Authors: Mohammed Achaari
Whatever does not belong to me wholly and eternally
Means nothing to me.
As soon as I read the letter, its single line written in a nervous hand, a cold shiver ran through me. I shrank into myself so far that I did not know how to stop the shock overwhelming me. When, after a gargantuan effort, I finally regained control of myself, I found nothing. I had become a different person, stepping for the first time into a wasteland. In this desolate new place, I began assimilating things without sensation, finding them all alike. I felt no trace of pain or pleasure or beauty. My only desire was to make my inner self react. My only weakness was that I could not make it do so.
I had been getting ready to leave the house when I had found the letter that someone had slipped under the door. It contained the following message: ‘
Rejoice, Abu Yacine. God has honoured you with your son’s martyrdom.
Then the phone rang and I heard the voice of a man with a northern Moroccan accent. He repeated the same cold sentence, accompanied by ready-made phrases of condolence.
I placed the letter on the table, only to watch my wife lift it to her face and read and reread it, losing her balance, like an animal being slaughtered, before giving a shattering cry and falling to the floor.
My only son, who had been doing so brilliantly at one of France’s most prestigious engineering schools, had chosen to go to Afghanistan and join the ranks of the
until the day he would meet God. He had met Him soon after arriving, in unexplained circumstances, before he had turned twenty.
I carried my wife, dragging myself with her, to our bed. At no point during those moments did I feel any piercing pain from the tragedy. I knew it had happened, but it did not touch me. I observed it spreading slowly before me like an oil slick. I watched my wife’s collapse as if it were merely something physical, until I understood that she had embraced the boundless tragedy. It was as if she were taking her revenge for our long years of emotional austerity.
I sat staring at my fingers, toying with the letter, and looked every now and then at Yacine’s photograph that hung in the living room. I saw his childish, innocent, delicate, cruel, sweet face. Scenes from his short life passed before me, starting with the day my wife, getting out of bed and lifting up her hair, announced that after the long, gentle intercourse of the previous night, she was sure an egg had been fertilised. Then Yacine crying in the doctor’s hands. All the growing up that followed, and the fears, joys and anxieties experienced along the way. The ferocious quarrels over his clothes, his eating habits, his education, his games and his comings and goings. The moment at the railway station when he took the train to the airport and then to Paris and then to darkness. His first and last letter, in which he wrote: ‘
My studies are much easier than I expected, and the city is much harsher than I expected. I believe I’m living my first love story, a little later than the average for us Al-Firsiwis. I’m not sure I’m the best son, and I’m not sure you’re the best parents, either. Don’t send money till I ask. From this distance I could almost say I love you. I am, however, apprehensive.
I listened for hours as a senior police officer questioned my wife and me about the letter and the phone call. We answered, with mindless incomprehension, questions related to Yacine’s friends, his habits, his books, his music, his films, his sports club and his favourite mosque. We felt as if we were reconstructing an entire life to be presented as a stiff corpse to the officer, who could think of nothing better than to ask me, ‘Do you approve of the way he died? Sorry, I mean, did you sympathise with his cause? Sorry, sorry, you didn’t know. Neither of you knew anything. Are you upset about what’s happened?’
I said, sincerely, ‘No, I’m not upset.’
From the moment I received the news, I was filled with a fury that made it impossible for me to grieve and feel pain. Had I had the opportunity to meet Yacine at that moment, I would have killed him. How could he do such a vile, cruel, contemptuous, humiliating thing to me? How could he push me over the precipice on whose edge I had stood all my life? When did the poisoned seed take root? Before he was born or after? When he was a small child or as a teenager? Did he play with hands dripping with blood that we did not see? Had we spent our lives walking behind a funeral bier?
My life seemed like an appalling mistake. It would have been impossible for all this to happen unless I had spent all those years going in the wrong direction. In the weeks following, this conviction made me think daily about decisions that would correct some of that overarching mistake. Whenever I sensed this was impossible, I was overcome by a strange feeling that my body had departed and I remained suspended between an absent person and another who observed him curiously, and I was undecided which of the two to choose.
What happened to me after Yacine’s death was very much like losing one’s voice. I was unable to convey anything to others, be it an idea, a comment or a joke. I sometimes answered questions I was asked, all the while wondering what another person would have answered had those questions been put to him. I was totally incapable of conveying anything related to feelings, simply because I could not feel anything any more.
Like the light fading into the darkness of night, that same condition gradually progressed from the realm of feelings and emotions into the material world. I completely lost my sense of smell. Losing my sense of smell was not the result of poor health or progressive deterioration. It struck suddenly, without forewarning
Normally on my way to the office, I could recognise people’s features and their histories just from the way they smelled. But soon after Yacine’s death, as I was passing by the Experimental Gardens, I noticed that my system for picking people out had not been working since I had left Bourgogne Square. I felt that a cold, solid mass had inserted itself between the world and me.
I spent the rest of the day doing things that would prove this loss to be fleeting. I drank every kind of hot and cold drink served in Rabat’s bars. I devoured dozens of dishes. I drenched myself from every bottle of perfume at hand. I drew close to every creature I met on the way, hoping to find in their wake vestiges of fragrance or a stray scent. I sat for hours in my favourite bar, the Steamboat. I left it, exhausted and oppressed, to take what remained of the night back to the home whose covert violence I had endured for a quarter of a century. I stopped by the wall on the railway bridge and spent ages staring at the metallic sheen of the tracks, indifferent as to whether another train would pass. Then I emptied my stomach in one go and felt that I had also vomited out the man I had been until that day.
Yet all that complex chemistry had no smell.
From then on I stopped listening to music and watching films, and rarely went to exhibitions or museums. I had to attend receptions as part of my work, and I would spend a long time listening to people’s chatter while trying to remember the taste of the wine I had had a passion for in my youth. I could only locate it in my imagination, something distinct from the liquids I was drinking, which I could differentiate merely by their colour or temperature.
During this time of my life, having already turned fifty, I also became convinced that there was a woman I had known and somehow lost. I made a huge effort to remember her, but to no avail. I could only recollect that something intense had brought us together, that I had made exhaustive efforts to win her over, and that I had endured many disappointments as a result. In particular, I remembered that I had never stopped chasing her. I did not recall the details, only my ensuing state of mind. I grew obsessed with picturing her face and finding a way to reach her. The more I tried and failed, the more obsessed I became with her, although this had no impact on my emotions, as if I were being impelled by a clockwork mechanism separate from my existence.
I believe that this searching endowed me with a mysterious charm that I interpreted as the energy of a mind seeking a woman who has slipped away. I acquired an extraordinary ability to seduce women without, however, experiencing any particular pleasure in doing so. As soon as I had exchanged a couple of words with a woman, I would feel I had become hostage to a love story that I had absolutely nothing to do with, and from which I would have to try very hard to extricate myself later on. Almost invariably, that meant leaving some of my scalp behind. I took no pride nor found any satisfaction in any of this. I thought long and hard about the matter, and devised a solid plan to avoid falling into traps of this kind. Deep inside, I was amused by this absurd situation that made me lose all restraint, after having spent a chaste quarter of a century with the same woman– my wife, Bahia Mahdi, who I had met one winter morning in the 1970s, married the same evening, and realised before midnight that I had made a fatal, and irreversible, mistake.