by Fiona D'Souza
The minarets had woken the family for dawn prayers fifteen minutes earlier.
Hassan rubbed the sleep out of his eyes after rolling up his prayer mat. He changed his clothes, pulling on his dusty shorts from yesterday and shoving his arms through the sleeves of his faded green t-shirt. His mother combed through his hair with her fingers and handed him the bowl with the dough.
Stepping outside his front door, Hasan closed it gently so it wouldn’t clang shut. Aged eleven, he had burnished coppery skin pulled tight across taunt muscles, and was adept at running up and down the narrow stone alleyways of Moulay Idris.
The town, draped over two adjoining hills in northern Morocco, had been his home since he was born. It was early morning, and he could hear his neighbours beginning to stir in their own homes. Hasan held the metal bowl with the dough on his side and started to skip then run down the steps to get to the bakery first.
A few cats, startled by his sudden movement, scattered in front of him. Two old men were talking at the fountain, washing their faces while juggling the first of many cigarettes for the day. They talked, washed, and smoked, with small towels draped around their necks, the cigarettes stuck in the corners of their mouths or balanced in their fingertips as they splashed water on their faces. Hasan shot past, dodging the older men, and nearly missed the next step which was a little narrower than the others.
Hasan revelled in this early morning sense of freedom. The air was fresh and untouched, before the smoke from cooking fires filled it with various aromas. The sun was just on the horizon and birds were jetting about, tweeting softly as they rushed past. There were hardly any people about and he felt as if the day was his alone. He kept running, gaining speed – down, down, down. He loved the command he had over his body, its fluid movements, his muscles expelling latent energy with a burst of confidence. He was amazed, even as he ran, at the accuracy of his feet at such speed. He kept the bowl well tucked into his side, firm and secure. His feet knew instinctively where they would land and propelled him down through the narrow stone alleyways. His lungs were strong and took in air, letting it out just as he needed. He was amazed at all this, at how it all worked so magically coordinated together.
Finally, he drew up outside the bakery, breathing heavily as he took a moment to right the metal bowl. The smoke from the baker’s oven was already in the air outside. It was a lovely smell. It reminded him of his mother and the warmth of their home.
As Hasan walked over the worn stone step at the entrance and into the gloomy little shop, the fire roared with heat and light before him. The baker, like bakers everywhere it seemed, had flour drenched arms up to his elbows, his thick black hairs still managing to stick through the dusting they’d received. He turned from the fire after laying a large pallet of dough rounds in the roaring oven and shut the heavy metal door with a clang. Picking up a corner of his apron and wiping his hands, he looked up.
‘Ah, Hasan. What can I do for you?’ the baker asked. He was a large man, squat and solid. His father and his grandfather and all the great grandfathers before him had been bakers in this town.
‘My mother sent the dough for cooking. She told me she will need it by lunchtime today,’ Hasan answered.
‘Has she marked it with her seal?’ the baker asked gruffly, raising thick black eyebrows.
‘Yes, she has. See?’ Hasan showed the baker their dough, proud of the family seal which dented its glossy surface. An arabesque pattern, it looked to him like a rising bird. His mother had bought it in the large market in Fez many many years before. It was one of the few special seals in the village. Other people made do with scoring their dough with crosses or dashes. No one else had a soaring bird.
‘Ah, good. Alright, you come back after noon prayers and I will have it for you,’ the baker replied. ‘And Hasan. Here …’ The baker tossed a flat bread to him as one would toss the lid of a paint tin to make it fly.
Hasan reacted instinctively and caught the bread. It was warm and fragrant as he put it to his nose. He looked up to the baker and smiled his thanks.
‘Always for my first customer of the day,’ the baker’s voice growled in response to the boy’s gratitude.
Copyright: story Fiona D'Souza; photos Wix.
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