We always took our meals at a big wooden table. Long, rectangular, and made of solid teak with thick square legs and a sort of triangular affair underneath which gave it stability. It was so heavy that even my father had to make an effort to lift one end of it. Not that he made a habit of doing this but, fed up with our asking him to, he finally gave in. My brother Saul, my sister Tanamart, my mother Kella, my father Afra, and I. This is my family. My name is Masuhun or Moon. I don’t like the Moon but can’t seem to shake it. We’re an ancient family; our Berber ancestors came originally to the North African coast from somewhere in Algeria and, most importantly of all, we’re Christians. I’m the black sheep of the family as I have become since recently a Christian Muslim. I embraced Islam just a few weeks ago; the Imam told me that they weren’t worried about me being a Christian. There must be many incongruities, but I just want to be close to my people and, what better way than to understand them and be co-religionists with the grand majority of my fellow countrymen? I hope my Roman Catholic peers don’t excommunicate me. I like the new Pope, Papa Francisco; he seems a far cry from all the jumped-up cassock types, so I’m not too worried. The Mother will guide them.
I loved Tintziri, the house girl, a Berber and beautiful, from the moment I saw her. She brought in the big tureen with the harira: rich, steaming tomatoes, chickpeas, lentils, and lots of other ingredients. Saul clapped his hands in gleeful anticipation, and Tanamart giggled––Tanamart always giggled––as the steaming soup was served. Tintziri was a distant relative from a remote and feudal region of Algeria. She did things to me, unwittingly of course, which often made me think that the time for me to take a wife was fast approaching, as I couldn’t get her out of my mind.
The first time I saw her, I was sitting on the porch outside my house with her eyes focused on me. Her gaze was blank as if waiting for something to happen. She stood close to the glass of the kitchen window but not looking in, dressed in a strange, unusual chilaba of doused sandy colours with a sort of staggered hood on the latter part of her head. She was pretty in a bright and childlike fashion, yet there was something about her poise that awakened the man in me, unexpectedly, so that I scrambled to hide awkwardly, not daring to stand, feeling all the while that her eyes had detected my excitement and I was amusing her. On glancing again at her face, I discovered not a smile but a confused look.
“W-who are you?” I stuttered, to which she made no reply at all. Then my mother came out and saw her. She stopped and stood in front of her for a few moments.
“Tintziri?” And it was as if a veil had lifted, and she smiled seeming pleased, but her eyes still questioned, looking hopeful and doubtful and relieved all at the same time. As my mother embraced her, I wondered whether Tintziri and I were destined for each other as, despite my efforts to stop myself, I just wanted to kiss her, I wanted her for myself.
“He’s always starving and always eating, and yet look at him.”
Saul was on the go all day, never stopped, boisterous, and overly enthusiastic, yet he was always polite to older people. Most Berber Christian boys from a good family were like that; we must have gotten something right in our culture. But so were Arab boys from decent family’s; they were taught to be God-fearing, to feel the fear of Allah.
“Fatima doesn’t want him in the kitchen,” said our mother. “She loves him, but I think she’s a bit afraid of him since he started growling and clucking and imitating animals. She thinks he’s possessed or something.”
“Probably is. He dreams that she should lock him in with all her food.” A healthy girl, the tallest in the family at fifteen, Tanamart was my junior by three years and had the sunniest nature I had ever seen in a girl.
“What’s eating you today, Masuhun? You’re very quiet.” My father and I, being so close, were well-tuned to each other. I felt the same as any other day and carried, I thought, my usual facial expressions and was acting as always. It just goes to show how little we know about our impact on others.
“Well, it’s that school I teach in.” They all went quiet, afraid of my mother acting up again. She hated my decision to be a Muslim and then to crown it by becoming a teacher in an Islamic school. I’m surprised I wasn’t thrown out on the street. I was just an English teacher. The Imams would have never allowed me to take on any more and, for now, it was enough.
“Yes,” answered my father. “How are you finding it?”
“I love it. The children are so different from what I get here in the Catholic school. They’re grateful. It’s as if I was doing every one of them a big personal favour. Quite touching, really, and they take such an interest. Talk about the hunger for knowledge.”
“So what are you so glum about then?” retorted Afra. “You’re usually full of the joys, volunteering all sorts of stories before I ever get the chance to drill you.”
“There’s a little girl who sits by the school fence and looks in. On my two days, she’s always there, so I imagine she comes every day, every school day. I think she’s living out the only version that’s open to her of going to school. It’s as if her only way to feel right, to feel like a child, is by doing what the happy well-dressed children do: go to school. I bet if we were to offer her a choice between a boxful of food and a book, she’d go for the book. The irony is that she’d probably, actually, go for the food out of a sense of loyalty to her family. Well, I’ve asked the porter and a gardener, and they say, poor family, low people. She must be about five or six. I got as close as I could to her, but she ran off, like a hind startled by a sudden sound and taking flight.”
“What does she look like?” piped in Saul, warming to the subject.
“She has a beautiful face. It’s like an angel’s when she smiles; well, that’s her name, Ange, Malak. She smiled at a girl student who gave her a pencil through the school fence. When she smiled it was good; it was a good warm smile. You know, sometimes people smile, but they don’t mean it; well, she meant it.”
“Tell us more, Masuhun, please, tell us more.”
“Well, Saul, she’s a bit dirty. Her face, her hands, and her feet are black with dirt, and she’s dressed in rags.”
“She’s a Cinderella then?” He screwed up his face. “I bet she’s got, two ugly sisters.”
“There are hundreds of kids like that running around, all over the place; we just live in the protected areas. There are large neighborhoods that we’ve never even seen.” Tanamart got angry about such things; she would say that she would never live in this country when she got older. “If you’re not someone’s friend or cousin, you don’t have a chance, and the rich ones all sit there and tell us, and tell the world, what good Moslems they are.”
“Start by helping one child, then help the ones that you can. Is there anything we can do for her Masuhun?” My mother didn’t want me to be a Muslim or teach at that school, but she liked doing her charity bit; probably keeping up appearances, although she was very consistent with it.
“I don’t know mother yet. I spoke to one of the old men who teach, and he said to stay away. Apparently, the father is this drunken bully of a man and…”
She cut me short. “Later, Masuhun, later.”
I caught the hint. My mother enjoyed restricting unsuitable snippets, but Tanamart objected.
“Not in front of the children,” she sang. “Come on, let’s hear about this paternal bully.”
“That’ll do, Tanamart, thank you.” My father’s authority was final.
“She’s got a pretty sister. I don’t know if she has any ugly sisters, Saul, but she does have one nearly as pretty as her. One evening she came looking for her.”
“No, Saul, she’s called Malak, which in Arabic means angel.”
“Well, I think that’s a disguise, and she’s Cinderella.”
“So, what more did you discover about Malak?” my mother asked as she lit the incense to keep off flies and mosquitos.
“Nothing really. It just disappoints, even angers me, to think that the child is probably in the state she’s in because a tyrannical father with a problem––it seems a drinking one––does nothing to redress the situation.”
“And no one can tell him he’s out of order because the law in this country says that he is the king of the house and that’s it,” barked Afra. “And yet when it comes to standing up to gay associations, who are trying to impose their right to corrupt our society as they have done to most of the western world, they show a firm and admirable hand.”
“Here we go again,” I cut in. “Father, I have friends who are gay. Who knows, God forbid, maybe even Ruben turns out to be like that.”
“It’s not that I have anything against gay people, only, I object to their political aims, their desire to proliferate their culture to the rest. I know that political bodies use gay as they use religions to further their causes but…”
“There are perfectly respectable gay people and couples.” It was my mother’s turn to head him off.
“Yes, Kella, I grant you, but it’s all a Pandora’s Box. Along with the respectable come the rest. Total sexual liberalization is not a good idea. Germany and Austria, for example, have a fast-growing paedophile problem. I prefer to defend the child against domestic evil than against an evil that’s rearing its head, and yet a corrupt and soft western society does nothing real to stop it. And they do nothing because it’s politically not expedient to go against power blocs within their own systems. At the rate things are going, within fifty years paedophilia will be a tolerated concept in some western societies as it was in the past.”
“Afra, let’s think about this one little girl now.”
“There’s not much we can do mother, just wait and see. For now, you can pray for her and her family, and even her father; perhaps he’s not such an evil type, maybe he’s doing his best.”
In the morning, as I set off, Saul called me from the door, “Masuhun, wait.” He came running, brandishing a teddy bear. I knew who it was for and suddenly wondered if I should even have mentioned the little girl, in our house.
“Just give her this teddy, Masuhun; after all, I’ve grown out of him now.” It’s true that the doll was a bit moth-eaten and losing fluff, but I knew it was his special teddy, his friend who shared his bed and his slumbers each night. So I hugged him and took the teddy bear.
“Are you sure, Saul? I know he’s your special teddy.”
“That’s why he can look out for her like he’s always done for me. And, Masuhun, I know she’s Cinderella, so don’t say she’s not.”
And so Teddy stayed in the car that day, as it was a regular Catholic school day in the city by the souk. The children were of all denominations. Funny how religion didn’t seem to matter when elite schooling was available. Well, the kids were fine, the Arabic kids were generally more respectful though, and as a result, more confident. There were children amongst the Europeans who were generally insecure with a tendency to show off, very self-interested, and forever questioning my authority. I remembered what my father had said at the table about other cultures wanting to change us; perhaps they should start by changing themselves. I enjoyed teaching English here, the response was excellent, and the children fast learners so that the class could swing on and, as a result, was fun for them and me. I hated having to spend time with any child, in particular, helping him or her to catch up while the others did some exercise. If a child could not keep up, I slowed the pace and re-explained as many times as necessary. It was not detrimental to the brightest kids as they also benefitted from the constant reiteration. The few, ordinarily European parents who complained were satisfied when I explained that my system ensured that the children remembered and effectively learnt to speak English as opposed to going through the motions. On one occasion I asked a parent to sit quietly in the office while I spoke to his son in the class next door, without the child being aware of his father’s presence.
“Come in Dani; I want to speak to you. Now, Dani, imagine that we are in class. What is my rule there regarding language spoken?”
He looked puzzled for a moment.
“We speak only English.”
“Good boy, and do you enjoy studying English in my class?”
“Yes, sir, very much, only that…” and he hesitated.
“Say it, Dani. I won’t mind, say it.”
“Well, I’m dying to get onto the new reading book, Kim of India, but we keep going back and repeating.”
“When did you start to learn English with me, Dani?”
“It´s one year, isn´t it, that I began in your lesson, sir?”
“Most people spend years learning to speak a language, yet you speak it fluently, and you get one hundred percent in all your exams. Don’t you think my system is good, or is it just that you´re an exceptional student?”
The boy laughed, covering his mouth. “Perhaps we are a good team, sir. One thing sir, who is it sitting in the office listening to our conversation? Is it the headmaster?”
“No, Dani, I said,” laughing in spite of myself. “It’s another member of our team.”
Well, the boy went as red as a beetroot when he saw his father, who was quite touched.
“What are you doing here, father?” he asked in Spanish. The father gave him a hug and a kiss as an answer, and I sent the boy back to his class.
I wasn’t qualified, I was just a student, still studying on a flexible hour system at the university. So it was important that the parents liked me, as this was a useful experience for me and I loved it. And also, I wanted to be a leader, someone the children liked, as looking into the future I realised they could, one day, be useful allies. And of course, I was a teacher. This is what I did and wanted to do with my life, and the satisfaction of seeing my students flower in the subject I was responsible for them to learn was a wonderful thing. Of course, there was always that urgency gripping me. There were things I had to do, was meant to do, and I didn’t even know what they were, and time was passing me by.
 Tanamart, Kella, Afra, Masuhun and Tintziri are all berber names.
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