The Sentimental Atlas

People who go to Africa for a week
write a book;
people who go for a month,
an article;
those who spend a year there
write nothing.

Anonymous traveller

I used to think, and still do, that happiness is
impossible without a terrace,
but though I say terrace, I don't mean those
European flat roofs at all...

Fatima Mernissi, In Dreams of Trespass

March 25th


They left in the end. My parents, Hassan, Ali (and the donkey) are going up the mountain. I, on the other hand, am staying behind in the village of Imi Oughlad, alone, broken-hearted. And submerged in the sad, falling dusk my eyes follow their silhouettes, not leaving them as long as they are visible. Goodbye.


I feel like a sun dial on a cloudy day, or as if I had put my slippers on the wrong feet, or like an Arab without a teapot. It is almost five hours since my parents left; three since night fell and I had my dinner. I have been reading Rafik Schamir's novel A Handful of Stars. Somehow or other time has passed quite quickly and I haven't felt so lonely. But now I am uneasy, nervous and expectant, I have a tight knot in my stomach. And because I want to dissipate the loneliness and make time pass faster I have started to fill these pages with writing and doodles; for this reason and because I want to forget that I need to pee, because in these villages in the Moroccan mountains you can't find a toilet anywhere.

But anyway, that is not the worst. Apart from there not being a toilet, when I first saw them I thought the villages looked like had been bombed. Hassan, our guide, didn't put it as dramatically as that: "They look like millions of cracked walnut shells a donkey has stomped on." And it is like that to an extent: the houses have no roofs, but terraces where the roofs should be. They are the same milky coffee colour as the earth; only their windows are colourful. They sit next to each other, separated by narrow, muddy passageways. Actually, they are narrow, muddy and dark, because there is no electricity either.

But how differently people see things. My mother said that this landscape reminds her of a dessert: gaztanbera with honey and walnuts. Gaztanbera curd cheese white like the snow on the peaks of the Atlas mountains; honey the same colour of this wretched land; and walnuts because there are so many walnut trees around.

I say it again: to me they look like bombed villages, or, if you think of the windows as eye sockets, like piles of human skulls. Actually, they remind me more of a main dish than of a dessert: lentil stew.

But right now I don't care about there not being proper streets or electricity, right now I don't give a damn about the lack of avenues, cinemas or cafes. Right now I need a bathroom, and need it damn quick, and that is all I care about.

Hassan says that the mountain is the biggest public toilet, and that we can undo our trousers wherever we want, but I can't venture into the dark night with my sprained ankle, and I don't know what to do. Damn it! All I know right now is that I am about to burst, and I am going to have to continue writing and doodling to forget it.


The reasons for embarking on a journey can be many and varied, but right now I am damning the damned reasons that brought us this far, because I don't want to be here alone. I should be in Iruņa right now, with Unai, Uxue and the rest of my friends. We need to go quite far back in time - five months in fact - to find the reasons for this journey of ours. Everything started at a secondary school, when the school secretary approached a teacher who was about to photocopy a sociology exam and told her she had to see the headmistress immediately.

"Look," the headmistress said looking sad, "there's been a call for you... Your mother..."

The young woman's eyes filled with tears. She walked to a window and stayed there for a little while trying to assimilate the news she had received in a few broken words. The teacher's mother had had a worrisome heart problem for a while but she hadn't expected her to die so suddenly. After attempting to compose herself the teacher made a phone call, but no one answered at her mother's, and after a while the headmistress told her:

"Don't worry about anything here, just go, we'll deal with this. Leave the exam for another day. Right now it's the least of your worries."

After that the teacher drove manically through Iruņa. On the motorway, her mother, the unexpectedness of it all, the mercilessness of death, the funeral, were the only thoughts in her mind. The closer she got to Tafalla the greater her anguish became.

At some point she reached her mother's home. She practically floated up the staircase, such was her shock and fear. Once she arrived at the front door she took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. She rang several times before someone came to open the door. And who was it but her very own mother!

"Jesus, Mary and Aesop! What a lovely surprise! What are you doing here? Have you taken a day off?" she said as she hugged her delightedly.

But the teacher felt so overwhelmed with emotion everything went dark and she crumbled to the floor. And then her mother had to ring the emergency services. And although it looked like nothing much had happened to her, the teacher was terribly upset by the event, especially as she realised one of her students must have rung the school with the story of her mother's death to avoid sitting the exam.

And although it looked like nothing much had happened to her, the psychiatrist wrote her a sick note and prescribed some Tranxene (tranquilizers strong enough to floor an elephant).

"You feel like a donkey running a race against race horses, breathless and unable to cope," he told her. "It's normal. But now you have to leave the race. You need a break; take a break and forget your students for a while."

And I don't happen to know this because I am the student who made the call, or because I am in that class; no, I know all this because the teacher is my mother. Now I also happen to know that this evening she went up the mountain with my father, Hassan and Ali, while I had to stay behind.

After that day my mother was listless and incapable of doing much, just as I am now. Although she would normally mention school matters often, since the day of the call it had become a taboo subject at home. My father begged me not to mention anything related to school in front of her. And even if we spoke of other subjects or came up with very funny jokes hoping to bring a smile to her lips, it was all in vain. Neither we nor the Tranxene could do anything for her.

But one day Dad brought home a travel agent's brochure which had been delivered with our post. It came from the Natura agency in Baraņain and it read thus: "MOROCCO - HIKE THROUGH THE ATLAS MOUNTAIN RANGE. Explore some of the world's most amazing landscapes on foot. You will even have the chance to climb Mount Toubkal (4,167 metres), weather permitting." And he spoke so enthusiastically, and I too was so eager to make this journey that in the end we persuaded her and decided the three of us would go to Morocco.


Cyclists who drop out of the races are always picked up by a "sweeper car." Well, right now I feel like one of those, someone who has withdrawn from the race, a cyclist who has had a bad fall and is taken to hospital.

It's so unfair! We had to prepare so carefully to come to Morocco: get hold of maps, read guidebooks, talk to Koldo the travel agent, get tetanus jabs, make sure we had all the mountain hiking gear, get me a passport... so many things. And we went during the Easter holidays, which started on March 21st: we took a bus from Iruņa to Madrid, then a plane to Casablanca, then a bus and a van to the region below the Atlas mountain range. Then we spent days getting to know "some of the world's most amazing landscapes on foot," and just when we were preparing to climb Mount Toubkal (4,167 metres), a momentary distraction and I sprained this damn ankle! Crossing a stupid tiny river! Damn it! I stepped on a loose stone (seven centimetres) and I heard a crack! coming from my ankle followed by an ouch! coming from my mouth.

If the accident had happened on our way down from Toubkal it wouldn't matter so much; but no, it had to happen just then. And the worst of it is that when I return to school I won't be able to show my friends photos of myself at the top. Maybe I'll say that we weren't able to climb up, and, to explain my ankle, I might say that I fell from a rock which was difficult to climb but a great vantage point... or that I was trapped in an avalanche. I'll think of something: anything rather than let them know that I've wasted the journey in such a stupid way.

When I sprained my ankle this morning my parents were ready to cancel the rest of the journey immediately. I didn't want that to happen and although I had to use all my powers of persuasion in the end I managed to make them go on. Because the thing is - and I don't really know why I think this - I keep imagining that once my mother climbs Mount Toubkal she won't need the Tranxene anymore (though I might have to start taking it myself when we return).

In films, when the enemy - or death - is about to appear the hero always tells his companions something like this:

"Don't worry about me. I'm done for; you must try to save yourselves."

I said something similar to my parents:

"Don't worry about me. I'll be fine here and, really, if you want to make me happy you must climb Mount Toubkal for me."

But the truth is that, actually, I didn't manage to say it like a hero, at least not as bravely; I shed quite a few tears.

"We'll try to get back as soon as possible," said Dad as he left.

"You'll be fine by the time we're back, you'll see," said Mum as she turned from me.

"At least you'll have lots of nurses looking after you!" winked Hassan as he walked away.

"Courage, my friend!" said Ali.

And just like the enemies fall on the hero (to imprison, torture, and make mincemeat of him) after his loyal friends leave, this awful loneliness took over me then. And now the discomfort I feel in my heart is worse than the one in my ankle. But as for pain, real pain is what I am feeling in my bladder right now. As if I hadn't enough trouble... damn it! I can't anymore. I have to do something: I'm going to have to get out of my sleeping bag, blow the candle out and pee out of the window. The worst that can happen is that my hosts will think it is raining.


More than an hour has passed since I peed out of the window, and God what a relief that was. But when I put the birdie back in the cage a few droplets came out and that, along with my sleeplessness, is a clear sign that I'm not my usual self. If I wet my underwear after I take a leak - something that happens when I have an exam or if I have done something I shouldn't - it means that I am not myself. And I am not, that's a fact, because I feel nervous and shaken and my insides are like a tight knot.

Š Zubizarreta, Patxi. Atlas sentimentala, Alberdania, Irun, 2001.

Š Translation: Amaia Gabantxo