One afternoon in Marrakesh, a French pilot in dusty boots came into my wife’s restaurant for one of her famous hamburgers. He’d been out scouting parcels of land vast and flat enough for his dream which was to build a flight school for women and name it after Touria Chaoui. We’d never heard the name, but in 1951, at age 14, she had become Morocco’s first pilot, North Africa’s first aviatrix. This had made her a hero to the resistance against the French who had occupied the country for over 30 years, and she spent her short life fighting for the freedom of Morocco and its women. Then in 1956, on the eve of Independence Day, she was killed by an unknown assassin and forgotten just as quickly.
Inspired by her story, my wife swore to enroll at the flight school that would someday bear Touria’s name. As if in preparation, she started flying up to Casablanca in a Cessna with a pilot friend of ours. She dressed like a 1950s stewardess, low-heeled shoes, fitted skirts to the knee. Our friend was also the British Consul and flew with a co-pilot so that he could drink himself to sleep over moonscapes of sheepherders and scrub. Sometimes as he snored, or half-consciously hummed Cat Stevens tunes, the co-pilot would gamely nod for my wife to take the yoke which she did happily before envisaging their fiery deaths, smoke and scrap metal provoked by an involuntary twitch of her wrist. Sitting straighter then and furrowing her brow, she would attempt to make her hands as dead as a statue’s — terrified, and yet I imagined that feeling of control must have been exhilarating.
A year earlier we had been happy together, both fully engaged in the world through which we moved: me as Headmaster of the American School, she at the restaurant and bookstore she’d founded. But then the school’s American board — the Wall Street bankers and cautious diplomats whom I had escaped becoming after college, I dreaming of a more adventurous life in Morocco — invaded from a safe distance as if radio-controlling deadly drones from secret locations in the Nevada desert. When they closed ranks to ignore some financial chicanery among their members, I was faced with a difficult decision. Resigning would mean abandoning my Moroccan students to the drones, but staying would mean accommodating the smallness we strove to inspire those students to transcend. After weeks of sleepless nights, I chose to make a stand against the faceless invasion. Parents, students, and teachers joined me, but the revolution was decidedly short-lived. Within days emissaries had been dispatched across the Atlantic to slash budgets and dispense with the protesters.
My wife had a nervous breakdown and spent a few months in bed. I found myself serving hamburgers in her restaurant, avoiding eye contact and quietly seething. When I wasn’t at the restaurant, I hopped cafes, reading newspapers cover to cover on sweltering terraces until my glass-topped tables were coated in the Red City’s red dust. I could have written poems across them with a finger if only all poetry hadn’t been excised from my internal curriculum. Then a new waiter on another shift would appear with another coffee, wiping my table clean. I might as well have read the newspaper again because all was forgotten. The only story that stuck with me was Touria’s, and, although it was ultimately a tragic one, I found hope in it on those aimless afternoons, reassurance that a boldly engaged life could change history, even if I no longer seemed capable of engaging with anything, boldly or not. When I look back now, I realize that Touria was also becoming a stand-in for the Moroccan students I’d lost. What if I could somehow avenge them by standing up for Touria, finding her killers, and bringing them some overdue justice?
These thoughts briefly inspired me, but then I kept wandering, often past sunset, when the city truly came alive, traffic wilder by the hour, midnight a beginning, the skirts shorter, everything shinier, dust drawn magnetically up from the earth to stain the moon red. You could breathe again and hear the laughter on the backstreets blossoming through the darkness, the ravenous motorbikes purring in the shadows of eucalyptus trees. Those nights, I hopped bars instead of cafes, charting a geography of small round tables, with aspirations that felt bold but were ultimately just a longing for shadows or any place to briefly hide my isolation in the dark.
One night in a hotel lounge with white pleather couches, one of a half-dozen lounges that had recently opened in white pleather, I sat at the bar with a catastrophic martini, suffocating beneath the perfume clouds of the prostitutes who packed the places like this after midnight, when a girl walked over, cigarette stabbed between full lips, and wordlessly downed my catastrophe. Alarmingly beautiful, she hopped up onto the next stool as the stereo played bossa nova covers of Joy Division songs. Love will tear us apart.
Calmly, with black-tipped fingers, she smoked the cigarette to the filter as I watched. Then she leaned in close and whispered. She was being followed. Yes. We needed to get out of there. Her eyes flicked down to the end of the bar, where a Moroccan in an oversized suit sat before a glass full of water. It was true that he seemed out of place. But then so did I. So did we all, everything ridiculous, cheap, and overpriced.
Outside on the sidewalk, her kiss knocked me alive into a wall. Then she stared at me for what felt like hours, then whole nights. I would always look away first, in the beds we found someplace or other. We hardly ever spoke. Conversation only seemed to compromise the prehistoric existence we were attempting to reestablish, velociraptors and animal hides, but over the nights, as familiarity set in, I found myself telling her about Touria.
I hadn’t met a single Moroccan who had heard of Touria Chaoui. Leila, however (that’s what I’ll call her) nodded impatiently and said that at age fourteen an aunt had told her the story. Frustrated with her protected life in Rabat, she’d longed for the purpose and adventure Touria represented, and so immediately she had decided to become a pilot, somehow convincing her parents to let her move down to Marrakesh and enroll in the Air Force Academy high school. That had been a decade ago. The intervening years remained a mystery to me.
Was I falling in love with her? I wanted to, although I knew better than to say anything. Was she falling in love with me? I didn’t think so. The sex had briefly felt transformative, but neither of us was willing to come together in a way that might have risked unpredictable changes within ourselves. One night she stared at me for thirty seconds without blinking, then burst out laughing and said, “In Morocco, only the prostitutes still believe in love.”
A man set himself on fire in Tunis, then others in Casablanca. They were calling it the Arab Spring, and across North Africa men in their 20s were burning themselves to death. I couldn’t conceive of such dreamlike conflagrations. I couldn’t say whether they were perfect examples of self-abnegation, or perfect self-glorification, or even if I admired such extraordinary acts. Almost everybody I knew was posting about it on social media, however almost everybody they knew posted back in a pleasantly disengaged echo. Few had actually seen any demonstrations, but occasionally with Leila, through the open windows of a bare room in Marrakesh, shouts of brief and hopeless rallies drifted in on the breeze, protests against decades of promises void of content. “That’s no revolution,” Leila snorted, pulling the sheet up to her neck and lighting another cigarette.
Months passed. I continued circumnavigating my life, while my wife researched escaping hers for volunteer opportunities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana, or Benin. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves, but, still, we loved each other, so we kept gliding along in the marriage, neither yet willing to veer off towards another life. Perhaps we also glimpsed that for all our flaws, so apparent after years, sustaining love in our disconnected connected age was the most revolutionary act of all, even as each day through inattention we became more abstracted to one another, more like avatars of ourselves.
Leila went away for a while, and when she returned it was summer and the Arab Spring had ended. She had changed, it seemed to me. She wasn’t sleeping. Dark circles had appeared under her eyes, and her relationship with the world had become even more adversarial. She would arrive hours late for our meetings, furious at some perceived slight. She was thinking of continuing her studies in Europe. There was no future for her in Morocco, not as a woman. We might have made plans to meet somewhere, drinks in storied capitals, but there only seemed to be enough time to smoke cigarettes and stare, so we sat for hours in silence, because even then I could never see enough of Leila’s face.
Occasionally, however, I couldn’t help talking about Touria, wondering aloud who might have killed her. By this time I had decided to make myself into a writer, whatever it took, and had begun my investigations into the book I would write. All signs pointed to a doomed love affair with a French pilot, to French colonists ordering kills from the hermetic villas of Casablanca’s Frenchtown, but increasingly I had my eye on a rival Moroccan political faction. Leila never paid any of this much attention, until one night, exasperated, she spoke up: “It wasn’t the Moroccans.”
But a Moroccan had pulled the trigger. The brother, who’d been in the car, had confirmed that much in an article I’d found online. Had I told her about the brother?
“Maybe,” Leila snorted, “but the shooter was just following orders. A Moroccan would have killed the son.”
I was reminded then that she had revealed almost nothing of her family or her past. What in the world had led her to this room? “Tell me, that first night we met, that man who was following you, whatever happened with that? Who was he?”
She laughed, so I asked again, and she sprung to her feet and stormed out cursing. That was the night I sat alone for hours by the open window, staring out at the silhouettes of palm trees and listening to the silence of post-revolutionary streets.
She came back. She always did when I least expected it. And one night, after some wine when I pressed her to tell me more about her time in the Air Force, she admitted that she had dropped out of flight school after only three days. The cafeteria food had been inedible, and they had lived off candy bars and Coca-Colas smuggled through the gate by their parents’ drivers.
I don’t know if that ended it. Surely it had ended with the bossa nova. But I stopped seeing Leila then, and when I remember her now it’s mostly the way she talked in her sleep, endlessly repeating the word auto-discipline. Never was she more beautiful than when she was sleeping, and there was still a revolution to be won.
As summer became fall, I started spending time in Paris, my wife and I hoping we could redefine our marriage on an international scale, thus revolutionizing the institution. After the madness of Marrakesh – the blaring roundabouts merging five centuries of travel conveyances, donkeys plodding through diesel exhaust, and the permanent low-grade panic of losing yourself in the medina’s labyrinth – Paris was a museum, beautiful and sanitized for tourists carrying maps, and, map in hand, I navigated pleasant surfaces alone, telling myself that I was in charge of my life again, rather than settling at café tables like red dust.
I obsessively researched Touria’s story as well as the finer appellations of French reds. This was my future, and the approach seemed sustainable until I went underground into the Métro, and only there, pressed into fluorescent carfuls of strangers, would tears flow from some unmapped place to roll down my face. Only in the Métro did I ever lose control. The train would stop at a station, the doors would lurch open, and joy would briefly overwhelm me, because I was certain that my wife would be there waiting, smiling back at me as she boarded. I have no idea why it was the Métro that gutted me or why I expected such a miracle there of all places, unless it was the one place where I couldn’t be solely occupied by my own existence, and so I was forced to consider the stricken, shining faces of the living to whom I no longer belonged.
Often I thought about William Burroughs, who once wrote on the Limits of Control, imagining ten people in a lifeboat with two guns. Two people grab the guns and take control, forcing the others to row, and from that moment forward everything else is predetermined. Because once you decide to take control, you restrict yourself to only two possible outcomes: either you continue refining your control in order to defend yourself against the ever-evolving opposition to that control, or you lose control which isn’t really an option, because in seizing control you made the consequences of failure too great. So you hold onto your gun, whatever it takes. In control, you must always be exerting control.
What I also realized is that while it may seem that you and your fellow gun holder are aligned, like a married couple, you are not, even if you pretend to be. You are as much a threat to each other as the rowers are to you and, considering the guns, probably more. Ultimately, in control, you are never anything but alone.
Soon we were divorcing. I held tight to my gun and attempted to guard myself against myself and everyone else. I buried myself in work and traded the Métro for a bike. But who was I kidding? I was only holding the yoke which, for all I knew, was set to autopilot, and that’s not really flying.•
Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.