By AHMED BOUZFOUR
Translated by NASHWA GOWANLOCK
Marzouka’s lips are wet
Marzouka? She’s carrying a bundle wrapped in a cloth on her back, and her earrings sparkle. Marzouka comes closer, and I move closer to her. The sun is scorching, and her large earrings are blinding. Should I greet her? I kiss her hand, so she kisses me on my forehead. I kiss her cheek, red like the late-afternoon sun. “Let me be your son,” I say to her. “And carry me like that bundle on your back.”Marzouka has come close, and I don’t know what to do. Should I run? Why? Is she a monster? But she’s getting closer. If only she could stay that way… never arriving and never leaving, Marzouka, Marzouka, Marz…
“Whose son are you, dear?”
“Yes, Rahma’s boy—I swear I didn’t recognise you. How’s your ma?”
Marzouka leans toward my face. The swoosh of earrings, the woody scent of miswak… willow trees… sheaves of wheat… laughter… pulsing flesh…
“Amazing. His face reads just like his ma’s.” Then she pushes my chin up with her forefinger and kisses me on my mouth. Despite the afternoon heat, her lips are wet, and I fall in love.
The days when men were men
Hajj Al-Mahdi was a man like no other. He ruled over the land, married his share of women, and could fight to the death. And he went through more of life, from its brightest to its darkest moments, than anyone ever will.
In the precolonial days of Siba, he fired at all the neighboring tribes with his rifle. His reputation reached the cities, and when the colonizers claimed victory and stripped everyone of their weapons, he used a blade. He murdered one of the officer’s soldiers, seized the man’s rifle, then fled with it to the mountains, where he became “the head of a hundred men” in the army of the fierce leader of the Riffian revolt, Mohamed ibn Abdelkrim El-Khattabi.
Back then, a day was worth a lifetime. He drank tea with Abdelkrim himself and killed double the number of colonizers as he had Moroccans during the days of Siba, maybe more. Although he wasn’t skilled in long-range shooting, he was brave enough to shoot from close range. And when he saw the horses and the yellow belts on that arduous day, he didn’t retreat. He crouched between two rocks, wrapped his hot rifle in his turban and kept battering until the cursed bullet penetrated his spine.
From that day, life lost its luster for Al-Mahdi, and the colonizers dominated him as they had the others. He survived with that bullet inside him for forty years before he died. But his back had hunched up, and he had to lean on crutches and on his son Al-Mukhtar. Al-Mukhtar was not a man; he was just a trader. He dealt in money, not bullets. From fire comes ashes, the elders said. Then came the age of trade, colorful linen, at the time after Independence when markets became safe from unrest. And so, the flames died down and the ashes glimmered.
Al-Mahdi made the pilgrimage to the House of God twice. He left the land and livestock in his son’s hands and secluded himself in a small room, where he ate morsels of bread, fingering prayer beads and telling stories—if anyone would listen—about the time when men were men.
Al-Mukhtar didn’t ride horses; he walked behind mules weighed down by smuggled fabrics, ate with the colonizer, forged contracts for the land, and mocked his father’s old age with his visiting traders.
Hajj al-Mahdi cursed the times they lived in and wished the angel of death would hurry. It was only when he heard the bullets and saw the rifles slung on the shoulders of the liberation army soldiers that he stirred and decided—much to everyone’s surprise—to marry.
Al-Mukhtar only realised this when he found Marzouka in the house and discovered that she was his father’s new wife. He slapped his hands in disbelief—“There is no power nor strength except by Allah. The world seems to have gone mad these days”—and embarked on a bitter feud with his father, which was short-lived, because then Hajj Al-Mahdi died. The old man passed away amidst the clamor of independence celebrations. No one noticed the women’s hushed whispering over what might have killed him. But he’d left Marzouka pregnant before he died, and she gave birth to Mohammadi. She then became a servant in her stepson Al-Mukhtar’s home, doing the housework and fetching wood and water and telling her young son about his father and about the time when men were men.
Men don’t like Marzouka
Marzouka was in her forties. And I was a ten-year-old child. When the dog started panting one day, I leapt up and rushed out of the house. I found her threatening our vicious dog with a thin stick.
“If it wasn’t for the stick in my hand, he would have gobbled me up. He’s the reason I don’t visit. What’s your mother up to?”
My mother was doing the laundry in the sunny courtyard. She hugged Marzouka, and they exchanged many kisses on both cheeks, and then my mother sat back down to finish the washing and Marzouka settled down beside her. I carried the clean clothes and went to hang them on the rooftop. When I came back, Marzouka was talking about Mohammadi.
“They want him to work as a shepherd, hobbling all day long after their sheep, which they will be milking. ‘Wait till Marzouka dies first,’ I said. Before his pa died, he wanted the boy to be sent to the mosque to learn, so why take him out? He’s a young boy, my dear, and without a father. And he only has one good leg—how can he herd sheep?”
“Mohammadi herding sheep,” my mother said. “While Al-Mukhtar’s son sits at home and gorges on butter.”
“My dear, his son’s moustache has come through, but he doesn’t see the sun: ‘Abdelsalam, fill up your glassAbdelsalam, eat this bit of chicken thigh. Abdelsalam’s sleeping—be quiet.’”
“Oh, yes. That’s the son of a chief, alright.”
“And if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve got my eye on Mohammadi day and night, they would’ve killed him and finished him off.”
“They would, and more. Didn’t they shove that poor boy off the roof so he ended up with a broken leg?”
“Why did they push him off, Auntie?” I asked Marzouka.
“Because he’s an orphan, my son. May God protect your mother and father. Tell me, does the faqeeh beat Mohammadi at the mosque?”
“He beats all of us,” I said to her. “I would like to herd sheep.”
“No, my boy. Don’t say that. A beating from the faqeeh is better than all that sun, and the thorns, and starvation. Let me help you, my dear. You take a rest and let me finish the washing.”
She tucked the large tub between her legs and began to wring the dirty shirt in the warm water until the soap bubbles began to rise. Her baggy sirwal was made of blue fabric with a pattern of small red and yellow roses, and her thighs were hefty. My mother got up to fry a couple of eggs. I felt self-conscious as I placed my head on Marzouka’s warm thigh, and closed my eyes.
Marzouka laughed. “You little devil. You want to sleep in the daytime.” She rocked the thigh that my head rested on and started singing:
“Sleep, little boy, till our supper is done.
Sleep, sleep, or the neighbors will have some.”
“Where are you?” my father shouted as he walked into the house.
“I’m here—what’s wrong?” my mother replied from indoors.
I sprang up and Marzouka stood to greet my father, but he scowled and turned toward the dark entrance to the house. While she tried to kiss his fleeing hand, he screamed at my mother.
“Soap, soap, soap! Where am I supposed to get all this soap from? All you ever do is laundry. Am I just hemorrhaging money?”
He wouldn’t even glance at Marzouka and walked in, muttering to himself. Marzouka folded into herself like a cat. Why didn’t my father like her? Only women and children seemed to like Marzouka. Men scowled and ignored her. I picked up a stone and tossed it at a nearby chicken, who started clucking loudly in the charged silence as she fled from the house, and I followed.
The cripple is eating butter and eggs
Mohammadi hadn’t been to the mosque for the past three days and the faqeeh was asking us about him. “Where’s the cripple?” We said we didn’t know. All the kids called him “the cripple,” like the faqeeh did, but I was too embarrassed and afraid to do the same. After I called him “Mohammadi” once, I made myself memorize it and would always call him “Mohammadi.” He used to kick his left leg out before setting it down; then he’d lean on his side, lowering his weight with his shoulder as a lever. Then he would lift the right leg and straighten his body. “The cripple, the cripple, the cripple.” And I would say: “Mohammadi.” Unlike his mom, he had a small nose and his face was also small, like a mouse. If you called him “cripple,” he’d reply, “Dimwit.” He wouldn’t just take it. I’d get scared like the other kids. He was as small as a chickpea and as sharp as a thorn. His mother was more civil. But he hadn’t been to the mosque for three days, and so the faqeeh was asking: “Where’s the cripple?” And we replied: “We don’t know.”
In the afternoon, after we left the mosque, I found Abdelsalam, Al-Mukhtar’s son, on his way back from the market. He was riding his father’s mule, and I spotted a big, black watermelon in the saddlebag. I could make him give me his sweets. Did he really think he was such a big man? His moustache might have come through, but he was a kid too, even if he was older.
“Where’s Mohammadi?” I asked him.
“Mohammadi? The cripple? He’s sitting in his mother’s lap. He’ll be pretending he’s sick so she’ll give him some butter and eggs.”
“Have you got any sweets?”
“Sweets? Are you a little boy to ask me for sweets?”
And he set off on the mule. Just like the soldier who comes to the sheikh’s house, looks down his nose at you, and says, “I’m better than you. And if you don’t believe me, I’ll beat you up.” If Abdelsalam went to Quran school, the faqeeh would have beaten him until his pink face turned blue. Just wait till I’m older… So was Mohammadi ill? The cripple is ill! The cripple is eating butter and eggs.
The morning cold
The next day, as I was leaving the house, I saw my father walking ahead, carrying an axe. When I caught up with him, he grabbed my hand and we walked together. It was a cold morning, and the fog was engulfing. The mist receded silently ahead of us as we walked toward it. We stopped near the cemetery. I saw some men digging. My father fastened the top button on my shirt and kissed me.
“Go on, to the mosque.”
“Who died, Pa?” I asked him.
“I said go to the mosque.”
“First tell me who died.”
He looked at me, then blurted out, “Marzouka’s son.” Then he turned toward the men.
The fiteer is salty
“Mukhtar, Marzouka is your pa’s wife. Who are you going to send her off to?”
Every Friday, Marzouka headed to the grave with her tray of fiteer. At the beginning, she used to wail and sprinkle the soil over her head, calling out to Mohammadi. Then she began to sit in silence in her long white izaar, as rigid as a tombstone. “Come and eat from the alms,” she’d call out if anyone passed by on the street nearby. And they would hurry off without saying anything.
“Mukhtar, her son died. Be a little patient with her.”
But Mukhtar insisted on throwing her out of the house. He wanted to get his son, Abdelsalam, married and move him into her room. And besides, Marzouka didn’t do anything anymore. During the day, she would wander round the tilled fields and sit on the rocks along the borders. At night, she hid away in her small room in Mukhtar’s house. And every Friday she took her fiteer to the grave. “Come and eat from the alms.”
“Why do I run away from her?” I asked myself. “Is she some sort of monster?” Then I weaved my way to the cemetery. I approached slowly, and she didn’t see me. She was fiddling with the gravel on the grave. Mohammadi’s grave was tiny and hemmed in between the headstone and the footstone. How could it be long enough for him? When my shadow fell on the grave, Marzouka looked up and saw me. She became flustered and then looked around for the fiteer and offered it to me. “Come, my son, and eat from the alms.” I wanted to say, “I’m full.” But… I don’t know… I couldn’t. She broke off a small piece of fiteer and offered it: “Just eat this.” So I took it and sat down next to her, staring at the grave, chewing the salty slice in silence. She extended her hand out towards the grave: “Can you see that? Spring has blossomed over his grave.”
I started sobbing.
“Did I frighten you? Don’t cry. I don’t eat children. Can you hear this, Mohammadi? I make children cry. Their mothers frighten them off me. Who have you left your mother to, you ungrateful child? You even ran away from me and left me on my own. Come back, my darling, or take me with you. Mohammadi, can you hear me? Mohammadi, they killed you, my darling. They killed you.” She spoke so quietly she was practically whispering.
“I’m not crying because I’m scared,” I wanted to say to her. But… I don’t know… I couldn’t. And when I stood up, she didn’t look at me. I walked off cautiously, without her seeing me. When I was far away, I said to myself: “Death is like the letter haa, Abdelsalam is like the soldier, the fiteer is salty, and Marzouka doesn’t love me anymore.”
“Mukhtar, her son has died.”
But to everyone, Mukhtar would reply: “A cripple died. Did a prophet die? He was my brother too, and I paid the funeral expenses out of my own pocket, and the alms. The dead are resting in peace, but the living are always hungry.”
“Mukhtar, think of what people will say.”
“At least she cleans the house, she ties up the cows, she fetches the water. She earns her keep.”
“Do you want the devil to play tricks with her mind and make her drag you through the courts?”
“I’m a devil too. And it’s the law that’s made my hair go grey. Let them try me.”
“Mukhtar, it’ll be less of a headache to be diplomatic.”
“And you think I don’t like being diplomatic? I’m helping my son get married, and the house is small. Why don’t any of them take her?”
Death is like the letter haa, and the fiteer is salty. I was about to cry, but then I felt hungry, so I hurried home.
The cripple gets married
I didn’t know what had happened until the morning. I hadn’t slept in the newlyweds’ house. “Go home with your pa now,” my mother said to me. “And when you leave the mosque tomorrow, come here for lunch with me.” So I went back with my father and slept. I didn’t know what had happened till the morning.
I saw them from the courtyard and ran until I caught up with the tail end of the crowd. There were more than ten men following the sheikh, the gendarmes, and Marzouka, and they were muttering: “It started the day her son died. Poor thing. Children make us lose our minds. And that other woman, what did she do to deserve it? Unbelievable….” Marzouka’s wrists were handcuffed, and one of the gendarmes was holding her by the arm. I couldn’t ask anything. When my curiosity started to get the better of me, by which point we had reached the cemetery, I saw Marzouka free herself from the crowd and run toward Mohammadi’s grave. Before the men had gotten over the shock, Marzouka had yanked—I don’t know how or where from—a white piece of cloth smeared with blood, and flung it onto the tiny grave as she screamed and ululated like a mad woman: “Congratulations, Mohammadi… congratulations, groom, yoyoyooo. The bride is a virgin. Look at the red blood on the sirwal. Congratulations, groom, yoyoyooo.”
The men ran over and grabbed her. “She’s lost her mind… stupid woman…. May God help her.” The gendarmes dragged her once again to the street: “She’s crazy, absolutely mad.” “We’ll find out if she’s stupid or if she’s trying to fool us,” one of the gendarmes said. The children had gathered; the women were watching from a distance and whispering. I heard a young man say, “The groom hadn’t penetrated yet.”
“What did Marzouka do?” I asked. No one answered. “What did Marzouka do?”
“Don’t you know?” one of the children replied. “She killed Abdelsalam’s bride with a knife.”
Ahmed Bouzfour is considered one of the most prominent pioneers of the modern short story in Morocco as well as one of the form’s most esteemed innovators. He was born in 1945 to the Pyrenees tribe near the city of Taza in northeastern Morocco. His early education was in Qur’anic schools, before he joined Al Qaraouiyine in Fez, where he continued his studies. He obtained his higher education degrees in Arabic literature and has taught in a number of Moroccan universities. He is the author of several short story collections. In 2004, Bouzfour rejected the Morocco Writers’ Prize, a state award presented by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture, in protest against what he described as the deteriorating political, economic, and cultural conditions in the country.
Nashwa Gowanlock is a writer, editor, and literary translator. Her translations include After Coffee, by Abdelrashid Mahmoudi, and Shatila Stories, a collaborative novel by nine refugee writers. She is the co-translator of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and is a contributing editor of ArabLit Quarterly.