~ ~ ~
Philosopher and writer, Bensalem Himmich (former Minister of Culture in Morocco) is the author of a number of works (in both Arabic and French). Four of his novels have been translated in many languages. He has won a number of prizes and distinctions, including the Naguib Mahfouz Prize (the American University in Cairo, 2002), the Sharjah-UNESCO Prize (2003), the Diploma and Medal of the Academic Society of Arts and Letters (Paris, 2009) — for his works as a whole, the Naguib Mahfouz Prize of the Egyptian Writers Union (2009), and the Prize of the Academy of Floral Games in Toulouse, France (2011). His novel,
Roger Allen won the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for his translation of
It may well prove difficult for you to turn into a hired hand, someone at the beck and call of tyrants with all their fiendish schemes — professional spy, double agent, hired killer. In that case, you’ll need to come up with a solution, one that may save you provided you learn to do it well. You have to pretend to be crazy, mentally ill. You should pepper your interrogators with all kinds of crazy talk. Threaten your torturers by coughing all over them and infecting them with your sickness. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll give up and send you back to your country or somewhere close, drugged with opium. You’ll eventually come round to find yourself with an electronic belt around you and a bullet aimed at your head, to be fired if you should so much as breathe a word of your story to a living soul or raise a complaint against forces unknown. .”
Oh yes, my gracious Na‘ima, may God be gracious to you and comfort you!
That note that you sneaked into my pocket and begged me to destroy after I had read it, that precious note, I’ve memorized it by heart. I fed its paper and ink to my stomach for it to digest. I can vouch for the fact that I owe my rescue to it, emerging alive from the dark recesses of a horrendous prison. But for that note, I would have spent still more years under relentless guard watch and enduring never-ending torture sessions, all supervised and directed by that truly barbaric and expert hang-woman of evil memory and repute known by the name “Mama Ghula.”
Now that I’ve come back to my bookstore and my home, where vermin and insects have fouled everything during my long prison term, how am I supposed to go out into the streets, squares, markets, and mosques in Oujda without bumping into people and chatting with them? How can I use them to salve my wounds and breathe in the sweet zephyrs of my recovered freedom by contacting them and getting together? Am I supposed to be able to travel to Ouad-Zem to look for my mother and find out whether she’s still alive or has died and gone to meet her generous Maker? If I did that, how could I explain to the small number of people who still remember me why I’ve been away for so long, why I look so dreadfully emaciated and the hair on my head and beard has turned grey? If the clever ones managed to get me to talk about what happened to me, would I be expected to talk about it all under the banner of truth and honesty, or indulge instead in all kinds of deception, falsification, and duplicity? Whichever route I chose, I would find myself between a rock and a hard place: a bullet to my head or an electric charge to my heart, neither of which could possibly miss once they were fired. Either that, or else a tissue of lies and deceit, along with all the self-hate and remorse that goes with it.
Alternatively, silence may be the solution, relying on the inexorable passage of time, which would also involve always staying at home. But both those requirements will inevitably morph into two other types of prison, as the time period grows ever longer and the space is so confined. When we are talking about someone like me who has been traumatized by a barbaric incarceration, any kind of prison, however light its burden may seem, will provoke a nervous attack and twist the knife in my wound.
So take things slowly, I told myself, till the multiple layers of hesitation and despair gradually peel away and the feeling of depression lightens a bit.
In the early days I thought I could meet people in public places, albeit taking all necessary precautions and adopting all manner of concealment strategies. For example, I would regularly avoid going out in broad daylight when exposure and visibility would be at their maximum. Even when I ventured out at night, when it was likely to be pitch dark, I would put on a reinforced metal helmet and bulletproof vest that I had made myself out of iron and steel and concealed inside my leather jacket, something I had bought from a stall downtown that I had visited in disguise at dead of night.
As I walked along streets and alleys, there was much less movement at night; the lights would be either turned off completely or kept low. Peering eyes used to stare curiously at my outfit but without attracting too much attention. Maybe they assumed I was a motorcyclist; I had left my bike, was now walking on foot, and had forgotten to take off my helmet. In stores, cafeterias and cafes customers became more and more curious about my general appearance; they kept nodding in my direction and cracking malicious jokes. Children and teenagers went so far as to stand in my way and call me “cosmonaut”—all of which made me decide to strike those particular spots from my list of regular haunts.
Apart from those few spaces where no people were to be found, the only places I could go were the city mosques. I started visiting them in rotation just before evening prayer time, all in the hope of avoiding prying eyes and people’s attention. But, as the nights rolled by, things started to go awry with the worshippers in the mosques, some with shaven or uncovered heads, others wearing skullcaps and turbans. For no particular reason they were all amazed at my cautious attitude toward the wardens, preferring to consider the outwards aspects of the situation rather than the essence. Their own ignorance aside, they had little time to listen to what had happened to me. Even if a few of them were willing to hear snippets of what I had to say — and how on earth did I manage to do that?! — they would soon move away, twirling their fingers against their temples as a sign of total disbelief.
I decided to avoid any undesirable communication with people and worshippers by staying at home for several days, preparing my own food and blackening page after page with accounts of my years in prison. One day, after I had performed the evening prayer, I fell sound asleep. In a dream, I saw myself going out on the night coinciding with the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday. I left the house without changing my precautionary garb. By the gateway of the main mosque two men in civilian clothes stopped me, led me into an empty alleyway close by, and probed me from head to toe, firstly with an electronic device, then by hand. Taking off my helmet and coat, they handcuffed me and took me to the police station by the Sidi ‘Abd al-Wahhab Gate (where the heads of executed people used to be hung in the old days). While I waited for the arrival of the police officer and his recorder, I was forced to spend the rest of the night on a bench outside his office. Curling myself up into a ball, I fell asleep, oblivious to my surroundings. At that point I woke up with a start. After checking everything carefully, I found myself still lying in my own bed.
On this new day there’s a light tap on the door. No one ever comes to see me, so I leap up to see who is knocking. There is a devout shaykh whose general appearance and demeanor remind me of the imam at a small mosque downtown. Rumor has it that he was fired from his position for unknown reasons. Once I had greeted him and invited him inside to share my breakfast, he confirmed my impression, then proceeded to give me a few terse details about himself. He told me that he was now working in Noah’s profession and owned a thriving carpenter’s workshop. He had lots of customers because he was willing to make do with reasonable charges and refused to cheat people. He then launched into an amazing story, some of which was so disturbing that it left me with my mouth agape and my tongue paralyzed:
“Listen, my boy,” he said. “I’m going to tell you some really serious things. Once you’ve taken them all in and thought about it, you’ll want to consider the situation y ...