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from the April 2017 issue

The Foreign Daughter

In this excerpt from her novel The Foreign Daughter, Najat El Hachmi's narrator has resolved to give in to familial pressures to marry, comparing her situation to that of Mundeta Ventura, a character from the Monserrat Roig novel Ramona, adéu. The first novel in a trilogy, and told from a feminist perspective, it depicts the lives of women in a family living in the Eixample, a district of Barcelona that lies between the old city and what were once outlying towns, and whose Modernist-inspired architecture includes Gaudí structures. As the narrator relates her situation, she meditates on her arrival in Catalunya, the foreignness of her mother's language, and her situation between two worlds.                 

 

I no longer read. I don’t have the time, and it’s not the right thing for me now. I’ve chosen a life where I should be illiterate like my mother: marry, have children, cook, clean, tidy up, wear myself out every day, and then get up again and do exactly the same as the day before. And never complaining. And getting used to the idea I’m giving up everything that was part of my other life, secondary school, books, learning in general. We were able to buy a television with my first paycheck and I now kill the little time I have left to think glued to that fascinating, much-prized screen.

Nobody asked me to stop reading, my mother’s really pleased I’ve decided to look toward our country and marry a nice young man from down there. He’s so nice, he’s my cousin, her brother’s son. She’s been very fond of Driss from the day he was born, she’s always given him presents and paid for his parties. Now she’s giving him her daughter, her most prized possession. But I try not to think of it like that, remembering that I decided to accept his proposal, and she did say if I didn’t think it was a good idea, she would understand. I try to remember that once I’m married, she’ll be free, everything will be easier.

Thoughts come to me thick and fast in the corridors of the seminary, whether I like it or not, but I send them packing. I work a lot of hours, all the ones they want. The manager is a lean, clean-cut man in a hurry who hardly gives me a glance, and when he does he just seems to look through me. He’s not a priest, but easily could be. On public holidays he sometimes comes with a woman who must be his fiancée, slim, fair, and fond of neutral colors. She could be an adult version of many of my companions at school, who are so different from “us,” who tend to be plump, with flesh brimming over on all sides, huge proportions and sweaty armpit smells. I’m sure this woman’s armpits don’t smell, I’m sure no bit of her ever smells. When she visits, she waits in reception while he goes through the room diary. Nobody will be there this week, but all the rooms have to be cleaned. Every day you come, make a note of the rooms you finish, and leave it in reception.

I like being alone in such a large building where my footsteps resound, where even my breathing seems to echo. I spray the mop with that liquid that has a varnished wood aroma, and smell the particles hanging in the air. Although it’s boring, monotonous work, I look forward to what the manager will say when he sees I have done a good job and that he can trust me. When we’d only just arrived here, I had the same aspiration, I thought everything was possible in this new country, and when my mother made me clean the stairs, I would often fantasize that someone would see me and be filled with admiration for my cleaning skills. They would walk past and be astonished to see how nimbly such a little girl could handle that broom. Then they’d give me a job cleaning stairs, you could be sure, for that was what my mother’s friends did, and my mother, too. The first to give me a job would tell their friends or relatives: we’ve a girl, look how small she is, but she’s really smart . . . she sweeps the stairs like we’ve never seen them swept before. They’d recommend me to others and my spare time would fill up with well-paid work. I’d help Mother and pay for my own things, we’d even be able to save to have that house “down there.” When I remember myself as I was then, on the pavement, holding that brush, my heart beating whenever someone walked down the street, I think how foolish I used to be, a little girl who only wanted to be in service.

And now here I am, in that fantasy, but for real, no wishful thinking this time, and saving for my wedding, the travel expenses, the presents for my fiancé’s family, and the deposit for the new flat. In each room I grab the worn sheets with a little flower pattern and put them in a heap to wash. When I’m carrying them rucked in a ball against my chest, I walk past the mirror and can’t avoid taking a look at myself. I stand in profile specifically to see how long my hair is, which our women think is as valuable as gold: the more you have, the better. That’s why I still apply henna, which is what my mother did when her period ended. As a child, I hated the cold, damp, sticky feel of the heavy green paste on my head. I felt uncomfortable not being able to move and sat in the yard, wherever there was a patch of sunlight, and rested my chin on my hand and nodded off, while I felt that thick substance drying and hardening. If my mother didn’t see me in the sun, I’d enjoy the midday heat for a while, but if she did, she would immediately shout: get out of the sun, aia abaiud, which I still don’t know how to translate, it means “mud,” but they say that to you when they think you’re in a daydream and miles away. Take that hand away from your chin, she’d add, only orphans do that. Then I couldn’t stop myself, I began to think about that expression, what could it mean? When did somebody, for the first time, decide that if you rested your chin on the palm of your hand, it meant you didn’t have any parents? They must say that because orphans spend a lot of hours like that, with their hand holding up their faces, because they must be very anxious if they don’t have parents and get very sad, and that must be the source of that expression. I may even have asked my mother, why do we say that, but I suspect she ignored me as people usually do when children ask too many questions.

That ritual has become more relaxed in our tiny bathroom in this old city. She no longer applies the henna. There are women who do it to each other even when they’re much older because it’s more relaxing, but at some point I started to do it myself. I keep trying to call on my mother less and less, although she still asks me to keep rubbing her back, which, for some reason or other, I find increasingly unpleasant. I can’t think when I started to feel strange about seeing her naked. I remember it used to be a sight I quite liked, her firm flesh and full breasts with the water streaming down which she poured over herself from a plastic bottle. When did I begin to look away when she asked me to rub her back? I’ve now been doing it for a long time almost without giving her a glance.

I look at myself in every mirror in every room I clean and every time I tell myself my mother is proud of me—I have the kind of hair she had always wanted. We agree on that. We disagree, however, about the kind of body I should have. I look at myself and see there’s still a long way to go, that I’ve still got to learn to control what I eat if I’m ever going to reach the weight I want to be, a weight that would allow me to have hips similar to girls from around here and not the broad, fertile hips Moroccan women have, which are only good for having children and yet more children. Mother doesn’t know what to say now to encourage me to eat more and the right kind of food, stews, roasts, meat, potatoes, and bread. The lot. Fortunately, we have a good supply of all kind of nourishment, we’re short of nothing and yet I choose not to touch some dishes. Her bodily ideal and mine are completely opposed. She’d like me to be plump, fat, with a face as round as the moon (or in my case, like a cottage loaf). It’s the expression she uses when she sees a girl she likes, one she thinks is pretty: a face as round as the moon with huge black eyes and long, thick eyebrows, the whitest, fullest face. On the other hand, I only have eyes for the spindly girls, like so many who went to my secondary school, who wear tight trousers that mark out their butts, small and round like a young child’s. I only have eyes for their collarbones, which I find incredibly poetic. I often tell myself that if it wasn’t for my genes, I’d probably not have to make such an effort to be like them and thus feel integrated. I must simply learn to keep my own impulses under better control, then I can do it.

I’ve got to run, I’m going to work, Mother is now teaching me the tasks she’s been wanting to teach me for a long time, which I never had the time to learn as a student. I cook, I still bake bread, I make remsemmen and pastries, sfenj and khringu, I help out when there’s a party. Now she hardly ever says that what I cook looks like dog vomit. She almost never criticizes me when the other women come, and never comes out with “and what will she do when she’s living in someone else’s house, learn how to cook from the pages of a book?”

Although I’m working so hard, although I’m always on the go and never stare at anyone when I walk down the street, men still follow me. They have been for some time, ever since I made the change, they’ve started saying things to me in the street when they notice my body filling out, oh, usually a sigh that ends in heavy breathing I find obscene and insulting. If I swing round, I can see the filthy leer, as they look me up and down. But I don’t swing round, and haven’t for a long time. I’ve also stopped wearing tight trousers or T-shirts that are too clinging. To be sure, I don’t wear a headscarf, I can’t wear one if I want work, but I also doubt they’d leave me in peace even if I did. Now they know I’m spoken for, but it makes no odds. Ziin is the other thing they say, beauty, and if they think I’ve reacted, if only with the subtlest nod of the head in response to their desires, they go on saying things I don’t even hear. Sometimes I lambast them, though I never slow my pace, with a “go fuck yourself” that sounds even grosser in my mother’s language.

I look at myself in the mirrors in these bare rooms and tell myself that if only I could manage to get the body of a thrumesht, of a Christian, all thin and svelte, the sort they don’t like, perhaps they’d leave me in peace for once. At any rate, when I’m married, they won’t say a word to me, you can’t to a married woman.

 

 

The Town Hall is organizing courses for women. Sewing and cooking, which is what they reckon we like and will need to make us feel part of this society that’s so new to us. I sign up for sewing. My mother would have liked to learn to sew and admires women who know how to use a sewing machine and put together a qandura in a split second. She hand-sews, but only to patch something or make a pillowcase or a mattress cover. She says the courses at the Town Hall are free and are only for women. Obviously, who else would go to a sewing workshop for “women at risk of social exclusion”?

In the light, anodyne room dotted with columns, painted a neutral office gray, a group of women is seated in a loose circle. They’ve seemingly positioned themselves around the workshop leader, a lady who looks a thousand years old, with knobby, deformed hands that take out the big needle she’s holding in her mouth. She talks with pins between her lips, and I don’t know what I find more stressful, her hands or the feeling she might swallow a needle at any moment. When I see her, I can’t help reflecting how I remember her whenever I’m using a big needle, a trivial detail but she always pops up as if I were listening to her right then. That’s one of the ways in which my brain is dysfunctional: I can’t stop linking elements in my present reality to other knowledge I bring to bear, I can’t see a needle and not summon up all I know about them. We were down there, Mother was sitting in the bedroom we used as a dining room, the girls’ bedroom, in front of the door with a brazier. Well, brazier’s not exactly the word, we say thimjmath and it’s made of mud and is where we heat up the bread in the morning or make the kebabs for Eid and where grandmother heats up the water and tea because she’s more used to that than butane gas. One of mother’s legs is stretched out, the other is bent under her and she’s talking. To whom? I don’t remember, but I imagine it was one of my aunts. She was turning the bread over, pouring tea, breaking the bread she’d just heated up, and was telling all kinds of stories that had no apparent thread to them. One thing led to another until it was time to get up and start on the morning’s household chores, the second round of the morning, because by breakfast time they’d folded the blankets, seen to their ablutions and prayed the first prayer of the day, and usually swept the yard outside after splashing water around to stop dust flying everywhere. When I recall that anecdote, my mother is always telling the story of a woman, who was too distant to be a relative or family acquaintance, who put a needle in her mouth when she was sewing something and was startled by her little son chasing around and suddenly swallowed the needle. Swallowing a needle is one of the worst things that can happen to you. In this case, the needle went into the woman’s stomach, and from there into her bloodstream. However many X-rays they did, they couldn’t locate the needle, because it was going round her body in her blood. L.lah istar, exclaimed the women, L.lah istar, and I suddenly had a bunch of questions I wanted to ask, a bunch of questions I couldn’t have formulated if I’d never been to school or had anatomy classes, or knew nothing about how the human body works. But I had to stay silent if I wanted them to let me be there while they were chatting, mother always said I had to keep quiet when adults were there. Finally, I could stand it no longer and, tired of hearing L.lah istar, L.lah istar, I asked: So what happened to her? What do you think happened? She died!

I could never forget that unknown woman I’d endowed with a face, hair, clothes, and headscarf, and a house a long way from ours. To have such memories verging on reality, as if they were happening right now, is a horrible, exhausting burden to bear.

The workshop leader’s name was Conxita because that’s how the women pronounced it—in Catalan. Now what, Conxita? Conxita, what do I do now . . .? Cómo hago para . . .?—in Spanish. There were three kinds of pupil: young Moroccan women like me, almost all single and acquaintances of ours, gypsy girls, and ones “from here,” who looked as if they’d had hard lives, with their chipped or broken teeth and voices hoarse from too much smoking and drinking. The Moroccans sat around in small groups with other Moroccans, speaking their language the others didn’t understand, and the others sat slightly apart although they spoke the same languages. When I walked in, there was an empty chair next to a gypsy woman, whose hair was tied in a stiff ponytail; she was old, fat, and dressed in black. She looked me up and down in my short-sleeved T-shirt and long, straight skirt. Are you Moroccan? Tú eres marroquí? I said I was and sat down. Well, you don’t look like one, she continued in Spanish. For a second I felt thrilled, even proud. I thought she’d say I was like a local, that my shape and hair and glasses and clothes made me look different, singled me out from my fellow “countrywomen.” No, you don’t look Moroccan, you look negra. You know, the palms of the hands and soles of the feet of los negros are white. Give me your hand. I showed her one, rather shamefaced, choking down indignation provoked by the fact she judged me to be even more exotic, more different, more southern than I was. See, you’re una negra. And you’re a gypsy, I should have replied, but I kept quiet.

The workshop, Conxita told me, was, of course, about making something, something simple to start with, and she would tell me the steps to take. To begin with, you won’t cut, because you need to know a lot to cut. And you won’t use a sewing machine, that’s for more experienced girls. The important thing is to baste, if you don’t baste properly, it won’t work. Baste, baste, baste, is what I always say. I glanced at the others basting away, their work-rate was soporific and I realized that this was a place for marginalized women who supposedly needed to be integrated. Another aim was for it to be somewhere to facilitate conversation in the local language, but only the one that Conxita spoke.

After a couple hours of being there and basting away, I was suddenly gripped by an irrepressible desire to go to the lavatory and masturbate to end that unbearable tedium, the feeling that the world I myself had chosen wasn’t simply small and limited but was shrinking all around me. But before I even stood up, a girl rushed in like a whirlwind, under thirty, tall, slim, and with a UV tan. She spoke stridently, her tone swinging disconcertingly from soft to loud. She talked to Conxita and the pupils as if we were deaf, or young, stupid kids. Or all three at the same time. She asked: Hey, you do like coming here, right? Hey, you are happy with Conxita, right? You’re so lucky, you know, she’s ever so patient. And as she said this, she swayed her head dramatically, gesticulating nonstop. I stared at her, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Suddenly she was the one staring at me. I know you, I know you, I really do! You were on TV. I was so embarrassed and that little chorus rattled around my head. (Fairground monkey! Fairground monkey!) You were the girl that got a nine in the Cert! I almost corrected her: nine and a half. Well, aren’t you the fairground monkey? I really congratulate you, my dear, it can’t have been easy for you. What you did has lots of merit, my congratulations. You speak Catalan so well! Fairground monkey! Look how you like people saying these things to you, even though you know it’s insulting, since what this girl is really thinking—given who you are, given you were born where you were, you are destined to be a nobody, to achieve nothing, inferiority and backwardness are inscribed in your DNA. That’s why it’s such an incredible merit, practically a miracle, you overcame these conditioning factors. However, I look at her and try to be fair, and not take it for granted she’s burdened with so much prejudice. Perhaps she thinks what I did has merit because I learned her language at the age of ten and before we moved to this old city, didn’t even know it existed. Perhaps what I did is something exceptional, but I can’t stand the way she looks at me, her eyes sparkling so enthusiastically, but when she looks at the other Moroccan girls, the women who are more like my mother, many of whom don’t know how to read or write and will marry as soon as they start to be fertile, when she looks at them, she must think theirs is an existence that’s not worth living.

So what are you doing here? she asks, when, plainly uncomfortable, I thank her for her kind words. What am I doing here? I ask myself. I could tell her I’m preparing my trousseau like Mundeta Ventura and that I’ve got to embroider my initials on the bed linen, I’m getting married and that’s why I’ve come to learn how to sew. But that would be a lie, because we’re not preparing our trousseaus or embroidering, let alone our initials. We don’t even feel incarcerated in the patios of the Eixample. You know, I say, giving myself time to think of an answer, I wanted to see what this workshop was like . . . . But hey . . . and finally, what are you studying? I remember they asked you that in the interview, my dear, and how well you spoke, really, the whole city, I can say this because I’m the mayor’s daughter, the whole city feels so proud of you. It must mean we are doing things properly, right? So what’s this all about, my merit or the city’s? I felt her strident voice becoming increasingly intolerable as she went on speaking and gesticulating, gesticulating so frantically I thought her head would fly off. In the interview you said that you hadn’t yet decided, that you didn’t know what to do.

And I still don’t, I tell her in the end. I’m taking a sabbatical while I think it through. For the first time, the glow on the woman’s face wanes, out of disappointment, and I look around and can see that the whole room is hanging on our conversation. Most eyes are on the task in hand, but I know their ears aren’t missing a single word of what the girl with the fake tan is saying to me. She’s getting married, a Moroccan woman pipes up, a friend of my mother’s.

What, how come you’re getting married? You’re so young, how old are you? I tell her I’m eighteen, soon to be nineteen. She looks at me even more aghast and my situation seems so untenable, so unreal I suddenly start seeing myself from the outside, as if I wasn’t the one experiencing that absurd moment. I look at myself and see myself straight-backed, clutching a piece of material between tensed fingers, adjusting my glasses every other second, flattening my hair as if I feel it’s gone frizzy all of a sudden. I look at myself and see myself opposite this person I don’t know from Adam who’s asking me to explain my life to her, a fragment of which until a few minutes ago she’d only seen on a television screen. I look at myself from the outside, on the freezing floor of that city building, and think that if I’d have gone to the bathroom, I’d have spared myself all that. I sense that I’d like to tell all, so she understands what I’m doing and am about to stop doing, even though I’m not duty-bound to do so, that I’d like her to see the whole journey, my whole life story, so she could see me inside and out and then understand my decision. But that’s impossible, I can’t tell her everything I am in a word or a sentence in this unexpected conversation. What do I tell her? About A, and the hurt and disillusion when I knew I was unloved? About my mother and her suffering? About the men who pursue me in the street? About the fact I don’t know what I should study and that if there’s nothing I feel passionate enough about to put all my energies and the scant money we have into, if I can’t choose a path that seems at all secure, better do what’s been planned for me from early childhood. I could also tell her I’m a coward and unable to tackle what life would mean for me far from here and my mother.

I’m getting married because I want to. I mean, I took all the decisions. I’m sure you did, she responds incredulously. Anyway, I’ll give you my card and you tell me if there’s ever anything you need. And how do I get hold of you? Because I’m sure my father would be delighted to meet you. Besides, we’re initiating some projects that might be of interest and we would really like you to collaborate. I think: why? How do you know I’m suitable, simply because I’m Moroccan and can speak Catalan? But I just thank her. My dear, you do speak Catalan ever so well!

 

© Najat El Hachmi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Peter Bush. All rights reserved.

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