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Translated by Abdellah Bouazza
It is time for my mind to moult. There is a lot to be said for writing with a quill, however conceited: with dead feathers one brings words to life. Hopefully, oneself as well. It is time for me, here in this mountainous landscape hard by a river and the sea, to write. I think I have found words, under which thoughts hide and not solely the wind that has blown through my mind for so long.
The sun glows, every shade has tumbled down and made for itself a roof of the earth. Makhometo has just brought me food. I am sated, but do not feel sleepy. Whether or not consciously, he and his wife have done much to refresh my mind. And the carping cantors among the fire-worshiping cicadas would keep me awake in the scorching sun anyway.
Not a single moment of the day goes by without its minstrel.
I have heard myriad mixed notes in Makhometo's and Andala's house, and now I am lying on the terrace roof in the shade in that genial mood when pleasant musings sadden the mind - if only I had not already known that sadness. It is as if the god Pan had connected my body to the human soul flowing through me and it pains me profoundly to think what man makes of man.
And I think I found the words, a refuge for my once confused mind.
The friendly breeze blowing over my face seems to carry a blessing, as if conscious of the joy it brings from the mountains and the sea beyond the mountains and from the azure sky. Whatever his mission, the breeze will not find a more grateful guest than me, who left the city, where I did not languish, but still dwelt like a not wholly contented guest. And now free, not like a bird, but enjoying a freedom that can only be found in vast, rough plains surrounded by mountains. The soil, which reminds me of my father's skin, breathes somewhere beneath and before me. The river Neccor has all but completely dried up from the winter and spring, only a soft trickle is audible - when I listen intently - where it once used to burble and then murmur. Someone has to take over its mumbling.
And I think I have found words, under which thoughts hide and not solely the wind that has blown through my mind for so long.
Returned, I wanted to say, but I have not been here before, to the house that my late father had bequeathed me. And even if I was not born here, even if I have rarely visited it, it does feel like a return to my country - the dust my father left in my blood or genes.
I would not be here if my mother had not insisted that I retire to this place - she didn't go about it in a direct but in a roundabout way; first to Oujda with which I was familiar, and afterwards branching away to the North - perhaps as a kind of surprise or because she was afraid I did not want to come here directly; a sun-infatuated coast for the wreck I was, when I lay with my head in her lap: sufficient warmth for me there even though she thought the sun would do me good. It was the ripe season of the year when the sun scorches the yellow leaves until they are all golden - the season when the filamentose spider weaves diligently and the brain spins more than usual - in such a period I found myself on that quiet evening, embraced by Mother's voice and clothed by her warmth and nourished by her smell; myself touched by grief's dew that time had left in my eyes, and I wondered how the world had fared without me all this time.
So far every direction I took was the road of melancholy; it seemed I walked in the rut of death, which seemed too tired to walk as well and that is why it preferred a cart. It could be that every step I took followed the furrow made by the scythe, which death hauled over its shoulder in disappointment, overly dispirited by so little gain. There was nothing left for me but to withdraw further into my mind's regions where apathy and the summer and heat of sorrow reigned, and to long for the harvest of an autumnal life and ripe flowers, but they failed to materialize. Fill in any season for my condition by way of metaphor, and it will work, my love.
A long period of silence ensued, in spite of the voice from within. It admonished my valleys with a creaking growl of portentously flapping wings, and I lay on mother's lap. The little pouts of spring Cupids are something different from the buccal puffs of black clouds.
The antidepressants I swallowed and was forced to swallow did not help. The therapist I was sent to, however, thought I had been traumatized and advised I should be left alone. That was not good enough for those who worried about me. In this case not quick enough for mother, who expected from a doctor immediate recovery.
"They are so learned, aren't they!" she exclaimed.
She had sent for me and took care of me, although it must have wounded her heart to see what an imperfect human being she had put on this world. She was determined to cure me.
So I was nourished by her food, there is nothing like maternal gastronomy: a choice of soups, stews, and apart from, no, in addition to that much care and fondling. I think she understood my insanity or lack of sanity. It was as if stones had knocked out my teeth and I had become a weanable edentate; however, I had fallen with my mouth on the curb and lost a few teeth.
Mothers hold that their food has a medicinal effect, which is true, that is to say, if they can cook. And my mother was a good cook. Or it could have been that I needed to grow.
I lived in a motley darkness and have, I think, lost two years of a
conscious lifetime. I believe that even an embryo has more life and even more thoughts than I had then.
"My son is dying, my son is dying and breaking apart," mother sang and wailed. "The mists weep their burden to the ground. Only I don't weep. Your father ploughed the fields and lies now underground, but after many a summer you die with but a swan song."
No, it was only immortality that consumed me; I faded slowly in your arms, here in the silent hems of the world; a ghost that cannot even, like a dream, roam the clamorous spaces of the Orient, in the suspended mists of a cleansed world and in the sparkling halls of darkness.
The world: a wilderness, where tears hang on every tree. Only in this manner my lurking mind could cause all things around me to weep so that I was not alone in my tearfulness, and hence did not suffer from self-pity. The world has many sharp points with which it rips the bosom. There is a dainty choice of sufferings to pass the day: self-contempt (do not speak to me of honour), the death of affection, negligible pride and cankering scorn, not to mention all those pitiful stories that tears have engraved on cheeks and soil ever since the world was born. I had my own story.
Alas for this shadow that once deemed himself a man; he was so glorious in his beauty and in your favour; whom you elected until he thought himself nothing less than a divine bird at heart. He couldn't know that one god desired two birds and the other one: both the same bird: two different gods. Two ravens for a one-eyed and one raven for a light-giver.
"Just go to sleep, son," mother said.
* * *
After a while my mother pushed the keys of this house into my hand - she had no inkling what her act would bring about - and forced me gently to be manly and undertake the trip. Which I did - at least, the latter. In order to be manly one has to have once been a man, I thought or mumbled.
My life has always been one of ramifications: from native village via town to the capital, to end up as a vagrant, who greeted the park benches like good old friends, like girl-friends with whom he has slept. I didn't greet myself, with whom I lived and had countless conversations. Once, I recall, I knocked at a police station for a place to sleep, which I was denied. When I had again woken up in the street - and I wouldn't be surprised if it had been the gutter: the gutter is a kind of lap or womb - they, whoever "they" were, knew how to reach my mother - or it could be that my mother had sent them to search for me. I was not unhappy with my way of life; I was not happy. I was. I lugged my heart on my back, so I was alive. I even survived a winter night on a bench under a plane tree in a square in Amsterdam. I was covered by the feathery snow, and the lights burned red, green and yellow, and behind those lights people celebrated their weekend; I could only smile under the white fall, at the plumelets that the flakes tried in vain to shape into wings on my shoulders and about me, and I fell asleep.
The next day I woke up, like a uselessly fletched butterfly who, the coat tails covered by winter's frost, has only one option left, namely, life, and lies half-dead until the cheerful spring (cheerful spring!) and the sun from their quickening eyes dart forth a sparkle of the living fire, which warms up the frozen fly and inspires its little breast with new spirit.
The snow was melting and it took me a while before I, by dint of the sunshine, felt how cold I was.
And in the cheerful month of May I traipsed through Amsterdam and reached Vondel Park. I don't know why - perhaps something about my drooping shoulders, the uncertain steps of my gait, the black tailcoat in the sun, but an old woman accosted me and asked where I was going. I didn't know. (I had nowhere to go.)
"Can I help you?" she asked.
Someone banished by joy, a friend of world-sickness whom all people, even if it inspires me with loathing, can call a man, who is totally lost and does not know whither he flaps: how can you help him?
I didn't say this.
Every wrinkle and furrow on her face was a smile. She grasped my hand and wished me strength. "You have to eat something," she said. She had pushed a note in my palm (o not again), but not a written note: a bank note.
* * *
Apparently something had to happen, according to my mother, and she knew what. I suffered from lack of a basis, I suffered from homesickness, needed a home, and, of course, mother's cooking, while the only thing I wanted was to feel my heart in my breast again. And a soul in my body. I knew the tale by Hippolais, about the king or demon whose soul dwelt in a bird (I don't recall whether it was a nightingale or a "thousand-voiced warbler" - I think the latter), and in order to kill him one had to kill the bird and not the king. My soul must have been entrusted to ravens, which feed on carrion and caw of parting and forlornness and cry nevermore when they have finally covered a female - while they turned black because of their unfaithfulness. And during all this they seem to pray while croaking, but then again they are cemetery birds, the black monks.
I didn't know the meaning of all that flapping and warbling and cawing in my head. Soon I would know. Only one look would be enough.
I obeyed mother. I was so apathetic I could have let myself be led to hell to feel my skin burn repeatedly and heal again for the next burning: that way I could at least feel something. I had indeed neither strength nor desire to oppose her. I let her do as she pleased and surrendered to her: mothers do know best after all.
* * *
I flew to Oujda. And I was back in Morocco. Crowds, waiting, the smell of travel sweat and the joy of reunion; the ineffability that typifies all airports. Grey within and grey without: the twilight dimmed all colours and rolled westward. From the airport I was driven to the house in a red petit taxi (yellow roof light). The cab driver was small, something simian about his appearance, his clothes were a tad too big, a jacket, a turtleneck sweater and baggy trousers, beaming friendliness and as talkative as a barber. He asked me to hand him my luggage, which he put in the trunk, and we drove away clattering. As the landscape did not hold my attention and I was feeling listless, I listened to what he had to say. He told me he was unmarried, for which he was very sorry; he had made several marriage proposals, but each time they were ("strangely enough") declined. Each time at the very last minute the dowry was raised. Yet the near future held a woman for him, he was certain of that.
He had five brothers and each brother had a different profession and his own shortcoming. One had a hump; another was paralytic, even though he was nicknamed The Prattler; one was blind in one eye and was called The Gugglet owing to his loquacity; another had no ears and was called The Amphora for obvious reasons, in the same fashion that another brother had a harelip. He narrated with much relish and laughter. When I had arrived at the house in the neat outskirts of the town it was luckily dark.
I got out, paid and tipped the driver. He helped me carry my luggage and shook my hand.
"It smells of clove pink here," he said.
Just to say something, I wished him an acceptable engagement and a loving bride, which should happen, because unlike his brothers he seemed to have no deficiencies.
"I am the blind one of the six brothers," he replied. "And I am called The Reticent."
I opened the iron door and, without switching on the light, put my shoulder bag on the tiles, and on a sofa in the corridor, enveloped by my clothes and the smell of lemon, fell asleep.
In the morning I was roused by the sunlight that entered through the balustrade and façade's railing and was mowed scythe-wise into sharp stalks among the leaves of the lemon tree and the vine. And by the cooing of an invisible turtle-dove. I seemed to smell the fragrance and groceries of Mother, who was the last one to stay here.
Gradually the sun got hold of me and revivified me. How long would I stay here? Time yawned and showed an ominous void. I panicked somewhat at the thought of how I, yet in another estrangement than the one I was used to - a mental estrangement, should while away the time. At least I had a roof above my head and could, if I wanted to, lie on the sofa for the whole day, but the smarting sun, as I said, brought me to life, and I stood up to empty my bag.
Everything proved that I was not the one who had packed. All socks, for example, were interfolded twins by twins; even my own handkerchiefs were neatly folded and allotted their own place. Attention had also been paid to my long-neglected hygiene by way of a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and everything required to soap, lather and scent the body. I don't need to say who was responsible for this, nor for the envelope containing money.
It was the tidy look of my bag's entrails that instilled a sense of
responsibility in me - in other words, it would have made me feel guilty if I
indulged my painful lethargy any longer. Otherwise there was nothing to do but
wait for the sunset in all its various wardrobes of
bliauds (older than the word were the sun's rotations), after which the evening and night could cover my mind, rag upon rag, the same rag - a monotonous rag doll my days and myself would remain. A slumber would seal my spirit and protect it against every human fear. It could still be a thing that could not feel the touch of past years. It would not be connected to any tree (Oh, no), to any plant (Oh, no, no), not even to a stone - least of all a stone. Because tree, plant and stone do feel the demise of years. But the thing I dreaded most was my own fear.
So I sat upright with my shadow and slowly eviscerated my luggage, and tried to do this with as much love as when it, as I could infer, was bagged while alive. My clothes and underwear and socks and handkerchiefs had all been washed. They were still alive. Mother had added toe-slippers and a black bathrobe.
Now two turtle-doves were cooing, perhaps the cock had found its pigeon. Your hands are moist, my dove. Where did I read the story about a cock accusing its dove of unfaithfulness?
No need for me to describe the atrium with its delirious mosaic, cool tiling and various spaces. This place was merely the prologue to my eventual abode, but I was elated to find, in the courtyard in a corner of the house opposite the kitchen, a fountain. It was easy to switch it on, and I washed my face in it and in an unspied moment I doffed all my clothes and drenched myself. On the roof edge I saw three doves skedaddle, and they seemed reflected in the water on my lashes or to swim underwater.
At that moment there was a knocking on the door (news rides as fast as the dead).
I wanted to grab a towel, but in my hurry I grabbed the bathrobe, and while uttering those well-known cries of "coming!" I put on shorts and dripped to the door. I opened the door and was immediately embraced by the opposite neighbour, who recognized me, but whom I didn't. My condition did not matter; he started reminiscing about father and mother. In all likelihood (I didn't ask him, nor would he, I believe, have answered), my mother had phoned and told him about my arrival. He would, as the Moroccan expression has it, "carry me on his eyes" if mother asked. And the esteem my father enjoyed there shone unworthily enough on me.
Unasked, he helped me dry myself and told me how glad he was to see me again. He had heard a lot about me (or did he say had seen me often?) from father and if there was anything he could do for me I should not hesitate or feel embarrassed at all. He looked at me full of promise: his eyes glinting, his wiry moustache smiling, and pinched my arm.
He would leave me alone for now, but be at my disposal (echoing Mother in everything he said). He lived across from me and I could call whenever I wanted, and if I didn't, he would call on me.
I thanked him as heartily as my surprised state allowed and showed him out of the house. I lowered my head to conceal my embarrassment, but from under my eyebrows I saw a genuine look of warmth in his eyes.
The drops clinging to my lashes made my eyes wink.
* * *
Should I go to him or wait until he knocked at my door? I decided to do the former, and upon my diffident knocks he opened the door and stood ready with a tray occupied by a teapot, glasses of spearmint-tea, a plateful of thin-layered bread, a kind of square-shaped tortilla, and honey. We seated ourselves in the front garden, under the musk rose and sycamore, amidst the honeysuckle (his house was therefore not a reflection of mine), in the fresh, warming sunlight that reminded me of the lemony aftershave my father used, and started eating. I had forgotten that the best breakfast is a sweet breakfast - actually, I had long ago forgotten about breakfast.
Initially, I felt uncomfortable, feeling the creases of my clean clothes, but when we finally dripped the honey like melted amber over the greasy bread and took generously big bites of it followed by draughts of tea my spirits rose. We rubbed our fingers clean with a towel; I noticed his dusty trousers were smudged with grey spots.
Thus our ritual continued.
He had already introduced himself, because he knew I had forgotten his name, after all, the last time I saw him was more than twenty years ago; I was sixteen and he nineteen or twenty years old at the time. His name was Warid and he had retained detailed memories of me. Some of the rolled-up pieces of bread were spotted like leopards, and we devoured them as they bled honey. With the dry ball of his thumb he struck my shoulder affectionately and I could see that he longed to embrace me.
"Wait," he said and stood up, because we had drunk and eaten everything, "I will send for more."
He returned alone, sat down on a tabouret and belched.
"And look whom we have here!"
A female voice behind me. I turned and saw a young woman standing: short, black curly hair, small stature, mature pelvis, an immense smile on her white smooth face and a galaxy of joy in her large black eyes. She wore a light-brown, sleeveless, knee-long dress, deftly carrying a tray in her right hand, with a child, hardly one year old, straddling her right hip.
"My sister Sephina," Warid said.
She put the tray down between me and her, and besides the aroma of
flatbread I seemed to smell that she had just suckled the child. Furthermore, I
smelled she had not washed yet and emanated the warmth of sleep, not cosmetics,
but the smell of a young woman, warm, biscuity, like crushed poppies, and
especially her mouth's odour, oestrogen's estradiol, a woman's fragrance
exactly in between her menses, the smell of the flower
emonenis. Her sun-charred, tendrilous locks that did not reach her shoulders but entwined her neck were redolent of olive oil, and the gladness in her eyes inundated me. I felt her eyelashes brush my cheekbone.
"Oh," she said rapturously to her brother, "he doesn't remember me any more."
While in the fatamorgana of her appearance past or imaginary images resurfaced in my memory.
"It's been quite a while," Warid said.
Yes, I could vaguely remember her - especially the . . . especially the desire she aroused in my fifteen- or sixteen-year-old body, a veritable hormonal minefield that I was back then. Her own twelve- or thirteen-year-old body had been turbulent as well. The healthy Moroccan climate is conducive to such matters, someone said, and to the voluptification of a girl's flesh. She still made a muscular impression combined with fleshly plenty. And she still had an oval face and a mouth tinted like a red carnation while the inside of her lips was dark. Big teeth with glistening enamel disclosed her laugh.
"I have to go inside again," she said. She wore sandals and her heels were dusky from stale henna. And we resumed our breakfast; next to the tea she had put two large glasses of milk, the colour of her teeth and the white of her eye. Buttermilk, it turned out at the first draught.