Return To Childhood

Leila Abouzeid

My earliest memory is of a bus trip. We were on our way from Sefrou, my mother's home town, to El Ksiba, a Berber village in the heart of the Middle Atlas where my father, Ahmed Bouzid, worked as an interpreter for the French. It was on that bus trip that I first began to understand that my father was involved in political activities, activities that were dangerous for us, his family.


We had gotten off the intercity bus between Fez and Marrakech and were waiting for the El Ksiba bus, at the corner of a smaller road that ascends the Middle Atlas mountains. The driver's assistant brought our luggage down from the roof. The bus resumed its journey. My mother sat down on the ground and put my sister Naima on her lap. My older sister Fatiha sat next to her while my youngest uncle, Sidi Mohammed, lifted the pieces of our luggage and placed them in front of her.


As with all our trips to Sefrou, my mother was returning loaded with brass cooking pots, wood washing basins, wood trays, braziers, and short brooms. She would say, when she was in a good mood, "I buy useful things to have near me when I need them." She was convinced that in El Ksiba she was living in the wilderness. But when she was upset, she would criticize herself and say, "Smart women buy gold, but I buy pots."


A truck appeared on the main road from the opposite direction and turned toward El Ksiba. My uncle waved and walked over to it while my mother shouted, "Say, you are Si Hmed Bouzid's brother-in-law."

The driver stopped and looked down. "I only have one place," he said.


"The truck is full."


"Nobody else but me needs a lift," said my uncle. "I want to go to El Ksiba to tell my brother-in-law, Si Hmed Bouzid, that we've arrived.


"Get in, then," said the driver.


My uncle walked around the truck and climbed into the passengers sear.


The truck began to move. The sound of its engine changed, grew distant, and finally faded away. Silence prevailed, a mountain silence offset by the cry of a sheep and a distant voice answering a call in Berber. Refreshed by the mountain air, I left my mother and sisters by the EI Ksiba sign and wandered along the side of the road beside the wild boubal, with its soft yellow corn wrapped in its leaves. I remember the peace of that place, for of course I did not know then what that day was to bring to my family.


We were three girls with our mother by that sign that day, and if Khadija had not been dead we would have been four.


Khadija had died of measles in Rabat, where we had lived for eight months. During that time, the Nasara, the French Christians for whom my father worked, allowed him to enroll at the Institut des Hautes Etudes, which was located in the green-domed building that now harbors the Moroccan Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines.


We had lived in one of two apartments on the ground floor of a building across the road from Moulay Youssef Hospital. Our next-door neighbors were Jmia and her husband, a black Moroccan couple. They shared their apartment with a poor French family whose father was a caretaker in the nearby Christian graveyard. Every time my mother sent me on an errand for Jmia, I found the Frenchwoman sitting on a chair in the courtyard in front of her room mending socks with a sewing basket on a table in front of her. I cannot remember her in any other way. By contrast, my image of Jmia is that of a slim, tall, very black woman wearing a Moroccan dress with her head wrapped in a scarf.


That was the apartment where Khadija died and Naima was born. Khadija died before she could talk. She was probably no more than two years old. Once when she got lost a policeman had asked her, "Who are you?


"Me," she had replied.


"And who is your father?"


"Ba," she had answered.


One day soon after Khadija died, my father came home and found my mother crying. "What's the matter?" he asked.


“It's Jmia," she answered. "Here I have lost my baby and that woman still puts rouge in her cheeks."


"Suppose she does, who's going to see it anyway?" he retorted.


My mother told that story with a smile every time she spoke of Jmia and always concluded it this way: "She was a great neighbor, may God bless her soul if she is dead and mention her with good words if she is alive. She stood by me at the time of Khadija's death, but I wish that she had not put rouge on her cheeks."


Did I think of Khadija that day, by that road sign? I am certain I did, because it had become my habit to say, "If Khadija had not died, she'd be with us now," or, "If Khadija had not died, she'd be three now." I had not forgotten her and still haven't. To this day, every time I drive by La'lou graveyard, where we buried her, I look at the gate and say, "May God bless your soul, Khadija."


Only a few days ago, I had Naima's two daughters with me, and I slowed the car down and told them, "See that gate there? To the right is the grave of a little sister we had. Her name was Khadija. She died the same year your mother was born. Ask God to bless her soul."


Sarrah asked, "Why?"


"Because He answers children's prayers.




"Because He loves them.


And if I still remember her now, I must have thought of her that day, by that road sign, less than a year after her death.


We heard a bus coming. It made a turn toward El Ksiba, reached the sign, and stopped. The driver's assistant jumped down and came over to my mother. He squatted beside her and told her something. She began slapping her thighs and rubbing her palms together and saying in a tragic tone, "O my empty house! O my motherl".


The man said, "Stay here until I return. I'm going with the mail to EI Ksiba and I'll be right back." He got on the bus by the back door. It resumed its monotonous roar and disappeared up the road.


Then my mother told us, "The Nasara have put your father in prison.


Not because he did anything bad, but because he is a nationalist. Nationalist means someone who wants the Nasara to get out of our country, and that's honorable." But her moaning disturbed me much more than the news. It was difficult not to think of prison as something bad, since it made her lament and moan.


In El Ksiba, where we lived after leaving Rabat, certain inmates of the local prison were assigned to us by the French administration to do errands in the village. Those prisoners had been arrested for minor infractions of the law; most had injured somebody or stolen something. One had been arrested because he did not salute the French  Controleur Général when he passed him on the street. One day while still serving his sentence, he was taking the dough for our bread to the village bakery when he met the same Frenchman riding his horse. He put the breadboard on the ground and saluted him with both hands. The Frenchman asked, "Two salutes? Why?"


"One is for you and one is for the horse," answered the inmate.


Every time my mother heard that story, she would say, ''The poor man must have told himself, ‘If he could put me in jail because I did not salute him, he might increase my punishment if I don't salute his horse.''' Then she would add, in a sad tone, "It is the law of the powerful. The law of the jungle."


And now, I thought, she says that jail is honorable! When the bus returned, Belaid the assistant helped us get on and we went back in the di¬rection from which we had just come. At Zaouit Cheikh, we got off and Belaid took us to his house, but we soon left it and took another bus to my father's hometown of Béni Mellal. There we found my paternal grandfather's house crowded with people. Some of them began to cry when they saw us, and my grandmother started beating her breast.


Then my uncle Sidi Mohammed entered carrying a brass candlestick, and my mother asked, "What's that?"
''That's all they left you. It was behind a door and they did not see it.”


She said, "Who do you mean 'they'?" .


"Your father-in-law and his son Ma'ti."


"Oh no!" she cried.


"Yes," he answered.


That day marked the beginning of our troubles, which my mother would describe in detail over and over again, to the end of her days. But her perceptions were different from mine, for I was a child.


In my paternal grandfather's house in Béni Mellal, there were Bedouin blankets, rugs and mats, earthen pots and jars, trunks, and looms set in the rooms. My grandfather was always sitting in the courtyard with a brass tea tray in front of him and a wooden sugar box next to him.


By contrast, in my maternal grandfather's house in Sefrou there were banquettes, cushions stuffed with wool, pillows in velvet cases bordered with silk trimming, fine curtains, beds, carved wooden cabinets, storage spaces and shelves displaying antique Fez bowls. At that fine house in the city they mocked my father's family. They said, "Meat is all they eat." "One cone of sugar a day." "All they care for is their stomachs and penises,” implying that all the men of my father's family were interested only in eating and having sex.

But at my paternal grandfather's house, they mocked my mother's family for their excessive concern with material things. They said, "City dwellers live surrounded by tiles and marble, and they are avaricious and stingy. Their possessions are so dear to their hearts that there is not a thing that costs money for which they would not affectionately use the diminutive form --- they even say, 'the little egg, the little bread.' And they are reluctant to part with anything." Then my grandfather would add. "As for me, sir, I will eat and drink whatever I like, no matter what the cost, for tomorrow I may die."


Every time my grandfather said that, he followed it with his story about the Fassi, the merchant from Fez, which he told while leaning on a large pillow in the courtyard. "My friends and I went to Fez and bought all our merchandise from that Fassi, and afterward he invited us to lunch. So we went. We got to his house and found that it had a really impressive door. Inside were tiles up to the ceiling and carvings and pillars. There were mattresses stuffed with wool so high that one needed help to climb up and sit on them, and also velvet and embroidered cushions. So. anyway, the Fassi clapped his hands and a black maid came with the hand-washing basin and kettle; then she placed the table in front of us and brought the food. It was only some salads and some bowls of ground meat and eggs. When we left we were still hungry. So I stopped, sir, by the butcher, bought a leg of lamb, took it to the caravansary and cut it up myself, and my friends made a charcoal fire and we grilled the meat and had lunch."

Another thing I remember from that day at my paternal grandfather's house in Béni Mellal, in addition to the crowd and the crying, was Kabboura, the sister of my paternal Uncle Said's wife. On that day Kabboura insulted my mother. I had heard that my paternal grandmother had wanted my father to marry Kabboura, but when he refused and married my mother instead. Kabboura married his best friend, a carpenter who played the lute. After Kabboura revealed her animosity toward my mother that day in my grandfather's house, my mother would often compliment herself with respect to Kabboura, saying, "She should be grateful to me! I'm the one who taught her how to conserve peppers and cook lemon chicken."


The next thing I remember from that visit is that my mother, my sisters, my maternal uncle Bouazza, and I were in a room locked from the inside and a huge woman, not Kabboura, was banging on the ironwork of the win¬dow. Still another strong image is my mother, my sisters, my uncle, and I sitting by a thorny hedge surrounding an orchard opposite my grandfather's house, and my cousin Aicha, who was my age, peeping at us with contempt from the doorway, eating a slice of melon, and then throwing the rind toward the hedge.

El Ksiba is the diminutive of Al Kasaba ("the citadel"), the Arab name for a Berber village in the heart of the Middle Atlas. One gets there from the Tadla Plain after a difficult ride past houses built of plastered earth, situated among oak trees and oleanders growing along the sides of a little river. After seven kilometers, the road splits in two. One fork goes to the village; the other has a low white wall along the road that in the years before Independence announced the administrative quarter where the French worked and lived in luxurious mansions. Moroccan soldiers' families also lived in that quarter, in more modest houses, all alike, inside the whitewashed walls of a fort. The walls also enclosed two larger, better houses for the two Moroccan civil servants employed by the French. We had lived in one of these houses.


Past the fort was the administration building, followed by the Frenchmen's houses, all in a row. Then the road went on up to the village of Imilchil, running parallel to the river and through what was then a summer resort reserved for the French. The village center lay two kilometers from the administrative quarter beyond a small pine forest, past the administration's vegetable and fruit garden, and past the school and the hospital.


It was to the administrative quarter that my uncle, Sidi Mohammed, had gone that day to inform my father of our arrival. I do not know how my father learned Berber, because he was from Béni Mellal, which is an Arab town. The name is a distortion of Béni Hilal, the name of the primitive Bedouin tribe that achieved fame by migrating from Arabia to North Africa in the twelfth century. The historian Ibn-Khaldun was referring to the Béni Hillal's anti-urban tendency when he wrote his well-known words: "Whenever something is arabicized, it is destroyed."


My father’s family was notable for their social status, not their wealth. A Bedouin's social status, however, was traditionally determined by his ability to consume and offer food, not by his possessions, and those practices resulted in the dissipation of the family's financial resources. Besides, the necessity to be always on the move prevented the Bedouin from amassing many possessions and from leaving any permanent architectural heritage.


My paternal grandfather, Hammadi Bouzid, was a well-traveled tradesman, but he was not rich. Surprisingly, however, he owned his own house. He had two wives, the younger of whom was my father's mother, Khdija. She was a gorgeous, fair-skinned Berber. My grandfather had brought her home from one of his business trips. However, as soon as I became aware of things around me, it became clear to me that she spoke Arabic with a local accent, and nothing about her denoted her Berber origin except her fair skin and the tattoos on her cheeks. So she could not possibly have been the one who had taught Berber to my father.


My father had entered school by order of the central government and was the only educated member of his family. This is how my mother told the story: "The local district officer came and took him. He was the eldest of his mother's three boys, the one who looked most like her and the one whom she preferred. People said in those days, ‘The Nasara are going to teach their language to our children and turn them to their religion.' Women advised her to give him an herb to make him have a fever when they came to take him."


"But what happened to those who refused to send their children to school?" I persisted.


"They went to prison."


So my grandmother had given my father that herb and carried him on her back, covering him so he would sweat, and his face would turn red. But they came and took him anyway. My father was smart, but the French authorities allowed him to study only until he finished primary school. Then they appointed him as an interpreter in the town of Moulay Ali Shrif, far away. There he met Driss, the carpenter of the French administration. My father admired the life of city girls and asked Driss to find him a wife in his hometown, the city of Sefrou. The result of this search was Driss' sister-in-law Fatma--- or Fettouma, as she was called, my mother. It is extraordinary that a family in Sefrou would even consider such a match, because that town had a refined Andalusian culture, and its people, like all people of Andalusian origin, were full of chauvinism. They hated outsiders and would never marry their daughters to them, especially if they were Berbers or country people. Yes, my father was educated and yes, he had a good position, but he was an outsider and a country man. The reason they agreed to permit their daughter to marry him was that she was already divorced and had a baby girl. Later, whenever my father brought her trouble and unhappiness she would say, "May God punish him who matched me with you." She meant Driss, of course, my Aunt Khnata's husband.


My father married my mother and took her to live in Moulay Ali Shrif, but he soon was transferred to El Ksiba and they moved there. As time went by she would often say, "He was a good man in Moulay Ali Shrif, the land of baraka and prayer, where women could not be seen anywhere and when you did see them they were covered from head to foot as in Hijaz. But he changed when he came here to this den of vice that does not know God."


And that was only the beginning of our troubles. During the next three years, we were forced to move several times because of my father's political activities, his nationalism. My mother struggled to support both him and us until 1956. That was the date for which my father fought hard, the date Morocco achieved its independence from France.

Reproduced from Remembrances of Childhood in the Middle East, University of Texas Press, with the author's permission.

Leila Abouzeid is a pioneer among her Moroccan contemporaries in that she writes in Arabic rather than in French and is the first Moroccan woman writer of literature to be translated into English.