Translated by ALICE GUTHRIE
Prickly pear cacti are always squat and spindly bushes—that much I know. The exception to this rule, however, is the prickly pear grove found in my grandfather’s village. It’s lofty. It towers into the sky, its foliage so dense it always struck me as foretelling of a secret that was to be hidden away for good in its myriad crevices and shadows. And what intensified this feeling in me, and brought me to the conclusion that cacti are far from innocent, was the sight of our beautiful, fair-skinned friend Heaven running to the prickly pear one day and trying to hide among its limbs and behind its broad, swollen leaves. She looked like the heroine of a fairy tale fleeing a terrifying kingdom.
Little beads of sweat were pouring off her forehead, her cheeks were even rosier than usual, and when she almost slammed into me on her way past, a shivery thrill went through my body, a strange jolt of energy. Heaven did not seem to be the same sex as me, even though I knew her well and I had seen her bathing in her birthday suit more than once; just like me, she had untamable, bouncing breasts. But deep down inside, Heaven was fundamentally different from me, as—in utter contrast to most girls in the village—she existed in a constant state of awe. She lived among us, but her almond-shaped eyes seemed to be seeing another world, about which we knew nothing at all. And what was stranger still was the color of those eyes of hers: they beamed out a brilliant sky blue that made her the talk of the entire village. Despite everything that was said about her and her eyes in the village back then, I didn’t understand anything about that awe they shone with until I grew up. As an adult I finally came to understand, with the benefit of hindsight, what the grown-ups had been hinting at about the djinns that had taken up residence in Heaven and imprisoned her in an invisible box called Desire.
Heaven was my companion during the summer vacations. Coming from the crowds and congestion of the city, I was infatuated with her; the blue of her eyes matched the radiant clear skies of those sweltering summer days. Heaven was a fearless girl. My grandmother would frequently warn us about her, but since she spoke in her Bedouin dialect, which we weren’t used to hearing, I didn’t understand the main word she used: “She’s a zefaania”. My grandmother’s warning had no effect on me, since I found hanging out with Heaven truly delightful. The light streaming from her eyes made me feel like I was departing this humdrum world, disconnecting from myself and being transformed into a mere specter. That’s why I would often stroke her hand tenderly, so as to be whisked away to those other worlds. That was how I imagined heaven to be. My grandmother couldn’t accept my spending time with Heaven—whenever she saw me running around with the girl she would drag me back home.
In the village’s vast vineyards, we would strip the giant scarecrows of their clothes. We were always fiddling around with them, and I was under the illusion that we would find real bodies beneath their clothes, but we found nothing but bundles of sticks bound up with heavy-duty twine.
I was accustomed to going back to the city during term time, but Heaven’s extraordinary face would always remain seared into my memory, binding me to the village’s obsessions and curses. It was as though contact with her left me touched in a terrifying way, and fed my imagination, keen as it was to believe the tales my grandmother told after dark. When I made my last visit to the village as a child, I felt that Heaven’s nature had changed and her face was full of woe. She had swelled to become much fatter than usual, and she withheld the hand that used to lead me off to magical worlds.
One leaden morning we all awoke to piercing screams. We rushed off in the direction all fingers were pointing, and I was as astonished as everyone else to see a baby boy curled up asleep under a pile of straw. The rosy glow of his cheeks was perfectly familiar to me, and there was a massive crowd, their voices muttering: That’s Heaven’s son—his hair is blond like hers, and his eyes! Look at his eyes…
The boy was a little angel, his blue irises ringed by a captivatingly pure white, and his pink fingers curled around as if he were gripping onto a protective hand. Everyone who saw him fell in love with him, but simultaneously they cursed Heaven both privately and publicly and wished they had dropped her down a dry well. For me, the sight of that child planted an idea that was to take lasting root in me: that children conceived in passion are the most beautiful of all children. Was it fear laced with desire that projected this magnificent beauty onto them, and created fertile ground for such a myth?
My grandmother was there among the thronging crowd. The moment she spotted us—her daughters and granddaughters—she insisted we go straight home. The deadly expression on her face was a clear enough indication of how she felt, let alone the harsh words she spat out, over-enunciating them fiercely: “Didn’t I tell you she was a zefaania?”
But so strong was my love for Heaven that I slipped away and didn’t pay my grandmother’s words any mind. I waited a long time in the hope of seeing Heaven again, but she had disappeared, as threats, curses, and insults had begun to pursue her wherever she went. Some of her haters even set off to hunt her down and punish her, to make an example of her to other women. But no one managed to even see her, much less catch her. Word went around the village that she rode a red horse, and that the horse dug down into the dirt and buried her in the bowels of the Earth as if she were a female knight from the olden days. Many of the young people of the village went searching for her, but they found no trace. They came home tired, as though they’d had enough and were done with her and her curse. What was very odd was that her family kept the child: he was both blighted and beloved. Heaven’s father, who already had a weak heart that kept him housebound, died of shame a few days after the birth.
Years passed without my encountering Heaven again, but her name was never erased from village tales and talk. She remained an obsession for people there, since a lot of the villagers swore that she always appeared at nightfall under the big prickly pear cactus grove, dressed in white and cooing like a dove. I was frequently overcome by a desire to go out searching for her at night. But I was fearful, and the lofty cacti loomed strangely over me, embracing each other in the sky as though they were demons greeting each other with great affection and tenderness.
And to this very day, I still remember Heaven’s hand and the way I would hold it whenever we met. When I grew up, I would glimpse her in the eyes of all the village girls who had been themselves so drawn to her magnetic eyes, and I felt swaths of broad cactus leaves growing inside me like those that filled the village and surrounded my grandfather’s house. Privately I too would curse all those cacti, referred to by others as “the devil’s tree”; and I would recall Heaven’s face as she ate their fruit whole, without peeling it, despite its sharp spikes.
The idea of the fall from grace constantly haunted me, as if I were inside all the voices screaming for the restoration to Creation of an ancient vengeance back on Earth, and as if happiness lay in plucking the embryo from the womb and concealing any trace of what the mother had reaped. And strange nightmares often came over me. I would awake from them screaming, having excised all wombs, as if by doing so I was assassinating childbirth itself. Then I’d ask myself:
“What if all women had elective hysterectomies? Would Creation cease?”
When the little angel in the village grew up, all eyes were on him, since everyone called him “Heaven’s son.” But no eyes were on his father, who quietly married another woman and brought forth children whose names and dates of birth he registered with officialdom. No fingers were pointed at him, and he was not cast out from Eden. I picture the quantity of “little angels” languishing down here on Earth without identity papers, and I imagine their fierce revenge on the wombs that brought them forth in the form of beautiful girls like Heaven. I’m trying, if I am able, to refashion the world anew so that it doesn’t expire after savoring a prickly pear.
I would feel as if the fall from grace were being replayed in my mind when I saw the teacher standing in front of me and heard his loud voice affirming that the Sin had caused Allah to cast Adam and Eve out from paradise. I would picture Eve casting her eyes down in shame as she departed paradise, weeping, and I would picture all of Creation, from that moment on, sinning and shouting and killing and fucking and desiring and dying and learning and sleeping and waking up. Then I’d ask the teacher:
“Why didn’t Heaven’s lover get chased out of the village? They ate the forbidden fruit together!”
Heaven didn’t disappear completely. So extraordinary were the yarns spun about her that I saw her one pitch-dark night, descending feet-first above a big cloud, her sublime archetypal femininity having reached its zenith. She was bringing forth from her hands many women made in her own image, and they were descending to Earth. It was a frightening scene, but her expression as she looked down was one of great compassion, as if she were quenching the Earth’s raging thirst. I was tearing at my clothes in anguish, and my voice wouldn’t come to my rescue and scream for me.
The women would recount, in their private gatherings and whispered murmurs, how Heaven’s lover had been taken into Sidi Bulkwan’s shrine on account of his constant nightly asphyxiation, caused by Heaven’s hand on his throat. Apparently that hand pursued him everywhere. Word was he would have to remain in the shrine so that the righteous marabout could protect him from certain death.
I don’t know what it was that made my grandmother finally begin to sympathize with Heaven at long last. She confided in us that she did feel Heaven might have been treated unjustly and that, because she had been murdered, her soul haunted the village—that’s why she was seen at night. As for me, I felt the caress of Heaven’s soft, damp hand everywhere I went, as if she were a piece of the moon illuminating everything it touched.
After a long time passed, I obtained a PhD in anthropology, and I began entering remote houses to find out what people’s opinions were on this or that subject. I was researching the customs and mores (and numerous secrets) that cultures hold within them; but understanding humans remained very difficult, since every time I illuminated one corner, a different one would fall into darkness. But at least my research granted me a new courage, and I no longer believed the naive commentaries made about Heaven in the village. For both her absence and her strong presence there was another explanation, and her hand’s refusal to appear to anyone but me no longer kept me awake at night like it had done in the past.
I used to go back to the village from time to time. One memorable day, everyone there kept telling each other that this was the day that Heaven would be returning, and that she was even now approaching the outskirts. At first I didn’t believe it, but then I joined a group of villagers and walked with them, as if propelled by an unseen hand, to where a big crowd was lining both sides of the road.
Heaven looked like a princess who had just stepped out of the Thousand and One Nights. When she drew near to the colossal human throng, the women flung themselves on her, kissing her, and the men took her hands and touched them as if receiving a blessing. Heaven’s appearance had changed; she still had that arresting femininity, but it was enveloped now in the trappings of wealth, that were not missed by the eyes of the villagers.
And over the murmuring and smiling, the women’s trilling ululations soared, turning quickly to wind, then to thunder and lightning… and then rain soaked all the villagers, their eyes turning to the sky and then back down to Heaven. Her weeping mother embraced her, shouting: “This is my daughter. This is Heaven.”
 Author’s note: The verb zafana in Arabic refers to a dance and the people who dance it, but here, in the folkloric chaabi context, it has taken on the meaning of “prostitute,” and this use of the word is widespread in the Doukkala region].
 Author’s note: Sidi Bulkwan is the tomb of a marabout in the Doukkala region that the village claims can work miracles. People visit the shrine to solve problems, making offerings of milk, dates, raisins, and almonds. Women also visit because of marriage or fertility issues. The shrine is surrounded by lote trees that produce buckthorn.
Latifa Labsir is a writer and teaches at Hassan II University, Casablanca. She has published a number of short story collections and works of criticism. Labsir has written for the magazine Women from Morocco since 2008, and some of her work has been translated into French and Spanish.
Alice Guthrie is an independent translator, editor, and curator specializing in contemporary literary, academic, and media Arabic. Her work has often focused on subaltern voices, “activist” art, and queerness/queering (winning her the 2019 Jules Chametzky Translation Prize). As a commissioning editor, she is currently compiling the first anthology of LGBTQIA+ Arabic writing, set to appear in parallel Arabic and English editions. She programmed the literary strand of London’s biennale Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture from 2015 to 2019, and has curated queer Arab arts events for the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Outburst Queer Arts Festival. Her forthcoming translations include books by Malika Moustadraf, Mohamed Zafzaf, and Hisham Bustani. She teaches Arabic-English translation at the University of Birmingham and the University of Exeter.