Aunt Selma was in the middle of a gathering of women when I disturbed her. Later on, I learned that in Tangiers the afternoon was the time for women to congregate. All dressed up, fashionable and lighthearted, they'd meet around platters filled with pastries to sip their coffee or tea, try a Spanish or an American cigarette, exchanging their off-color jokes, gossip, and only half-sincere confidences. These ichouiyyates were a most serious social ritual, almost as important as the frouates-the stiff and formal evenings when weddings, circumcisions, and engagements were celebrated, where one had to display one's most beautiful finery and never appear to be either poor or cast aside by one's husband.
She got me settled in a clean bedroom, lit an oil lamp, and apologized for having to leave me by myself.
"You understand, don't you, that I have people waiting for me upstairs next door?"
She put a pitcher of water and a glass on the table and told me that she wouldn't be long. I drank the water in large gulps straight from the pitcher and, exhausted as I was, fell asleep right away. It was the vision of the man in blue overalls that rocked me before I fell into a deep dream-filled sleep, striped in gray and yellow like an autumnal storm.
I awoke starving in the middle of the night, my head propped on a bolster and a woolen blanket thrown over my legs. The couch was narrow and hard, and the sounds in the house were unfamiliar. The bundle I had packed with fresh bread and two hard-boiled eggs was lying by my feet. Hunger is stronger than fear. With my eyes closed, I devoured my bit of food in the oval-shaped room with the huge, hostile shadow of the furniture projected on its walls and its ceiling much higher than those in Imchouk.
Keeping myself from having any thoughts, I fell back asleep. I was in Tangiers. Having left me with nothing to hold on to, the twenty years behind me mattered little. My past was the past. It was moving away as the hail-encumbered clouds move away, hurriedly and guilt ridden. But Imchouk was present, radiating its full light. In my dreams, I am always running in bare feet and cutting across the barley and alfalfa fields to get away from my playmates, hair dotted with poppies and laughing brightly.
Imchouk is both stupid and strange at the same time. As plain as platitude itself and more askew than the caves of Djebel Chafour that on its western side leave it open to the winds and the black and cracked gravel stone of the desert. Only two steps away from hell, the waxy and pagan greenery that blazes there seems to scoff at the threatening sand laying siege to its orchards. The houses there are low and white, their narrow windows painted ochre. A minaret rises in the center, not far from the Bar of the Misunderstood, the only place where the men can curse and vomit in public.
The Harrath Wadi has traced a slit through Imchouk that divides the town into two facing quarter moons. When I was little, I would often sit among the luscious laurel trees that billow bitter and deceitful on its banks so I could watch the mocking and misleading waters flow. Like the men of Imchouk, the Harrath Wadi likes to strut around, compulsively trampling everything in its path. Its shimmering water, made muddy and foaming by the autumn floods, coils through the village before it gets lost in the valley far away.
"That wadi is indecent," Uncle Slimane's other wife, Taos, would roar. At the time I had no idea what decency was, since all I saw around me were roosters jumping their chickens and stallions penetrating their fillies. Later on, I understood that this affliction of decency was imposed on women only to make them into painted mummies with empty eyes. Calling the wadi indecent resonated a rage that wordlessly criticized Imchouk for its fertile womanly lustfulness. Imchouk drives the shepherds crazy and makes them mount the first thing that reminds them of a female rump, including a donkey's vagina and a nanny goat's hole.
I have always loved the Harrath Wadi. Perhaps because I was born in the year of its most horrendous flood. It had overflowed its bed, inundated the houses and shops, stuck its tongue right down into the interior courtyards and the wheat reserves. Fifteen years later, as we sat in the courtyard of her vine-covered house that Uncle Slimane had paved with marble to let his wife know how much he loved her, Aunt Selma told me about the episode. Her delightful cleavage pleased the girl that I still was, whose breasts were just beginning to show beneath her weightless dresses. Aunt Selma would talk and, between two moments of laughter, crack the green, harsh almonds with a quick blow of a yellow copper mortar. She loved the summer for the abundance of its fruit that would be piled up in the entryway in large wicker baskets the farmers had brought directly from the orchards.
"That year, we were cut off from the rest of the world for twenty-one days," she remembered. "And the world couldn't have cared less for this grimy armpit of the earth! What a honeymoon! I would've been better off waiting, nice and dry, at my mother's house until the November storms were over!" she added as she burst out laughing. "But I was a dummy and your uncle was impatient. Can you imagine my face when I turned up in this dump in a silk caftan and spike heels? Did you know that the farmers' wives used to walk for miles to come and gape at me as if I were some sort of exotic animal? They'd pull at my hair to be sure I wasn't a doll. I tell you, this really is the sticks here!"
She handed me a fistful of white almonds, then rekindled the fire in the brazier with her fan. The tea was humming, spreading its heavy, sweet scent.
"The flood gave those sanctimonious cousins of yours a fever and hallucinations," Aunt Selma began again. "Tidjani, the myopic one, and Ammar, the legless cripple, decided that so much water could only be a good sign: It stirs up the soil and, in passing, cleanses our sinful hearts. Sin! That's the only word they know! As if we weren't Muslims, spending our days crapping in the wheat! Those cretins think they are the Mufti of Mecca because they recite three Qur'anic verses over the corpses before they, too, will be put in a hole. May their faces be covered with smallpox! As for the rest of these jerks, they all went off to tell the world the flood had come to announce the end of time. Bullshit! As long as Gog and Magog keep their noses clean, as long as that shady character of an Anti-christ still hasn't turned up in Jerusalem, and Jesus, Mary's son, has not come back to put some order into this cosmic mess, we can sleep peacefully! We can be sure that God has had it with our cruelty, but He has yet to decide to chase us out of His lovely Eden with some good kicks in the butt! Because you can rest assured that Eden is down here, and we'll never have another one this beautiful, not even in the highest heavens! May God forgive us for our nastiness and our stupidities!"
I almost peed in my pants with laughter at Lalla Selma's talent for sarcastic remarks and blasphemous images. She had managed, I don't know how, to inherit the knowledge of an illustrious uncle who was a theologian, and she had no equal in sticking everyone with a nickname and thereby making that person the laughingstock of the town. Just as she was the only one who could yell at God without ever losing respect for Him.
Frowning and with a thoughtful look, she added:
"You know what? I don't believe in sin. And, on Judgment Day, those who revel in that word will have nothing to show to the holy gaze of the Master of the world but their scabby dicks as their one and only hideous sin. They think that the vile acts they committed with that bit of flesh are going to impress Him! Well, I'm telling you that all those bastards will rot in hell for not having committed any fine and noble sins, worthy of the infinite grandeur of the Almighty God!"
When lashing out at the people of Imchouk, Aunt Selma always said "they" meaning the men; she never used "they" as the plural for she. As if the escapades of women were just inconsequential things meant to make the constellations laugh.
Confused, I took it upon myself to ask her what a fine and noble sin would be. She gave her dazzling lioness laugh, taking the bottle away from the brown puppy she had been feeding and that wouldn't stop licking her feet. Suddenly solemn and dreamy, she murmured:
"Loving, my girl. Just loving. But it is a sin that deserves Paradise as a reward."
Aunt Selma was born in Tangiers. Arriving in Imchouk on the arm of Uncle Slimane one fine day, she saw a flooding wadi for the first time in her life. Fair and buxom, she picked up the basket that was my cradle and without further ado kissed the magnificent baby that I was, under the nervous look of my father, who was not used to that kind of effusion.
Now she and I had settled down beneath the canopy on the patio with its chipped green tiles, and it was as if we were all alone in the world, beyond time, beyond Tangiers. She smiled again at the memory of her arrival in Imchouk, naive and completely out of place, and the welcome my visibly annoyed father had held in store for her.
"Because of the wadi?" I asked.
"No, of course not! Because of you! Another mouth to feed just as times were getting harder and your mother, after a five-year pause, seemed to be starting to give birth again like a rabbit."
I told her that my father had never made me feel I was a burden.
"With good reason! You were his favorite. Your father was a softy but had to hide his sensitive nature under a big pile of surly silences. It's not always fun being a man, you know! You're not supposed to cry. Even when you're burying your father, your mother, or your child. You're not supposed to say I love you, or that you're afraid or you've caught the clap. No wonder with all of that that our men become monsters."
I do believe that was the only time I ever saw Aunt Selma show any compassion for men.
As I was playing with the crumbs of sesame cake she had put next to my cup, I never stopped looking at her face, surreptitiously, dreading there might be some sign of reluctance or irritation. No, it seemed Aunt Selma didn't hold it against me that I had landed in her house without alerting her first. She had let me come out of my sleep gently, content to just smoke and sip her glasses of tea, evoking her memories of Imchouk only to help me open my heart to her, which she inferred was chained down with hatred and anger. Once she gave up on hearing me broach the subject head-on, she plopped her arms firmly on her belly, twiddled her thumbs, and went on the attack:
"Fine, and now tell me what you're doing here. I hope you didn't set the house on fire or poison your mother-in-law. I'd better admit it right away: That marriage never did seem right to me at all. I know one should settle down but not at that price!"
I lowered my head. If I wanted to be honest with her, I owed it to myself to tell her everything in detail. But I was in pain over so many things that I simply wanted to erase them from my memory forever.
Badra's Marriage Hmed was forty. I had just turned seventeen. But he was a notary, and the title, which made them exist on the registers of the state, gave him inordinate power in the eyes of the villagers. He had already been married twice and repudiated his wives for reasons of sterility. He had the reputation of being gloomy and irascible; he lived on a lovely family property situated at the edge of the village not far from the railroad station. Everyone knew that he provided his future wives with an exorbitant dowry and arranged a lavish wedding for them. He was one of the best catches in Imchouk and coveted by the good virgins and their grasping mothers.One day, Hmed's mother opened the door of our house, and I knew immediately that it was my turn to put my head on the block. I had overheard one farmer's wife whispering to my mother and giving her the advice of a feigned ally:
"Just accept! Your daughter is already a woman. You can't continue to let her go to the city and pursue those damned studies, which won't do her any good, anyway. If you keep being so hardheaded, she'll get so itchy that she'll leave and start chasing after men."
True, studying didn't mean much to me, but being locked up back home wasn't a cheerful prospect, either. The first and only middle school for girls in Zrida was my safe conduct pass to get outside our walls, and boarding school, in particular, gave me the chance to get away from my brother Ali's supervision. My youngest brother was a real cockerel who put his honor in the pants of the tribe's females and who had been officially appointed as my guardian after my father's recent death. Ordering women around allows boys to assert themselves as masculine and virile. Without a sister close by to beat to a pulp, their authority dwindles and atrophies like a pecker in need of arousal.
My future mother-in-law didn't wait for my mother's definitive agreement to begin judging me and sizing up my abilities as a prospective wife worthy of her clan and her son. One day, she appeared with her oldest daughter at the hammam when I was there. They examined me from top to bottom, feeling my breasts, my behind, my knees, and finally the curve of my calf. I felt like a sheep for the religious holiday of Eid. All that was missing were the feast's ribbons. But, knowing the rules and customs, I let them handle me without bleating. Why interfere with the well-oiled codes that change the hammam into a souk where human flesh is sold at a third of the price of regular meat?
Then came the grandmother's turn to come through the door of our family home. She was a hundred years old, with tattoos from forehead to toes. She sat down in the courtyard and watched me attend to the household chores as she spat the juice of her chewing tobacco into a large blue and gray checked handkerchief. My mother didn't stop watching me, urging me to do my very best, knowing the old shrew would report to her family in full on my talents as a housewife. As for me, I knew the goods weren't what they were supposed to be.
Hmed had known me since I was a tiny girl and had been watching me with smoldering eyes for the past two years every time I left for or came home from school. He saw me walking, my eyes down and moving along fast, in a hurry to flee voyeuristic looks and spiteful tongues. He decided I was a pretty hole to dive into and that it was a good deal to make. He wanted children. Only boys. To penetrate me, to make me pregnant, and then parade around at the parties of lmchouk, his chest thrown out and his head high, proud to have ensured himself of male progeny, would please him.
In the winter of 1962, I was no longer at my school desk but bent over tablecloths to be embroidered, cushions to be stuffed, woolen blankets whose pattern I was to choose so they could be added to my trousseau. I had finer dreams than someone like Hmed as a prince charming and certainly younger than he. I was ashamed I had let them break my will with such ease. Just to say no to negate the horrible masquerade, I began to wear shapeless qamis and put my hair up under the first rag I found on the laundry line. I disgusted myself.The middle school was far away, and the memory of my schoolmates, among them the beautiful Hazima, was beginning to fade. The outside world came to me in a mutter through the news on the radio. Neighboring Algeria was independent, the FLN victorious. It made the little simpleton Bornia dance in the streets like a female satyr. Her big feet in their heavy clogs kept the beat of her triumph on the chalky ground of the marketplace.
1 didn't leave the house except to go to Arem, the seamstress. On my way there, I would carefully skirt the house of the hajjalat. Passing alongside the walls of the Farhat girls could be a risky thing for women and might cost them dearly. But I had already dared take a look at more private things than their house, and the raw memory I had of it sniggered slyly at the nose of Imchouk the strict.My imminent marriage secured me some privileges. A young peasant girl replaced me in the household, for there was no question anymore of me spoiling my hands by washing the tile floor, spinning wool, or kneading bread. I was living like a female sheik-no chores to do, no orders to follow. I could eat the most sumptuous meals, and the best piece of meat was mine by right. I was to attain a respectable plumpness before I could enter the marital bed. They filled me with creamy sauces, with couscous sprinkled with sman, and with baghrir smothered in honey. Not to mention the pastries stuffed with dates or almonds or, a great luxury, the tagines with pine nuts, a rare commodity. I gained a pound of fat a day, and my mother was delighted with my rosy and chubby cheeks.Then they cloistered me in a dark room. Since no sun was to touch me, my skin grew pale and white under the approving glances of the women of my clan. A light skin is a privilege of the rich, as being blond is of the Europeans and the Central Asian Turks, descendants of the deys, the beys, and especially the janissaries, those mercenaries Driss later told me about with consummate disdain.
Then they forbade me any visits, for fear of the evil eye. I was queen and slave at the same time. The object of every attention and the last to feel concerned about what was happening around me. The females of the clan were preparing me for immolation while they murmured quietly to me that it is up to women to seduce the hearts of men. "And their bodies, too!" whispered Neggafa, Imchouk's official hair remover. My sister replied maliciously: "And a man who doesn't succeed in seducing his wife? What, when all is said and done, is he worth?"
Finally, the wedding day arrived. Neggafa came to our house early in the morning. She asked my mother whether she wanted to check the "thing" with her.
"No, go ahead, do it by yourself. I trust you," my mother answered.
I think that my mother was looking to spare herself the embarrassment that such a "check" never fails to arouse, even among the most hardened madams. I knew to what examination I had to submit and was getting ready for it, my heart flooded and my teeth clenched with rage.
Neggafa asked me to lie down and take my panties off. Then she spread my legs and bent down over my genitals. I suddenly felt her hand move the two lips apart and a finger go in. I did not cry out. The examination was short and painful, and its burning stayed with me like a bullet received right in the face. I only wondered whether, before raping me in all impunity, she had washed her hands.
"Congratulations!" Neggafa called out to my mother, who had come to get the news. "Your daughter is intact. No man has touched her."
I thoroughly detested both my mother and Neggafa, accomplices and assassins.
"Ah, yes!" Aunt Selma sighed. "To think that we're still moldering in caves while the Russians are firing rockets off into space and the Americans are claiming they're going to the moon! But consider yourself lucky. In the Egyptian countryside, the dayas, with a handkerchief twisted around their finger, deflower the virgins for their husbands. It seems that over there they even cut everything away from the women. What they walk around with between their legs is a true catastrophe. For hygienic reasons, so those pagans claim. Since when does dirt bother vultures? Pfff!"
Beside herself, Aunt Selma exploded. As for me, I was trying to imagine what a woman's sex would look like when its contours had been butchered. A shiver of horror ran down my back, from my neck to my buttocks.
"I'll tell you something," my aunt continued. "They should bump them off, those brothers of ours who are like that, exactly as the Tunisians did. Look at their Bourguiba! He didn't beat about the bush. Hop! Out of the house with women, let them emancipate themselves! Swear you'll go out in the open air. You'll go to school, by twos, by fours, by the hundreds! Now there's a man. A real man. And besides, he has blue eyes, and I love the sea."
Then, catching herself:
"And so? Hurry up and tell me the rest because I need to start cooking. Or else you'll faint with hunger before it is noon."
No, I didn't love Hmed, but I did think he'd be of use to me, at least-he'd make a woman of me. Free me and cover me with gold and kisses. All he managed to do was deprive me of my laughter.He would come home stiffly every evening at six o'clock with his civil registers under his arm. He would kiss his mother's hand, barely say hello to his sisters, wave to me warily, and settle down in the courtyard to have his dinner.
I would serve him, then clear the table. Join him in the conjugal bedroom. Open my legs. Not budge. Not sigh. Not vomit. Feel nothing. Die. Stare at the Kilim carpet nailed to the wall. Smile at Saïed Ali decapitating the ogre with his forked sword. Wipe myself between the legs. Sleep. Hate men. Their thing. Their nasty-smelling sperm.
My sister Naïma was the first one to be suspicious: It wasn't going well between Hmed and me. Blushing, she tried to show me how to glean a few crumbs from the table of male pleasure. I rebuffed her, unsatisfied woman that I was and incapable of saying so. And every evening, except when I had my period, I continued to spread my legs for a forty-year-old billy goat who wanted children and couldn't have any. I was not allowed to wash myself after our sinister frolics-the day after the wedding, my mother-in-law had ordered me to keep the "precious seed" inside me so I would get pregnant.
As precious as it may have been, Hmed's seed bore no fruit whatsoever. I was his third wife, and, like the first two, my belly continued to be barren, worse than a fallow field. I would dream of brambles growing in my vagina so that Hmed would scrape his thing on them and give up on coming back.
Aunt Selma was listening with a worried frown. My words were explicit and were growing bolder as I told her about the wretched life I'd led, made even more unbearable by the mask of secrecy I was forced to wear. I would never have imagined that I'd be conversing with her openly about my body and its frustrations. For the first time in my life, I was speaking to her as an equal, a woman now, after having been her very young niece for such a long time. She knew it, remarked on her age and mine, and accepted the sting of time, second to that of the inconstant and careless male. Feeling tender and close to her, I admired the still firm breasts of the more than forty-year-old woman she was, her satin skin, and I thought of the women of Imchouk who used to come and admire her from afar. How could Uncle Slimane have trampled on such opulence, and, above all, how could he have kissed all of this good-bye?
For three years, my belly was the main topic of every conversation and every quarrel. They checked my appearance, my food, my gait, and my breasts. I even caught my mother-in-law examining my sheets. It certainly wasn't my fluid that ran the risk of staining them, since my sources had dried up before they could even flow.A child! A boy! The words alone made me want to commit infanticide. After three months of marriage, they forced me to drink brews of bitter herbs and sips of urine, to straddle the tombs of saints, to wear amulets that had been scribbled on by fqihs with trachoma-burned eyes, to smear nauseating concoctions on my belly that made me puke under the fig tree in the garden. I hated my body, stopped washing, shaving, and perfuming it. As an adolescent, I could never get enough of your crystal perfume bottles, Aunt Selma, promising myself that I would sprinkle rose water and musk all over myself, from my head to my private parts, once I was as tall as a poplar tree.And then working hard. From sunup to sundown. And cooking. Until I hated the smell and taste of food. And then languish and rot, exhausted, while young brides would go from party to party, go off to welcome springtime in the fields as far as the first sand dunes and on their way back play in the luminous joyful orchards.
My mother, whom I went to see from time to time, was wrong about the nature of my distress. She thought I was desperate because I hadn't become pregnant and was lamenting "the laziness of my belly." Naïma just hugged me in silence, very tightly. She smelled of happiness, insolent and juicy.
One day my sister lost her temper and, furious, her eyes like lightning, cried out:
"It's his fault. You're not his first wife, and you won't be the last. He could deflower a hundred virgins and still wouldn't sire as much as a green onion for a son. So stop eating your heart out and tormenting yourself about your belly."
I blew up.
"I don't want any children, and I refuse to be pregnant!"
"Are you doing this on purpose then?"
"No! I let things happen, that's all."
"You know, you're hiding something. Is your husband . . . normal?"
"What's that supposed to mean, normal? He gets it up. It spews. It goes slack. Of course he's normal!"
Finally, Naïma understood and stammered pathetically:
"Well, then, make some effort to have your share. Pleasure, too, can be learned."
The word having been uttered, there was an embarrassed silence for a few moments. For the first time, Naïma was speaking straightforwardly of things sexual. But she seemed to have forgotten what my wedding night had been like, the horrors of the first time.
I never had my share of pleasure. Hmed, desperate about not seeing my belly grow round, at last no longer touched me. His sisters quickly guessed at the rift and pursued me with their sarcastic and hurtful remarks.
"So, how's the sterile one? Hmed doesn't want to hump you anymore?"
"Your vagina must be like a sieve. It can't hold on to any semen!"
Or else, "If your ass is as sullen as your face, it's no wonder your man runs away from you."
I sought refuge in my mother's house more than once, but after a week she would firmly show me the door.
"Your place is not with me anymore. You have a house and a husband. Accept your fate like the rest of us."
What did "Like the rest of us" mean? That she had been raped by my father and taken against her liking and her will as well? I don't want to belong to a tribe that ends up in the sewer, with a mutilated heart and mutilated genitals like the Egyptian women, Aunt Selma! I said so to Naïma, and she did not protest. She even helped me to escape.
Aunt Selma lit a Kool, her fifth cigarette that morning, and looked at me with half-closed eyes, her index finger authoritatively.
"Fine, so now you've gotten rid of that old jerk who farts in bed instead of satisfying you. May God forgive those who were so blind as to put you in the hands of someone so inept. Oh, there's much more to be said about what you've told me. But there's no rush. Well talk about it more later on. Now you're going to get some rest. Get your strength back. Forget all this."
Right thereafter she began again.
"Tell me, though, that young rascal who brought you here yesterday, where do you know him from?"
I related the facts to her, which she undoubtedly interpreted as my first "adventure" in Tangiers. She crushed out her cigarette on one of the brazier's legs.
"I bet you he'll come back to hang around the house as early as this afternoon! The eye of the cat won't let a juicy bit escape!"
I felt like washing up and told her so. She put a large pot on the kerosene stove that sputtered and spat before its long, foul-smelling yellow flame turned blue, then changed to an incandescent red. She set down a large basin in the kitchen.
"Today, you'll wash yourself here, but soon I'll take you to the hammam. You'll see how different it is from the Turkish baths down there."
In this "down there," vexation resounded that all the intervening years gone by had not managed to overshadow. After Uncle Slimane, Aunt Selma must have lived with a deeply scarred heart.
She then showed me the toilet in the corner.
"You'll be constipated for a day or two. Changing location always does that, but at least you'll know where to go. And don't pay any attention to that big trap in the corner. The rats are driving me crazy. They come from the sewers at night, but, may God catch them by the tail, they go wild over cheese! That lets me punish them right where they're misbehaving!"
Under the hot water, I felt lighthearted and luxuriant for the first time in ages. With eyes closed, my hands ventured to gently touch my shoulders and my hips. Joyous, the water trickled down to my pubis, and my nipples grew tense beneath the slight bite of the air.
Aunt Selma was right about my guide. He came back not just once but about fifty times, pacing up and down the alley, perky at first, then more and more contrite. He was insistent until, beside herself, my aunt allowed him in the door, whereupon he stood, awkwardly and with his cap askew, in the middle of the marble patio, whose blue veins I couldn't stop admiring in my hours of daydreaming.
"What do you want from us?" she said. "You were kind enough to escort my niece, and we thanked you for that profusely. But that's no reason to loiter in front of my house for all the neighbors to see. You think this is a bordello here or what?"
He blushed uncontrollably, and I was taken aback to discover that, sophisticated urbanite or not, my aunt could be quite crude when speaking to a man if she wanted to.
"No, really, let's be serious! You come and go, you're back and forth and hanging around. You show off and then what? This is a respectable home. You, a stevedore, you should understand one thing: We don't need a man here. And certainly no hooligan!"
He stumbled for an instant then cried out abruptly:
"I've come to ask for the hand of the bint el hassab wen nassab. ..."
"Bint el hassab wen nassab's hand is not available! So go, out with you, go away!"
"But I want to marry her according to the precepts of God and His Prophet."
"That's all fine and good, but I don't want that! Her parents have sent her here to rest, and now you're giving her a bad name, even though she doesn't know where Tangiers begins or ends."
"I want to hear her say it!"
"You want to hear what?"
"I want to hear her say that she wants nothing to do with me. And stop shouting at me, or else I'll split your head in two with that pestle over there in the corner to your left, the one you put out to dry."
My aunt choked on her words. I fled to the kitchen, doubled up with laughter. The guy wasn't impressed by my aunt's haughty attitude, and that pleased me. When I came back to the patio, they were having a serious monosyllabic conversation. I felt redundant and went to the room that had become mine two weeks earlier, closing the door behind me. To distract myself, I counted the tiles that went from the bed to the doorway and contemplated their resemblance to the brown diamonds that ran on a diagonal.
Dinner was short and quiet. I wondered how anyone could prepare fish and make it into a royal stew with just a few olives and some bits of preserved lemon. "This is a marguet oumelleh. A Tunisian neighbor gave me the recipe for the sauce," Aunt Selma said. "Remember the name and make sure that you always use grouper if you want it to be good. You know, your friend is quite touching. . . ."
I kept silent, soaking my taste buds with the fish sauce flavored with capers, retaining a mouthful of the tender white flesh.
"He is in love and he is sincere. He could make you happy. But I have the feeling that your ass isn't going to leave you alone. Oh, don't protest! You don't even know you have a cunt and that it can make the earth turn and cause the flowering almond trees to bow down and weep. You want to marry again?"
"No, because you don't know anything about men yet. Your Hmed skewered you, old goat that he is, but didn't go very far with his explorations. There's so much left to discover ..."
"After what I've lived through, I am totally disgusted with men."
"Please, just be quiet for two seconds and listen to the old woman that I am, for 'the older the fiddle, the better the tune,' as the proverb says. Who's talking about men? You haven't known men. Not at all. Now, I am sure that your stevedore of a Sadeq could light your fire. But he is penniless, and all he has are his tail and his heart with which to pray to God in heaven for some luck."
She lit a stick of incense, a cigarette, and with the pungent smell in her mouth, continued:
"If you want a man, a true man, and children as beautiful as the domes of Sidi Abdelkader, if you want to laugh all night and make your skin shine with jasmine balm without worrying about what tomorrow will bring, or whether you'll be rich one day dripping in gold and diamonds, all you have to do is take your stevedore. Right away. While you're still innocent and passionless. He loves you as only virgins can love."
For several minutes before she started up again, she paced up and down her room, or rather her alcove, in which everything was laid out lengthwise.
"But if you want something else . . . something better or much worse . . . if you'd like volcanoes and suns, if the earth isn't worth a dime in your eyes and you feel able to cut across it in a single stride, if you know how to swallow hot charcoal without groaning or walk on water without drowning, if you want a thousand lives rather than just one, to reign over entire worlds without being satisfied with any, well then Sadeq is not for you."
"Why are you talking to me this way? I don't want anything. You know that. I just want to forget and sleep."
"You'll sleep, but you'll ask yourself a thousand questions. At your age, troubles last as long as one tear wept, and joy is eternal, like your soul. All I'm asking you to do is to think it through and tell me tomorrow if you want this stevedore as a husband, yes or no."
I slept with my fists clenched, dreaming of no one, needing nothing. I didn't tell her anything the next day, more preoccupied with the fate of the geraniums than with my own, making sure that Adam, the completely wild tabby cat, would find his little meatballs at two in the morning so he could recover from his mating on the neighborhood rooftops.
Aunt Selma gave Sadeq permission to come whenever he wanted or could and sit on the olive-wood bench in the middle of the patio to talk and weep. Weep and talk. He told me that Tangiers was cruel, that he had escorted me right to the house of the lady who was said to be free, crazy, and beautiful enough to convert a demon to Islam. That he wanted me precisely because I never spoke to him and because I had eyes that kept him from sleeping. From working. From getting properly drunk on anisette with his buddies. That he came back to haunt the wharves of the Tangiers harbor when the mist rose and the ships wailed their sorrow, a cap on his head, his belly filled with steam, and his soul rent in two, shouting and cursing.
"If you leave me," he would say, "I'll go drift on the piers, and no lady who knows me will cry with joy when I come back, and no child will be sired by me. I beg you, Badra, don't let my mother be left without grandchildren."
He was an only child, and his mother lost her mind the day he threw himself under a freight train after I, dismayed and tired after a year of listening to his whimpering, told him:
"Go away, I really don't love you at all."
The Wedding Bath They covered me in a veil from head to toe. I went through Imchouk's alleys surrounded by a swarm of cackling, simpering virgins. A whole horde of female cousins, relatives, and neighbors followed the procession, playing the tabla and ululating as befitted the event, my wedding bath.When we arrived, clouds of disinfectant were already rising beneath the dome of the entrance hall. Alum stone and benjoin were burning in the braziers, and "Bismillahs" were flying from all sides like firecrackers. My new slip was a little tight underneath my armpits, and I was beginning to feel the need for air. Around me the virgins were pressing enormous white candles into the windowsills. Their dancing light told me that all of this was quite unreal.
Wrapped in a sheet that barely concealed her folds of fat, Neggafa stayed at my side, noisily and somewhat obscenely smacking gum. Dripping with sweat, I was in the middle of a crowd of half-naked women.
Then Neggafa made me lie down on a marble slab, and soon my skin was burning under the back-and-forth motion of her massage glove. She sprinkled me with warm water, covered me with ghassoul, and began the actual massage. Her hands ran across my neck and shoulders, then over the full length of my back. In passing, they lifted my breasts and briefly kneaded them. It felt more than pleasurable. It was marvelous, in fact. The ghassoul, brown and scented, ran down my chest and dribbled toward my navel in a gentle hiss of popping bubbly. My nipples swelled, but Neggafa didn't seem to notice. She asked me to turn over on my belly, and then she spread my buttocks. My pubic bone hit the marble as her hands, unconcerned with my discomfort, pressed down on me. I felt a fireball crash down from the pit of my stomach to a spot between my thighs, and I panicked. But Neggafa's attention was elsewhere. I was her poultry to be plucked, her couscous pot. She was polishing and scrubbing me to earn her pay. A bucket of cold water roughly awakened me from a daydream of pleasure hard to own up to.After the three ceremonial baths, it was time to remove any unwanted hair. That is when I thought I would die. My skin was scraped from my neck to my behind, but the henna ritual quickly made me forget my misery. Watching the virgins apply a little ball of the bride's henna to the center of their own palm in the hope of being married as soon as possible reminded me of lambs dashing toward the slaughterhouse, with their fatty tails and innocent bleating. But I, too, was a lamb, meekly holding out my hands and feet to Neggafa, waiting to have my throat slit. My hands, wrapped in cotton and slipped into satin gloves, seemed cut off to me. Their saintliness was so pathetic. That night I dreamed of Neggafa's hands and prayed that Hmed's would at least be as gentle. And a bit bolder.
From The Almond, published this month by Grove Atlantic. By arrangement with the publisher. Copyright 2005 by Grove Atlantic. All rights reserved.
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