Chapter Four Jeedah[1]

He thinks I don’t know, but I know. He wants something; maybe he wants Latifa. He is Jeedah’s sort of man. Even though he is from a strange country, she would have spoken with him. She always knew.

“ If you don’t know, child, don’t speak to them. Let them figure out your thoughts themselves if they can. Say nothing.” Sometimes she would put her hand on my head and say, “It’s no use, Malak, your face says it all. You are too magnificent, too proud. Where did you come from, child? Who are your people? It’s in her blood, your mother’s and your’s, but you are more special. You will never give up.” I never understood, it’s only slowly that words she once said to me would begin to mean something.

Murdiyyah must say no, always. I know he wants to do it to her like to mother. I will kill him. He knows this, hahaha. He thinks I am Jeedah, maybe I am.

 Why did Allah let her die? I know he did not kill her, it just happened, but he let her. However, she always said I must never blame him; he is only good, I must speak to him and ask him to help me. The men go to the mosque to see him, but Jeedah says he will hear me from anywhere, that a beach is an ideal place because there is lots of his beauty there all around.

When she died, there was a cat, a black fat cat. Maybe she is in the cat; perhaps she is now a cat, some people say it. They say she was not right, that she was a witch, that her man was terrified of her, that my father was scared of her, but now she’s gone. She’s gone, and I have no one to whom I can speak. Murdiyyah is too busy chatting with boys, and she will make them also want to put it into her. I cannot fight all the boys in the souk. Last time there were three. They are cowards. Luckily we were outside the Hamman[1]. The lady from the Hamman says I´m a spitting cat. She brought buckets of water to wash away the blood; it was all their blood.

Latifa is my friend; I play with her baby, so she does not cry. The baby pulls my hair, and she hits me; Latifa laughs as she loves her so much. I think Latifa should not let the baby hit me, but I do not mind as Latifa is her mother and Latifa is my friend. We eat most days because Latifa gives us food; at home there is nothing. Before, people used to bring food to our room, but then he would laugh and abuse them, so they stopped coming. He would throw the food on the floor and stand on it. But Latifa is kind, and she is not afraid of him.

I wish she was my mother and not that baby´s. I don’t think I love anybody, only Jeedah Hazzah, but she died. There come those boys; they walk along the edge of the wall with their backs to it. I snarl, and they jump. I never make trouble with them though they always laugh and call me names, but not now; they know I have no fear. I will do anything; I will even kill them if they hit me. They don’t like me because we are from Sahara and we have no food or clothes, and my father is always carrying a bottle. They say it is a curse and evil from Shaytan, so my father beats Murdiyyah and my mother, and the children beat me. I am tired; it was better when Jeedah was alive. Murdiyyah and my mother are always so afraid. I don’t understand why. If they were not afraid, he would leave them alone.

The foreigner has a great sadness in his eyes, and I know he is gentle and kind, but I also know that he walks in darkness. I cannot see it, but I know. It’s like there is something very bad walking with him, yet there is also light. He has paid for dresses for us and is giving Latifa the money so that we can go to school. I already go to school, but this way it will be better. I hope my father does not sell the dresses for money for bottles like he does when he beats mother and takes the money that they give her for working, and then we have none, and Latifa brings us couscous and bread, and sometimes potatoes, and my mother cries. I am glad I go to school each day so that I can be away from here.

I always go to Latifa’s home near the Hamman, and I wait in the street below and hope she will come out onto the terrace to hang out the clothes, so she will look down and see me. Then she calls “Malak, Malak come here.” The foreigner has given her money so that I can go to the Hamman for a wash at least once each week. Latifa says that he said each day as we have insects, me and Murdiyyah, but Latifa thinks once is enough. The woman in the Hamman is the one who calls me a spitting cat. Now she is rough when she washes me and slaps me when I am bare. Latifa caught her and threw her on the ground in the water, and I laughed, and now we have to find another woman to wash me, but they all want too much money as they know that he is paying. The people of the souk think the foreigner is stupid as he is giving away money for nothing, so everyone wants to take. If they saw him as I see him, the dark side of him, they would stop laughing.

 I know he is quite proud of me, but I think he is not proud of being proud. When he looks into my face, he seems to believe that he reads me, but he is so mistaken. I think he is not proud of being proud, because, he feels that I am nothing to him, which is true. But in truth I am, I guess Jeedah has sent him, or maybe Jeedah has been to the beach and has spoken to Allah, and he has sent him, but Pete does not know it.

The black cat often comes now. I go to the market and bring him some old fish, and he eats it, which is surprising as there is so much fish down there, so I think that he tastes it because it’s me who feeds him, and he really is Jeedah. The people see the cat and me, and they are sure now that the cat is Jeedah and I am also a witch. Tomorrow I will put on my new dress, and we will go to school; now we will be normal like other children. At last, I have someone to talk to, the cat always listens and purrs whatever I say.

Malak huddled up against her sister for warmth, feeling against her naked skin the soft material of the new dress that Latifa’s foreign man friend had bought for them. She shivered to feel the cold that came up from the dirt floor,

 which was covered only by two old sheepskins. They had just one thin blanket to share between them as a cover; the other hung in a makeshift fashion from a shopping line that had been suspended across the middle of the room to provide some privacy for their father and mother who lay on the other side. Her own dress was hanging from a rusty nail near the door, in an attempt to keep it clean for school tomorrow.

 Latifa had taken them to the madrassah[2] after asking the permission of her mother Tanirt when she returned from work in the night. It must have been the foreign man who had provided the money. Why? Wondered Malak. What did he want? Why give his money away? She only knew of one thing that men wanted off women, but she was no woman yet so that it would be big haram. Anyway, she had looked into his eyes, like Jeeda Hazzah, her grandmother, had told her she must do. He was very friendly, like few men she had ever met before. He didn’t see that she was dirty, or poor, or that he had power over her and her sister. But she did know that he was sad, so very sad, and Malak was happy, what a strange thing.

 Jeedah had always said to her that if she always laughed and held her head high and was just to her mother and sisters and to other people who were in need, that all would be good through the love of Allah. She taught Malak always to ask the help of Maryam, the mother of Isa, to venerate her, as Maryam would speak to Allah on her behalf. Malak knew that her mother worked and tried to keep some sort of a home together. But she defended him against them, even though he beat her whenever he came home after drinking with his friends.

“You filthy bitches,” she would scream. “Why do you not do something?” But, they had the money for nothing, not even to buy food, let alone a broom or anything to clean or try to make their cave seem more like home: the room smelt of urine from the bucket by the door, the same receptacle they used for everything. But the urine smell was also from their father’s drunken nights, when he would urinate in a corner, not bothering with the bucket. If Tanirt were not yet home when he staggered in, he would take Murdiyyah by the hair and throw her about the room. The night before last, Murdiyyah was naked when he grabbed her, and she urinated in her fear. As he saw her cowering, trembling violently with the liquid running down her legs, he grew stronger in himself because of his power. It made him more violent, and when he raised a fist to punch the girl, Malak, crazed with anger and fearing that he would try to use her sister as he always did her mother, flew at him fearlessly and slapped him with her tiny hands, shouting.

“Stop it, stop it now, you Shaitan. How dare you lay your filthy hands on my sister?” His face changed as he leaned drunkenly back, but said nothing as the little five-year-old stood up before him, hands on hips, pressing her advantage and shouting at the big bullying man, who cringed visibly before her.

“Get out of here,” she shouted in her little girl’s voice. “Get out.” And then she screamed, and Murdiyyah screamed with her, and the man put his hands over his head.

He vanished out of the door and did not reappear for the rest of the night, and the two sisters hugged each other for consolation, crying with relief now that the danger was past.

 Malak had done this several times, the first time unaware of what the consequences would be. Her mother later said it was because, in his drunkenness, he thought it was his dead mother Hazzah––of whom he had been petrified––as she also used to shout at him and beat him until he walked straight and respected his family and his work. Everyone had said she was a witch, and when her husband died “mysteriously” they knew that Jeedah had used her powers. Officially it had been a heart attack, but the barrio knew otherwise. Jeedah Hazzah had been an abused woman although she always fought back. Since she had become a widow, she made it her cause to protect all those women in the barrio. There were some who were regularly abused by their husbands or indeed their brothers. Jeedah had always said that it was the government’s fault, as well as some ignorant Imam’s. When she was a child, she had studied the Quran under the tutelage of an Imam who had been a staunch friend of her family. He was known as a devout and kind man. Together, they read the Holy book, and he explained to her that the book was open to many interpretations. That Mohammed––who could neither read nor write––had dictated it to trusted friends and followers. Many noble verses were taken by evil people and governments and misinterpreted so that, in the end, people all over began to be confused. But the genuinely devout and faithful searched in their heart of hearts and found the truth. Mohammed loved women and did all he could to protect them. When the word Daraba is used in the noble verse, enemies of Islam say it means to hit, whereas, in fact, it means other things, it must be read as the prophet meant it. So Hazzah knew that when her husband beat her and said he did it in the name of the prophet, he was lying. The prophet wanted that he would leave her, go away, if he felt she was defying him. And that by leaving her she would come to see her wrong if indeed she was at fault.

“But you must be careful. One day he will realise and will kill you.” Malak also knew that no one would ever come to their aid, as he was their father, and, under the law, they as women, as daughters, had an obligation to revere him as the head of the family. At the age of fifteen, they passed from being their mother’s legal wards to becoming that of their father’s. Fatima, their eldest sister, was taken away on her fifteenth birthday by him and his father’s side of the family, and they never saw her again. The crying girl was manhandled into one of his friend’s van, while he laughed and told her that she would enjoy her new life. Her mother was helpless to do anything other than protest, which earned her a good kicking at his hands.

 One of the two boys who helped push her into the back of the van seemed gentler and more caring than the rest, assuring her sisters and mother that Fatima would be well looked after, while the father chortled loudly in the background as if he had told a massive joke.

“The trouble is,” their mother continued saying, “that we are not from here, we are outsiders. Otherwise, my brothers would come running to protect us. My family is from the desert, from the Sahara, and they don’t even know where I am.”

Grandmother Hazzah had died of something called cancer just over two years ago. She had visited the Doctor, but since they were of humble means, he had said to her that she should go home and wait for the hand of Allah, that she was old and would die soon anyway. He gave her no medicine, just some Aspro to take for the pain.

When the moment came, and Jeedah Hazzah was finally taken away, Malak hated Allah for letting her grandmother, her only real friend, die in such a way. She ran off to the beach and stayed there all night, crying and screaming her anger and her overwhelming grief out to the waves and the emptiness that for the first time she beheld before her. Latifa was the one who found her and took her to her home, gentling her anger and her anguish away with soft words and reason. So Malak came round to accepting the will of Allah, because it was what Jeedah had always taught her and because Latifa, who was kind to her and her sisters, told her that it was best.

 During the long summer evenings as a tiny girl, she would walk along the seawall with Jeedah and greet other people. Half the town would be there enjoying the slight sea breeze and the cool after the heat of the long, sweltering day. Jeedah would sit on the edge of what had once been a flower bed or against the seawall and give Malak some coins. The child would trot off to the stand where a man would be selling roasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds. There would always be other men around him conversing, so Malak would approach cautiously––although never timidly––as Jeedah had taught her to hold her head up and ask boldly for what she wanted. Jeedah told her that women had been especially revered by the prophet as he knew of Allah’s great love for them.

Tanirt first met Mohamed, the girl’s father, some fourteen years ago when the sailing vessel he worked on as a fisherman was casting its nets in waters deep in the South, close to the Sahara.

A violent Atlantic storm came upon them rapidly. The sky started to darken ominously, the heavens thundered, and vivid flashes of lightning began to fall not that far from them, forcing the boat to make a run for shelter to the nearest port. They stopped in on their way at the police control, which was surprisingly, manned by the military. The seamen looked at each other in silent dismay since soldiers usually meant trouble and were generally above the law, unless of course you were from an influential family or had the right friends. The soldiers came aboard and escorted the craft into the sheltered area. The storm was blowing up by then; you could hear it whistling ominously through the rigging of the moored boats, setting off a constant jingling and banging; it was a night to be indoors with a good warm meal.

After being individually questioned and waiting for the boat to be searched, the tired seamen were allowed to go ashore to find a café and something to eat. The port was a small affair, and the town seemed to consist of just a few streets covered in deep drifts by the sand that was blowing in from the desert with the storm. The few people to be seen walking about had their headwear pulled over across their faces to keep out the flying sand which drove in clouds across the small square. The seamen crammed into the solitary town taxi, a blue and cream coloured Mercedes which must have been at least fifty years old. On the outskirts, he dropped them off at the restaurant, more a tearoom, the only one according to the taxi driver, and it was only open and trading, he said, thanks to the construction of the Berm, the sand wall.

It wasn’t too bright inside, just a few lamps hanging from the roof and walls casting shadows and giving only the most desultory illumination to the busy diners. The food smelt good. The big-bellied proprietor, a sizeable man, announced the menu to them. He stood there cheerily, wearing a large white apron and wishing all a good night.

“Today we have tajine[3] and harira.” His face went blank, and he rushed off into the kitchen only to come hurrying back. “We also have kebabs.”

The meal was brought to their table by a stunning-looking girl. She wore a blood-red hanky over her hair, lush jet black tresses escaped rebelliously, and she kept throwing them back with a movement of her head. Her enormous grey-green eyes shone vividly, caught in the beams of light from one of the lanterns. She noticed Mohammed’s mesmerised stare and laughed uninhibitedly as the other sailors made friendly comments.

“Salaam aleikum,” she uttered gaily, and Mohammed was in love, struck dumb by her unexpected apparition in this unlikeliest of places. They questioned the proprietor about her, and he said that it was best to treat her as haram.

“Came in a week ago and asked for work. She could have meant trouble for me, brooks no nonsense from anyone who shows disrespect, a free woman from the tribes. I gave her lodging, food, and work as she was in a state when she arrived, and the Holy Quran is clear about such situations. Maybe a runaway, and soon they will come looking for her, slit your throat as soon as look at you. They are hard people from the desert. I have not even asked her what tribe, and I certainly will keep my distance. Besides she is no girl but a full-blooded woman, probably a real she-lion.”

“Why so many soldiers?” asked Mohammed. “What is happening in this lost place?”

“The Berm[4], my friend, they are building the Berm, and all supplies come in by sea. Slowly but surely they are shutting out the people of the desert, the Imohagg, and this will be the South of Morocco, rich in oil, gas, and phosphates.”

“And so the girl will not be able to return to her people once this berm is in place?”

“The Imohagg are like ghosts; you never know they are there until they are upon you. But the Berm is serious: three lines of walls, mines all along and a base every fifty kilometres. The mystery is just who is paying for it. It’s true that Moroccan workers all over the country are having a small amount docked from their payslips, but this is a big project. They say longer even than the Great Wall Of China. To me it’s no mystery: it’s the Americans, the French, the British, the West… the same old gang. They gave it up once and now want it back as it’s oil and phosphate-rich.”

Mohammed found the girl in the kitchen and asked her to walk with him. She smiled and made him sit down as she worked, and brewed some tea for him. To go out was madness, the girl said, since they would not even be able to talk with the wind and sand. So they spent half of the night in the kitchen, just talking, and when Mohammed asked her to come North and be his wife, she agreed.

The storm continued blowing into the next day.

They found an Imam, the only one for miles around. The wedding was a compromise affair because of the circumstances. The Imam was attached to the military, a rugged countryman with a sense of humour and a great romantic; he was all for the union despite the lack of everything.

“Allah is truly great. He sends us moments of beauty in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Who would have thought it? A man from the sea and a girl from the free people of the desert making their Agd Al-qiran[5].”

So they gathered in the restaurant and read the Fatiha[6] from the holy book, and immediately entered into the marriage contract: the Nikkah or agd al-qiran with the blessing of the Imam. The ship’s captain acted as the witness on behalf of the bride’s family and the fat-bellied bar owner for the family of the groom. They set sail for the North immediately afterward, leaving the Dokhla––the consummation of the marriage––for when they were at home and after they had faced the wrath of Jeedah Hazzah.

 


[1] Public baths.

[2] A place of learning in the Arab world is a Madrassah.

[3] Tajine is a form of stew or casserole, chicken or lamb cooked with vegetables in an earthenware dish.

[4] The Berm, the infamous wall of sand and landmines 2700 kms long built by Morocco to lock the natives of Western Sahara out of their homeland.

[5] Marry the single people from among you and the righteous slaves and slave-girls.

[6] The first chapter(Surah)of the Holy Quoran.

 

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Paul O'Garra