Night Train to Marrakech

The Marrakech Express

The Marrakech Express

I have always had trouble sleeping on trains. There is something about the unrelenting rhythm and hum of the wheels as they roll over the tracks that always keeps me awake. It is like a distant melody that’s too loud to ignore. Not even the darkness that inundates the compartments at night seems to help. It is worse at night, when the stars are the only lights visible in the vast, muted desert whizzing by my window.

This is an unfortunate quirk, because the best way to travel by train through Morocco is asleep. The trains are flooded with illegal faux guides, who shift from cabin to cabin searching for tourists with whom to share their recommendations for the best restaurants, the cheapest hotels, the cleanest women. The faux guides in Morocco speak a half dozen languages, which makes them difficult to ignore. Usually, my olive skin, thick brows, and black hair keep them at bay. But the only way to avoid them completely is to be asleep, so that they have no choice but to move on to the next beleagured traveler.

That is precisely what I thought was taking place in the compartment next to mine when I heard raised voices. It was an argument between what I assumed was a faux guide and a reluctant tourist. I could hear an inexorable cackle of Arabic spoken too quickly for me to understand, interrupted by the occasionally piqued responses of an American.

I had witnessed this type of exchange before: in grands-taxis, at the bazaar, too often on the trains. In my few months in Morocco, I’d become accustomed to the abrupt fury of the locals, which can burst into a conversation like a clap of thunder, then – as you brace for the storm – dissolve just as quickly into a grumble and a friendly pat on the back.

The voices next door grew louder, and now I thought I grasped the matter. It wasn’t a faux guide at all. Someone was being chastised. It was difficult to tell, but I recognized the garbled Berber dialect the authorities sometimes use when they want to intimidate foreigners. The American kept saying,”Wait a minute,” then, “parlez-vous anglais? Parlez-vous francais?” The Moroccan, I could tell, was demanding their passports.

Curious, I stood and stepped quietly over the knees of the snoring businessman slumped next to me. I slid open the door just enough to squeeze through and walked into the corridor. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I glimpsed the familiar red-and-black conductor’s uniform flashing across the glass door of the adjoining compartment. I knocked lightly and entered without waiting for a response.

Salaam aly-kum,” I said. Peace be with you.

The conductor halted his diatribe and turned to me with the customary “Walay-kum salaam.” And to you, peace. His face was flushed and his eyes red, though not, it seemed, from anger. His uncombed hair and the heavy creases in his uniform indicated he had only just awakened. There was an indolent quality to his speech that made him difficult to understand. He was emboldened by my presence.

“Dear sir,” he said in clear and comprehensible Arabic, “this is not a nightclub. There are children here. This is not a nightclub.”

I had no idea what he meant.

The American gripped my shoulders and turned me toward him. “Will you please tell this man we were sleeping?” He was young and remarkably tall, with large green eyes and a shock of blond hair that hung down over his face and that he kept combing back with his fingers. “We were only sleeping,” he repeated, mouthing the words as though I were reading his lips. “Comprendez-vous?

I turned back to the conductor and translated: “He says he was sleeping.”

The conductor was livid and, in his excitement, dropped once more into an incomprehensible Berber dialect. He began gesticulating wildly, his movements meant to indicate his sincerity. I was to understand that he would not be in such a fit over a sleeping couple. He had children, he kept saying. He was a father; he was a Muslim. There was more, but I stopped listening. My attention had fallen completely on the other person in the cabin.

She was sitting directly behind the man, purposely obscured by him: legs crossed casually, hand folded on her lap. Her hair was disheveled and her cheeks radiated heat. She wasn’t looking directly at us, but rather observing the scene through the bowed reflection we cast on the window.

“Did you tell him we were sleeping?” the American asked me.

“I don’t think he believes you,” I replied.

Though taken aback by my English, he was too shocked by the accusation to pursue it. “He doesn’t believe me? Great. What’s he going to do, stone us to death?”

“Malcolm!” the woman cried out, louder than it seemed she’d meant to. She reached up and pulled him down next to her.

“Fine,” Malcolm said with a sigh. “Just ask him how much he wants to go away.” He fumbled in his shirt pockets and took out a wad of tattered multicolored bills. Before he could fan them out, I stepped in front of him and put my arms out to the conductor.

“The American says he is sorry,” I said. “He is very, very sorry.”

Taking the conductor’s arm, I led him gently to the door, but he would not accept the apology. He again demanded their passports. I pretended not to understand. It all seemed a bit histrionic to me. Perhaps he had caught the couple acting inappropriately, but that would have warranted little more than a sharp rebuke. They were young; they were foreigners; they did not understand the complexities of social decorum in the Muslim world. Surely the conductor understood that. And yet he seemed genuinely disturbed and personally offended by this seemingly inoffensive couple. Again he insisted he was a father and a Muslim and a virtuous man. I agreed, and promised I would stay with the couple until we reached Marrakech.

“May God increase your kindness,” I said, and slid open the door.

The conductor touched his chest reluctantly and thanked me. Then, just as he was about to step into the corridor, he turned back into the compartment and pointed a trembling finger at the seated couple. “Christian!” he spat in English, his voice brimming with contempt. He slid the doors closed and we heard him make his way noisily down the corridor.

For a moment, no one spoke. I remained standing by the door, gripping the luggage rack as the train tilted through a wide turn. “That was an odd thing to say,” I said with a laugh.

“I’m Jennifer,” the girl said. “This is my husband, Malcolm. Thanks for helping us. Things could have gotten out of hand.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m sure he’s already forgotten all about it.”

“Well, there was nothing to forget,” Malcolm said.

“Of course.”

Suddenly, Malcolm was furious. “The truth is that man has been hovering over us ever since we boarded this train.”

“Malcolm,” Jennifer whispered, squeezing his hand. I tried to catch her eye but she would not look at me. Malcolm was shaking with anger.

“Why would he do that?” I asked.

“You heard him,” Malcolm said, his voice rising. “Because we’re Christians.”

I flinched. It was an involuntary reaction – a mere twitch of the eyebrows – but Jennifer caught it and said, almost in apology, “We’re missionaries. We’re on our way to the Western Sahara to preach the gospel.”

All at once, I understood why the conductor had been shadowing the couple; why he was so rancorous and unforgiving about having caught them in a compromising position. For the first time since entering the compartment I noticed a small, open cardboard box perched between two knapsacks on the luggage rack. The box was filled with green, pocket-sized New Testaments in Arabic translation. There were three or four missing.

“Would you like one?” Jennifer asked. “We’re passing them out.”

Reza Aslan is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, from which this piece is adapted.