Hassan Najmi
Hassan Najmi
Chapter from the novel Gertrude

A chapter from the novel



Arrival in Paris


He still remembered the moment they left from the port of Tangiers. It was very early morning and the light was still dim when Gertrude said to him: “You’ve got the address now, haven’t you? So you can come to Paris whenever you like. It’s a standing invitation, Mohammed.”

Then she had brought her mouth to his ear, possibly to prevent Alice Toklas, who was standing nearby, from hearing the few words she quickly spoke to him, this handsome young man from Tangiers who had captivated the two women for the last few days. Mohammed had gazed deeply into Gertrude’s face, perhaps to determine how serious the offer really was. He feared that what she had said might have been nothing but common courtesy, a mere nicety.

He shrugged his shoulders slightly, raising his eyebrows and puckering his lips as if to say: “I don’t know!”

Deep down, however, he realized the invitation was genuine. Being given it in private had increased his confidence in its sincerity and that of the person who had made it. It may have been at that very moment that he made his decision, and then it became only a matter of time.

The same port. The same early morning. Perhaps even the same dim light. However, it was another moment of departure that he would never forget. He stood there for a long time, gazing at the point where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic and the Rock of Gibraltar looms on the far shore, enveloped in fog. Then he rushed over to the ramp that led onto the anchored ship, just moments before it set off for Marseilles. He embarked hurriedly lest he feel a sudden pang of regret, give up and turn back. He had to make light of everything he was leaving behind lest he go back on his decision. With the exception of his cousin Bakhta, whom he had intended to marry and in whose arms he had dreamed of spending his life, nothing was worth regretting. Of course, there were plenty of things he would remember: his many friends at work and in the city; Tangiers itself, and its sprawling, well-kept coast; his table in the corner of the Paris Café; the reed huts that served as brothels on the Malabata beach; his little library and some of his personal belongings, which were few.

Mohammed had undoubtedly broken for good with his government job and executive privileges. He may have done so out of despair, the way someone might fling himself into empty space from atop a high hill, or like someone, in a state of panic, might clear a wall far higher than anything he could clear in his normal state. Those who didn’t know Mohammed as well as we in Tangiers did – although we had only met him late in life – would undoubtedly have said that he must have been touched in the head to do what he did; to pick up and run away across the sea to the north, like a crazed bull that had broken its lead and escaped.

Someone who had worked both in the king’s palace and as an interpreter in the viceroy’s headquarters had no need to give everything up by flinging himself into the unknown. We know that he had visited France, Spain and England on ambassadorial missions, and that he had lived in Marseilles for a while with a group of Moroccan exchange students. We also know that when the students returned home, they discovered that their new knowledge was useless in the conditions that had prevailed since the death of one king and the rise of another. Consequently, they had been obliged to exchange their European clothes for the jilbab,1 the silham,2 and other traditional attire. They had nearly been buried alive. The government’s stance had been nothing but a façade designed to smother beautiful dreams, now shattered.

We tried to get a sense of the state that Mohammed was in when he decided to leave. However, we can’t know for certain what it was. After all, in cases like these, even the person concerned may not be aware of the real reason for making such a life-changing decision. In reality, no one can say that someone was angry, desperate, crazy or stupid to do whatever it was that he did. It’s others who do the describing and the pigeon-holing, then present the descriptions and pigeon-holes as reality itself. They won’t let you live in peace if you refuse to give in and let yourself be categorized or stamped with a certain description or ready-made label. What matters is that Mohammed decided to go away, and that the ship took him off to Marseilles, in keeping with his own wishes. He spent the three days and nights at sea putting his memory in order, sketching out his possible horizons, taking stock of his potential losses and gains, and trying to determine how he could live a different life with minimal or no losses. In any case, he wouldn’t be arriving in Paris empty-handed.

From the ship to the train, and from Marseilles to Paris; he knew where he was going, and he knew the address by heart. There are, in life, certain addresses, numbers and coordinates that are unforgettable, or which are worth remembering, especially when we pin our destinies on them, when they’re intimately linked with our grandest dreams, the things we daydream about before a midday nap.

From Austerlitz Station, the horse-drawn carriage passed through several streets, before turning down Boulevard Raspail, next to the Carrefour de l’Odéon, Rue de Vaugirard and Rue de Médicis. The coachman took his passengers toward the intersection of Rue Guynemer and Rue de Fleurus.

Addressing Mohammed with the same jolly tone he had maintained the entire way, the coachman said: “You! The one from Morocco! You’re just steps away from your destination. Give my greetings to the one you love!”

Dragging his suitcase, satchel and khaki duffel bag with him, Mohammed experienced a strange feeling as he looked at the numbers on the apartment buildings and shops. Was he afraid he wouldn’t know how to read a simple number like “27”, or that he would make a mistake and not see it, as sometimes happens in optical illusions? However, it was only a feeling whose essence he couldn’t identify, and nothing happened to fulfil his vague premonition. After thirty or forty metres, he stopped to stare at the high blue plaque on which the name “Rue de Fleurus” was written in clear white letters. It was right on the street corner which overlooked the Luxembourg Gardens. Reassured, he walked on with confident steps, across another small intersection between Rue de Fleurus and Rue Madame. He walked slowly, watching for the house number as though it were a number in a horse race. Then, at last, there was the building at the heart of which, Gertrude Stein and company made their abode, nestled on its spacious ground floor. There was the large gate, the shady entranceway, and the geometric pattern sculpted above it. Towards the top of the building there appeared the name of the French architect, G. Pasquier, who had designed the building and overseen its construction in the year 1894.

A huge marble edifice, its outer façade overlooked the small street, and its rear façade overlooked a courtyard and garden. Its lower floor housed Gertrude’s spacious apartment with its living area and studio, which she had turned into an art gallery. Its upper floor, Gertrude told him, had been furnished as a spare living area for temporary boarders.

When he opened the door, he saw neither Gertrude nor Alice. Instead he encountered another woman. Scrutinizing his features, she treated him to a sweeping, inquisitive glance that sent a shiver through him.

“Is Mademoiselle Gertrude here, Madame?”

“Who wishes to know, Sir?” He nearly asked her whether she was Hélène, the maid, about whom he knew everything thanks to Alice’s longwinded prattling in Tangiers. However, before he could ask, he heard Alice shout: “Hélène, who’s at the door?”

In no time at all, Alice poked her head out, revealing her aquiline nose. She had undoubtedly been expecting him, since she evinced no amazement or even surprise, and Mohammed concluded that his most recent letters to Gertrude must have prepared the way for his arrival.

After they had exchanged the initial greetings and niceties, Alice invited him to take a seat while the Mademoiselle came down from her room on the second floor. He set down his heavy luggage and relaxed into a comfortable armchair. The second floor wasn’t exactly a second floor. Rather, it was a room that was raised slightly in keeping with an interior architectural design that resembled a duplex. Hélène served as a conversation starter for Mohammed and Alice. She was a marvellous French maid: kind-hearted, hard-working, practical in all ways, and patient, though, Alice told him, she wasn’t jovial. She stopped to catch her breath then broke into more chatter.

“Oh! Now don’t say a thing! She’s just finished her ninth year with us. But the poor thing will be leaving us soon. Her husband has decided he doesn’t want her to work for other people from now on, and she has no choice but to abide by his wishes.”

“Gertrude was really pained by this decision,” Alice continued. “She truly loves her, and tells everybody about her. She even writes about her in some of the stories she publishes. As you yourself know, she’s constantly mentioning her and talking about her – even when she’s travelling – whenever the context warrants it . . . and to everybody! But the poor thing doesn’t know much about life. She has no idea what’s going on in the world around her. Imagine! She thinks there aren’t any artists or writers in the United States!”

“Why is that?” asked Mohammed.

“Because Americans come to Paris to study drawing and writing. I asked her once: ‘So what do Americans do in their country?’ And with calm conviction she replied that most of them were dentists!”

Gertrude descended unhurriedly from her room. As she approached Mohammed, she was preceded by the fragrance of a freshly bathed body, proud and rotund like a marble statue removed from its pedestal, she turned towards him in happy anticipation. His face lit up and he opened his arms to her. They embraced and exchanged kisses on the cheeks. He now realized that she hadn’t actually been in her room, but had been, more precisely, taking a bath or a shower.

“You certainly took your time coming to see us, Mohammed! How are you? How was your journey? No doubt Alice has been entertaining you with talk about the maids. It’s her favourite subject, and she never stops: maids . . . and cooking!”

He contemplated the epic body that commanded one’s undivided attention: the semi-round face and the meticulously coiffed hair that looked like a royal crown, her and the small white dog, Pasquette, that was rubbing up against her legs. Along with the smoothness of her forehead, he noticed a puffiness in her eyelids, possibly from staying up too late. They sat down opposite each other. Impatient and annoyed, Alice stole sidelong glances in their direction. Her hair was cropped and pulled back, a soft tendril coming down over her black eyes. Her nose was sharp, and a slight moustache was perceptible above her upper lip.

Hélène brought the coffee tray and began filling the colourful cups, made from smooth, glossy porcelain and decorated with faces and shapes from Picasso’s ceramics. When the good-hearted maid leaned over to pour coffee for him, she raised her eyes towards his and said: “Oh, Sir! How strange that you would come from there, from that dark continent!”

Gertrude let forth a resounding laugh: “Where did you get that foolish idea, Hélène?” she asked reproachfully.

Intervening unexpectedly to rescue the poor woman from her embarrassment, Mohammed said: “Let her ask in order to find out.” He looked over at a flustered Hélène and said: “Well, Madame. It’s true that I came from Africa. However, it’s quite a bright continent you know. It’s a continent that gives light to the world!”

“That’s right, that’s right,” seconded Gertrude: “It’s all light, Hélène.”

Immediately after the first cup of coffee, Gertrude got up and prepared to go out as though she had an appointment to keep. Dragging Pasquette behind her, she invited Mohammed to come. The time had come for the pampered little dog’s walk. When they reached the crossroads that led to Boulevard du Montparnasse, Gertrude asked him: “So, what can you tell me after this long absence?”

As though he hadn’t appreciated the true significance of her question, he replied spontaneously and almost without thinking: “There’s not much worth saying!”

Then, as though his cool reply had taken her by surprise, she stopped and turned, as if wanting to block his path. Addressing him in a stern, almost affected tone, she said: “If that’s the way you’re going to answer my questions, then it looks as though we’re going to part at the next corner.”

Realizing the fragility of the situation, he quickly began telling her about his life in an apologetic tone. He noticed that she was interested in larger events, without failing to note the details. Then she took the initiative and from that moment it was mainly she who did the talking, especially about herself. Many events. Many faces. Many names. Many trips, places, books, paintings, projects and ideas. She seemed to him to be a workshop unto herself. He did nothing to conceal from her his sense of her exceptional worth. He knew she loved to be complimented, so on the way back to the house he talked to her about herself. As for her, she surrendered to the delight of being so celebrated and, in quick repartees, reciprocated the flattery.

“It was a long way for you to come, Mohammed.”

Knowing how to appeal to her femininity, he replied: “For your sake, for the sake of this great moment, it was worth it.”

She responded blissfully: “It’s wonderful that you’re here. Come along now.”

Paris’s trees were cowering under a late winter drizzle. Winter was slow to depart, it seemed, and kept nibbling away at more days of the spring season. Mohammed wasn’t accustomed to the kind of bitter cold that had enveloped the city. It had been there to meet him the moment he got off the train and left the station, weighed down by a suitcase, a satchel, and a number of carefully wrapped presents. Fortunately, his wool overcoat had served its purpose, both when he arrived and now, as he walked beside Gertrude. She listened intently as he told her about the garrulous French coachman, who had seemed as though he was driving his two horses by the power of his chattering and the rhythm of his loud voice, rather than with his whip, which he waved back and forth, without actually using it. From the moment they left Austerlitz Station, he hadn’t stopped talking to his passengers, passers-by on the street, street hawkers, and shopkeepers. When he didn’t find anyone to talk to, he would begin talking to one of his two horses again: “Move with me now, you little trickster! Don’t throw the whole load on your brother!” Then he would go back to talking to the passengers about his daily adventures with the two horses and other riders. He was an odd fellow, with a penchant for banter and funny stories

He never forgot where his passengers got off. Turning to look behind him, he would issue reminders: “The man with the glasses, it’s your turn now!” At another bend in the road he would say: “Madame, you know where your house is better than I do. Hurry up, now! Get off, and don’t forget your meat and vegetables!”


Back at the house, as Gertrude sat in her armchair beside the radiator, Alice went on about her favourite subject, namely, the maids. She hardly stopped, even when Mohammed politely inquired about other subjects, hoping to make the conversation more worthwhile. Meanwhile, he began emptying his suitcase of the presents he had brought with him. He had taken all the gifts he could carry, wishing to convey the spirit of his country with jewellery, antique necklaces, rings, and bracelets of silver and carnelian. They were among the most beautiful objects produced by Berber artisans in the south, from Tiznit, Taroudant and Marrakesh, as well as in the muddy hamlets and villages perched high up in the great Atlas Mountains. There were round containers ,of silver and other metals, that women love to use, ceramic and marble candelabras of various shapes and sizes, colourful, crudely made candles, glossy pieces of stone to be displayed in glass-fronted cabinets, on sideboards and mantelpieces, miniature camels carved from juniper wood and Moroccan daggers which served as wall decorations after retiring from duty in petty tribal wars and long-standing clan feuds. He had also brought a number of utensils and containers for making and drinking tea, including a beautiful silver kettle, a palm-leaf basket, and a set of small decorated tea glasses, colourful silk fabrics and embroidered doilies for tables and desks. In addition, he had brought a carpet, made with such skill that anyone with an appreciation for such objects of beauty would have a hard time leaving it on the floor. He then took out a number of the spices that give Moroccan cuisine its special charm, some bottled perfumes, and other small items that inspire wonderment and demand respect and appreciation. Everyone in the house received a share of his cache. But, as one might have expected, most of them, particularly the most beautiful and costly, went to Gertrude. They were all grateful.

In the meantime Alice continued talking, revelling in the mention of this or that maid: “There are always good maids, but even they have their faults.”

“They wouldn’t work for you in the first place, Alice,” Gertrude interjected, “if they didn’t have any faults!”

Then, turning to Mohammed as if the topic of maids were of relevance to him, she said: “Actually, Mohammed, there’s nothing worse than having a maid come into your house, and, consequently, into your life, then having her suddenly leave you one day for no reason!”

Mohammed surrendered to Alice’s copious flow of memories and reflections about the maids who had been employed at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Within moments, and thanks to her luminous memory for such things, Mohammed saw that the house had transformed over the years into a crossroads for many a maid and her saga. There was Célestina, a Swiss-Italian woman brought by her maternal aunt, who worked as the concièrge for the building next door. She had left due to her lack of cooking experience and particularly her inability to make an omelette, which was an indispensable part of Gertrude’s daily repast.

Alice said to Mohammed: “You know Gertrude! The only thing she ever asks a new maid about is her daily favourite: ‘Do you know how to make a good omelette?’ After Célestina came another maid, Maria Lasgourges. But she was getting on in years, and wasn’t able to take proper care of the large house. Then another Maria came. She was Swiss, too. Maria Entz. Do you remember her, Gertrude? She barely spent any time with us and resigned because she was getting married.”

The two women laughed together as they reminisced about the maid with the glass eye. Gertrude said she had called her “Muggie Moll” in one of her short stories. Her husband had been a gendarme who moved from one region to another without taking his family with him. Alice also talked about a stylish maid, Jeanne: “You remember her well, don’t you, Gertrude?” Gertrude looked especially pained over this Jeanne, who had been obliged to leave. She had been emotionally disturbed and was obsessed with clouds and marriage.

As Mohammed listened, the conversation then turned to another Jeanne who had quit for no reason. When the two women went out looking for her, the local tyre repairman, who had first brought her to them, explained that she had begun suffering from severe depression. She had been the mother of a baby boy.

“She was delicate and sweet, and used to tie her hair in the most amazing way.”

Commenting on what Alice had said, Gertrude added: “But she was a good cook. After all, what is a woman without her ability to cook?” Looking over at Mohammed, she went on to say: “The most important thing about her was her voice. O my Goodness, what a soft, gentle, rich voice she had! It used to go right through me without my knowing how, even though she barely spoke!”

Then, after a moment of silence or reverie, she added: “You can’t imagine how long I kept trying to get her to come back or, at least, to get that divine voice back. And in fact, I managed to bring her back once, a second and third time too. But she would quit of her own accord over and over again. Later she agreed to come back and work for us even after we had hired another maid. The poor thing suffered terribly from her emotional problems.”


So, here she was, right in front of him, after he had given everything up in order to join her. He was seeing her now as he had seen her for the first time in Tangiers: dreamy, with sleepy eyes, on her lips a smile that bespoke equanimity, expansiveness and passion. “Never in my life have I met a man that looks at me the way you do, Mohammed. Or, let me say, never have I met anyone who says different words to me, like the words you spoke to me in Tangiers!”

Alice got up, announcing that she was going up to the attic with Hélène to get it ready for Mohammed’s stay. She may, of course, have been hoping in her heart of hearts that his stay wouldn’t last long.

Mohammed was then able to say to Gertrude: “I loved you the first time I ever looked at you at Tangiers.”

Without hesitation she replied: “We don’t waste much time when we love at first sight!”

She thought back on the Hotel Villa de France in Tangiers. She remembered the good-natured Moroccan waiter at the bar, the local cheese sellers in front of the hotel, the round-bread sellers and the homeless drunk who would stand under the hotel windows and loudly proclaim that he was a friend of Henri Matisse: “Matisse painted a picture of me over there, from that window!”

As Mohammed stared hungrily into the face of the woman whom he described as “one of those Americans who were born along with the first skyscrapers in their country,” he heard her ask him in a voice that seemed to be reaching him from a loudspeaker or from inside a recording studio: “Do you remember that night in Tangiers? Ahh! I was so scared. At the same time, I was so happy! I swear to you, you purified me, you captivating Moroccan! What did you do to me to bring me down to earth from my distant heaven? Ahh! You can’t imagine what it was like for me: I entered paradise and left it again. That night that will never be repeated . . .”

Alice returned and joined them again in their cosy session in the parlour. They were sitting next to the radiator beneath works by Cézanne, Renoir and Matisse, which hung not far from the portrait Picasso had painted of Gertrude.

“The room is all ready. You can go up whenever you like.”

Gertrude thanked her. Then, slightly adjusting the collar of her chamois coat, she continued her conversation with Mohammed. “Ever since you arrived I’ve been wondering what you were doing there in those wide empty spaces? Tangiers is beautiful, of course, and an amazing place. But it isn’t the place for a young man like you who still has his whole life ahead of him. Isn’t that so, Mohammed?”

“I have to thank you, Gertrude,” Mohammed replied. “Your letters, as infrequent and brief as they were, were a motivation for me to see the world from a new perspective. And the truth is that it is you who lifted me to heaven!”

“By the way, how was Tangiers, and how was the country, when you left? Have they built the port? And have they launched the tramway project they’d been talking about?”

“The tramway is still a distant dream. However, they’ve finished building the port. It isn’t the way it was when you came. Next time you come you won’t need porters to carry you on their backs to keep the coastal waters from getting you all wet!”

“And the country as a whole?”

“The country! The whole country has been divided up by the French and the Spanish – something you were aware of when it happened. The Sultan was deposed and his brother brought to power in his place. As for Tangiers, although the whole city has come under international jurisdiction and isn’t subject to the authority of any one country, Spain is doing all it can to secure control over it. However, the Americans remind them from time to time that Tangiers isn’t a Spanish protectorate.”

It was on Tangiers beach, under a clear, starry and unforgettably blue night sky that their first meeting alone had taken place. It was destined to do so thanks to the fact that a French friend of theirs – namely, Monsieur Marshand, former French consul-general in Tangiers – had recommended Mohammed as a guide during their visit to the city. Mohammed had volunteered gladly and being a competent and trustworthy guide had, within days, managed to become a dear friend, earning a place in their hearts. One of the things Mohammed told me about that encounter in the distant past was that throughout that night, he hadn’t slept. Even when the American woman had fallen into a deep slumber, he had remained wide awake, fighting to keep his eyes open. It was true, of course, that he’d been ecstatically happy. At the same time, however, he’d been afraid to go to sleep lest he start snoring. Who knows what might happen when a person is half-dead in the night? His intestines might breathe, and if that happened he might ruin the place with noxious-smelling gases and spoil the idyllic picture!

I like to think of Mohammed’s arriving in Paris on a lovely spring day. In fact, he never spoke to me about what the weather had been like when he reached Gertrude’s apartment. He made no mention in any of the papers he left in my safe-keeping of hot, muggy weather as one sometimes experiences in Paris, or of cold, unpleasant weather, heavy rain and mud. Consequently, I prefer to cover the Paris sky upon his arrival with a light drizzle – light enough not to hinder the flow of traffic or to spoil one’s enjoyment of the outdoors, especially the city architecture and people. I can see him now as he arrives at the intersection of Rue de Fleurus in the horse-drawn carriage, then making his way to her house, laborious with his heavy suitcase, his satchel, the carpet tied with a bad-quality rope, plaited Moroccan-style, and the packages he was carrying in his hands, under his arms or on his shoulders. Moroccans are always this way when they travel. They plan to travel light, with nothing but one small suitcase, which, by virtue of the many things they decide to bring, turns into two large ones or more!

From the direction of the pavilion, not from the direction of the studio, I see him knocking on the door. I see the maid, Hélène, as she opens the door and he steps inside. Then I see the small white dog, Pasquette, Alice as she extends a cold hand, and Gertrude as she extends her cheeks from above, without even leaning slightly in the Moroccan’s direction. I see him stealing glances at the women’s faces to see what has changed and what has stayed the same after the long years since he saw them last. Then I see Gertrude after their return from the first outing as, barefoot, she tiptoes gingerly into her bedroom, then comes back carrying her photo album to show to Mohammed. She said it was just her childhood photo album, to help her begin telling him her life’s story, and that she had other albums he could look at in order. She told Mohammed that, as a matter of fact, she didn’t enjoy looking through her old photo albums, especially at pictures of herself, although she sometimes felt like looking at pictures of her mother and father. She was to be thanked, since she had thought it best, in keeping with her duty as a hostess, to show him what she called “the headwaters of the river of her life”. It was as though she thought it necessary to take Mohammed back to the very beginning so that he could fill in the blanks and get to know her every detail, perhaps in order to confirm what he had heard from her during her ten days in Tangiers.

She noticed that he was still all bundled up, with an undershirt clearly visible beneath a shirt buttoned up the front, and on top of these, a woollen turtleneck. She assured him that the apartment was warm enough, so he wouldn’t be in need of all those heavy clothes and she tenderly assisted him in taking off his sweater. In fact, he felt several times more comfortable than before and the moment took on a different flavour as her perfumed breathing synchronized with his own. Then she opened the album and began inviting Mohammed to concentrate and pay attention: “Look here. Look at this . . .”

Sat nearby, Alice seemed out of her element. It was as though she was anxious or upset, or had a stomach ache or some other unidentified ailment. It was a state whose intensity no one could know unless he himself was in the same grumpy, prickly mood or was feeling the same kind of burning envy. Nevertheless, Gertrude and Mohammed went on looking at the pictures in the album, exchanging comments, queries and clarifications. Moreover, they did so without concerning themselves about the bundle of boredom that sat seething nearby. It was as though she were on another shore that had slowly disappeared and could no longer be seen from the shore they were on! . . .


“Look at this. That’s me when I was four years old, in that soft white suit. I don’t know exactly what kind of fabric it was made of. And look at my hair tied back with a ribbon, and how it thick it was. My Goodness, how pretty I was!”

(“And who are these people?”)

“These are my four brothers and sisters. That’s Michael, who’s nine years older than me. That’s Simon, who’s two years younger than Michael. That’s my sister Bertha, who’s four years older than me. And that’s my wonderful brother Leo. Or at least, he used to be wonderful. He’s two years older than me. There I am. I’m the youngest in the family. I told you that when I was in Tangiers as I recall. Isn’t that right, Muhammad?”

(“Yes, that’s right. You did.”)

“Here’s a picture of my brother Michael and his wife Sarah.”

(“This must be a picture of your parents.”)

“Yes, it is. That’s my father, Daniel Stein. He’s an American of German extraction, from Bavaria. And here’s my mother, Amelia Keyser. She was born in the United States, she’s from a Bavarian family as well.”

Looking up from the album and turning to Muhammad, Gertrude said, “My father was eight years old when he went with his family to the United States. They all settled in Oakland, near San Francisco. Later on my father became vice-president of a streetcar company in San Francisco. My mother outlived him by thirteen years, and when she died, my oldest brother took charge of the family’s financial affairs.”

“Look. Here’s the wise one, Michael. Thanks to his frugality, good planning and expertise, we were able to live a wonderful, comfortable life, and to this day, thanks to him, we’re still well-off. This is a picture of me with Michael’s wife, Sarah, and their son Allan in San Francisco. Look at those feather hats Sarah and I are wearing! Oh! I never noticed the little Marine uniform Allan was wearing. And this is a picture of me with Leo in London. It was an awful trip. I really was shocked by the fog there, and at how cold the people were. And here’s a picture of me and Leo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And here he is again, introducing me for the first time to Henri Matisse. Matisse is a marvellous artist.”

(“Yes, yes, I know him.”)

“Ah, yes, that’s right. You met him when he visited Tangiers. This picture records the moment when we acquired his painting ‘Woman with a Hat’.

“In this picture I’m standing in front of the door to the apartment we’re in now. This is the door of the studio before we replaced it, it had been full of cracks. When we first rented the apartment Alice hadn’t yet arrived in Paris. She came four years after this picture was taken. My first book, Things As They Are, was published in that same year. I can give you a copy of it later.”

(“Thank you. An autographed copy, of course.”)

“Oh, yes.

“And this is Picasso: the Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso. Perhaps you’ve heard of him at least, in Tangiers.”

(Muhammad sits there in silence, and as Gertrude speaks to him, she scrutinizes his features.)

“He’s my friend. He’s the one who painted the wonderful portrait that you see hanging over there.” (Seated, she points with her index finger to the painting that hangs on the wall above the stove, whose dancing flames lend the room even greater warmth and intimacy.) This picture of us was taken in the gallery of art merchant Clovis Sagot.”

Gertrude got up. “Come here. Come up close to this marvellous painting.”

(“How did Picasso paint you this way? Did he imagine you from a distance?”)

“No. I was in front of him the entire time, and for around ninety sessions. Eighty-seven to be exact. I sat as a model. Do you know what it means to be an artist’s model? I’ll explain that to you later. We still have time to talk about details like that. In any case, Picasso was ready, and so was I, and we colluded together. But let’s put off talking about this subject to another time, and keep on looking at the photos.”

“Here’s Leo again, in the studio. Here in this apartment before we remodelled it. And this is a picture of me standing between Leo and Michael. The family: ‘The Stein Society!’” She laughed as she said it.

“Ah! This is an important picture. Look. This is Matisse, standing between my brother Michael and his wife Sarah. They’re with Hans Purrmann in our old place here in Paris – 58 Rue Madame. And this is a picture of Fernande Olivier when she was living with Picasso. She’s with a little boy, but I don’t know who he is. My God! Where did I get this picture? I don’t know! I stuck it in the childhood album, I should put it back into the album where it belongs. Have you seen how I was when I was little? What a troublemaker I was! I used to drive my teachers to despair! They worked so hard to teach me, but I would wear them out with my mischief. Do you know, Muha . . . what a certain wicked teacher once said about me to my mother? She said, ‘Gertrude acts like a child that refuses to be a child!’ My mother was upset by the sarcastic comment, but it made me happy at the time. And to this day I feel the same way.”

While Gertrude appeared to be laying the foundations for a special relationship, Muhammad was flying high as a kite. It’s true, of course, that human relationships, particularly romantic ones, require a certain amount of wonder, or intuition, a moment of suspense-filled mystery, or a sudden change of direction, in order to begin. Nevertheless, the essential relationship requires an accumulation of elements, and a maturing of language producing a mutual understanding between two selves or the communication of two spirits. Though Gertrude was slightly over thirty, she gave the impression of being a woman with experience as a mother. As for Muhammad, who had come to Paris as a fugitive of sorts, he was like a sparrow with broken wings that had landed on a telephone wire and didn’t know how to hold on. Nor did he know where to focus his thoughtful, undulating glance.

Within moments he realized that he would have to acquire new tastes and a different self. In order for love to be achieved, it wouldn’t be enough to bet on a woman’s affection, or to become attached to the security she offered. The painting-lined walls, the sculptures and black African masks that filled the house, and Gertrude’s way of talking about these things, and the artists that made them, as well as the album she had shown him as though it were a book to be read and not merely pictures to be seen – all these things filled him with a new awareness he was bound to think about for a long time to come. Given his personal taste and his lack of aesthetic experience and expertise, not all the paintings he had seen had been beautiful to him. Or, one might say, what he had seen had not convinced him of anything or said anything to him. Fortunately, though, he had doubted himself from the first step he took inside the house, as a result of which he had proffered no opinions, nor had anyone asked him to take a stance. Throughout his time there, he would do nothing but look and listen.

One can imagine the state he was in as he examined the paintings that were presented before him, as he talked to himself silently in an attempt to understand their attributes, or as he wondered to himself why he didn’t understand them! No doubt there were some paintings that dazzled him, paintings that filled him with a nebulous sort of thrill, the source of which he couldn’t identify, and others that gave him a whiff of a mellow human fragrance that he didn’t know how to name. There were pictures that spoke to him powerfully, as though they had been painted just for him, paintings that said nothing at all to him, as though they were at odds with him, paintings that provoked him intensely, and paintings which, though he couldn’t say why, he didn’t know where they began and where they ended. And lastly, there were paintings that he only liked for their ornately cut, glossy or gilt frames.

He would stand there in silence and look, astonished and bewildered like someone who goes into an art exhibition for the first time in his life, and is afraid to touch something he shouldn’t touch or break something breakable. I myself experienced the same thing when I attended my first art exhibition in Tangiers, and I felt the same unspoken terror before I gradually learned and understood. Fortunately for him, he was moving under the watchful eyes of Gertrude, who knew where he had come from and how to measure the limits of his glances. In addition, she had a knack for teaching and an ability to persuade others of the value of what she was saying. Muhammad was undoubtedly pleased with what she was saying to him about this visual art that he had never known in his own country. And, given his situation and his winged state, he felt that in what she was saying to him, Gertrude was granting him a special privilege.

Would he be able to see everything on the first day? After all, he had found himself suddenly, and all at once, in an open museum of modern art, not simply in a house decorated by a few paintings or sculptures. He was seeing and feeling at the same time. And as he did so, he was accompanied by the knowledgeable commentary of a woman who was in full command of her words. It was obvious that Gertrude had been gifted with an amazing ability to speak to others, when she would rather have been listening. Moreover, in spite of her faltering French, she was confident of what she was saying to Muhammad. She told him that Picasso had once said to her, “You and I speak a French that nobody else speaks!” Then she added that when he saw Picasso, he would love him. “Both you and Picasso have predatory eyes!” Then she came close to him, and in a voice so low he could hardly hear her, she said: “And I like to be the prey!”


Translated by Nancy Roberts from Hassan Najmi’s novel Gertrude,

published by al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi, Beirut, 2011



First published in Banipal 43 – Celebrating Denys Johnson-Davies



1 The jilbab – a long flowing robe with long, billowing sleeves which opens at the front – is the traditional attire of Moroccan women.

2 The silham is a hooded cloak, similar to the Algerian burnoose.



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