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The child calls me from the toilet . . . she says that she has “intestinal worms” . . . I examine her stools . . . there were some intestinal worms.
I am coming back to finish writing my job application which I left off only a few minutes ago.
For your information, my nationality . . .”
Sex . . . nationality . . . sexuality . . .
It is important to specify these meanings so you do not mix them up. Sex, for example, has a very short pronunciation – it means that sexual act which all creatures perform, including the human kind, to perpetuate the species, so it is said. No doubt this is correct but there is another result of this act and that is the enormous number of unemployed who are scattered like locusts in the streets and cafÈs of the town . . . these alien creatures who sometimes appear to be thinking there is no point to existence . . . and sometimes of more desperate matters.
I hear the child calling me again. This time to clean her up! What a job! I notice that her little bottom looks like a fresh golden apple. I continue to go over this idea in my head. I pay attention to her. She was talking about her intestinal worms.
My mother says that we – me and my sister Salma – suffered in our childhood from these tiny worms and that explained why we looked like two stray cats, as my father used to enjoy calling us. On one of those cold February nights, my father came home with the smell of wine arriving a metre in front of him, completely and blissfully drunk. In the back bag of his motorbike he was hiding - an enema! (This will wake Salma up and she will explode into laughter.) He filled it with salt and water and threw us, my sister and I, on our tummies. After taking off our pants, he emptied it into us through our anuses.
After he had finished, my father kept repeating: “Salt . . . only salt” could kill them.
My mother said we stayed in bed for a full week I believe my father’s special remedy was successful, the proof of which is that neither of us since then has suffered from intestinal worms.
I am thinking of writing to her . . . to tell her that I no longer suffer from stomach ache and to say that I intend to spend El-Eid with her.
“You need an enema and some salt to get rid of the intestinal worms.”
The child didn’t hear me, she was watching a cockroach running across the carpet. I rushed to pick up a shoe and hit the insect. The little girl was looking at some of the squashed insect which stuck to the shoe, laughing happily . .. !
I am thinking of all my previous job applications and it catches me in my throat. How much it hurts, this catch in my throat . . . it has a never-ending character . . . and it hurts me even more when I discover to what extent I cannot imagine any other life than the one I live.
Ahh . . . how much of this life has no meaning. (It seems I am joining the queue of victims and this is the delusion of life.) I touch the cold sore which a fever has sent to the bottom of my lower lip. . . . I must be hallucinating . . . with everything looking completely anarchic . . . and violent . . . very violent.
I fold the job application and put it in an envelope and take another piece of paper. . . . Salma: I intend to send a job application to the textile company in the countryside as you suggested to me last time . . . and, about the competition. I have not received an answer yet. In general, I don’t want to follow illusions; I need to be free of them. I intend to spend the El-Eid holiday with you. I say ‘holiday’ because I got into this way of speaking from active people who differentiate working days from lounging-around days. . . . Yes, as you said, I will try to go along with my present circumstances . . . I will try as far as I can.
I think I need time to decide about some of my private matters. Do you know . . . in the last few days I have been having a terrifying dream. Do you still believe in ghosts?
Ghosts! Why do I remember that she used to believe in ghosts! All children believe in ghosts. I used to come back in the evening, in the first few years of school, and stay at the entrance of the building and shout to my mother to collect me and take me up to our flat on the fourth floor . . .
Always the ghosts . . . does this gentle little girl, like a cat, believe in them? She asks questions and spoils them with a scream. I soothe her on my shoulder. I try to calm her fear. . . . I make up a story, then whisper to her that we should stay calm until Mama comes back when all of us will go to the zoo. She asks about lions, giraffes, tigers, and coloured birds . . . why are birds always chirping? Is it true they talk to each other? . . . Tell me, is it true?
I can work as a nanny and child-minder too (Do I have to add this to my application?). Also I write and read letters for my illiterate neighbours and teach children at all levels – of course as a home tutor – unpaid because they are relatives and neighbours.
I remember on one of the old application forms I wrote, to get work in a firm of taxidermists, . . . I wrote that my first and last principle was to have wages appropriate to the level of my work, or, simply, to sell my labour for a good wage . . . (Where have I read such words?). The child wants to know more about the zoo. I look at her small black eyes. I think they look like the eyes of a lost puppy. It seems she has forgotten the story of the worms. If my father was present now he would empty a bag of salt into her anus, into the centre of the fresh golden apple, and then he would go back to the corner of the room, putting his dark green bottle between his legs as usual . . . It is an old habit, perhaps going back to getting drunk in the office car. It has become a habit without reason . . . Why do these matters look strange, displaced from their cause? Can anyone explain to me this surreal fantasy which has controlled me for the past two years when writing applications and applying to those competitions which I feel hopeless about.
Despite this, I remember once asking him in the middle of his jollity, transferred to us contagiously, our school books lying on our laps . . . I used to ask him about that habit of his and laugh . . . He ignored my questions, as I do with the child. . . He used to say, and I remember it as if it happened today (the rain was dripping on the glass window above our heads). . .
“My child, when I die, every time you visit my grave pour a bottle of red wine over it . . . this is my wish . . . Don’t forget it.”
(But there is the same dream that comes to me every night . . . I dream my father is happy as he never as . . . he runs after us, laughing with us, cuddling us and hanging on to our hair. . . and we are children, you with your long fine plaits and me with short hair like a boy. All of us laughing . . . we are playing hide-and-seek . . . he hides behind the trees . . . we run in all directions searching for him . . . there was an abandoned room like the one on our trip to the orchard in the village – with Nejeya (al-Jabalya). Do you remember that room? I remember it, I cannot forget it. Nejeya used to say: “Boys come here with girls and take their virginity”. . . . We used to get exhausted from running . . . and suddenly we stop . . . realising that he is not there . . . he is not anywhere . . . we come closer to the room – it seems he advised us not to enter it – I suggest searching for him inside . . . you object, by pulling the hem of my dress . . . I break free and push you away . . . and enter . . . white little ghost . . . bats . . . and I wake up terrified!)
Why do I remember him again?
He knew that he was getting close to his end . . . it didn’t seem to sadden him.
He was drinking all those years but it didn’t quench his thirst. He was always thirsty till he died drunk! . . . He continued drinking till the last minute of his life - when the bouncer in the bar saw him lying down and shook him violently to throw him out . . . and in one moment . . . a moment which he never forgot (I presume this at least) – he was shaking this disgustingly smelly corpse . . . it is really a dead body . . . a real dead body . . . He died . . . could you believe it? The barmaid told us later that he didn’t finish his last drink.
Was it a tragic ending? For sure, he was not hoping for a more beautiful ending.
(Salma, does it happen to you that you think about him sometimes? Do you dream of him?)
Salma will say this sentence which comes from a German artist. “Would El-Eid be more beautiful if it was longer?”
Eid! Only the dark green bottle – which he used to hide in his inside coat pocket when he came home at night . . . his way of playing around with his non-existent future. How clear this memory becomes today . . . he used to pick up his little harmonica and start singing . . . old French and American songs from the past, full of nostalgia . . . we memorised them all with time – me and my sister – and started singing with him . . . For those moments there was a smell.
Salma, do you remember his bright eyes from drink? His voice . . . do you remember the voice of our father? How much I adored that man. I used to love his anarchic ways. He used to hide all this anarchy behind an organised chaos. It was wonderful to experience the life of a man like him with all his fantasies. He was always colluding with us against our poor mother . . . colluding with us against the neighbour’s children. Do you still remember the day when Shadya, the daughter of Mother Habiba threw a stone at you. You came to the house crying. He was making two chairs out of wood for us . . . Do you remember he took a long piece of wood and passed it to you, saying, “Go and beat her with it!”.
Are you laughing? Why does he come back to me in this way? My father used to prefer me to my sister but that didn’t annoy her at all because my mother used to prefer her to me. He used to insist that I cut my hair like a boy, the boy he wanted to have. . .
I was the preferred son of my father, but one evening he discovered that my breasts were swelling and I was wearing a very tight skirt, proud of my new breasts . . . He laughed and pulled my hair, gave me a kiss on my neck and I understood he was happy about his boy who became a girl. My father used to kiss me like that even when I was grown up, when my head was higher than his shoulder. He was so jolly when we used to go to the market, holding me at the back of my neck.
When I became taller he couldn’t hold me in his favourite way. He stopped taking me to market. At that moment I stopped colluding with him against my mother as I had done as a child. Our angry conversations used to end with swearing at each other and slamming the door . . . One of these fights reached the level of smashing plates. He threatened that he would throw me out of his house.
All this started when I discovered one day that my mother never left the kitchen. She was a very special kind of proletarian and that was very ‘natural’ . . . We lived, and she created the means for it every day without that machine breaking down.
After this discovery, my awareness became sharper . . . I talked to him in the beginning in a surprisingly quiet way but he would doubt ‘the virginity of Mary’. For him it was rubbish that women were equal to men.
What a woman . . . Because of her, I was threatened with being thrown out of the house. She used to come and stand with her quiet appearance when she felt that the conversations would progress to a fight . . . With all her coolness and not caring, she put me against the wall and said, as the French say, “This is not your business, do you want to change the world?” Because she didn’t want to change the world she used to put her tired little foot in his palm . . . because he was her husband . . . because he was wonderful even when he was a bastard. He laughs . . . and grabs me just as in the beautiful past, by my neck, towards him, shaking me, laughing. “You devil goat, you will be something or nothing at all.”
Salma . . . I am frightened and lonely – do you think my father’s prediction will come true?
Translated by Sharazad Doss
’Didan Ma’awiya’ is from a collection of short stories, ’Ma Allathi Nafa’alahu? [What do we do?], published by Manshurat Itihad Kuttab al-Maghreb, Rabat, 1992.