My Mother’s Voice
The Black Princess
She was having an affair, and I’d made my way to Budapest so that I could see her. It wasn’t a cheap ticket, but I could afford it. It was impossible for me to meet her in a public place in Amsterdam—it just made me too nervous. I thought I saw her boyfriend on every canal. Budapest has no canals.
She’d been invited to a translation conference in Budapest and now that it was over she could be with me. During the conference, I’d hung around in the background like a shadow and met her in a park when she could slip away between sessions, but after the graveyard slot, the very last lecture at a symposium that only the most obsessive types go to, I was allowed to join her. About time too. Until then, I’d wandered around Margaret Island with a camera. I didn’t get to take any photos though. A thick, white fog made it impossible to see any further than a couple of metres. Dispirited, I went and sat in a bar, with the camera beside me, and stared at a Hungarian newspaper without understanding a word. It’s no fun drinking coffee on your own while your lover is bored and only a kilometre away.
It was the first time we’d been able to spend such a long period together in one stretch. When I met her in the hotel lobby, it felt as though I was meeting a new woman. The whole person, not just those bits and pieces that reassembled themselves to make the journey home after every time we made love. I brushed the tears away just before they came into my eyes. She looked good. Her brown hair was loose. Her purple dress was sleek. She always dressed so well. Heels. She did not need to be naked to reveal all of her vulnerability. But her face was unhappy.
‘Sorry I’m so late. He phoned. He’s been calling Budapest every day. Not because he senses something, but just because he’s missing me—and that’s the worst thing about it. The man I’m running away from is missing me.’ We were in Budapest and we were alone. He was no concern of mine.
Her boyfriend didn’t know I existed. Her boyfriend didn’t know she was capable of something like this. Her boyfriend didn’t know anything about her, I thought. And I knew everything. That made me feel powerful, but also unhappy, because I’d picked up on that emotion just as easily as I felt her excitement.
Our first dinner together was in a cheap Turkish restaurant where you helped yourself to food from a buffet. There was one on every main street in this city. We decided to go there to eat because you could at least see what you were ordering, while the Hungarian menus they gave you in the restaurants left us none the wiser. As I scooped up the food, I felt happy. Like an emperor, with the whole world bowing down before him.
Just as we were about to pay at the till, she said to me: ‘I’m pregnant. I did a test in my room this morning.’ She knew damn well how nervous she was making me.
‘Have you told him yet?’
‘Why not? He has a right to know. The father should know about it too.’ I was faking the casual attitude, but I really meant what I said.
‘You’re the father. I haven’t had sex with him without a condom for months.’
In my shock, the tray with a glass of apple juice on it fell from my hands. The liquid flowed in every direction, as though my waters had broken.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to Budapest with you. So that I could tell you in a quiet place.’
‘In a Turkish fast-food restaurant? In a queue. With a tray in my hand. Thanks very much.’
‘I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. I wanted to wait until after we’d eaten. I even had a place in mind, not far from here, on the bridge, with that beautiful view of Budapest spread out in front of you, but I couldn’t wait.’ The Hungarian woman at the till did not appear to be amused. She swore in Hungarian, but was civil enough not to charge me for the broken glass. We’d talked about children before, just not like this. We’d spoken about it as an idea, a flight of fancy, something that concerned other people, not us. This was different. She didn’t want to have children with her boyfriend—I knew that much. But this was different.
‘Let’s have something to drink first,’ I said. Eva Soares just laughed. She always laughed when she didn’t know what else to do. And because she didn’t know, I didn’t know either and so I started to laugh too. So there we were, standing at the till, as the queue behind us grew longer, just laughing away at our own helplessness. I’d tried to explain to her once that my reservations about children came from my lack of faith. We’d just made love and it gave me such a feeling of freedom that I felt brave enough to speak about anything. Nothing sounded strange or peculiar then. I said that I had no desire to have children because I had no faith to offer them. I explained to her that, as far as my parents were concerned, I was living without faith. They cursed me silently. Now, imagine if I were to have children, I’d have to bring them up without faith. But that thought seemed unbearable to me. I didn’t want the curse of my parents to descend upon them as well. Having no faith was no big deal for me, but the thought that my children would believe in nothing gave me the shivers. As I’d expected, she said that she didn’t understand, but that didn’t matter at the time because we’d just made love.
When we finally sat down at the table, we didn’t like the food. The food was nasty. Bland mince. Bland aubergine. Bland cheese.
‘So, what do you think?’ she asked.
‘This food’s disgusting.’
‘I meant: what do you think about me being pregnant?’
‘What am I supposed to think?’ I drank some more of my apple juice. ‘Are you really that keen to have a baby?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘I didn’t know you wanted one so much.’
‘Would you have used protection if you had known?’ I had no answer to that.
‘No feelings at all?’ she urged.
‘I’m happy for you. I can feel how happy you are.’
‘What are we going to do?’
‘Leave this food. And just go.’
‘I mean about our child.’ A child that I can offer no faith.
‘Let things take their natural course.’
‘Do you really mean that?’
‘I don’t know what else to say right now. Is that good enough for you?’
She laughed again. ‘Yes.’
‘Well, that’s alright then.’
In the plane on the way home the next day, she took hold of my hand and placed it on her stomach.
‘So?’ she asked. ‘Feel anything?’
‘Your stomach,’ I said.
She put my hand back on my lap, leant over to me and started to talk into my ear.
‘You’re acting as though you have no feelings about this. But that’s not true. You’re acting as though you’re an asshole. But that’s not true either, even though you do your best to make everyone else think you are. I know that you’re good at your job because of the way you manage to close yourself off to everyone and everything. Being a good photographer means being able to disconnect and allow a great picture to come together. You’re good at that. Congratulations. Really. Your presence of mind is most impressive. But it’s painful to watch. You act as though you can remain immune to the surprises that life throws at you, but you can’t. I understand you. No, let me put it another way: my understanding of you has grown. I’ve listened to you. I’ve listened so hard. Your parents’ story. Their immigration. Your brother. Your mother. Particularly your mother. You’ve confessed to me that you can’t love me the way you want to. It’s as though there’s some dark power stopping you. As though the moment you take that decisive step towards surrender, your system just shuts down. You’ve told me all of that. I let you talk. I listened to you and all that time I knew one thing: he’ll still have to surrender when the time comes. One day love will take even you by surprise.’
I decided not to respond. When we landed, I took her to a taxi.
‘You need your rest,’ I said. ‘The child is important.’
‘Aren’t you coming too?’
‘I’ll take the train home. See you.’ I handed the taxi-driver a fifty-euro note. She’d forgive me. She understood why the asshole was doing this. So that he could remain an asshole. She had her child. That was more important to her than my feelings about the pregnancy.
For nine months, I ignored all of her calls, text messages and emails. I’d learned the art of non-communication from my mother. She was an expert at keeping a low profile.
For nine months, I remained on the run. I stuck my head into the sand that was my work. I accepted every commission and in those nine months I worked for a variety of clients and, in the following order, I photographed: milk glasses, children’s shoes, Louis XIV chairs, drum kits, cakes from Limburg, Buddha statues, chip cards, eighteenth-century pornographic prints, pocket watches, digital watches and Rolexes, tear-off calendars from 1967, security guards, judokas, wheelchairs, feet with fungal infections, a collection of Congolese masks, girls with tattoos, mounted butterflies (twice), scars, Africans saying goodbye to their friends and family at the airport, Chinese fans, shopping trolleys, walking frames, running shoes, coloured crayons, tins of paint and green tea. The job with the Africans was the most fun; the dullest one was the green tea.
Once she made a surprise visit to confront me with her stomach. I knew that it was her when the doorbell went. She was the only one who gave three very short rings. I looked through the spy-hole as she rang one more time. Her stomach bulged up beneath her dress, like Exhibit A. I held my breath until she disappeared. Then there was silence. She decided to leave me alone, because there was nothing else she could do.
Eva Soares announced the birth of the twins by text message, in the same straightforward language that she’d always used ever since I first spoke to her on Utrechtsestraat and suggested going out for a coffee somewhere. Apart from Hamra Street in Beirut, I don’t know of any other street in the world where the evening sun has so much free play as in Amsterdam’s Utrechtsestraat. I shot a series of photographs in Hamra Street for a magazine special on taxis.
Babies born. Healthy.
‘Apple juice,’ I said to myself. I thought about Budapest, the Turkish restaurant. The feeling of happiness. Apple juice.
At the moment I received the news of the birth, I was walking from the kitchen back into the living room, where I intended to enjoy my freshly brewed coffee with a small splash of hot milk. My usual habit is to slip into a comfortable cross-legged position and first take a sip of the boiling-hot coffee to check that it tastes right. Then the rest of the ritual begins, consisting of a long series of tiny sips until the bottom of the cup comes into sight. Pleasure and patience combine in a perfect moment when the last sip is still lukewarm. At moments like that, life appears to be no more than an entertaining sideshow. The coffee is all that counts.
But I didn’t get to drink coffee my way that day, because the news hit me with such force that I forgot I had even prepared coffee. A wave of acid rose up in my stomach, and then another. The sun shone low in the sky outside and a white swan flew in front of it.
I gingerly pushed the mobile away from me on the table as though it might bite me if I made even the slightest movement. It was the same mobile that she’d given me as a present. It came in a box that was far too big and which contained all kinds of different wires and plugs that I’ve never used. ‘A man must be reachable,’ she had said. So I became reachable. Whenever she could, she called me; whenever she could, she texted me.
The last time my emotions had got the better of me to this extent was when I fell in love with my Black Princess, with Eva Soares, the mother of my children. I thought I’d be able to get my mind straight by going out for a walk, so I headed outside, down the stairs with their threadbare red carpet, but stopped at the bottom and went back up to wash my hands. I had no idea why. I had to do something with myself. Washing my hands was the smallest thing I could do. I didn’t dare go out for a walk.
Outside, starlings were writing the glad tidings in the sky with their tails. I felt as though I could count every one of them, just as you see everything, feel everything, when your instincts are on the alert like that.
When my father cornered me with his belt, I saw not just the belt, not just the fierce look in his eyes, but I could have counted every hair on his face. I also knew the exact spot where he was going to hit me, and if I wasn’t careful, I also saw my mother sitting in the background with her mouth open and her eyes turned away. At the moment when the belt struck, I caught a glimpse of the universe being born.
With a bang. With a whack. That’s how we were raised. They knew no other way of bringing up children in the part of Morocco that my father came from. He believed he was passing on a tradition from father to son. He probably assumed that I’d do exactly the same with my own children. In secret, I thought that I didn’t want to have any children because, once they arrived and started getting into mischief, I wouldn’t be able to resist bringing them into line with a whack. Faith, hope and violence. That was the way to bring up children.
After the thrashing, my mother would make tea, and we would drink it together. Sometimes a laugh would come bubbling up after the first cup of tea. My mother looked as though she was still pregnant with us.
One day my twin brother tugged at the hot teapot. The pot fell and the liquid poured over him and burned his skin. That was the first time I realised I needed to keep my brother in line. If my father could belt me, then I had to be able to hit my brother whenever he was about to make a serious mistake. So I tried to learn a lesson from the whacks that my father had given me: just like my father, I had the weighty responsibility for a blood relation. I stood in a long line of whacks, which I was required to pass on. If my father had not hit me with his belt, then I might not have disciplined my brother. Who knows?
That evening my mother dabbed away at his neck with a towel packed with ice. That’s how they told us apart at school when we were older: he had a strip of reptile skin on his neck, but you had to know it was there to see it. He lay stretched out on the sofa with the towel wrapped around his neck like a scarf, as though he felt really cold. He didn’t dare to speak. Maybe he was frightened that his neck would break. I went and sat beside him and whispered in his ear: ‘Because I love you so much, I’ll bring you up from now on. I’ll be your father.’ At the time I thought: he gets the coffee, I get the whacks. But of course that’s not how the world works.
Every beep announcing a message shot into me like a dart.
I concluded that something must be going wrong with my nervous system, because somehow or other my right hand appeared to be moving with a will of its own. Whatever I wanted to do, the hand seemed to have completely different ideas. I kept slapping myself in the face and had to fight to keep my own hand at a distance, as it rebelled against me. I thought that if I grabbed hold of something, the hand would at least have something to do instead of laying into me, so I reached out for a glass and willed my hand to take hold of it, but the hand refused. Instead, there was just another whack. It would have been funny if it didn’t hurt so much. I did fitness training to strengthen my body and I could tell from the power in my arm as it hit me that I might have been overdoing it a bit. I sat down. Stood up. I repeated to myself: ‘Something must be going wrong with my nervous system,’ like a mantra to calm myself down: ‘Something must be going wrong with my nervous system (and things aren’t exactly peachy in my brain either).’ And now I was standing there frantically washing my hands, as though I’d had twenty cups of coffee, as though this were a ritual hand-washing before prayer that would allow me to palm my sins off onto God. Maybe I thought I was doing my hands a favour by washing them?
‘In the name of the merciful and compassionate God … please take care of these children … buy Pampers for them … give them milk from a bottle … that must be a piece of cake for you after all that you’ve done for us …’
I made up a sura begging for mercy, for redemption and, most of all, oblivion.
The wound on my brother’s neck had healed. Now we were going to learn how to pray. Our father had demonstrated how to place the prayer mat and what position to assume. As a child I had watched with some scepticism. Scepticism that was not my own. I hated that scepticism. I hated that there was resistance between myself and my faith. I had to dive into it, submit, bow down. And yet. My father used to frown whenever he had his own thoughts about something. He was sceptical too, but he was also a believer. Those two factors covered for each other, each inventing excuses for the other, and occasionally coming to blows.
Why did we have to learn to bow down? To whom? Later I understood that it was a white swan, because that’s how I imagined Allah to look. Like a white swan that flew a great distance, then plunged into the water and the water was us. There’s a white swan in one of the very first photographs I took.
My mother believed without any scepticism. I once asked her about people who believed in other gods.
‘That’s the god of tra-la-la,’ she said. ‘It’s a god too, but it’s not the real one.’
‘What’s the god of tra-la-la?’
‘It’s the god that makes people feel good. A god that does not put people to the test. A god that is ready to accept anything and presents life as if there is no hereafter.’
‘So that god is not good?’
‘I have no time for him. I’m sorry.’
One of the first occasions when we lay beside each other without clothes—it’s easier to talk that way—I had told Eva Soares about the faith of the Medina and how it was absorbed along with the mother’s milk. There is no better faith than Islam for seducing a woman. You start by talking about the sensual lines of Arabic calligraphy, then compare them to the shape of her neck, the curve of her cheek, and you’re already there. You quote suras in which Allah, the white swan, urges the faithful to make love frequently and fervently, and talks about taking pleasure in the thing that hangs between your legs, and irrigating fields on the other side of the river, and not wasting your seed—and by then her right hand is starting to tingle pleasantly. Another moment and the hand is ready to get down to work. You quote some of that raunchy love poetry from the Arabian Desert, tell her about antelope musk, and then nature ensures that your imagination banishes any notion of chastity for a while. You can start making love to your heart’s content. Allah sees all and he is omniscient and merciful. I was playing the satirist when I did the routine for her. She knew that, but I still think that somehow there was a nub of truth to it.
That’s what happened with Eva Soares anyway.
In the name of Allah we laid ourselves down to rest. I explained to her that sajjadah, the Arabic word for ‘prayer mat’, also appears in the name of the masjid, the mosque, because both are places where you prostrate yourself. Eva immediately moved over to make more space for me, because she was impressed by my explanation, and charmed by my attempts to please her both physically and mentally. She took hold of my hands and begged me to teach her the prayers. Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim. I recited those words with her and explained the opening lines of the fatiha, the first chapter of the Koran, which every Muslim has with him, in good times and bad. Guide us to the straight path.
‘I want to become a Muslim, so that I can merge with you. I want to prostrate myself on a… what’s it called again?’ For her, a Muslim was someone who possessed the gift of faith. That was a rare phenomenon in the circles she moved in, where secularity was the order of the day. So a Muslim was to be cherished.
‘Yes, sajjadah,’ she repeated, and I hugged her close to me. I could present no better objection to her wish than to say that it was time to sleep. To show her faith in me, she wanted to be unfaithful to her own tribe. As far as I was concerned, she was still the unbeliever that she always had been. Adopting someone else’s discarded faith out of pure adoration is a sure sign of love, a gesture of identification with the exotic. It was as though she wanted to show that she had no qualms about claiming possession of something that one can hardly claim to possess.
I didn’t dare look in the mirror. I was breaking out in a cold sweat.
Wash those hands. Then just head outside, where there was more fresh air to gasp at. It was a beautiful day; the fog that had advanced along the road that morning, as though the white swan had taken up painting, had now dissolved and given way to a crystal-clear sky. You could already see the moon and the first stars. It was a great day to die, in fact. A great day to breathe your last breath. I lived in an eternal present, especially when the weather was so startling and crystal-clear.
She was now lying somewhere with two healthy babies in her arms. She must be happy as a princess, all placenta-free and full of bliss. Twins! Who would have thought that I, a twin, would produce twins? I wanted to talk to someone who did not have to understand me. All I wanted was a listening ear into which I could pour the tension that had built up inside me.
Unwanted fatherhood. The tension that had lasted for almost nine months. The separation. The delivery. My refusal to have anything to do with the whole thing. And so I walked on, fretting and chewing it over. The ice-cream parlour where I go for a scoop of ice cream once in a while was still open, but it looked as though they wanted to shut. They were taking the ice-cream containers out of the display, one after another. The two Italians behind the counter must have been watching a football match from back home, because the television was tuned to Rai Uno, where two men in sharp suits were analysing the game. One of the staff turned to look at me with a surly look on his face. With undisguised reluctance, he went to scrape together some ice cream out of the last of the containers. The last customer could only be the devil himself. Quickly I ordered two (‘no, make it three’) scoops. Grazie mille. I paid for the ice cream and bit into it, but threw it away after two large mouthfuls. All I could taste was self-pity.
As long as I was trying to push the twins out of my mind, nothing was going to taste right—and those attempts were utterly futile, because the two of them kept popping back up like a pair of divers, disappearing head-first, only to resurface on my surging consciousness moments later.
Cross the road. Let the cars go by. Run. Run. Run. It felt as though I was racing at full tilt from here back to Budapest to sweep the shards of the glass of apple juice back together. As though that would salvage anything.
Back home then to find a way of dealing with the inevitable. When it came to this birth, I had to remain as silent as the grave. As silent as my mother. If she could do it, so could I. She doesn’t talk about things that she doesn’t understand. She does not create a duplicate of her ignorance; she suffers in silence, as is only proper.
Eva Soares had managed the impossible: by having her twins, she had brought my brother back to life, and along with him all of the memories that seemed to have been lost. It was an unpleasant sensation, as though I were being forced to rummage around with my fingers in a tangle of intestines. But by keeping quiet about it, I was only bringing shame upon myself. Well, so be it. I thought to myself: I swear that I do not have to see them. I swear that they must keep out of my way. I swear that I love her.
On the bridge a man was eating an ice cream and gazing out over the water. He was the one. ‘I’m a father,’ I said.
He didn’t hear me. I had to make it louder.
‘I’m a father!’
He still didn’t hear me. I had to shout it out.
‘I’m a father!!’ And now I had his attention, because he turned to look at me. I saw fear in his eyes. He looked at me as though I were a lunatic. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t shaved for three days. Shaving was for wimps. And beneath the man’s fear I saw something else: I saw my own father standing there. That same mixture of astonishment and fear. That same stocky immigrant build, ready at any moment to set out on the long journey back to the village that he had left as a boy, and yet this man was obviously as Dutch as could be, standing there on the bridge with an ice cream in his hand.
‘Oh, congratulations,’ he stuttered. And suddenly he embraced me, as though that was the only way he could lose his fear of me.
‘Hold me tight,’ I begged him. ‘Hold me tight. I ate some ice cream and I think I’m going to be sick. Why did she have to insist on having her own way?’
The man was still holding me tight, and he grasped my shoulder. I sobbed away on the collar of his jacket. ‘And all that because of an ice cream,’ I heard him sigh. ‘You must have had one of the fruity flavours. I hear they’re a bit dodgy at that place. I stick to vanilla, chocolate and pistachio. Can’t go wrong with that.’
My tears were still rolling down his jacket.
‘I have to go,’ he said. ‘We can’t stand here like this all evening, my friend. The ice cream’s finished and tomorrow is another day.’
‘Someone’s waiting for me,’ I said.
‘So much the better. Where’s the mother?’
‘In the land of dreams.’
‘You’re joking, right?’
‘Yes, I’m joking.’
‘They’re healthy. Alhamdulillah.’ Did I say that? Or had no one said it?
‘Listen,’ said the man, ‘there’s no point standing here crying your eyes out. You’ve made me a bit damp, but that doesn’t matter. Visit the mother. Go and see your children. You have your whole life ahead of you.’
I turned around to look at him. He’d already walked away. I leaned over the railing and puked up the ice cream. A white swan soon came flying down over the water. It used its feet as landing gear and prostrated itself upon the water. A pity I didn’t have a camera with me.