Listening to Miss Aziz describe the Spanish and the French as creatures of a slightly different species, I wondered if this was how they’d seen us, too, when they first arrived in North Africa – primitive bandits on a coastal strip above an endless desert. Bandits with religion.
Then my father told me to go and do some studying. Down in my room at the back of the house, I opened my books. I was studying economics, though ‘studying’ may be too strong a word. True, I’d done well at school when I was young, but it was only because I was good at languages. I’d learned French from my mother, who was half French herself. Her father was from a French settler family in Algeria – one of those they called pieds noirs, or black feet, because the original ones (a hundred years before) had had shiny leather shoes. Normally the generations of settlers married others of their own, French people, but my grandfather took a liking to an Algerian woman in Oran (Algerian Granny) and they were married, though in what religion I don’t know. They moved to Morocco and then to Paris, where my mother, Hanan, was born one day in the early Fifties. I don’t know why they had such itchy feet. Maybe they saw trouble coming in Algeria. I guess the Arab name was a gesture from my French grandfather to his Algerian wife now they were stuck in Paris. Hanan, any dictionary will tell you, means ‘mercy’ or ‘clemency’, so maybe he was trying to be nice.
It was in Paris that Hanan, my mother, was brought up and where perhaps she should have stayed. But in her early thirties she went to Morocco on a visit to some cousins and it was there she had the misfortune to meet and marry Malik Zafar, a would-be businessman, who, in 1986, became my father.
My mother died when I was ten. Or maybe I was nine. I wasn’t aware at the time how ill she was and went off to school one day telling her I hoped her ‘cold’ would be better by the evening. She did look thin and had trouble speaking. I was later told she had had cancer of the oesophagus, though I hardly knew what either word meant. Her legacy was my ability to speak French.
For a time, I went to the American School of Tangier, where the lessons were all in English and the girls wore Western clothes. There were daily doses of classical Arabic, as well, but it got too expensive for the son of a flaky businessman. I was sent instead to a school in the Ville Nouvelle, where I got distracted, stopped reading and only just scraped into college at the end of it.
And at college there were more girls. There was also a woman who taught politics, Miss Aziz. She had hair so black it had a purple glow in the light that came through the lecture-room windows. It was thick, with a slight wave, chopped off just above the shoulder. Like other women, she wore trousers most of the time, but once she wore a black skirt to the knee with a white shirt and three rows of big red beads. Towards the end of class, I noticed that a thin strip of white lace had slipped below the hem of the skirt and settled on the black nylon that covered her legs.
We were all majoring in economics. It was a dull subject, but my father made me do it. Miss Aziz’s politics class was a compulsory module in the course and it had a bit of history in it too. One day she told us about the wars of the last century and how the Europeans came to North Africa. She talked about the colonisers as though she wasn’t sure they were quite human. They were cultured all right, the way she told it, but they were addicted to killing in a way that no number of symphonies could make up for.
All this was new to me. I didn’t know exactly when the Europeans had first come to my country or what they wanted from us. But they’d left a lot behind in the names of boulevards, squares and churches. Listening to Miss Aziz describe the Spanish and the French as creatures of a slightly different species, I wondered if this was how they’d seen us, too, when they first arrived in North Africa – primitive bandits on a coastal strip above an endless desert. Bandits with religion.
Miss Aziz, at first glance, seemed to do the right things. She was patient with the questions of the class, and when Dr Ahmed, the head of department, put his head round the door and asked her for a word she placed her book face down on the desk and hurried after him. But what was different about her was that she seemed to carry a world in her head that was not the world we knew. She never returned an essay late and she was polite to Hamid, the toothless janitor who swept the courtyard while the rest of us just laughed at his fat ass when he wasn’t sitting on it. And I can’t imagine Miss A ever raised her voice in the staffroom. So why did she give off this sense of rebellion?
Laila, my girlfriend, noticed the same thing. She used to call Miss Aziz ‘the Messenger’. It was the name of an American television show in which an average family had adopted a boy who turned out to be an alien. It was a comedy aimed at children, but it was a cult at our college. The kids in the family were always begging to be taken away to his home planet, but the Messenger, who was like an ordinary boy except for two extra fingers (and some telekinetic powers), was too grateful to the mom and dad for rescuing him to take the children away, even on a day trip. For all I know, it was a hidden message, sponsored by some religious group – however shit your life is, you’ve got to keep believing, don’t run away.
I knew the only way to escape from all this was to leave the country.
While my father poured his whisky down the throats of his guests (they never invested, they just drank), I sat on my bed and opened a course book. I was bored. Who cares about history, even if Miss Aziz is teaching it? What’s the point of remembering stuff that happened before you were born? We weren’t ‘remembering’ it anyway. We hadn’t been there – neither had our teachers, nor anyone else in the world – so we couldn’t remember it. What we were doing was imagining it... And what was the point of that?
If I wasn’t distracted by thoughts of escape, it was by thoughts of Laila. In my room, pretending to study income distribution, I used to send her text messages on the fancy phone she ’d given me when her father bought her a new one. Sometimes she sent me back a picture of herself, playing with her dog or drinking Fanta on the veranda of her house.
I hadn’t slept with Laila. I was nineteen, and I hadn’t slept with anyone. When she first arrived at college, I’m not sure the other guys noticed how pretty she was. At that time, she had very short dark hair, almost like a boy’s, and they all drooled over pictures of blonde girls with hair to the shoulders. But I spotted the weight under her white shirt when she leaned across a table, even though everything was properly buttoned up. Girl students were allowed to wear pretty much what they wanted. Laila’s clothes were modest, but somehow you could tell they were good quality. Maybe she got them sent from abroad or bought them online. After a week or so settling in, she became more confident. She was always laughing. For a while I was afraid she was laughing at me, but then I decided she was just carefree. She didn’t like computer games as much as I did, but she was crazy about The Messenger. That was the moment we clicked. ‘I love it, I love it, don’t you?’ she said when the subject came up. ‘I love the way he ’s always sneaking up on people. And when he ’s amazed by something in our world he doesn’t understand he just says—’
‘“Frozen fireballs . . . Count me in!”’ we both said at once.
I invited her to come to my house and watch The Messenger one evening when my parents were out. She had no shame about watching a kids’ programme. We sat through five or six episodes on the trot. She mentioned some other shows I’d never heard of, so I guessed at her house she ’d got more TV channels. Some of these programmes weren’t even shown in the US, I think, they were just made for export to a youth audience.
Every evening I went up on the roof to smoke a cigarette and looked out towards the sea, in the direction of Europe. If you looked the other way, south over the city, the trees and hills soon became semi-desert. It was all brown, with scars of mining and digging, the last attempt to get something out of the sand, with tipper trucks and lorries parked up and conveyor belts of dirt.
But what happened if you looked north? What went on up there across the sea? Spain, France, where the invaders had come from . . . Way beyond that, Germany. The people in Europe all had new cars and watches. And green woods and forests. The labels on the clothes had been put on by who they claimed to be, not knocked off in China like ours. The girls were blonde and wore short dresses, showing their legs. The bars weren’t hidden in expensive hotels or in underground dives where you might get beaten up by an old alcoholic. The liquor places were on every corner, and women drank there too, ordering wine and cocktails.
Smoking my cigarette, I pictured this, through the low clouds and the grey sea on which I could see a far-off container ship.
I knew I had to go, but it was hard to get the courage up. My father would explode if I said I was quitting college. He really thought four years studying was going to make a difference – that with a degree I’d somehow have life on a string. I knew the only way to escape from all this was to leave the country. All that was holding me back was Laila and the feeble hope of sleeping with her.