Our flight has just come to an end at J.F.K airport. We have never boarded a plane before. The seven hour-air-journey was extremely exhausting for the three of us. Rashid, my little brother came to the world two years after my father left with Mr. Renaison to Montpelier. We have been living in the Big House since. Grandfather has two wives and eight children. Two of my uncles have moved out recently. My three aunts are still living in the Big House. Two of them have never been married and one was divorced.
One of my never married aunts had a child. He is deaf. People in the village, grandfather and grandma say Yamna is married to a spirit. Abbass, her son, is venerated by the people. They sometimes bring sick kids and old people to him. They give Yamna, his mother, money so that she would let him touch their heads and spit in their mouths or foreheads. His hands are very white and tiny. He is fair skinned and has hazel eyes. The white of his eyes is always red. I think because he cries a lot. Yamna locks him up most of the times in their room. He likes the company of strangers a lot. I guess because he spits in their mouths and they give him pieces of sugar, candy and sometimes eggs that his mother boil for him.
Yamna’s psychic powers are respected and known even outside the village. None of her predictions has proven wrong. I remember when she predicted Nejma’s death. The next day Nejma was found dead although she had never complained of any illness and was as healthy as the best of the horses. Nejma, my youngest uncle’s wife, was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. My uncle lost his mind after her death and has been sleeping in the barn and sometimes in the fields since.
When Nana had her baby two years after my father’s departure, Grandpa and Grandma told us that the fetus had been sleeping in her uterus that was why it did not develop earlier. There was no spirit involved this time. It was nature’s trick. Many women whose husbands work abroad or are in jail have their babies two or three years after they have been conceived. Apparently, an endemic fetus hibernation syndrome has been running in our village.
Nana took a few air-sickness pills before we boarded and slept through the seven hours while my little brother has been vomiting, clinging to my clothes and sobbing. Besides being air-sick, he was scared the plane might crash. My bladder was about to explode. I was terrified to move. The chair was my only secure gravity point. I was pushing the chair with one hand to keep the plane balanced in the air. Every time it leaned sideways, up or down my heart leapt to my mouth and my brother launched a sharp shriek and vomited even more. My brother clutched the armchair with one hand, clutched my free hand with his other tiny hand and kept blubbering. He eventually wet his seat and slept or fainted. I was relieved his screams were muted. My prayers and my pushing hand would probably land us safely. I felt bad for my little brother. I lifted up the arm that divided our chair and pulled him towards me. He hugged my arm tightly as if it had been a staffed animal and continued to sleep. When the plane was about to land it made a terrible noise. My brother entered in a hysterical screaming fit. I nearly smothered him trying to calm his fear.
I had a great difficulty waking Nana. When I finally did, she was unable to walk straight. The pills she had taken made her very drowsy. I put the carry-on on my head, took Rashid’s hand in mine and Nana’s hand in the other. I knew some English. My father has always wanted me to go to school. My grandfather did not object. I stayed with my father’s aunt in a small town close to our village during my elementary and middle school years, and then I was moved to a boarding school in the city during my junior high. I am the only girl in our village that has ever gone to a high school in the city. My English was very basic and far from enabling me to communicate with any English speaker, let alone an American. The customs officer asked us to give him the key to open the big case since it was locked. As soon as my mother saw they were getting out all the things she had spent many days and nights packing, she became very alert and seemed to have regained all her sharpness. Her eyes literally popped out as she saw all the food she had been preparing for months for my father was put aside. There was olive oil she had pressed herself, honey, salted dried meat and hand-made couscous and pasta. She started elbowing me and pinching me while covering her mouth with her hand and mumbling insults. One of the officers told us in very clear and simple English that we were not allowed to take any food with us. It was all going to be tossed away. I tried to explain to him in my simple English of a Moroccan eleventh grader it was only food, he still would not hear: The law was the law. By then, I started to feel the heat of my mom’s pinching and I knew unless I had given her an immediate explanation she might have jumped at my throat. I freed my arm from her, moved a few inches away and broke the news to her. She got very mad and called me stupid. Unfortunately, all the money and school books were wasted on me since after all those years of being schooled I still was unable to tell The American that what he had in his hand was only food, my mother continued. I assured her I did but it was the regulation: No foreign food was allowed in. She shoved me off to the back with great vigor and started talking to the officer in an affected broken Arabic, with exaggerated comic gesture and repeating the word “m’sieur” in between her words. Obviously, that was her understanding of what English was. The officer burst into laughter, his colleagues, and all the people around us did the same. She turned to me triumphantly, put both her hands on her hips and said: “I did not need years of school and waste money on books to communicate with him. For Heaven’s sake, what did those people teach you? Loser! Look I even made all these people happy”
I suppressed my laughter with great difficulty as I saw the officer throwing the food in the bin beside him while still laughing. She gave me an inquisitive look. I shrugged and laughed. She suddenly rolled her long trailing outfit up and jumped to the other side of the counter. She pushed the officer aside and started taking out what was hers. Two state officers pointed their guns at her and asked her repeatedly to step away and hold her hands up. My heart was about to stop and I felt my knees shaking. My brother started screaming and clung to my already flexed knees. She opened the rubber bags one by one ignoring the ready to shoot guns. She put a bunch of cookies in her mouth while looking at the officer and repeating in Arabic: “It is only food.” She then grabbed the honey bottle under the puzzled eyes of the police, the customs officers and the rest. She inserted her finger in the neck of the full bottle, licked it then re-inserted it and handed her finger to the officer “Taste it. It is honey. Bees…zzzzzzz. It’s honey. Honey is good for America. Here olive oil. I made it. It’ the best” she repeated in Arabic. They turned to me. They wanted me to translate. My tongue has tied up like a knot and curled way back down my throat. I started sobbing. She started swearing at me and bent down. They jumped at her and tied her hands behind her back while my brother and I were crying. They locked us all in a small empty room. An African man who probably worked there, told me in French that we had to wait for an interpreter. I understood what he said but did not say a word. I lost all capacity of speech and I was trembling in fear. Nana was out of her mind. She was thoroughly implacable. Nothing would calm her. She threw her sandals at me. I knew that was what she wanted to do when she bent down a few minutes ago. She removed her scarf and threw it on the floor and started cursing my grandparents and my father. They were the ones responsible for all her miseries. She has never seen one beautiful day since she married my father. She was as beautiful as a flower and she could have married a teacher or a policeman had she lived in the city. Skinny Haddum, the crossed-eyed, was not better than her. She was working for a French family in Rabat where she got married to a very rich city man who treated her like a queen. They call her Lala Haddum now. Who is the ugly one now? She wended on and on, while I tried not to be in her field of vision as possible as the narrow closed space allowed. I bent my head over Rashid’s who was by then sleeping in my lap.
I could have married the shepherd, she proceeded in her monologue, he sure does not speak but he is very hard-working and he knows how to save money and how to pamper a woman. She suddenly became silent. I threw a cautious stealthy look at her. Her eyes were planted in the ceiling and she had a mysterious smile on her face. For the first time, she looked to me serene and almost humanly approachable.
My father left when I was five. We have never seen him since. My grandfather, jeddi, has always complained about how ungrateful my dad had been. He refers to him as the “laughing stock” and the “embarrassment child”. Unlike all the people who have migrated abroad and who come every summer riding shiny cars loaded with gifts and money and built big houses in the city, my father has never come back. Furthermore, he rarely sends any money. My uncles tell my grandfather all the times that Sidi has been abusing his generosity. He certainly has got big houses in America, nice cars, tons of money and another wife and kids. He left his kind father the burden of a wife and two kids. He knows they are in good hands, that is why he does not care. Sometimes, my grandfather cries then my uncles start swearing and leave the house and I see them many times wiping their eyes outside. I think they are angry at my father not because he does not send money but because they miss him. I heard Jeddi once say: “I want to see him and hug him not to go and get his coffin from the airport.”
Once, uncle Mohamed Sghir told jeddi the only way to force Dad to take care of his family was to throw us out. Jeddi got very angry at my uncle. How could anybody ask him to throw his grandchildren out? How could anybody dare to believe he was capable of such an atrocity? He would not throw a dog out let alone his own blood and flesh? What do The Qu’ran and Sunna say? He would not fling a helpless woman and two helpless kids away as if they were garbage? How could he survive people’s gossip?
My father came four hours after we had been held at the airport. The interpreter never showed up. He hugged me, held my sleeping brother in his arm and kissed mom’s forehead. My mom immediately started complaining about what “N’ssara” did to us ( N’ssara is the word we use in the village to refer to anybody who is not Muslim).They threw our food in the trash. Don’t they know it is a sin? My father was nothing close to the picture I had in mind. He does not even look like the picture he sent us seven years ago. He looked shorter, fatter, a bit wrinkled and his nose seemed longer than I remembered. It even looked a little crooked. The black thick silky hair has become white and very thin. I could see the white of his scalp. My mother did not seem to have noticed any changes. She went on talking about the plane and how it floated on top of the clouds and the meager food they served aboard and how vapid and not filling at all it was. My father also seemed to have a lot of questions and much talking to do. He asked Nana about everyone and everything. He wanted to know who moved out of the village, who got married and who died. They laughed and they both cried many times and had to put their bags down to wipe their eyes. My father held his head down and sat on the sidewalk when my mother told him about Nejma’s death. Nobody told him about her passing away because when people live away from their land and suffer the estrangement and solitude for the sake of a living nobody wants to add to their burden by breaking bad news to them.
My mother and I were very happy to see my father’s car. When he saw my mom tapping her chest and shaking her head to show how happy she was to know that her husband owned a car, Dad told us that in America everybody owned a car. Once we got into the magic vehicle, my parents resumed their gossip. I was silent. Too many things happened in a short time. I also was starved and fatigued. Their nonstop chatter started to hurt the bones of my skull. They talked about everyone and everything. They even talked about Maimuna who cut the donkey’s tongue, cooked it together with other ingredients and tried to serve it as a magic potion to her son-in-law. My father had to pull the car aside; his vision became fogged by tears of laughter as my mother was unfolding the details of Maimuna’s scandalous arrest. I used to find this story extremely laughable and found myself many times repeating Nana’s impressions of Maimuna and how the latter raised her head, waived her scarf to the sky and yelled with her utmost strength: “O… Allah how could you humiliate me in this way while you knew the donkey was old and going to die anyway? O…Allah how could you do this to me when you knew that the son of a bitch, my son-in-law, did not even drink the potion and gave it to my daughter instead?” My father resumed his driving after a few minutes. He continued to issue a few giggles from time to time and reiterated frequently: “Oh God I haven’t laughed this way for years”. My mom’s vitality seemed to slack down. She became silent and looked at the dark scenery through the window. They talked about everything and everyone in the village but they avoided the one important topic that mattered: themselves.
I did not know how it happened but I slept. I woke up on my father’s voice telling me we were already in Boston. It was about midnight. Sidi held Rashid who was still asleep in his arm and asked both Nana and me to take our purses only for he would take care of the rest of the luggage. The car was parked right in front of the building. He pushed the door open and ushered us in. He trusted Rashid in my hands and gave mom the key. The apartment was only one flight up, he told us. He went down to get the luggage. My mom repeated some prayers for good luck and also to ward off evil spirits. She pulled one side of her long Jellabah up and stepped up using her right leg first and forced me to go through the same ritual. I stumbled and nearly fell trying to follow her instructions. The stairs were narrow and cracked under our feet. We both had a feeling we might sink down at any moment. When we arrived, Nana opened the door easily and we both felt our way inside the dark apartment. We stumbled and bumped into each other then stood still like robots. My father brought the four big cases one after the other. He then came in and switched on the lights. We were shocked to see how small, austere and dirty the apartment looked. My mother gasped in disbelief and shook her head in disappointment. I was scared she would wear her disdainful look and say scornful things like:
“I should have married the water boy or the mint guy”. She did not. We were appalled by the trip and apprehensive of the future. My father raised his head up and shrugged as if to say: “sorry for the disappointment.” He took Rashid to the only room in the apartment. It was two feet away from where we were standing. He put my brother on the flat mattress on the floor. There was a rug, a suitcase and a few blankets. We removed our shoes and we all sat on one side of the mattress where my brother laid. We were silent. Each of us was involved in some kind of reverie. I was wondering what he has been doing during all these wasted years. I was almost sure Nana would soon have one of her fits. She throws herself on the floor, her mouth foams and she has muscle spasms just as when she fights with grandma. Her voice turns very manly and coarse. She then says her name is Driss: a male spirit who is not to leave the body of Rahma unless we sprinkle milk under the fig tree at the backyard or slaughter a goat, usually a black one, by the river. What if “Driss” shows up again? Supposedly, we had the milk how could we get him the fig tree or the black goat? I am not sure about the goat but I am positive there are no fig trees in the neighborhood. I have seen none and I have smelt none. It would be a real scandal in this foreign land if Driss starts swearing in his real stentorian voice.