I spent a long time yesterday writing a piece for this blog about the process of packing a rucksack which will contain everything I need bar food for two months. In the end, it was not remotely interesting and all pretty self-evident. I was thinking a bit existentially about how one really doesn't need much in the end, but once again it's been said already. Instead I offer you an article I wrote for Slightly Foxed a few years ago about how I coped without books while being a tour leader in the days before Kindles. More interesting, I like to think. I also offer you a photo of my rucksack.
This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 46, Summer 2015.
The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £11; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com
Mustapha made no noise when he walked, despite the magician’s ring of keys in his hand. I was never quite sure what he did at the Hotel Foucauld in Marrakesh but he always appeared at the moment something needed to be unlocked. And one day, a few months after I had arrived, he opened a door for me.
The Hotel Foucauld was the closest thing I had to a home when I worked in Morocco. It was always noisy, inside and out; the airconditioning boxes were only there for show; and the light bulbs illuminated nothing at night. It was where I landed for a few days, after two or three weeks of leading treks on foot in the mountains or by camel in the desert, and I got to know it well.
Of all the eccentric staff, I liked the elderly straight-backed Mustapha the most. He talked quietly and gently, looking just beyond my eyes when we spoke. I suspect it was a neglected astigmatism but it also gave the appearance of profound respect, as if he was leaving my innermost thoughts to themselves. I had the sense that he was a man not exactly with regrets but with some sad stories to tell if he was ever to tell them, for despite my constant questions I found out little about him. I was lonely in those days, missing Egypt where I had just spent a year, and perhaps we recognized something in each other.
One Saturday morning, not long after I had taken my tour group to the airport, Mustapha found me in the foyer of the hotel, trying to prepare for the next group who were arriving that night. He bowed and asked in his beautifully accented English if he might borrow me for a while. In his hand he held a key, an ornate silver one, heavy in the hand. He beckoned me to follow him.
The bedrooms upstairs were arranged around the outside of the building with windows overlooking either the fast-moving shadows of Djemaa el Fna or a busy street on the other side. In the middle was the staircase, a box room and some cupboards. We walked towards one of the cupboards, some of which I had raided for toilet rolls or towels for my clients. This particular one had a door set slightly apart from the others, as if it was much bigger. Mustapha unlocked and opened the door, turned on the dull light inside, and I entered Paradise.
It was a room full of books. Just books. There were shelves on two sides of the room which seemed to stretch so far into the building as to be architecturally impossible. On the floor were more books, arranged into perfect piles but without any sense of logic. It was as if the person who had put the books together loved the objects but didn’t understand what they were about. As I automatically reached out to touch the nearest pile, I realized there was no dust anywhere, no cobwebs, no cockroaches scuttling away the minute the door had opened. I turned to say something to Mustapha but he had gone, shutting the door behind him and leaving the key hanging on a hook.
I had been book-starved for some years. It didn’t help that I was a literary snob and this was the pre-digital age. Earning a living by travelling around the world was extraordinary but I had forfeited good novels for this two-and-a-half-year experience. Sometimes I was lent books by clients but they weren’t always to my taste; I bought the odd second-hand novel from Aboudi’s bookshop in Luxor but they were hideously overpriced; and sometimes I was given a gem. Towards the end of my time in Egypt, another tour leader handed me Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible through a window of the departing Cairo-Aswan sleeper train with a shouted promise that I wouldn’t be able to put it down. She was right and I stayed up too late for several nights to finish this beautiful story of another part of Africa and overactive imaginations. Such finds were rare, sadly, and I ‘made do’,a state I didn’t much care for.
I sat down in one of the few book-free spaces on the floor and began to take stock. Nearly all the books in the room seemed to be novels and nearly all were in English, rather than the French that I had expected. What struck me more than anything was that this was a reader’s room, not simply a room full of books. There were no guides to Morocco as far as I could see that first morning, but I did recognize several travel books and came away with William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain. Similarly there were no picture books, no shiny coffee-table books, nothing which would excite a young child or an interior designer. And although the room was spotless and the books themselves in remarkably good condition, there was the unmistakeable smell of second-hand bookshops which any book-lover recognizes in an instant: musty, old, crackly, full of both childhood and the experience of age.
I worked my way through the piles immediately around me, telling myself that I would be able to come back; that I didn’t have to absorb, even read, everything that day. At first I played safe and put aside books I already knew and loved: nineteenth-century novels such as Great Expectations and Villette; The Power and the Glory; Rebecca; and A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel. Then I took a big leap into the literary unknown and entered the world of genre fiction.
I had read plenty of British detective fiction because my thesis had been about national identity, and who could tell us more about Englishness than Colin Dexter or P. D. James? Secretly I loved crime novels, but it was a guilty love, masquerading as academic interest. I am sure that this guilt was the result of a conversation I had had with my primary school teacher at the age of 9. When she noticed my copy of Malory Towers, she told me not to read any more Enid Blyton. What my teacher didn’t appreciate was that I had already grasped the difference between Blyton and, say, Philippa Pearce, but I took pleasure in reading both writers for different reasons; still, Mrs Ashford had now made it impossible for me to continue to enjoy the former without feeling that I was doing something wrong. From that moment onwards, I placed all genre fiction – detective novels, romances, family sagas, thrillers, science fiction – into the Enid Blyton pile: forbidden because, I had been told, such books were too easy, too simplistic, and not at all challenging.
Mrs Ashford wasn’t in Mustapha’s room in March 2000. If Arthur Hailey’s Airport, Michael Connelly’s The Scarecrow and Michael Crichton’s Timeline could be in the same pile as novels by Wilkie Collins and Evelyn Waugh, then they were good enough for me. I threw in Goodbye, Mr Chips for good measure and took them all to show Mustapha, who was hovering outside the room, pretending to examine some paintwork. I held each book up one by one. He nodded and smiled, and then held out his long thin hand for the key. That was it. I didn’t even need a library ticket to be stamped.
Each time I was back in Marrakesh, Mustapha would give me the key. I would return the books I had read, choose a selection to take with me on the next tour and offer them up for inspection. He had told me that he could read English, indeed had had a very good education, but when I asked if he had read any of the novels, he always smiled and shook his head without further explanation. And as for the room itself, I never met anyone else going in or out, and new books regularly appeared in fresh tidy piles. I was desperate to know the story of the room – how it had begun, where the books came from, who else used it – but somehow I knew I should not ask Mustapha any questions.
And then the time came for me to leave Morocco once and for all. I was ready to start the next part of my life, to live in one place for a while and have regular access to libraries and bookshops, and to begin my new career as an English teacher. On the Friday I returned my last batch of novels (including my favourite Scot, John Rebus, and strange events on Mars in the form of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles) to Mustapha. Two days later I looked for him to say goodbye.
He was nowhere to be found. One receptionist said he had taken a holiday, which seemed unlikely; another said he had popped out for a while. No single story was the same and when I saw Mustapha’s bunch of keys on the front desk just as I was picking up my rucksack, I realized that he would not be reappearing. I was terribly disappointed because I’d wanted to say thank you. At the time I am not sure I really understood what I would be thanking him for; now, nearly fifteen years on, as I move easily between my current two books on the go – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Val McDermid’s A Darker Domain – I see that Mustapha’s room allowed me to read what I wanted without Mrs Ashcroft standing over my shoulder. And when my English students ask me what they should and should not read, I am very careful what I say.
© Sophie Breese, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 46, Summer 2015.