What was he thinking, the old man in the market? The shoppers buzzed around him as they haggled for a final price on a bag of dried meats. Stands of oranges and apples and pears voluptuous in their allure inspired a crime at the fingers of a little boy who flashed in front of him, vanishing across the Medina to the enraged protestations of the trader. A young woman peaked out from under her veil as she passed; he looks kind she might have thought as she rushed to buy the dates she had forgotten, nervous lest she invoke the displeasure of her new husband who was not kind. Then like a slap the hot Saharan sun withdrew – replaced by a crispness. The aromas of north-African days, smells of animals and the warm richness of sun-baked mud were immediately replaced with the fragrant sweetness of the tagine; cinnamon, raisins and cardamom coaxing out the natural perfumes of the lamb. Children, only recently released from their studies and reticent to return home were loitering the late afternoon, ignoring the old man in their impatience for something which sparked their adolescent interest.
On the edges of the Medina the little shops that frame the wide space were flicking their lights – preparing for the great press of humanity that would come from near and far; travelers looking for a deal, lovers looking for a moment, children running from parents and merchants looking for a perfunctory dinner. And the old man. He was always there, that old man. He would often appear following the setting sun like a shadow. Standing in front of the snake charmers or the beggar with the many-size metal pots used to distract from his shame, the old man would gaze quietly at the spectacle; after a long moment raising the far corner of his neat white beard in a solemn grin before moving on to stand again before another performer, and another and another.
What was he thinking, the old man in the market? Was he a last relic of some long-forgotten war or the last victim of some long-lost woman; captured by the memories of what could have been, what would have been, what should have been if only things had gone differently? Is he a singular mind, that old man? A remarkable talent? A great and consuming spirit never cultivated? Or is he simply a commonplace occurrence; the latest in a chain of men who had anchored the Medina for a thousand years?
Never did they wonder, those who watched him night after night. He was part of their world like the ageless stone upon which he stood; like the diamond stars nestled in the bed of tar above his head; like the religion and the conflict that ebbed and flowed, breaking time and again upon the consciousness of this hard hot land.
Is he still there, that old man? Does he continue to grin at the show as the dusk turns to night? Has he found what he always seems to be looking for? Is he even lost at all? Has anybody bothered to ask?
If you see that old man – offer him a kindly word and a sweet tea; and listen in patience to what he might say. It is often the case that the greatest thoughts come from those not anxious to offer them.