—We simply must get a band in to play at the women’s section of the party. A party’s nothing without drumming and dancing.
—If my first wife demanded that of me, I would never have granted her wish. But you…you know the place you have in my heart.
Nuwara was twenty-two years old, slight, and a little snub-nosed. What made up for that, however, was the rosy bloom of her cheeks and the existence of that exquisite mole between her left cheekbone and her nose. And although her clothed body didn’t stand out as anything special, when she was naked and in the hands of a man, she became a real woman. She was tastier than any fantasy, as sweet as a ripe fruit out of season. Any man could see that. That’s why Ahmed was saying to her now:
—You know I give in to all your demands. But a male band performing to a group of women? I can’t imagine that.
—Well, I can’t imagine a female band playing for a group of women, either.
—I’ll get you a blind band, then. They play at plenty of women’s parties.
Ahmed scratched his armpit. He stared at her pointedly. He was contemplating that slight body of hers, so delectable and juicy, covered in ginger down like peach fluff. There was no way a band of sighted men could sing in front of a woman like her. But if they were blind, it would be alright.
—This is our first son. And our celebration of his Seventh must be a celebration so good it shuts the women’s mouths and the men’s, too. You know how people talk, even about things they don’t see or hear.
—If we get a blind band, no one will be able to say anything at all.
—Lots of people throw parties where men and women mix.
—Well, I’m not one of them.
She was feigning anger to push him to give in. He could feel it. But this was as far as he could budge. His decision was made; that was that. Even if he had to die for that peach fluff. Nuwara wanted what she wanted, and Ahmed wanted what he wanted.
There were ululations and applause as the blind band filed in, each man holding onto the one in front, like a row of train carriages, to line up in their designated place. Their thighs grazed some of the women’s thighs on their way through the crowd. Some of the women avoided this contact, while some of them sought out its warmth. This Seventh was going to shut mouths, alright. It would be shutting women’s—and men’s—mouths right up. Specifically, that running mouth that Abdelqadir’s wife Meena had on her would definitely be slammed shut, as would Manana and Fatima al-Hasnawia’s mouths, and Old Deafie’s daughter Khoudouj’s mouth too—and surely even Laarbi el-Hish’s wife Rahma’s big dirty old mouth would be shut, for once. That’s why Nuwara was trying to act as if she hadn’t emerged right then from her labor and confinement, so that it couldn’t be said of her that she was weak and unable to bear a dozen children like all the other women in the shacks did. So when the ululations and applause rang out she joined in and trilled, too, raising her intricately henna-adorned hand to her upper lip, while her other arm held the baby on her lap. After she was done ululating she brought out her breast and tried in vain to get the baby to suckle. His little hands were waving back and forth fruitlessly, his eyes almost closed. Laarbi el-Hish’s wife, Rahma, was talking at her.
—God preserve him for his mother and father, anyway, bless him. I just wanted to warn you, you know, because I’ve got experience with it—I’m a mom to five boys and girls.
And Manana, who had somehow managed to catch this even over the sound of her own clapping and tea-slurping, chimed in:
—That’s nothing but the truth she’s telling you, there!
A woman stood up from the floor on the far side of the shack and stepped over the legs and feet of the women packing the space to pick her way across to the blind man playing the taarija drum and singing in his hoarse, hash-frayed voice. She tucked a five-dirham note in between his hat and his forehead. Startled by this, the blind man found his performance momentarily derailed, the song lyrics in his mouth on the brink of getting jumbled, but he kept the rhythm going and sang out even louder than he had been already, and beat the taarija skin with even greater zeal. Other women began to follow the first woman’s lead. And while they were on their feet, they would pass by Nuwara to make a zaroura offering to her and the baby. An especially poor woman got up and went over to Nuwara to present her with a very modest block of sugar.
—Nuwara, my dear girl, here’s a zaroura for you. In our day we didn’t give anything except sugar. Your era is different, of course—but we knew nothing of money back then.
And the elderly woman went back to her place. Even if she’d had money, she wouldn’t have made a zaroura from it, because money bankrupts, as the saying goes, and she knew perfectly well the power it had to corrupt people. Hence the well-known insult “Allah ruin you with riches!,” she thought to herself. Then she smacked her palms emphatically on her skinny thighs and said to the woman next to her:
—She’s little, poor girl. But she seems like the kind whose kids survive.
A middle-aged woman sitting near them turned and said:
—I buried five.
—May they rest in peace.
The band stopped playing. Cups of tea were passed around, and hands reached out for cake made from cheap flour, sugar, oil, and something that was an approximation of real home-churned saman baladi. The baby let out a feeble cry, so his mother cradled him on her arm and rocked him gently. Meanwhile, in her other hand, she held a cup of tea. Her headscarf slipped down over her eyes. She set the cup down beside her and the hot tea spilled out; she felt it oozing warmly under her right thigh as she fixed the scarf with one hand.
A woman said to her:
—Take the child outside to get a breath of fresh air, why don’t you? Or give him to me; I’ll take him out if you’re not feeling up to it?
Nuwara didn’t respond, but someone sitting beside her whispered to her beneath the clamor of the crowd:
—Don’t do it. Never hand your child to another woman, she might put a spell on him. Envy rots out the hearts of jealous women.
Nuwara summoned all her strength and stepped out of the shack. She was barefoot. Manana followed her out, a pair of slippers in her hand.
—Put these slippers on. Don’t walk around in bare feet—it’s bad for you.
—I know that, Manana, but it’s warm out today.
Despite this retort, Nuwara did in fact put her feet into the slippers. She paced a little, cradling her baby. His weak cries had ceased now. She heard the instruments and singing start up again inside. She also heard the sound of stamping feet. A woman was sure to be dancing in there by now. She drew nearer to the door and looked in. It wasn’t a woman dancing, in fact, but the blind drummer. He was shaking his buttocks with abandon, but being careful not to transgress the space the women had made for him. The women were clapping and moving their heads to the beat. One of them got to her feet and started dancing in the corner of the shack. Another woman said to her:
—Get yourself into the middle so we can see you!
—I can’t dance with a man.
—Come on—he’s just a blind man, and on top of that he’s old!
—It’s shameful for a woman to dance with a man.
—Everything’s shameful to you city folk. Out in the sticks we always dance with men.
—I bet you do, you’re from Mansouria! Mansourians aren’t even shy of their own sons.
The woman from Mansouria got up and wove her way over and through various legs and feet and heads. She ended up in front of the blind man in the little clearing in the crowd, reached her arms up in the air, and started pounding her feet on the ground. Some of the women let out trills of encouragement. The blind man’s voice grew even louder, and his fingertips beat harder than ever on the little taarija under his arm. Even though it was almost completely concealed by the folds of his robe, its sharp sound was still clearly audible. The blind kamanja player assisted him by repeating the refrain of his song about love, and the harvest, and the woman who takes no interest in him because he’s a mere sharecropper. Nuwara felt hot urine leaking out of her. She considered this normal, so she put up with it. Like the other women, she in turn started moving her skinny and enervated body to the beat. Noticing her doing this, a woman was quick to tell her off:
—Don’t try to dance. It’s very hot. You’ll ruin your womb if you do that right now. Your husband is expecting more children from you. You come and sit down.
Nuwara sat in the doorway. The woman from Mansouria was still dancing, the blind man leaning in close over her haunches. Some kind of frenzied state had come over him, and he was beating violently on his taarija, his hoarse voice booming so loud now that it carried far beyond the confines of the shack. Another woman got to her feet and began dancing, having shed her gaudy headscarf and bared her frizzy hair. She threw the scarf into another woman’s lap and carried on dancing right where she’d been sitting. Another of the blind men, who wore dark glasses, stood up and made for the little clearing in the middle of the shack. He trampled the whole area like a billy goat and started dancing with the Mansourian woman and the taarija player, repeating the song’s refrain, but his singing voice was more like a howl. That same tune was being chorused now by other mouths, the mouths of women who could see and men who could not.
A woman near the doorway said to Nuwara:
—I bet your husband will be drinking two bottles of wine tonight, right?
—He doesn’t drink anymore, actually. He’s taken up weed instead. Kif is cheaper, sister.
—Aha! Just like my husband! But kif makes a man lazy, and it stops him from performing as a man should.
—Of course, if the woman doesn’t know how to milk the bull. I mean, if she’s past her prime. But I’m still young, and I could easily milk even an eighty-year-old bull.
—Good for you, sister. Plus, Si Ahmed seems like a virile man with real stamina. And this strong little baby man on your lap will surely take after his father in that regard.
—Only God knows the future.
She began to rock the baby, bundled snug in layers of cloth, looking down into his face. Then she kissed the fold of cloth above his head as she said:
—These days the virile man is the man who knows how to read. I hope this little one learns to do that, so that he can get qualifications.
—You’re right. But that’s if they don’t expel him from school. They chased all my kids out of there.
—Shakiko! (And she knocked on the wood of the shack and spat on the earth).
The woman said:
—A thousand and one shakikos. But it’s the government!
Nuwara didn’t hear her last comment over the ululations rending the air and the voices raised in conversation and in song. She felt triumphant: she’d really shut mouths. The only thing missing was a barbecue with ribs grilling on it! But still, life was a long and wide road… the next child’s Seventh would go on for seven whole days and seven whole nights.
Ahmed had told Nuwara:
—If my first wife hadn’t been infertile, I would never have divorced her. You’ll birth children, and so whatever you want will be yours.
—Don’t you love me? You only married me so I could bear your children?
—I never said that! I really and truly want you.
—If I were educated, I would have married a young man employed in a government post.
—Well, if you had married one of them you would have starved. The tiny little fart those guys earn is about enough to pay for their precious office neckties, nothing more. But me, I’ll give you whatever you ask for.
It was true that Ahmed gave Nuwara everything she asked for—even if the musicians at the party were blind. His financial situation was tough these days, since the government crackdown on smuggling. But Ahmed was a canny devil of a man; he could snatch the food right out of a dog’s mouth if he had to. That’s what I like about him, she was reflecting now: he’s not like those virgin poseurs always styling their hair just to stand around on the street corner day and night dreaming of a passport. One of them is so broke and so far gone in the head that apparently he shacks up with European men—even though he’s handsome enough for any girl to fall in love with him.
She jiggled the baby again. He had been dozing, but now he was awake, making a low and strangulated groaning noise. One of the women said:
—Go inside, Nuwara. This is your special event. Don’t stay here in the doorway.
Another woman chimed in:
—Let her get some fresh air for her and her baby. Don’t go in, Nuwara—it’s very hot and the air is stifling in there; a newborn won’t tolerate that.
Another woman sitting beside her was speaking so softly it was almost inaudible:
—Can’t you see that all that man is doing is constantly packing the other musicians’ pipes for them, as if that were his one and only duty?
The playing stopped. Cups of tea were handed out, and slices of cake, and some almonds that weren’t enough to go around. Some of the women stepped outside to get a bit of fresh air and to gossip about each other.
Rahma said to Manana:
—No one else could throw a Seventh party like this, you know. She’s married a real man, not like we did: we married two mules who aren’t even capable of providing for themselves.
—You’re not as beautiful as she is.
—I was beautiful at her age, though, before el-Hish wore my body out. That Spanish woman I used to work for back then—her son was going to marry me.
—Would you marry a man from a different faith? From outside your religion?
—Well, I’d rather have a godless person than a heartless person, any old day.
—Haram! You mustn’t say those things; you’re a mother to boys.
—They’re all like their father. Not a single one of them’s any use.
Manana scratched an itch on her left side against a beam embedded in the ground to prop up the shack, and yawned. Her tonsils showed, and her tongue, and some of her decayed teeth. She cast her eyes down and looked at the earth at her feet. She reached up and adjusted her scarf farther down over her forehead. She seemed to be pondering something important she was on the point of telling Rahma. But Rahma moved away and headed over to Nuwara, who had left her place in the doorway now. Rahma whispered something in her ear, then returned to Manana’s side. The wooden beam was creaking. Hearing this, Rahma said:
—Don’t rub yourself against that pillar anymore. It’s going to break, and this shack is going to come crashing down on all these old women and blind men.
—You think so? That pillar isn’t even holding itself up. She probably hangs a laundry line off it.
—Anyone would think there was no such thing as an outdoor laundry line in this whole wide world! She should string one up outside, not in here.
—She probably doesn’t even need to do that, actually. I’ve heard her husband takes his laundry to the laundromat.
—Lucky her! If only I had a husband like her! Ahmed’s like the Europeans.
—He lives with them, doesn’t he? The products he smuggles in are all bought from the Europeans. He’s a regular in their bars, that’s where he drinks—not like those good-for-nothings fighting each other in the dirt over a bottle of wine. He grew up around the Europeans in the central market. He used to help them carry baskets and stuff when he was little. He speaks their languages.
—What a man, huh?!
—His first wife didn’t deserve him.
—True. Even though she was kind of classy, she used to drink two bottles of wine a day—and you know she wouldn’t say no to doing it even with a dog.
The hubbub, laughter, and complaints inside and outside the shack were growing louder. One of the women had been shrinking back into her corner during the party, because she was paraplegic. She was watching everything happening around her, speaking only very occasionally. It should have been her passing around the cups of tea, if she had only had the use of her legs. She should have been handing out pieces of cake and chatting to everyone. She had no sons or daughters apart from Nuwara. Even her husband had died long ago, crushed by a falling bale of linen in the port.
Nuwara looked at her mother with pity. This should have been her big day. She should have been dancing, and sprinkling perfume over the women, and walking among them with an incense burner streaming frankincense smoke. However, despite it all, it did seem to Nuwara that her mother was happy—in the depths of her bleary eyes, bombarded by the flies she was constantly swatting away, a clear happiness showed. Her hands were moving nonstop, like two electric fans, and throbbed with heat.
Khoudouj came over to Nuwara with a cup of tea in her hand:
—Here, drink a little tea. I see you, looking around at everyone as if you’re from another planet; I’m sure you need a rest. But it’s your son’s Seventh. You have to grin and bear it all, today. Si Ahmed is going to sprout a pair of wings and fly through the air from joy today.
—I really don’t feel like anything at all, sister, but seeing as you went to the trouble of bringing me that tea I’ll drink it to keep you happy.
—Don’t force it down if you don’t want it.
—I’d drink anything for my son’s sake today, even poison.
—God will grant you other children. You’re young and healthy—God bless you—and strong as a heifer.
Nuwara sipped the tea. She ran a mental check of her whole body to confirm that she really was as strong as a heifer. Her mother had always told her, Your eyes are as beautiful as a foal’s eyes. The important thing was for her to be a heifer in terms of strength and a foal in terms of beauty. When he was in a particular mood, Si Ahmed would say to her, “Mamma mia, these wonderful boobs! Mmmm, what gorgeous cow udders!” That all went to prove that she was strong and beautiful, and that she had great tits and everything and… and everything else. And that meant that becoming a mother hadn’t done her any harm: she was still strong and beautiful, and that wasn’t going to change when she went on to birth a dozen more boys and girls.
She was looking down now at her bare breast as she got it out and tried in vain to get the baby to latch on. Her nipple was pointed and black, and ringed with tiny blondish hairs. She heard a voice call out, “Wow, look at those boobs!” She looked at her breast again before she covered it up and picked up her cup of tea. A colorful but mainly pearly-blue irritating fly took off from the rim of the cup.
Her mother had told her:
—You’ve married the best man of all. All the other women want him for themselves. He’s flawless. Even though he’s been married before, there’s nothing wrong with that—previous marriage isn’t a defect in men like it is for women. If there’s any good in a woman, her husband won’t divorce her. And, of course, everyone advises their sons not to marry divorcées or widows. Si Ahmed has been married before, but he’s a man.
—I know he’s a real man. I’ve grown to love him.
—You have to love him, because he’s your husband. All I want is to see your offspring before I die.
As she said this, she had struck her paralyzed thighs in emphasis, then dragged herself on her hands toward a dark corner. Ahmed had come into the shack immediately afterward. He looked intensely at Nuwara and made as if to kiss her on the forehead, but hearing an unusual movement in the corner he turned toward it and found her mother watching him. He went to her and took a scarf and a pair of slippers out from his bag. He was about to present her with the slippers when he remembered that she was paraplegic. So, as he leaned in over her grey-speckled head, he offered her only the scarf. She looked up at him and said:
—You two will bring forth a blessed abundance of boys and girls.
Ahmed stepped back without saying anything. He opened a lemonade that had been waiting for him in a pail of water, drank it quickly, and left the shack.
Seven days ago, Nuwara’s mother’s wish had come true. She could die now, because she had seen her grandson with her very own rheumy old eyes. That was what every elderly woman her age desired.
She was now peacefully watching everything going on around her, and languidly trying to keep the tassels of the new scarf out of her eyes. Her eyes felt sluggish, reluctant to fully open, and as if a thick layer of dust was obscuring her vision. In an extremely frail voice, she called out:
But her feeble shout didn’t carry, just drifted in the air like a dust mote. She tried again and again, but to no avail. When she eventually realized that Nuwara wasn’t within earshot, she turned to the woman closest to her and asked:
—Daughter, where’s Nuwara?
The woman said:
—She’s in the doorway. She took the baby out for some fresh air—it’s so stuffy and hot in here.
—Would you call her for me? Tell her that her mother—pardon me!—wants to pee.
The woman got to her feet and went to tell Nuwara. Trying to get a grip on herself, Nuwara said, in a voice so soft the woman didn’t hear her:
—The old, the young—is there anyone who doesn’t need my help to pee, these days?
She went to her mother and told her:
—You can crawl behind the shack and do it around there.
—I’m worried there’ll be someone there.
—There’s no one there! And anyway, you’re not shy in front of other women, are you?
So the old lady crept away along the ground. None of the women took any notice of her as she shuffled past them. They did move aside to make room for her to get through, but they somehow did it without paying her any attention at all or interrupting their gossiping. She disappeared behind the shack, moving as slow as a tortoise through the dense, low-growing ramrama bushes with their shoots jutting up like little poles. She did what she’d come to do. Then she almost did the other thing, too. But she gave up on that when it proved too difficult, and crept off again. She stopped for a while and gazed vacantly at everything going on around her. The night air was hot. She could feel the heat of the ground underneath her, against her exposed skin. She tugged on the waistband of her pants to adjust them, and the elastic thread made a popping sound against the flesh of her belly.
She could hear the sound of the taarija drum coming from inside the shack, accompanied by the croak of the bow scraping the kamanja strings. It was the lead-in to a new song, that typical arbitrary flurry of notes played as inspiration for the singer to launch into whatever ditty he felt moved to sing. The drumming stopped, leaving the kamanja rising and falling for a while before it too petered out. They would give it another try, see if the blind singer’s imagination was sparked this time.
Nuwara was wandering around in no particular direction, slowly, of course—first talking to this woman and then listening to that woman. Her mother crept back toward the crowd of women. She shuffled. They made way for her to get through, like they had last time. Manana was just moving aside to clear a path back to the grandmother’s spot in the corner when a terrible scream came from the elderly woman, a yell so forceful it made all the other women jump up and start jostling and butting against each other. The music stopped abruptly. The urn of boiling water had tipped over onto Nuwara’s mother and now she was screaming out in pain:
“My belly, my lap! My thighs! Help, help—I’m burning!” She turned onto her back, and some of the women dragged her outside, others looking on and slapping their thighs and cheeks in horror.
One woman said:
—That child must have a curse on him.
Another woman scolded:
—Sister, don’t talk that way about an innocent baby.
—I’m only saying it between you and me.
—Oh, Mommy, I’ve no one but you!
She slapped herself in the face over and over. A woman took the baby from her as she rushed to her mother to get her out of the other women’s hands. Mommy’s scalded flesh must be breaking open in welts! The old woman had ceased screaming now and instead begun emitting deathly low moans.
A woman said:
—Let’s get this little old lady to Masudi before she dies.
Hearing this, Nuwara snapped at her:
—Speak for yourself—the only little old lady here is you!
The woman withdrew without further comment. A fat woman came forward and tried to hoist Nuwara’s mother onto her back, but this made the old woman start screaming again, and she dropped her. Other hands caught her, and one of the blind men asked:
—Who’s that calamity?
—It’s the baby’s grandmother.
—Couldn’t she choose a better moment to die than at her grandson’s Seventh?
—Do you know nothing about elderly women? Happy occasions are exactly when they cause problems!
—The main thing is for her daughter to pay us so we can get out of here.
—How can we ask her to pay you while all this is going on?
—Well, what’s all this got to do with me?
Two women went to bring Masudi from his shop so he could put herbs on the old woman or brew something up for her, even just some random dust—anything to stop her groaning like that. Nuwara felt the need to get rid of the band, so she quickly paid them their money and shoved them out the door, where she overhead one of the onlooker women saying:
—This is no Seventh: it’s a funeral.
Nuwara’s stomach cramped as she shouted at her:
—Sister, how dare you? It’s haram to say that! If it weren’t for the evil eye, this wouldn’t be happening.
Some of the women were creeping away now, letting whatever this death scene was that Nuwara’s mother needed unfold in peace. Only a few of them stuck around. The woman who had Nuwara’s baby in her arms sat in the shade, staring down into his face. His eyes were closed, and she focused on repeatedly swatting the incessant flies away from him. The heat was intense, and the old woman was making that faint groaning sound of hers. Rahma said:
—We need to pour a pail of cold water over your mother.
Nuwara was furious:
—Do you want to kill her or what?
—No, my darling, that’s not what I want. I want her to live long and spread her strong wings. I’m not jealous, and my eye is casting no envy over you.
Nuwara was flailing in circles now, thrashing around, not knowing what to do. Her hands beat her thighs; her teeth bit her clothes. She was wracked by fierce, wailing shrieks; then she lost consciousness and fell to the ground, where she rolled around in the dust, convulsing. A woman rushed for a pail of water and threw it over her, trying to bring her back to herself, but to no avail.
Mohamed Zafzaf (1945–2001) is considered one of the most important Moroccan short story writers and novelists, well known across the Arabic-speaking world. He was born in the rural town of Souk El Arbaa but settled in Casablanca. After university studies in the Department of Philosophy, he made a living teaching Arabic in a middle school in the city of Quneitra. He began his literary path as a poet in the early 1960s, before turning to the short story and the novel. His work on social reality, and his focus on the lives of the oppressed and marginalized, have earned him great acclaim, along with his interrogation of the rural/urban dynamic in Morocco and his proto-feminism. A few of his stories and one of his many novels, The Elusive Fox, is in English translation.
Alice Guthrie is an independent translator, editor, and curator specializing in contemporary literary, academic, and media Arabic. Her work has often focused on subaltern voices, “activist” art, and queerness/queering (winning her the 2019 Jules Chametzky Translation Prize). As a commissioning editor, she is currently compiling the first anthology of LGBTQIA+ Arabic writing, set to appear in parallel Arabic and English editions. She programmed the literary strand of London’s biennale Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture from 2015 to 2019, and has curated queer Arab arts events for the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Outburst Queer Arts Festival. Her forthcoming translations include books by Malika Moustadraf, Mohamed Zafzaf, and Hisham Bustani. She teaches Arabic-English translation at the University of Birmingham and the University of Exeter.