The Bus

By MAHMOUD AL-RIMAWI

Translated by ELISABETH JAQUETTE

 

Between France and Marrakech is a route upon which travels a single bus from Paris. The bus reaches its destination safely, as one might hope and expect. Then the passengers who so desire transfer to another bus, which takes them by an established road to Agadir.

The Paris bus is neither new nor old; it’s existed for just over five years. More important to note is that it’s impressive in size; mighty, it practically glides. It travels from country to country, crossing borders as nimbly as a cheetah, as swiftly as a ship that cuts through the sea. Days and nights roll over it on the open road without dinting its resolve, breaking its allure, or dispelling its majesty.

The bus is able to carry restless desires, eager memories, and abounding troubles, as well as bags and bundles of various size, color, and contents. 

The driver is veiled from passengers by a thick sheet of glass—he doesn’t chat with them—but they’re connected through the intercom and by soft, strange music that seems as though it’s coming from the heavens and filling every corner of the vehicle. He’s in no rush. His bus travels the long road stubbornly, relentlessly. 

The driver wears a charcoal-colored driver’s hat on his huge head, and only removes it when he disembarks at certain stations. He also stops occasionally… not at actual stations, but on the side of the road. He’ll step off the bus into the open air for a little while, no less than ten minutes and no more than fifteen. Or he’ll pull his hat over his face to block the light and take a brief nap in the driver’s seat, while he lets the passengers get off, as long as they don’t go far.

Amidst crowds of passengers from France, Morocco, and elsewhere in Africa, there is a seat for young Fatima, the only daughter of Aisha, who has been waiting for her daughter at the bus station in Marrakech for five years. But Fatima is invisible on the bus. She discovers, during the ethereal voyage, other Fatimas on the same journey who somewhat resemble her, but none of them notice each other. There are also several gentle women named Aisha, each of whom resembles her mother, but not a single one of them waves or calls her name.

 

The long wait weighs heavily on Aisha, bowing its head with her. From under Aisha’s headscarf, long black hair peeks out, now mixed with gray. She keeps her head down and doesn’t look at anyone or anything, except for what’s in front of her. Her gaze lowered, she sits in her spot on the station floor with unshaken faith that Fatima’s bus will arrive. She doesn’t know why it’s delayed. If her daughter had been on a camel or horse, she would have arrived by now. Why, for five years, hasn’t the bus arrived: did it run out of gas? Has the driver come down with a terrible stomachache? Did he suddenly become worried about his house and sons, and turn around to go back the way he came? Has he gotten distracted… roaming east and west, losing the right road? Did his bus hit a wandering cow or a roaming herd of gazelle? How is Aisha to know? She knows so little about this vast, mysterious world, and she is committed to this lack of knowledge. She just knows that Fatima will come—fate has decreed it… but she’s delayed. If her spritely little girl, who’s grown up and become a woman now, with no children of her own… if she had to walk the whole way on her little feet, if she wandered up right now with cheeks flushed, Aisha would take her straight to Agadir. Of course, Aisha doesn’t want her daughter to arrive on foot like someone starving and homeless. Fatima will arrive like a princess, with her head held high, brand-new clothes, and a radiance that turns heads. Shining from her beautiful eyes will be joy at returning safe and sound into the arms of her mother, who is eagerly waiting to embrace her.

Long has Aisha waited, but she doesn’t lose patience, although she doesn’t have much to do. Sleepiness descends on her, and she takes the discolored blanket balled up beside her, pulls it over herself, and nods off. Then she suddenly realizes that she’s fallen asleep, but she doesn’t know when she nodded off or how long she’s been sleeping. She feels hungry, and reaches for an orange, or a small piece of yellow cheese and a slightly larger piece of bread, or is satisfied just with water. She knows her things are still in front of her. How many? Fifteen, twenty? She starts counting, and gets to number six, but then becomes bored or distracted and stops. 

When her Fatima arrives, she’ll find her mother right in front of her, waiting, getting by on the generosity of strangers. Selling tissues, chewing gum, and lighters to kindhearted souls for spare change. She often forgets whether a customer has bought something or just said a few words and walked on, whether he’d given her exact change for his purchase or not, and whether she’d given him his change back or not. People have a good opinion of her. She forgets, and it doesn’t trouble her that she forgets. That she likes to forget. Her husband died ten years earlier, and her son, Ahmed, who’s a year younger than his sister, Fatima, left for Belgium and never returned. And so Aisha left her distant, dreary home to take refuge in the station. Ahmed is a man who inspires fear, not one who feels it, so she doesn’t worry about him. But Fatima used to write to her, and now she doesn’t, not a single word. Aisha couldn’t exactly read, but she knew in her heart what her daughter wrote, and thanked God that her heart was still beating. She’d once heard that if a woman’s husband died before her, it wouldn’t take long for her to join him. But old age hasn’t caught up with her yet, so why die? Isn’t her heart beating, isn’t she blessed and alive? Aisha’s heartbeat told her that Fatima was coming back aboard a long bus, wearing a wide embroidered hat just like the Christian girls wore.…

 

Fatima believes that her mother is waiting for her in Agadir, and that also waiting for her are the neighbors, the neighborhood, the school, the shop, the blond cat, the sunrise and sunset, and her father, in the ground (if God had let him live longer, he would have protected her from hardship and this experience). She doesn’t know that one day her mother stopped sorting the wheat and lentils, cooking and cleaning the house, airing the bedspreads, opening and closing the windows… all to wait for her in Bab Doukkala, Marrakech. 

Fatima’s heart flutters, and she cries, longing for the fields of her childhood. But she’s also shackled with worries about returning. 

Orphan Fatima. Far from her mother and motherland, her sense of isolation intensifies. 

Six years ago, and four years after her father died, she left for France on the wings of a longing to marry Si Mostafa. She fell in love with Si Mostafa over the phone and Internet, married him at eighteen, and divorced him twenty months later. He wasn’t much older than her, and lived by himself like a reckless bachelor (even while married), working one day and then taking two days off. Since then, since her divorce, she’s been pursued by men of all backgrounds, fellow Moroccans included. They shower her with endless, pointless promises, because she’s alone at the ripe age of twenty-four and in a back-and-forth struggle with poverty.

Since arriving in the land of the French, Fatima has worked whatever jobs she can find. She worked even before she divorced; hunger was merciless, and wouldn’t be allayed. Si Mostafa didn’t spend money on anyone, and didn’t want her to either, unless it was on him, which she did. She worked a few months here and a few weeks there: a restaurant, a canning factory, a store selling accessories, a bakery, a phone shop, a slaughterhouse, as a domestic worker taking care of a French family’s dog, and picking grapes, before settling into a job as a janitor in a bus station. 

She doesn’t face trouble at work; there are eight of them, colleagues of all nationalities, and the work is divided among them. She’s able to leave the bathrooms from time to time, too. It wouldn’t be right to spend six or seven hours in that place, even if it were clean and the people passing through were respectful (and not all of them are). Her boss promises to transfer her soon: to the station corridors, or the offices of station staff (“Right under their feet…,” Fatima says to herself). What can she say or do? She’s never had a secure, stable job, or a reliable salary before this one. She reminds herself, “You’re lucky here, Fatima… your luck stops here and won’t budge. Blind luck, huh?”

She plans to go home sometime soon for a short visit, bringing presents and gifts, and then return here to her refuge. Because here, despite everything, she now has: a work address, a place to lay her head, a residency permit, a way to make ends meet, and friends, even if they’re fleeting and few. She worries she wouldn’t survive if she stayed away from here for too long. Relatives and others would try to keep her from coming back, even though she isn’t little anymore (she’s matured twenty years in these past ten). She doesn’t know when she’ll go home, but she won’t return a cleaner. 

From a hidden corner in the station’s main hall, she steals time to people-watch, gazing at the faces of passengers coming and going. She pays particular attention to their bold, colorful clothes, and their belongings, light or heavy, new or old. With sharp eyes, she notices her countrymen among them, and it cheers her up… children, the elderly, sweet teenage girls, courteous grown men, and—dammit—lewd young ones. They look at her with stealthy grins or brazen ones, innocent gestures or nasty ones. Some make comments she catches a snippet of, and either she’s pleased or she forgives them. She knows she isn’t beautiful and charming, not like Sabrina Ouazani or Leïla Bekhti, the Algerian-French actresses. She’s slightly heavier than she should be and a bit short, but she has a youthful glow about her, and this is what people who notice her see.

Most French people, coming or going, seeing people off or welcoming them home, wear their emotions openly: men and women rush to hug and kiss each other on rosy cheeks, summer or winter. She watches crowds form for buses arriving from afar, and smaller crowds for departures. She doesn’t have anyone to see off or welcome home; Si Mostafa has forgotten her (thankfully, she’s trying to forget him), and as for her brother, Ahmed, Lord knows what in Belgium made him forget his only sister. Her mother, Aisha, is all she has left, the last thread connecting her to her childhood, aunt and uncle, grandmother and grandfather, and glowing memories of home. But in spite of all that, she can’t speak to her… her mother would try to pull her back into the past, into a cage, into an endless cycle of poverty. Fatima wants to launch herself forward toward the future that awaits her, even if she doesn’t know on what corner or crossroads it’s waiting, or where she should rush toward.… She wishes her dear mother would forget her a bit, even just for a little while, wishes her mother loved her less; she wishes and asks God to forgive her if this wish is a sin.

Fatima isn’t waiting for anyone or bidding anyone farewell. She wants to board a fast, solid bus, and squeeze in among cheerful young men and women from Morocco, Spain, France, and who knows what other countries, on a bus that will take them on a journey far away… as far as can be. She’ll hand control to the driver, a watchful guard who excels at crossing vast distances and never tires of travel until he reaches the last stop. There, the passengers, and her among them, will celebrate some happy occasion, without knowing what it is—a surprise occasion.… She loves surprises, and every time a bus leaves, she wishes she were packed in among the passengers, closing her eyes for a few minutes in her seat, and then opening them to interesting scenes she’s never seen before. This desire doesn’t last long before it’s snuffed out. She doesn’t want to go to a nearby city; she wants the unknown. “Don’t get carried away, Fatima,” she chastises herself, half lightly and half sternly, as she goes back to cleaning what needs to be cleaned.

 

“Where are we, Sano?” Fatima asks her colleague and housemate. A Senegalese woman in her thirties, Sano is used to this odd side of Fatima, and isn’t surprised by the strange question. 

“In France… in Paris… where do you think we are?” Sano says softly, glancing around them. 

“We’re in a bathroom,” says Fatima, calmly but firmly. She gazes into Sano’s large dark eyes. “My goal was to come to France, not a bathroom,” she adds. 

Sano sighs. She lowers her eyes and is silent. 

Just a few days later, Fatima takes what little she owns and leaves the shared housing where she’d been put with three other women. They’re surprised and affected by her sudden departure. Fatima’s good qualities all suddenly come to mind as she’s saying goodbye, and they love her more. They remember her points of weakness, and feel bad for her. Sano is the only one who tries to keep her from departing, but Fatima goes anyway, leaving them an assortment of items: two bottles of shampoo, three bars of soap, a hair drier, a brush. She tells them as she’s leaving: I won’t forget you—you’re like sisters to me…. When she gives up her job in the bus station, she says, “They’ll find someone else to clean the bathrooms, or the people who use them will clean up after themselves.”

Who but the All-Knowing knows where she went? Did she find a decent job? Or did she go back to Si Mostafa, in whom lingered the country’s scent and the story of a love cut short and betrayed? Or did she become religious, disavow worldly things, and involve herself in ascetic circles? Or did she fall in love with a Frenchman and leave with him, far from her friends and acquaintances, even though no one knows whether people from his country would like the name Fatima? Did the world toss her “easy” work in the entertainment industry? Did she lose her senses and then cut herself off from everyone?

 

Here is what happened: She set off early with a round-trip ticket, responding to something calling from deep inside. She headed to Marrakech, found her mother there, and wanted the two of them to embark, with winged haste, on a new life together. She stopped right in front of her one sunny day in Bab Doukkala, wearing decent, unassuming clothes, her short, freshly combed hair shining, no wide hat on her head. Holding her breath, she bought a packet of tissues just like any other customer might, as an experiment or to tease her. Mom… Mom… Mom, she said. She shook her by the shoulder, kissed her head and her hand. The woman didn’t recognize her daughter, or didn’t hear her. She spoke to Fatima the same kindly way she might speak to anyone, without looking up at her. A few passersby paused for a moment in front of the scene, assured that a reunion had occurred. But the climactic scene was taking too long to arrive, and they didn’t have time to wait. Fatima didn’t give in to a violent desire, an overwhelming urge to present herself to her mother. She gave one last quiet sob, and fell silent. Then, she rushed off angrily and left on a packed train, not a bus, to Tangier. 

Tangier is home to people from all over. It’s a city of her people, a city of Arabs, Romans, and Muslims. She makes a new home there, and begins working as a stylist (more accurately: a stylist’s assistant) in a beauty salon, thanks to happy plans that must have been laid by fate during her last days among the French. 

Meanwhile, that ethereal bus en route from Paris keeps moving like a kind wind, forever blowing on Aisha’s head, night and day, keeping her company.


On Tuesday, January 23, 2013, the news site Marrakech 24 published an article by Abdelhamid Zouita and Salima al-Joury. They reported that Aisha, a widow in her forties, was removed from the main hall of Bab Doukkala bus station, where she had taken shelter for five years. The woman suffered from deep psychological distress. Her husband had been a schoolteacher, and had died in Taroudant ten years earlier, and she frequently spoke about her daughter Fatima, who lived in France. Aisha had been en route to Agadir in the summer of 2008 when she stopped under the clock on the wall at Bab Doukkala station. For five years, she watched the shoes of people traveling to and from Marrakech, never lifting her head to see their faces. “She came to Marrakech five years ago, asking everyone about a bus going from France to Agadir,” said one traveler, who knew a relative of Aisha’s. “She didn’t believe what everyone kept telling her: that there is no such bus.” The police intervened and found her housing several times at Dar al Bir wal-Ihsan, a shelter, but she always returned after a week or two. In 2010 a family member offered to let her stay in his home, but she refused to go. She said she didn’t feel comfortable unless she was near the buses, because Fatima was coming by bus from France and would be going with her to Agadir. “The Bus” is inspired by this article.

 

[Purchase Issue 15 here.]

[Read more Arabic fiction in Issue 11: Tajdeed.]

Mahmoud al-Rimawi spent much of his life as a journalist in Beirut and Kuwait, and, after his retirement, has continued to work as a writer and political commentator in several Arabic newspapers. He published his debut short story collections in 1972, and is the author of thirteen collections in total, including Nudity in the Night Desert, Slow Beat on a Small Drum, Return of the Birds, Time Difference, Searching for Marrakech, and Guest of the World. He is also the author of two novels, Who Will Cheer Up the Lady? (longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, 2010) and Real Dream. Al-Rimawi’s stories have been translated into Bulgarian, Italian, English, and French. He lives in Amman, Jordan.

Elisabeth Jaquette’s translations from Arabic include The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz (TA First Translation Prize shortlist; Best Translated Book Award longlist), and Thirteen Months of Sunrise, by Rania Mamoun (PEN/Heim Award), among others. She is also an instructor at Hunter College and the executive director of the American Literary Translators Association.

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