Translator's note: Driss and Souad are in their late twenties and recently married. Driss is a nurse and Souad is a cook at one of Marrakech’s finest restaurants. Their lives mirror those of the average Moroccan working class: confined to badly paid jobs in a country ruled by a monarchic kleptocracy. Driss and Souad work hard and are hoping to save enough money to buy their own home. During one of her evening shifts, Souad is assaulted by a drunken government officer: Police Commissioner Chejri. Outraged, the couple file a case with the courts, and look on despairingly as both the police and the justice system refuse to prosecute the commissioner. The novel is based on a true story and is a searing indictment of corruption and injustice in present day Morocco.
Doctor Derkaoui showed up for his shift happy as a clam at high tide. He was smiling and was humming a popular tune, a song by Oulad El Bouazzaou about getting drunk and having affairs. He shook my hand vigorously and gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder.
“All good, Driss?”
“No, Doctor, it isn't.”
“Is it still about that matter to do with your wife?”
“How is the case coming along?”
“It's still in the magistrate's hands.”
“More like stored in some dark recess!” he said sneeringly.
“What do you mean by 'some dark recess,' Doctor?”
“That's where this country's judges stick tricky cases like your wife's!”
“And how long are they kept there, Doctor?”
“It depends, ten, fifteen twenty years . . . and when the accused is a powerful government employee, just like in your wife's case, the trial is simply postponed indefinitely.”
“If I've understood you well, Doctor, this means that government employees are never prosecuted in this country!”
“Only the small fry, but never the big fish, or almost never that is.”
“And why is that Doctor?”
“One of my friends is a public prosecutor and one day I asked him the same question. He told me that judges are under explicit orders that forbid them to formally prosecute any state employees and bring them to justice, no matter what the charges are.”
“My friend told me that is so as not to compromise what they call the hiba, or the aura of untouchability that surrounds all of the state's high-ranking functionaries. His argument was the following: if the kingdom's courts ever prosecuted any figures of authority, then the citizens would drag every state employee before the tribunal: police officers, traffic cops, prefects, governors, ministers; even the King himself wouldn't be spared!”
“So, you're telling me that in the name of this damn hiba, state employees can do what they like without ever being prosecuted?”
“Pretty much, and in the case of repeat offenders, the state itself intervenes and puts ‘internal sanctions’ into effect. The worst that can happen to such a repeat offender is to be forced to go into early retirement. This is how the state punishes its thuggish servants, by giving them a pension. Morocco truly is an amazing country!”
Before leaving, Doctor Derkaoui pulled a folded piece of paper out of his shirt's breast pocket. He opened it and read it out in a mocking tone:
“The general management grants all hospital workers an hour and a half to carry out their duties as citizens . . .”
He left the piece of paper on his desk and left, humming the same popular tune as when he'd come in.
I was in the midst of reflecting on what Doctor Derkaoui had said when a fifty-year old patient came to ask me permission to leave the hospital.
“Where are you going, Moulay Ali?” I asked him in a perfunctory manner.
“I want to carry out my duty as a citizen!” he replied.
“What duty are you referring to, Moulay Ali?”
“Why, I'm going to vote, of course!”
“You're free to go, Moulay Ali, but please don't come back too late, and above all, no cigarettes or alcohol!”
“Oh, that's all behind me!” he promised.
Each time he left the hospital, Moulay Ali came back drunk as a poet on payday. Sometimes, the police brought him back in their patrol car, after having extorted the last dirhams he had left in his pocket. Having reached the office threshold, Moulay Ali suddenly turned around and said:
“Tell me, Mr. Driss, are you going to vote as well?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because the radio said that all the kingdom's employees have the right to an hour and a half to carry out their duty as citizens.”
“In all honesty, I'm not sure I'm going to go.”
“May I ask why, Mr. Driss?” he asked, curiously.
“Because . . .” I replied, doubtfully, “because . . . because I didn't get my voter registration card.”
“Actually, they said on the radio that all citizens like you who didn't get their voter registration cards just have to go to the nearest polling station, present their IDs, and they'll be able to get their registration cards right there and then and thus carry out their duty as citizens on the spot!”
“If that's the case,” I told him, in order to bring that boring conversation to an end, “I'll go and vote as well.”
“You must, Mr. Driss! Especially since the polling stations will be open until seven o'clock this evening.”
“I'll be sure to go, Moulay Ali! But you must get back here sooner than usual, and above all, don't forget to heed my advice!”
“Well, I certainly took your advice!” my colleague Razane said, entering the office.
“You went to vote?” I asked.
She bent down and whispered in my ear:
“No, I got laid!”
“You . . . ?”
“Oh yes, I . . .”
“You know with who!”
“So how was it?”
“It reminded me of my first time with my husband! I think poor Doctor Derkaoui is madly in love with me!”
I'm not sure how to explain it, but when Razane confessed what she'd done, I experienced a great deal of admiration for her. It was as if she'd just accomplished something extraordinary: a feat of prowess, a brave exploit, an achievement.
“When it comes to matters of justice,” Sellam the lawyer told me when I reminded him that we'd been waiting twenty-four months for the commencement of the trial, “you measure times in terms of years, not months. Instead of saying: 'We've been waiting twenty-four months for the trial to begin,' you should say 'we've been waiting for two years . . .’”
“What difference does it makes whether one says twenty-four months or two years?”
“None whatsoever from a mathematical point of view!” he replied, “but it makes a big difference to your attitude, because two years weigh a lot less on your spirits than twenty-four months, especially when you've been impatiently awaiting the outcome, which has been true of you for some time now . . . This is summed up by the great Einstein's theory of relativity, a notion that revolutionized the history of science. You’ve heard of him before, right? Einstein? Albert Einstein?
“Just a little, yes . . .”
“Well, we can't learn everything in life, right? Besides, it's all quite complicated stuff . . .”
Sellam thus urged me to be patient, telling me over and over that although the judges were snowed under with work, that my trial would eventually come before the court one day . . . . As for my father, he told me to be wary when it came to lawyers. “Don't trust the lawyers in this country,” he would constantly advise me, “they're a lawless, ruthless breed!”
Throughout this time, Souad succumbed further and further to despair and depression with each passing day. She ate nothing, or close to nothing, and only spoke in monosyllables, never left the house, and no longer took pleasure in anything—she was dying, slowly but surely. I got in touch with newspaper journalists and wrote to organizations such as the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, Truth and Justice, Transparency Morocco, and Amnesty International . . . A friend of mine put me in touch with a freelance journalist who mainly specialized in human rights issues in our country . . . The Law finally took notice and the King's Attorney General attached to the lower courts sent Souad a summons to appear in court, further ordering her to attend an urgent meeting in his office. I went with her, as usual. A grumpy, snobbish secretary ushered us into a waiting room that was as Spartan as a monk's cell. We sat down on a bench next to a thin, sallow old man, who looked as shocked as though he'd just seen a ghost. We waited there for three hours. At three-thirty, the secretary dismissed us under the pretext that the Attorney General was expected at a meeting.
Incensed, the old man told me: “Those people there have broken off all ties to God or humanity!”
The following day, after another pointless three-hour wait, the Assistant Attorney General finally received us in a neighboring office. The man was the spitting image of Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian dictator, the way he held his head was just as Pharaonic, and had the same haughty, cocky air. He asked Souad to relate the story of the "so-called aggression.” Dismayed, Souad took a little time to compose herself.
“Hurry up Madame!” he ordered her, “I've got bigger fish to fry!”
Souad began telling her story, while Mubarak took some notes as she went along.
“Will the case finally appear before the court, Mr. Assistant Attorney General?” I asked in the end.
“I don't know anything about that.” Mubarak replied.
“So why was my wife summoned?” I asked.
“Because we received several appeals about her case from various human rights organizations, and in such instances, we are obliged to hear from the plaintiff—your wife— before replying to any of them. Now that we've taken care of that, we'll need a certified copy of your wife's deposition as well as copies of all the accompanying documentation.”
“Mr. Assistant Attorney General, can you tell us if this whole process is going to get us anywhere?”
“The replies we'll send to the human rights organizations will be completely useless to you, these bodies have no sway over the judges and courts. We are only obliged to answer these organizations' letters within three months' time. Once that's done, we don't owe them anything! One should also add that this new obligation has only been in force for the past two years. In the days of Hassan II—may the Heavens welcome his soul in God's boundless mercy—we would have thrown those letters in the trash without even having read them.”
The next morning we returned to the courts with a cardboard folder containing all the requested documents, a thick stack of photocopies. The Assistant Attorney General's office was closed. We sat down on a bench right in front of it. Some men and women were wandering down the corridors looking for something or someone: they looked like souls in torment atoning for their sins in purgatory before being granted access to eternal happiness. I started to doze off on the bench when a door flew open and a guy in shirt sleeves emerged out of the gap. He had a unibrow and his eyes blazed with incandescent rage.
“What are you doing here?” he thundered.
“We're waiting for the Assistant Attorney General.” I calmly replied.
“Which assistant? There's a few of them.”
“The one who resembles the toppled Egyptian dictator.”
“You're the one who's toppled! What do you want from him?”
“We wanted to submit the documents he asked for.”
I advanced toward him so I could place the folder in his hands.
“Stop!” he barked. “Stay where you are and hand over the papers!”
I complied. He scanned the first page diagonally, arching one end of his unibrow, while the other end remained level with his eyelid, and had an expression of disgust on his face.
“What is this?” he said in a thickly accented French. “Take your trash back and be on your way! The Assistant you're looking for isn't available today! Come back another day!”
“Which day, sir?”
He turned on his heels and went back inside the office, slamming the door violently behind him. The sign on the door read: Judge Hoummane, Assistant Attorney General.
I returned to the courts a few days later, on my own. The Assistant wasn't in his office. At the reception, I was received by a pudgy young man in his thirties with a spotty face and a slightly prognathic jaw.
“Which assistant are you looking for?” he asked me.
“The one that looks like Mubarak, the old Egyptian president” (this time omitting the upsetting qualifying adjective).
“Ah, Mr. L'mehdaoui! He just left to grab a bite to eat, he'll be back in an hour.”
It was nine-thirty in the morning. I waited until eleven o'clock. By 11:30, the Assistant still hadn't finished his bite, so I left, intending to return the following morning. On the landing, I crossed paths with the pudgy secretary.
“Has Mubarak returned?” he asked me.
“No,” I answered, “he clearly went all the way to Sharm el-Sheikh to grab that bite!”
The pudgy man burst out laughing. His big, ruddy cheeks lifted and revealed two childish dimples.
“You're a funny guy, you are!” he said, pointing his chubby finger at me. “It's a rare thing to hear jokes under this roof. Mubarak went to eat at Sharm el-Sheikh . . .” he repeated, clapping his hands. “That's a good one! In fact it's the best joke I've heard all year!”
He burst out laughing again.
“All right!” he said, “You made me laugh, so it's only fitting I lend you a helping hand! To the best of my abilities of course!” he hastened to add, “Assistant Attorney General Hosni Mubarak actually did go all the way to Sharm el-Sheikh to grab a bite—meaning to say that he won't be back today, or tomorrow, or indeed the day after! So as not to keep anything from you, he won't be here at all this week! Tell me something however . . .”
“What exactly is your problem?”
I told him. He asked me for the papers and glanced at them.
“All right,” he said, after having skimmed them, “I'll hand these papers over to Mr. L'mehdaoui as soon as he's back in the office. I'll also be sure to tell him that little joke about Sharm el-Sheikh, it might cheer him up a little.”
“May I ask you a question?”
“Go ahead, ask away! I'll see if I can answer it.”
“Will the letter sent by the Moroccan Association of Human Rights be of any help whatsoever to my wife's case?”
“It won't help her in any way! Quite the contrary: by writing to human rights organizations, the plaintiff is bound only to ignite the judge's ire, and the lawyers', and the Assistant Attorney General's, in fact the entire judicial system!”
“So what do you think I should do?”
The pudgy man eyed the papers again as though looking for an answer to my question.
“Your wife's case is very tricky!” he finally said, “Commissioner Chejri belongs to high-ranking government circles . . .”
“Meaning that a case filed in the courts won't bother him much!”
“So what's going to happen to our case?”
“Well, I'm afraid that it's already . . . I think it's already . . .”
“Been dumped in the trash-bin of oblivion?” I huffed.
“How do you know that?”
“My boss at work told me the same thing. Is the case doomed to stay there or is there any hope?”
“Everything is possible in this country, thanks be to Allah!”
“Your word is a lamp to my feet, my friend, may Allah light your path!”
“You should try to get a big-shot in Rabat to help you out.”
“Like whom for example?”
“A minister, or a minister's wife.”
“Do you think I'm the kind of guy who knows ministers or their wives?”
“So find yourself a deputy, or his wife . . . or better yet his mistress!”
I swayed my head, right to left.
“Or a high-ranking official at a ministry: a minister's assistant, a head secretary, a special assistant, a head of department, or even a simple clerk! Yes, a simple ministry clerk might be able to help you out! How is he going to do that? By interceding on your behalf with his immediate superior. In order to do that, the guy will make up a whole story: for instance he'll tell his boss that you're some poor, penniless bastard who's fallen victim to a plot, that the judge handling your case is an irredeemable crook . . . The aforementioned boss will then take pity on you, and give his friend at the Ministry of Justice a quick call. You can't refuse that kind of favor among colleagues! The end result will be that your wife's case will be pulled out of the trash-bin of oblivion that very day, the Commissioner will be tried the following week, and the verdict passed immediately!”
“The one snag in all of this, my friend, is that I don't know anyone in Rabat.”
“What about your wife?”
“Neither does she.”
The pudgy man became silent and looked pensive.
“May I ask what you do for a living?” he asked me after a long pause.
“I'm a nurse, and my wife is a cook in a restaurant.”
He grew wide-eyed, he was stunned.
“So you're not rich, you don't know anyone in Rabat, and you still went ahead and filed a case against a police commissioner? But that's sheer madness my friend. You can't go around attacking high-ranking government officials in this country without a family fortune or connections in Rabat! When you don't know anyone in Rabat and you're not rich, you have to walk on tip-toes when among the all-powerful and kiss the hand you can't cut off. If you aren't rich and . . .” (His phone started to ring loudly. He pulled it out of his pocket and examined the little screen.) “Yes sir! I'll be there in two seconds sir!” (He turned toward me). “It's that asshole Assistant! Before I leave, let me give you one last piece of advice, and that will be that! Tell your wife she'll be better off if she withdraws her complaint and turns over a new leaf!”
From The Garden of Tears. © Mohamed Nedali. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by André Naffis-Sahely. All rights reserved.