Authors: Mohammed Achaari
Before I lost my sense of smell, I could tell important details about the life of every woman I met based solely on the mix of scents I picked up. I could pinpoint her ambivalences, and their gradations. I would, for example, know roughly her age and the colour of her skin, the cosmetics she used, and the kind of hair she had. I could intuit the last dishes she had cooked. Sometimes I would know that a woman had just had sex, and whether she was very, or not at all, satisfied. All of this without seeing her.
My new situation compelled me to use my hands to become acquainted with these details. This required inordinate finesse and effort to avoid the rudeness and roughness of touch, and was not without mishap.
It goes without saying that this natural inclination to become acquainted through smell was not purely technical, but emotional as well. The drive behind this skill was a kind of abstract passion whose substance was nameless and featureless. It was a feeling similar to a passion for mathematics: something impalpable that traverses remote regions of an intense mind, where intelligence alone decides what must or must not be true. My sex life, with all that this expression implies in terms of adventure and upheaval, had been very poor; in my few prior experiences, the woman’s move from fantasy to the bedroom had been irreversible and tragic. I should point out that this displacement did not happen when I married Bahia. Rather, Bahia and I took up permanent residence in a state of incomprehension, which, no matter how hard I tried, I could never move away from.
When I first lost the sense of pleasure, I fought it by displaying an ability for pure, refined technique, and my accomplishments became an expression of pleasure that I did not truly experience. I became mad about cooking, acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of wines, and completed one of the most important artistic studies of Roman sculpture. I wrote
Letters to My Beloved
, a collection of reflections on love and despair related to the woman I had lost and whose love I recalled without being able to recall her. The reflections appeared serially in the newspaper where I worked, before being published in a book that one critic considered the most important work on love since al-Hazm’s eleventh-century
The Ring of the Dove
In all those achievements I attained the intended result – the total illusion that I could feel the tiniest and most complex pleasures, those connected in their essence with aesthetic perception, not only of actual forms of beauty, but also of all that came before. I grew convinced that what mattered most regarding pleasure was capturing the details of its formation, or, to be precise, making it eternal on an infinite trajectory. For example, the most important aspect in the appreciation of any wine is not the sensory experience of the seasoned taster, but the complex chemistry that contributed to that result. The pleasure lies in the sun and rain, in the bounty of the earth, then in the fruit and, finally, in the magical liquid derived from it.
Once I reached this conviction, I became more amenable to life and more copiously productive. I wrote a daily column, published a literary work in parts, and penned features and investigative pieces every month. I wrote an art review every week for a specialist journal. I had begun a new life, which had nothing to do with the drab years I had spent writing boring reviews of the free books mailed to me daily. This new life was a real renaissance that helped me return to my true self, pay attention to my wellbeing, reconnect with my old friends and put a minimum of order and rigour into my professional and private lives. The transformation confused my wife, who was unsure of how to react to the sudden changes. She considered my talk about the loss of my ability to enjoy life nothing more than a mask, behind which I hid my shame at seeking pleasure despite all that had happened to us.
I told my friends that I did not like anything at all, and I almost told them that I did not like anyone, either. I do not remember when all this began, and I cannot tell if it happened to me all at once or in timid steps, until that ill-fated moment when it reached its peak. I only remember the feeling that stayed with me for a long time as a result of what happened: no one owes anyone anything. In this world, no matter how strong and intimate your relationships, you face your fate alone, isolated, and with an instinctive inclination towards depression and self-pity. No one ever achieves happiness because of others, no matter how close and dear they are. Any moment of happiness, intense or tenuous, can only be achieved internally.
I resigned myself to accepting what befell me as a kind of incomplete death. Whenever I remembered myself in a state of enjoyment, fondness, savouring or admiration, it was as if I were recalling someone who had passed away, and I had to accept whatever was left of me before joining him. Only then would we become the way we had been, one person, with the hands of our clocks resuming their normal rotation. For that reason I did not resist or seek treatment, but organised myself according to the expectations of a man who loved life, and I set the rudder of this confiscated existence without dictating conditions on anyone.
I had lived a relatively quiet life until then. Though I had a complex relationship with my father, my mother had died tragically, and had spent several years in Qenitra’s central prison without knowing why, I felt my life consisted of connected parts leading painlessly from one to the other.
I had first joined an extreme leftist group while living in Frankfurt, Germany, which led me to a Moroccan leftist group that had split from the Communist Party. I rapidly grew tired of the effort required of me to adopt extreme positions, so I joined a moderate leftist party. But an old comrade had kept my name in his diary, which led to my arrest, followed by a trial not a single word of which I understood, and finally to a prison sentence that consumed three years of my life for nothing.
While most of my friends at university threw themselves into amazing love stories, I simply ended a terse conversation one day with a colleague with the question: ‘Could you possibly marry me?’
Clearly nervous, she had replied, ‘Why not? As long as you’re asking without even smiling!’
I discovered the morning after the wedding that I was in total harmony with Bahia, as if we were two identical beings or two machines running on the same programme. We loved, with identical degrees of intensity, the same foods and drinks, and the same music, films, paintings and cities. We had similar inclinations in our sexual desires, and in meeting them, down to the tiniest detail. All this existed in a sort of complete technical harmony, where there was no room for dysfunction or emotional confusion, apprehension or surprise. A harmony that began and ended with movements determined from time immemorial. All that was left in the end were the invisible ashes of momentary flames, volcanic ashes from ancient times, cold and petrified, only awakened from their timeless slumber by our slow breathing.
I was taken aback by this disturbing compatibility, and even more despairingly so by the absolute certainty that I would never love her. The moment I reached this certainty, our relationship settled into a permanent state of tension. Bahia considered me to be satisfied with the minimum in everything. This upset her and put her in a bad mood most of the time. I, on the other hand, saw her as a regrettable mistake that continually jabbed me and made me feel like I had lost out.
Yacine’s death accelerated the collapse in our relationship, with all the rage, fights, murderous thoughts and feelings of guilt this entailed. Bahia felt I had not grieved at all for our tragic loss. That was not true: I knew exactly what Yacine’s death meant in the context of events related to the Taliban. I imagined him awash in his own blood, lying somewhere after a raid or clash and waiting for someone to pick him up off the dusty road. I wondered whether he thought of me before he died and if he remained determined to go all the way, or if he experienced last-minute regret and thus spoiled the glory of martyrdom. I was unable to picture him even for a second under the ground or revelling in the shade of Paradise. Yet I did not fall victim to unbearable grief, and one day I even surprised myself with a deep conviction that Yacine was still alive. Nothing provided incontrovertible proof that news of his death had come from Afghanistan. The letter had been written in Morocco and the call could have come from anywhere. I imagined that the story was only intended as camouflage and that Yacine would show up later to carry out terrorist operations here, free of the stigma of his previous identity.
I shared those ideas with Bahia. In an effort to explain what was happening to me, I told her that parents who had penetrating emotional insight were not fooled by such tricks. Their hearts guided them to the truth and led them to reject false grief. But my wife lost her mind and organised a mourning ceremony, where she displayed all manner of hysterical behaviour, because, she argued, I was both denying Yacine’s death and making of him a future butcher. As far as I was concerned, I had come close to believing that behind this story was a certain miracle that might bring Yacine back into my life as a newborn. I then realised that if such a miracle occurred, it would hand him over to a destiny just as brutal as this one. I remembered once more the letter and found nothing to disprove it.
One day I asked Bahia, ‘Why don’t we build a tomb for Yacine? It would be the best thing to bring us together.’
She looked at me sternly and said, as she went on gathering objects from the bedroom, ‘Each one of us must build a tomb for the other, bury him alive, and pour all the earth of this world over him. Only that could unite us, do you understand?’
I could have left the house for good, but I did not. If I had, the total and complete loss would never have happened.
Of all my friendships, I only kept up two – with Ahmad Majd and Ibrahim al-Khayati. I had a theory about this: at our age, we did not have the time or energy to make new friends. My friendship with them nevertheless proved to be problematic as they both treated me with a kind of paternalism that made them interfere in the tiniest details of my life. This was particularly so during the disturbance I went through, when I was convinced that the best way to get rid of a person you disliked was to replace him with someone else. But we really ought to do that with ourselves before doing it with others. At that stage, I had no illusions about my true losses. I came to realise that the real loss was not what had come to pass, but rather our feeling of helplessness at having failed to act. I had read – I no longer recalled where – that at birth we had unlimited possibilities for different lives, but by the time we died the only possibility left was the one that had come true. It was not so much that we had missed out on options – since they were not available to us at any time during our lives – but that we had tragically lost the possibility of being different to what we were.
Ibrahim al-Khayati dreaded my fits and tried to stop me from driving by putting a driver at my disposal whenever I needed. He never understood that the attacks did not take me by surprise, but rather took hold of me gradually like a slow dimming. They began with something resembling depression, then I would lose the desire to do something specific, even if I were in dire need of it. I would be hungry without appetite for a definite dish; I would go to the Steamboat and not know what to order for my thirst; my innards would groan with an animal desire that I did not know how to satisfy. The situation was like going on strike against life for two or three days, after which I would awaken to a kind of existential burnout that gripped me in a new attack. I could prevent losing consciousness in the physical sense either by speaking or by moving my limbs.
Early one summer morning during this delicate period, I walked along Al-Nasr Street, and then crossed the Experimental Gardens and Bourgogne Square, to attend a meeting of the party – one of those meetings that you secretly wished had been cancelled without your knowledge. I endured its atmosphere of despondence for half the day, and then decided to leave. This was not for any valid reason that I could have defended, not even because of Yacine, who had sprung from the loins of a pure socialist and died in the arms of the fundamentalists. I left because I could no longer bear the language used in those gatherings: the repetition of clichéd sentences that lacked any hint of imagination or witty sarcasm or sincere feelings – and even lacked good grammar. I felt crushed under the weight of the lifelessness being expressed, which exposed a different, and more dangerous, kind of death.
I left the hall quickly and did not look back, until I found myself crossing the Experimental Gardens for a second time and exchanging subtle smiles with women and men who were killing time there on a Sunday in the temple of sport.
The following day I went to the offices of a well-known independent newspaper and without much effort convinced the editor-in-chief to hire me. On my first day, I approached the job as I would territory that had surrendered, and immediately started writing my daily column, imagining with no little malice the splash it would make on the gossip exchange the next day.
My wife paid no attention whatsoever to the stories that circulated about my presumed love affairs. She knew that I met many women in journalistic and artistic circles, but she also knew that, beyond the game of seduction and the pleasure of company, I did not understand much about women, and my chronic timidity did not help when it came to going further. Neither had we ever experienced the anxieties of jealousy and suspicion, or a tendency to control one another. My trips did not raise any questions for her, and the only time we had a quarrel over this issue had been years earlier in the car at the start of a holiday. We had been talking about Ahmad Majd and the story doing the rounds about his ex-wife and her relationship with a well-known architect in the capital. I had been expressing my disapproval at how public they were about the affair, when Bahia had lost her temper and begun defending the woman’s right to live as she pleased. I had asked if this meant that marital infidelity should also be considered a virtue.