An extract translated from the French by Rita S. Nezami

I never fought, not even with my own brother. Trading blows and dodging in self-defense, hurling myself forward at the risk of getting hurt, rolling on the ground in dust and stones, getting hit while fighting at full force to get the upper hand, pulling myself to my feet drenched in sweat, feeling the elation and pride of winning, walking away confidently in my tattered shirt without glancing back while casually wiping a trickle of blood from my nose, leaving victorious in the eyes of admiring boys. All this, I never experienced.

As a sick child, I dreamed a life. I spent more than three years lying on my back in a large couffin, watching the sky and scrutinising the ceiling. I easily got tired of clouds; I preferred the empty sky. As for the painted wooden ceiling, it did not excite my daydreaming. I watched it without seeing it, trying to figure out its arabesques, making up more complicated and less logical patterns. My eyes absorbed these repetitive and quivering designs that I rearranged so that I could disturb their order and symmetry. All through the day, I recreated these flowing drawings. I gathered them in incredible disarray in my head and then placed them on the zelliges mosaic engraved on the walls. Sometimes I would keep these designs inside me; I took them into my sleep, where they served as an entrance to my dreams. My evenings were long and intense. I passed them slowly, on tiptoe; I danced on a tightrope, always on the same one, the one that I stretched between dusk and dawn. My acrobatics were often risky acts. I was my one and only spectator. I was afraid, but the fear gave me pleasure. I chased my dreams across the tightrope, my arms extended, and legs stiff and at the same time flexible, drawing half circles as I moved forward. These short and precise movements left traces in the air like circles of light, sometimes green, sometimes yellow. I performed my acrobatics in the dark; the complete solitude made me feel good. I repeated the same exercise several times, as if I were preparing to dance before a knowledgeable and demanding audience. I hated being disturbed while I was on my tightrope. I wanted to shine, but if cruelty struck and I fell back to my couffin, I wanted to be the only one responsible for my fate. Each night I took greater and greater risks by raising the tightrope higher and higher. Some nights, I kept the rope’s height the same, but risked more difficult exercises. That is how I became familiar with the stars that shone on me until dawn. My audacious nights remained with me throughout the following day.

This prolonged stay in the couffin that served as my bed and dwelling did not prevent me from living. I didn’t have my own room. My mother dragged me around practically everywhere in the house while she cleaned or cooked. My eyes followed her every step and movement. Like a bee, she moved around quickly, humming to herself. As she worked, she talked to me. She didn’t tell me stories; rather, she talked to me about her life. Confined to my couffin, I listened to her. I didn’t respond, but she could see very well that I listened carefully. She used to call me ‘light of my eyes’ or ‘my little liver’ or ‘my very own gazelle.’ Liver, gazelle… in Arabic these words are feminine. This did not make me very happy. Even though I was ill and condemned to a life of agony, to a kind of slow and gradual disappearance, I didn’t want to be mistaken for a girl; especially because during that period of my life—I must have been four or five years old—the feminine sex was not much of a secret to me. I considered it as something desirable, prohibited, and a sinful domain, something that God and my family forbade me. I didn’t want to be mistaken for a girl so as not to be associated with sin, or more exactly, someone coveted because of sin. I didn’t have any doubts about it, but without realising it, my hand would sometimes slip inside my pyjamas to feel my penis and caress it. These feminine words echoed for a long time in my head; they had the power to empty my skull of all else and bang against my head. I think my migraines used to come from these words. I found these tender words, spoken among the dishes, somewhat heavy. But I didn’t complain; I accepted it in silence and tried to turn my mind to other things. The truth is I didn’t like the kitchen, which was not at all comfortable, and I especially disliked the mornings when the sun tormented me too early. In contrast to the tightrope on which I danced and played at catching stars, the morning found me dumped like a lifeless object, incapable of reacting, left next to the bunches of mint leaves and tomatoes, some of which were crushed under the weight of other vegetables. Nothing seemed practical in this kitchen. My mother was always bending over or crouching. She wore herself out, but never complained. Now and then she would straighten up, throw back her shoulders, place her hands on her hips and try to shake off the fatigue. Then she resumed her work with a bee’s energy and vitality. I liked the late mornings, however; it was the time when the steam and aroma from the cooking pots put me in a good mood. I liked watching the impatient coals in the kanoun. Sometimes, I felt a little suffocated, so I would leave to slip back to my daydreaming, which I had left suspended since the night before. I helped her cook food, which I wasn’t allowed to eat.

Thus, from the age of four to seven, I did nothing but observe everything. I knew by heart the walls, the doors, the windows, and the sky above our house. The open courtyard was square, with a wretched lemon tree planted in the middle that yielded about ten little green lemons a year. The tree was there for no compelling reason. We got used to seeing it there, dry and stubborn in its exile. I was able to move around in my couffin by swinging back and forth, balancing myself and moving forward by leaning on my hands. It was like a little car without tyres, but there was a small mirror that served as a rear-view. After my mornings in the kitchen, I spent the afternoons in the living room where I untangled the patterns of my dreams. I prepared myself for the evening, putting things in order in my head for the voyage through the night. Women, aunts, or my mother’s friends came to spend time at our house. They talked a lot and with surprising openness. I was not always nice to them. Pretending to be dozing, I spied on them closely and recorded their secrets, their most intimate confessions. There was Aïcha, the brunette, caressing her full breasts while talking about her unfulfilled nights. She was our nearest neighbour and was married to a very thin old man. He used to leave home very early in the morning and return late in the evening. Aïcha could easily have been his daughter. He understood this, and instead of making love to her, he beat her. He would switch on the radio and turn the volume all the way up to muffle his wife’s screams. The man never spoke to anyone; he crossed the street and kept a low profile. Aïcha excited me, especially when she got up to dance, mimicking the caresses and frolics of love; she swivelled her haunches, drawing attention to her fleshy belly, as she lightly passed her hands over her hips.

There was the fair Zineb who untangled her long hair while talking about how impatient, hurried and brief her husband was. She said he had the ‘desire of a bird’ and that his hot blood cooled down all too soon. Zineb intrigued me. I would have liked to possess her, to sleep between her thighs, lay my warm and image-inflamed head on her belly. I would have liked to give her the ineffable sensation of penetrating her body, slowly and wholly, to flood her with slow, thick and moist heat, just what it would take to make her dizzy and spin like a tamed little star on the palm of my hand. I would have liked to caress her nape, armpits, bellybutton, then take her by the waist and bring her softly back to earth while her snoring husband struggled through some nightmare.

There was Rouquiya, the slender and silent woman. She never said anything, but her eyes shone with intelligence. She listened with her eyes, and from time to time, made a gesture with her hand as if to say all this did not matter, that she was having a secret love affair, silent, hidden from family and talkative friends; that love is a faraway garden where she lost herself, slept half-clad, legs slightly parted to receive the caresses of the wind and grass. There she waited for a man or a woman who came wearing a veil, covered her with a woollen burnous before kissing her at length on the mouth and placing a hot hand on her bare belly. She would never know whether this hand, this mouth, belonged to a hungry mountaineer or a young girl burning with passion. This same hand would lift the burnous; this same mouth would lightly touch the perfumed and shaved pubis, linger on the wet lips of her sex, kiss them softly, and satisfy her desire through a beautiful violence. Rouquiya would bite her lips and roll on the humid grass with the mysterious stranger. She would close her eyes to avoid recognising the person so that she never had to give him or her a face, age or sex. Only her body offered to the sun and wind would be touched, caressed, given love bites by the other absolutely anonymous body without words, without outbursts, with a naked tenderness that would turn this place and these encounters into an eternal and immortal secret. Rouquiya kept quiet about all her adventures. She felt as though she were heading toward an abyss, but instead of falling into a fatal descent, she found herself flying and gliding, propelled by the wind and pulled by the hand of the veiled face.

And I, pale and calm, observed her and tried to draw her attention to me. I found my way to her and penetrated her intimate thoughts, becoming a part of her secret, a witness to her passion and keeper of her garden. We did not exchange words. Everything was said through long silences. I was afraid of not being good enough for her, of being replaced someday by some other keeper who might be more passionate and even more ingenious than I. She became my passion during these voyages, and every time she left, I knew better than she the lightning that threatened her Secret Empire.

There was also Hénya, a fat woman who often bent over my couffin to kiss me. It used to suffocate me, and with my frail hands I tried to push her back. It felt as though the two halves of a gate were going to bang against my face and smash it—my head would get stuck between her breasts. She was always sweaty, even in the winter. I reacted by grimacing and looking for Rouquiya, with whom I had established a silent and remarkable complicity. Hénya was a second wife, and she lived alone. She saw her husband on even days. She managed to arrange with the other wife to let her have the husband on days when Hénya had her period. There was a mutual understanding between the two women. They swore to each other never to leave the man alone, not even for a single night of repose, until the situation became unbearable for him. The women wanted him to realise that he was not capable of having two young wives who are both exceptionally sensual. They must have exchanged methods to tire him and gradually destroy not only his authority but also his virility.

Hénya frightened me. She was a white ogress with a slight moustache. Her voice terrified me. When she climbed up to the rooftop to watch the sunset, she was out of breath and thoroughly soaked in sweat. The other women made fun of her. She laughed and joked as if it were nothing. She described how she held her husband’s head captive between her thighs, rubbing it vigorously until she hurt him; how she then turned him over and physically dominated him by being on top, which risked crushing his ribcage; how after that she made him scream with pleasure by sliding a candle up his ass. She recounted all this by making gestures and mimicking the scene. She was dangerous, but could pull people’s heartstrings when she moaned about being barren.

Rouquiya could make me travel through her eyes alone. I waited feverishly for her visits. She was the only one who knew how to join me in the meadow, or rather to take me to her secret garden. I was, after all, badly brought up, or not brought up at all—there was no time for my education—and the first thing I used to do when we went to the garden was put my hand inside her seroual and place it on her pubis. She let me do as I pleased, but I did not know if she approved. One day my fingers touched the humid lips of her sex, and I had a strange sensation. My hand was used to feeling something warm and soft, yet that day I drew it out quickly to discover my fingers covered in blood. I started to cry and asked her to forgive me, telling her that I didn’t mean to hurt her and especially not wound her. How could my delicate fingers scratch and wound this most precious part of the garden? She laughed and consoled me by saying, ‘It’s my Aunt… she arrived yesterday… I didn’t expect her this early… In three days she’ll be gone, and you can put your hand and even your head there without getting soiled!’ She wiped my fingers with an embroidered handkerchief and then raised it to her lips.

Once, she didn’t come to our house for two weeks. For the first time, I understood the pain someone’s absence can cause. I didn’t think anymore about my physical sufferings with which I had more or less come to terms. I overcame the physical pain, put it out of my way; but the pain I experienced due to Rouquiya’s absence was unbearable, especially because a secret pact was established between us. We had made a deal that I would not, under any circumstances, ask after her. So I suffered in silence and waited. At night, I would fall asleep, neglecting the tightrope. I was no longer in the mood to play tightrope walker. I was lost in a desert. I felt tortured and could no longer see our garden on the horizon. One evening, as I was getting ready to sleep, I decided not to take my medicines and stare into the darkness with my eyes wide open until dawn. For a long time, I remained awake and waited. She appeared as a luminous image, radiant and mysterious. Could it have been a hallucination? It probably was. I didn’t really want to know. She approached my couffin and held out her hand toward me. I was lifted, almost drawn, by some kind of magnetic force. She took me far away, very far, neither to a garden nor to a desert. I felt us slowly descending toward a spring or light. It was a very deep spring. The water was hot and produced a pleasant steam. She made me drink a bowl of this water, which must have had some healing powers. She undressed me and washed me for a long time. I did not understand very well if she was caressing or just washing my body. She then took me in her arms and put my legs around her neck. My little penis was against her face; I clung to her hair while her mouth played with my sex. Her mouth felt very soft;

I could not feel her teeth; she moved her lips to my belly, my arms, my neck, and here she stopped; she never kissed me on my lips.

Such a long and painful absence surely deserved exceptional reunion. Because of my nightly escapades, which sometimes began in the late afternoon, I gave up my tightrope acrobatics. I spent my days waiting and getting ready for these clandestine escapes.

I liked her name: It was fun to repeat the three syllables over and over in different tones. Loubaba. Lou-Ba-Ba. Try saying it yourself; you will see that saying her name offers a great sensual pleasure. Loubaba aji daba; Loubaba hak hada; Loubaba khoud hada; Loubaba hahoua ja; Lou-Ba-Ba; Ba-Ba-Lou; Ba-Lou-Ba; Lou-Ba-Lou-Ba. Loubaba had neither big breasts nor long hair. Daughter of a concubine, she was brought from Senegal by a rich businessman from Fez. Her skin was dusky, her eyes sparkling and full of life. Her timidity made her awkward and at times uncomfortable in the company of this group of women. She always sat at the sloping far end of the mattress, close to the door, with arms folded and legs crossed, thus making herself small and discreet, ready to leave without disturbing anyone. She had been married off to a one-eyed craftsman who gave her two children and then disappeared, abandoning her. She lived with her mother, who still didn’t speak any Arabic, so people communicated with her through sign language. My mother liked Loubaba a lot; she offered her dresses that she didn’t wear any longer and often invited her to our house. When my mother went to the bathhouse or attended weddings, Loubaba watched over me. She would sit by my couffin, often playing cards with me. She enjoyed playing like a child. Her skin fascinated me. Pretending to be changing my position, I pressed myself against her bare arm and let my head lean on it. I loved feeling this very soft skin, caressing it while saying her name. I knew she was stuck with two children, and maybe that’s why I never took off with her at night. Tired of always lying down, I asked her one day when we were alone if she would carry me on her back. Nimbly, she kneeled, and I clambered on. First, I put my arms around her neck, and then I slipped them inside the front of her dress until I reached her breasts. They were small, yet firm. Holding them, I experienced a great and beautiful sensation of sweetness. I placed my head on her shoulder and fell asleep. To be more exact, I closed my eyes and let myself be led to the forest, the one I had managed to set up close to Rouquiya’s garden. Loubaba hummed a kind of sad lullaby, but it didn’t bother me. Hidden in one corner of the forest was a spring. After arriving there, she placed me near a tree and got ready to bathe herself. From a shy and reserved girl, she became free, joyful and even happy. Coming in contact with trees and water totally transformed her. She started taking off her robe delicately and hung it on a branch. Then she took off her seroual, folded it and placed it on a rock. She moved slowly toward the spring, and then, filling her cupped hands with water, she let it trickle down her body. Laughing, she splashed some water on me. She didn’t try to hide her nudity at any moment. My eyes were wide open, and I was stamping my feet in my corner, dying to touch her body, bathe it and find refuge in it. This intense excitement troubled my vision. I began to see double; I could no longer stay in place. My hands reached out for her hips and I ran them along her back as I rubbed it dry. She asked me to massage her back, which I did, and then I slipped my fingers between her buttocks, rubbing instead of caressing. I was nervous and had lost my voice. Suddenly, with a quick movement, she removed my hand and gave me a severe glance. The game was over. She got dressed quickly and pulled me up on her back again. Tired and disappointed, I fell deeply asleep.

Loubaba! The few words that you spoke came to me as though in a half sleep, incomplete and perfumed. I loved your warm, muffled voice, the voice of your solitude and your wandering. You continued carrying me on your back and caressing my head as the group of women went up to the rooftop.

Looking at the sky, the women counted stars and made wishes. They talked to each other in low voices as they ate cakes and drank tea. With their small talk, their sweet and moving lies, and honeysuckle flowers, they embroidered a huge cloth. As in a ritual, each of them contributed her part of the dream and placed it on this cloth that stretched across the rooftops, placing forbidden words on it, ignoring the silence imposed by men. And I listened, quietly lying in my couffin next to my mother. I didn’t dream during these moments; I watched each of these women’s gestures. The setting sun made them look calm, free, and self-confident. One day, I saw a neighbour reaching across the rooftop wall to give my mother a lit cigarette. The smoke nearly choked her. Everybody laughed except me. I felt ashamed of her behaviour. My mother should have stayed away from such activities; she should have remained unapproachable and a stranger in my daydreams and fantasies. I was greatly disturbed by her action. Smoking! What audacity! I felt as though I had lost her. She had made a bold gesture, and that made me feel excluded; she no longer paid attention to me or to my reactions. The other women ignored me, too. They passed the cigarette to each other; Aïcha got up and danced; Rouquiya joined her, putting her arms around her waist and making suggestive movements. They were on their own, each taking turns to be man and woman. Rouquiya’s hands lingered on Aïcha’s breasts, making her laugh. Women from the neighbouring rooftops sang and kept time with their hands. Night slowly crawled in and put an end to the party.

Aïcha, Zineb, Rouquiya, Hénya, and Loubaba will not reappear in this story. Their faces opened up a path for me. If I keep them waiting, I shall feel obliged to dig up more memories, even from the years long past and almost unreal. Maybe they will reappear on their own, at a least-expected moment, and they may want to narrate their side of the story. For the time being, I prefer to remain in my couffin, lying on my back and watching the ceiling and listening to the sounds of life in the morning. I know that today my father has invited the husbands of Aïcha, Zineb, and Rouquiya for lunch. Loubaba came this morning to help my mother. I am in my corner, abandoned and melancholic. I will try to unmask each of these husbands. I already spoke to you about the old man who beats his young wife, Aïcha. He has just arrived. He is thin and dry. He takes off his babouches, says ‘Bismi Allah,’ and walks into the sitting room. He is the only one present at the moment. He looks me as though I am some kind of bundle, an interesting object. I stare back at him. He lowers his eyes and pretends to be looking for something in his seroual pocket. He pulls out a folded handkerchief and blows his nose. Then he looks up at the ceiling and coughs. He crosses his legs and puts his hand back into the pocket. His hands are yellow. Taking his prayer beads, he starts telling them nervously. Why are his hands this colour? Is he a dyer, a carpenter, or a grocer? Since he arrived, I can smell spices. Maybe it’s saffron. It must be. He looks at me again and lowers his eyes. These are the same hands that abuse Aïcha’s nubile body. These are the same dry hands that beat her. These are the dull eyes that linger on her nude body and appreciate neither its light nor beauty. This secretive man suspects that his wife does not love him and obeys him only out of fear. He suspects, and he is not wrong. Aïcha deserves someone better, but that’s not how things are. She is waiting for him to pass away, yet he’s not ready to die. His yellow hands frighten me. They don’t smell of wood, so he is not a carpenter. They don’t smell of cumin or ginger. They stink of saffron. I am sure about it now. He washes dead bodies. Not a very pleasant profession. He stands up, and that too scares me. He comes near me, which makes me tremble. He bends over, his odour suffocating me. He asks me to indicate the direction of Mecca. I point toward the lemon tree in the courtyard. I push him away. I get rid of him. I throw him out of the sitting room. I detest him and think about Aïcha who has to tolerate this gruesome odour. He takes the prayer rug and goes out to the courtyard. I make use of this opportunity to move away. I push myself forward with difficulty. I still can’t stand on my feet. Painfully, I get to the kitchen. My mother is bent over the kanoun, blowing into it. There is a lot of smoke. Loubaba too is bent over and blowing. They don’t pay any attention to me. I move further into the kitchen and spill a bucket of water. My mother gets angry. She doesn’t like these guests, and I can understand why. I tell her that the old man is praying, and then I add that he is a washer of dead bodies. She pretends not to hear me. I don’t want to make her panic, so I shut up and go back to the sitting room. Another guest has just arrived; he is talking to the old man. This man is a little fat and flabby. He looks well fed and seems proud of his potbelly. He must be Zineb’s husband, the one with the ‘desire of a bird.’ He must have a small sex organ. He is not exactly fat but somewhat fleshy. He moves his hands around as he talks. His hands are thick. He is sweating. I can smell it. He is sitting with his legs parted. I can’t tell if he has a stammer or just speaks very fast. He must make love the same way he speaks: badly and quickly. It’s unlikely he lingers over Zineb’s superb body. He is a jeweller. It’s strange; he does not seem to have any finesse for selling gold. Women probably do not often go to his jewellery store. I know this to be true because my uncle is also a jeweller. He is, above all, a seducer. This man must drive women away with his thick voice and the pearls of perspiration on his forehead. His customers are mostly from the countryside. He does not stand a chance with the refined bourgeois of Fez. Zineb is also from the countryside, but she has adapted to city life.

A distinguished-looking man arrives, wearing perfume and white clothes. While crossing the courtyard, he covers his face by lowering the hood of his djellaba to avoid seeing other men’s women. The man pats my cheek and offers me a twenty-rial note. He salutes everybody and greets my father by kissing his shoulder. He is a clever man. He must know how to seduce women. I think he is the beautiful Rouquiya’s husband; he must be. He seems to deserve her. They talk about religion and last Friday’s prayer during which the imam gave a courageous sermon. After a while, they stop talking and start eating. I watch them and think about my twenty-rial note: I could buy a dress for Loubaba, a perfume for Rouquiya, a scarf for Zineb, a handkerchief for Hénya, an embroidered belt for Aïcha… or a piece of land, a final resting place for my bones and my eyes.

Entire days spent in the couffin! That was reason enough for me to want to grow wings and fly toward different and strange lives. That’s why I learned to watch, listen, and fly. The feeling of fragility was not something I had to learn. I experienced it daily. I was only a transient being in my childhood.

At that time, the most competent doctor in the medina of Fez was a devoted healer who had been sent on pilgrimage to Mecca by some families he had treated. He was a good man. He examined me at length and then admitted that he didn’t understand my illness; he advised my parents to take me to Casablanca. My father sold the little house that he had inherited, and we set off for a tour of the country to consult doctors. I left behind my women and my tightrope. I kept with me only Rouquiya’s embroidered handkerchief.

Soon after leaving Fez, I discovered the sea. On that first day in a new place, the sea was grey and covered with a white veil. The sea seemed unreal to me. I was going to draw more new ideas from it for my nightly escapades.

Fragility: it was above all my undernourished body that started to turn into a small and transparent thing. Only my eyes grew larger. They filled my entire face.

Fragility: it was also the pitying look I got from others. Everyone felt obliged to treat me with caution, smile at me stupidly, pinch my cheeks and pretend to touch them lightly. They continuously reminded me that I could not be like other children, that I could neither dance nor play, and that I could not even be irritable. I was a little inanimate thing huddled in one corner of the house, a little bundle that terrified everyone because my entire life, a life refused and forbidden, was reflected in my eyes.

My scrutinising eyes frightened them all. As you already know, I could see everything, my eyes picking up everything in the minutest detail.

Fragility: it was my refuge and at the same time my defense. It was also a presence of the pain that invaded my bones and pushed me to the limits of tolerance. I never talked about this to the women who carried me to the forest or to the garden.

This painful condition was going to come to an end in an almost magical manner. Hands from elsewhere prepared me for a new birth. They whisked me away from the deathbed to put me on my feet and allowed me to run and join all the anonymous mass of children of the neighbourhood. A young Moroccan doctor who had just returned from France rescued me. He seemed like a man from another planet, sent by Destiny to cure a child who had already accepted death. The group of men whose wives I used to steal must have manipulated my destiny. My dream journeys were going to come to an end. I passed from one state to another. I became well. I could walk, eat, grow; I stopped dreaming. My nights became empty and black, like those of other people, without joy, without excess, filled with sleep that healed the body and dried-up desires. They tossed my couffin into a storeroom and enrolled me at a school. I no longer had my home or my female friends.

A few months later, I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a crash, followed by the sound of an explosion. My young doctor had just died in a car wreck. I spent the entire night praying for his soul. Early next morning, I announced the news to my parents and refused to go to school so that I could mourn. They thought I had gone crazy and that I had had a nightmare. I knew I was neither crazy nor a visionary. I only knew that my body and soul had remained in contact with the doctor whose hands had given me life.

From this time on, I became terrified by the idea of getting crushed in a mob. I didn’t play. I didn’t get into fights. I drew pictures. I held on to my brief and feverish memory of a childhood that I had just left behind.

Later, much later, I came to know physical violence, to withstand hardships, understand the body’s endurance; this body that I preserved, the one that I concealed by trying to maintain it in a state of subtle and delicate transparency.

Her husband, an army man, replaced our pregnant teacher. His name was Pujarinet. We had nicknamed him Jrana, meaning ‘frog.’ He was big, ugly, and mean. I remember he had very large hands that he used to hit my cheeks with a single blow. It felt like a double slap that left red marks on my face for the entire day. He also enjoyed striking our knuckles with his metal ruler. We regularly had to put out our hands for him to hit. To make things worse, he would hand over the ruler to one of us and oblige us to hit other boys he wanted punished. I didn’t tell my parents about this when I returned home in the evening. One day I came home in tears; I couldn’t bend my painful fingers. I had to tell my father all about it. His anger exceeded my expectations. He had never depended on anybody for my education. Unlike some parents who turned over their offspring to the schoolteacher while whispering into his ear, ‘You cut throats; I’ll bury,’ my father had said, ‘Watch out, fragile child.’ He grabbed a knife from the kitchen, warned the other parents, and went straight to the school. The caretaker told him to return early the following morning. My father wanted to kill this army guy. Several parents came to see him and talked him out of committing such an act of madness. When the leader of a faction of the Istiqlal party got involved in this matter, the situation took a political turn. The teacher got sent back to the barracks, and a young Moroccan teacher replaced him.

Despite my convalescent condition, I enjoyed school. I enjoyed it because it rescued me from the couffin. Recognised as delicate, I walked through life on tiptoe. When I went out to the street, I chose a corner where I could feel secure and observe others play and get hurt.

In our neighbourhood there were two kinds of kids: the weak ones who got the beatings and the ones who beat them up. Everything revolved around these two groups. The strong ones appeared to be larger in number. I belonged to neither group. I just watched, hidden in my corner. I noticed that jokes and insults always had a sexual reference and connotation: your mother’s vagina, your aunt’s open book, the religion of your sister’s ass, the giver, the seller of his ass . . .

There was Hmida, a guy from somewhere in Fez with a shaved head who declared himself ruler of our street. He boasted of having ‘had’ all the asses in one suburban neighbourhood. He also said that he took his victims to the cemetery so that he was left in peace. Often he cupped his hand on his fly to feel the weight of his package, as though to threaten those who might have doubts about it. Going past them, he put his middle finger between the ass cheeks of boys and girls, laughing smugly in a thick and satisfied tone. He liked those who resisted him and defended themselves. He was a brute who did not hesitate to exhibit his penis to scare little girls as they got water from the public fountain. I couldn’t understand why some kids allowed this guy to fool around with their asses. As I was afraid, I never interfered. I remained pasted against the damp wall. Once he said to me, ‘You seem pale and thin; you wouldn’t have a sister for me?’ Then one day he disappeared. We learned later that he had beaten a child from another neighbourhood and that the victim’s father caught him and nearly slit his throat, leaving his face scarred by a razor.

To keep myself occupied, I made a collapsible wooden stand from which I sold sweets, chewing gum, Bazookas, and lollipops at the doorstep of our house. I took as my partner my brother who went to the medina to buy the goods. We shared the profits; I don’t know if we made or lost money. In any case, we had fun and took our role as little grocers very seriously.

One day I received a big order for mint sweets from an old man who worked as the caretaker of a big, beautiful mansion. The boy who came to place the order insisted that the goods be delivered at the mansion. I put the stand inside our house and went

off to deliver candies to the old man. He paid me more than he had to and then asked me to sit next to him. I wasn’t a fool, and the malice in his eyes frightened me and made me feel uneasy. When he began sliding a hand down my back toward my bum, I made a violent movement to escape. I screamed with all my might when he caught me with his other hand. He let go of me, throwing sweets and a series of insults after me. I ran so fast that I passed our house without even realising it. I explained to my brother how the old man tried to touch my ass. Along with my cousins, we decided to teach the old man a lesson. Armed with slingshots and sticks, we invaded the entrance to his guardhouse; we hit him hard. He didn’t even try to defend himself. He kept laughing and saying, ‘Come. Come closer my angels, hit me, I love your blows!’

Since then, I have been wary of lascivious looks.