By ANIS ARAFAI
Translated by RUTH AHMEDZAI KEMP
They were first brought together digging up other people’s trash, trying to keep starvation at bay. And since that first encounter at the public dump on the outskirts of Marrakech, the two were inseparable.
Abbas gave him the name Minouche and saw him as the son he had never had. Abbas, whose mind was addled with the blind fog of hashish and such obscene quantities of alcohol as would have been enough to wipe out an entire building, was also a bohemian painter whose days blustered by in anxious gusts.
He was a man always on the run from the horses on his back, as they say. The night was his, while the day always brought one defeat or another. But ever since Minouche became entwined with his life, following him like a shadow wherever his feet wore down the path, he launched himself into a relentless battle with the color spectrum.
There was no real explanation for their unshakeable emotional alliance, and yet Abbas’s soul seemed to cease spinning in a stuttering confusion and his thoughts seemed to straighten out when he finally had an enduring companion who would massage his black skin like a new piano, and in the twinkle of whose animal eyes he saw immeasurable shades of color that came to life on the tip of his paintbrush.
Time and again, Abbas refused to sell Minouche to any of the admirers of his fine Turkish pedigree, the white fleck of a semicolon in the middle of his forehead, or his elegant, balletic stance. But he would take any price for his sketchbooks of Minouche in Chinese ink, relinquishing them to the first French tourist who came along in Café Glacier on Jemaa el-Fna Square.
“Whenever I sell one of his lives, I get another one right away,” he used to say.
And because Minouche had an infinite number of lives and every sketch commanded a higher price, it wasn’t long before Abbas headed into the old town, not far from the shrine of Moulay Sidi Abdelaziz, to rent a rooftop room and finally put an end to his pastime of drifting on the open road, alone and forsaken like a glove without a hand.
Abbas was not to know that he had chosen the wrong house. Would that he had never set foot in the direction of this ill-fated place.
The landlord—an ugly, bald, rat-faced man—set to measuring Abbas’s skinny frame like an undertaker, while the son haggled with him over the rent with a suspicious swagger that sent a shudder up his spine like a cockroach creeping up his neck. The wife, a stout woman with the dishevelled hair of a sorceress, lurked in the doorway, mute as a well so deep you don’t hear the splash of a stone dropped into its depths. A fatal glint flickered in her eyes as they bore mercilessly into Minouche’s flesh like hot metal skewers.
Abbas was used to silencing his tongue with a stake and projecting a likeness of himself while he slipped away from any kind of hassle, and thus he succeeded, more easily than he might have imagined, in getting hold of the key.
The rooftop room was small, no greater than three meters in either direction. It had peeling walls, a single window like the eye of a cyclops, and a tattered wooden door that had lost the ability to close. The scant furnishings summoned little but pity, and a coarse jute mattress and pillow formed the very humble bed.
It made no difference. It was a small kingdom for two bodies. Minouche was able to come and go as his appetite dictated, and as he came and went Abbas could read the time of day in his eyes, in the Chinese fashion. The faint rustle of his paws and a soft mew brought a vision of his soul mate to Abbas’s mind like the moon appearing in the reflection on a still lake.
Whenever something caused a ripple to scatter this reflected image, troubled thoughts would run wild in Abbas’s mind as he spun reality into far-fetched fantasies which threatened to plunge him into insanity. Lines, circles, cubes, and expanses—his paintbrush was impelled to fill the empty canvas, submitting like a slave to the will of his fingers. Yielding to this abstract force, the brush surged like a raging river towards forms from which Minouche emerged again and again, in a surreal image that cast a shadow twice as deep as it was long.
Minouche was always there, in every painting. Abbas would let him out only after he had captured a vision of him, once he had aligned one soul with the other.
But one day Minouche left, never to return.
Abbas lamented having let him slip out of their room, especially after the landlords’ repeated protestations about the mess he left on the stairs and about his rifling through the garbage cans. But Abbas still dared to hope that, any minute now, Minouche would reappear in his field of vision. When it was no longer possible to entertain such a hope, he put his vocal chords to the test and started calling for him. No sooner had they left his mouth than his relentless cries trailed off, fading into an echo. His heart fluttered like a ragged flag as Abbas quickly succumbed to ashen thoughts: Had Minouche been injured in an ill-matched brawl after coming to blows with his rivals? Or had he been crushed in the street by a reckless car in a moment of distraction?
Abbas felt as though a deep hole had opened up beneath him, into which he was tumbling, and he knew instinctively that there was no longer any use in waiting. He went downstairs, and before him he saw the night; the light of day was behind him. He was thunderstruck to see Minouche at the entrance to the house, as though he were inside another body, not his own. He was writhing in pain and emitting a ferocious meow like a wild predator. His claws extended, he scratched desperately at the wall as though begging. His limbs spasmed as he rose up on all fours, only to crash gracelessly to the ground. Something was ravaging him from within; some poison had banished the beautiful glow from his eyes.
Abbas took him in his arms and held him close like an infant, before rushing upstairs with him to feed him some milk. But it was too late: Minouche’s breath of life had crept away.
At that moment, Abbas howled from the intensity of his pain, the howl of a young child who has lost his beloved toy forever. The landlords rushed to the scene and stared at him in amazement, feigning absolute innocence with regard to Minouche’s blood, though the secret of the crime lay dormant behind their sealed lips.
After this calamity, Abbas proceeded to amputate Minouche’s tail, hiding it away behind a loose azulejo tile in the corner of the room. He tucked the body into a plastic bag the color of his emotion, then placed it inside a wooden box. He tore at his clothes like a grieving widow, and tears streamed from his eyes for three days, before he went out and buried Minouche under a fig tree like a fruit that had fallen before its time.
From that day on, Abbas wore a bell around his neck like a man possessed and secluded himself in his room for forty days, drinking nothing but water and eating nothing but dry bread. He feared an attack of emptiness and that his memory would perish, so he let the waves of grief batter relentlessly against the shores of his soul, giving succor to his isolation with regular tides of insomnia. He held his private wake there in the far corner of a room he never left, stirring only when startled by a vision of Minouche’s shadow against the wall or his spirit creeping softly before his eyes.
He sank into obscurity as might anyone who loses a hold on himself. He was never again able to recover his senses, nor could he stop etching the walls with image after image of Minouche.
Longing to become a bat and for his room to become the twin of the devil, he blackened the walls with soot until the dark became an eternal place of mourning where not a word was uttered. So long did Abbas linger in this pitch-black gloom that he sacrificed his vision and submitted to the onset of blindness, setting his insanity loose from its cage.
He then ripped up all of his paintings, muttering furious invocations cursing whoever had robbed him of sleep, trapping him night after night inside his pain, in the midst of this darkness that surrounded his sleepless eyes. And when he had become completely blind, he began to paint. He extended a rope of friendship between himself and his canvas, seeking to avenge the endless days, his brush yielding passively to the will of his hand, twisting like an entranced rattlesnake. He painted the wife of his landlord, naked with dishevelled hair and bleeding breasts, dragging chains that stretched up to the clouds of a mosaic sky. Alongside he depicted a laughing Minouche at the top of a staircase, narrow at the bottom and widening at the summit, stretching out to the stars. A second depiction of Minouche, his laughter broader still, has him facing a tormented woman, above whom floats a cloud carrying a third vision of Minouche, crying the bitter tears of the betrayed.
When the painting was complete, Abbas left his room on the roof for good.
Months passed before he returned to the house to retrieve some of his old belongings. The wife opened the door, as thin as rope, shrouded in the white robes of mourning, and threw herself into his arms, weeping. Her son and her husband had both departed from this life in a traffic accident after swerving to avoid a cat that had appeared from a dip in the road and darted across in front of them.
Certain details in this story about the relationship between the late Moroccan artist Abbas Saladi (1950-1992) and his cat Minouche, and about his existential choices in life and art, are derived from the tales narrated by his childhood friend and neighbour, the self-made artist Abdel Fattah Abu al-Thaka. These bones were then fleshed out with more interpretation, based on discussions with the artist Lahsan al-Farsawi and the poet Abdel Ati Jamil. For more background, please see the French monograph about Saladi in the series ‘Perspectives: Traces of the Present’ (‘Nadharat: Athar al-Hadir’), published in 1993 by Mursim Publishing, edited by the critic Farid al-Zahi.
Anis Arafai is a Moroccan author and storyteller, born in Casablanca. A member of the Moroccan Writers’ Union, he studied linguistics and literary criticism. His fiction has been translated into French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Persian, and Chinese. He participated in the International Prize for Arabic Fiction writers’ workshop and has won the Gutenberg Prize.
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a British translator of Arabic, German, and Russian fiction and literary nonfiction into English. Recent published translations include The Bride of Amman, by Fadi Zaghmout, and The Crossing by Samar Yazbek (with Nashwa Gowanlock). She’s currently working on The Horse’s Last Century, by Ulrich Raulff.