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from the March 2016 issue


He left the house cursing everything at the top of his voice—from the two elderly people who had brought him into this rotten world in the first place to his sister who had married a French man, gone off with him to his country, and hadn’t kept her promise. He remembered what she’d said in the airport:

“I only married this Christian for your sakes. One month, and you’ll have all the papers you need to all catch me up over there. Don’t worry!”

He had believed her. And now a month had passed, dragging other miserable boring months along after it, all nauseatingly similar to each other, and she hadn’t kept her promise. He was tired of seeing his mother come home at the end of the day with her employers’ leftover food and hand-me-down clothes. He was tired of seeing his father languishing in the corner of the room smoking weed until he was like some kind of scarecrow. And he was even more tired of standing at the end of the road with his crate of cigarette boxes set out in front of him, selling loosies. He smoked more than he sold. He would watch the passersby, and sit with Hamu, who watched over people’s parked cars for money, and tell him anything and everything about the neighbors, and about people he knew (or didn’t know). He would hit on the scantily clad girls passing by, and they’d look at him in total revulsion, as if he was some disgusting piece of food that had passed its expiration date. A singer’s voice belted out at everyone from a radio turned up to maximum volume, in a half-mooed, half-snorted declaration of how horny and stifled she was: “Hug him, squeeze him, kiss him . . .”

Hearing this ignited something in him, sparked a great hunger for all sorts of things, and he sensed that old beast Desire, lying dormant somewhere in his body, let out a ravenous, cruel howl. His eyes drilled into the plump buttocks passing by: the way they heaved and rolled was so indecent, so thrilling, and so terrifying. Whichever way he turned he found bulging breasts pointing directly at the thing underneath his belly, provoking it. They ground on his nerves brutally, ferociously, without mercy. He concentrated on sipping his black coffee, so as not to do anything crazy that he might regret later. Even the imam at the mosque had been caught by the neighborhood lads a few times sneaking a look at the young women and fumbling with the thing under his paunch, his ancient prayer beads creaking between his fingers. You’ve got an excuse, our imam—if Eve tempted Adam out of Eden, then obviously she’s capable of making you lose your dignity, isn’t she? 

He looked over at Hamu and said irritably:

“What they’re subjecting us to is violence, that’s what it is. One day I’ll make a placard saying ‘No to violence against men,’ and I’ll march around the streets with it. And they wonder why rapes happen? The world is full of slu—” He hawked up some phlegm. “Those girls are the lucky ones in this country, they wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference between a book and a billy club—but all they have to do is show a bit of thigh, put on some make-up, and every single closed door swings open for them! And you and I know all about closed doors, don’t we?”

He would fill with rage when he saw the neighborhood girls: no older than twenty, and each with their own cell phone. Some of them had even bought themselves cars, and now wanted to rent apartments instead of stinking pits like the one he lived in that were called, in a blatant case of exaggeration, houses.

When his sister had come to see them and break the news that she would be marrying a Frenchman, her elderly father had opposed it, ranting and raving and making threats, swearing that he’d disown her if she married “that damn Christian.” He even started talking at length about halal and haram, and about hellfire. Meanwhile her mother was wailing and cursing the day she’d given birth to a female child, and mourning the days when girls were buried alive at birth.

But then everything changed in a typically Moroccan mercurial flash. The decrepit furniture in their home had always been shared with rats and cockroaches, as well as being the established and secure home to generations of spiders; the only thing the house had lacked to complete the picture was Dracula himself. But then it was all replaced. Their father started wearing a full suit and tie instead of his tattered djellaba, and smiling foolishly, proud of the daughter who had brought him his millions. A bottle of wine, some weed, and he would be reduced to a happy gibbering mess, lying on his back and saying over and over, “A man who has a daughter has a treasure.” And the phrase “God be pleased with you, Daughter” was constantly on his lips.

Even his mother took to rolling up her sleeves in front of her female neighbors to show off her bracelets and rings, reveling in the sight of the women’s eyes almost popping out of their heads at the entrancing yellow glow. She’d look over at her daughter and say, “The wedding’s soon!” So how long would he carry on being against his sister getting married? She would marry the Christian whether they liked it or not. And he wasn’t the hero of the film Antar Zamanu , he wasn’t about to kill his sister and spend the rest of his life in prison for the sake of—of what? Morals? Honor? Traditions? He didn’t know the color, shape, or taste of any of those things, he’d only heard about them in the stories his grandmother used to tell him to put him to sleep. So he would just have to apply the logic of the times to his sister’s case. He would cast off his face like a discarded garment, and don a tin-plated one in its place that revealed no shame, just like all those people around him did every day.

He began reciting randomly selected ayahs and hadiths to everyone as a way of making his sister’s wedding halal. The neighbors did gossip, of course, but in the end they swallowed their tongues. And why should he offer anyone an explanation of his behavior, anyway? People should mind their own business—as the saying went, “God gave us each our own separate head so that we could leave each other in peace.”

He constantly and confidently repeated, within earshot of the neighborhood lads, “It’ll just be a matter of a few more days, after that you won’t be seeing my face round here again.” His dreams were full of his future invasions of all those blonde women’s beds, for he knew that Moroccan men were like all Arab men: dirt poor, but they bred like rats. Nothing mattered to them except their dazzling victories over their families, and they wouldn’t lower their spears or surrender their weapons until they were sure they had dealt the fatal blow and taken down their primary adversary in this mission—the women. Some day he’d be using broken Arabic, unnecessarily interspersed with French, to tell the neighborhood lads about his affairs with all those creamy-skinned women.

He picked up his crate of cigarettes. He saw the postman, and asked him if there was a letter for him from France. The postman answered, “No,” without so much as turning toward him. He went into the house cursing everything at the top of his voice, from his two elderly parents to his sister, who . . .

From Trente-Six. © Malika Moustadraf. Translation © 2016 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.

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