Receive Our Newsletter
For news of readings, events and new titles.
Marrakesh is known for its flamboyant history. There is a variety of palaces and unusual graves to see, as well as the famous medina, where everything is on offer – as long as you have money, of course. And the restaurants are not to be sniffed at; the City of Kings is famed for its sophisticated cooking. But Marit wasn’t interested, she wanted to see the seamy side of life, a dark world that came alive when the ordinary city dwellers were asleep. Ghali knew the way. It was just a matter of looking for the alleyways – the clubs with shady customers were easily found. While the smart tourists headed for the best nightclubs, we sat in dingy rooms, watching prostitutes aimlessly drinking cheap red wine at the bar.
Marit thought it was great.
“It’s just like a scene from a film,” she said, clutching her second glass of vodka and coke. I stuck to orange lemonade.
“I don’t like it. What if there’s a robbery, or some underworld hit? It’s a den of thieves.”
“Don’t be stupid, Layla. It’s just a bar,” Marit giggled, slightly tipsy.
A tall black man was making out with one of the women at the bar. Putting his hand on her thigh, he slid it gradually up until it was under her dress. She closed her eyes, pouted, and smiled seductively. She said something. The black man took out a bundle of notes, slid one over to her.
They left the establishment.
“We’re just sitting here,” I said.
Ghali nodded contentedly. “This is the life.”
I shook my head. What was wrong with those two?
I stood up. “I’m going out.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the hotel.”
“It’s dangerous in the streets,” Ghali objected.
“And it isn’t here? I’m beat, I want my bed, I want to sleep.”
Marit drained her glass with one gulp, tossed twenty dirham onto the table, and put on her denim jacket. “We’ll take you to the hotel, then we’ll carry on.”
“What did she say?” Ghali asked.
That translation business was beginning to bug me. Marit could speak French, no problem.
“She wants to go somewhere else after this.”
“Great,” Ghali said cheerfully. “I’m not tired yet.”
There were taxis a few streets further down, but Marit wanted to walk.
“You must be joking!” I almost shouted. “Do you know how far it is?”
“I want to walk, I’ve just been sitting.”
“But you’re only taking me back, after that you can walk till your legs fall off.”
Marit rolled her eyes: “Boy, are you a drag.”
Ghali acted as if he hadn’t noticed our disagreement.
Young men leaned against the walls, waiting for tourists. One of them, no more than a child, was approached by a Brit. They whispered something and walked away. Marit watched, astonished. Her eyes were everywhere, taking in the black sky, the brightly-lit mosque we passed, the palm trees along the road. The night smelled of crocuses, the sound of crickets filled the air. A perfect romantic moment. Apparently she thought the same. She was there and she was soaking it all in.
“Maybe my mother walked here too,” Marit said dreamily.
“No doubt about it,” I answered.
“I found her diary. She wrote that this is where she was happiest. It was her hippy period, she smoked quite a lot of pot.”
“You didn’t get it from a stranger then.”
“My father did it too. Everyone did. People were uninhibited, free. That’s what I long for too, ultimate freedom.”
“Perhaps death will bring it,” I sighed, only to regret the words a moment later.
“Perhaps,” Marit said softly. “Perhaps you’re right, perhaps man is limited by his body. The soul is so much bigger, an unfixed type of energy, pliable, as big as God. Our soul is God.”
“No, if you think about it, why not? The soul can do anything, but you can’t see it. Just like God.”
“You don’t believe in God.”
“I believe in the soul. To me it’s something divine.”
I paused and thought about what she had said.
“You’ll definitely be free. Aren’t you curious to know when you’ll die?”
“I know when I’ll die.”
I looked up. Marit stared ahead of her, as if she were sleepwalking, as if she were in an entirely different world.
“Was the doctor that precise? Did he give you a date, a time? That’s impossible, isn’t it?”
She shook her head. “He didn’t say much. But I’ll know when my time has come. That’s why I’m living like never before. I want to walk in my mother’s footsteps. I want to walk where she’s walked. I want to experience her moments of happiness.”
“You’re missing her,” I concluded.
She was silent. “At first I was, but now it’s as if she’s with me. I feel her here.” She laughed. “Sounds fuzzy, don’t you think? But there’s something else, a certain awareness I didn’t have before. I can smell more, feel more, my emotions are deeper. Perhaps because I live consciously in the here and now like I never did before. I used to sit in a place and my thoughts would jump ahead. I wish I’d always lived like this. There’s no point living in the future, especially when that future doesn’t actually exist.”
“I think it’s terrible that you’re . . .”
“No, Layla. Death could be my blessing, my salvation.”
I bowed my head and stared at my worn sandals. I listened to our footsteps, to the cars in the street. A beggar sat slumped on the ground and held out his hand, a poor attempt at begging. I averted my eyes.
“How can death be your salvation?” I said softly. So softly I thought Marit hadn’t heard me. But she stopped and touched my shoulder.
“Because it is. Life is life, but death is part of it too. Not everyone lives until they’re eighty. My mother died young, much too young. Perhaps it was her time. No, I know it was. She couldn’t but die. So many people get cancer nowadays. You’re not sad because I’m dying, because you feel sorry and bad for me; you’re sad because I’m leaving you behind.”
I was shocked and indignant, but Marit smiled.
“You’re actually very selfish. But that’s okay, it’s human.”
What does one wish for when death is just around the corner? Marit was clear about it. Towards daybreak, she noisily stumbled into the bedroom. I pretended I’d woken up with a start. She flopped down on her side of the bed, took off her shoes and gave me a glazed look.
“Are you drunk?” I said.
“No. I did drink, but I’m completely sober.” She giggled like a schoolgirl. “It was a wonderful night and you’ve got a great cousin. We went to all the dodgy bars and I flirted with all the women.”
“Do you think that’s strange?”
“I’ve always wanted to do that. Men I know, they’re familiar territory, but women are new to me. And Moroccan women are so sensual. They all touched my hair and said I have beautiful eyes.”
“And you think that’s special?”
“Sure. I’ve never felt so beautiful, so desirable.”
I pulled the sheet over me and turned away. She was back; my anxiety had disappeared. I could sleep now.
“I’m in love with Marrakesh,” Marit said. “This city is better than Amsterdam. They’re very free here, for an Islamic country. You can get anything: sex, drugs, booze. And as long as you give them money, the police will look the other way.”
“Let me guess. You were stopped.”
Marit laughed as if it were a good joke.
“Ghali and I walked with Fati down the street.”
“Fati’s a whore. A very beautiful male/female whore. She wants to become a woman, that’s why she has sex with men.”
“No, a transsexual.”
“But he, I mean she, hasn’t had the operation yet?”
“No, but she’ll have it soon. There’s a good doctor in Casablanca, but it costs a lot of euros.”
“Dirhams,” I corrected her.
“No, euros. The surgeon only wants to be paid in euros. Fati says he’s a Jewish doctor with little faith in the Moroccan currency. So Fati has sex with Europeans and will only be paid in euros. He’s learning fast. But then he has to, of course.”
Marit was mumbling, I think she was a little woozy. I sighed. This was not the time for such a conversation.
“But Fati was too touchy-feely.”
“Was he all over you?”
Marit roared with laughter.
“No, Fati was crazy about Ghali, she couldn’t stay away from him, she kept kissing him and pinching his bum. Ghali was not amused, but just when Fati gave him a kiss on the lips, a police car stopped. They wanted to take us with them. Well, not me because I’m European, but Ghali and Fati. I gave them two hundred dirham and they drove off. Simple. If only it were that easy in Holland.”
“In Holland people aren’t stopped in the street when they kiss each other. Fucking hypocritical country, this,” I muttered. I imagined Ghali being touched everywhere, and I smiled involuntarily. I pressed my face into my pillow so that Marit wouldn’t see.
Meanwhile, she was only wearing panties. She slid into bed and stretched her arms.
“Ah, wonderfully fresh, these sheets.”
“Can’t you have a shower? You stink of smoke. And brush your teeth. Smells like you’ve been drinking wine and beer.”
“Bacardi, too.” Marit turned on her side. “Hmmm, just a few hours of sleep now. We’ve got a meeting at an ice bar at two.” She closed her eyes.
“What? Who’s agreed to meet?”
“Me.” She yawned. “You and Ghali are coming too. Fati and his best friend, Yasmine, are coming. That’s not her real name, it’s her artist name. She’s a whore too.”
“Nah,” Marit grinned sleepily. “Not everyone wants replumbing. She’s an ordinary girl.” Her words were long drawn-out and languid. “I’ve seen a picture of her, Fati had it with her. They’re sharing an apartment somewhere in the neighbourhood. Cheap, because he needs to save, of course. Did I tell you he wants to have a sex change?
“Yasmine is happy to go to bed with me. For free – because I’m dying.”
“What!” I sat straight up in bed.
“Well, I’m not paying for it. That’s why I told her I’m dying, that I have cancer. Fati was crying her eyes out and asked me what I wanted most of all. I said that just once in my life I want to be eaten by a woman. But that was difficult to translate. I think she still doesn’t understand. So I’ll have to tell Yasmine, too, what I want. Otherwise I’ll show her. But quiet now, please. I need to sleep. I’m tired. Terribly tired. Oh, wait.” She sat up. “I want some more of those drops.”
“But you need to put them in tea, we don’t have any here.”
“Order some, then. Please, I need it. I can feel something.”
She pressed her hand on her stomach and for a moment her face convulsed.
I rang reception.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon and I’d never been anywhere that hot. Sweat dripped from my upper lip and ran down between my breasts. Exhausted and apathetic, Ghali spooned down his strawberry-vanilla ice cream. I drank an ice-cold chocolate milkshake. Marit sat blissfully between the two of us, peering down the street and looking at every passer-by. Every woman wearing an eye-popping dress made her jump with excitement. But none of them was Yasmine.
“Maybe he’s not coming,” Ghali said sleepily, in French.
“ ’Course he will,” Marit answered.
“He’s not getting any money, so why should he come?”
“It’s a she, not a he. She was born in the wrong body.”
I didn’t get involved, I drank my milkshake and looked around me. I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, the day of our departure.
Meanwhile, it was three o’clock and not a whore in sight. I understood. I wouldn’t move either in this heat.
“Fati!” Marit jumped up with a scream and ran towards a long-haired, blonde glamour girl with oversized sunglasses, a top that was too tight and a skirt that was too short. They hugged affectionately and kissed each other on the mouth. Next to the glamour girl was a more modest type. She had short, curly, henna’d red hair and wore a djellaba of the same colour.
She, too, protected her eyes against the glaring sun with Chanel sunglasses, which they must have picked up from a market. Both women also carried Louis Vuitton handbags, but there was no V in the logo.
“Layla, this is Fati, and this is Yasmine.”
We kissed each other warmly on the cheek as if we’d known each other for years. Fati pinched my arms and patted my back. She giggled and brought her hand to her mouth.
“Layla, nice name.” Fati’s voice sounded deep, her large Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as she spoke.
Yasmine didn’t say a word. She couldn’t keep her eyes off Marit. The two women kept looking at each other, checking each other out.
“How beautiful she is,” Yasmine said eventually. “So fair, and then those eyes. What tragedy, how terrible.”
Her voice broke and tears streamed from under her sunglasses down her cheeks.
Marit looked worried. “What’s wrong?”
“She’s crying over you, ma petite,” Fati said, herself unable to control her tears. The two prostitutes were crying their eyes out over a young woman they barely knew. I decided to order another milkshake.
Ghali seemed to be feeling awkward too. He crossed his legs but, trying to look tough, soon let them loll wide apart.
“Layla, order an ice cream for our friends,” Marit said.
“No, no ice cream for me, I have to watch my figure,” Fati said in Arabic. “And Yasmine doesn’t want one either, her arse is growing too big.”
“My arse isn’t big,” Yasmine retorted. It was amazing how quickly the two had recovered from their emotions. I returned to my milkshake and spent fifteen minutes listening to the two friends arguing. Marit was really enjoying herself. Ghali had pushed his chair back in a half-hearted attempt not to be part of this group.
“Shouldn’t you be doing what we came for?” I asked. But my friend wasn’t in a hurry. Without responding, she beamed at the women opposite her. Fati in particular. She was clearly someone who had ignored and therefore broken social barriers, and did what she wanted. In Marit's mind, she was truly free. I practically heard her think that, and was jealous somehow; I wouldn’t mind her admiring me like that.
Fati finally turned to Marit. “Over there, in that alley, is a cheap guesthouse. For forty dirhams you can spend an hour doing whatever you want. But Yasmine doesn’t have much money, so you’ll need to pay the room hire. That’s all, though. My friend will pamper you. Go. I need to see a customer. He and his wife are staying at an expensive hotel just up the road. She’s having a treatment at a beauty parlour, which gives him three hours to have fun with me. He’s actually a dirty fatso, into bondage and all that. So I tie him up and…”
“Yeah, yeah, please go,” Ghali sighed wearily.
“Oh, my petit,” Fati said affectionately to Ghali. “It’s you I’d like to pamper! For free. With those lovely . . .”
Pressing a kiss onto Ghali’s forehead, Fati tottered off to her appointment on her inordinately high stilettos.
Yasmine stood up and Marit followed.
“Finally,” Ghali said in a relieved tone, “that’s them gone.”
The air-conditioning in the ice cream parlour battled the heat. I was on my fourth shake, while Ghali was enjoying a triple espresso with six spoonfuls of sugar and a piece of chocolate cake. We didn’t talk. Instead, we looked out the wide shop window, watching the elegantly-rigged horse-drawn carriages driving tourists around. The only people in sight were those who had to be there, like salesmen or policemen, or foreigners enjoying the searing heat.
I coughed. Ghali didn’t look up. He sat bent over the table, enjoying his sugar bomb. He had dark patches under his eyes, and his face was ashen with fatigue.
“Why did you stay out so late last night?” I asked sharply.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Marit didn’t want to go back. She thought everything was wonderful and exciting. She talked to everyone, and everyone found her fantastic, beautiful and cute, which made her enjoy herself even more. Wild horses couldn’t drag her back to the hotel. I’m glad I got even half an hour’s sleep.”
He sighed and licked his split lower lip.
“I’ve got a headache. Everything’s spinning.”
“Too much to drink, probably.”
“I’m tired, Layla. They’ll be the death of me, these three days. I’ll be in the grave sooner than your friend.”
“You’re not the only one,” I muttered.
My cousin sighed theatrically. He looked at me disapprovingly.
“What’s the matter?”
“Do you know, it’s a complete disaster having to deal with you? All you’ve done is complain since the moment you arrived. I haven’t seen you smile once. I’m sorry, but I have to tell you: you’re sulky and grouchy, and all you do is try and stop everything.”
I stood up, feeling angry and disappointed.
“Oh, go on then, go back to your hotel. You know the way. I won’t be coming after you. I’m too tired, anyway. Go, leave.” He ordered another espresso and I sat down again. Ghali pretended not to see my anger. The waiter brought his coffee and a glass of water. Carefully spooning some sugar into his espresso, he took a sip. His face relaxed briefly. I was looking for words, but choked on my indignation. I stared at him for minutes at a time, but he avoided my eyes and looked out the window. It would be at least an hour before Marit returned from her sexual indulgence.
“I’m not . . .” Brooding, I paused, then hesitated. I shook my head vigorously. “I do smile, and I’ve always taken part in everything. I’m doing my best too.”
Ghali whistled. “Oh, really? How? The only thing you did is bring her here. After that, you left her to her own devices. That’s what you did. Marit wants to see happiness around her while she’s here, not sadness, although there are many reasons for sadness. That’s what she wants. You’re just grumpy. It pisses me off no end.”
“You’ve been listening too much to her. She probably complains about me, thinks I’m not good enough. That’s it, right? Isn’t that it?”
Ghali slammed down his cup. The waiter looked up absentmindedly.
“Not everything’s about you, you know! You’re completely paranoid. Not everything revolves around Layla and her feelings. Can you understand that? You shouldn’t project everything onto yourself.”
“Why are you doing this?” My voice broke with a sob.
“Because you have one day left. I want you to remove yourself from the spotlight and focus on Marit. That doesn’t mean you have to be involved with her all the time, but you should try not to project too much of your suffering onto her. It’s just a burden to her.”
“Yes, your suffering. It’s more about your suffering than hers, as long as she is trying to enjoy herself. As soon as she starts thinking about the end getting closer, it’ll be her turn to suffer.”
I didn’t understand. He noticed and leaned over to me.
“All she wants to do now is to forget. She told me so. She wants to see the things she sees, things that make her happy. If you push everything else into the background, it ceases to exist for a while. She said that her spirit is so strong that it suppresses her illness to allow her to take whatever comes her way. Grant her that, and stop being a constant reminder of the approaching abyss. Do you understand? Do you want to understand?”
I was silent.
“Try to understand. Try your best. Do it for her. I think her life will be shorter than we all think. She’s up to something. I don’t know what, but I don’t like how it feels. That friend of yours is very strong-minded, but she’s also stubborn and headstrong. Make sure you’re there when she ceases to be.”
Excerpted from the novel Het gelukssyndroom
[The Happiness Syndrome], Contact Publishers, Amsterdam, 2008
and featured in Banipal 35 – Writing in Dutch, with kind permission of the publisher,
in English translation from the Dutch by Susan Ridder
Banipal 35 was supported by the Dutch Foundation for Literature