Taking Tock to the forest

Today the clocks go back, or so we are led to believe. Every business in Morocco has patches installed on its computers which will take us all, on the coat-tails of Europe, back to GMT in the small hours of tomorrow morning. Unless of course there are any more horo-political surprises in store for us during the afternoon.

One small sadness that the change brings with it is the loss of the dawn at 7 o’clock in the morning. (Yes, I know that that is exactly the point of putting the clock back, but read on.) I quite often go in the early morning to the forest to walk, a brisk 3½ miles in about 45 minutes that at this time of year start in pitch darkness. After a few minutes, I watch the gradual pearling of the horizon and then a little later the low slanting light of the rising sun cutting gently through the gum trees to light my path in glowing streaks of gold. After three quarters of an hour it is broad daylight. A week ago I started out under a full moon, its great white globe caught in the branches above me, giving the paths a chalky glow, and the whole forest an air of magic. Every morning I am there, I watch with familiar pleasure the gradual transformation of the woods, from deepest night to full daylight in their quick, African awakening.

Tock, my watch-dog, commiserates with me in seeing that little pleasure curtailed by the time-change. But the people will still be there, and they are another very particular pleasure. It’s a non-speaking community that circles the forest, in surprisingly large numbers, even before dawn. We nod at each other, and I greet the gardeners with a gasped sbah al-kheer, but on the whole the night is noiseless. Dark shapes move along, sometimes singly, sometimes five abreast. From time to time through the darkness comes the sillage of over-liberally applied aftershave. Sometimes there is the mutter of what sounds like recited prayer, and occasionally, breaking the silence, a rather loud, jocular conversation between a group of jogging middle-aged men. In the woods to the sides of the path are the indistinct figures of men leaning against trees, immobile as they stretch muscles in oddly undynamic ways, looking like bookends. At weekends the calisthenics hit the road, and circles of less-than-elfin figures in the woodland glades do their exercises in solemn groups, sometimes with subsidiary gaggles of scarved women taking part at a slight distance from the men.

Repetition breeds recognition, and there are many individuals who become familiar, though quite unknown, fellow-foresters. Silver-cane-man walks slowly and painfully along, perhaps coping with the aftermath of a stroke; Golden Girl, in her colour-co-ordinated headphones runs lithely by, at least twice, at great speed; Pigtail-man, the only person in the forest who walks faster than me in his white tracksuit, turns out not to have a pigtail at all, but a curly black lining to his hood; Grey-streak-lady is a regular, unsmiling but reassuring, presence as she trots round, as are Big-and-Little-Women, Five-abreast-fellows, White-haired-foreign-lady, Straw-hat-woman, and others. There are occasionals too, like the bunch of soldiers who sometimes race past me in a flash of red, and the highly self-advertising young men with string vests, and turn-ups on their very short shorts, . Runners and walkers come in all shapes and sizes, lean, tubby, athletic, fat, knock-kneed, shambling – and several  working hard on ill-functioning limbs that clearly need the determined, therapeutic work.

It is a wonderful little cameo of Rabat. If I am slightly later, at weekends, I see other people entirely. I am full of admiration for the ferociously wrapped ladies who run not just in hejab but often in ankle-length fur-trimmed coats, a flash of Adidas trainer suggesting muffled athleticism as they pant gamely along. Straw hats and baseball caps over the foulard are fashionable, perhaps to hold the whole shebang safely together when in motion. Athletic young men, those slim-hipped, lightening-like runners who pass in a flash of mildly amusing humiliation (the amusement and the humiliation both my own); black Africans of every shape and size, from the tall and sinuous to the almost square, run determinedly at various speeds. At about 8 o’clock, if I am late, there is sudden influx of men with briefcases and boys with satchels, heading across the park for office and school.

‘All human life is there,’ as the News of the World masthead used to put it. When I leave Rabat, this busily moving community, known but unknown, will be an important part of my memories, buzzing like electrons around the paths between the trees in the dawn light. In it I see much that I recognize, and much that I love, about this splendid country.

“To heel, Tock,” I cry, “it’s time for your morning walk.”

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