She 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, in a natural, almost harmonious way, her snoring brought rhythm to her sleep. In the beginning it used to bother us, keep us from peacefully entering our dreams. Over time, her nocturnal music, to say nothing of her noises, became a benevolent breathing, that accompanied our nights and even reassured us when nightmares seized us and wouldn’t let go until we were exhausted, wiped out.
For a long time, Hay Salam, our house in Sale was nothing more than a ground floor dwelling with three rooms, one for my father, one for my older brother Abdelkebir and the last one for the rest of the family: my six sisters, Mustapha, my mother and me. In that room, there were no beds, just three benches that during the day served as our living room couch.
There was also this gigantic, old cupboard and that’s the room where we spent all of our time, all packed in together. That’s where we ate, sometimes made mint tea, went over our lessons, entertained guests, told stories that never ended and, yes, that’s where we’d argue, nicely or violently, depending on the day, our mental state and especially on how my mother reacted.
For several years, my childhood, my adolescence and what was most important in my life unfolded in that room facing the street. Four walls that really didn’t protect us from outside noise. A small roof to live under, store in your memory, under your skin, how our days were lived, everything experienced, everything felt and later, everything remembered.
The other two rooms were almost inaccessible, especially Abdelkebir’s. He was the oldest, almost the ruler of the roost. My father’s room was the room used for grand occasions, the library where he carefully arranged his books in magnificently bound Arabic, the room that was his love nest. That’s where my parents made love. And they did it at least once a week. We knew. The whole house knew.
To communicate his sexual desire to my mother, my father perfected his own techniques, his own strategies. One of them consisted of just spending the evening with us, in our room. My father, who was a great talker, who commented on everything, suddenly fell silent. He never said another word, not a word, not a sound crossed his lips. He even stopped smoking. He huddled in his 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 figured it out pretty fast and we did too.
When she accepted his silent proposition, she was the one who enlivened the evening with her tales from the village and her outbursts of laughter. Tired or else angry, she grew quiet too. Her refusal was evident, my father didn’t push it. But one time, upset, he took it out on her and on us at the same time (although we were completely neutral in terms of their sexual history, or at least tried to be), by cutting off the electricity to the entire house. That’s how he cruelly kept us from watching the international variety shows that we attentively followed every week on television. He put us in the same state of frustration that he was in. Nobody complained. We understood perfectly. No entertainment for him: no entertainment for us.
To join him in his receiving room, M’Barka would wait until all of us were asleep. Then, with her mind at ease, she would abandon us to carry out her conjugal duty and make her husband a happy man. I tried several times to stay awake to witness this magic moment, her heading out into the darkness towards love. No use. At that time I had no trouble sleeping, I’d climb into bed and almost immediately the darkness inside of me would 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. The next day, getting up was hard, something was missing, but M’Barka was already headed back our way, to her spot, between Rabiaa and Mustapha.
My dreams at night weren’t sexual. On the other hand, on certain days, my imagination would very 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 sex (it couldn’t have been anything else but big!) penetrating my mother’s enormous vagina. I would hear their noise, their breath. At first, I saw nothing, everything was black but eventually I was beside them, closely watching these two bodies that I knew so well and at the same time didn’t know, ready to lend a helping hand, aroused, happy and gasping for air 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 achieved naturally. They were made for one another, sex, quite obviously, being the preferred language through which they clearly expressed the image of the couple they did form. Even after having brought nine children into the world, their desire for one another remained intact, mysteriously and joyously intact.
In my mind, our family really has a very strong sex drive, as if we were one another’s partners, blending incessantly without any guilt. Sex, and it’s no big deal who we have it with, should never make us feel afraid. My mother, through her life, her pleasure and her tastes, taught me this lesson which I’ll never forget and sometimes naively try to put into practice.
My parents’ nights for making love very often ended with a lot of commotion. After sex, my parents fought. Noisily. Violently. It was always the same story. And old story that would never die.
My mother’s screams, hysterical, possessed, from somewhere beyond herself would wake us up in the middle of the night.
“You’re going to make me crazy! I’ve told you hundreds, thousands of times. He was there for you, not me.”
Saleh found him 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 playing make-believe, almost the way little kids make believe they are married. M’Barka moved slightly 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, he was immediately disgusted by it, sickened. But he had to face this unpleasant surprise, this terrible situation, this doubt, this jealousy that was born instantly inside him when he surprised them sitting so close. No matter what, he had to welcome Saleh because he was a relative. A member of the family that Mohamed not only didn’t like but never invited over. Saleh just made himself at home and that made Mohamed crazy.
—Salam alikoum, cousin of my wife!
—Wa alikoum salam, husband of my cousin!
—You both seem happy … The neighbors could almost hear your laughter… and suspect something wasn’t right … especially since I wasn’t supposed to be there.
—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 with you!
—Oh, this and that, anecdotes from the village … our childhood games, memories … Well, you know, stories from the settlements are so funny. M’Barka and I have gone through so much together, we could spend days on end going through our common memories.
—Well, I see you don’t need me, I’ll leave you to your funny stories, your collusion intact. My head hurts, I’m going to bed. Good bye.
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 settlement. He would never come again 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 house called Hay Salam, because that’s where it has been mentioned, screamed, insulted, cursed so often. Saleh was the source of an absolute misunderstanding, a never opened wound, a definitive sorrow. In my father’s mind, it was a betrayal. The end of a certain idea about love and the start of an unbridled, violent sexuality without decency.
Since that cursed day, M’Barka never stopped justifying herself, stopped telling her version of the story, explaining, analyzing the smallest details, and faced with my father’s accusations, insisted again and again on her “innocense.” Mohamed discovered the world of jalousie and lived there 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, the good ones and the bad ones, think of me now? They’re going to tell themselves: Who would have believed that about her, 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 you all hear me, 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 it do? I’ve done that already and it hasn’t stopped you from coming back to your old accusation, from calling in your assassin words, from killing me with small fire … Well, maybe … maybe he was the one who wanted to … fuck, but not me, 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 nobody else either … You are going to make me crazy … and you’re crazy, crazy, crazy … Calm down … chill … C’mon, don’t let the devil come between us, split us up. Think of our saint Sidi Moulay Brahim … Go there … There never was … I swear to you on my father’s grave. I’ll swear to it on Sidi Moulay Brahim’s grave it that’s what you want.”
We heard everything. M’Barka’s loud voice filled every void and carried afar, the smallest details of her story were revealed to all, those nearby and those far away, to friends as well as enemies. In the beginning, we didn’t dare intervene, get involved in this story we found so ancient, so intimate, so complicated. But when Mohamed took his belt off to beat M’Barka, at that very moment, alerted by my mother’s terror-stricken cries, we all came running to her rescue. We would all 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. Abdelkebir would try to force the door open every time. She always had it locked.
My mother screamed as if about to surrender her soul, as if my father were about to plunge the big knife he used to sacrifice a sheep for Abdelkebir right into her heart, thereby making our worst fears come true. Every time it happened, we stood on the brink of tragedy. It’s so easy to go from drama to tragedy. Fortunately, the saints that M’Barka never stopped praying to ended up intervening in our favor and sent us a share of their peace.
M’Barka really knew how to wail and she was right. That’s what saved her every time.
Hysteria is an illness I know very 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 counter this hypocrisy? How could I defend my mother’s honor? What could I say to these people who acted like our saviors and then, pedlars 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 lived like this, full of passion, craziness. Mohamed never beat M’Barka, he just pretended, knew he couldn’t do it. He raised his fist, of course he did, but he never brought it down. My mother, of course, exaggerated her screams to the maximum. A good comedian, she knew everything about play acting.
How could I get her out of there? How could I yank her from this prison and from this paradise, far from the furious jealousy of my father, far from this angel who had become a demon? How could I bring her, safe and sound, back to our room, back to us, back there between 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 the door down, the door that had weakened over time, lost its center parts. A door without panels, an empty frame. We would find both of them, as ashamed as kids caught playing some forbidden game, my father only wearing his longjohns and my mother almost naked in her transparent nightgown. Then Abdelkebir would go in and let her out. Mohamed said nothing, just let his oldest do it. Abdelkebir would fold M’Barka in his arms as if to cover her and then he’d lead her back to our room. We’d form a procession behind them and follow them to our room. A little while later, without even saying a word, we would turn off the lights and pretend to be asleep. Silence once again. A total silence, heavy, restless. Short-lived. In the dark, a few minutes after this temporary dénouement, the smoke from Mohamed’s cigarettes would cross his room, the patio and reach us, bringing with it his confusion, his regrets and sometimes his sobs.
Mohamed talked to us, finally! We thought of him as very sexual but he was, in fact, a romantic above all.
Mohamed wasn’t a bad father. He was a lover. And that justified everything in my eyes.
At the time I was convinced that M’Barka was telling the truth. Saleh was just her cousin and 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.