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The King is Dead! Long Live the King! Long live the multi-ringtone mobile. Long live modern technology! Long live the blue screen!
When the people in sore need of God devote themselves to the mobile and set off into the kingdom of the electron, their need is forgotten. The world becomes a small village, at the fingertips of the population in the internet cafés that have spread like a rash at democratic prices. No price rises for the poor! Two dirhams for a quick visit. Three dirhams for half an hour; five for a full hour. For loyal customers the second hour is four dirhams, and so on. A few dirhams and a few words of a foreign language and God’s online people can roam the polyglot pavilions of the blonde. That’s for males. For females, clunky Arabic suffices to make red-blooded connected hearts leap from the Atlantic to the Gulf.
Long live technology!
As for Rahal, aka Nomad, aka Squirrel, he was at the heart of it . . . the right place at the right time.
He opened a Hotmail account, not to mail anyone but just to have a Hotmail account. He set up another on Maktoob, not to chat with Arabs online, but because naturally he had to have a Maktoob account. The third was Yahoo, just because it was Yahoo. The fourth he still had to decide.
All the cybercafé’s customers were new to the field. Most were at the stage of discovery. So whenever a newbie turned up, he asked Rahal for a computer and a helping hand. This one wanted to open a Hotmail account, another a Yahoo account. Rahal stayed up late opening online accounts for them. A new service that seemed magical to first-time visitors to the cybercafé. So he set a price of 30 dirhams. The account was free, but Rahal made 30 dirhams from every one he opened. The customers found it normal. How could it be possible to get an email account that did the same things as a PO box in Massira post office for nothing? And Rahal’s mailboxes were better, since you only had to pay the sign-up fee on day one and it was open for good.
Customers came and went, taking it in turns at the computers and guiding the optical mouses over the desktops. All the same, a little family gradually coalesced around Rahal. Salim, the high-school student, dazzled by the new online world. He had two emails so far, Hotmail and Yahoo. Sometimes he came with his father, at times with his younger sister Lamia. He was always looking for sources of information online, and every day he printed out the results of his research, which he knew how to flaunt to his classmates.
Samira and Fadoua came in together, sat together, and left together. Specialists in chat rooms, they merged into a single avatar. They loved chatting to boys in Arabic, French, and English. Username: Marrakech Star.
“Two in one: shampoo and conditioner together,” Qamar Eddine al-Suyuti would tease them whenever he spotted them coming into the cybercafé.
Qamar Eddine, the son of Shihab Eddine al-Suyuti, the best-known teacher of Islamic studies at Massira High School and the one most joked about by the pupils.
“Which one of us is the shampoo, and which one the conditioner?” Fadoua asked him conspiratorially.
“To be honest, I’m still not sure. When I decide you’re the shampoo, I’ll let you know.”
Qamar Eddine knew all the tales of Marrakech Star, especially as Fadoua and Samira turned to him for all their messages in English. He explained anything unclear in people’s emails and corrected their replies so they crossed the Net with fewer mistakes.
Qamar Eddine’s English was good, and his French, but he always muttered, with or without cause, that unfortunately his Arabic was poor. His features displayed no sorrow when he repeated his confession. On the contrary his face almost glowed with hidden pride. Did he say it to spite Mr Shihab Eddine? The Arabic teacher who shifted to Islamic studies, not because of an upwelling of religiosity, but out of laziness and a desire to escape classes in grammar and parsing. Islamic Knowledge was not a core subject for either science or arts students. Two hours a week for everyone. Many pupils thought the class was a break and they spent it on the sportsground or in front of school or, for those who had the money, skating the glacial screen and surfing the waves of light with Rahal, particularly as Mr al-Suyuti did not take the register.
Qamar Eddine did not actually hate his father, but he hated the talking about him. He always preferred the company of friends who did not go to Massira High School and so knew nothing about the character of Mr Shihab Eddine and had not heard the jokes or funny stories about him. Fadoua and Samira were an exception. Although they had both studied with Mr al-Suyuti, their relationship with Qamar Eddine was the product of the cybercafé and had nothing to do with school. Besides, he was a handsome guy, brilliant at languages, so his friendship was win-win for the binary Marrakech Star.
Qamar Eddine was in the cybercafé constantly, so much so that Rahal left him to look after the place whenever some emergency forced him to leave or go to school to fulfil one of Hiyam’s ever-urgent requests. Qamar Eddine began to take vicarious pleasure in the online adventures and conquests of the Marrakech Star in east and west. This one was serious, this one coy, and that one had honourable intentions. This one wanted to visit Marrakech because of her eyes and asked about the best hotels and suitable flights. Another proposed she come to London. He would pay the plane ticket and welcome her into his flat to spend a week with him as an esteemed and venerated guest, or for a whole month, if her precious time permitted. Another, with awesome humility, suggested they went on the lesser pilgrimage to Esteemed Mecca.
But as soon as Amelia the Nigerian’s sun rose in the cybercafé, the Marrakech Star was eclipsed. Fadoua noticed that Qamar Eddine lost his concentration whenever the black Nigerian sun peeked out. Amelia sometimes came on her own, sometimes her friend Flora came too. Jackaboo always joined them afterwards. That might have been a ploy so that Rahal did not stop the three of them sitting at one screen. The rules of the place were well known: maximum two per computer.
What kind of relationship existed between Jackaboo and Amelia and Flora no one knew. Was he their brother? A relative? Or the boyfriend of one of them? It was always hard to guess with Africans. Whatever the case, they were lucky: landlords didn’t ask for their papers, even if they were Muslims from Mali or Senegal. They didn’t get checked out like Moroccans. Local guys had a hard time living with their girlfriends without a marriage certificate. But no one questioned Africans, so they lived together, five to ten on top of each other in a small apartment of two rooms, kitchen, and bathroom. Qamar Eddine didn’t generally bother about these details. He wasn’t in love with Amelia; she just made him happy. Her long neck delighted him and her smile gave him a thrill. That was enough for him. Sitting with her also gave him a good opportunity to chat in English, which she knew very well. But there was a more important reason . . . somewhat sensitive. One better not to broach near other people, especially not Fadoua and Samira.
Qamar Eddine wanted to flee the country by any means necessary. Shihab Eddine exhausted him; his boring life at home exhausted him, as did the college, which he infrequently attended, and even the bloody cybercafé, to which he seemed addicted. Rahal’s snooping exhausted him. Whenever he turned round he saw the rat monitoring his screen. The discussions of his history teachers at high school exhausted him – they came en masse to the cybercafé. They did not have set times, but when they did honour the place, they did so as a group, as if they were going to mosque. They took a computer each, and rather than surfing, they started chatting as though they were in the staff room. They said life in the days of Hassan II had been worse, and the situation in the country had improved a lot with the advent of the young king, that there were margins for freedom, a new vitality, and signs of change. Qamar Eddine wasn’t interested in the stories of his father’s colleagues. He could see no change at all. Besides, who said he wanted to know what life had been like under Hassan II? He had been small then. Now he felt grown up and did not want to go backwards. He didn’t have time to waste on such talk. He wanted another kind of life. The life he saw in films and on television. Life as lived by God’s chosen people in the North. Qamar Eddine wanted to run away from here. Migration was a sacred right. He did not understand why he had to stay in a place where non-entities he did not like suffocated him. He did not understand why he did not have the right to force this whole tedious world out of his days and nights, out of his life and future, and set off.
“Christian of course. Why do you ask?” replied Amelia.
“Just asking. But can we talk outside?”
She left Flora on her own glued to the screen, excusing herself in a local Nigerian dialect that meant Qamar Eddine only gathered Jackaboo’s name, which she repeated three times. Outside, he invited her to the Milano café opposite the cyber. He discovered that Amelia smoked. As soon as the waitress Asmaa place a cup of coffee in front of her, Amelia took a pack of Marquise out of her pocket, lit a cigarette, and offered the pack to Qamar Eddine.
“Thanks. I don’t smoke . . . I won’t keep you long, but I’d like to learn about Christianity from you. I mean I’d like to know more. I read online about the Trinity and the oneness of God, about the divine nature of Lord Jesus, and his humanity, about the difference between Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, and then about Protestants and Anglicans. I’ve also read the Sermon on the Mount dozens of times and learnt bits of it in Arabic, French, and English by heart. Want to be sure? Try this: ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other. And if anyone wants . . . anyone wants . . .’ See I’ve forgotten. There’s another passage after it that goes: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”’ There’s also, “Seek and you shall find” that I’ve learnt by heart. Listen . . .’
“No, you listen, Qamar . . . ”
“Abdel Massih. My new name is Abdel Massih (Servant of the Messiah). You’re the first person I’ve told. It’s our secret.”
“Listen, Abdel Massih, it seems there’s been some confusion. When I told you I was Christian, I was talking in general about the family faith. But trust me, I’m not a Christian in the sense you mean. I don’t go to church, and don’t read the Bible, and haven’t memorized the Sermon on the Mount. A Christian, that’s all. Take it from me like that. And let’s go back to the cyber, please. Flora’s waiting for me.”
Qamar Eddine was disappointed. In fact, he had discovered Christianity by chance. It started with surfing porn sites. Because the rat staying up at the place was lashing his back with curious hungry looks, he started browsing sites about migration. He left that to parkour through cyberspace. One more big leap and without premeditation he found himself on the opposite shore as a follower of Jesus Christ: “‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.’”
I have believed, my Teacher. The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.
Qamar Eddine was stunned by Amelia’s cold response. He was in dire need for someone to support him at that critical time in his online search for the truth. Amelia was his black angel, his father who art in cyberspace. His mother. His sister. It made no difference. Her smile revealed the patience of the saints to him. But she had disappointed him in a way that really hurt. Imagine, she did not read the Bible and had not memorized the Sermon on the Mount!
Amelia, however, was shocked. Since they started visiting the cybercafé Flora and Jackaboo had pointed out to her that Qamar Eddine had fallen for her, or was at least clearly interested. She had been watching him since then. She liked the way he looked and loved his wisecracks, his sense of humour and charm, his excellent English, and his polite way of talking to everyone. Why not? A nice guy who deserved her attention. Amelia was ready for anything with Qamar Eddine, from burning love to passing fling. When he invited her to the café that afternoon, she went out with him happy and eager. Then the idiot dragged her into a heavy conversation about the Trinity and the Sermon on the Mount. Amelia knew about Qamar Eddine’s obsession with emigrating, but had never imagined that his craziness would end up with him thinking about Christianity as an excuse to leave the country. Besides, she was a Christian from generations of Christians. Surely, when it came to going to Europe, if precedence were given to followers of Lord Jesus, she would have headed straight there from Lagos, esteemed and venerated, and not have endured the long trek across the Sahara before finding herself and her companions trapped in Morocco. They had not been lucky enough to slip into Spain, and they weren’t able to go back to their country and face their family and friends with their failure, after squandering the family’s money on the long and arduous journey.
Qamar Eddine seemed to enjoy the role of everybody’s friend at the cybercafé. He fluttered from one computer to another like an e-butterfly. One moment helping Salim to do his homework, one moment helping Fadoua and Samira to interpret an email that had just arrived in Marrakech Star’s Hotmail inbox. Sometimes he took Rahal’s place when he was out, and sometimes he would exchange whispers with Jackaboo once he discovered that the Nigerian guy was more religious than his two female companions.
Abdel Massih’s polar opposite was Abu Qatada.
He talked to no one. He stepped into the cybercafé with his right leg first, reciting the Verses of Refuge. Bidding “peace upon you” to all Muslims was indeed a duty, but Abu Qatada found it hard to raise his voice and bid peace whenever he went into the cybercafé and he found the two half-naked Jezebels with that pandering pimp, called erroneously and falsely the shining “Moon of Faith” – Qamar Eddine.
“Who’s that Qamar Eddine? That Qamar of shit. Moon of Misfortune, not Moon of Faith. God curse the day he was born.”
Abu Qatada was careful to keep his distance from the Africans. While it might be true that “there is no distinction between Arab and foreigner, or white and black, except in piety,” yet the Africans’ dark faces did not intimate modesty or radiate piety. Not because they were black, God forbid. Our lord Bilal, the muezzin of the Prophet – upon him the most fragrant praise and peace – was an Ethiopian slave. Islam honoured him to the extent that the beloved Prophet described him as one of the men of Paradise and said of him, “Blessed be the man Bilal. He is lord of the muezzins. And the necks of the muezzins will be held high on the Day of Judgment.” Abu Qatada noticed that Jackaboo’s neck was long and slender like a giraffe’s. “But his dusky face could not be further from radiating the light of Islam. He and his two hideous slave girls, who never seem to leave him. They look like two goats. Damn him and them,” thought Abu Qatada, then asked God to forgive him.
Abu Qatada’s real name was Mahjoub Didi, a civil servant at RADEEMA, the local water and electricity utility. He was married with two children. What most wound him up was a boorish colleague at work teasing him with the song “Didi, Didi, Didi, Wah.” His unpleasantness made his colleagues afraid to sing Cheb Khaled’s famous song in front of him, but they joked about it in his absence. The nickname Abu Qatada had been chosen by one of the brethren – God reward him – at a perfumed Dhikr. From that day, his name in divine assemblies and on effulgent websites was Abu Qatada, after the glorious companion of the Prophet, Abu Qatada al-Ansari al-Khazraji, may God be pleased with him and grant him satisfaction.
Big Brother is watching you!
Qamar Eddine repeated this phrase from time to time in mocking reference to Rahal.
“Sorry, sorry, I meant to say: Little brother is watching you!” and the cyber burst into laughter.
It must be admitted that Rahal’s English was almost non-existent, while his knowledge of English literature was not much greater than Amelia’s knowledge of the doctrine of Imam Malik. Anyhow, Rahal was in the department of Arabic literature, specialising in classical poetry, the Hanging Odes, Umayyad and Abbasid poetry, Andalusian and Moroccan. But novels he did not read, even in Arabic in which he was fluent, to spell them out in other languages. Because no one had explained to him the connection with George Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother watches everyone, Rahal always wondered, “Why does Qamar Eddine always crow about his brothers, the big one and the little one, in the cybercafé, though he’s only got one sister, who’s at college in Rabat?”
Little brother is watching you!
Qamar Eddine’s hinting at what Rahal was doing did not make the Squirrel budge an inch. Qamar Eddine objected to the way Rahal thought the monitors of customers in the place were his and had not the slightest shame about fixing his rodent eyes on them. That pissed Qamar Eddine off a lot during the early stages of his virtual life when he was still addicted to porn sites. Till now, he hated anyone spying on his blessed websites. So he took to avoiding pages with images of churches, icons, and religious paintings. Mostly, he copied and pasted the text onto a neutral blank document and read at his leisure in Word. Once he was done, he would delete the file and leave.
However, in the kingdom of the little bastard Rahal, the Recycle Bin had no use. After the last customer had left at midnight, Rahal spent a few minutes, which might stretch to an hour, checking the computers. He went through them one by one, delving deep into their inner workings to wrench out the secrets of those who had gone into the digital dark. Many left their email or chat accounts open. Brother Abu Qatada, for example, after hearing the call to evening prayer would call it quits and go, leaving the forum open and the discussion with the brethren ongoing. Sometimes about the duty to kill and sacrifice oneself if Muslim lands should fall under occupation; another time about the corruption of elections as a way to reach power and obtain office. Discussion was heated that time, as always when it came to elections. God’s Brotherhood were vigorously opposed to the heresy of candidates putting themselves forward and the idea that all members of society had equal voting rights, whatever their level of knowledge or piety. When it came to Abdel Massih’s learning and his chapters of the Gospel, Rahal restored them from the trash, and copied the Arabic material to his own computer to look over at leisure the following day.
These extra efforts of Rahal came before he locked up. It had been him who had first opened email accounts for the members of the club. His squirrel’s memory retained all the user names, real and assumed, and passwords. The barriers were lifted, the secrets unveiled. That little bastard Rahal knew everything about the subjects of his happy cyber kingdom. Even the secrets of the Nigerian community at the Atlas Lion Cubs cybercafé were uncovered once their activities moved online. Amelia and Flora were two lesbians from the tribe of Lot, but worked as prostitutes with men for the moment, as they waited to penetrate the emerging and promising women’s market in Marrakech. Jackaboo worked as their companion, bodyguard, and intermediary. His relationship with Flora was camouflage, Qamar Eddine, just camouflage.
Yes, Rahal, mate, you can see them moving before you like marionettes, unaware that all of them are in your pocket. Their real names and their assumed ones. Their surface appearance and their hidden depths. Their dreams and their fantasies. Their nonsense and their games. Their innocent cyber friendships and their sluttish online adventures. Everything in your pocket, Rahal. Now you have to step up your behaviour. Be extra vigilant that these secrets remain under wraps. Keep them to yourself, you weak little Squirrel. Otherwise, if Abu Qatada for example knew that Qamar Eddine had deviated from his guided path and left the community and religion to change his name to Abdel Massih, and that the two Nigerians were girls of the night, he would declare Jihad on the spot and a vicious war would break out in the cybercafé. For this reason, Rahal enjoyed spying on the members of his new family, while being careful to give every one of them a complete sense of security. Besides, they were really at home in the bosom of their happy family here in this virtual jungle of the Atlas Lion Cubs cybercafé.
There’s the rest, then there’s Hot Maroc.
That was the name of the website.
An online newspaper covering events hour by hour. All the country’s news fresh and tasty: politics, business and finance, sport, arts, travel and tourism, religion and fatwas, international stories, the regions, protests and sit-ins, public freedoms, crime, behind the scenes of politics and society, opinion pieces, heated debates, exclusive scoops, and also, culture has news.
Rahal started the day with Hot Maroc reports. The first thing he did after unlocking the place and switching on the computers was open the fab online newspaper that had restored his interest in public affairs. Rahal, someone who had never once bought a printed newspaper. Since quitting the Moroccan National Union of Students meetings at college he was completely cut off. All he knew was the hedgehog (his wife) and her prick, the pelican (his Mum) and the mantis (his Dad) and the monotony of their lethargic life at his Uncle Ayyad’s house, where the Abadi tribal trio ate and awaited death. Hiyam and her laughable ever-urgent errands (she even sent him winging it to the women’s bathhouse once because she’d forgotten her phone there). That surrogate family that had him surrounded and which he himself surrounded, that kept a close eye on him, and on which he kept a close eye here at the cyber.
Hot Maroc was Rahal’s free ticket back to his country. Just like an emigrant gone for years overseas who had lost all touch with news of home. Now he was finally back, without having to buy a ticket, fascinated with the affairs and despairs of the country.
There was always some breaking news story at the top of the home page. And breaking news kept coming. Hot like bread straight out of the oven. Fresh like a fish hooked from the depths. Rahal was addicted to the newspaper’s fresh loaves and fishes. He took another hit at the top of the hour when he checked for more breaking news.
Hot Maroc was not just an online newspaper for Rahal. It was a space for free expression and mudslinging. His new toilet. When he noticed the comments section, initially he couldn’t believe it. Below every article or story was a space for comments. Amazing. Rahal, you can write whatever you want without the stink reaching your nostrils. Comment at leisure from the comfort of your desk, not with your knees clenched to your stomach while you squeeze out your guts in the toilet. You can interact with what you read from right here in the Atlas Lion Cubs cybercafé in Massira. You can say your piece freely and anonymously with nobody asking for your name or title. Look at the list of comments: full real names, others just a first name like Karim, Khaled, Mona, Saeed. Signatures referring to cities or regions: Samira the Marrakechi, Farid from Meknes, Casablancan, Sefrou_Kid, The Sahraoui, Free Amazigh, Daughter of the North. Just write your name and email, and comment as you please.
Rahal was ecstatic when he read his first comment that appeared a few minutes after posting. It was on an opinion piece about elections and democracy in Morocco and the Arab world by the Moroccan intellectual Essam Louzi. The article tried to explain how “in the Arab world we equate elections and democracy, although as a matter of logic the part does not equal the whole nor does the means equal the end. True, the democratic process requires free and fair elections, but the ballot box does not necessarily lead to democracy. How so . . . ?”
The article was long and the analysis headache-inducing. Rahal did not waste his time reading it all. But his comment was ready. What were you saying, Abu Qatada? What were you saying? He remembered the heated discussion some days back, under Abu Qatada’s virtual tent, on the Sharia ruling on elections. He borrowed Mahjoub Didi’s avatar and email, and came up with:
“What democracy, what elections, what crap are you talking about, you secularist pedant? Elections that give all members of society equal voting rights: the believer and the atheist, the chaste veiled woman and the slut in tight pants, the scholar and the ignoramus. ‘Say: are those who have knowledge equal to those who do not?’ Besides, aren’t elections an offence against the Lord of the Worlds? Law-making is the right of God alone and government is God’s alone: ‘Or have they associates who have laid down for them as religion that for which God gave not leave? For the evildoers there awaits a painful chastisement.’”
Champion your religion, Abu Qatada.
Rahal did not expect so many likes. More than fifty up to now, while the original article had no more than seven. The readers love your comment, you little Squirrel. True, Rahal did not agree with Abu Qatada’s ideas. He wasn’t an extremist who rejected democracy and elections in such an outrageous way. But the good reception given his comment filled him with zeal and pride. He had to find another subject to stick Abu Qatada’s oar in. And God is the arbiter of success.
Translated by Raphael Cohen
Translated from the novel Hot Maroc by Yassin Adnan,
published by Dar al-Ain, Cairo, 2016.
Longlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction
Published in Banipal 59 - The Longlist (Summer 2017)
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