Authors: Mohammed Achaari
The man turned suddenly and I realised it was not him. I noticed his Pakistani shirt bulged out slightly at both sides, which forced him to hold his arms away from his body, as if he were about to pick something up off the ground. I noticed his ferocious expression, as if he had just finished a violent fight. He was watching me. When I got close to him, assuming he was the young man who had known Yacine and who had been sent on his own by the man from my hometown, he turned like a robot and walked towards the street behind the hotel. I could think of nothing better to do than follow him, in the belief that there was something fatalistic and inescapable about this act of submission. I walked behind the man thinking about Layla; it seemed extremely strange not to be thinking about Yacine and Yacine alone. I sent her a short message on my phone: ‘No one turned up for the appointment. I love you.’
The man was walking leisurely towards the Koutoubia, and I was forced to run after him. Then I slowed down, waiting for him to get further away before catching up again. Koutoubia Square was filling up with pedestrians, traders and loiterers. The number of men who looked like my ‘friend’ increased, and I strained to keep him in sight. At one point he stopped by an open-air bookseller and started leafing through old books and some magazines, which, to my surprise, were women’s magazines. When he resumed his walk it was almost noon and the sun was strong. At that moment I saw him walk in the direction of Bab al-Jdid. I remembered the other young man who had asked me the way to Bab al-Jdid a little earlier. Did he have anything to do with this man? And why?
The man quickened his pace, and I did the same until we reached the Hotel La Mamounia. There in front of the main entrance he stopped beside a taxi and bent down to talk to the driver through the window. He then crossed the street and walked towards a garden that belonged to the hotel. I stood waiting for him without knowing whether he would come back, without knowing whether I would follow him again. He came out suddenly, turned right, and then exited through the gate in the railings and crossed the street, heading towards the pavement that led to the big hotels. I followed him quickly, struck by a crazy idea about the strange fit of his shirt. I wondered if he wasn’t getting ready to blow himself up with a suicide bomb in a specific place, and was looking for a significant mass of foreigners to carry out his task. No sooner had this idea become clear to me than the man disappeared. I ran with all my force along the long pavement until I reached the entrance leading to the hotel district. I went through it, moving fast and thinking about the hotel I had gone to, where I had not seen the person I was supposed to meet. I went then in the direction of Al-Saadi Hotel, then the Kempinski, then the Atlas.
I thought of calling Layla and asking her to warn the police about the possibility of someone getting ready to blow himself up imminently near some hotel. I was afraid to alarm her, though, about something that might not be true. I was soon convinced that the man must have gone to the Conference Centre and the Meridien Hotel, where the guests and organisers of the film festival were gathered. At this hour most of them would be eating a leisurely breakfast after a long night and too little sleep, or eating a light lunch while basking half-naked in the sun.
I moved to the other pavement and dashed towards the triangle of death, as I imagined it, not knowing what I could do if I arrived to find the man about to detonate his deadly belt. Once again I thought about calling Layla or Bahia or Ahmad Majd, but was unable to access their numbers in my state of confusion and fear. I reached the door of the Conference Centre and found the place suffused by the calm of the noon hour. I was swimming in sweat, looking with shifting eyes for the slow-paced man who was not wearing socks with his trainers and could not let his arms hang down in a natural way. But he was not there or anywhere else I could see, where I could meet him and see his face turning yellow as the moment of action approached.
I returned to the Olive Gardens near the Hotel La Mamounia. I wanted to get away from the places where I might meet people I knew. I wanted to return to the starting point where I had an appointment with a person I did not know, who was supposed to tell me about the mysterious time that had swallowed Yacine. Who had arranged these impossible appointments? Why was I following a man with whom I had no connection, and about whom I did not know anything that gave me the right to expect all of this evil from him?
I arrived at the Olive Gardens exhausted. I sought their humid shade and walked aimlessly, thinking what would happen if I took a taxi and heard the breaking news about a faceless and nameless suicide bomber and the carnage he had inflicted. I shivered when I remembered that I could have informed the police about him.
At some point, still stunned by that possibility, I felt something oppressive behind me, as if someone were breathing heavily. I turned in a panic, but there was no sign of anyone following me. I turned to look right and left, and noticed a body moving between the trees. When I moved quickly to catch up with him, I had the impression it was Yacine chasing someone. I ran after him and called his name every time I saw him, but he neither responded nor stopped. I was upset with him for not answering, and for betraying the promise he had made to me to disappear for good. I was burning with anger and ran faster, forcing him to quicken his evasive movements. I wondered why he had come back at that moment and why he was concocting this stupid chase. Was he the one who had organised this story down to the last detail? What was he enticing me towards? I wondered if Yacine was planning something for me, pushed by some group. And who was that group? I then remembered the scenario in which I imagined Yacine still alive after his death notice, shedding his identity with an imaginary death in order to reappear with another identity and another plan. I was confused by what was happening around me, and I was scared to have Yacine participate, before my eyes, in a bloody event where I would be a victim.
I returned once more to the Olive Gardens, looking for the person I thought was Yacine. I had used all the strength I had left to chase a ghost that had appeared and then disappeared. Then I was overcome with a great fear, lest the vision turn out to be a devilish manoeuvre to distract my attention and involve me in a false chase, while another person was preparing his attack perfectly. In the midst of all this overwhelming confusion, I heard a beautiful voice chanting Qur’anic verses. The voice sounded familiar and close, and I realised I had heard it more than once before this day. But I was unable to recall whose voice it was or the circumstances in which I had heard it. I thought of Ibrahim al-Khayati. What did he know about all this? Had he received a message from Yacine about the dates in Marrakech? I said to myself that this was the missing link. There was something that had not reached me, something that had got lost on its way to me. There was a thread connecting all these separate events that I had not seen until now. I was thus at the heart of a story that I did not understand and where I was not in control of my own role.
I reached the end of the Gardens, right in front of the iron gate leading to the lighthouse. No one but me came out of the shade of the olive trees. Had Yacine been no more than a vision born out of my confusion? Had the person I followed been simply an externalised inner image that I had let loose in the city? I was about to give in to those desperate suppositions when I saw him at the end of the inner pathway of the lighthouse, walking very slowly with the steps of an exhausted man, defeated and desperate. I headed towards him once more, trying to convince myself that it was not him and that he did not resemble the man I had lost. It seemed to me that his shirt was no longer bulging as it had been and his arms fell normally to his sides. There was only a muscular pride to his walk. But when I got close to him, I changed my mind; when we were a few steps away from the basin, I was sure it was him and that something under his shirt was making him walk like a robot.
He reached the edge of the basin, raised his face towards the sun, turned to face the
and prayed without removing his shoes, like in a war. This detail in particular was what changed me into the force of a tornado; I could hardly recognise myself or what I had been until that moment. I remembered nothing but a word I had heard from Yacine months ago on our way back, Layla and me, from a dance show – ‘Now, now, now.’
, I said to myself and I took off like an arrow towards the person who was praying fervently, his eyes closed. I surrounded him with my arms and pushed him towards the basin.
At that critical moment when he took off from the ground, the man turned his head directly towards me, and, for an instant, behind his thick beard and fierce look, I saw the face of Essam, more terrified than he had ever been, moments before a cold white cloud took us in its awesome detonation.
Born in 1951, Mohammed Achaari is a Moroccan poet, short story writer, journalist, former Minister of Culture in Morocco and head of the Union of Moroccan Writers. His work has been translated into English, French, Spanish, Russian and Dutch.
The Arch and the Butterfly
is his second novel.
Aida Bamia is professor emeritus of Arabic language and literature at the University of Florida in Gainesville. As well as being a literary translator she is the author of
The Graying of the Raven
, and was the editor of
First published in English in 2014 by
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
PO Box 5825
First published in Arabic in 2010 as Al Qaws wal Farasha by
al Markaz Al Thaqafi Al Arabi
This electronic edition published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Copyright © Mohamed Achaari, 2010
Translation © Aida Bamia, 2014
The moral right of the author has been asserted
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The Arch and the Butterfly is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places
and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events
or locales is entirely coincidental.
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