The Man Beneath the Flames

Bashir holding a tray of candles. Photograph by Will Rijnbout.
Bashir holding a tray of candles. Photo by Will Rijnbout.

Candles danced around, magically perched on the man’s head. With a grin, the man danced, twirling and dazzling us with his flawless fire performance. Donning a bright red tunic covered by a black vest with an elegant silver pattern, he could have popped right out of Aladdin’s oil lamp. His hands moved like a man dealing poker, and his mouth twitched with joy, sending ripples through his wrinkles around his face and ending at his sharp jaw.

Bashir performing in Tetouan
Bashir performing in Tetouan. Photo by Hassan Elkourfti.

I had the honor of meeting Bashir on my way to the bathroom in El Reducto, a restaurant in the Medina of Tetouan. Heading up the steep pattern filled stairs, I came upon a balcony that stretched around the floor. It was there that I spotted Chris and Will, two of my friends, talking to a peculiar looking man on the landing. Intrigued, I introduced myself, extending a hand. I clung to Bashir’s every word.

Through his quick, scrappy English, I gathered he had a wife in the United States. He used to live in Florida and worked at Disney World as a Moroccan dancer; he’d been doing his One Thousand and One Nights routine for years. In Florida, he fell in love with an American girl named Irene. They married and had a son, Michael. Soon after, his wife moved to Boston because of work, while he kept his job at Disney World. They wrote to each other for a year, until his contract was up and he had to return to Tetouan. He left in a hurry and couldn’t get his wife his address in Tetouan, and in those days he had no phone. The last contact he had with Irene and Michael was a letter from 1988. Thirty years of no contact? I was thinking. His son must hate him. Does he or his mother even know Bashir is still alive?

Excited about our interest in his life, he disappeared into a side room, emerging again holding a loosely held together binder of old pictures and letters. Laying them all out on a table, he blew off a thin layer of dust and presented us with his life, mottled with time.

Bashir's binder of old photos
Bashir’s binder of old photos and letters layed out on a table. Photo by Jack Allsop.

He pointed out a faded color picture with rough edges of a handsome younger man with a five o’clock shadow relaxing in an airplane seat, cigarette in hand, and a full head of jet black hair. In another picture, he sits at a table next to his wife in a white blouse, and his son Michael no older than two.

“May I?” I asked with a smile, pointing to a stack of letters from Irene because I wanted to read words of love written long before I was born. Carefully picking up the frail missives, my eyes swam into the words.

The writer and photographer in me tries to keep me open to the mysteries life throws my way, in this case on a leisurely stroll to the bathroom. I dashed downstairs to retrieve my camera. Flying back up the stairs, excitement pulsed through me.

All of the sudden, Bashir rushed off to the other side of the building to grab a big plate of candles. Before I knew it, he was heading downstairs balancing the plate of candles atop his head.  That was when it dawned on me: he was a performer for us, just as he had once upon a time at Disney World.

Jack Allsopp is a Communications major at the University of New England.

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