I was still involved in my thinking when my dad started talking:
Life is difficult around here. People in the country think that once you are in Europe or America you strike it rich. It is not true. Mr.Renaison divorced his wife Michelle. She kicked both of us of the house. We moved to Nice where we shared a one-bedroom apartment for a while. He took to alcoholism so we had a few fights. Six months later, I left to Marseille where I worked in a Moroccan restaurant. It was in Marseille where I met an American couple. Both the man and woman spoke Moroccan dialect; Arabic and Berber. They thought highly of our country. They liked to hang out with me and I loved their company. They were very down to earth people and modest. They left me their address, took mine and sent me a few letters. It was around that time when I met Mohamed. He is from Aljadida. We became very good friends and I joined him to live in the “Foyer” where many men from the Maghreb area lived. I told my new friends how my American friends have been inciting me to move to America and how reluctant I was to move. They told me it was not a bad idea and all of us started considering immigrating to the Land of Opportunity. That was how Mohamed called it. Besides, nobody would call us “sale Arab” or “sale race”. He is the most educated among us. He is a high school graduate and he speaks four languages. Four months later, we got our tourist visas and we came to America.
I did not know the rest of the story for I slept. I heard some moaning and weird noises that interrupted my sleep. Nana was probably having her fit. When I woke up the next day, it was about one o’clock in the afternoon. Nobody was home. My dad’s apartment was dreadfully ugly and smelly. When I opened the window to let some fresh air in, an icy current slapped me. I immediately closed the window, looked around for a few minutes then decided to launch myself on a cleaning campaign. First, I had to tidy up the place. I did not unpack our bags. There were no closets, armoires, cupboards or even shelves. I put all the suitcases and the bags one on top of the other at one corner of the room at the foot of the mattress. Most of my father’s clothes were dirty and have a foul smell. I took the dirty laundry to the bathroom and tried to wash them in the tub. I was unable to find a detergent or any kind of soap or even some bleach. I stacked the clothes in a rubber bag I found by chance and left them by the side of the sink. I mopped the floor with a towel and scrubbed the bathroom, the kitchen and the rusted stove.
I was all sweating and my hands were turning red when I heard my mom’s voice behind me. Startled, I turned. She was accompanied by another woman and a little girl. Nana’s new acquaintance was in her twenties and her baby girl was about six years old.
“This is Fatiha,” said my mother. “ Mohamed’s wife, your father’s friend. They are both from Aljadida. Good people. Her husband is a taxi-driver just like your father.”
I had noticed they were both carrying bags. My mom unexpectedly screamed at me: “What are you waiting for? Don’t you see our load? This kind woman has given us some dishware and a new cooking pot. Take the bags and put them in the kitchen.” I quickly wiped my hands in my skirt, nearly snatched the bags from their hands and hurtled to the kitchen. My mother has always exerted this hold on me. I fear her or rather I fear her fits of anger. Whenever I stand in front of her I always assume a boxer’s stance. My hands are always ready to cover my head. My hands always perform some nervous jerks when I am before her. My fear has worsened since she hit me with her sandal on the ear. A blow that caused me an ear infection that perforated ear drum. Nana has never realized that when she thinks she is just talking she is actually screaming at me. We have never had any actual talk. The communication that happens between us has always been in the form of a top –down instructions and a list of housework “to dos”. Not only that, but always swearing, accusations and insults ensue as well. I do not even know how to behave around her in a way that would not bring about her wrath. I once told her in a voice, that was almost inaudible even to me, that she did not need to scream or insult me, all she had to do was to let me know what she wanted.
“Come again!” she said “you little slut! Let me hear your viper hissing tongue again and I will cut it” Before she had finished her insulting utterance , she removed her sandal, leaped as if she were a tigress, slapped me on the face, threw me down on the floor and started to literally “pluck” my hair. Jeddi heard our screaming and came down the stairs rushing. He pushed her away off me, kicked her with his cane and called her dirty pig. He took me to the backyard, got some water from the well and washed my face. We then sat under the fig tree on his favorite sheep skin. I put my head on his knee and sobbed, while he was repeating “women… O…women… silly creatures, that is why, the prophet said their brain and deen (religion) were incomplete.” Driss “wore” Nana anew. He seems to show up always when she has a fight or somebody upsets her. That was the time I ended up with a stiff neck for more than a week and a life term handicap. I have never tried to challenge her since, not even when she is not around. I learned how to make myself invisible around her. I also learned how to predict her wishes and performed them without even her asking.
I started putting the plates and glasses in the cabinets when both women came in. They seemed to be in good mood. The woman told me: “Listen, sweetie, your mom and I are going to get some groceries, will you take care of the kids for us?”
“Of course she will,” said Nana suddenly. She seemed jovial which rarely happens in my presence. “See how beautiful she is,” she added to my complete surprise. She held my chin in her palm and said to her new friend proudly: “I am going to find her a husband before the end of this year, I promise. A woman’s place is with her husband” A cloud gathered in my eyes. Presumably, tears were starting to gather. I wanted to grab her hand and kiss it. Did she really think I was beautiful? Was she really proud of me? I fought both the urge to cry and to kiss her hand. I was not sure how she would react. I already lost an ear I did not want to lose the other or plausibly an eye this time.
The woman touched my hair in an appreciative way: “We’ll see to that. I know so many people both here and in Morocco.” The situation started to become ridiculous. I gradually felt awkward and uncomfortable. Mathematically, there was not a big age difference between my mom’s friend and me. She looked twenty two while I was about to be seventeen. Seemingly, I give everybody the impression I was a child. There was something in me that let them treat me as such. Fatiha was married to someone who was my dad’s age and who could be her father’s age. Furthermore she was accepted as a potential friend of my mom. Psychologically, she was my mom’s age. Hence she thought she had the legitimate right to patronize me. They left. I was relieved they did.
I started to play with the kids who took turns riding my back. Rashid pushed the little girl jokingly; she fell against the corner of the table. I nearly fainted when I saw her purple bruised forehead. I ran to the fridge to fetch some ice cubes, unfortunately there was none. Mirfat, the little girl, was screaming like an ambulance siren. Tears flooded her face and her lips have turned bluish. I felt very feeble and queasy. Rashid was also crying. We both were scared what Nana would do this time she would probably kill me, I thought. I carried the girl on my back and used a large beach towel to wrap her and tied the ends of the towel against my chest. She soon was asleep and so was my little brother.
When Nana came back, I was still sitting on the couch with Mirfat on my back and Rashid sleeping in my lap. I was watching the fourteen inch T.V screen that was on a small coffee table two steps away from me. Nana and Fatiha were accompanied with another woman this time. Mom’s new acquaintance was in her early thirties, had false blond hair which gave her brownish complexion a shining glow and made her look almost “starrish”. I have seen Nana with all kind of women but I have never seen her with a woman like Doha. Mom was in a very good mood. I noticed whenever the new woman talked; Nana opened all her senses in attention as if she were a puppy waiting for a ball. She made sure to always have something to say. Obviously, she wanted to impress this woman and gain her as a friend. She tried to weigh her words although from time to time some profanity slipped her tongue. Her new friends ascribed her profane language to a good sense of humor. I put the kids on the bed and went to the kitchen to prepare some green tea as Nana had instructed me. I let the kettle boil on the stove and looked for the new silver tea set my mother serves only for distinguished guests. I knew she wanted me to use this special set because she had stressed the word TEA in way I understood she wanted me to use the new set that was still wrapped in newspaper sheets and buried among the clothes in the big case. Nana cautiously covered and wrapped all the things she thought might break during the flight. Fifteen minutes later, I removed the T.V set from the table and put it on the floor at the far end of the ‘living-room’. I went back to the kitchen; put the shiny silver teapot and the small colored tea-cups, like the ones city people use, on the beautiful silver tray with golden borders. I filled three plates with the cookies mom had handed me before. I took the whole thing to the ladies who were already having their gossip party which the tea and cookies would fuel up. I put the tray on the table and passed the cookies plates to the ladies one after the other. Each time they took a different cookie and put it in a paper napkin they have in hand. I felt proud. I was a good “hostess”. I performed the ritual the way they do at parties and weddings. Nana looked at me appreciatively, my heart swelled with joy. I did not take any cookie. I moved back and sat on the rug with my legs crossed and my hands in my lap as if I were involved in some Buddhist meditation. I was thrilled. The new woman noticed I took neither a cookie nor a glass of tea. She invited me to have some. “She has already eaten,” Nana volunteered and she handed me a cookie. The woman then asked me to have tea and wondered why I was so shy. I vigorously refused to have any tea. I was already starting to get nervous and my hands were shaken with an unusual tremor. It would have been a real catastrophe if a girl my age had spilled tea on herself in front of guests. I had a hunch she might have choked me if I had embarrassed her in front a woman like Doha whom she was trying to impress by using city words and a phony city accent. I learnt from their talk Doha had a car. She had a nice job and she even had had a better one in Morocco. She used to be the chief nurse in a private clinic. In short she was a goddess in my mother’s eyes. Nana has always envied educated women. She too could have been one of those ladies had her parents cared enough to send her to school. All they cared for was to get more cattle and to get a larger piece of land. They got her married when she was a child. My dad, himself, was but a teenager back then. Grandma used to beat them both whenever they “misbehaved”. I was moving my eyes between those women and my mom, archiving every single word in my memory when I realized that Nana was not as old as I have always thought. Taking care of the big house, the cattle, the regular fights with Jeddah, aunts and uncles have taken the best of her. Her sensitive skin has already gotten wrinkles around the eyes and the lips and darkened. She looked as if she were twice Doha’s age while she might be even younger. I was ravaged by pity for her. I made up my mind to buy her a few crèmes and lotions as soon as I stash some money aside.
It was already night when the ladies left. Fatiha did not notice the bump on her daughter’s forehead. Doha promised to get Nana some furniture that she had stored in the basement. My mother joined her hands together and lifted them to the sky asking heaven to bless the good-hearted woman. She sounded like a mendicant. I wanted to run away. Doha also promised to help Nana find a job as a housekeeper at the hotel where she manages a Starbuck coffee shop. As soon as they left, Nana grabbed me by the hand and made me sit down on the ragged canapé. I covered my face with both hands and crouched down. I thought she was going to hit me. She issued short cackles that resembled laughter and told me in a soft voice that sounded like a female’s and very unlike her high-pitched coarse one: “come here silly, why do you think I would want to hit you?” I shrugged my shoulders. I did not know what to answer, it could be because I was about to trip when I was going to give the ladies’ cookies.
“Listen,” she told me. “If only you have seen their houses! You should have seen Doha’s.” I did not believe my ears. Nana was actually trying to have a conversation with me. She was talking to me as if I were Jeddah or Halima or Hayat or any of my aunts or my uncle’s wives or any of her grown up friends. She saw a lot of things and she wanted to be the gossip star, the one with the up-to-date news. I happened to be the only audience available. Although I felt proud I tried to keep quiet and be as small as possible.
“Doha’s house is like a castle.” She continued. “Can you believe that woman has actually three children? She has two daughters. One of them is engaged to be married and the other one is your age. She does have a boy who is twelve. They all dress and talk like Americans.” She stopped then stared intrigued for a while, she was seeing me for the first time. “Why do you hold your hair this way? You girl of a peasant!”
I smiled to myself stealthily. Nana was coming back from her trip. “Why are you grinning like a burned mutton head,” I chuckled happily as I saw she herself was relaxed and looked kind while she was throwing her usual insults at me. “Come with me,” she said. She then held me by the hand and took me to the bathroom. She removed my scarf, removed the pins and the band around my bun. She made me stood in front of the mirror, grabbed one of my dad’s brushes and started combing my hair.