Translated from the Dutch by Michael O’Loughlin
As a child, and later as a youth and as an adult, I always believed what my mother said. She was a harassed woman who had brought too many children into the world, because she didn’t understand the pill very well. She swallowed one sometimes, then forgot about it for another few days. Until her period did not appear and the seventh child announced his coming.
I was the eldest and therefore the surrogate mother. She bore them, I took care of them. From the time I was four until I was twenty. Her sufferings became my sufferings. We often sat together in her room, and then she would look straight ahead of her and summon up memories.
‘Things were much nicer before,’ she used to say, ‘because I had my mother and father with me.’ But they died young. In fact everyone around her died. She knew sorrow. She regularly talked about that. The sorrow was real, huge and would drive you mad, because it was hers. There was no place for my pain. After all, she could not feel that.
Do I sound bitter, angry? Maybe a little. I love her. But I swear that if I ever have children, I will do it completely differently. I will kiss my son and daughter, embrace them, tell them how beautiful and special they are. Even more important, I will let them be children. Youth belongs to them. Playing outside, having fun, living.
I am depressive. Heavily depressive. At least, according to the books I have read about human suffering. The Internet sites are also clear.
Therefore I am not crazy. I am not exaggerating when I wake every morning with the feeling that I’d rather be dead. But I didn’t know what to do with this, who to tell it to. I went to my mother. She was standing in the kitchen. That was her place. From early to late she made breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cooking for hours for her large family. She looked at me when I stood beside her with my head bowed.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
I looked at the spotless floor, which she had just scrubbed, and shook my head. The words would not come out. My eyes were burning.
‘What’s the matter now?’
Silence. The silence was only broken by the hissing of the onions in the frying pan.
‘If you haven’t got anything to say, you can roll up your sleeves and knead some dough.’
‘I’m depressive’, I said. ‘Ena depressive.’ One word in Moroccan, the other in Dutch.
‘Depsiff?’ She looked at me pityingly, shook her head, tightened her headscarf and continued to slice coriander. The sharp smell penetrated my nostrils, evoked many memories and I longed for the holidays in Morocco. I longed for my aunts and for the Moroccan sun, the bustle of the streets, the children playing and, yes, I even longed for the beggars sitting almost invisibly at a corner of the street.
‘She has mental problems,’ said my oldest brother, who took a carton of milk from the fridge and drank straight from it. Which infuriated brother number two.
‘Get your snout out of that carton, idiot! Do you want us to catch your germs?’
‘Hassan, get a glass,’ said my mother.
Chaos in the kitchen. Other children entered, looked in cupboards, stood close to the pan and inhaled the smells of another Moroccan dish.
After five minutes quiet was restored. The meat was mingling with the herbs and the onions. The garden door was open; a chill banished the overpowering heat of the kitchen.
‘So you are sick in the head,’ said my mother. ‘Like those people in the loony bin.’
I stared at her in surprise.
‘No, I’m depressive. I’m very unhappy, all the time. But the mornings especially are the worst.’
‘Is depsiff something European? Something Dutch? Is that part of integration?’
A stupid statement, but that didn’t bother her. She continued.
‘Moroccans are not depsiff,’ she said. ‘It’s just in your head. Don’t think about it any more, eat well and dress more like a woman. I mean, you’re twenty-six and your eggs won’t stay good forever. Be glad you live in Europe. If you lived in Rabat and Nador like your cousins, no man would ask to marry you. The country where you live determines your value so behave yourself and be a good woman. We’re going to Morocco this summer; you’ll find a good man there. When you get married and have kids, that nonsense will disappear from your head immediately. It’s that simple.’
Although my mother was from the city and my father was born in the Riff, she turned out to be more conservative than him. This was not in line with her own upbringing, because her mother had attended school until she was fifteen and worked for a while as a nurse, after which she devoted herself to her family. She taught her daughters to be independent. My mother forgot all that when she came to Europe with her husband. Here she found a group of Moroccans who created a mosque, which she was the centre of. Like-minded people with ideas predating the Middle Ages.
Marriage was sacred; girls were a disgrace until the wedding night proved the opposite. Islam was the all-conquering wave on which they floated until the end was in sight. The unlucky ones talked about death. The lucky ones talked about the villas they had just built in Tangier.
I was the first-born, and not only did I get the responsibility, I was always aware of my mother’s tense glances as she nervously watched me grow up and reach puberty. I was sixteen when she tried to marry me off to her cousin in Morocco. He was enthusiastic, because you didn’t turn down a residence permit. Because that’s what I was: a walking residence permit. When I walked down the street in Morocco, I saw the looks from handsome and less handsome men, who knew at a glance that I was a foreigner. They didn’t see my long hair, my light brown eyes and my pert breasts. They saw Europe.
I only knew this when my cousin told me. Not out of love, her harsh words were filled with jealousy. I had the opportunity to marry before her. She would probably never know that happiness. I closed my eyes to the fortune hunters and tried to see only the country, the magnificence and the sun. But the older I got, the heavier the pressure. Until I was twenty-four, then the stream of marriage proposals dried up considerably, to my mother’s frustration. I was too old. But she persisted. And I rejected everything. When she threatened, I fought back with the Koran and the Hadith, in which was clearly written that a daughter could not be coerced into marriage. My knowledge was a thorn in her side. Even though I often cursed her, I thought, or actually wanted to think, that she had the best intentions for me. It was her way of leaving her daughter behind and looked after, without any stain of gossip on my soul that could compromise the family honour.
I told her I was not happy and she talked through me, which I had partly expected. How could she understand something she was not open to?
The evening meal was a ritual, with all the children around a big plate, many fingers dipping bread in the tahine and then greedily swallowing it. Seven children. Everyone was still living at home. I had expected the boys to find their own accommodation when they reached eighteen. That’s what I would have done. But they were free and that’s why they stayed where they were. They were allowed to do what I was not and deep down I hated my brothers, the princes, because they didn’t appreciate the thing of greatest value in a human life.
From the time I was young I dreamed of freedom. I wanted to travel, I wanted money, I wanted a car, and I wanted my own house in a city, far from where I had spent my youth. In a place where there were no Moroccans, because I was tired of the gossip.
I kept myself going with dreams of the future and in doing so forgot the present.
Suddenly I was twenty-six and was working as an editor on a trade journal. A job I was good at. Correction: had been good at. Suddenly I couldn’t handle the deadlines any more, the interviewing just got worse, and at meetings the words just went over my head. I couldn’t take anything in. If I was asked a question, I became incapacitated with fear. I didn’t know what to say. Afterwards I would sit at my desk looking at my list of deadlines, while in the meantime things were just piling up, often without me being told. There was so much. I couldn’t handle it any more. I was passive, afraid, it was like I was paralysed.
I cried when I had to go to work, and the nearer I got to the building, the more my body shook with sorrow, fear and powerlessness. I had lost control of my own life.
It couldn’t go on. I couldn’t get out of bed any more. In the morning I was crying so much that I couldn’t call my employer. My sister had to do it for me. I was ashamed. What must they think of me?
This was a week after the conversation with my mother. She didn’t understand. Nor did my father, but he never mixed with the family anyway. He had worked until the muscles of his back seized up painfully and permanently and he came to sit at home with a pension. To his great frustration. When he had driven my mother mad from hanging around the house all the time, he visited his friends in the community centre and later he leased a piece of land from the council, where he grew vegetables. He took his transistor radio with him when he went there. So he could listen to Moroccan football broadcasts as he worked. He did not live in the here and now either. In his thoughts he was in Nador. The land where he had walked as a child would be the land where he was buried. Sometimes I think he longed for death. Who did I get it from? From him or my mother?
I lay in bed. I just wanted to sleep, even though I hadn’t managed to do that for a long time. I had lain awake on nights in which I tortured myself with the pain I felt deep inside. Would it ever pass? The next day I visited my doctor; an old, grey man who did not like to ever prescribe pills and advised everyone to drink warm milk for their ailments. Until my mother once exploded in anger.
‘All that money on medical insurance and then I come here and I’m supposed to drink milk? Did you study agricultural science instead of medicine? In Morocco they prescribe medicine when you go to the doctor. My niece in France gets mountains of pills and I’m supposed to drink milk? I don’t even like milk!’
The good old doctor saw there was no way of dealing with this hysteria. From then on, whenever she came in he grabbed his prescription forms. As my mother told him what was wrong with her, he scribbled on his paper after which she went home with a satisfied smile.
But that was my mother. I sat opposite him and braced myself. I wanted to sleep and hoped for a prescription.
‘What can I do for you, Hind?’
I immediately started to cry. And I couldn’t stop until he pressed a piece of paper into my hand. There was a name and a telephone number written on it.
‘Call her. She’s a good psychiatrist. She can help you.’
Sobbing, I stood up and walked to the door, extremely disappointed because I hadn’t gotten my medicine, until I realised that he had recommended me to a psychiatrist and not a psychologist. The former could prescribe pills. Somewhat relieved, I walked into the chilly autumn air and rang her immediately.
She had a waiting list. Two weeks before it was my turn. How could I get through that time? I was near despair.
I was not the only one. At home I saw that my aunts were there. They were sitting on either side of my mother on the beige leatherette couch, their faces full of concern. They looked at me as if I was about to die at any moment.
‘Hind,’ said my elder aunt. ‘Have you got the shivers?’
‘Do you feel a presence in this room?’ asked the younger aunt eagerly.
Although separated in age by fifteen years, they were identical. Right down to the wrinkles.
‘Your mother has heard you talking with a man’s voice at night.’
My mother nodded vigorously.
I stared at her, my mother, slack with surprise.
‘Your brother says you’re sick in the head,’ said the aunts at the same time, as if they had rehearsed it. As they said it they tightened their colourful scarves around their heads, without taking their eyes off me. I had landed in a Moroccan inquisition. The next step was clear. My aunts held magic in high esteem, believed in it completely. In Morocco they were always visiting practitioners of magic who were supposed to make them healthier, wealthier and luckier. They had spent many dirhams on this, without any result. But you couldn’t say that to them.
‘I want to lie in bed. I’m sick,’ I said, and turned away.
‘Something has found its way into your spirit, that’s why we called Lala Selma. She’ll be here in a minute.’
Naturally, at that moment, the doorbell rang.
A woman in her fifties entered, dressed in a blue djellaba and with a yellow scarf artfully wrapped around her head. Her face was a smooth brown, apart from some blue-green tattoos on her forehead, nose and chin. A tribal custom from the south of Morocco. Every region had its own traditions. Her Berber identity was engraved on her face.
‘Let’s get to work straightaway,’ said the woman and she lit incense and white decorated candles. ‘Lie down.’
‘On the ground,’ she snapped.
I sighed and did what she asked. The sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could withdraw to my room. I was exhausted, my body was limp and my mind was fuzzy, as if I had taken psychedelic drugs. I had no energy to resist.
The woman gave me something to eat. It tasted herbal, old and stale. I gagged, but she pushed the stuff back into my mouth when it slipped out. Then came litres of water. She read out verses as she rocked her head to and fro.
‘Your daughter is possessed by a Jew.’
A shock went through the room.
‘Possessed?’ I said, as I tried to sit up. Where did she get that idea from?
‘SSSSSHHH.’ Roughly, she pushed me back down.
‘The Jew is not alone. There’s a woman in there too. An infidel, a kufar. She’s playing with her soul and that Jew is strengthening her. I can help, but I’ll have to bring over special herbs. They cost two thousand euro.’
Another shock went through the room.
‘Maybe we should have a collection in the mosque,’ said the younger aunt. My mother shook her head fiercely. ‘Then the whole community will know that my daughter is possessed. Who will want to marry her then? She has a good job, she can pay it.’
‘I certainly won’t,’ I shouted. ‘I’m going to the psychiatrist, at least that’s covered by the insurance.’
The charlatan stood up and pulled her djellaba back on. ‘I’ll hear from you if you want to use my services. Two thousand euro is nothing compared to the health of your child.’
My mother nodded, the aunts embraced her and she left for the next victim. I withdrew to my room and decided not to leave it for the time being. My sisters Sanaa and Dina would be home from work around dinnertime. Just a little time to be alone.
Burnout. That’s what the company doctor said. ‘Take a break. Two months in any case. Your hard disc is full.’
He asked if I had a psychiatrist. I nodded. He scribbled something on a notepad, stood up and shook my hand. His eyes drilled deeply into mine. It was as if a fire of compassion was flaring up in them. But maybe I just thought that. No doubt he saw dozens of people every day with the same ailments as me.
Two months at home. Seven children and two parents, in a three-roomed apartment. A gastarbeider house in one of the immigrant neighbourhoods of which the Netherlands has so many. The very thought made me suffocate. I walked to the park and sat on a bench, staring into nothingness. It got cooler, the sun was gradually sinking. My mobile phone rang. I didn’t answer. I didn’t have the energy. I actually wanted to go home, but I couldn’t move. No energy, no strength. ‘If only I could die here.’ The wind took my words and played with the branches of the trees. The rustling of the leaves soothed me till my eyes gradually closed. My mobile rang again. I rummaged in my bag and saw the name ‘Bettien’ lighting up.
This time I answered the call.
We sat in Bettien’s grubby attic flat in a working-class neighbourhood not far outside the rings of canals. She took a pull of her joint, inhaling deeply. Her blonde hair hung in strands in front of her face. She smelled of old soap. Although her face had collapsed, she had something beautiful, something fragile. The little rich girl who had given short shrift to her background. An alternative spirit. I envied her.
‘Of course you’re depressive, ‘ she said, almost contemptuously. ‘Can’t believe you didn’t even know that. All those sicknesses, those stomach aches, the attacks of flu, the headaches. Your body was already sick and when those bacteria had worn down your body, it was your mind’s turn. I knew it, everyone knew it, except you.’
I listened. Didn’t have the strength to contradict her.
‘My father is depressive too,’ I said.
‘Of course your father is depressive. I could see that already ten years ago. The way he schleps round, the bent back, the heavy breathing as if he’s carrying hundreds of kilos on his back like a pack mule. Of course he’s not happy. What did you expect?’
Bettien laughed hoarsely. ‘What do you think?’
‘Everyone at home is sick,’ I said. ‘And no one sees it. No one recognises it.’ Bettien gave me her joint. I inhaled and filled my lungs with the forbidden smoke. It didn’t do anything for me.
Bettien, the failed sociology student, sat there in her stoned state, the words tumbling out like sludge. I leant against the sofa and closed my eyes.
‘More than seventy per cent of Muslim immigrants are chronically depressed.’
‘How do you know that?’ I asked. ‘Where do you get your figures?’
She didn’t answer, but continued tirelessly with her analysis.
‘They came here some time in the 1960s or ’70s. Completely dislocated and hard-working. The family followed, with a mother who was the woman no one knew, who brought child after child into the world. Big families, with little money, and what was over was sent to Morocco or Turkey. What kept them going was the dream of return. But as we know, only a very small percentage returned. The rest are here, trapped in an unrealisable dream, in a world which is not theirs. Oversized families in undersized apartments, with mothers who were profoundly melancholy during their pregnancies. Stress hormones were passed onto the foetus. Babies got older, the children naturally assumed the mother’s melancholy. Mama can’t deal with everything. Papa pays no attention to the family. The sons are sent out to play in the street, until way past dusk, not knowing what they were up to, as they were following a tradition they knew from the land of origin. The streets take care of the children. But here, in individualistic Europe, that didn’t happen.
‘Sons are unmanageable because they have never been given boundaries, are never given love or affirmation. Or are actually too spoiled. The daughters are seen as a risk and precisely because of this there is no trust in these families.’
‘You’ve no idea what you’re talking about,’ I said, irritated.
Bettien looked at me, her lips curled into a mocking smile.
‘I see it in you, in my neighbours, in your neighbours. What those unmanageable street kids need is not a policeman with a club, but a psychologist who draws out their unhappiness, so that they know why they feel the way they do. Your community is mentally ill. And with those empty marriages it’s going to stay that way. A partner who doesn’t speak the language here and feels trapped. People get stuck in that socio-economic malaise, so that they can’t give their children what they have a right to. Hind, demand your freedom and live! As long as you follow the path of your parents, you’ll be living their lives. Break away from it, without losing contact with them. Get a house of your own, find a nice guy and live for once, without always feeling responsible for a family which will never recognise your generosity. I see suffering everywhere on the street. And when a fucking Moroccan calls me a fucking whore, I never feel anger, but compassion. The parents feed their children. But forget to raise them. Those children are neglected. Just like you.’
‘I told my mother I was unhappy.’
Bettien leant forward, curious.
‘She brought in a seherra for me.’
‘A practitioner of black magic.’’
‘Just like the time you had convulsions and your aunts thought you were possessed by a devil?’
‘This was a different one. The first one asked for five hundred euro. This one wanted two thousand.’
‘Crazy,’ she whispered, and, shaking her head, rolled another joint.
I was lying in bed at home, with the sweat-soaked sheets wrapped tightly around me. I was cold. Freezing cold. I needed to shower, but didn’t like the idea of getting up. I couldn’t handle anything any more, nor did I want to, I just wanted to lie there with my eyes closed.
Sanaa sat down beside me with a cup of tea in her hand. ‘Here, this’ll warm you up.’
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t eat any more and I didn’t feel like anything sweet.
‘Mama is worried there’s something wrong with you.’
‘Tell her I’m not possessed. I’m just a bit sick.’
‘When will you be better then?’ asked my sister with an anxious voice.
‘Maybe I’ll die of sorrow…’ I cried dramatically.
Sanaa placed her hand on my shoulder and stroked it.
‘Stop, my body hurts.’
My mobile rang. Sanaa stood up.
‘Here, someone for you.’
‘No, leave me alone.’
‘Answer it, Hind.’
‘Who is it?’
She shrugged. ‘An unknown number.’
I took the phone from her. There was a woman’s voice at the other end of the line. It was the psychiatrist.
My mother went with me. She wore her black djellaba with matching headscarf. Her face was deathly white. She was worried, but didn’t say anything. The psychiatrist’s practice was in a business park. I parked my car and walked in with painful slowness. In the waiting room I leafed through a magazine. My mother glared at me. I pretended not to see her. I would have preferred her to stay at home, but as soon as she knew I was going to a shrink, she was determined to accompany me.
We followed the tall blonde woman to her room. It was tastefully furnished with all kinds of objets d’art, which my mother looked at with raised eyebrows.
‘Did her children make those?’ she asked in Arabic.
I didn’t react but took a seat.
‘Hind, you made an appointment because you’re suffering from burnout. Can you tell me…’
I interrupted her. To the best of my ability I told her that I felt dead inside.
‘It actually started quite gradually. I felt suddenly flat. I could no longer see the sun and the trees. Everything was grey and dull. Two weeks later, when I woke up I could only cry. The mornings are the worst. It’s an awful feeling. I can’t even work any more. I can’t handle deadlines, can’t interview people any more. I drink, block it all out. I’m so unhappy.’
Beside me, my mother suddenly started crying. The psychiatrist stared at her.
‘I too pain in heart, I old and sick. When I die, my husband send me back in coffin to Morocco and then marry sixteen-year-old girl. Men dogs!’
I stared at her, speechless. There was no stopping her. It all came out. How she had felt alone when she was first in Holland. Only when her sisters came to the Netherlands did she get some peace. But she still felt alone. All her pregnancies were hellish and she missed her mother. She missed the Moroccan soil from which she had sprung. She was afraid of the community which was always judging her. She wasn’t free and didn’t know how to protect her children. Her tears were louder than mine. I wanted to put my arm around her shoulder but I couldn’t move, I felt so uncomfortable. The psychiatrist wrote it all down. She listened to her and when towards the end of the session my mother had nothing left to say, the psychiatrist looked at me.
‘I’m going to prescribe anti-depressants for you both.’
‘Both of us?
‘Yes, both of you. It’ll take a few weeks, then you’ll feel relief. But the dose may well have to be increased, or you may need other drugs.’
‘Can I have a sleeping pill too please? I’m so tired.’
‘What’s she saying?’ asked my mother.
‘You’re getting pills.’
A smile appeared on her face. Medicines were the magic word.
‘Pill to be happy? Is that possible?’
I nodded and gratefully accepted the prescription from the doctor.
‘I’ll make an appointment with you both. Separately. I advise you to do something creative, painting or writing. You need to keep busy. Keep a diary, or write a story. Bit by bit. You have to go for a walk every day for half an hour at least. Go out, mix with people. If you snooze, you lose.’
‘Will it be okay?’ I asked.
She smiled and stood up to open the door.
‘Everything will be okay if you do what I say.’
I’m sitting in my room with my pill in my hand. A chemical intended to make me feel happy again, to bring back my inner calm, to drive out anxiety. Is it really possible? But can that really also bring about what I’ve been looking for all my life: my freedom?