Translated by NARIMAN YOUSSEF
I looked at my wristwatch. Was it time for a surprise trip, or nearing an appointment? I approached one of the coffee shop’s customers and peered at the cup of black coffee and the glass of water—at the time, it would’ve cost the Ministry of Interior Affairs forty billion to quench the citizens’ thirst. This was therefore the most expensive glass of water I never drank!
I stared at my wrist. I’ve never owned a wristwatch, not even a wall clock. The watch was a dream like those of the Black Harraga who, chased away from their homes by their bitter reality, have swarmed this city—as some would have it—like locusts. Though far from destroying crops, these locusts have created a new—hateful—rich class, constituted of those who trade in the tragedies of others. Greedy for the scraps of their poverty, the smugglers send the migrants away on the backs of precarious boats, selling them dreams and hopes, and stripping whole villages in the woods and deserts of Africa of both their sons and their money, under the nose of the whole world and its brother. It’s a lottery, a game of dice. Some live rich; others daydream of riches while shuffling the cards.
This reminds me, I the Migrant, of what my father said through pursed lips when he saw one of my brothers draw an X on a card of La Quiniela, the Spanish sports lottery: “It’s a tax imposed on the poor, especially on the stupid among them!”
I studied my imaginary wristwatch again and bit the edge of my lower lip. Then I made a sudden circular move with my arm to pull out an imaginary gun and aim it at a nearby Mercedes.
So many Mercedes in the city! From private vehicles to taxis and unlicensed taxis, those “plaza robbers” who do their risky business for a meager living, endangering their lives and the lives of their helpless passengers, who only ride with them when they’ve run out of options to reach their destinations.
Maybe due to the migration factor, I don’t understand why the state persists in making Mercedes the chosen brand for the city’s fleet of shared taxis, given that it’s a job that could’ve easily been accomplished by any other car. It’s our love for redundancy and exaggeration, for hording fragments of the West, what’s left over from the princes of Granada.
I aimed my gun at the car and heard the sound of gunshots come out of my mouth: Kukh… kukh…. I blew on the barrel of my gun, placed it back in its holster, and yelled out, “Mafia!”
The Maqam of Self-Opposition
A pretty girl in a fashionable see-through outfit broke into the scene, heading toward Drouj Merican, “the American Steps.” Everyone on the plaza checked out her ass. Except me—I was done with women’s asses. I yelled “Mafia!” at all the faces in the plaza.
I bit the same edge of my lower lip. The pretty girl was out of sight. One of the customers at Café Fuentes called to me and gave me some dirhams. My ear picked up a scattering of the instructions he spoke. I bit my lip again. Smiled a cowboy’s smile. Pulled my right cheek and right nostril toward my eye and said, “Mercy hasn’t yet abandoned these parts.” I picked the cup off the table and took a sip of coffee brewed with the most expensive water known to history.
As soon as I put the cup down, I the Other vanished into natural thin air.
Ya good-doers… Ya alms-givers…
I felt, double migrant that I am, a dizziness in my head. I thought it was the sun, especially as we were at the height of the Samayem season, which my grandmother used to say would last for forty days. I could smell a scent I’d known since my tender years, but I couldn’t place it at first. Trying to dispel the dizziness, I turned my head to the right, then to the left in a flowing rhythm. And there it was that I glimpsed a Mafialike tourist—not Arab nor Berber nor Black—sitting with his blonde girlfriend at the center of Café Central, under everyone’s eyes and a few inches away from my nose, lighting up a cigarette (?). That was it, then! The dizziness. The smell I couldn’t place. I smiled inside my head. “It was it,” I said to myself. “Yup, it itself, as the townsfolk call it.”
A man wearing fake Ray-Bans sat at the Fuentes, close to our tourist and his girlfriend. “In France, they cut heads off for hash. Us here, quite the opposite: we pamper those same heads,” he said and patted the tourist on the back of the neck. The entire court of Café Fuentes broke out in guffaws. Café Central broke out in guffaws. The seller of TVs and fridges broke out in guffaws. And so did the proprietor of the plaza’s hotel, which until recently was a refuge for the city’s prostitutes and has now become a depot for Black Africans, the Harraga, as the townsfolk call them. The tourist and his girlfriend laughed along languidly. And it is rumored that people in Dar al-Dabbagh and Rahbet Issawa and Drouj Merican guffawed too. But the Black Africans didn’t laugh. I the Absent didn’t laugh. The Present I didn’t laugh. Passersby stopped. It was a new joke, and y’all have ears that can hear from a mile away!
Ya good-doers… Ya alms-givers…
Passersby walked without stopping.
Fuentes, Central, Souq Dakhel, Fawwas Road (a distortion of Aqwas, misread that way because of local calligraphy); Dar al-Dabbagh, the city’s polluted lungs; Dar Baroud, that courtyard with its military canons guarding the gate of an entire continent, watching for an army that won’t come and watching over unarmed forces trying to flee, canons that now guard an exhibit of anonymous corpses at Bab al-Marsa and await the migration season.
Nothing lasts. There’s no shortage of supplies for forgetting or ceasing to exist. “It itself”: hash, hashish, tobo, ghrifla, ghreiba, zero, super, ghabra, bayda, talc, polvo—jargon that testifies to the popularity of the commodity. Souq Dakhel: the remnant of a West that was never quite Western, and fragments of an East whose stink was rising with the steam of washrooms from the big mosque, through alleyways, and permeating the air of the plaza, where cafés, restaurants, and bazars filled up with the scent of burning mint, narcotics, gasoil, cat piss, domestic waste piled up outside the houses in the heat, and tayeb w hari chickpeas. A composite, ripe smell the like of which can be found in Hussain, Imam Shafei, Sayyeda Nafissa and Fustat in Cairo; in Bab al-Yemen, Abdel-Maghni, Harat Felehi and Sailah in Sanaa. I wondered if these cities had ever signed twinning agreements.
Cleanliness, you see, is of a piece with piety.
I the Absent once wondered, “Why has God prohibited pork?” No one paid attention to the question. “He’s crazy, possessed,” they said.
An American tourist walked by with his wife. They were the type that woke and slept at McDonald’s. The town’s elite, the rich and their children—hell, even the poor—rejoiced when the first McDonald’s opened in town. Only the proprietors of those other restaurants were angry, the ones that served bissara, harira, and tajines of sheep’s trotters, sardines, or shattoon.
When I came to the city during the month of fasting, I was horrified by the scene outside the main entrance of the newly opened McDonald’s in the center of town. An endless line of people, as if it were Judgment Day. A meal costs forty-five to fifty dirhams. My cousin, who spends his day breaking and sifting stone for a Spanish construction company in charge of building roads, gets paid fifty dirhams for ten full hours of digging and breaking and heaving and sifting and breaking and sifting and heaving. That works out as seven dirhams and a few centimes per hour, minus taxes and stamps and insurance—which hardly insures anything—and other hidden and sudden expenses, and so on and so forth. What remains is peanuts.
Fifty dirhams a day.
I made fun of the American tourist, who had paid a significant amount for a tarbush that looked more like a cowboy hat and was made of the cheapest leather. Long live globalization! Local manufacturing coupled with American imagination. How skilled you are, traditional craftsmen of my city! You let our American friend be controlled by his own imagination, when no one in my good city has ever worn a tarbush that looks like that!
Fifty dirhams for a fast-food meal.
Ya good-doers… Ya alms-givers…
I the Other remember a conversation with the author of The Zaafarani Affair, who was impressed by my city’s local authenticity when he visited, by that quality that makes the people unique, and how they hold on to their roots—in their homes, their clothing, and their cuisine. “Your city,” he had said, “is one where, on entering the homes and wearing the clothes and eating the food, you know exactly where you are.”
“Possibly,” I’d said. “Except for McDonald’s and that tarbush.”
The American asked his wife to take a photo of him outside Café Central. A photo he could’ve taken outside any building or coffee shop in, say, Havana. Or did he think this building was a local landmark from the time of Uqba ibn Nafi or Idris ibn Abdallah? Did he not know that it was built by the Spaniards when they colonized the city, that the whole neighborhood was, until recently, part of Spain? The street names were enough of a clue.
I the Absent left the café and returned with something small in my hand. I approached the customer of Café Fuentes and handed him two cigarettes of an American brand. This one wasn’t a generous good-doer. He’d sent me to buy him these disgusting, cold, smuggled American cigarettes by piece.
Ya good-doers… Ya alms-givers…
The good-doers and alms-givers walked on.
The other customers of Souq Dakhel’s coffee shops were always present with their bodies, taking up room in space, to use the philosophical expression favored by Muslim Mu‛tazila philosophers when they challenged the idea of the holy trinity of Christian theology. How could God take up room in space and time, when he is the creator of time and space?
Gods of flesh adorned their seats, like their counterparts at the Pearl of Hussein, at Fishawy Café, and in the outdoor and indoor alleys of Sanaa.
A Tax on Added Value
One of the gods of Café Central spoke up, disturbing the coma of the rest of the pantheon.
“The filthy son of a bitch asked me to pay the ‘Te-Ve-Ah,’ and when I asked him to explain what that was, he refused, claiming that I wouldn’t understand. Filthy, insolent asshole! He wanted me to pay without knowing what I was paying. Who does that?”
A tall, slim young man, wearing black plastic sunglasses that were barely distinguishable from his dark skin, held his chin up as if looking at the sky. But his eyes were directed toward a foreign girl crossing the plaza. I thought he was blind at first, since he didn’t move his head once and appeared to be listening hard. He turned to the gods, stared at the Te-Ve-Ah guy for a few moments, then returned his head to how it was and took his sunglasses off. His eyes were small, droopy and shrunken from all the keif he smoked. They were still following the foreign girl when he said, “Qu’est-ce que c’est la Te-Ve-Ah?”
The Te-Ve-Ah guy answered him immediately—“If I’d known what it was, I wouldn’t be sitting among these miserable faces”—indicating the gods collective of the cursed pantheon with a sweep of his arm. One of them began, “The TVA, gentlemen, is taken from a foreign language and means ‘taxe sur la valeur ajoutée’…”
“Bravo!” the dark-skinned young man interrupted, his head remaining in the same position, “Vous comprenez… Français.”
“Shut up, you piece of sewer’s shit!” shot the Te-Ve-Ah guy, with all the frustration and bitterness gathered in his chest.
“…it’s basically an additional tax taken by the state from the value of any sale made. So, if you buy a pair of shoes for a hundred dirhams, that hundred includes a percentage for the state.”
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
The arbitrator was a native of the city who had lived across the sea—on “the opposite hill”—for his university studies. He spent five years away from home and returned with a PhD in economics and tons of ideas and hopes for his people and his hometown, only to find himself unemployed and stranded in the lowest ranks of society. He came up empty-handed, with neither cranberries nor cherries.
The Te-Ve-Ah guy, the Café Central god, looked at the PhD holder with wild ferocity, like he was facing the TVA itself, and said, “The state is taking everything. They’ll be interfering with our rights to hustle and haggle next. Let the Te-Ve-Ah go to hell!”
Only dirt can get between a finger and its nail.
Our friend here was used to haggling. It’s a matter of supply and demand. The seller and buyer each estimate a price, so the cycle of supply and demand may continue. The two parties might even forget the matter at hand—of buying and selling or bartering—and diverge to other topics. Others might weigh in, taking the conversation on a tour around the world before Shann makes his way to Tabaqa, soulmates find each other, and a price match is made. The weirdest thing is that tourists from the opposite hill overlook the customs of their own hometown—where prices are predetermined and inclusive of the added-value tax—and expect traders on this hill to haggle, riding roughshod over IMF directions which are pushing cities like ours to get their economies in order, with added taxes on products and raw materials, in the hope that… well, nothing really.
The Café Central god—his name was Adam—added, “Hustling, my man, is the law of selling and buying; it’s the origin of dialogue and its source. It’s the skill of pulling your hand out of the honey without getting stung by the bees. It’s the cunning skills of seller and buyer alike.”
You shall never lose your way with a smooth tongue.
As soon as our friend finished his lecture, the waiter placed a glass of minty tea on the table. Our friend gave him a suspicious look. He was possessed by TVA paranoia.
“I pray to God you won’t ask me to pay Te-Ve-Ah on this one,” he said. “I swear by the Almighty, to whom all things belong, He who never demands Te-Ve-Ah from his servants, when no one would be worthier of it than Him, I would not step foot in this place again. You have to choose: either me or that thing.”
The waiter stared at him, eyes protruding and confused. He took a breath and asked, “What thing?”
“What Tafeya? An ashtray, you mean? God bless you, Si Adam, but I don’t smoke.”
Si Adam let out a long sigh and muttered, “Thank God. There are still some kindhearted people on this earth.”
“God help us all,” said one of the customers who had been following the TVA/Tafeya chat from the start.
Ya good-doers… Ya alms-givers…
Si Adam held his glass of tea between his hands, placed its rounded edge between his lips and began to taste the sweetness that might drown out the bitter taste of the TVA and its ghosts.
RIP, Poor Bottle
I knew her from the night club. She was a prostitute, old and vulgar. He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone. I offered her a yellow beer of the cheapest kind, essence of bitter gourd. She drank it, spat it out, kicked it, and cursed it. Everyone laughed. The old Western man, the Meccan acolyte, the drug dealer, the death boat smuggler, the insecure security man. She cursed her life, vomited it out, vomited out her heart. She wouldn’t entrust anyone with her heart’s secret. She’d sooner place it in a bucket tied with a hemp rope attached to her belly.
But before her thick hair had turned white, before she had vomited out her heart into the bucket and wrapped the hemp rope around it, she had shared something with me. It was on one of those group sex nights at the club that is owned by one of the city’s elite.
“Listen to what I’m telling you,” she had said. “Open your ears plenty. Tomorrow I’m going away.”
“Travel safely, but where to? Mecca, I guess? Who’s gonna serve folks around here? And the toilets—who’s gonna wash them?”
“I’ll put everything in a bucket.”
“What’s wrong with you, jumping from one thing to the next like this? Are you not stoned enough?”
“Open your ears and listen, I said! My husband used to work as an electrician in this very hotel that houses this club. An electric surge killed him. When the lights went off, the boss had threatened to fire him. ‘How could we be without electricity in the city of pleasure, the city that blinds with its glittering lights?’ My husband thought of me and of our little son, and tried again to fix it. And again. He was electrocuted. Nothing but his shadow remained.
“I received no compensation. They replaced my husband with a better electrician. And I was a widow and a single mother. I struggled. Worked a thousand different jobs but clung to my honor and protected my son.
“Then misfortune was greeted with calamity and Melpomene wept. A tragedy took my son. He was lost under the tires of one of the city’s new luxury cars.
‘I heard a cracking sound under the right tires, Driver.’
‘Don’t worry, Master. It was just a plastic bottle. You must know, sir, how filthy the new suburbs’ residents are. They are like moving garbage bags.’
‘Are you sure, Driver?’
‘Absolutely certain, sir. These are the ways of the market’s kids.’
‘The market’s kids. I like this phrase, Driver. The market’s kid. If the market was his father, who’s his mother, then? Ha ha ha.’
‘Yes, Master. The market’s kids. They throw plastic bottles in the middle of the road to be run over by cars. Then when a car crushes a bottle, the kids hear the explosion it makes and crack up with laughter. It’s a game, sir. The game of the market’s kids.’
“A hot storm blew and took my baby bird. And with it my mind. I wailed. I howled. The blood froze in my veins. I coughed out bits of my liver. He’s gone! My son, my liver, is gone!”
In the West, they love with their hearts. For us, love lies in the liver.
“They gathered what remained of my son in a bucket and sent a garbage man to clean the street of the fragments of the broken bottle and the red water, all gone to waste.”
RIP, poor bottle.
“I became Oueicha the Bereaved. I demanded my son’s rights. Courts and judges and lawyers and bankers and insurers. I got nothing. I let the wilting, widowed Oueicha die. She became a thing of the past. I was Hayy ibn Yaqdhan transformed by the forest of cement and money. That’s a metaphor for you. I sold my body for the cheapest price. I became a bucket receiving the piss of Western old men, Meccan acolytes, drug dealers, and death boat smugglers.
“‘She’s depraved,’ the people of the suburbs yelled. Or was it their poverty, their ignorance, their misery doing the yelling? ‘Death before sin! Whore! Slut! Send her away!’
“One of them, touched by madness, said, ‘Send her away on the cruise ship of fools!’
“So, yes, I am the sinful slut. Whoever is without sin among you can cast the first stone. Or just shut up.
“Excuse me for a moment while I take off my kohl that is mixed with tears and spit and beer, and fix my face with the powder of pleasure. Let me spruce up the tragedy in this Heaven on Earth inn. Here I am employed as a first-, second-, and third-rate prostitute. I will never sink to the fourth and fifth rates or end up guarding the toilets of the city’s bars.”
She was the memory of the city. And that’s what she remained until one winter night when she decided to take off her pants and put on a jilbab that she used to wear when her husband was still alive. She took the bucket from the toilet of Heaven on Earth, put her husband and son in it, tied them with a hemp rope to her belly, and banished all the city’s other inhabitants. Until, for Oueicha, the city became empty of all creatures except her and her husband and child.
Oueicha’s last move before her departure: to piss while standing on the threshold of Heaven on Earth. From that day onward, she has pissed standing up.
Abdel-Latif al-Idrissi is a Moroccan academic and writer based in France. His published works include The City’s Pantaloons (assorted texts), Cross-mazes (short stories), and The Legends of the Dome (poetry). He teaches at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès.
Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born, London-based semi-freelance translator with an MA in translation studies from the University of Edinburgh. Nariman works between Arabic and English and part-time manages a translation team at the British Library. Literary translations include Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, as well as contributions in Words Without Borders, The Common, Banipal, and poetry anthologies Beirut 39 and The Hundred Years’ War.