It was the kid with a live stork in his arms that stopped us.
The baked-stone desert of southern Morocco had been sliding past our car windows for an hour, without a sign of life. Suddenly here was this boy standing behind a brown car with its hood up. The pink-legged stork in his embrace was almost as tall as the 5- or 6-year-old. A grown-up, presumably the driver, was waving us down. But I braked our rented Peugeot 406 for the stork.
"We've gotta help," I said.
"No," my wife said, "the guidebooks say don't stop." But my brother and his wife both agreed. "No, no. Stop, stop."
The Moroccan ran up and explained, in French that only my sister-in-law, Karin, could understand, that he needed us to take a message for help to his brother Mohammed at an Elf-Afrique gas station near Ouarzazate. Ouarzazate was 20 miles beyond our planned side trip to the mud fortress of Ait Benhaddou, which was a must-see in all our guidebooks. "You can do that later," the guy begged.
"Ask about the stork," I said to Karin. "Oh that," said the Moroccan, leaning halfway through the back window to impress Karin with his plight. "It's a pet that lives in the boy's garden--you want to see it?"
No, no, that's all right, we say.
We drive off with the guy's note. In a few minutes, my brother Dave says, "What we need to do now is stop the car, put up the hood, flag down the next vehicle, and hand him this note."
Laughter. But we're Samaritans now. So we find the Elf-Afrique station. The gas-pump jockey tells Karin, with a wave, that Mohammed is over there, across the street.
I tank up and see a guy walking our message for help back across the street to the gas station. Karin returns, saying Mohammed is so grateful to us for helping his brother that he has asked us for tea. How can we resist?
Mohammed is a lean, tall 30-year-old with a hawkish nose, wearing a midnight-blue turban and sky-blue hooded gown. He is incredibly handsome and gracious. In a flood of French and a little English, he says he's a Taureg, just back from the Sahara, visiting his brother before starting out on caravan again, and he can't thank us enough.
Mohammed then ushers us through the curtained glass front door of the house. We're asked to remove our shoes--the custom, Mohammed explains. We find ourselves in a large room piled with carpets.
"Uh, oh," I grunt to Dave.
Morocco is clogged with carpet shops; we've been in the country a week and have seen more than our fill.
Mohammed dismisses the rugs as his brother's wholesale stock, part of which Mohammed himself brings back on purchasing trips in the Sahara among the Tauregs. At his invitation, we settle into the carpets. Mohammed's conversation runs to praise for Allah for bringing us to his brother's aid, descriptions of his wife and children, of his caravans and of his favorite camels, complete with photos of the camels and family. "Camels for the voyage of today, a wife for the voyage of life," says Mohammed.
I'm noticing that his sandaled feet and his hands are remarkably unweathered and uncallused for a guy who spends most of the year in the desert. But what do I know? We're all charmed. Mohammed is touching Karin lightly on the arm by now, and, amid the flow of his eloquence, he turns to Dave and says: "This is a beautiful, beautiful woman. For her I will give you 1,000 camels."
Hilarity all around. Karin, a professional designer, asks about the country's four tribal rug styles--Taureg, Berber, Harradin and Bedouin. Two rounds of Morocco's sweet, mint-steeped tea are consumed. God is praised and many an inshallah ("If God wills") is spoken. We learn a lot about rugs. Then Mohammed says: "This has been so wonderful, I'd like to sell you a carpet, wholesale, as a souvenir of our encounter."
Mohammed begins reshowing some of the rugs Karin had admired. I'm incredulous. Karin has already bought two rugs. Sometime during their discussion, the brother whom we rescued passes through the room. He's wearing a faint smile. Suddenly Mohammed is offering Karin a doubly steep discount if she will give him the black jacket that she's wearing--for his wife. He grabs the jacket. We roar with laughter. He tries the jacket on. We laugh harder. Then he asks for the light sweater she's wearing underneath, and plucks at the sleeve. We laugh harder still.
Karin, irresolute, gets to her feet. She's trying to leave--"I really don't want to buy another rug. Maybe tomorrow." But we can't seem to tear away. More talk and laughter. We've been here two hours. I'm eager to find a hotel for the night. Ouarzazate's a fairly small place, and it's a holiday.
Amused and exasperated, I astonish myself by announcing, "Look, I'll buy the rug. Your final 2,500 dirham [about $254 U.S.] offer, plus one of my shirts. But you can't have her jacket."
"What shirt?" Mohammed demands. I can barely believe this. I go out to the car and get a well-worn basket-weave olive shirt out of my suitcase. Mohammed tries it on. He extends his arms to assess it.
"Bon," he says, "It's a deal." Laughing, we high-five a handshake.
Outside, I'm pleased but peeved. I suspect in my heart that the whole thing was a setup. "Oh yeah," agrees Dave. Karin and my wife are furious with us for saying this. They insist we made a real rescue; everything else just happened.
"You're disgusting cynics," says my wife.
"How'd his brother know who'd stop?" asks Karin. "How'd he know we wouldn't have room for him in our car?"
It does seem incredible that two men (plus the boy) can make a living selling rugs in the middle of the desert, using a gimmick that can divert at most two or three potential buyers a day, to a house that bears no outward sign of being a shop and that is located several miles south of the small tourist center in Ouarzazate.
"Why was Mohammed's brother driving around the desert with the boy and a three-foot-high stork?" I ask Karin.
"Look, you bought the rug," she says. "What about Mohammed's business card?"
I look at the card Mohammed gave us. It said he was Ali Yassine (like many Moroccan men, he uses the name Mohammed when dealing with foreigners), manager of Caravane du Sud, Zagora 45900 Morocco. Drop him a line if you want to arrange a camel caravan into the Sahara--or to buy a rug.
Rich Thomas is a contributing editor of Newsweek.