Translated by ALICE GUTHRIE
Avenue Mohammed V is silent and desolate this late at night, empty apart from a few stray cats meowing like newborn babies; it’s a creepy sound. Then a she-dog ambles up, stops in front of me, and raises her tail at a black male dog limping past. A single bark of seduction from her and he’s mounting her. They’re cleaved to each other, clinging on, and she shuts her eyes in ecstasy, surrenders to his movements. A delicious tingle runs through me. How lucky they are! They do it in public. They’re shameless—as the saying goes, “Not only God sees them but his servants do too.” They don’t have to worry about a police patrol, or about what people will say.
Bushta shouts, “I’m gonna kick the fucking shit out of them!”
I take no notice of him. He flings a stone at the dogs, and when it hits them they both let out a shrill yelp that sounds like a human sob, and then separate. If I were them I’d attack him and bite his buttocks.
I’ve been pacing back and forth along the street for two hours now, and there hasn’t been a single customer. It’s a drought!
I touch the razor blade in my pocket, checking it’s still there. I always keep it on me in case someone suddenly does something dodgy—in case I get cornered. Bushta stands near Marché Central, leaning on a wall and singing his favorite song in a tuneless croak: “Red wine, red wine, ah, red wine! The sweetest way to get drunk!” His coarse voice rips through the still night. He’s waiting to take his cut. We sweat and stress and bear the repulsive customers, and he doesn’t have to lift a finger. Fuck him and his—
Naimah found a client earlier on, went off on the back of his motorbike. He seemed like a worker from one of the factories. She said, “I’m a fan of the working classes: they’re better than those inexperienced little pupils you’re obliged to teach the ABCs of love. I’m not some special learning car covered in L-plates for them to grind around in again and again.”
The heel on my shoe is hurting me. I can’t stand on it for very long at a time. I’d like to go home, drink a little beer and eat a plate of mussels with hot pepper. That’s the best prescription for warming a person up in this cold weather. But Bushta won’t leave me alone. Plus I’ve got so many expenses: food, clothes, transport, rent. Rent’s the main thing. I pay my share of the room I rent with Naimah and Scummy. I’m thinking about moving out and living alone—I can’t bear Scummy anymore. She only needs a couple drinks and she’s off, scandalizing us in the street, making a scene. She flips into this weird delirious state. She rants, she says all these totally irrational things, and she insults everyone and everything in foul language. Things get even more awful if she crosses paths with any other drunks.
The razor blade’s still in my hand: I’ve been practising using it ever since I got attacked by those bearded guys who said they wanted to clean up society. Since then I’ve hated anyone with a beard. They shaved my head. Bushta behaved atrociously—he ran away and left them to it. If the police patrol car hadn’t come by, something worse would have happened, for sure. It’s made me like the police, for the first time in my life; I’d always run from them, but that day I ran toward them, and I’m always pleased to see them nowadays. But the loss of my hair still pains me. My mother always used to love brushing it, and she’d deliberately let it grow long, right down past my shoulders. One time my father came back from one of his long trips. He’d go away for months on end, then come back with presents for us, and cheese, and tea—and lots of problems. This particular time he turned up and caught my mum putting lipstick on my cheeks as rouge, my hair pinned up in a bun. He beat her that day till she soiled herself, and told her: “You’re going to ruin this boy—he’ll turn into a girl.”
His hand felt like a pair of pliers digging into my arm as he propelled me along the street to the barber. My hair got shaved down to almost nothing, and I hid my exposed scalp under a blue woollen hat. Back at the house he took the Qur’an in his hands and recited the Fatiha. He opened his mouth so wide his decayed molars showed, plus his tonsils. My heart was pounding, rattling my ribs.
“In the name of God, the most merciful and most compassionate,” I began, stumbling over the words.
“Don’t you even know the Fatiha, you son of a Zoroastrian?” He bit down on his bottom lip with his false front teeth.
“You’ll go to hell, you dirty little bastard, and it’ll be full of women and fags like you.”
He gripped the Qur’an in both hands and smashed it down onto my head. The room spun, the planet Earth spun, and all the heavenly bodies spun too.
“You and your mother will both go to hell! Write out ‘I’m a man’ a thousand times.”
I bent my head and looked down at my hands. I touched my pinkie: I’m a man. I touched my ring finger: I’m a woman. Man, woman, m… woman.
I took a piece of paper and sat at the table. He sat near me. His lips never stopped moving; perhaps he was cursing me under his breath, or reciting suras from the Qur’an? He watched me with the indignant disgust of someone looking at the decaying corpse of a rat.
His white cotton ghandoura was so soaked in sweat it was sticking to his body. I could see his black and white striped underwear through it: it looked like zebra skin. I didn’t carry on looking for very long, to protect myself from his sharp tongue.
“Hands behind his back, the devil on his shoulder”—that was what he used to say to me if he caught me with my hands behind me. But my mother told me when she was brushing my hair one day that men are devils and women are bottles. The Prophet said that women are bottles, and the Prophet doesn’t lie.But my dad lies: he says that women are bottles with devils hiding inside them.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A pilot,” I said shyly, almost inaudibly.
“A piiilooot—with an L.”
“A pilot, a pilot… Peee-Lot.” He pursed his bluish lips, then stuck them out as if sucking his teeth. He frowned, clearly thinking about something weighty, and kept repeating “Lot… pee-Lot.”Then he turned to me and said, “So you want to fly planes, do you? You’ll more likely be driving a dump truck, you miserable little shit.”
In our Arabic grammar class, the teacher said: “The subject is a ‘raised’ accusative noun, with an enclosure marked at the end. The object is an ‘erect’ nominative noun, with an opening at the end.”
So I fumbled around at the end of me, but there was no opening there, and nothing raised either. There was something down there about the size of my pinkie, like a little gerbil’s tail dangling between my thighs.
The teacher flayed my back with his wooden rod. I groaned. He took off his prescription glasses and cleaned them with the edge of his white teacher’s gown. He swept his gaze up and down me, then just down and down me. He had caught me groping that thing of mine that was like a little gerbil’s tail. He grabbed me by the shirt collar and threw me out of the classroom, repeating, “There are many children of sin. I won’t accept you in my class, other than accompanied by your father.” I didn’t tell my father anything about it, and I never attended grammar class again after that day.
The Islamic Education teacher began, as usual, with “In the name of God, the most compassionate and the most merciful,” followed by “There is no power and no might except for in God.” Invocations done, he then said: “The doer and the one it’s done to both burn in hellfire.”
His eyes roamed the room and then settled on my face. The other pupils looked over at me, and I bent my head in embarrassment as if apologizing for my presence among them. The eyes hemmed me in, and I was alone among them, nothing like them, and swathed in melancholy, sweating and shaking and wishing I could just disappear, evaporate into thin air.
My friend, unable to contain his sarcasm, said: “Madonna, Elton John, and Bouchaib el Bidaouiwill all keep you company in hell. Hell’s going to be lots of fun. In heaven the Islamic Education teacher’ll be there, and your dad, and the students who get up and read at the blackboard in class. Heaven’ll be miserable.” He burst out laughing, and just like scabies it spread to everyone else.
As everyone was filing out of the classroom, the teacher had me stay behind. He stroked my face delicately, tenderly, and I doubted his good intentions.
“Your face is softer than it should be. All your friends have grown moustaches except you.” His fingers trembled, sending a shudder through my body. Feelings that were delicious, strange—and sinful. He wiped the droplets of sweat from my brow, his eyes blazing with something weird, like hunger; I lowered my head and left the classroom. His voice followed me out: “You must get on the straight and narrow, the straight and narrow!” His voice sounded like rumbling guts.
The last time I went to wash in the public hamam was years ago. I went into the women’s section, put my silver bracelets in the inner pocket of my handbag, and as soon as I started taking off my voluminous black djellaba, the women gathered around me. They pulled my hair. One of them had a knife in her hand and tried to do something embarrassing, rude, and violent with it. And one of them slid her hand down beneath my belly to check something. I was jammed in between their flabby bodies, getting squashed by their breasts and getting nauseated by the smell of sweat and henna and hair conditioner. By some miracle I got away from them. One of them called after me, “Go to the men’s hamam!”
Out in the street, their ululations, their prayers to the Prophet, and their lewd laughter all reached me. Their anger was a put-on, and so was their yelling.
Then I went into the men’s section. They grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and threw me out. “Go to the women’s hamam.” Whenever I recall that day—the most brutal day of my life—I feel the bile rise inside me and I want to puke.
I don’t know why they treat me this way: roughly, rudely, or sometimes with an indifference so extreme it borders on cruelty. In the street they look at me as if I’d come down from another planet, even though the head I carry on my shoulders is not so different from the rest of the heads around. Their eyes grow wide; they look confused, and then repulsed. They try to suppress their laughter, and let fly that horrible word, but just in a whisper, or in elegant French so as not to ruin the appearance of prudence. There are some who don’t know how to address me; they mix up the male and female pronouns so their sentences come out sounding ugly, all muddled up and wrong. But what’s wrong with the way I look? No one chooses their looks. Haven’t they heard the expression “She is one of God’s creations”?
The doctor I went to see couldn’t stop scratching the tip of his nose and sneezing. After several appointments, a lot of chat and money, and a few tests, he informed me of various things that I couldn’t really comprehend: hormones, genes, chromosomes. In the end he told me that what I had to do was accept my body as it was. What a genius! As if that magic sentence would solve all my problems. Naimah said the same thing to me in her own way: “Put cotton in your ears and live your life the way you want to.” But how could I convince other people not to freak out at how different I seemed to them?
It’s two a.m. now. My fingers are almost completely numb from the cold. Tonight is what we call “falso”—it’s a waste of time. I’ll go home, drink a little beer, and eat a plate of mussels with hot pepper.
Malika Moustadraf (1962–2006) was a preeminent arabophone Moroccan writer. She died of kidney disease at the age of forty-four, leaving behind a novel (Wounds of the Soul and the Body) and a collection of short stories (Trente-Six), which takes its name from the psychiatric wing of the Casablanca hospital. She is celebrated for writing about life in the margins, and the female body and experience.
Alice Guthrie is a British translator, editor, journalist, and event producer specializing in Arabic-English literary and media content. Her work has appeared in a broad range of international publications and venues, with an increasing focus on Syria, where she studied Arabic.
This is a reference to a hadith in which the Prophet refers to women asقوارير (literally “vials” or “bottles”), which is often taken to imply that women are fragile and must be taken care of. There is also a popular folk belief that djinns or evil spirits reside in bottles, hence this other interpretation of the Prophet’s words.
In Islamic popular belief, Lot’s role in the Qur’anic (and Biblical) story of Sodom and Gomorrah has lead to his name forming a very common pejorative term for homosexual, “Loti.” Used as a standalone proper name, as here, “Lot” implies a fervent condemnation of homosexuality.
A very famous Moroccan male transvestite singer of the 1950s and 1960s, who sang women’s songs in what sounded like a woman’s voice.