Lahssan streams hot tea from an ornate silver pot into a colored glass stuffed with fresh mint leaves and sugar cubes, and sets it on the table.
“This is your last night in Maroc, Sister. What you think?” he asks in accented English, using the French word for Morocco and the name he’s called me since we’d met four days earlier.
“I’ve fallen under the spell,” I say. “I love your city of Fez and can’t wait to return.”
Lahssan’s eyebrows press together, so I repeat myself slowly.
His eyes spark with comprehension and a smile spreads across his cheeks as he places a blue and white plate of cookies in front of me, then puts his hand over his heart.
“You are most welcome, Sister,” he says.
Dressed in a burgundy-hued djellaba and white leather slippers, he shuffles through a doorway and out of sight, leaving me alone in the riad’s courtyard.
Back home, being called “Sister” by anyone other than my actual brother would have felt as threadbare as someone saying, “Yo, girlfriend!” or “What’s up, Bro?” Yet somehow when Lahssan says it, I know it comes from a treasure chest deep inside him where his English words are stored and selectively gifted.
Only a week earlier, I’d heard my brother utter the same word. I was lounging on a metal chair in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris when my phone rang. I recognized the number right away, and since I hadn’t spoken to my brother in a while, I answered.
“Hey, Sister, how’s it going? I hope I’m not bothering you, but I have a few questions about Paris.”
“That’s so weird,” I responded. “I’m actually in Paris right now.”
He feigned surprise, but we both knew it wasn’t really so weird.
As twins, we were used to such uncanny coincidences.
A favorite movie of ours when we were growing up in the ‘70s was Escape to Witch Mountain, in which a twin brother and sister, Tony and Tia, move things without touching them, and communicate with one another using only the power of their minds. Though we never produced the showstopper twin magic of that movie, we can still look at one another and laugh without saying a word, as if our twinness has an inside joke, and we always seem to reach out to one another at just the right time. He once called me to ask about migraine headaches, not knowing I’d been in bed, thousands of miles away, suffering from one. More recently, I’d locked myself out of my car while out to dinner. Instead of calling a taxi or a roadside service, which I’d normally do, I had the urge to call my brother’s cell phone instead. He was working late and driving home, and was only a few blocks from where I was stranded.
In school, friends often asked silly questions like, “Can you read your brother’s mind?” or “If I punch you in the arm, will he feel it?” I said no, because it was the truth. At the time, I didn’t understand that the motive behind these inquiries was curiosity about the unseen link twins are perceived to have. I never thought much of them either since many siblings boast strong bonds, but as I grew older, it made more sense that twins would have more enigmatic ties. After all, we’d been given a nine-month head start on forming a relationship while sharing a space the size of a cantaloupe, then set out on parallel paths through childhood and adolescence to endure the same stages and phases at the same time. My brother and I not only share 50 percent of the same DNA and a birthday, but until we were about two we also shared a bedroom, our cribs pressed one against each wall, where my mother says we’d peer at each other through the slats as we fell asleep, talking in our own unintelligible language.
Now here was my brother, a sound effects editor from California, calling to ask me about the noises found in the subway stations of the French capital, where I just happened to be. Fifteen minutes later, I stood in the Metro, holding my phone out as arriving and departing trains pushed and pulled air through the underground tubes, their doors swishing open and thudding closed, then sent my brother the recording.
Lahssan had started calling me Sister the morning I arrived in Fez. I was chatting with Sue, the riad’s manager, before setting out to explore when Lahssan shouted from an interior balcony overlooking the courtyard.
“Sister, wait. I have something for you.”
I nodded okay, then asked Sue if “Sister” was perhaps a common term young men used to address solo female guests, or foreign women.
“Neither,” Sue said. “In fact, I’ve never heard him call anyone that.”
My heart warmed and flickered a little, much like the candles inside the lanterns shimmering in the entryway. I’d been drawn to Lahssan immediately, too. Not in a romantic sense, but with that peculiar pull kindred spirits feel when locking eyes for the first time.
“Sister, take this map,” said Lahssan when he finally reached me.
I unfolded it and began to laugh. It was a map of the medina, the walled-in old city of Fez, whose depicted streets took on the form and usefulness of cooked spaghetti noodles dropped onto a piece of paper.
“It’s no problem,” he said, interpreting my hesitation as confusion.
Lahssan opened the front door and we stepped into the sheltered lane that smelled of damp cement and forgotten daylight.
“You keep walking up,” he said, pointing into the medina’s maze.
For even the best navigator, the medina is Fez’s greatest riddle. When I first saw it, from outside the ancient walls, it looked dehydrated; sun-toasted to a golden hue the color of parchment paper; lifeless and inert. But once I walked through the keyhole gate, Fez awakened.
A melodious mix of colors, sounds, and smells, the medina reinvented itself every day like an enchanted jewelry box that, when wound, produced a dazzling new gem and transporting tune. Men sloshed clothing in plastic buckets overflowing with saffron and indigo dyes, turning the cracks between cobbles into tinted streams. Arabic and French, the two main languages of the medina, picked at either ear as I explored the city’s arches and alleyways.
“Balek! Balek!” “Attention!” I pressed myself against a wall as a worn and matted donkey loaded with goods clattered past on gawky legs.
Another day, an incessant clang and ting lured me to a crowded square where metal craftsmen thumped mallets against brass, plying it into lamps, mirrors, cauldrons, and jewelry from sunrise to stardust. The arrhythmic beat vibrated the fillings in my teeth and jiggled my eyeballs in their sockets.
Even in its most static state Fez thrummed, and the only way to grasp it was to let go and get lost between the stone walls that have witnessed a couple millennia of history, always trusting that the path would lead to somewhere. At times I found myself so deep in the medina that only the slivers of blue between buildings and the hazy fingers of filtered sunlight through a latticed cover reminded me I was on the surface of the earth, not below it. Every now and then I pushed deeper inside, once opening a cracked doorway and following an even darker crevasse until it gave way to a garden where a bench sat in the shade of a lemon tree whose branches drooped with yellow orbs. I sat there for a few minutes, savoring the silence, a rare flower in the medina’s cacophonic bouquet.
The song “Eye of the Tiger” rolled toward me at another turn. For an instant, the music carried me back to the summer of 1982 and Niagara Street in suburban Los Angeles where my brother and I rode our bikes. We’d just seen the movie Rocky III and as we pedaled up and down our driveway, we sang the lyrics and boxed at the air in tune with the song’s opening instrumental salvos. The modern tune was incongruous in the medina, and I searched for its source. It was literally a hole in a wall, as if a supersized Rocky Balboa himself had punched his giant fist through the stones. Inside the cave-like space, a boom box blared next to a 30-something-year-old man who, beneath the light of a single bulb, maneuvered a clacking wooden loom over colorful threads that would eventually become a scarf, a table cloth, maybe a rug.
There were thousands of shops like this that were nearly indistinguishable when closed, easily absorbed into the human routine of disregard. Once opened, they bulged dirt to rafters with handmade sticky nougat candy, gold jewelry, crockery and spices, oils, and pointy babouche slippers in gumball colors sold by leathery-skinned troubadours telling and selling their histories and heritage.
Bargaining was expected, but I was not good at it and paid way too many Moroccan dirhams, I was later told, for the djellaba I’d purchased.
“Sister, why didn’t you tell me you were shopping? I would have gone with you,” Lahssan said when I arrived back at the riad, a plastic bag in hand.
“You don’t need to do that,” I said.
“No,” said Lahssan, putting his hand on his heart. “It’s my job to help you, Sister.”
“Shukran,” I said, putting my hand over my heart, too.
Lahssan really didn’t need one more job. He lived in a small room on the top floor of the riad, which explained why he seemed to be at work day and night, pouring tea, hauling luggage up and down the steep stairs, serving warm bread and jam each morning and dinner to guests who decided to dine in each night. Even so, he still found time to leave extra candles in my cubby-hole room one evening, which I’d never asked for, though admittedly I had been thinking about the extra light.
Family of Four
I sit alone in the riad’s courtyard, the sugar from the freshly poured mint tea sticking to my teeth and coating my tongue. I hear the muezzin’s tinny call to prayer pour in through the open ceiling. It’s bellowed five times a day from the mosques and minarets that pierce the sky over the medina and it trickles down the blue and green Moorish tiles that cover the riad’s walls and floors. I let it finish, making a mental note to tell Rickley about the evocative sound, then dash up to my room to grab a few things before heading out for the night.
On the way back down, I see Lahssan talking to Sue at the bottom of the stairs. Gone are his white leather slippers and the burgundy-colored djellaba he was wearing earlier, and in their place are a red and blue soccer jersey, flowing shorts, socks, and sneakers. I sit down on the stairs so we are looking eye to eye and smile, happy to see this boyish side of Lahssan. I ask him what he’s up to.
“Playing soccer with my brother,” he says, a smile carving its way across his mocha-colored cheeks.
He looks like any American boy back home. In my head I see the picture of my brother in sports clothes that hung in our hallway. Sue interrupts my thoughts.
“Did you know Lahssan has a twin brother?”
Goosebumps prick my skin. I rest my chin in my hands, my elbows on my knees.
“No, I didn’t,” I say.
Our eyes meet.
“This might surprise you,” I say. “But I, too, am a twin. I also have a twin brother.”
Lahssan smiles and puts a hand over his heart, a gesture I’ve come to associate with him.
“Sister, now we are four in our family.”
When I return later that night, the candles in the lanterns have been blown out and it’s dark beneath the door of Lahssan’s room as I pass it on the way to the rooftop.
I stare silently out at thousands of staggered, flat-topped houses unfurling in all directions. Fez has existed for more than 1,000 years and will likely exist for 1,000 more, I think. Suddenly I feel like a solitary speck of a stone in the history of this place, one that will eventually crumble to dust and blow away through a keyhole gate.
It makes me think of another question someone once asked me about twins.
“They come into the world together, so I wonder if it is common for them to leave the world at the same time, too?”
I’d dismissed it as another silly question until a few months ago when I was having dinner with my brother and he told me he’s always felt as if he’d never live beyond 50 years old—just three years away.
Hairs tingled my neck.
“That’s so weird,” I’d replied. “I’ve never told anyone this, but I’ve always felt exactly the same way.”
We both knew it wasn’t so weird.
From the roof, the methodic hymn of the mosques sounds anew, and I imagine all the unseen people below moving about, kneeling, praying; a reminder that in places, as within people, what is essential, much like faith, is also often invisible.
The immensity of all that remains unseen overwhelms me, so I do what I’ve climbed up here to do. I take out my phone and record the muezzin’s haunting call so I can send it to my brother, thousands of miles away, but also, somehow here in Fez with his sister.
# # # # #
Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer whose lifestyle, travel and food articles have appeared in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Every Day With Rachael Ray, American Way, Virtuoso Life, BBC.com, Condé Nast Traveler, and many more. Her culinary travel book, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, was SATW’s Book of the Year in 2012, and her personal essays have appeared in several anthologies including three editions of The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her recent article, “Born on the Bayou,” published in American Way in August, won a top nod from American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) earlier this year. Learn more about Kimberley on her website.
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