The Man Beneath the Flames


Jack Allsopp

Candles danced around, magically staying on their perch atop the man’s head. With an aged smile, the man danced around, 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. Animated as he spoke, his hands created a dance as his mouth twitched with joy, sending ripples through his wrinkles around his face and ending at his sharp jaw.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bashir on my way to the bathroom in El Reducto, a restaurant in the Tetouan Medina. Heading up the steep pattern filled stairs, I came upon a balcony that stretched around the floor, letting the smell of the dinner below waft up. I spotted Chris and Will, two of my friends here, engaged in a conversation with this peculiar looking man on the landing. Intrigued by the what the conversation held, I introduced myself, extending a hand. Forgetting about my bathroom needs, my eager ears tuned in on the man. Through his quick scrappy English, I gathered he had a wife in the United States. He used to live in Florida and worked at Disneyland as a Moroccan dancer, only adding in my imagination to his One Thousand and One Nights garb. There he fell in love with an American girl named Irene. They married and had a son, Michael. Soon after, his wife moved to Boston due to a job offer, while he stayed in Florida. They wrote to each other for a year, until his contract was up and he had to return to Tetouan. Before he left, he was never able to get her his address in Tetouan, and he had no phone. Their last letter is dated in 1988, the last time he was in contact with his wife or son. Thirty years of no contact? His son must hate him, having left so early on in his life without a word. I wonder if they know he is still alive?

Excited about our interest in his life, he disappeared into a side room, soon reemerging 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.

He pointed out a faded color picture with rough edges of a handsome younger man with a five o’clock shadow, seen relaxing in an airplane seat, cigarette in hand, with a full head of jet black hair. Then to another, with that same young man at a table, and next to him sat his wife in a white blouse, and his son no older than two. Among the pictures, were letters his wife had written to him.

“May I?” I asked with a smile, wanting to read words of love from of an age long before my time. Carefully picking up the frail letter, my eyes swam into the words, reading into the past I desperately wanted to have hours to fully appreciate. He kept going on about each picture, pointing out a younger version of himself and his wife. Not failing to mention each one was his favorite.

As a writer and photographer, I have to be ready at all times for the mysteries that life throws at me. After bringing out the photo album, I rushed downstairs to retrieve my camera, wanting to capture his life as much as I could. Flying back up the stairs, I realized my love for capturing the stories of others. Excitement pulsed through my mind realizing the gift that life had granted me on my leisurely stroll to the bathroom. My curiosity was fueling my every movement as I returned to take as many pictures as I could.

All of the sudden, though, he rushed off to the other side of the building to grab a big plate of candles. Through all of this, I had failed to question why the man was actually there, dressed the way he was. Not connecting the dots until later, I had so many questions. Why did he not return to the United States? Why did he carry with him these old photos and letters? Does his family even know he is alive? Then it dawned on me: he was a performer for us, just as he had been in Disneyland. We had just caught him waiting upstairs. And before I knew it, he was rushing downstairs, perfectly balancing the plate of candles atop his head, and did what he does best.

There is a story around every corner, and sometimes you only find them when you’re not looking.