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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Friday, March 30, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 31

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


I completed the roll to my left side and focused through the dark.

Nothing there; the spirit had gone, dissipated. “The line was dead,” I wrote later in my journal.

It was as if the jinn couldn’t hold a long-distance connection long enough for us to come face to face. The first time when I’d had such a solid sense of his physical body. On this second encounter, he came through weakly, not even touching. Only his voice – tender, respectful, hinting at a romantic nature – had been utterly clear.

It can’t be an easy trick for a disembodied spirit to weave a manifestation that can be perceived by a living person. I told myself that next time I should keep still, in case my movement had disturbed the delicate mesh of ether that was my jinn. I reasoned (though some might say I had long since departed the realm of reason) that with each contact he should get stronger, as my energy gave fuel to his: a sort of interspecies bundling.  

Or would he continue to grow weaker, fainter? It might be a good idea to have the witch perform some kind of booster spell.

I still wondered why his voice sounded different from our first contact. Was it the same spirit? Did it matter?

I fell asleep mulling these things. In my dream, I found myself standing alone in the middle of a vast concrete parking lot, a skyline of factories beyond. Shadows collected along the edges: a gang of toughs. I looked around for help. In the distance I saw my jinn walking behind a row of trees. His eyes followed me but he was powerless to come to my aid, the trees forming a boundary he couldn’t cross. At last he vanished into some woods. I was left by myself to deal with the punks, who clearly had nothing good in mind for me.

When I woke I recorded the dream in my journal hurriedly. Khadija and I had to be off to Marrakesh, so I didn’t pay it much attention.

Now, though, when I read what I wrote, I recognize it as an explicit omen.

Heading south, we detoured to Khouribga, where Fatima stood ready to take some more of my money for some more of her magic. She promised to fiddle with the reception so that my jinn could come through more clearly on our next rendezvous. She also planned to bring her daughter Naíma to Marrakesh as soon as I found an apartment. Naíma would be my cook-housekeeper there.

Although I’d made the trip twice before, the approach to Marrakesh as one descended from the Atlas Mountains was always stupendous. The terracotta color of the soil and the buildings that rise from it appear like the passing configuration of a cloud at sunset. Outside the pink walls surrounding the medina was the “nouvelle ville” – the modern section built by and for the French colonialists as well as upwardly mobile Moroccans aspiring to be French. This was the neighborhood where a single white female American novelist would be safest.

We found an apartment right away through a Jewish realtor. (She invited me to her home; I experienced my first Sabbath in the middle of a Muslim city.) The place was unfurnished so I had to buy a couple of mattresses and a desk – the bare minimum since I was only planning on staying for three months. It would be another day before the electricity was turned on; Khadija left me off at the Hotel du Pasha before driving back to Casablanca.

It was a relief to stretch out in a proper bed, all alone with a good book, after a month of camping in Khadija’s living room and reading her Tarot cards every day. I was truly on my own; that is, until Naíma arrived. Tomorrow I would explore my new neighborhood, the grand souk, and the medina. But first, a bit of private bliss: a good sleep.

Dreaming, I found myself once again on that concrete floor, only this time I was flat on my stomach, my body pressed into the grit by someone unseen. There was muffled laughter behind me. A hand yanked my head up, forcing me to look up. Hovering over me an enormous wedge-shaped monolith. It rose steeply to its apex where the crude outlines of an animal’s face at the top stared down at me, a living idol waiting for the next sacrifice.

My head was pulled back farther, my back arching until I thought it would break – and then hands attacked me, pinching my waist painfully and probing between my ribs. Trying to squirm away, I used all my strength to twist around, to see my assailants and fight off their hands.

I managed to flip onto my back. I was now awake and staring at the hotel room ceiling. The attackers had faded with the dream, though I still ached from their fingers. Night was giving way to dawn.

But I was far from safe. The room I woke to was suffused with a presence of evil, flowing into every corner and blocking out consciousness of everything but itself.


(To be continued.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 30


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

Going to sleep in a relaxed manner, as the witch advised, was almost impossible. After Khadija and her boyfriend went to bed, and her daughter and I retired to the banquettes, I lay awake in the dark and waited in vain for fatigue to draw me down into dreams. I didn’t know how or if my boughten spirit would come; with my hand on the knob to let him in, I was so torn between anticipation and dread that I really didn’t know which was my better instinct – to fling the door open or slam it shut – or if I even had a choice in the matter anymore.

Khadija’s daughter was dreaming plenty, tossing in her sleep. But my eyes kept popping open at every sound; my stomach spasmed; my heart lurched along like a wagon with a wheel off. Finally I fell asleep and had a perfectly farcical dream.

I had ordered a gigolo from an agency. They sent over a short gay guy who had no relish for his job and just wanted to get it over with. Furious, I called the agency. They offered to replace him at no extra charge. Would I please check the take-out list and choose someone else? I scanned the flyer in my hand. Bullfighter…Pirate…Hippie… Ah, here was a bargain: a Cowboy with a “chorus” of four more cowboys included. (For background harmony?) Anyway I was partial to shitkickers. But when they arrived, I found out the extra cowboys were rowdies, whose role was to hoot and throw beer cans while the Cowboy and I got it on. So I sent the chorus away. Just as I was about to settle in with my rented lover, Khadija popped up to remind me that I wasn’t supposed to make love to any other man before my jinn. So the Cowboy went, too.

I woke up annoyed, and took a Valium. I managed another couple of hours of sleep, waking when the maid arrived instead of the jinn.

The sehúra had said to be patient; his was a long trip. Maybe the jinn needed an extra day. He’d stopped off at a jinn motel.

I filled the hours renting a car for the drive to Marrakesh and picking my djellaba up from the tailor; meanwhile my obsession raged like a furnace. He had to come!  And soon, before I headed south.

By evening I was exhausted from too little sleep the night before, and looking to go to bed early, but Khadija’s boyfriend arrived with his chorus of soccer rowdies and proceeded to throw a party. (They sent me out to procure whiskey and wine, which could only be sold to non-Muslims and foreigners.) Because of the noise Khadija deposited her daughter at the neighbor’s for the night. On and on into the wee hours the men stomped and sang and hollered. I kept glancing over at Khadija to see if she was going to throw them out yet.

One time I looked over at Khadija, her head was twisted away as she gazed over her shoulder at the wall. When she snapped back, her mouth was open; her shocked eyes met mine.

She fought through the crowd to join me.  “I can’t believe it. I saw him!” she shouted above the music. “He was behind me, did you see?”

“Who…him?”

“Yes, your jinn!”

“I didn’t see anything.”

“I felt a pressure on my back like someone was crowding me behind. I thought it was strange because I was against the wall, and I turned – and he was there. Very tall, like you said, dark hair – w’allah, I thought I was going to have a heart attack!”

“Khadija, you’re drunk.”

“I swear!” she protested vigorously. “He had a little smile. And these amazing dark eyebrows.” She traced the swoop of the eyebrows on her forehead.

That stopped me. I’d never told her about the eyebrows.

“I’m not drunk, but now I think I will be.” Khadija left me to intercept a bottle of whiskey the men were passing around.

I felt like crying. She really had seen him. What was he doing, showing himself to her and not me? I was the one who’d been waiting, who’d placed the call, who’d ordered him from the agency…

Khadija passed out in her bedroom, while I had to wait for the living room to empty out before I could sleep on the banquette. The party didn’t break up until 4. I slid under my blanket, so pissed off: those assholes had stolen my dream time. By the time I fell asleep it would be time to get up again, when the maid arrived. There would be no time for a rendezvous with my spirit guy. Curling up on my side to face the wall, I started drifting off…

And then I became aware of a presence behind me. It wasn’t touching me but I could feel a vague turbulence of atoms, like fizz in a soda, on the skin along my back. In response, my whole body prickled with excitation.

I heard his voice next to my ear. As before, his tone was gentle and polite.  “Do you know I’m here?”

“Yes,” I answered behind closed lips. 

“Then you must be Sarah.”

I had a fleeting thought that something was not quite right. His voice was a little different from the first time, pitched a bit higher, as if it belonged to some other man.

“Yes…Can you understand me?” I wondered if I should move my mouth and speak to him aloud. No one would hear; Khadija’s daughter was sleeping next door.

He replied, “You’d do us both a favor if you looked me in the eyes.”

I opened my eyes, glimpsing the wall. He waited behind me. I gathered my body and rolled over, very slowly, afraid that a quick movement might disturb the contact.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 29

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


I knew what the naked entity on top of me was asking. Had I followed the rules? he wanted to know. Was I clean? Did I fuck anyone while he was away? If not, then he could proceed to consummate our marriage, which had just been sealed in the dream.

He waited for my reply. I was in a difficult position, pinned under a spirit and confronted with a choice. Furthermore I had woken up only seconds before; fear hadn’t yet seized me because I was still in the thrall of the dream. He was my beautiful beloved; I had accepted him at the altar, allowed his kiss willingly, in spite of his mauling my ribs. It seemed natural to give him what he wanted. This is what I usually did when in love with a man: I let him in.

In a word, I was enchanted.

And yet, some indestructible part of myself broke through the glamour. You see, I was always a bit of a contrarian. My sheer cussedness, which had always gotten me in trouble with authority figures, may have saved me with this one. So I talked back to my jinn, and gave him that defiant piece of my mind.

“You don’t understand,” I said. Strangely, my lips didn’t move as I spoke. I soon learned that when talking to a spirit, you are communicating essence to essence, with no need for the earthly apparatus of lungs, breath, diaphragm, vocal cords, mouth, lips or ears. The words that form in your mind manifest simultaneously – you might say wirelessly – in the consciousness of the other.

I forged on. “I need comfort and inspiration, not sex. You may hold me in your arms, but not replace men.”

There was a pause. Then I felt him fade slowly, evaporating into a light haze of disappointment…And then he was altogether gone.

I was left stunned, every cell aquiver; the delayed fear now took hold. The impression of his weight remained like a stone on my body. At length it too disappeared. I sat up on the banquette and glanced at the clock.

It was 5:45 a.m., the same transitional hour from darkness to light when my grandfather used to contact me, twining himself into the plot of a dream and then coaxing me into a semi-conscious state where we could work together. But with Grandpa, from the beginning I refused to cede control. Almost by force of habit, I treated my jinn the same way – standing up to him, firmly setting boundaries.

Good girl.

Everyone was still asleep, so I had nothing to do but lie there thinking. It wasn’t long before remorse set in. The feeling of his arms around me had not been unpleasant. He seemed respectful enough. Obedient, too. He didn’t press his suit when I objected. And – can I say it? – he was hot. But I’d turned him away, maybe for good.

Shmuck.

Would it have been so bad to go all the way? It might’ve been fantastic, literally out of this world. I imagined us rolling around in the ether, me laughing, him tickling my ribs. By now, my imagination was running rampant, with my sense of humor close at its heels. An invisible boyfriend! Wouldn’t that be the last laugh! I’d never have to traffic with men if I had a secret, not to mention larger than life, lover.

But before our next encounter I’d have to work on my attitude. No more backtalk. I got up to see if there were any more herbs left in the witch’s pouch. There were. I waited for the maid to arrive and got her to light the coal brazier.

The burning smell got Khadija out of bed. Her jaw fell off its hinge when I told her what had happened. “I know this is crazy, but I want him to come back,” I said calmly, though I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. “At least take it to the next step. I’m ready for whatever happens.”

But would he come back after being rejected?

Khadija called Khouribga, dialing a neighbor’s number to bring the sehúra to the phone. Fatima was triumphant. She guaranteed the jinn would come back; just to be sure, she’d do another spell. And there was an incantation I should do myself, before going to bed. Khadija wrote it down for me so I could recite it phonetically, because it was in Arabic. I wasn’t sure why, when my jinn spoke English, but okay. What else did I have to do? Fatima replied: just go to sleep in a relaxed, normal way. Don’t be impatient because he is coming from a long, long way. Once you two are joined, then he will never be far from you.

Before she left for work, Khadija joked, “Tell him to give me 10,000 durhams so I can buy a BMW. No, I’ll buy a sheep! Then I’ll get a jinn bigger than yours!” She laughed at the idea of our two “husbands” getting into a quarrel, fencing with swords: “All right, children, take it outside.”

I practised reading the words of the incantation. “Ya m’lkee sheert aleek tasheera n’deer fee galbek taheera. Djinni farhan ay walhan. Ts’baya liya mabayghoo al weezara lee sooltan.”

I beckon you, my spirit, so that I may live in your heart. Approach me, genie, full of joy and goodness. Salute me as do the ministers and slaves their sultan.

I had the whole day ahead of me, but all I could think of was getting through it fast. Day was dull. Bring on the night. 

(To be continued.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 28

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

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The witch excused herself to go to the bathroom.

Khadija’s eyes were round with fright as she explained: “The spirit, the jinn, he came, but he left because someone here was haram.

“Me?” I asked. Haram means unclean, forbidden, and the list of things that qualify as haram, according to Islamic law, is longer than your arm. A Christian or, in my case, a nonbeliever is definitely unclean.

“No, me,” Khadija said, shamefaced. “After I had sex last night I didn’t wash or go to the baths.” That’s on the list, for men as well as women: clean up after the nasty. “So the jinn was very angry. He wouldn’t come in the room.”

I had wondered how the sehúra was going to wriggle out of the deal we had struck. For $100 she’d agreed to conjure a genie or jinn, a spirit I could see and talk to, dedicated to me and me alone, a sort of muse who would help me with my book during my yearlong stay in Morocco. I never believed Fatima could actually pull this off, but my enduring fascination with hustlers led me on. (I’d written about a pair of con women in my first book.) I was curious to see how a magic spell scam would play out.

“Kind of far-fetched for an excuse but pretty clever,” I conceded. “So can we leave now?” I wanted nothing more than bed and sleep. It had been a long night of waiting for this persnickety jinn to show up.

“It’s true! He came!”

I looked at her, surprised. “Come on, did you see him?”

“I was sleeping, and then I felt hands around my neck.” She demonstrated, clutching her throat. “I was so scared. I was choking, I couldn’t breathe. That’s why I woke up. Fatima said it was her husband who was angry at me.”

“Her husband?”

“Her jinn, you know.”

Oh, right. I forgot Fatima had married one. All these jinns were confusing me.

Khadija went on, “And he was mad at her too, because she asked him to find a jinn for you, and then when the jinn came, everything wasn’t correct.”

At that moment Fatima returned, tears running down her cheeks and over her tattooed chin. She pulled down her trousers to show us the red marks on her thighs, rows of stripes, as if someone had whopped her with a long stick. She wailed something in Arabic.

Khadija gasped. “Look! She says her husband beat her very bad. He punished her.”

Now I was the one who was angry. This was really pathetic, that this so-called witch would go into the bathroom and smack herself with a broom handle, just to furnish me with proof of her jinn’s fury. But I supposed that for Fatima, a few bruises were worth it for the money.

I paid Fatima and thanked her, saying I was sorry for what happened and it was okay that the spell didn’t work out; never mind, keep the change. I grabbed Khadija and headed for the car. But the witch followed us, gabbling energetically. She pressed a packet of herbs into Khadija’s hand.

Khadija thrust it in her purse. “We must burn these in my apartment when we get back. And she says don’t make love with any other man so you are not haram when the jinn comes. He will appear first in dreams and then he will come for you to talk to.”

I’d heard it all before. Seeing my disbelief, Fatima shook her finger at me. Khadija translated: “You will see him. He is tall and very handsome. You will be so happy in love, and he will bring you inspiration, and lots of money. You will come back to Khouribga and tell her about it!”

Uh-huh. You will meet a tall, dark handsome stranger. You’ll be rich. Now pay me, and come back for more of my bullshit. That’s how the gypsy scam goes.

By the time we got back to Casablanca at sunup, I’d developed a cold. I pitched myself onto the banquette, grabbing a pillow. Khadija made a beeline for the kitchen and set to work burning the herbs Fatima had given her. “Don’t bother,” I called. “Go to sleep.”

“But maybe it will work!”

“Just like the spell she did for you?” I pointed out her lover’s clothes on the floor where he dropped them for the maid to pick up. “I don’t see your boyfriend moving out.”

And he didn’t move out the next day, or the next day. In fact, he seemed more comfortable than ever. Meanwhile I prepared for my move to Marrakesh the following week. I was ready for a change of address. Being sick, I also slept a lot; the cold sapped my energy. I ate oranges and got better.

Then one night I dreamed I was standing in an aisle between rows of seats, waiting for some event to begin. I joked with friends, “This is like waiting for my bridegroom.” As soon as I’d uttered the words, I turned and saw a man in a light-colored suit heading away from us, walking to the head of the aisle. He glanced back, his eyes meeting mine.

He was breathtakingly beautiful. His dark hair was swept back from a brow that seemed to glow like a live star over the elegant sloping bones of his face. His pale skin was tinged with a warm lingering gold as if he’d spent half his life in the sun and then been shut away from the light for a long while. His lips were flushed and curled at the edges in an arcane smile. A pair of remarkable eyebrows arched like black wings over eyes that were cold, and refractive as though a layer of blue ice within had shivered.

He paused in front of an altar, where he waited for me. I moved toward him in a strange fog – no, it was a veil over my face. A bridal veil. I loved him; we were meant for each other.

I arrived at his side. The altar was now a mirror. He stepped behind me, turning me to face it. Looking at our reflection, I saw he was naked now. His arms wrapped around me, crossing protectively over the bodice of my wedding gown. Though I was tall, he was so much taller; my head didn’t even come up to his shoulder. His solemn face hovered over the top of my veil, the black eyebrows lifted in anticipation.

I let him turn me around; he raised my veil slowly. I faced his polished chest. I felt his hands at my back, lifting me up to his mouth to kiss me. His fingers dug into my ribs sharply. I arched against the pain, gazing up his steep chest, which rose like a column into the clouds where it disappeared …

And then I was awake, my lips still parted for the kiss. My eyes were closed but the light of dawn shone through my lids. I could hear Khadija’s daughter stirring under her blanket on the opposite banquette. A motorbike went by outside the window.

I felt a tongue slip between my lips and unfurl inside my mouth. A man was on top of me. I didn’t dare move. He was naked, immense and powerfully built, his weight impressed on my body.

I felt him lift his head, withdrawing from the kiss. I opened my eyes. I could see nothing but a man’s chest hovering over my vision. And now his head was at my ear, and a low male voice asked, in a polite formal tone, “Did you do anything else with anyone who was available?”

(To be continued.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 27


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

When I woke on the banquette in Khadija’s living room, I saw her daughter was up already. She was cleaning the closet, hoping to earn her mother’s gratitude by re-organizing Khadija’s and the boyfriend’s clothes.

Khadija had secretly applied a magic potion to the lining of the boyfriend’s Cardin suits, the collars of his Italian shirts, even inside his soccer shorts. When his skin came in contact with the powerful brew he would be seized with the desire to clear out of her apartment. She’d been warned that if anyone else touched his clothes, the potion would have the same effect.

Now that her daughter's fingers had grazed his jacket lining, I wondered if she too would blow this crib. Khadija wouldn’t mind; the girl was getting in the way of her love life. Already she was planning to buy more spells from the witch of Khouribga, to guarantee she’d have plenty of romance once the boyfriend left. She was so excited by the possibilities of magic, she’d become like a kid in a sorcery supermarket, grabbing spells from every shelf. At last count she was targeting three different men, and had collected DNA samples from all three without their knowing. She’d even bedded her top choice for the express purpose of wiping his sperm off with a cloth to bring to the witch. Fatima could do incredible things with a man’s giz, could make him crazy with desire and – the impossible – render him devoted, courteous and respectful.

Today was the day we were returning to the sehúra’s house, so that I could be joined to my jinn and thus have all my wishes granted. I was finding this whole adventure hilarious. As Khadija drove my rental car to Khouribga, I mused about all the spells she could have asked for, instead of wasting them on men. A better job. Her own car. Equal rights for Moroccan women. “Or,” I said when she turned the Bob Dylan tape up louder, “if it had to be a man, you could’ve asked for Bob Dylan.”

“That would be more expensive than yours,” she laughed. “Five sheeps, at least.”

When we arrived at Fatima’s house, it was nearing sundown. My sheep was tethered outside; a butcher crouched alongside, waiting for the evening prayer. Khadija went inside to settle up her business with the sehúra. Fatima’s daughter Naíma came out with glasses of mint tea for the butcher and myself. I smiled at her and received a shy smile in return.

Naíma was shy by nature and cloistered by necessity. After her father died, her mother was left with no money except from her sorcery fees and occasional stipends from her brother, barely enough to feed her three children. So she married off Naíma when she turned 14 to a much older man. He divorced her five years later when she failed to produce children, returning her to Fatima’s house. Fatima kept her close, never allowing her out unaccompanied. Young men circled like hounds; in a small town, a deflowered and divorced young woman was considered fair game. Naíma’s life was over, basically, and she was once more a burden on her mother. My heart went out to the girl.

At twilight came the muezzin’s amplified call to prayer. Naíma held the sheep as the butcher prepared his knife.

I had tried to bury the thought, but as the man’s blade sliced through the animal’s throat and its blood jetted in a high arc, I had to face the fact that this poor creature was being sacrificed to my whim. In that moment I wished I hadn’t started the whole thing. It was selfish and absurd, to contract this witch for a genie, a magic feat that would never succeed, except to provide humorous copy.

On the other hand, I told myself, a sheep was an incredible luxury for this family; the meat would feed them for weeks. Inflation was so high in Morocco that the poor could no longer afford to buy the traditional sheep for the big feast following Ramadan, a deep humiliation. Fatima’s brother always gave them one for the feast, but for the rest of the year they could only crave red meat.

The butcher let the animal fall to the ground; its legs galloped in the air, as if it was dreaming of its escape; slowing as the last of its blood surged out onto the tiled doorstep. “I’m sorry,” I whispered as I looked away. My eyes met Naíma’s, who gave me a look of sympathy.

Emerging with Khadija, her mother caught the look between us. As she spoke, Khadija translated: I should take Naíma with me to Marrakesh to be my maid; she was an excellent cook and fierce bargainer in the market, knew a lot of spells, plus it would be good for her to get out of the house and away from Khouribga. As two women alone, we could chaperone each other. Khadija thought it was a great idea, and Naíma’s eyes glowed with a desperate hope, so I agreed.

Fatima bent and touched two fingers to the pool of animal blood. She dabbed it under my heel, and then Naíma’s. “There,” she said. “Now you are blood sisters.”

The butcher dissected my sacrificial sheep. The entrails that would spoil right away were sped to the kitchen where Naíma went to work. Her kid brother manned the grill outside, the sheep’s head hit the fire and the smell of charred meat filled the night. Hungry-eyed neighbors drifted over and crowded into Fatima’s little salon.

For myself, I hadn’t eaten red meat or poultry in nine years, only fish. So I sat out the course when everyone snatched flesh from the sheep’s head, including the eyes, down to bare bone and clenched teeth. Then I was presented with spiced liver wrapped in intestine. I declined, but Fatima insisted: I had to eat at least one bite from the sheep or the spell wouldn’t work and my jinn wouldn’t come. And when is that scheduled to be? I asked. Khadija explained it would have to wait until everyone was asleep. I chewed bravely on one lump of liver; when I’d failed to reduce or alter its shape in any way, I swallowed it whole.

The dinner dragged on, after which someone with a boom box played Egyptian music and Fatima’s youngest daughter danced while the others clapped. Then they all watched “Star Trek” on the TV. At last the neighbors left and the younger kids went to bed.

By now it was midnight. Khadija and I were tired, with a two-hour drive back to Casablanca ahead of us. Nevertheless, the evening had only just begun.

Naíma set a table of food for the spirits – the jinnoon – a bowl of milk, a plate of dates and hard-boiled eggs, and mutton stew. Fatima told her to go to bed. Then the sehúra fetched a puffy caftan for me to put on, with a gaudy pattern of roses drizzled in gold metallic thread; and a wide gold belt. “What’s this for?” I asked.

Khadija said it was Naíma’s wedding outfit. “She says you are getting married to your jinn.”

I complained crankily, “She never said anything about marriage.”

“You have to, or he won’t be with you. Fatima says she had to marry her jinn, too. That’s how it works.”

I had to submit to makeup, too: kohl around my eyes, lipstick, blush. Then Fatima perched me on the banquette like a doll in tissue paper, lit some candles and turned off the overhead bulb. Seated at the table, she threw some herbs and sticky incense on the coals of a clay brazier. Khadija stretched out on the other banquette and immediately went to sleep. The cuckoo clock bird banged open its little door and went crazy chirping: midnight.

Fatima muttered some incantations and rocked on her seat. She threw pieces of dates at the door.  I yawned.

Silence. A half hour later, the bird racketed again.  Then the overhead light suddenly flicked on. Then off. One more time, on and off. Ooo, spooky. Is that the best she can do? I thought cynically: Naíma stands outside the door working the light switch? I supposed it was too much to expect they’d have a fog machine.

Yet, out of all reason, I started to be afraid. Outside the window, there were occasional sounds of a town at night: a cart rolling by, a motorbike in the distance, dogs ahowl, a donkey’s bray, an insomniac rooster. But here inside, in the dim candlelight, there was a small fat woman keening and mumbling, another woman asleep on the banquette, and something else…filling the room…

It’s your fear, I told myself.

And then Fatima’s eyes popped open, bulging; she gasped, moaned, her mouth twisted in a grimace of pain. She held her hands up as if to ward off something; then flinched, as if struck.

I shook Khadija’s shoulder. “What’s happening? Wake up!”

But Khadija was already awake, her eyes wide. Her breath rasped as she clutched her neck. She sat bolt upright and looked at Fatima.

The sehúra was whimpering and crying. She yelled angrily at Khadija in Arabic; my friend answered in cowed tones. Khadija then turned to me.

“Khadija, what the fuck is going on?!”

(To be continued.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 26

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


What did I want from a witch?

My first thought was: I need help with my book.

I’d had to submit the opening chapters of my second novel to my publisher before leaving for Morocco. Utterly fatigued from a four-year marathon of continuous writing (first novel, screenplay adaptation, and music and lyrics for a show), I felt I had nothing left. I forced myself to grind out the requisite pages nevertheless. The result was mechanical and pretentious, and no wonder: I was pretending I could write.  My editor had great faith in me anyway.

But I didn’t. And now it was time to make good on my contract, as well as meeting my own ambitious standards, inspiration seemed out of reach. George Sand, who had to churn out reams of romantic novels for her public, once lamented that she had worn out her muse; and now, when she appealed once again for inspiration, her muse came forward all painted up like a whore, delivering empty kisses and a cold embrace, as if faking sex with a client. (I’m paraphrasing from memory.)

My muse had been my grandfather’s spirit, and I felt as if he too had deserted me: absorbed back into the great cosmic continuum, or just gone on vacation. Maybe he’d balked at following me into Morocco, which was definitely not his kind of neighborhood. Maybe he was in Paris or Martha’s Vineyard. In any case, I missed and needed my beloved protector, his company, his comfort, his creative generosity, even his snits. I’d lost my shadow. Whom could I turn to now, to get genius?

To a genie. Natch! I was in the right place for it, after all. I’d done my reading. According to legend – and many Moroccans’ belief – the atmosphere of this country teemed with “jinnoon,” spirits that interacted with humans, beings made of fire and air that ranged from beneficent to demonic.  From the myths, I gathered that with careful diplomacy and clever negotiation, a “jinn” (genie) could be engaged to improve one’s situation. You know, get the palace, get the princess…or get the genius…

I turned to my friend Khadija: “Tell her I want a jinn.”

Khadija did a double take, reluctantly translated my request to the sehúra, then turned back to me: “You are a crazy girl! These things do not exist!” Which I thought was hilarious, coming from a woman who had just bought a magic potion to get rid of her boyfriend.

Fatima the witch interrupted, speaking sharply to Khadija, whose expression changed from scorn to bafflement. Again Khadijah translated, “She says you are not crazy, you are wise because if you have a jinn then you don’t need a witch anymore. He will do everything you want.”

I grinned at this. The conversation moved rapidly now, Khadija continuing to interpret the sehúra’s answers to my questions.

“She can do it but it will be expensive.”

I wasn’t surprised. “How much?”

It would be $100, plus $150 for the sheep.  

“What’s the sheep for?”

“To please her jinn. He’s the one who gives her powers.”

It was quite a lot of money for what I thought of as a mad lark. I knew I was being hustled, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see the “spell” to the end. I saw myself as doing deep reconnaissance inside the top-secret sorcery business. I was going gonzo. And it would all go into my book.

Khadija agreed to bring me back in a week so I could undergo the Big Spell. I forked over the money for the sheep, the rest to be paid after the ceremony. I think Fatima sensed I was not taking the whole thing entirely seriously. She assured me, “You will believe it when you see him with your own eyes! You will talk to him!”

“In English?”

“English, French, whatever you want. He will even make love to you.”

I wasn’t enthusiastic about the sex part. “Does it have to be a male spirit?”

“Female spirits are no good for a woman. You need a jinn who has recently left this life but he still wants to be attached, so he looks for someone alive to have a relationship with.”

I muttered to Khadija, “I just want help with my book. This is starting to sound like I’m getting a boyfriend. Ask her if he’s going to be the jealous type.”

“No, he will be very nice,” came the answer. “Unless he falls in love with you.”

“I’d like a homosexual.”

Khadija gave a little shriek. “No more! We are finished here!” She beckoned Asía: we’re outa here.

As we three got in the car, Khadija collapsed, laughing and banging her head on the steering wheel. “It’s too much! You talk about spirits like they are real people!”

“Some of them used to be,” I averred, thinking of my grandfather.

Upon our return to Casablanca, Asía went home to husband and kids, and Khadija unlocked her apartment next door. Entering, we stepped into darkness. The electricity had been turned off. Her boyfriend was eating some hardboiled eggs and dates the maid had left by candlelight. He admitted that he’d forgotten to give Khadija the utilities bill.

Fuming, Khadija asked me in English to sit with him and keep him distracted while she went into his closet. I kept up a running conversation with him in French while Khadija got busy applying the sehúra’s potion to the lining of his jackets and inside his shoes. If it worked, he would be gone from her apartment and her life forever, which couldn’t be soon enough for her.

Meanwhile the boyfriend was flirting with me in French, “You are so beautiful when you laugh.” Then he unexpectedly switched to English, which I didn’t think he knew a word of. He pronounced the words slowly and awkwardly: “I want to make love to you. I am Needledick the Bugfucker.”

“Khadija!” I shouted.

She came back in the room, having finished the ju-ju job.
  
“He just said, ‘I am Needledick the Bugfucker.’ Did you teach him that?”

“Yes, I told him it means ‘I am a great lover.’” Her boyfriend studied our expressions, wondering what we were saying. We kept our faces straight. She fed him a date, telling him in French, “Sarah isn’t interested in you. She’s getting a special boyfriend who isn’t there.” He looked puzzled. She added in English, “Just like you’re gonna be.”

(To be continued.)

Note: I’m able to report these experiences, including conversations, in such detail because I held onto my diaries from Morocco. It was the one and only time I’ve ever kept a journal, which I thought might be the makings of a book some day. I also knew that if I didn’t write everything down I would never believe any of it happened.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 25

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


The road to Khouribga was impossibly rutted. Khadija drove like a demon, her high-heeled French boot gluing the pedal to the floor; every time we hit a pothole my head bumped the ceiling of the Fiat. The only good roads in Morocco were in the areas where the King had palaces.

Asía rode up front beside Khadija; the two rattled on in Arabic, in a vitriolic tone; I assumed they were discussing the myriad ways in which they going to fuck over their men, with the help of this witch. The sehúra we were about to see had a reputation for efficient spells.

Meanwhile I sat in the backseat congratulating myself on my good fortune. I had my notebook ready: what a story! I’d managed to instill enough trust in these women that they were willing to bring me along on their mission; and I would get a rare glimpse into the secretive underworld of sorcery, which was highly illegal. Even fortunetelling was banned.

Though Moroccan Arabs and Berbers were committed Muslims, the animism that had filtered up from Africa long ago was inextricably entwined with their spiritual culture. Superstition, magic, and a thriving population of spirits jostled up against the seven pillars of Islam.

Basically the King had outlawed witchcraft to stop people from poisoning each other. The sehúrs were providing lethal substances folks could easily mix into their enemies’ food. I hoped that my two friends weren’t planning to go that far.

A hundred kilometers later we arrived at the cinderblock hovel where the sorceress lived. She was out visiting a client. We waited inside for her return. Obviously magic didn’t provide her with a lot of income: the rooms were cramped, furnishings humble, with the notable exception of a new TV and refrigerator, a European toilet, porcelain figurines of German shepherdesses, and a truly weird cuckoo clock that ejected a raucous wooden bird every fifteen minutes. These were all gifts from her brother, who lived in a better part of town and picked up presents for his sister when he traveled abroad on business.

The witch returned. Taking off her djellaba, she stripped to the short drawstring trousers that Berber women wore under everything, and sat crosslegged on the opposite banquette, feet tucked under her capacious bottom: a dumpy Buddha-like figure with traditional tattoos on her forehead and chin. Her gold teeth vigorously exercised a wad of bubble gum. Dangling from a chain around her ample neck was a gold hand of Fatima (the prophet’s daughter), a common Muslim talisman; two more hung from her ears. A lot of Moroccans didn’t use banks; they immediately converted their money into gold jewelry, wearing their savings accounts, so to speak.

The sehúra’s name was Fatima, too. Eyeing me suspiciously, she asked Khadija in Arabic what the hell she was doing, bringing along a “nasrani” (Christian). Khadija assured her that, not only could I keep a secret, but I was also a cardreader. She turned to me then with a big gold-flecked smile. So I was a fellow outlaw! To welcome me, she offered to read my cards for free.

Khadija translated patiently as Fatima did a couple of spreads, using a deck that seemed a cross between the Tarot and ordinary playing cards. “She says, there is a man coming into your life. Much love is there. You will have a lot of money soon.”

Later that year, when I had acquired a small Arabic vocabulary, and after I’d been to many more fortunetellers, I found that most readings boiled down to: “Man coming. Lots of money.” Or sometimes “Bad man coming. Takes your money.” It seemed that love and money were all their clients were interested in. I wasn’t there for either one. I only wanted a story, and so far Fatima was a very good one. Where it was going, I had no idea, but somehow it was going to enrich my writing, or at least make for some colorful dinner conversation when I got back to the U.S.

Fatima turned to Khadija next. “What is it you want?” Khadija explained her dire boyfriend situation.

Nodding, Fatima replied at length. I understood nothing; Fatima spoke neither French nor English. Khadija handed the witch a crumpled handkerchief from her purse, along with some money in payment.

Fatima asked Asía what she wanted. While Asía took her turn, Khadija filled me in: the sehúra had agreed to make Khadija a potion to be liberally applied to the insides of her boyfriend’s clothing and shoes. Once his skin came in contact with the potion, he would experience an overwhelming repulsion for her apartment. He would pack up and leave without delay. But Khadija should take care that no one else put on his clothes by accident, or that person would never come to her house again.

In order to concoct the potion, the witch required something from the boyfriend’s body, like hair, saliva: a sort of DNA sample. Khadija was prepared: she had brought a cloth she’d used to wipe off his semen after they made love the night before.

I looked up from our conversation to see Fatima was shaking her finger sternly in Asía’s face and talking animatedly. Khadija said the sehúra refused to do a spell for Asía; that if Asía’s husband gave her a divorce, she would lose everything: home, kids, security, and a man who in spite of everything loved her. The sad truth was, Asía’s life would never get any better than it was now.

Inwardly I had zero belief that Fatima’s magic spells actually worked, but I was impressed with the woman’s honesty, that she wouldn’t take the easy money and just give Asía what she wanted. And while I was thinking that, Fatima suddenly turned to me with an unexpected question.

“She’s asking you,” Khadijah said, “What do you want?”

(To be continued.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 24

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


I woke every morning at dawn to the sounds of mopeds, cartwheels rolling and donkeys braying as their owners, the tangerine farmers, thrashed them through narrow streets to the market. Household maids with trays of rounded dough on their heads hurried to the communal oven so there would be freshly baked loaves for their employers’ breakfasts. Then came the mint-sellers’ cries as they trundled their wheelbarrows full of the fragrant herb that, later in the morning, would infuse the hundreds of thousands of glasses of mint tea downed by thousands of Casablanca inhabitants throughout the day.

After breakfast, matrons emerged on the streets, heading for their married daughters’ houses for a morning of serious interfering. Their short veils, edged in lace, were tied under their noses to cover their mouths; they wore long djellabas over their clothes: gray and beige were in favor because this was a big city where the women considered themselves, relative to the rest of Morocco, sophisticated. Their daughters were so modern that they never wore djellabas at all or never spoke Arabic; they insisted on quarreling with their mothers in French.

A local tailor was making me a pink djellaba, which I would wear for the rest of the year. Not that I would ever blend in.

Wrapped in a blanket, listening to the street noise, I lay on some banquette cushions in Khadija’s living room. On the other banquette, her 15-year-old daughter slept on. I met Khadija through her cousin Ali, who worked in the local Citibank. I met Ali through my elder brother who was stationed in the Athens branch of Citibank. The Ali-Khadija connection tied me into a respected and very numerous family that extended into every major city in Morocco. Thus, wherever I went I had contacts.

My intention was to hole up in Marrakesh until the summer heat from the desert grew impossible, then move north to somewhere I hadn’t decided on. Khadija was going to drive me to Marrakesh and help me find an apartment. But her boss wouldn’t give her a week off until next month, so I was stuck in Casa for all of January.

I folded my blanket and rearranged the banquette. Khadija came in from her bedroom, the only other room in her small apartment, closing the door quietly so as not to wake her boyfriend. Khadija’s daughter, awake now, got on all fours to brush the carpet. Her mother lit her first cigarette of the day while waiting for the part-time maid to finish pummeling the laundry in the bathtub and bring in our breakfast. The new Bob Dylan cassette tape I brought her from America bawled from the hi-fi.

Khadija wasn’t used to having her daughter around. Her ex-husband got custody of their little girl after the divorce. Khadija had been sixteen when she married him. They divorced shortly after the baby was born but remained on amicable terms. Released from child-rearing, Khadija went back to school, learned English, and now had a good job working for a wealthy businessman related to the royal family.

As far as her own family was concerned, Khadija had done her social duty by getting married and producing at least one child, so they tolerated her increasingly modern behavior as she enjoyed the independence that only a divorced woman was permitted. They even accepted her live-in boyfriend, largely because he played on the Moroccan soccer team and was therefore tantamount to a prince.

Khadija’s neighbor Asía joined us for breakfast. Her husband had gone to work; she left her kids with her maid. Asía envied Khadija a lot; she would’ve given anything to be divorced. She too had been married at sixteen. Her brother picked out one of his friends to be her husband, extolling his virtues: “He’s well-mannered, hard-working, makes a good salary, doesn’t smoke or drink or chase women or boys. You are very lucky.”

Asía protested, “You mean he doesn’t know how to have fun!” Twelve years and three children later, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She never let him touch her, told him she didn’t love him, but still he wouldn’t consent to a divorce. His attitude was: why should he go through all the trouble and expense of getting another wife, when his life was just the way it should be, and the way things usually were, in Morocco? That is, not so good and not so bad.

Asía was quite downhearted. To make things worse, her affair with Khadija’s ex-husband wasn’t going very well.

Khadija didn’t love her boyfriend anymore either. He seldom made love to her, stayed out late, filled her living room with his rowdy teammates without asking her permission or paying for the food they expected; and, like them, he was stupid. He had “shit for brains.” She loved this American expression I taught her. But the one that really had her rolling on the carpet was “Needledick the Bugfucker,” so she called him that as well as “shit for brains” to his face, howling with laughter because he didn’t understand English.

Khadija told the soccer hero a hundred times: it’s over. He was unimpressed. His attitude was: why should he move out of her apartment where he lived rent-free and the maid washed his clothes?

Both Khadija and Asía wanted me to read their cards. They’d asked me to read for them every morning since I arrived. By now I was bored with it, and I couldn’t believe they weren’t bored, too, because their future didn’t change much from day to day. But that was exactly their frustration: they wanted their lives to change.

Waiting for a miracle wasn’t practical. As I mentioned, these were modern, sophisticated women. So they told me their plan. Khadija would borrow a car from her boss and take the day off on some pretext. Asía would lie to her husband about where she’d be all day. Then they would drive to Khouribga, a mining town about two hours from Casa.

What’s in Khouribga? I asked.

Khadija put her index finger to her lips, the universal gesture for strict secrecy. She told me they were going to see a “sehúra” – a witch.

Did I want to come?

(To be continued.)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 23

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


January of ‘79, I prepared for the coming year in Morocco.

Problem: there were snakes there. But I reasoned that I would not be alone. I’d made some Moroccan contacts on my previous recon trip. I could avoid the snakes by walking behind someone.

I’d given my address to nobody, because I didn’t have one yet. I completely understood those dudes who joined the Foreign Legion, fleeing some failure or dishonor at home, to get as far away as possible, preferably the ends of the earth where no one would notice if you fell off. I would be beyond the reach of show biz, without even a telephone. In the North African desert, chances were good that you wouldn’t run into your ex-lover, agent, producer, editor, or someone asking, “Whatever happened to that show you were doing?”

I had no desire to be around Caucasians of any kind. I wanted to meet Arabs.

My fascination with them dated way back to the first time I saw “Lawrence of Arabia,” which is, in my view, a movie without flaw. However, after my recon visits to the Emirates, Yemen, and Tunisia, I’d found that Arabs were a fairly private lot. One’s home life was hidden behind green doors and high walls. One’s self was screened as well. An outsider had to grope through infinite layers of veils.

What could get me invited inside? That’s where the Tarot cards came in.

I first started learning Tarot from Frank Andrews because I wanted to be psychic, too: to know, to feel, to “see” events and details in another person’s life; to acquire that certain spookiness. Although I didn’t get those powers, when I practised reading people’s cards I did notice something curious. First of all, they really enjoyed being the sole object of attention. Then, if the reading turned up something personal, even secret, they were fascinated and disarmed that I’d seen through them: there was an instant intimacy. At that point, the mask would fall away, and they started confiding things they would ordinarily never tell a stranger. And for a writer, people’s stories are paydirt.

The awkward part of the reading was when it came time to predict the outcome. Sometimes the answer was obvious, and not necessarily positive. Was it such a good thing for them to know in advance? I had the option of lying, but then the prediction would be wrong, and I hate like anything to be wrong.

One time (1980) when I was staying at a hotel in Haiti I read for an American entrepreneur who was about to buy a big parcel of land for sugarcane and the manufacture of his own brand of rum. All his money would be tied up in the venture. He asked if his investment would turn out well. The outcome cards were familiar; I’d seen them before when I’d read for the hotel owner’s wife. I told him to back out of the deal; there was a time of huge upheaval ahead. I stopped short of the word catastrophe because I could see how upset he was by my answer. He went on a three-day bender and then bought the land anyway.

Years later, I ran into the hotel owner’s wife in New York. They had sold the business and ankled Haiti before dictator Baby Doc Duvalier sowed total chaos; all the hotels eventually shuttered and foreign investors fled. She said she often remembered my prediction. I wondered if that businessman got out with his skin.

One time in the mid-80’s I had a job rewriting the script for “Nine and ½ Weeks” and the director Adrian Lyne asked me to read his cards. Shooting hadn’t begun but already the project had been through the wringer. Tri-Star Studios had cancelled production only three weeks before start of principal photography; some higher-up had actually read the script and freaked out that the studio was on the hook to make a porn film.

The producers raced around Europe, slapping together the money from foreign distributors while Adrian suffered through the suspense. He was fresh off the monster success of “Flashdance,” and to have his next movie cancelled was humiliating. In the eleventh hour, the money arrived, production could begin, but Adrian was already a nervous wreck.

He asked me to tell him how the film would turn out. I hesitated. “Are you sure you want to know before you’ve even begun?” I asked.

“Sure.” Adrian was nothing if not reckless.

I had him shuffle and cut the deck. I laid out the six cards which would give him the answer. Even now I remember three of the cards very well.

 
        


I said, “Be very careful of your physical well-being, or you’ll totally deplete your energy.” (Eight of Pentacles.) “The critics will beat you up” (Nine of Swords) “but the movie will make huge amounts of money” (Ten of Pentacles). Adrian only focused on my forecast of the critics’ reaction; he got very depressed and was heartily sorry he’d asked.

During the shoot Adrian was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. When the movie came out theatrically in America, the reviews were scathing and no one went to see it. In Europe, on the other hand, it was a massive hit, an instant classic, played for years, made buckets of money, and when it came out on video in the U.S. it was a cash cow all over again.

I wasn’t all that good at Tarot, but sometimes the cards were dead clear.

And so I packed my things for my year in North Africa: my Olivetti Underwood typewriter, a ream of yellow paper, three pairs of shoes, a small wardrobe of entirely pink clothes (for some reason I’ve forgotten, this was part of my forging a new identity), and my Tarot cards, which would serve as my key to the inner lives of Moroccans.

How would it all turn out? I wondered in my excitement to get gone. I gave myself a reading, even though fortunetellers are notoriously bad at taking their own advice.

         

Seven of Pentacles: a long trip. The World: abroad. I pretended not to see the third card, the Six of Swords: a stern warning against recklessness. Like Adrian, I wanted to know but I really didn’t.

 (to be continued.)