Excerpt from 'Salvation Army'
By Abdellah Taia
Chapter OneShe always slept with us, in the middle, between my little brother Mustapha and my sister Rabiaa.
She would fall asleep very quickly, and night after night, her snoring would punctuate her sleep in a natural, almost harmonious manner. It used to bother us in the beginning, keep us from a peaceful entry into dreams. Over time, her nocturnal music, her noises, became a benevolent breathing that accompanied our nights and even reassured us when we were racked by nightmares that wouldn't let go until we were exhausted, wiped out.
For a long time, Hay Salam our house in Salé, was nothing more than a ground floor dwelling with three rooms, one for my father, one for my older brother Abdelkébir, and the last one for us, the rest of the family: my six sisters, Mustapha, my mother and I. In that room, there were no beds, just three benches that served as our living room couch during the day.
We spent all of our time in that room, where there was also this monstrous, gigantic old cupboard, all packed in together: we ate there, sometimes made mint tea, went over our lessons, entertained guests, told stories that never ended. And, yes, that's where we'd argue, politely or violently depending on the day, our mental state and, most importantly, our mother's reaction.
For several years, my childhood, my adolescence, the essential part of my life occurred in that room facing the street. Four walls that didn't really protect us from outside noises. A small roof to live under, storing in our memory, beneath our skin, what made up our life, experimenting everything, feeling everything and later, remembering it all.
The other two rooms were almost beyond limits, especially Abdelkébir's. He was the oldest, almost the king of the family. My father's room was at once the reception room, the library where he stored his magnificently-bound Arabic books, and his love nest. That's where my parents made love. And they did it at least once a week. We knew. We knew everything that happened at home.
To communicate his sexual desire to my mother, my father had perfected his own techniques, his own strategies. One of them consisted simply in spending the evening with us, in our room. My father, who was a great talker, who commented on everything, would suddenly fall silent. He would not say anything, no word or sound would cross his lips. He wouldn't even smoke. He'd huddle in a corner of the room, alone with the torments of his desire, in the first stages of the sex act, already in a state of pleasure, his arms around his body. His silence was eloquent, heavy, and nothing could break it.
My mother would get it pretty quickly, and so would we.
When she accepted his silent proposition, she'd enliven the evening with her village tales and outbursts of laughter. Tired, or angry, she would be silent as well. Her refusals were obvious, and my father would not insist. Once, upset, he took his revenge on her, and on us by the same token (although we maintained complete neutrality in terms of their sexual relations, or at least tried to) by cutting off the electricity to the entire house. He thus cruelly kept us from the international variety shows that we followed with great interest every week on television. He made us as frustrated as he was. Nobody complained. We understood perfectly: no pleasure for him, no pleasure for us.
M'Barka would wait until we were asleep before going to his reception room. She'd leave us then, her mind at ease, to carry out her conjugal duties and make her man happy. Several times I tried to stay awake to witness this magic moment: her heading out into the darkness towards love. In vain. Back then I had no trouble sleeping. I'd climb into bed and the darkness inside me would almost immediately become a movie screen. It was a talent I inherited from my mother.
On love-making nights, my mother's snoring was no longer there to accompany us, cradle us. To love us. Getting up the next day was hard, something was missing, but M'Barka would have already returned, in her spot, between Rabiaa and Mustapha.
My dreams at night weren't sexual. On the other hand, on certain days my imagination would easily, and with a certain level of arousal, tread on torrid and slightly incestuous ground. I would be in bed with my parents. My father inside my mother. My father's big, hard dick (it couldn't have been anything else but big!) penetrating my mother's enormous vagina. I'd hear their noise, their breath. At first, I wouldn't see anything, everything would be black, but eventually I'd be there beside them, closely watching these two bodies that I knew so well and at the same time didn't know. I'd be ready to lend a helping hand, aroused, happy and panting along with them. Mohamed would take M'Barka right away, sometimes without even undressing her. Their sexual coupling would last a long time, a very long time. They never spoke, and they always presented themselves to one another with their eyes closed. A perfect sexual harmony naturally achieved. They were made for one another, sex was clearly the preferred language through which the image of the couple they formed could be expressed. Even after bringing nine children into the world, their desire for one another remained intact, mysteriously and joyously intact.
In my mind, my family's reality has a strong sexual quality, it is as if we have all been one another's partners, we blended together ceaselessly, without guilt. Sex, regardless of who we have it with, should never scare us. My mother, her life, her pleasure and her tastes, has taught me this lesson I shall never forget and that I sometimes, naively, try to put into practice.
My parent's lovemaking nights often ended in a noisy uproar. My parents fought after sex. Noisily. Violently. It was always the same story, a story that never died.
My mother's screams, hysterical, possessed, beyond herself, would wake us up in the middle of the night.
"You're going to drive me crazy! I've sworn to this a hundred, a thousand times. He was here because of you, not because of me. He came to see you, not me. Don't you remember? Really? He wanted to ask you to help him cultivate his land. God! My God! How long do I have to put up with this, the pain, these accusations, always these same accusations? All my life? No, no, no ... I've had enough, enough, enough ... There are limits to what you can take. I can't put up with everything, take everything in. I'm not as strong as you think. How many more years is it going to take before you believe me? Why do I always have to justify myself? Why must I always go over the same things, the same story? You know that I've never been unfaithful to you, not with him, not with anybody. Do you want me to swear to that? Is that it? Anyway, I've already done that. It wouldn't phase me to do it again ... Is that what you want? Don't come near me ... No ... Leave me alone. I've already given you what you wanted. My body belongs to you but that's no reason to mistreat it so. Why are you so hard on me all the time, what have I ever done to you? After all, I am the mother of your children, or have you forgotten that? ... Be sensible! Think about God, think about the Prophet! All of that happened a long time ago, a very long time ago, almost in another lifetime ... I don't even remember when, exactly, and what does it matter anyway ... Don't come near me ... Leave me alone ... No, not the belt, you know you can't beat me, you're not that kind of man. Let me out of here ... Let me leave ... Help, help me!"
They had just gotten married. My father wasn't always home. He would look for work in the other villages. M'Barka would be alone for days at a time in the house at the Oulad Brahim settlement, not far from her brother-in-law's "farm." It wasn't a first marriage for either of them. Mohamed had been married to three other women before he met my mother. None of them seemed suitable to his sister Massouda, who made all his decisions for him. M'Barka was already a widow and the mother of a year old daughter when Mohamed showed up at her father's house to ask for her hand. Both of them had a good understanding of life and its pitfalls. They had already experienced love and its problems. Apparently, they couldn't be fooled by anything. Now they wanted a family, for real and for ever.
One day, Mohamed came home earlier than expected. It was market day, a Wednesday. He carried with him a basket full of vegetables and fresh fruit, red meat and mint. He was happy and proud. He would be with his wife again. He had earned some money. He felt like a man, M'Barka's man. Unfortunately for him, Saleh, my mother's cousin, was there, right in his own home. Even worse: He had also brought a basket crammed full of provisions. Mohamed had never been able to stand Saleh, that he found vulgar and spiteful. M'Barka and Saleh were sitting next to one another. Their knees were touching. They were drinking mint tea. They were laughing. They were almost playing make-believe, the way little kids play house. M'Barka slightly inched away from her cousin when Mohamed made his entrance. He noticed. He immediately concluded that something had gone on between them while he was gone. Their intimacy bothered him intensely, it immediately disgusted and sickened him. But he had to face this unpleasant surprise, this terrible situation, this doubt, the jealousy that sprang up when he surprised them sitting so close. And yet, he had to welcome Saleh, he was a relative. A member of the family that Mohamed not only didn't like but never invited over. Saleh took the liberty of making himself at home and that drove Mohamed crazy.
"Salam alikoum, cousin of my wife!"
"Wa alikoum salam, husband of my cousin!"
"You both seem happy ... The neighbors could probably even hear you laughing ... and suspect something fishy ... especially since I am not supposed to be home."
"We've always been very close, M'Barka and I. We grew up together, played together, got into trouble together."
"And what made you laugh so loud? Tell me so I can laugh along with you!"
"Oh, this and that, anecdotes from the village ... our childhood games, memories ... Well, you know, the douar stories are so funny. M'Barka and I, we've gone through so much together, we could spend days on end going through our shared memories."
"Well, I see you don't need me, I'll leave you to your funny stories, leave your collusion intact ... My head hurts, I'm going to bed. Goodbye."
Mohamed went into the bedroom, closed the windows violently and slammed the door. The message was clear. M'Barka took refuge in silence. Saleh left at once for his douar. He would never again come to visit his cousin in my father's house.
I never knew Saleh. Nevertheless, he was very much present in our lives. His name, very beautiful and sweet, still resonates in the Hay Salam house, because it was so often brought up, shouted, insulted, cursed. Saleh was the source of an absolute misunderstanding, a wound left open forever, a definitive sorrow. In my father's mind, it was a betrayal. The end of a certain idea of love and the start of an unbridled, violent sexuality without decency.
Since that cursed day, M'Barka never stopped justifying herself, never stopped telling her version of the story, explaining it, analyzing the smallest details, and, faced with my father's accusations, insisting on her "innocence" again and again. Mohamed discovered the world of jealousy which he would inhabit his whole life.
"No, no, and no ... I didn't sleep with Saleh. Never. Stop torturing me, smearing me like this in front of the children. What will the neighbors, good and bad, think of me now? They're going to tell themselves: Who would have believed that about her? Well, you know what they say: still water runs deep and dirty ... Me, a disgraced woman? A woman who deceives, a whore? Not on your life, do you hear me, do all of you hear me, no, not on your life! You don't believe me? Do you want me to swear on my father's soul? Is that what you want? What good will that do? I've already done that and it hasn't stopped you from bringing up your old accusation, from unsheathing your assassin's tongue, killing me slowly but surely ... Well, maybe he wanted to fuck ... but I didn't, not me, do you understand ... Do you want me to say it again ... NOT ME ... I never gave him a chance to make advances, not him and not anybody else either ... You are going to make me crazy ... and you're crazy, crazy, crazy ... Calm down ... let your temper cool. Please, don't let the devil come between us, split us up. Think of our saint Sidi Moulay Brahim ... Come here ... Nothing ever happened ... I swear on my father's soul. I would swear to it on Sidi Moulay Brahim's grave if that's what you wanted."
We would hear everything. M'Barka's loud voice filled every void and carried far, the smallest details of her story were revealed to all, to those nearby and to those far away, to friends as well as enemies. In the beginning, we didn't dare intervene, get involved in this story, so ancient, so intimate, so complicated. But when Mohamed took off his belt to beat M'Barka, at that very moment, alerted by my mother's terror-stricken cries, we'd all come running to her rescue. We would gather on the patio, red eyed, ashamed, frightened, on the verge of tears, trying to decide what to do. We were all afraid of the same thing, that he'd kill her in a fit of madness. Abdelkébir would try to force the door open. It was locked every time.
My mother would scream as if she were about to surrender her soul, as if my father were going to plunge that big knife used to sacrifice the sheep for Aïd el-Kébir into her heart, making our worst fears come true. We were always on the brink of tragedy. From drama to tragedy is a short step. Fortunately, the saints that M'Barka always invoked would finally intervene in our favor and grant us a portion of their peace.
M'Barka really knew how to wail and that was the right thing to do. That's what saved her every time.
Hysteria is an illness I know quite well.
Sometimes our nearest neighbors intervened as well. They would knock on the door and ask whoever answered: "What's going on with your mother? Is your father abusing her again?"
How could I respond to such hypocrisy? How could I defend my mother's honor? What could I say to these people who acted like our saviors and then, peddlers that they were, hastened to hawk the most ruinous gossip about our family?
No, my mother wasn't being abused by my father. Their love life was like that, complex, violent, tortured. True love, the kind that lasts and survives for years, is always full of passion and craziness. Mohamed never beat M'Barka. He just pretended, he knew he couldn't do it. He would raise his first, but he never brought it down. My mother, of course, exaggerated her screams to the utmost. A good comedienne, she knew everything about play-acting.
How could I get her out of there? How could I spring her from that prison and that paradise, yank her away from my father's furious jealousy, from that angel turned demon? How could I recover her safe and sound, and bring her back to our room, to us, to her place among us?
Without even thinking about it, we would all start banging on the door, crying, begging Mohamed to spare her this time, just this once. We pounded. We yelled too. And we always ended up breaking down the door, the door that had weakened over time, that had lost its center. A door with no guts, an empty frame. Then we'd find both of them, like two shameful kids caught playing some off-limits game, my father in his long johns, my mother almost naked beneath her transparent nightgown. Then Abdelkébir would save her. Mohamed would stay silent, letting his oldest son do what he had to do. Abdelkébir would fold M'Barka in his arms as if to cover her and would bring her back to our room. We'd form a procession behind them, and follow them into our room. A little while later, without a word, we would turn off the lights and pretend to sleep.
Silence again. A total silence, heavy, restless. Short lived.
In the dark, a few minutes after this temporary lull, the smoke from Mohamed's cigarettes would cross his room, the patio, and reach us conveying his confusion, his regrets and sometimes his sobs. Mohamed was finally talking to us! We thought of him as being very sexual, he was, in fact, first and foremost, a romantic.
Mohamed wasn't a bad father. He was a lover. And that justified everything in my eyes.
Back then, I was convinced that M'Barka was telling the truth. Saleh was just her cousin, no more than that. I couldn't imagine her cheating on my father with him.
Today, looking back, I tell myself that anything is possible.
Excerpted from Salvation Army by Abdellah Taia Excerpted by permission.
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