In a dim, smoky opium den, we faced the backlit profile of the Moroccan pickpocket. He barely looked at us, concentrating instead on our interpreter. Steaming glasses of sweet mint tea sat before us, packed with fresh leaves of brilliant green. Bob waited to sip his tea until I was half finished with mine—to see if I keeled over, I imagined.
We had come to the medina in Tangier in search of a pickpocket, and our hired guide had found him. Al’alla was hunched over a newspaper at the front table in the cave-like café, the only spot within bright enough for reading. After ushering us into chairs and ordering our tea, our guide and translator, Ma’halla, spoke in rapid Arabic to Al’alla: “Don’t say a word of English, my friend. Let me do all the talking. Just answer my questions in Arabic and we’ll both have money for the smoke tonight.” Well, he could have said that; but it soon became clear that Al’alla had been a skilled pickpocket in his day.
Questions tumbled eagerly from Bob, but Al’alla was no easy subject. Perhaps embarrassed by his miscreant days, he skittered and skirted the core of his story. Bob prodded, encouraged, and teased until he finally found the appropriate tool for extraction. With the glibness of a talk-show host and the sincerity of a confidence man, he proffered the camaraderie and respect of a colleague. Bob’s disingenuous smile and elegant canards came effortlessly, as if from a spurious rogue. Al’alla relaxed and, perhaps followed suit.
Al’alla had honed his talent as a child in Tangier, then traveled to Barcelona for the big time. It was the sixties, and while Tangier reveled in flower power and hippie freedom, its drugs were routed to Europe through Spain. Al’alla found picking pockets far more lucrative and infinitely safer than drug trafficking. People carried cash then, not plastic, and naiveté in travelers was more prevalent than sophistication.
On La Rambla, Barcelona’s broad and proud promenade, people strolled like clots through an artery. Kiosks of birds, flowers, and newspapers crowded the avenue. Parrots squawked, pigeons cooed, fragrances of cut lilies and hot paella wafted on the air—it’s still like that today. No one suspected the darting figure of a well-dressed gentleman, so obviously in a hurry, as he ricocheted off the moving mob.
Al’alla in his 50s still had a handsome face, though its several scars suggested a rough past. He was small and wiry with delicate hands. His soft-spoken manner and gentle composure alluded to the pretender’s persona he got away with in his furtive past. Today he worked as an electrician, and his handful of tools lay on the table as we spoke.
I’d been more than a little worried when Ma’halla first led us through the bewildering high-walled alleys of the old city. It wasn’t long before I realized we’d never find our way out alone. Was the medina really this big, or was Ma’halla confusing us with tricky detours? We lost all sense of direction.
The busy souk, with its colorful stalls of spices, brass pots, and rugs, gave way to vegetable sellers who sat on the ground shelling peas, defeathering hens, stripping mint leaves. Then there were only blind alleys, closed doors, and the occasional Arab hurrying past in his long, sweeping djellabah.
Ma’halla was not particularly savory: his face, too, was scarred, and the few teeth he possessed were red with rot. Big and muscular, he wore a cap pulled low over his bloodshot eyes. His English was good though, and he exuded a wary confidence that suited his mission.
The unnamed café was a hang-out for small-time crooks and drug addicts. A few strung-out characters packed their pipes behind us as Continue reading