| The Desk Clerk
About to land in Tunis, my second time in North Africa, I looked forward to seeing the famous Sahara Desert again, with its grand sand dunes and the ubiquitous camels. I had to do some research on the Arab culture for my book and Tunisia was a moderate Islamic country with easy access to historic sites. My friends had told me that some of the Roman ruins were especially interesting. Though my trips abroad were important to me, I sometimes felt a loneliness without many close friends.
After going through the usual immigration procedures at the airport a taxi driver was waiting for me in front of the terminal. He said the hotel had arranged my transport.
Speaking in broken English the driver said, "Is this your first time here?"
Tired from the long flight, I hesitated to answer him but as he was a kindly-looking older man, I felt obligated to. I told him, "No, I was here last year."
"You must like our country" he said, with a heavy accent.
"Yes I do. You have many historic sites, especially Roman."
On a busy boulevard, the main street of Tunis, lined with trees, we dodged around pedestrians, even around a donkey, pulling a cart. The hotel was almost hidden behind a grove of tall leafy palm trees. Though old, the hotel was imposing with a Roman facade and the usual grand lobby with the formality of an old aristocratic era. The front desk, made of dark walnut, gleamed brightly but worn on the edges, it was obvious the hotel had seen better days. Even the carpet in front showed frayed edges. I hesitated to even see my room.
About to hand over my passport, the desk clerk said with an efficient and what seemed like an annoying voice, "Do you have a reservation sir?"
Handing it to him I said, "Of course I do. You just had the cab pick me up at the airport."
Aware I had a tendency to be somewhat sensitive to certain tones of a person's voice I tried to ignore him. Jotting the information down in his book, he said in a monotone voice, "Here's your key, go to the third floor and turn right, your room is at the end of the hall, breakfast is served at nine sharp." All this was said in one breath with no expression on his face.
My room on the street side was quite noisy but the sound of taxis and the many street vendors was somehow entertaining if you could call it that. An old street car passed by, it's noisy metal wheels grinding on the rails, brought memories of long ago. The furniture looked old and well-used and with the dark wallpaper, peeling at the edges, it also gave a mood of past times, times of a past era. A musty smell permeated the room as I unpacked my bags reminding me of my grandfather's old apartment. Even the bathroom was old. The tub had clawed feet and the sink stood on a pedestal also with clawed feet, but it was clean and well maintained. The toilet had the water tank high above, with the usual pull chain. This suited me as I came from the Depression Era and I somehow felt comfortable in this 1930's atmosphere.
After unpacking I was startled when I heard a knock on my door. Handing me a tray with a cup of tea, the desk clerk said, "Here's your tea sir, have a nice day."
Surprised at his good English I gave him a tip asking him, "How did you learn such good English?"
Hardly smiling he said, "I was a tour guide several years ago."
Noticing my window was open, he looked concerned, saying,, "Would you like another room? This is very noisy."
"No," I said, "The street is very interesting to watch, but thanks anyway."
The next morning, about to leave for a few days, I told the clerk, "I'll be in Sfax for a few days. I have to do some research for a book. Could you please save my room?"
"Certainly we can. Are you taking the train?"
"Yes, but where is the train station?"
"Give this to the taxi driver, he said, smiling for the first time and writing something on a piece of paper, "he will take you there. Have a nice trip."
I then realized he had a disturbing pallor in his complexion. He struck me as being somewhat old but looking closer, he couldn't be over his middle thirties. Most Arabs were somewhat dark but he was light of skin. Thin as a rail and with bags under his eyes, he did not look healthy at all. His suit was well-tailored but the seams were showing wear and his shoes, well shined, had worn soles with shoe tacks exposed. I wasn't sure why I kept noticing him but somehow, he was of interest to me. Over the years I had often thought that I had not kept many close friends and now older, I regretted it at times.
My research in Sfax went well and finishing, I took the train back to Tunis. The trains, so old, the glass in the windows fogging up with age, they clicked down the country side giving me a panorama of sights. I could see what looked like ruins in the distance, but most of the barren land was devoid of anything except for the usual farm house, made of cinder block. The only sign of life was the usual herd of goats and a few camels, grazing in the fields.
Back in my same room at the hotel I had some time to kill and decided to visit some of the historical sites. Carthage was on the edge of Tunis, close enough to walk and see the harbor nearby. It was a beautiful day, with clear skies in which to stroll through the ancient ruins. The guides were not obtrusive or aggressive as in some countries so I hired one to guide me around. His English was not good but body language was a help and I was able to recognize some of the French words. He didn't even charge me much and knowing they were paid little, I gave him a generous tip. Our money was so strong compared to theirs that the exchange rate gave me what seemed a small fortune in a bundle of small bills.
Now in a better mood, I tried to assimilate with the locals. Even the desk clerk seemed cheerful now that he knew I was friendly. Every time I went out to eat he would say, "bon apetit sir." Tunisia, once a French Protectorate, still had remnants of the French language with some restaurants even using French in their menus.
Over the next few days, seeing the desk clerk every day, I noticed there was a change in his demeanor. His voice was less stringent and he seemed less brief with me. Sometimes he would tell me where the best restaurants were and he even wrote down places to see. Our relationship was still formal yet I sensed a friendliness in his manner. Because of this I was careful to not tip him too much as I didn't want our relations to be based on monetary reasons only. After all, he seemed to go out of his way to help me and he seemed like a good person.
The research for my book went well so I enjoyed my time in the old hotel. Over the days, the clerk seemed to change.. No longer so formal he would often ask, "How is your book going?"
Having coffee with the manager one day, sitting outside, I said, "Your desk clerk is very helpful."
Speaking in broken English with a French accent, he said dryly, "He is, as I say, a pathetic one but he's a good worker."
Condescending in tone, the manager said, "He has no family or friends whatsoever."
To call him pathetic was somewhat rude but in a different culture I had to accept that being in a foreign country. Sipping my tea, I said, "He must be a lonely fellow."
With a look of boredom the manager said, "You shouldn't be concerned."
It was the first time I'd known a person without a single friend, not even a distant family. This bothered me. I was not considered as a social person but at least I had a few friends and of course, my relatives. It probably was not my concern, still, I felt a need to befriend him.
One day, the clerk taking my key, I noticed the sleeves of his shirt were frayed and gray with age. I knew the average wage in Tunisia was low but when a friend told me a desk clerk made the equivalent of ninety five dollars per month, it was difficult to understand how anyone could live on that. I wasn't wealthy by any means but the difference in our income was disturbing. I didn't feel responsible for his financial well-being nor did I have the means, but I sensed he needed a friend. It had always bothered me that I had never kept in contact with any of my high school classmates or any friends in my early age. Many of them in high school and even college, were personal friends, enjoying the excitement of the new world of becoming an adult.
Time passed with my busy schedule and one rainy day, leaving the hotel, the clerk ran after me saying, "You'll need this umbrella or you'll get wet and catch cold."
His arms, thin and bony, prompted me to say, "You should eat more. You're very thin."
After that I began to realize we were no longer just acquaintances. I was careful to not have him dependent on me, however, It seemed to me the poor soul needed a friend.
About to leave on another field trip, I asked him, "I'm going to Gabes now. I heard about your famous hilltop ruins, Are there any near there?"
A map in hand, he pointed, "If you take a mini-bus to Tataouine you can find some ruins near there. Maybe you should ask a taxi driver. There is also a large sand dune you can see nearby. You must see the sand dune."
His eyes lighting up, he said, "I wish I could be your guide."
The week went quickly at the ruins and the desert but I had to return, ready to leave for home. The Arab guides were not only helpful but they were quite friendly and comfortable to be with. The large sand dune near the ruins, was impressive in its sensuous soft curves, with ever changing forms. The sand was so fine it would run through your fingers, almost like water. I was so enchanted by the dunes I forgot all my problems and worries. Their shapes changed with the wind, making soft undulating curves.
I was sad to leave but I had work to do. The mini-bus home went through a small sandstorm with bad visibility making it a long journey especially since I was concerned of the desk clerk. Something about his color bothered me.
Late at night, seeing the clerk still on duty, I noticed his complexion was becoming grayer, almost morose. His veins were protruding and it was obvious something was wrong with him. Though friendly, his voice was weaker and his eyes looked sunken. The next day I asked the manager, :"Is something wrong with the desk clerk. He doesn't look well."
With a look of disinterest, he said, "The poor fellow is sick. What else can I say."
The fact that the poor man had no one to look after him and obviously dirt poor, he needed someone to befriend him. One afternoon, sipping tea with him at the desk, I said, "Do you have any family?"
"No" he said, "My parents died when I was a young boy and my older brother took care of me."
"Is he still around?" I said.
"No, he emigrated to Italy. I tried to keep in contact with him but I guess he has his own life now."
In our small talk I could sense his loneliness but he seemed happy to talk to someone. It occurred to me to take him out for a meal, however, I was told it wasn't proper to mix socially with hotel employees and it could feel awkward.
After two days, about to head home, I went out for a cup of coffee to pass the time. Noticing the clerk wasn't there, I asked the manager at the front desk, "Where is he?"
"He's at the hospital." he answered. "I heard he's really sick." Handing me a note, he said, "I know you like the pathetic one. Give this to the driver. He'll take you to the hospital."
One of two hospitals in town, old but clean with tiled floors, it had the usual strong smell of disinfectant and that usual mood atmosphere of sick people. The lighting was sparse giving the halls a gloomy appearance and the paint was peeling in places. Asking for the desk clerk, a nurse led me to a small room at the end of the corridor. It was lit with a bare bulb, casting shadows which made it even more somber. As we went by open doors I could see patients lying in their beds, looking out windows with an eerie silence, their visitors staring blankly. The last room in the hall, I entered, feeling a sense of dread. In a steel-framed bed, a checkered sheet over him, he looked so dreadful it made me cringe. Our eyes met, his hand reaching out, he at first said nothing. Then, holding his bony hand up, he whispered, "Why did you come?"
The room was bare, not even a side table or any form of furniture. Even the walls looked bleak in the gray somber color. Holding his hand, I said, "Why shouldn't I come. You're a good friend." His eyes were sunken and gray. He looked like he was near death. I was afraid to ask why he was sick saying, "You'll be okay, just hang in there."
Pulling me closer, his voice trembling, he said, "Why are you so kind to me. I'm just a desk clerk."
With our hands pressing, I said softly, "You are a good person, that's all."
With the sun setting, the dark orange rays piercing through the window, we said nothing, staring at the distant ocean. Hardly knowing what to say, I held his hand saying, "Your country is very beautiful. I wish you could be my guide sometime." Smiling weakly, his eyes dull, he murmured, "You are so kind. God bless you."
Sensing he was near death I felt afraid to even look at him. Death was difficult for me to understand. I hardly knew the man but I felt it my duty to comfort him in his last moments.
His eyes glazed over, still holding my hand, I said, "May your soul be in peace."
As the nurse came in, taking his pulse, she said, "He's gone. Could you leave the room please."
The next morning, while I was placing some flowers on his grave, the caretaker looked up at me and asked, "Were you his friend?"
It was strange for me to be at a funeral of someone I hardly knew. I usually avoided funerals as they were too, for lack of a better word, emotional, or heart rending.
Fighting back a tear, I finally said,
"Yes, I guess you could say he was a friend. A very good friend."