An internet myth or the world’s best kept soccer secret? I traveled to Tunisia to find out.
As we descended on Tunis, the largest city in Tunisia, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful landscape and architecture of the ancient city of Carthage — just to the east of Tunis-Carthage International Airport. Carthage, the center of the ancient Carthaginian civilization, east of Lake Tunis, was a major hub in the ancient times, known for its vast denim and silk markets. I found myself at peace imagining these times: People scurrying from tent to tent, exchanging silk for denim, denim for silk and silk for denim.
Despite being fresh out of Columbia’s prestigious journalism program and the son of an Oil Baron, I wasn’t in Tunisia to learn anything about myself. I traveled to this oft-forgotten nation in northern Africa in search of a young man. Rokaku, said to be somewhere between 19 and 24 years old and the country’s best young soccer player, had made quite the name for himself on various soccer message boards.
Dubbed by many as “Ronaldo 2.0”, Rokaku’s origins are unknown. According to posters on the website Reddit, Rokaku’s height is greater than that of any other human and his speed can only be matched by a 2009 Honda Accord traveling 75 miles per hour.
Legend has it that Escanciedo Ortiz, infamous scout for Real Madrid, once traveled to Tunisia to scout Rokaku, only to return days later with the brain madness. Escanciedo hasn’t been able to speak coherently since.
Finding Rokaku would be my big break, and perhaps his. Premier soccer teams from around the world had recently attempted to contact Rokaku, but to no avail.
I would be the man who finally connected this mythical beast with the civilized world.
I was greeted at the airport by Demblano — a Tunisian man in his thirties with a thin mustache and the hunched over walk of an elderly woman in her final days.
“Give me the bags,” Demblano demanded. “We have to get you to the embassy.”
He spoke no further, ripping two bags from my sweaty hands and shuffling past me toward the exit, his pudgy frame colliding with people and abandoned kiosks that impeded his path.
“Sir, what is your name?” I shouted, speed walking to catch up to him.
“Moussa,” he replied.
His name confused me. He didn’t look much like a Moussa, at least not like the Moussa I had encountered at a coffee shop in Soho some weeks earlier.
“You look like a Demblano, and so that is what I will call you.”
He stopped walking, turned and scanned me from head to toe, mumbled something in Swahili and returned to his brisk pace. I could tell he was somewhat annoyed by my presence, but then so were several of my girlfriends upon first meeting me. I wasn’t concerned about our business relationship in the slightest.
Demblano’s car was a hideous beige color, one that prompted the gag reflex in my throat to act up. The car, missing the passenger-side front door and its’ floor littered with cigarettes, must have had some sort of sentimental value. I couldn’t at the time, and still at this moment cannot, imagine that a person would drive a vehicle in such vile condition otherwise.
Breathing heavily after the walk from Terminal C to his car, Demblano heaved my bags onto the passenger seat and pointed to the back door: “That is where you sit. I sit in the front.”
One of the first rules taught at Columbia is that manners are of the utmost importance.
“Thank you, Demblano,” I responded, proudly displaying my Ivy manners on foreign soil and feeling as though I was chosen by Christ himself to serve as a diplomat for our great nation.
As Demblano sped off, my right foot had not yet entirely entered the car. Initially, I feared the foot would be a causality in my quest for journalistic glory, but it eventually made its way into the car when I lifted my leg and moved it inside the rattling automobile struggling to maintain a speed of 25 mph.
I leaned back against the seat, its’ leather worn heavily, and studied the barren streets as we zoomed past. For a capital city with such a high number of inhabitants, I was surprised at the lack of nightlife.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Demblano replied.
“The streets, they are empty. Where are the people?”
“It is 3 in the morning. Everyone is asleep. The only person besides myself who is still out and about is probably Ramzi, the city partyer.”
“Ramzi?” I asked.
“He drinks all day and all night. The women, they hate Ramzi. But that doesn’t stop him. He continues to party.”
Demblano took his hands off the wheel and reached into his pocket. The car, slowly drifting into the oncoming lane, continued to speed along. I was not nervous, though, as Columbia teaches its’ student’s that the likelihood of being killed in a car crash is relatively low, at least in comparison to dying from heart disease.
After some time, Demblano removed a crumpled picture from his pocket and handed it back to me. He muttered something in Swahili before focusing his attention on regaining control of the drifting car, which was now on the opposite side of the road.
“Do you see the woman in that picture?” he asked.
I unfolded the photo. It was faded, but I could see the outline of a beautiful Tunisian woman in a lavish golden dress.
“Yes,” I responded, confirming to my associate Demblano that I did indeed see the woman he was speaking about.
I paused, studying her beauty; Finding myself enamored with her stunning looks.
“Is this your wife?” I asked.
“No, that is my cousin Nessrine. She is the most beautiful woman in Tunis.”
“Oh. I see. She’s very pretty. Is she married and can I keep this picture?”
The question struck a nerve. Demblano slammed on the brakes, my head flying forward and crashing into the headrest. I remained composed for the most part, as my teachings at Columbia had advised, but upon noticing my Coco Chanel travel bags had fallen out of the car, I was less than pleased.
“Those bags were a gift from Bennett Van Allen you buffoon! He’s a very important oil baron and dear friend of my father!” I shouted.
Demblano, frustrated, pounded his hands against the steering wheel.
“I am sorry, sir. I just — yes, she is married. To my brother Tarek.”
Demblano exited the car, raced to pick up my bags, a gift from Bennett Van Allen, and placed them back inside.
Sweating profusely and struggling to fasten his seatbelt, Demblano turned to me.
“She was the love of my life. I met her when I was four and from that day I knew that I wanted to marry her. But Tarek — Let’s just say Tarek is a bastard.”
Demblano took a moment to compose himself.
“He is the best singer in Tunis. I could not match his talents. My only skill is fixing bicycles.”
Reaching back into his pocket, Demblano removed yet another crumpled piece of paper and handed it to me.
“Here, take on of my business cards.”
I did my best to flatten it. It was a proper business card: 16-point cardstock to be exact. In a fine cursive font, it read: “Moussa the Bike Man. You Break The Bike, I Fix The Bike.”
“Thank you, Demblano,” I said. “I’ll be sure to frame this, or scan it, or share it on Instagram or whatever.”
I sat in silence, looking at the picture of Nessrine. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
We didn’t speak another word en route to the embassy.
I had spoken with Dylan Cooper, the United States’ ambassador to Tunisia, on the phone minutes before my flight from New York City to Paris departed. Dylan was in high spirits at the time, telling me that he couldn’t wait to meet a fellow Ivy League graduate and help me in my quest to meet Rokaku.
Upon arriving at the embassy, Dylan was nowhere to be found. His sleeping quarters were vacant. His secretary’s post had been abandoned. There was no trace of his wife and two daughters.
Demblano assured me that Dylan was still in Tunis, perhaps staying at a hotel downtown, too tired after a show to return home.
“He is probably staying a hotel downtown, too tired after a show to return home,” Demblano assured me.
“Thank you, Demblano. That has reassured me.”
“My name is Moussa.”
Once again muttering in Swahili, Demblano shuffled past me and into the living room where he pointed to a large L-shaped sofa.
“We can rest here until Mr. Cooper returns.”
I was exhausted, having only slept 11 hours between the two flights it took me to reach Tunis.
Sinking into the silk couch cover, I closed my eyes and thought about my father. How his expensive cowboy boots noisily clonked as he shuffled around the kitchen trying to find his mysterious second cell phone. I thought about my mother, Suzanne, and my step-mother Linda, both instrumental in my growth as a man. I even owed a debt of gratitude to Nicole and Sapphire, my father’s personal assistants, who in their own right had helped me become a man: Nicole with her wisdom and access to street narcotics and Sapphire with her penchant for sexual interaction at a discounted price.
As I found myself remembering, in vivid detail, the nights I spent with Sapphire, I heard the giggling of young women from outside.
At first I thought it was my fantasy playing out, but I suddenly realized it was in fact real life. In order to quell the raging tide in my Calvin Klein sleepwear I began thinking about fire trucks. I grabbed Demblano on the shoulder in order to wake him up. His eyes shot open and he placed both of his hands firmly around my neck.
“Never wake me up again if you want to live. And my name is Moussa.”
I had never seen Demblano react so violently before. Suffice to say it startled me just a bit and I began to wonder if my hired guide was a loose cannon.
As the keys jiggled against the door, we could hear the women growing impatient.
“Hurry up, Dylan. I’m becoming impatient,” one of the female voices said.
“Chill, this is where I sleep,” a slurred voice said, finally finding the right key and whipping the door open.
Demblano perked up. “Dylan! Is that you?” he hollered.
“Moussa? I can’t see you and I can’t find the light switch. I’m sloshed.”
Demblano ran over to Dylan, smothering him with a hug.
“Dylan, my brother, how have you been?”
“Moussa, my dear friend, I have had so much to drink. Do you see these two women with me?”
Unbeknownst to Dylan, the women had walked past him and into the kitchen.
“Wait — where did the women go? Ladies, did you leave papa bear already?”
One of the women, tall, thin and curling pitch-black hair around her index finger peaked out from the kitchen and into the hallway.
“We’re still here, handsome. Do you have any seafood?”
Dylan shot me a glance, his wide grin fighting to extend beyond his face.
“Oh, I’ve got some seafood for you, darling.”
I could tell Dylan was going for a sexual innuendo, but much like his brief attempt to take off his shoes, it failed to succeed.
The woman, still twirling her hair, reappeared from the kitchen.
“No, really, do you have anything to eat? Cassandra only eats seafood.”
Dylan had a noticeable swagger to him, reminiscent of a cast member from the popular MTV series Jersey Shore, only if the cast members were fifty-four and not in their late twenties.
Dylan confidently sported spiked hair that didn’t match his age, a poorly balanced spray tan and a sleeveless shirt that was far too tight for a physique that, while formerly admirable in its heyday, had dropped off considerably.
Dylan and Demblano conversed for some time as the women ate a microwaved fish and chips dinner. At one point I heard them talking about seagulls and how if their souls could be reborn they’d come back as seagulls. I passed out shortly after.
I awoke to find Dylan standing over me.
“You must be Raymond. Apologies for not introducing myself last night.”
“No worries,” I responded.
“Great. Well, I’m going into town. I’ve compiled some files for you on the table. They should help in your search for Rokaku.”
I went to shake his hand, but he seemed oblivious to my act and walked to the open door.
“Demblano will be coming with me for the day, so another driver will be taking you to Rokaku’s home. Best of luck.”
He walked off into the dry Tunisian heat. I yawned and sat up, looking back and noticing I appeared to shit myself in my sleep.
As I walked to the bathroom to clean up, I noticed a tiny man sitting in the kitchen, wearing headphones, bobbing his head back and forth and quietly rapping to himself in Swahili.
“Excuse me,” I said.
There was no response.
“Excuse me, sir!”
“LOOK AT ME YOU MORON!”
He took off the headphones and turned around.
“Are you my driver?” I asked.
“My name is Ramzi and I like to party.”
Smiling, Ramzi pulled a tiny baggy from his shorts pocket and tossed it my way.
“Do you like to party?”
“Yes, Ramzi, I occasionally party.”
Fiddling through the bag to find a pill that I felt confident in, I felt a thud against my forehead and the clank of metal on the ceramic tile below: It was a set of car keys.
“I’m too drunk to drive. Let’s go meet this Rokaku guy.”
I grabbed my driving hat from my suitcase and headed outside, where Ramzi was already sitting in the passenger seat, blasting his favorite Swahili rap song and calling out to me:
“Hey, how many chicks do you think we can fit in this car?”
Rumbling along the dirt highway that connected Tunis to the village Rokaku called home, I found Ramzi to be quite good company. Every bass drop caused him to violently rock back and forth in his seat, his long, wavy black hair crashing against the dashboard.
He was wearing a white dress shirt, but only the bottom two buttons were done up, leaving the entirety of his hairy chest exposed. It was a look he proudly referred to as the “Persian Sex Triangle.”
As we reached the outskirts of Tunis, Ramzi turned the volume down and turned to me:
“How does a man know he’s a good kisser?”
The question caught me off-guard, which isn’t typical of a Columbia graduate, but nevertheless happens to the best of us from time to time.
“What do you mean?” I responded, breaking the minute or so of silence.
“Like, when Ramzi kisses a lady, how do I know if she‘s enjoying it’?”
“I don’t know, Ramzi. That’s a good question.”
I sharply cut the wheel, violently pulling the car to the left of a crater-sized pothole in the road.
“I guess we just have to hope the person we’re with is enjoying it as much as we are,” I finished.
“I suppose. I just — I just wonder if I’m good enough for some of these women. Like you see me, you know I’m a party boy. Everyone knows Ramzi is a party boy.”
His speech momentarily interrupted by a burp and a slight vomit.
Wiping his face clean with his sleeve he began speaking again:
“It’s no secret I’m good with ladies. But at the end of the day, I’m just looking for someone to connect with. Someone I can love.”
He sighed and rolled up the window manually, using a crank that I’d only seen in cars in 80s movies.
“Do you know what I’m saying?” he asked, before vomiting out the window, rocks and dust kicking up into his face.
In fact, I knew exactly what Ramzi was saying, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of thought: My ex-girlfriends, the laundry list of women I’d had one night stands with, women I’d desired to sleep with only to wind up as mere friends. I had never experienced even the slightest inkling of anything beyond primitive lust with any of them.
I snapped back to reality when I heard Ramzi speak.
“Hey, look. It’s Rokaku.”
I looked up at the road, noticing a tall man standing some 10 feet in front of the car, looking at us with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze.
I turned to Ramzi, the car still rolling along.
Before Ramzi could answer, there was a scream, followed by a loud thud and the breaking of glass.
On the hood of the car lay a tall, frail, bloodied man. Police informed me the man’s name was Rokaku Mehdi — he was 6-foot-4 inches and was considered by many to be the village idiot.
I asked about the reports of Escanciedo Ortiz scouting Rokaku, only to return to Real Madrid with the brain madness. The officer informed me that Mr. Ortiz had watched Rokaku attempt to dribble a soccer ball for only a few minutes, before returning to the airport, where he ate some undercooked fish and later developed Cholera on the return flight.
The officer further informed me that Rokaku didn’t know the basic rules of soccer, nor did anyone in his village for that matter. He was known to pick up the ball and run it into the goal, reminiscent of an American football player. Much larger than the other children, and seemingly surrounded by a sea of stupidity, he was considered a soccer protégé — and his legend quickly grew in both Tunisia and the world beyond thanks to word of mouth and a vastly growing community of internet message boards.
I was able to thank Ramzi for his time and friendship before police escorted him downtown, where he’d be charged with driving under the influence and vehicular homicide. Ramzi did his best to plead his case, saying that I was in fact the one driving the car, but the police insisted he had been the one driving.
“This gives us an excuse to lock him up for a while,” one of the officer’s said to me. “He bothers the women.”
Thankfully, I was never asked to provide a statement nor seen as accomplice in the death of a Tunisian national.
As the engines roared on my return flight to Paris, I realized my limited interactions with Ramzi, and the others I’d met in my brief stay in Tunisia, had taught me a lot about myself.
As the plane ascended into the blue sky above, I looked out at the ruins of Carthage and thought about Demblano and his unrequited love for his cousin, Nessrine. Demblano, now miserable and not married, had never put himself out there. He never took that leap of faith that so many of us are forced to make day after day. Instead of perhaps living the life he dreamed of, he spent the majority of his days reminiscing about the woman of his dreams, fixing bicycles and watching instructional videos starring Susan Boyle.
I didn’t want to wind up like Demblano, looking back on my life and thinking about what could have been. I needed to start taking action. After all, I went to Columbia.
I pulled the shade down, separating myself from the African nation I had called home for less than 24 hours. I pressed my head back against the head rest and closed my eyes. Images of the nights I’d spent with Sapphire clouded my thoughts. I missed her. I missed her drawer of toys — especially the long beige one. I missed the way she’d climb on top of me and demean me, pointing out my greatest insecurities with uncanny accuracy.
As soon as I landed in Paris, I decided, I would call Sapphire and see if she wanted to hang out when I returned to New York.