The Ink Man

by Isabella Butler (United States of America)

Making a local connection Morocco


I’ll always regret not remembering his name. We call him the Ink Man. We found him by chance, as most of the best things are found, while wandering through the coastal town of Asilah, Morocco. My cousin, Ali, and I had met in Spain backpacking and a whim had brought us 19 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar. Being from the mountains, we sought the gentle appeal of an ocean town. We had found that Morocco was many things, but gentle wasn’t one of them. Despite the stark contrast between reality and expectation, we were entranced. Everything moved fast. When the frantic feelings of panic departed us, we were able to appreciate the beautiful complexity of the place. Luckily, Asilah was a step back from turbulent. The streets tangled together in a tight web. We wandered for hours, always ending up in the same places but never seeing the same things. After a tajine lunch, we stumbled into an alley that we were certain was new to our eyes. It was generously wide, and colorful paintings of women decorated the walls. A shop to our left boasted an open door, and we obliged its beckoning. Inside, a bald man sat behind a desk tinkering. He didn’t look up, so we explored. The small room was covered with calligraphy masterpieces. They differed in shapes, sizes, and colors, filling every possible space in the store. We asked the man behind the counter to translate some, as they were all written in Arabic, but he offered only a confused expression. He gestured at us with a finger, asking us to wait a moment, before running out the door. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, but we silently agreed to stay. In the back right corner, a deep purple caught my eye. I picked up the rectangular paper, and my eyes followed the lines of the foreign characters in a dance. I was perplexed; I had no idea what the decoded message was of these words, but they seemed to hold such substance. I picked it from its place on the wall just as the man rushed back through the door, this time with someone else in tow. The new man appeared to be Moroccan, but his presentation countered that of most of his fellow compatriots. He wore a stylish fedora with a brown ribbon to compliment his brown tweed vest. Immediately, he smiled at us with a mischievous grin, more than any of the other reserved Moroccan men had displayed. He reached out an artist’s hand and greeted us with his name, the one I wish I could remember, and sat down on a little stool by the counter. Ali asked if he spoke English, but he only giggled and shook his head no. “Espanol?” I asked. “Si!” He replied. We brought him a few pieces and requested translations. He explained that Arabic had different dialects for different regions and he used them all. One by one, we presented him with his art. He would examine them intently and then laugh as if they had summoned some memory. In his head he would transform the various forms of Arabic into his Catalonian-influenced Spanish, and Ali and I would bring the multi-translation home by saying it aloud in English. Finally, I brought forth my prized purple rectangle and thrusted it in his direction. “Juzgar a otros es emitir juicio sobre ti mismo,” he said.To judge others is to cast judgement upon yourself. It reminded me of something my dad would used to tell me. I coughed up the 25 dirham and folded the paper into my bag. The Ink Man told us how he was a tattoo artist in Barcelona every May, and asked that we come visit him when we returned to Spain. Before we left, he requested our names. He pulled out supplies and craftily wound rich colors into our names. I felt overcome with gratitude for this man that later would become nameless to me. We exchanged smiles and final goodbyes and promised to see him in Barcelona in May. We never went, but something in me holds hope that I will one day see the Ink Man again.