferent to my concern, and offered no explanation. I assumed I'd annoyed him by chattering too much and vowed to improve.

In Algeciras two days later, he missed the ferry to Tangiers. In preparation for his arrival I took a room at the same hotel as last time behind Socco Chico, and met the next ferry. But he'd met three other, equally unattractive and sour Canadians on board and decided to stay with them at a hostel in the modern part of the city. No thanks for my efforts, apology, or explanation. I realised I'd again annoyed him, but had no idea how, and he didn't care enough to enlighten me. Somewhat relieved to be once more alone, I set off for Fez, the most perfectly preserved medieval Arab city in the world, and also the most attractive.

Surrounded by a magnificent wall, Fez is a labyrinth of narrow alleys lined with tiny shops open to the street selling everything from fruit to herbs, leather to silver – the trader sitting on a shelf behind his wares. Laden donkeys and their drivers squeezed past djellaba-clad pedestrians. Magnificently decorated arches offered vistas through to grand 'squares' jammed with traders, merchants, noise, colour, and life. The river gushes through barred arches in the ancient encircling walls, watering very old trees in parks and gardens. Secret courtyards can be glimpsed through tiny grills. At the lowest point is an ancient tannery where, in execrable stench, near-naked, slim, brown young men up to their thighs in round stone vats full of steaming coloured dyes, knead with their feet the beautiful, soft Moroccan leather.

If a load was too small for a donkey or the street too narrow, porters hoisted heavy bundles on their backs. One such, a handsome young man who called himself Texas because of an infatuation with the Wild West, took up with me, said I could stay at his place, and became my guide for three days. After traipsing the hot, scented alleys, wandering around the old fort and cemetery, watching eagles in the surrounding hills, we sweated in Turkish baths and exercised in a cellar gymnasium with other scantily clad young men lifting weights, wrestling and drinking sweet mint tea. Everywhere in Morocco, it seemed, on roadsides, construction sites, in shops and houses, mint tea would be bubbling aromatically in blue, exotic shaped enamel teapots on tiny primus stoves.

Texas lived in three rooms in an ancient courtyard house near the centre of the city. His grandfather, a lean sixty-year-old with cheekbones you could slit your wrists on, spoke excellent English although his smile was a trifle disconcerting – exposing a full set of stainless steel dentures. Over scalding mint tea, I learned that he and Kiril [Texas's real name] were Persians. Not Arabs, not Muslim. When the rest of the family had been murdered by the Shah these two had fled to Fez. He doted on Kiril but worried that one day one of the foreigners he 'entertained' to supplement his meagre income as a porter, would either bring disease or take him away. The grandfather too had taken wealthy lovers as a young man… but… he shrugged acceptance of fate.

So! It wasn't my magnetic charm that had attracted Kiril. I was expected to pay for what I'd once been paid for! Too late to find somewhere else to sleep – and I didn't want to.

Kiril led me through a beaded curtain to his bedroom and undressed. Naked, he was as smooth and lithe as an eel. Powerful shoulders, narrow hips, strongly muscled legs, and bubble bum. He sprawled cheekily over the bed and grinned; very professional. Taught me a few tricks and it was fun – except for the fear of disease. He looked clean, but you can never be a hundred percent sure. As always, I withheld a large part of me, unwilling to reveal the yearning for my other half who was out there somewhere. I had to keep searching.

Grandfather brought in breakfast bowls of warm milk and pastries dripping with apricot jam, Kiril planned the day, and I relaxed for the first time in what seemed like years. Three days and nights cost about the same as I earned in two hours as an escort. Too cheap by far, so I trebled it.

If he'd asked I would have settled down with him for life. But I had no security. No job. He wouldn't have understood, anyway. He expected to marry and have children when too old for clients. The notion of being exclusively gay or straight was foreign to him and all the other boys. Sexuality for them, as with most animals, is fluid. Only in western democracies are we forced to choose one thing or the other, and it's for that reason that Muslim rulers say they have no homosexuals. What they mean is they have no exclusive gays living like heterosexual couples.

Fez was where Sebastian retreated with a handsome young Arab lover in Brideshead Revisited. I didn't envy him his drug addiction, but I did envy him the chance to live in such an ancient romantic city. Life, I decided, is like wandering through a storm of leaves – we grab at a few as they flutter past, but millions escape us. We have no idea where or how other people end up, or what their life is like. We touch only a few, scarcely knowing them at all. Barely knowing ourselves.

Ahmed, a young Algerian returning from job hunting in France, hitched with me across the border into Algeria, and in Oran introduced me to Arab 'doss houses'. For a few pennies we had a scrupulously clean mattress in a vast room filled with single men. No one would steal, he assured me, Muslims treated guests with respect. That evening we wandered down to the port, me foolishly worried about an outbreak of plague, having recently read Camus' La Peste. The town was more attractive than I'd expected and before long Ahmed was chatting up a pair of pale Swedish businessmen, who, imagining I was also an Arab, invited us back to their hotel, shouted us a meal, and after an athletic romp in their room handed us twenty American dollars each.

The road to Algiers was unmemorable except for my first view of fundamentalist Muslim women, draped from top to toe in white sheets with only a tiny gap left for one eye. When they became aware of our approach even that tiny hole was closed, and they stood still, solid white ghosts gleaming in the sun until we'd passed. So friendly were the men that even in central Algiers I had only to put out my hand and passing cars would stop and offer lifts.

The friendliness, honesty, hospitality and generosity of North African Arabs amazes me still. It was only a few years since Algeria had thrown off France's colonial yoke and their pride was palpable. Hatred was reserved for Israel and the countries that supported it.

Before admitting me to their car or truck, drivers would ask to see my passport. If I'd been an American I'd have been spat on and left by the roadside. The USA was blamed not only for Israel, but also for water hyacinths clogging Nile cataracts, and every other disaster, war, coup, and atrocity in the Middle East, as well as Viet Nam. At the time I thought it a trifle paranoid, but now I realise it was pretty close to the truth.

Probably the most spectacularly situated city I've ever visited is Constantine. It straddles a very deep, rocky gorge, spanned by a delicate looking bridge perched on the hundred-metre-high vertical cliffs. Young men from the Algerian Resistance, "Sons of the Revolution", attached themselves to me as I trudged into the city. I was a novelty; very few hitch-hikers dared to visit Algeria so soon after their war of independence. They insisted I stay for a few days in their headquarters where they recited poetry, we listened to music, and they talked deep into the night about revolution, the meaning of life, and the nature of humans – I gained the impression that Arabs are far better educated culturally, philosophically and politically than young people in New Zealand and other British commonwealth countries. They have fewer inhibitions about expressing their feelings, singing, dancing, and reciting poetry, and enjoy physically embracing and touching their friends in ways that would have them labelled queer at home. They never seemed to question either their masculinity or their right to hold opinions about life and everything else.

Someone asked my opinion of Israel, a question I was sick of answering. Foolishly, I said I didn't care about it. The truth was I didn't really know anything except that every Arab I'd encountered hated it, although Australian friends had spent six months there in a kibbutz and raved about the wonderful experience. I didn't know the land had been stolen, the Palestinians evicted, thousands murdered, and great misery caused. How could I? I never read newspapers and it had never been mentioned in history at school.

The point of a knife pricked my throat. Quickly apologising for my imperfect French, I said I meant Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth! The knife was withdrawn, and friendship resumed. Had they checked my rucksack they would have slit my throat – it contained a duplicate passport stamped 'Valid Only for Israel', so I could visit and not have it recorded in my regular passport, making subsequent entry to Muslim countries impossible. I hadn't felt threatened by the young warrior; it was a wonderfully theatrical gesture I'd love to have made myself. They had all killed people, but not for nothing.

They taught me to write my name and a few numbers and words in Arabic, and I praised them for freeing themselves from their colonial overlords. All were devout believers, very excitable, with apparently inexhaustible energy. When I'm with people I seem to have no control over my energy output. It's full bore till I suddenly run out of gas and fall asleep. The energy of these young revolutionaries outlasted mine by megajoules and, despite the affection I felt, I was pleased to bid farewell.

Eighteen months later I gave a public lecture in Paris about my time in Algeria, in which I praised the Algerians for their kindness, hospitality, honesty and enthusiasm in the rebuilding of their country. Afterwards, ex-colonials in the audience who'd been forced to leave, argued angrily with me. Algerians were lazy, uncouth, untrustworthy, dirty, heathens. I should be ashamed of myself for telling such lies.

Tunisia was a relief. No revolutionary fervour, merely a gentle acceptance of the good and bad things in life. In Sfax, an impeccably uniformed young soldier took me by the hand and led me through the vast and ancient walled city to a café in cool gardens where we sipped coffee, holding hands and sniffing small bunches of daphne flowers attached to a stick; behaviour that attracted no attention – all the young men were doing it. When he discovered I was staying at the youth hostel, not a hotel, he sweetly excused himself and struck up a conversation with a portly German in a ridiculous white linen suit. I wandered down to the port, bustling with large ships and dotted with romantic looking dhows.

Duff arrived at the Sfax Youth Hostel while I was arranging with Bruno and Adolph, a Swiss couple I'd just met, to spend a week on the islands of Kerkenna. He looked harassed and ill-tempered, having endured a dreadful trip from Tangiers, being forced to take crowded buses because "…the fucking Arabs were so fucking unfriendly."

Bruno invited him to join us on the island before I could warn him.

Once on the islands – mere date-palm-speckled sandbars about twenty kilometres off shore - Duff succumbed to dysentery and returned to Sfax, leaving us to enjoy paradise. The locals, with whom our communication was reduced to gestures, entertained us in the evening with palm wine, a brew guaranteed to take the lining off your stomach. They declared themselves honoured that we had chosen to sleep on their beach. It was more likely they were checking us out in case we were thieves.

A young lad of about twelve took it upon himself to arrive with water, fresh eggs, and fruit every morning, refusing payment! I took his address and promised to send him stamps. When we left, leaving our camping site cleaner than when we arrived, it was only with great reluctance that these extremely poor islanders accepted payment for their hospitality.

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