Feb 20, 2006

short story

Vertically divided, blue-white-red

Your last afternoon unfolds. Beginning in that newly remodeled bistro across from Les Invalides. Will you have the onion soup or la crepe d’epinard? Gaz or eau naturel? You are always lost in the dialectic... ‘Monsieur,’ demands the waiter. Yes, alright then, you say pointing to the menu, this and that. While the waiter scratches it down, you scratch your head: if the city finally does something about air pollution next year and restricts parking, will I keep my car at home or at work? Will I visit my mother this weekend, although her dementia is so maddening, or my son whose failures are so tiring. And what to do about that young woman who came in this morning for an interview — wearing a veil.

Someone should tell these people: We separate church and state here. As a graduate of Science Po (1968), I can tell you what this country needs, and to the woman in her white veil, I can say, without a second’s thought, without any reservation or guilt, “no, I will not hire you. It has nothing to do with Islam, or your sex certainly — I prefer women — or where you come from. Or even if you are Salafiste. This is your delusion, have it. And if you insist that your religion is ‘scientific’ but you deny that Man descends from apes, then we respect your sensitivities and you should play the role of the ‘noble savage’. There is a part for every player in this society. Yes, but not in this company. It’s too distracting. I’m assuming by your accent you are at least second generation. One would think you must know better. Your religion, all your cultural paraphernalia, they have no place in an office. If you want to be part of this republic, you must play by the rules. It’s the same for everyone. Not like in America. This is a stew not fondu. And if you fail, no matter where you went to school, you’re out. You can believe me on this, the banks won’t touch you. Here, if you want something, you earn it.”

Nineteen hundred kilometers to the south, one hour ahead, 200 hundred years behind, completely out of mind shot, Mohammed is delivering his fare to the grand gare in Meknes. You have no connection, you could barely imagine each other. You drive your tusk white powerbook, he drives a pale blue petit taxi, an old 4-cylinder Uno. If he hustles, he can net 15 dhs an hour, times 10 hours. One hundred fifty dhs a day, what is that, almost 14 euros? Times 24/7. Times two parents, two brothers, a sister, and half a dozen cousins. Times the rest of his life — driving, driving, driving — past corner cafes, those smoky confabulatories, filled with whole generations of stilled men, waiting, weightless, sipping tea, watching the mint float like diseased anatomy in formaldehyde.

Mohamed has such a tender, endearing face, doesn’t he? And the whitest teeth. No matter how old he becomes he will always look like a boy. And in 30 years, when he’s your age, he will still have that doe-eyed look of sadness. It’s mostly the country, the ‘culture of despair’, as the academics like to say. He would give anything to get out. He’s taken some law courses, he speaks French (he listens to all the French singers), and he can say in English, quite convincingly, “I have studied the Law” or, “would you date me?” The problem is he’s always dreaming. He’ll often say to his passenger, “Where do you want to go again?” And there aren’t that many places to go to in Meknes, between the two gares, the grand taxi stand, MacDonald’s, and Moulay Ismail’s version of Versailles, with the ghosts of 10,000 heads still droopy-eyed on the ramparts.

Mohammed goes right on, entranced, incanting to his private angel, to appear out of a magician’s mouth with his visa. And then to deliver him to a small cottage in Toronto or, as a distant second choice, to a basement apartment that opens out into the lemon yellow fragrance of Seville. He’ll be someone’s chauffeur. He’ll meet a beautiful and talented woman, like the blonde doctor from Toronto that appeared in the back seat one night, and this woman will have money and help him — he knows how to get women to help him. Maybe they’ll get married, they probably will, and he’ll go to law school, join a firm and represent immigrants and famous criminals, and one day he’ll be famous himself.

In the meantime, where does all his pittance go? To his family, of course, but most of it to his older brother, Salim. Salim, the crème Chantilly of the family, and not just because he’s the eldest. He doesn’t have Mohamed’s imagination but he has what Mohamed will never have, he has will power. And so four years ago he found a way to sneak into southern France, then down through a human manhole into the suburbs of Paris. The problem is that cost a lot of money, it was a huge risk, and now everyone is waiting the return on investment.

Salim’s success caused much resentment with Mohamed, who always considered his brother too mercurial, too much of a con man, too much an ass kisser. But Mohamed always does what’s required. He’s the catalyst for change in his family, the true caretaker.

Mohamed’s younger brother, Hicham, teaches in a noisy, dirty 3rd floor internet school in Casablanca. Nobody in the family understands what he does, but he’s the one who found a mafia lord that gets harrags into Europe. He has been the family’s operating system for hope.

Mohamed’s father minds two dozen sheep in the forests above Azrou, an old crossroads in the Middle Atlas. Once, caravan trains with 10,000 camels loaded with salt came plodding through the town, from morning until night. Now, Azrou is the dry cleaner for drug dealers in the Rif looking to get the spots out of their money. The new boulangerie, for example, is all drug money. Mohamed can tell you. He could have had that life too but it wasn’t him.

Mohamed’s mother is invisible, no more than a forgotten riddle. Still, her blood should not be doubted: it runs in torrents back to Kahena, the Veiled Queen of Jerawa, that most feared and fabled of Berber warriors. When Kahena vanquished the Arabs in 700, this was their lament:

More cruel than all the others combined,
She gave our virgins to her warriors.
She washed her feet in the blood of our children.

But let’s get back to you and women in veils. You haven’t forgotten your weekend in Fez, have you, or how you fell in love with the black, long-fingered masseuse in the hammam? What a touch she had. Not a part of your body she missed. And then what about Amzil, who appeared in the Sofitel bar so serendipitously. Actually, a referral, wasn’t she. But the most beautiful figure you’d ever seen, what skin, and spectacular nipples. ‘ I want to be a baby all over again,’ you told her. ‘ I want to be your baby, and hoard all your milk to myself.’ What a wild and exotic weekend that was. Spent tons of money, but it was worth it. And after being with her you finally understood the country, as though having gone to the University of Amzil at Nipples made you the next Bernard Lewis.

“But that said, I like the Maghreb,” you’d say, “I wish France had done a better job with it. Frankly I don’t know what the answer is. The truth is they’re where France was in 1794. There’s just no sense of community. That’s the problem, they always talk about ummah, but it’s all nonsense. Ummah, ummah, ummah. For them ummah is their immediate family and a cousin or two. Everyone else is not to be trusted. Everyone else is not in the ummah. I told that to a pharmacist one day in Fez. I have this awful gout I have to deal with and of course they don’t really speak French. He wouldn’t give me the right medicine and we got in this argument about humanity. About communitas. This little man was shouting, ranting on and on in front of all the customers: ‘Look at what you’ve done in the world, you have no humanity’. I said to him very calmly, ‘Monsieur, please tell me about humanity, I’m so thankful to learn. But what about the 15,000 homeless children living on glue in the streets of Casablanca? It’s worse than Sao Paulo.’ He had no idea what I was talking about. ‘Tell me about how you treat young women who are pregnant outside of marriage, how the police lay in wait outside hospitals, and what happens to orphans? And tell me, you are all Sunnah, no? What about the Shiites? How do you feel about them? And how is it you’ve turned this country into a whore house in the name of tourism? What are the women of Agadir if not the private stock of Saudi princes. Don’t tell me les annees noires are finished; it’s just a different shade of noire.”

Muhamed suffers from depression. It runs in the family. His mother has it, his brothers, his sister. They don’t even know they have it. But Mohamed knows, he found out a few years ago, through one of his fares, a doctor visiting from Canada.
His father doesn’t suffer from it, but if he did no doubt his Berber nature would overcome it. What strength that man has, what perseverance. And when he brings his sheep and goats to the marche during Eide he always gets the highest price. He’s meticulous the way he cares for them, forever standing along the road side, even in July August when nothing moves. You could blow on a blade of grass with all your might and it would not move. He’s the same, unmovable, immovable. You might think, ‘now that man must be a sun-baked idiot to do that.’ And still he’s there in the moor when it’s snowing horizontally, when the cold collects in your body like carcasses in the town dump. He reads skies and sheep, and jins, the way you once read Zola and Verlaine, and once — albeit, a long time ago — he knew how to conquer the world and he did.

He still remembers things barely heard through the wall of illiteracy. The three kings, the colonial periods. Perhaps, you can imagine a desire for revenge against France and Spain, but he doesn’t have it. He wants little, he expects nothing. But his sons are another matter. Even 500 years later, in some generations, the blood is still too hot to touch. And why? Not because of what little history is offered in unheated school rooms. Seeds grow where they can. You understand it’s not for anything in this lifetime, it’s for what happened in 1492, when Queen Isabella threw out all the Moors and later when Ferdinand III stamped his approval on that chapel, that ‘little’ gothic profanity inside the Great Mosque of Cordova.

Crème Brule or the crumble? The one is more sugar; the other has fruit. The one has eggs, which is protein, which is bad. The other has whip cream, which is partly dairy, which is almost good. If it were lite, but it’s not... What to do. Alright, the crumble and a cafe au chocolat. Something for the chill. Do I really have to go Place Vendome this afternoon? Yes or no. You look at your watch. Yes, I suppose. You catch the waiter’s eye from across the room and write air on your hand.
For a moment the mind gathers around the cannons across the street, black iron order fabricated in the chaos of blowing snow. You think of Napoleon in Russia and in his tomb.

“But here is my point,” you are always saying lately, ever riding through dinners in the 7th arrondisement on your hobby horse. “You saw that slanderous story in the foreign press the other day about Ecole Normale Superieur — has any worthy president not gone to ENS? — and here it is under attack by these so-called ‘progressives’ insisting we’re obsessed with intellect. Of course, let’s enroll the minorities in ENS, regardless of ability — to soothe the childish sensibilities of these castratis in academe and Le Monde. Let’s put the country in the hands of gypsy mediums and Haitian babalaos. And all this because of a few burned cars. What those numbskulls should fear is that one day the highest point in Paris will be the top of a mosque, and the only way to stop that is hold on to reason. Without that no civilization — no life at all.”

You look around the table and all the eyes applaud, all the lips are curling. You are the only one who tells it the way it is.

Who would have guessed that Salim, the tall slender, ever smiling Salim, the family’s hero would find his way into the minds of the people he did. First, to the harrag lords from Siddi Moumen and Toma, and then, by one of the last peteras to make it into southern Spain; from there, to Marseilles, and finally to the gangsteres des catacombs.

Salim was never political, neither socialist nor islamicist. He knew little about Les annees de plomb. He never heard the late king say, and would not have cared, that "in the long term, in the course of a reign... there are often obligations which are incompatible with [people's] rights." He’d never heard of shadow ministers, the secret society of the ‘red flag’, or the notion of the markzen still ruling behind the curtains. And so it’s all the more odd. Who among his family and friends, those that knew him to be a promising soccer player, a good-natured, good-looking boy, and a particularly promising history student — who would have imagined he could end up in the city of light, that just as Mohamed was pulling up to the Grand Gare in Meknes for the fifth time today — Salim was passing the entrance to the Le Muse de Rodin, and slipping down into the metro, to blow himself up.

And where are you? Post crumble, standing on the quai on your way to Place Vendome, unaware of all the crusades around you. Across the tracks a young woman stands in a long dark blue over coat. She looks defiant. And what a beauty she is, God help me, and you wonder about her life and where she’s going and what her lover must be like, she looks too fresh to have a husband, and what it would be like to spend an afternoon with her, how you could show her a thing or two she doesn’t know about her body. You are transfixed by the thought of her life, by the distance from your quai to hers, by the tracks aimed at opposing destinations, by all the metaphors between you, and yet even as you go down all the possible roads with her, all the lives you could live with her, good and bad, you know what silliness it is, what an old man’s phallicy and fallacy it is. As always you can see the whole world, all the possibilities. Nothing could surprise you now, you have mastered the art of expectation, and yet here you are jumping back and forth between sentimentality and what, reality? brutality? Thoughts within thoughts within thoughts. What a shame, how natural, and how hopeful all at the same time.... Is Mariano a 34 C or D? Should I go down to Cabourg and visit my mother, the demented, or my son, the deluded?

Then, just as the train pulls in someone grabs your hand. Your first thought: this is a woman’s hand, small and warm, my ex-wife perhaps, an old girl friend, or Mariano out of nowhere, ‘thank god’, you think, and you turn expectantly, the whole afternoon is about to blossom. Oh, but it’s not her, what disappointment. Instead, a young brown man, black-eyed, thirties, pointed ears, a small red scar on under his mouth and the head-shaved look of a condemned man. Clearly from the Maghreb, and he’s smiling. Do I know him? Is this someone who works for me? He looks vaguely familiar. Your instinct is to withdraw your hand. But he’s a good looking young man and you wonder, why is he smiling like that? I must have given him something but what?’

The train doors open, passengers descend like a breaking wave, and suddenly this man’s grip is iron tight, you glance at him and then in the very next moment something has happened, hasn’t it? Something has happened — and why? A strand of psychopathology caught in the man’s teeth? Or is it this the ethno-centrifugal force of maddrass-induced memories people keep talking about, the addictive glory of Hasan-i Sabba’s holy killers of Islam, the Nizari Isma'ilis.

No matter, something has happened and you are still right where you were, but not in the space as you were, you are spread out is the only way to express it. Like Coltrane’s jazz or Coleman’s. Definitive is not the word, and yet.... And yet what a wonder it is, how you can cross through these panes of existence and non, and the truth is Mohamed in his little green Uno, rattling around Mekness in a dream, is closer to death than you are right now.

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