Master Loaf The Cross- Grained Oaf

Abdel Kader el Samihi

I don't claim that I'm right every time in my judgements. Still, I'll venture to say - and I'm sure you will agree - that the weird and vulgar hotchpotch that makes up my name is quite devoid of the least trace of beauty. It's as rough as a hedgehog's back. When 1 was a boy, it led me into a dozen or so street-fights with some of those young down¬-and-outs ruffians who are always roaming our streets. I was K.O.'d in three of them, and I gained some indelible marks of ruffianism upon my face and both my hands. There's this unsightly swelling over my right eyebrow, which looks rather like a marble, with a black rim below the eye to set it off. And there was then the loss of one of the toe-nails off my right foot. On the other hand, I scored nine victories. My principal achievement was to bequeath a life-long deformity to the face of Khnifar el Tamkhoukh, the son of Haja Taw, the baker-woman.


The fact is, when I was young, each time someone called me Rayyes Khobza - Master Loaf - (I ask you!) - I had an almighty urge to set on him like a thunderbolt and wring his filthy neck as you might wring your laundry. If I were passing in front of the Cafe Central or the Cafe de Espana in the Inner Market and one of the boys, another tourist guide like me, called me by the name of Rayyes Khobza, I would feel my uncontrollable Spanish blood racing up to my brain and it was all I could do to stop myself from acting like the hero of a western and making the fellow feel his feet leave the ground with a swift butt of my head -- and I've quite a beetling forehead - or a silent punch in the belly in the well-known Chicago style of Al Capone, or, alter¬nately, from lifting him up by the scruff of the neck and then hurling him over the cafe tables, and following him after with all the chairs, bottles and glasses that were within reach.


Sometimes, I was in a real dilemma. I might be on my way to the docks, near the big mosque, and I'd hear a sailor friend, calling me; I'd see his head, wrapped round in a blue scarf, jutting out between the pale-green iron bars of a cafe window, and I'd see him holding the reed mouthpiece of a hubble-bubble in one hand. He'd be calling out:
"Rayyes Khobza ! Master Loaf !"


If I walked on, pretending not to have noticed him, he'd cry still louder and louder:


"Rayyes Khobza ! Hey, man, what's the matter with you? Since when have you grown to be too high and mighty for the likes of me ?"


And if I looked at him, he'd say at once, "The parcel is with Haj Kdour Lheisha", the parcel being a delivery of hashish. If it were a delivery of smuggled American cigarettes that he had in mind, he'd say, "The American steamer's expected today. Get in touch with Rayyes Mrabet." Merely to hear me being called in this familiar manner and in the crude lingo of sailors was enough to arouse the curiosity of pas¬ses-by and make them look at me inquisitively to see what this creature, Rayyes Khobza, was like.


Again, if I chanced to be at a wedding party and one of those vil¬lains in my profession saw me sitting snugly on a soft cushion in a corner of the hall and picking up the silver sprayer to sprinkle my neck, face and head with essence of orange-blossom, he'd look at me with wide¬ eyes and say:


"Well, well, well, Rayyes Khobza ! Fancy your being here without my noticing it ! I am sure glad to see you! But why are you skulking in a corner like a rabbit ?"


In a minute, he'd be whispering something or other to the host, who usually stands just within the hall-door to receive his guests. Presently, the host would come up to me, a sudden feeling of friendliness lighting up his face, and say, “Your presence with us, sir, is an honour which we greatly appreciate.” Then, getting a shade more confidential, he'd add, "Master Azzouz Lafyouni" - that is, my colleague 'Poppy juice' ¬"has just mentioned to me that you're a first-class expert in tea-making. Surely, you understand that this little party of ours here can't be a complete success unless we can offer our guests some really well-made tea. Really strong tea, as you might say, ha, ha!”


Imagine what an off-putting effect the name Rayyes Khobza would have upon the smart crowd which filled the large hall and all the adjacent rooms. Imagine how I'd feel as I tried to rise from my unob¬trusive corner, assisted by the host who'd give me a hand up, and then cut across the hall, watched by scores of inquisitive eyes, to sit on the small mattress set aside for the tea-maker. In a situation like that, I would feel the blood rushing to my brain and wish to lift up the large silver tea-urn from which there'd be clouds of steam issuing - making it look like the kettle of the great Sidil Badani, who fed on poisonous snakes, and drank his water on the boil - and pour it all over the head of that louse, Rayyes Azzouz Lafyouni, who had disturbed my quiet.


Yet the merry-making going on, and the lovely Andalusian music, the scent of orange-blossom essence, the fumes of burning sticks of incense, the luxurious china plates laden with confectionary and sweetmeat such as kaab and mulawwaza, the crystal glasses and coloured bowls passed round on silver trays - all this would prevent me from giving vent to my inward rebellion and letting it burst out in some dangerously violent action. I'd try to take matters calmly, to oblige my host and, having rolled my sleeves way up over the elbows, I'd begin by looking critically at the caddy of green tea, the sugar bowl, and the peppermint.


Didn't someone say that troubles never come in ones? Well, once upon a time, I had an acceptable, a quite respectable name, Hamidou. But this was filched from me in broad daylight on His Majesty the Sultan's highroad. The name Khobza, meaning a loaf, was given me instead in shameful exchange. And then take the name El MghandeeJ, which means the Cross-grained, a base appellation that has clung to the skirts of my family's honour as shadows cling to solid bodies, and set¬tled upon the head of everyone of us like pots of wet clay. I haven't been able to tell where it comes from. No one else in my family, either, knows how it ever came to plague us like an endemic disease. Even my grandmother, old Dame Zhour, who was both an encyclopaedia and a Who's Who of the history of our city,who knew all the names and street names in it and could recall all the events which had occurred in it, such as the arrival of that cargo of enormous cannons which the Sultan had had made by special order in England and how the cannons were set up in front of the keeps of the city walls and of each of its coastal fortresses such as Bourj el Kasba, Sidi Bou Knadil and Dar el Baroud, and how the Sultan's Viceroy, when he had decided the moment had come to test the new weapons, commanded all the inhabitants of the town to take a stroll up the big mountain or at least to ramble for a few hours in the outlying suburbs in case the cannon fire scared them dead or brought their houses tumbling down or something, and how, when the good-for-nothing artillerymen had begun trying a gigantic cannon which was shaped like a square tower made up of several storeys and embodying corridors, stairways, wrought-iron parapher¬nalia, and whatnot, a sound was produced from the mouth of the gun, when they released the catch, which resembled very closely the sound that's made when the wick of an oil-lamp snuffs itself out, while the cannon itself split neatly in two, like an earthenware pot - and who would also tell amazing stories about the so-called Year of the Kilogram (1) as well as knowing the lay-out of the town like the back of her hand, the Protectorate, from being able to declare solemnly that where the rows of modern blocks of flats and cafes now stand in the Inner Market, there used to be nothing in the old days except booths of sackcloth within which bedouin green¬grocers, bakers and coalmerchants sat, surrounded by piles of the dung of camels, donkeys and mules - even this omniscient grandmother, I say, could not tell what the origin of our family name was. One thing I am sure of is that it is not derived from the name of a town, such as, you might say, Maghandqfa, nor from the name of a tribe, such as, you might say, Beni Maghandafin: as you know, it's a habit among some people to name themselves after the towns they come from, so that you get names like Kdour Lzilashi - from Zilash --, Sidi Larabi el Fasi - from Fez -, Hamidou el Tanjawi - from Tangier -, and so on.


It was my grandmother, old Dame Zhour, who had chosen the name of Hamidou for me. But this name has vanished out of my life and I've acquired, instead, the name of Loaf - Khobza. Now I'll tell you how this happened. It was when I was still very young. I went to borrow a loaf of bread from our neighbour, Hajja Rahma. For, as always happened when our own bread was late in arriving from the baker's, my mother, said, "Child, go to Hajja Rahma and borrow a loaf of bread from her." The Hajja peeped down at me from a high garret-window, poking out her mass of henna'd hair, and, as she was mightily deaf, I had to shout at the top of my voice, "Ma sends you her kindest regards and says she'll pray to God to preserve you for your children's sake, if you would lend us a loaf of bread, just - one - loaf As ill-luck would have it, my voice came out on the word loafin a highly¬nasal twang. And, suddenly, the gang of children in our lane, who had gathered at our usual meeting-place on the doorsteps of the cadi's house, exploded with mirth, their laughter all but ripping up the walls of the houses, and that devil Majido fell on his back in a convulsion of merriment and jeered at me, saying, "Look, boys, even his face is like a round puffed-out loaf!" Then he fell to mimicking me, and yelled out the word "Loaf!" through his nose.


When I called him names back in return, I hoped that this would make people laugh at him instead. But nobody laughed. They just stood there, silently and derisively, as severe a punishment and show of contempt as could ever befall anyone. Then they expressed their mockery by producing comic sounds:


"Feess, feess, feess, ! Teer, teer, teer! Breem, breem, breem !"


When I looked up, I saw the neighbours' daughters, with their mothers, tittering behind the lattice-work of their windows. I couldn't restrain myself, so I lifted up the hem of my gallabeyya and held it in my teeth, in readiness for a fight. Then, thinking better of it, I stripped it off completely, and then flung off my waistcoat, kicked off my slippers, and ran at them, baring my teeth like a mad dog, and served them a fair round of punches, buttings, and kicks, spitting at them in true Spanish peasant fashion. The fight resulted in three wounded, and severe damage inflicted upon the clothes of all combatants concerned. The thing is, you see, I couldn't put up with the boys' unexpected insults, specially as they were hurled at me in front of the virgins of our street when I had been so careful to appear neat before them and had often assumed the part of a Romeo and performed gestures which in those days were recognized as the classical demonstrations of love, such as putting the first finger of the right-hand on the nose, or winking, or biting the lower lip while beating the breast with the right hand and sighing "Lord o Lord! O my gazelle, my very own !"

On beautiful Ramadan nights, we used to take out a collection of rugs and sheep-skins and spread them out in a corner of the lane and hold a gathering which, if all went well, would extend far into the night. Each one of us performed curious acts to attract the attention of the young ladies who, day and night, watched our every movement from behind the interstices in the lattice-work of their windows.

(1) The time of the change-over in Morocco from traditional weights and measures to the metric system.

Excerpt from: Master Loaf the Cross-Grained Oaf by Abdel Kader el Samihi, Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965, ed. Mahmoud Manzalaoui. The American University in Cairo, Press, 1985. pp 170-175.