As I boarded the train to Marrakech I found an empty, 6-seat private box and claimed it as my own. Wasn’t long before I was joined by an older woman wearing a djellaba and headscarf. She gave me a quick glance, piled her three bags on floor then balled up into a fetal position and took a nap on the bench. As I watched the landscape pass by, I read a little poetry and jotted travel notes in my journal. When the woman woke up she wasted no time engaging me in conversation.
We realized quickly that we didn’t have a common language, but that didn’t stop her from going on in French and Darija as if I was following. I could get a little of the French vocabulary but she left me in the dust. Often, she’d hold her palm over her chest, lock eyes with me and get quiet. I’d take this as a cue to smile and she’d smile back saying, Insha’Allah, then look towards the sky for a moment before socializing some more. It went on like this for a couple hours, during which time I learned her name was Radia and she had two daughters, Kenza and Mariam.
Buried in Radia’s bags was an accordion file thick with medical records and prescription meds. She dug them out and insisted I look at her paperwork and pills. Somehow I managed to learn of her upcoming open-heart surgery–in 48 hours she’d be in an operating room back in Fez, her body fading from the anesthesia. In the meantime, she was planning a special dinner with her daughters who were arriving home that evening from Tangier and Rabat. Radia told me she would make couscous and she wanted me to come. She wrote her number on the corner of a document, tore it off and handed it to me. I didn’t know what to say. Her peaceful face made me wonder about her future. I almost couldn’t look at her.
Later that night when I tried to call, I kept getting error messages followed by a horrendous beeping on the pay phone’s receiver. And even when I asked someone to help me, it still wouldn’t go through. They said it was a bad number. That nobody was there.
I gave up on the call and ate couscous alone at a dark café in the Marrakech medina. It was dry and tasteless. Back at the hotel, I sprawled out on the bed and could still feel the gentle rocking of the train and hear a distant whistle as it approached the next station.
The Fez Train Station