The Treacherous Trench

We came to a halt at the rotary in front of the Grand Mosque of Tangier. This roundabout is encircled with popular cafés and restaurants and was especially crowded at rush hour, with blaring horns from the congested traffic. Our group crossed the street halfway and waited in the median, stranded by the flashing red lights on the other side. Just then I heard something behind me and to my right.

I turned to see a Moroccan man in a tan djellaba, accented with a slightly darker shade of brown. He began to cross the street about twenty feet away from where I stood in the crosswalk. He wore an off-white taqiyah, a traditional Moroccan cap worn by Muslim men, and walked with a cane, tapping it casually on the pavement with each step. My initial thoughts were that he was blind, but he seemed to have no trouble navigating the street. I began to wonder if his cane was to assist him in walking, rather than to scan the ground in front of him.

This particular stretch of road was under construction. To my right, part of the median had been replaced with a trench 10 meters long and just shy of waist deep. The trench was completely open to its surroundings, without warnings or barricades, not even a street cone. Scooters raced by the pit with their tires a mere six inches from the edge, treading a dangerous line. The floor of the trench was littered with chunks of cement and rocks. Some were blunt, but many were jagged and rough.

The man continued forward, crossing the street with ease before approaching the trench. He tapped his cane and slowed with the recognition that there was a step down. I watched attentively as he began to lower one foot, with his body continuing forward. At this moment, time seemed to slow to a standstill. Led by his cane, and then his arms, the man fell into the rock-filled pit. The top half of his body arched downward and his legs sprawled above his head. His face was overcome with a look of surprise and fright as he let out a brief shriek. Then his head met with the jagged edge of a block of cement. The wooden cane landed a couple of feet away from him in the trench.

“Oh, God,” I said.

I rushed toward him and lowered myself into the trench. The gravel crunched beneath my feet. The man was surprisingly alert as I handed him his cane and helped him to his feet. I stood with one hand on his left arm and the other across his back. He began feeling his way up the rough inner edge of the trench, then pulled himself out as I gently supported him from behind. Once out, he repeatedly touched his left hand to his head before holding it in front of his face, as if he was inspecting it.

From beneath his taqiyah, a single trail of blood began to fall down the side of his face and neck. Each time he brought his hand to his head, it became more and more covered in blood. The blood was the most intense red color I have ever seen; it was vibrant, almost neon. A small stream now dribbled down his head, dividing itself into two red trails.

Now across the street and away from the treachery of Moroccan road work, we stopped in front of the Grand Mosque. I asked our group if anyone had a phone and could call for help, but nobody knew who to call. Other bystanders began rushing to the man’s aid; soon he and I were completely surrounded. Women selling tissues stopped their routines and used their merchandise to clean his face and head. One man removed his cap to reveal the wound: a one-inch gash across the parietal region of his skull. I remained as people began to clean him and help him, holding his hand.

I looked around at the people who had come to his aid. Men and women spoke to him while others tended to his wound. All of their faces blurred together. It seemed people were jostling for position to help the man. I was surrounded and overwhelmed with the crowd around me. So many voices, so many hands, so many people. I rubbed his back in parting before hesitantly weaving my way out of the crowd. Just then a woman turned and spoke to me with a hand over her heart.

“Shukran,” she said. Thank you.

Despite the large, public audience for the man’s fall, there were no actions taken to change the construction site. The trench remained for almost two weeks, slowly being filled but still otherwise exposed and prone to accidents of a similar nature.

—Nicholas Bolognia

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