The rumor started to spread in the beginning of autumn, just after the first rains. Soon it became a certainty: the Belbal family had acquired a television set. To tell the truth, the villagers didn’t really know what a television set was, but that only served to enhance the tale. The watchman at the clinic was the first to recount how workers dressed in blue overalls had appeared one fine morning before the Belbals’ door and how they had unloaded an enormous crate from an old truck. The truck came from the city, the workers weren’t from around there. What an undertaking! Mister Belbal was there, anxious, bustling about, giving instructions that no one listened to. His three boys ran around the truck, shouted, and jumped up and down with excitement. Behind the windows, a feminine element, equally excited, could just be made out. Tijani, the clinic’s watchman, stopped, eyes bulging, adjusted his jellaba and stammered a few questions. But it was a waste of breath.
The workers heard nothing, blasé as they were at having perhaps already delivered a television set, somewhere else, some other time. They pursed their lips in a gallic pout, cigarettes dangling from the side of their mouths, they grumbled, hurrying about their business, they chewed out Tijani, who was blocking their path, they scolded the fluttering children. They finally put the crate down on the sidewalk, demanded a tip, and left with a scornful screech of the tires.
Father Belbal, taking over, asked for Tijani’s help in carrying the crate up to their floor. The two men broke their backs in the stairwell, but that very night the strange parallelepiped was enthroned in the middle of the main room. The entire family assembled for the ceremony of the plugging-in of the device, which they had hooked up to the clinic’s generator, and of the fine-tuning of the image. They needed to find the right frequency, that is to say the only frequency on which national television was broadcast. Installation, tuning, frequency . . . Good God, all these new words! The women and children left everything regarding the mastery of the order of things to the father. The grandmother watched from afar, hidden behind the door, curious as a cat but fearing the devil and the jinns that hide inside European machines.
The older son, Ahmed, had the honor of being appointed sentinel on the rooftop terrace. His father gazed at him sternly, placed a firm hand upon his scrawny shoulder and instructed him on the details of his mission. Ahmed’s role consisted of climbing up on top, clutching the antenna, and holding that pose while keeping an ear out. From time to time, the father would shout from down below:
And then Ahmed, jaw clenched and wild-eyed, would turn the antenna around, very slowly, just until he heard someone cry out:
Then he bounded down the stairs and returned to perch on a stool, ready to go back up above at the slightest sign of interruption. He would perform this role for several years, with steadfastness, with self-sacrifice, with unequaled skill.
And so the Belbal family had television. As a result of finding himself greeted with respect in the street, the father acquired a solemnity to his walk, a certain self-importance in his voice, an air of authority tempered with indulgence for those who did not have one. At the hammam, the women swore allegiance to his wife, in the hopes of one day being invited to her home to contemplate the thing. Those who met with rebuffs immediately declared that they didn’t give a fig for the “heap of junk”as they called it with an envious, contorted sneer. And besides which, was it really true to Islam, all this? Didn’t the Prophet forbid representation of all that God had created? As for the Belbal children, they became the focus of their fellow students’ full attention, courted by some or given a good thrashing by others, according to their level of hope or disillusionment.
For several months, life in the village revolved around the television. Considerable scientific advances were achieved through simple observation of the television set’s whims. One day, a guest claimed that he had just seen, in the blink of an eye, two different images on the screen. Impossible! they exclaimed. The man persisted. They made fun of him. Half-wit. Liar. Drunkard, perhaps. But a few days later, Hajj Fatmi, a man above suspicion, declared that he too had just seen two images. In order to have a clear conscience, father Belbal and Ahmed on his rooftop worked in concert, following the guests’ departure, one manipulating the knob, the other taking on the antenna, until they observed this undeniable fact: there were two images. One, ours, speaking Moroccan and showing the familiar face of the king, the other, fuzzy and mute, most certainly foreign—satanic in sum.
The father and son decided to conduct the experiment again on another day. No clandestine images. On other evenings, they captured the capricious intruder. Ahmed did not take long to understand that it only appeared under certain climatic conditions, which he began to scrupulously note down. The facts established, the Belbals informed their fellow citizens on the subject. These last solemnly discussed it. Was it truly possible to receive more than one television program on the same set? How did the two programs manage to take the same path without crashing into one another? What did this second image want from us, if indeed there really was a second image (the Belbals had enemies, who did not refrain from accusing them of charlatanism)? Should they alert the police?
One day when all the conditions had converged (hygrometry, atmospheric pressure, the wind, the moon, and the scarlet tint of the sky), a delegation was sent to the Belbals’ to observe the impossible for themselves. The father ushered in the three men who wore the masks of incorruptible judges. Tea was served, the women sent away to their own apartments, and the demonstration began.
First of all, they established that the Moroccan television had well and truly begun to broadcast its programs. As soon as the set was turned on, they came across a show that was famous at the time and which bore the title Freeze Frame. No trick to the title: it truly was a frozen image. A flower in bloom or a boat on the shore, for example. The show lasted between five and ten minutes. When everyone understood that it really was a flower (in bloom) or a boat, they switched to another show, a soccer match for example, or the news. Father Belbal showed Freeze Frame to his stone-faced guests. Exceptionally, it was neither a flower nor a boat, but a beautiful, snow-capped mountain. They watched it for a long moment. Then the father, sticking his head through the window frame, shouted up to his sentinel:
“Turn and don’t stop turning until I tell you to!”
Then he hurriedly came back to the set and began fiddling with the enormous knob that regulated the frequencies. For several minutes they saw nothing, they heard nothing more than the grating of the antenna up above on the terrace and the short breath of the father bent over the device. Then one of the judges shouted out:
“I saw something!”
The father stopped instantly, turned the button in the opposite direction and cried out to his son to stop touching the antenna. After a few manipulations, some expert back-and-forths to regulate the frequency, they could make out on the screen an enormous fist striking a bloody nose. The image was very fuzzy, sprinkled with white spots and flickered continuously. But it was undeniable, it was historic, it was scientific: they were watching a boxing match broadcast by a Spanish television station and transmitted from the Canary Islands.
To perfect the demonstration, Father Belbal went back to the national channel–Freeze Frame– then exiled himself (click! with the flick of the thumb) to the Canarian face-smashing, returned to the snowcapped mountain, went back to lend a hand to the victorious boxer, once again returned to the heights, and then threw himself back into the melee. The captivated judges began to applaud. On the rooftop terrace Ahmed broke into a dance punctuated by cries of joy. This was his first eureka! He was discovering the joyful pride that swells a scientist’s heart when he has just lifted a corner of the immense veil that conceals the universe and its mysteries.
The following day, everyone knew that the Belbals’ scientific discovery had been confirmed. Shows originating from Outside could be picked up on the infernal device. The village chief convoked a sort of crisis cabinet. The elders sat in a circle and each of them was able to make their spiel. The hour was grave. How could they avoid the Canarians’ pernicious influence? How could they prevent the villagers from turning away from their national television that informed them no more than necessary and entertained them no more than was proper? Someone expressed a terrifying idea: what if, in addition to the Canarians, anyone could show their face on the Belbals’ television set? The French, the Jews, the Elephant men? The village chief reassured him: impossible, the Sultan’s army is keeping an eye on things.
“Even in the air?”
“Even in the air.”
But even he was not completely reassured.
A few days later, two men in civilian clothes, one a little bloodsucker and the other a tall, skinny fellow, presented themselves at the Belbal domicile. They had parked their car at the village entrance and gone the rest of the way on foot. They did not give their names, only stating that they had been sent by the competent authorities. The father let them in, pale but dignified. The women burrowed into their rooms and the children had fled. Only Ahmed remained next to his father, a puny silhouette in clothing two sizes too large. But his eyes shot daggers.
Seated in the main room, the two visitors looked attentively around them. They seemed to take note of every detail. The television set, which was as usual completely covered with a green sheet, did not escape their inquisitive gaze. The tall, skinny one began by offering the master of the house all sorts of compliments, each one as hollow as the next, but it did help relax the atmosphere a bit. Tea was served. Then the representatives of Authority got down to the heart of the matter.
Rumors were going around the region’s capital concerning the village where the Belbals lived. They weren’t sure what was going on, but they said that at night sabbaths of one hundred thousand devils took place there. Dissidence was perhaps on the return amongst these cursed mountain-dwellers. Various movements had been observed. Something fishy, something shifty, something very shady. Young people were climbing onto roofs. To do what, by God? The Enemy was sending electronic messages. They were speaking Spanish on the rooftops. Or maybe it was an Algerian dialect. The motherland was in jeopardy.
The two civil servants went silent and sipped their tea, staring at the father and son with their evil eyes. Father Belbal cleared his throat. He calmly explained that he didn’t understand a thing, that there had surely been some misunderstanding. First of all, if there were any disturbances, what would they have to do with him? Why had these men come to see him, rather than going to the village chief? The men looked at each other for a second then the senior one started to speak again. The denunciation had specifically indicated that the Belbal house was the conspirators’ hideout. The dissidents took up position on their terrace to communicate with the Enemy. Obviously, he added, it all seems exaggerated to us and we’re not taking it very seriously (“if we were, you would already be rotting in prison,” he thought while staring at his host); but the affair needed to be clarified.
As soon as the man had mentioned the rooftop terrace, Father Belbal understood what was going on. Relieved, he attempted to explain the whole affair to the two men. He related the acquisition of the television set in great detail, went to get the bills, he raised a corner of the sheet to show the lifeless screen. Then he launched into a lecture on the orientation of the antenna and the blurred images, both concepts being, in fact, intimately linked. Finally, he pointed at Ahmed, who had been following the whole conversation while seated on a low stool, and explained the fundamental role that he played in the electromagnetic economy of the system.
The head cop took out a pack of Casa-Sport cigarettes* from his pocket, asked his subordinate the parasite for a light, lit a cigarette and blew a few puffs in the direction of the master of the house. Then, staring at him, he said in a muffled tone:
“If I understand correctly, this is the boy who spends his nights on the roof. He uses the antenna to pick up signals from far away…”
“From the Canary Islands,” interrupted the subordinate.
His boss shot him a dark look.
“. . . signals from abroad that spread what? Nonsense, or else calls to revolt? Attacks upon our sacred values? Pornography?”
The father did not know what to say. All that might be true, but he did not see where the two men were going with this. The sinister visitor suddenly stood up and snapped his fingers in the direction of his deputy.
“Sorry, things aren’t quite clear just yet. We’re going to take the kid with us. For interrogation.”
He let out a sort of snicker. His acolyte bared his teeth and made a move towards Ahmed. That was when Father Belbal stood up, trembling with fury. He pointed his finger at the two men and pronounced these extraordinary words:
“Listen to me good. You will not take him away. Not you two. Never. If God himself descended upon the earth and asked me to entrust you with my son, I would tell him: No.”
The two startled public servants recoiled, horrified. God Almighty! They had heard oaths and blasphemies over the course of their rotten, flea-bitten lives, but this one surpassed them all. For the first time in their careers, the situation, having suddenly turned to the metaphysical, totally escaped them. The father, his face livid, raised his finger to the sky and repeated:
“If God himself descended upon the earth . . .”
He was not able to finish. He had begun to tremble and breathe heavily. He tore off his cap and threw it on the ground. The visitors got up and ran off without further ado. They were never seen again.
Years passed. People got used to the television and even to the inopportune proximity of the Canarians. Other villagers had gone into debt or had sold a few sheep to buy “the heap of junk.” The Vietnam War, Cassius Clay, and Queen Elizabeth all made their entry into their vernacular.
One day, the Belbals’ oldest son went to Rabat to take care of some administrative issues. He stayed with his uncle, a well-off merchant. When he returned home, they asked him all sorts of questions.
“How big is Rabat, really? Did you see King Hassan’s tower? How’s our uncle doing?”
The intrepid voyager calmly regarded the assembled family.
“Our uncle? He’s doing very well, and so is his wife, same for the kids. But listen to this: they have a television set in color”
A television in color? This news astounded the family. What did this mean?
“It means that the red of this carpet is red in the TV and the yellow of these babouches is yellow . . .”
“How terrible!” cried the mother.
The older boy shrugged his shoulders.
“What do you mean, how terrible? On the contrary, it’s very beautiful. It’s so beautiful you just look at the pictures and forget about all the rest. Even Freeze Frame, you can watch it for hours.”
Ahmed asked his brother the existentialist question:
“What about the antenna? Who turns it?”
“Nobody turns the antenna. The image is always clear like a mirror.”
No one believed him, Ahmed least of all. What a joke! A perfectly clear image, without Ahmed to operate it! Impossible! Finally, dinner was served. They spoke about their uncle’s new purchase at length. They tried to imagine blue skies and green grass.
Over the course of the following weeks, the Belbal family besieged the father to buy a color television. At first he turned a deaf ear. He was used to his old TV set and to its marvelous world in black and white. But in the end, he crumbled. Once again, workmen appeared one fine morning before the Belbals’ door. Once again, they unloaded an enormous crate from an old truck. The boys had grown; this time, they were the ones carrying the object up to the middle of the main room. And it was Ahmed who conducted the installation and tuning. The father observed the maneuvers, proud of his clever son.
On the rooftop terrace, Ahmed’s work became more complicated than before. Not only should the image not be blurry, but the colors also had to remain stable; the blue should not become indigo nor the red appear violet. The sun was not green nor the moon pink. The female news anchors should not resemble paint-splattered parakeets. Such effort to represent the world as God created it!
Ahmed, at his father’s urging, took greater and greater interest in the mysteries of technology. He spent hours examining diagrams in the television set’s user manual. He asked travelers to bring him back technical books from Casablanca. His father approved with a nod of the head.
“One day, you will know this machine so well that you will be able to open it, go inside it . . .”
“Go inside it?”
“Yes, go inside it with your hands, repair it if need be. When everyone here has a television set, I’ll sell a few animals and buy you a workshop. You will become a television repairman. You will be the only one in the village. Everyone will be forced to come to you. You will be rich.”
Ahmed’s brothers had followed the entire conversation, slightly jealous. They seized their father’s expression and turned it into a song to tease him.
“Ahmed’s going inside the TV! Ahmed’s going inside the TV!”
Ahmed shrugged and went back to the user’s manual.
Thirty years later, Professor Ahmed Belbal, electrical engineering professor at the University of Amsterdam, was invited to participate in a debate on the role of foreigners, allochthons, in Dutch public life. He was supposed to represent a positive aspect of the debate, a “success story,” the production assistant had said over the telephone. She had added that he might become a “role model” for young allochthons. Hadn’t he arrived in Holland as a political refugee in the 1970s, a hunted man and without a dime? Hadn’t he succeeded, through work and obstinacy, to obtain his university diplomas and build a brilliant career in teaching and research? How did he judge, as an allochthon, the chances for integration for those who did not have his talent or strength of character? Professor Belbal would have preferred to be questioned about his work—he had participated in the focalization of flat screen technology—but this was the first time he was going to be a part of a TV show and he was curious to know how it went.
Everything was going well, which is to say that they debated on everything and nothing and that no one ever reached any conclusions. Ahmed listened with great attention to the experts’ informed views and the stock phrasesof a young Moroccan with feverish eyes who had been a delinquent before regaining the straight and narrow. Suddenly, the host of the debate turned to Ahmed and asked him:
“How do you explain that you were able to get out of it?”
The man in question did not understand this sentence in the slightest. When would he not have gotten out of it? It was not written in his genes that he was going to rob old ladies and destroy bus shelters. The host, impatient, repeated his question in another form:
“How does one become an electrical engineering professor at the university when one comes from a little village and there are all the temptations of the city, the easy life, fast and dirty money?”
Professor Belbal cleared his voice and murmured:
“My father . . . the television . . .”
He was seized by a horrible case of nerves. He felt sweat inundating his forehead and back. He could only repeat:
“My father . . . the television . . .”
The host leapt upon the opportunity.
“Ah! The importance of the father in the North African family! The authority of the father! And of course the danger, the television’s temptation, showing such a different world . . . That’s what Driss told us earlier (with a nonchalant gesture he indicated the repentant delinquent). Driss’s father forbade watching any shows other than those on the Moroccan television . . .”
“Which indeed hinders the integration of immigrants into our society,” interrupted an Amsterdam city official.
“Why shouldn’t you integrate with me?” snarled Driss.
The politician shrugged his shoulders. The presenter tried to get Ahmed to speak one last time.
“How did your father resolve the eminently intercultural problem of the television’s influence upon the comportment of his own children?”
The professor, asking himself how they had reached this point, attempted to narrate in a quavering voice the story of the antenna for which he had been responsible. The town official interrupted him, amazed.
“Oh, now that is extraordinary. Your father banished you to the rooftop so that you would avoid the shows’ pernicious influence . . . But which programs were they? Violence? Sex?”
“Yes, but wait, wait,” cut in the presenter. “Violence on-screen does not encourage violence in society, it’s scientifically proven. Very serious studies, in America . . .”
“Studies financed by whom?” demanded an expert with a hint of a snicker.
An animated conversation followed. Discouraged, Ahmed receded into his chair and did not open his mouth again. He had the impression that they had sullied his past, that they had in some way deformed it or reduced it to almost worthlessness. And yet he had a lovely story to tell, the story of a “heap of junk” that had completely transformed his life and had given him the opportunity to catch a glimpse of all the love his father felt for him—standing up to the police and blaspheming—and all the ambition he had had for him. But how could he have said all that? Time passed quickly, they reached the end of the show without him being able to rectify the manhandled image of the first Belbal of the modern era.
Around two o’clock in the morning, Ahmed Belbal was back home. He put the tape they had given him into the player and, for the first time in his life, he watched himself inside the television set. It was truly fascinating. He saw himself again, an adolescent clutching onto the antenna, turning it and turning it again in the hope of obtaining a clearer image. He emotionally recalled the show Freeze Frame. He thought of his father, the first of the Belbals to have plunged into modernity but who never, ever would have imagined that his own son would one day pass through to the other side of the mirror. His son had truly gone into the TV, like he had predicted. Where was Father Belbal in this moment, in what Heaven? Ahmed turned off the TV and went to stand by the window. All the conditions had converged (hygrometry, atmospheric pressure, the wind and the moon, the scarlet tint . . .). He closed his eyes and imagined climbing up on the roof to fiddle with the antenna. Perhaps his father’s face would appear, for the space of a second, just as the furtive image of a Spanish matador once had.
In a single flash of sweetness and warmth, his childhood came back to him. He began to laugh and cry, very softly. He took off his jacket and shoes, went out on the landing, grabbed hold of the rope that led to the trap door and swung it down. In a few seconds, he found himself on the roof. He searched for an antenna in vain; he had forgotten that there weren’t any anymore, that the entire city was cabled now. He leaned on the parapet and gazed at Amsterdam, lost in thought.
A few minutes later, he heard a sound coming from the stairwell. A policeman stuck his head through the opening and addressed Ahmed in a suspicious tone.
“Neighbors informed us that an allochthon, excuse me, a man was on the roof. Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s just fine.”
“What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing on the roof? Do you really want to know? I’m looking for my father.”
“Is your father also on the roof? Do we need to call the fire department?”
Ahmed began to laugh.
“No, no, no point in alerting the fire department. My father died twenty years ago.”
The policeman, of whom still only the head could be seen, continued to look at him, mouth slightly agape, with a questioning gaze. Ahmed continued:
“Don’t worry. I’m coming down, I’m going back home. Good evening, Officer.”
That night, just before falling asleep, Ahmed promised himself that, as soon as possible, he would make a tour of the flea market in Waterlooplein. Perhaps they sold used antennas there . . .
Affordable to even the poorest of Moroccans because of its low quality, the Casa-Sport cigarette brand can be seen as a symbol of misery in Morocco.
By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Lydia Beyoud. All rights reserved.