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On the subject of he who’s favoured by Allah
Sometimes I don’t know how the rent for this room is paid at the end of the month, or even at the end of two months. Often “Ghanu” pays it for us. She doesn’t like the name Ghanu so she calls herself Gigi. She’s my girlfriend. I don’t know if she has been unfaithful to me with the other three guys, although I think that’s impossible because there’s a certain respect between us. At least that is what I‘ve felt when I was tempted by any of my friends’ women. I couldn’t do it even if they put a noose round my neck. And what’s more, I’m not one of those men Tolstoy talks about in The Kreutzer Sonata.
I haven’t read many books but the one I admire the most is The Kreutzer Sonata. I read it, and then read it again. People say that to understand a particular book well, you must have the Baccalaureat. That’s not true. I often have discussions with college students but they think like children. I didn’t get a diploma. My Romanian teacher expelled me after giving me a zero in Physics two terms running. It seemed I was an undesirable young man, and I should give up my school place to another student, particularly as the country was going through a tough time, with fewer schools, and a reduction in medicines for families in the clinics and hospitals – but it doesn’t matter. Everyone is born with blessings. I don’t need what the Arabic language lecturer dictated to us, “Understand everything and have faith”, because I have faith without understanding. No-one will be able to steal it or take it away from me because I was born with blessings. So the Romanian teacher clutches at dust or the zero she awarded me. And so I live.
Ghanu said: “You have your daily bread, in spite of not working. I’ve never seen a man as fortunate as you. That’s why I love you and will keep loving you until we die together.”
It is important that I don’t die hungry. Ghanu sometimes buys me clothes, and friends buy me cigarettes. We eat from the same table, and I don’t pay a single penny for food. The owner of the pharmacy where I was working acted as go-between to help me rent this room on the flat roof of a five-storey building. The room is neither narrow nor wide. However, the toilet is located in one corner of the terrace, which is very uncomfortable, especially in winter and when someone wakes in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature. It has a sort of kitchen where one or sometimes two of us sleep. One day the pharmacist came with me to see the room. She raised her eyes to the tin roof and saw some holes, which later she told me how to cover up. She had a good look in every corner, and then through the door to the toilet outside.
“Now you are comfortable. After this you will not arrive late for work from Mabruka. You will earn money, you will save, and you will have children in this comfortable home.”
“Thank you. This is what I was looking for. A place like this is better than sleeping in a cramped house with seven brothers breathing on me every night.”
But after a year of working for her the owner of the pharmacy dismissed me. She said it was a disgrace and it was not possible for the family to be affected by a scandal of this kind. Her sister could not love a poor employee like me. And I didn’t know if she really did love me. It was not obvious to me from her behaviour. But we understood one another. We discussed everything. She used to say to me: “You must be a Marxist. The dog’s life you live is not worthy of a young man like you.”
The owner of the pharmacy dismissed me in spite of me trying to explain everything to her. “Those adolescent girls don’t know where to put their feet,” she said to me. “When she grows up she will know what kind of mistake she made.”
“But she didn’t make any mistake. She’s a good-hearted and intelligent girl.”
“That doesn’t mean anything to me.”
I tried to look for another job in one of the pharmacies, without success. In the first months Hassan was the one who paid the rent and paid for the food. It bothered him a lot because he had been sending money to his family in Meknes. Things began to get easier when Dahu and Al-Mukhantar (the Idiot) came to live with us. Later I got to know Gigi and she decided that she loved me and that she would live with us. This is a wonderful thing – everyone is born with blessings. A man can have faith without understanding. No-one can take it away or steal it. The hands of the Romanian teacher and the pharmacy owner grasp only zero or dust.
My father, who sells rotten vegetables in the Al-Hufra market, cannot feed all those mouths. Everything gets more and more expensive. Four brothers who don’t go to school because he can’t pay for them. They always loaf about, fighting or dealing drugs to children their own age. And the two others are not brilliant in their studies.
“You have to study. You are the eldest. You must get a job with the government so you can help me,” my father used to say.
As for my mother: “Your father is no longer in good health. He throws half his rotten vegetables on the dump. You must become a policeman so that your mother can hold her head up in the neighbourhood. Your brothers are always being unfairly treated by the other children. They need someone to stand up for them.”
But, unfortunately, the Romanian could not achieve their hopes for me. I tore up the notice of my expulsion from school and ran away from home. When I found the job with the pharmacy I returned. A little thing is better than nothing. It was impossible for me to feed all those mouths. I had no idea how my mother and father did it. I ran away again.
The Hajja, the owner of the building, tried to evict me after the pharmacist dismissed me, but I stood my ground. It was impossible. Where would I go? Two things a human being has to hang on to – his home in life, and his tomb in death. A home is everything for man, in life and in death. I was trying to work out my problem with her while she tried to intimidate me with someone who had muscles like a Roman wrestler. I met him on the stairs but didn’t speak to him. She claimed he was her son, but people talked about another relationship between them. That was not inconceivable. And one of the neighbours said one day: “What do you expect from a Jew who’s become a Moslem?”
Then an old man said: “Jews become Moslem to have children by Moslems and so strengthen their nation. During the week they wear djellaba and pointed slippers and turban and go to the mosque, but on Saturday they change their clothes and go to the synagogue.”
“I never heard about that.”
“I know them well. I’m older than you and I’ve lived with them in the old town of Hawari since my childhood.”
More than once the Hajja incited that mule against me, and I steered clear of him, as his body was three times my size. Once when he had drunk a whole bottle of wine, he kept kicking my door all night: “Come out, you dog, so I can cut your neck from your body. Did your father leave this room to you in his will? Is it true, you son of a . . . You swear at your landlady, the Hajja, and talk about her in that wicked way?”
For many long hours I tried not to worry about his raging and kicking the door. Then he left, only to come back again even more agitated. And then the noise abated once more. But he came back at three in the morning. The words from the mouth of that mule were slurred from the alcohol. He was pushing at the door and swearing. I couldn’t control myself. I reached for an iron bar that was near the shower, took up position and opened the door. I didn’t know what I was doing. One on the head and the other on the shoulder and another in the air. In the dim light coming through the door the mule fell to the ground in front of me. I threw the iron bar back into the room, went up to him and grabbed him by the hair. I could hear him raving and cursing, and shouting that tomorrow morning he would kill me.
Prison or murder no longer bothered me, but I refused to accept that dog’s life. I remembered “Be a Marxist” but I di d not know anything about Marxism. I have read those things and didn’t understand them. Murder or prison is the same thing.
I had lost everything even though I had not had anything in the first place. This mule, he eats and drinks and sleeps with his mother, the Hajja. If I went with him to prison, he would be deprived of those pleasures of his. Any mule enjoys eating and sleeping and drinking, and making love.
I heard the footsteps of a woman on the stairs so I moved away from that large broad body. I stood at the door of the room, blocking some of the pale light now spreading across the roof. I heard the Hajja’s voice:
“Omar . . . Omar . . . Answer me, where are you?
The Hajja’s head appeared, and she screamed: “Hell!! What have you done, you son of a bitch? Have you killed him? You’ll pay dearly for this. Don’t you know, you bastard, that I know the commissioner and the governor and the mayor and the police chief?”
“These people you know, I’ll tell them everything. I’ll tell them he is not your son, and that you deal in alcohol and kif and women. I have witnesses. Do you think that I don’t know what you make your living from, you old hag?”
“When did you learn to speak, you son of a bitch? You couldn’t even raise your eyes to my face before now.”
“You’re the one who’s taught me everything, Hajja. You want to evict me from here. I will die here, even if you get help from a whole barracks of soldiers.”
I closed the door behind me, and lay down on the small bed that was only wide enough for one person, and I heard the Hajja’s rattling voice, crying and calling out to him:
“Omar . . . Omar! Wake up! Shall I bring you a bucket of water? Your blood isn’t flowing properly. Why did you drink so much tonight?”
I heard his voice, then the sound of his steps heading for the door. He struck it with a feeble fist: “Tomorrow I’ll kill you. You will know who I am. I will not go to the police chief. I know how to make my own law.”
But he did not kill me the next morning. There were bandages round his head. I saw him sitting on a chair at the door of the building, smoking greedily. When I app-roached the door he raised his head and this time his eyes glowed with human kindness. That filthy, crude scoundrel was no more. I wondered how it was possible that a man’s be-haviour could change for his own particular purposes but still have the opposite effect. I have noticed that often a mood swings in the opposite direction – anger replaces happiness, hatred takes the place of love.
“What you did yesterday isn’t worthy of a well-mannered young man like you,” remarked Omar.
“You started it. Several times I tried to control my nerves but in the end you were too much for me.”
“I was drunk. You must understand that.”
“If I hadn’t done what I did you might have done something much more stupid.”
“Forgive me. I can’t harm a man like you.”
He passed me a cigarette; his hand was scratched and grazed, perhaps as a result of what happened yesterday. I went up to my room, and said to myself, “This is a turn for the better. I’ll have a rest from the nightmare. The Hajja will not be able to do anything to me without him. He’s everything. He is her heart when she loves and hates, and her mind when she thinks or does anything at all. The fight yesterday was a new key to another life; and perhaps I will never know how it will all end.
In the evening he came up to the room with a bottle of wine, and half a roast chicken that he had bought from the “Chicken House”, about forty metres from the building. I thought I was really lucky. I went and cleaned a plate and two glasses.
Omar said: “We must make amends for our mistake. The true man is one whose heart is big and who tries to forget the mistakes of others.”
“I agree with you, Omar,” I replied. “You’re a good man. But I don’t understand what came over you yesterday evening.”
“The old woman is to blame. She filled my head with so many delusions. And under the influence of alcohol . . .”
“She’s an evil old woman. I know you’re not her real son.”
“When did I ever have a mother like that old woman? I’m not keeping anything from you, Rahal, I’m only looking for a place to hang my hat. I’m alive. If I don’t do this, where would I go? I’ve been to prison three times. The fourth time is the one which saved me. I had gone to prison for smashing the face of a policeman who wanted to take a girl from me. It’s a must for any human being to find himself a place to hang his hat. I have only found worm-eaten wood.”
“You have to be patient. Know that your life is hard. Rely on me as long as we are friends.”
I poured a drink for Omar. He drank the first glass in one gulp, then hit the bottom. “To make up for the bitterness of the first glass you have to drink it all at once. Do you know why I bought this half chicken? Just for you. I have plenty downstairs. The girls cook well. I’ll be eating like a pig and thinking of you.”
Then he said: “Do you know why the Hajja wanted to evict you?”
“Because I don’t pay the rent.”
“She wanted other young men to live here at her mercy. Every day a group of them come and ask about an empty room. She only thinks of this room on the roof. What would you think if two or three people came to live with you, paying the rent and reducing your share?”
Then after that there was Hassan, Dahu and al-Mukhantar. I knew al-Mukhantar and Hassan before, and Dahu was al-Mukhantar’s friend. Some of us slept in the room and others in the kitchen. It didn’t matter to us where we slept. At first we felt embarrassed that women were sometimes there with us, but everything sorted itself out and we got used to it.
“Do you know I’m not from Casablanca?” said Omar.
“I didn’t know.”
“I’m from Marrakesh. I raped a girl and then ran away. She loved me, but her father was an evil man. She’d hidden this fact from me. I took an exam to join the local police force. I passed the exam, but when the incident happened I was forced to disappear. The path of women is the path of evil. Spit on them! Afterwards I came to Casablanca. I went to prison, and later met this raving old hag.
“In any case, she found you a place to stay.”
“I live like a king. I don’t think I would be living like this if I’d become an officer. I don’t do anything now. But my life might be threatened one day. Do you know what kind of world the Hajja lives in? If she falls, she’ll drag hundreds of people down with her. And of course I will be at the top of the list.”
“I have confidence in your intelligence. A woman like that won’t be able to implicate you.”
“You have to know women.”
It was gone midnight. We were drunk. Omar suggested inviting two women up from downstairs. I said to him: “We don’t want any problems with that old woman.”
“You’re right. You should forget yesterday’s incident first. She’s a malicious woman. You don’t know her.”
“That explains her, but it seems that she cannot hate you.”
“When she hates, she doesn’t distinguish between Omar or Zayid. Life has taught her how to hate. For all that, no man can get to know her life completely, even when she’s drunk.”
“Does she drink?”
“She drinks like a fish, in spite of the fact that she’s made the pilgrimage to Mecca eight times.”
Omar’s words were sluggish. I also felt kind of relaxed. Some of the chicken bones were well-chewed and small amounts of meat clung to the others. The bread on the table had taken on a yellow colour, the colour of saffron.
“I’ll go downstairs and see what’s happening there. I will finish the party.” said Omar.
“You are truly a king. You even wake up late in the day.”
“No doubt one of the distinguished personalities is now in the Hajja’s house. But I’m a person who doesn’t trust policemen. They cheat like foxes.”
“You do well. Don’t trust the likes of them.”
This is another life that is beginning for me. Everything has become easy. The guarantee of shelter and food. There are no disturbances. The Hajja herself, after a few days, has come to the point where she invited me to the house to have dinner with them. She often promised me: “Yesterday, the police commissioner was with us. I spoke to him about you. He promised me that he would give you a job with the police.”
“I don’t want that job.”
“Is there a man in this life who doesn’t want to be in the forces?”
“Do you enjoy this life? What will you eat? You’ll begin work as an informant and then you’ll get a permanent job and you’ll have everything in life. I myself work with them.”
Then the Hajja pulled out an ID card, which from a distance I couldn’t make out. She had hidden it in one of the drawers at the side of the bed. This is a way of life, then. But I only want to work in a pharmacy or company, or any independent job. I don’t know why I remembered my brothers and my mother and father. Would I become an informant for their sake? I can’t. I can do anything except that job.
My father always wanted me to become a policeman. Perhaps he believed that I would protect him when the auxiliary forces raided all the travelling peddlers. They take their goods from them and take them to the provinces on the pretext that they will go to charitable shelters. But that doesn’t happen. Those goods are distributed among the district officials, and the greatest share goes to the district commander.
Later on, I no longer thought of the question of food or shelter. What I thought of was a poor miserable home in Mabruka. That was the thing that kept me awake, but everyone is born with his blessings. How many children don’t go to school but later on in life have money. The Hajja didn’t go to school, but she became rich. How many Hajjas have villas and bank accounts and shares, and they don’t even know how to sign their business papers. Then there is no need to think of that poor home in Mabruka. All neighbourhoods in Casablanca are poor and miserable, with the exception of those whose residents compete with each other for a new architect for their villas . . . They don’t live with us and don’t know us. Even their clothes and the things in their houses are imported from Europe. And their girls don’t look at us, they look at those blond European boys. Many of them love Jews. Spit on them, and on their fathers and their mothers, and on whoever gives them prestige. I often wished that there would be an earthquake in Casablanca so that its high becomes its low and its low becomes high. But God drives away all evil. Those dogs will rise up like the phoenix rose from the ashes, and rebuild their wealth. As for us, our poverty will increase and we will lose our shacks.
The Hajja said: “If you don’t want to work as an informer with the police, then I know a manager of one of the plastics factories in Ayn Al-Saba who can find you a job.”
“But I would have to go on three buses.”
“What a pampered boy you are.”
“I am not pampered, Hajja, but I know those profiteers, and what they will pay me I will spend on a meal and a packet of cigarettes and going on buses six times a day.”
“You’re right. That’s reasonable. Then you must work as an informer.”
“I will not do so, even if I die hungry.”
Every human being is born with blessings in this world. There is no doubt that the owner of the pharmacy will one day regret her actions and take me back to work with her. I clung to that hope for a long time but it never materialised.
In the same way I always kept dreaming of getting a passport, but it hasn’t happened, even to this day. Nevertheless, a man can live and not die hungry or thirsty.
Gigi also kept promising me a job. She was working in one of the nightclubs and after a while she was able to persuade the manager of the club. She came in one morning at daybreak, almost beside herself with delight. I was sleeping.
“Rahal. Get up!”
I woke up, panic-stricken. I guessed that something or other in my life would change. I kissed her as she sat next to me on the bed: “What is it? Did you find some treasure? So, we’ll be rich from today.”
I got up from the bed and began to dance. Gigi stood up and hugged me from behind.
“Really, I’ve found treasure, I found you a job at the club. You’ll work as a waiter. All the punters are rich, they have buildings and cars and so on . . . You’ll be like them. The boss has agreed.“
She sat still. This was a marvellous thing, an easy job at night that would bring in plenty of money. Indeed, Gigi is a really wonderful woman. I hugged her passionately. Her breath was hot on my neck. When I moved away from her I saw tears streaming down her face. “Gigi!”
“Do you really love me?”
“Why would I do all that for you if I didn’t love you? I never did this for any man.”
I embraced her once again. More passionately.
“I will do even more for you, Gigi.”
From that day I began another new life. And I thought of those who tried to be like a stick stuck in the spokes of a bicycle. But I will always believe in the good nature of men. As for those who are evil-natured, their hands will forever grasp nothing but dust or zero.
Translated by Fiona Collins
Chapter 1 of the novel “Baydhat al-Deek” [The Cockerel’s Egg] (1984), from Mohammed Zefzaf’s Collected Works, Ministry of Culture Publication, Casablanca, 1999