Abu-Youssef Taha
Abu-Youssef Taha
Black Lilies
On that sweltering summer night, everything seemed normal: Jamaa l’Fnaa was bustling with activity; the aroma of appetizing foods from popular restaurants was drawing swarms of people; diners were gulping down their food in the glaring lamplight, oblivious to the passers-by around them. The truth is that there was nothing worthy of their attention. Suddenly, a fight broke out between a bunch of rough street children. They beat the hell out of one another, then gave chase like rabid dogs. One of them shouted, “Roubio! Roubio! Roubio!”

The fighting stopped, and the kids, who had been knocked down, picked themselves up and made towards Roubio, a short, dishevelled young man with a large head who was always leaping about like a cattle fly. Then they all crowded round the tables to help themselves to the leftovers of bread, fish, meat and salad.
After a short while, things went back to normal; what had happened had hurt nobody, except, that is, Pig-Head. Peeing-Aicha witnessed how the shock had paralyzed her friend, and how betrayal had crushed him. He was winded and bruised and his nose was bleeding. Slowly he picked himself up and simply walked away. Peeing-Aicha could do nothing for him. It was all over, the “coup d’état” had succeeded.

The strong man now was Roubio, the skinny, docile kid whose power had just exploded like a devil’s, and whose rule now extended over the empire of Jamaa l’Fna, the ‘natural habitat’ of those scruffy kids. These children of the wind, who would stampede like wild animals into Jamaa l’Fnaa every day at sunset, and then during the day go into hiding – they were like lilies, only opening up in the dark.

Pig-head’s room for manoeuvre was virtually non-existent; his defeat had left him deeply scarred and he found it very hard to accept the change of roles that had happened so unexpectedly. He had no choice but to live with what was for him a bitter pill to swallow, but he had to think of some scam that would save him from total exclusion from the only world he had ever known and to which he had always belonged. For what does life have in store for a boy who has grown up fast like a mushroom, and whose only link with the normal world was the faint memory of a father who left prison a broken man, for he had been involved in a strike of workers from the plastic factory; and on his release had discovered his wife no longer wanted him, since during his absence, she had grown used to a life of heavy drinking and whoring. His father died of grief and a severe fit of asthma. The boy had no choice but to listen to the call of the unknown, and shuffle his feet to where the hustle and bustle of the night filled the air, sleeping (on the ground) under lorries, beside telephone booths, on the doorstep of mosques, and drawn to where he could feed on leftovers.

The boy was just trying to stay alive. He would gaze, unthinking, at everything around him,. The attractive girls, with rosy cheeks, the prosperous men, the women strutting around like peacocks, the commotion, all this took place in front of him, soundlessly, without any of it making sense to him, as if it were all happening behind a wall of glass. This small world, fraught with danger and rape was the only world whose language he understood; beyond that there was no room for doubt, nor any reason to worry about the future. It was from Jamaa l’Fnaa that pimps graduated; it was there that the homeless and the tramps made their pitches, and thieves got their training; it was also the place for skilled story-tellers, charlatans, impostors and homosexuals. Pig-Head was thanking his lucky stars for contriving so early in life to find a way to escape police arrest and the raids of his peers by building himself a hut from stolen sheets of metal and cardboard on the outskirts of the city. The hut was his emergency hideout. When he took Peeing-Aicha to the hut one day, he made her swear never to show it to anyone.

Peeing-Aisha honoured her promise. But there was one thing in the hut that fascinated her: a colourful poster of Madonna with her sensual mouth and full breasts. Madonna’s image filled the hut with an aura of femininity and with Pig-Head’s silent words which only he could hear. He used to empty the contents of cigarette butts onto a piece of old newspaper, and rolling a joint, he would lean on his elbow smoke and cast lovesick glances at Madonna’s poster. Madonna would become a reality.

When Peeing-Aicha lay on the bed beside him, she scolded him: “Stop doing this! I don’t want to get pregnant. If I have a baby, I swear I’ll throw the damn thing to the dogs.”
Pig-head paid no attention to what she was saying. That was the first and last time she saw the hut, this dark-skinned, filthy girl whose legs joined at the knees before they separated sharply downward, making her walk in a way that resembled the movement of a pendulum. Jamaa l’Fnaa was like the Day of Resurrection: throngs of people, exhaust fumes, the smell of food placed on tables in an attractive fashion, voices shouting, fragments of incongruous sentences, strange stories, and obscure fatwas – all this had slipped through Pig-Head’s fingers like grains of sand. He stopped going to Jamaa l’Fnaa for days on end, and only God knew how he managed to feed himself. Everybody abandoned him; in fact they forgot about him altogether. It was as if he had never lived amongst them giving orders and instructions and settling the quarrels that flared up between these small people who were growing up between the cracks like black lilies. Even Peeing-Aicha became like them.

“But my mother left my father and eloped with her lover.” Pig-head said.
Peeing-Aicha was stricken with grief, but Pig-head’s weakness and her fear of Roubio stopped her from taking any action. While the hungry children aimed their entreating gazes at the food on the tables in the hope that some of it would come their way, Peeing-Aicha observed her friend sitting on the pavement near the bakery totally exhausted, his chin resting on his knees, his face pale and emaciated; she sneaked away behind the kiosk and whispered: “Psss! Psss!”

The sick boy turned around and slowly walked towards her. He leaned on her shoulder. They had to walk a long way before they got to the hut; and by the time they arrived, it was already dark. To their surprise, they found the door wide open. Overcome with fear, Peeing-Aicha imagined that Thabit – this huge beast that people said had appeared again in Morocco – would attack them. She and her friends had heard so much about this beast when they were stood around the big fire. She imagined it to be a bull with an ugly human head. It would sit quietly but when a sound rang in its ears and a red cloth with black stars appeared before it the bull would go charging forward like a huge sea wave and tear the insides and limbs of women to pieces. Her fear grew worse when she heard a rustle inside that made her recoil in horror, but when she saw in the darkness a cat running out of the hut, she calmed down. She was about to enter when she saw Pig-Head sprawled on the ground outside, throwing up the entire contents of his stomach until all he had left to spew up were his intestines. Stricken with grief and fear, she pulled him inside and laid him on the floor. Lying beside him she put his hand on her body, and from time to time felt his burning forehead. Only when daylight flooded into the hut did she realise she had been sound asleep. She removed the cold, limp hand that was lying across her body, and left the hut in tears.

“Black Lilies” was translated by Ali Azeriah from the author’s short story collection Sallat el-Inab [A Basket of Grapes], published in the bi-monthly Ibdaa’at Shira’ series, Issue 7, January-February 1999.