It all started when Baba came home from Cairo. That was when you got those crazy ideas, they say. At night in the coolness of our stone house the soft roar of trucks on the highway to Rabat came and went like ocean waves, and we whispered to one another through the curtain separating our rooms. (Like sleeping on a beach along the French Riviera! you said. Like working the docks of Marseille! I teased back.) Your visions of distant places along with a hearty stubbornness were a bad omen, a bad combination for a young woman from the valleys of Morocco—(said Mama with her arms lifted and outstretched, palms up, just as her mother had done to her in her youth). But sometimes, whenever you felt like it, you were quiet, even with me, your sweet chiot, your puppy—(if you said sit here, I sat, eat this, and I ate). Say what they will, but I say once in your entire life, that time after Cairo two years ago, you tired of dreaming aloud, and you became unreachable—a hard shell of a woman with endless black eyes to keep even me from knowing her thoughts.
And then you were gone.
Oh, my leader, my most beautiful sister! You were my shade at midday.
Baba had cut his trip short for the Eid and by coincidence the end of the harvest, an easy time of year to remember for the special way the indecipherable sounds and swirling odors and tastes stick to each other to form a memory.
The scene was a familiar one—a caravan of cousins from the city arrived, and a soccer game promptly began while I tended the spit and could only watch the game with envy as the roast sheep sizzled and crusted over.
You came out and stood beside me with Aunt Siman’s baby propped on your hip and a tray of sweet mint tea balanced in your hand.
“Go play,” you said to me. “The fire will keep itself for a time.”
I shook my head, knowing I would have only embarrassed myself with my flat feet and awkward manner of play and been subjected to ridicule by the other boys, many of them younger than I.
You sighed and told me to take a glass of tea. “Drink this, chiot,” you said, and I drank it all.
Traces of saffron in your hair and flour stuck to your reddened skin with your own sweat, you looked like the nomads who wander into the hammam bathhouse from the desert.You and Mama had been working since first light preparing the couscous, Uncle Othmane and Aunt Meryam brought honey and pistachio-rolled sweets made especially for their restaurant in the city, and everyone obedient and anticipating the moment the platters would appear on the table.
Indoors Fatima and her girls (those busybodies!) had staked out a corner, eyeing the holiday outfits and whispering between sips while by the open window Baba and Uncle sat on foldable chairs and played chess, their hefty thighs hanging over the edges. In the center of the sitting room some graying widows danced like spirited youth to the trilling of a reed melody, scratchy and loud, coming from Baba’s record player used only to play the old time music on holidays.
“Jamir,” you called out. “Turn that music off!”
After some moments, we gathered around—Mama and Baba, Auntie and Uncle, cousin Nadia, Fatima and the girls—all of us hoping to hear Baba, who had barely spoken ten words since returning home.
“Tell us about your trip to Egypt,” you insisted then shushed the children in the corner and told them to go outside immediately.
Baba looked up from his game and shifted uncomfortably.
“In Cairo I stayed for one week at the elegant Semiramis Hotel,” he began with a smile, “courtesy of Mr. Malek, a man I shall be doing more business with as soon as we get the approval of that pesky Trade Office.”
Naples, Cairo and Tangiers, his favorite cities—hot, messy places—were his greatest sources of trade. His money-making schemes had made us quite comfortable, yet Mama dissented for they took him far from home. (What can he do? you would whisper to me after they’d argued. Stay at some useless job, perhaps giving camel rides into the desert to tourists while she gleans our little piece of land?)
“The first day this kind gentleman took me on a tour to the countryside where we got caught in a great downpour that left veritable rivers of mud and scarlet streams to dodge along the roads. The water went up my boots then just as quickly disappeared.”
He paused then, a deliberate attempt to leave us anticipating the rest of his story perhaps or only to clear his throat.
“I spent most of my time in the city markets. You could spend a week looking through the stalls of the Cairo suq and still not see everything. The spice market, the hammering on copper pots, the colorful rugs, dancers and snake-charmers, motorbikes and donkeys. It was quite remarkable in a way all its own, though not unlike the suq at Fez. With this season there were flies everywhere, clinging to fresh lamb and camel heads hanging from hooks in the butchers’ stalls, and at every turn beggars, mostly children, sadly much like our own.”
Your eyes widened, and you grasped his arm, saying, “I have read of this, these people trying to buy a piece of bread to wipe their soup bowls. The government insists they are vagrants and immigrants so as to relieve themselves of their duty. These poor people have little means until some evil-doer leads them far from their homes into a life of begging and prostitution.”
Baba nodded in agreement. “It is the dark side of commerce in a world of wanderers. How can justice occur under these migratory circumstances? Today I see people from everywhere in my travels. The Spanish merchant and the Japanese banker, the American tourist buying trinkets and the Malaysian housekeepers doing the shopping. I can recall a time not fifteen years ago when I could not trade beyond the formidable Atlas mountain region and look at me now. If I do not do business outside Morocco, it is no business at all. You see where I’m going with this, Othmane.”
“Satellites, computers, mobiles—these things allow us to scatter. In fact, we’re blown everywhere,” Uncle said with the seriousness of a professor elaborating the laws of science. “We’re a world of migrants, blown here and there. It is harder to say we’re one kind of people—Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian—because we don’t know. We all come from one source as one people everywhere, based on the will of Allah, of course.”
“We know we are North African,” you said.
“Yes, but before we were Maghreb, what were we? What else could we be? Who’s to say Moroccans don’t have some Angolan or Spanish or Indian mixed in their blood?”
Baba added, “We wear the places we go on our sleeves until they become permanent parts of us, barely noticeable by anyone.”
I looked at my tunic and wondered what it would say of me one day. You, my sister, must have thought the same thing because at that moment you said, “Then I must be one part couscous and two parts dirt from our farm.”
You laughed your little laugh sounding like the tinkling of bells, and all the girls laughed along in their silly way.
“Until I have the chance to go away and do something else, of course.”
Mama, who had been following the conversation in silence, said quickly, “Going away somewhere, Yasmina? How many years have you been saying this? You forget life is full at home, too. You have been to the square at Marrakech with Baba many times while your brother stayed behind to do your work.”
Then she spoke to Auntie. “One summer two years ago she decided her dream in life was to be a great cook and she begged us to let her go to the school there with her university savings for one month. She nearly burned down the kitchen!”
(When you returned home Mama and Baba sat you down and had a good, long talk about your misadventure. Not long afterward, it was a popular story told and retold at family gatherings. You were never free of it. But how you loved Marrakech! Fast-paced and cosmopolitan city of the modern age—so different from our home in the valley, where time folds over on itself, you complained to me out of earshot for a week.)
You turned to Nadia then in obvious exasperation. Our cousin added her opinion in her usual abrupt way (with words still beyond my understanding).
“What if Yasi came to Paris with me to work? She could live with me and return when I come home to work at the restaurant in the spring. The manager likes Moroccan girls. I’m sure he’d agree to hire her.”
You clapped your hands and said, “Oh, yes, I’d love to do this.”
Your nervous glance first to Mama then to Baba brought a round of moans and tching.
“You are too young,” Mama said. “You asked this last year and the year before, also. The answer is the same. No.”
“But most of my friends have moved to the city,” you insisted quietly. “Please let me go.”
“You are not ready,” Mama replied. “And who is this manager, this man who likes girls?”
Auntie must have had other ideas. “He is a good man. Elias Fallah. He is married to the butcher’s cousin,” she said. “His business is very successful. You should see it. Say, we could even arrange for them to have a chaperone. Very easy to do. You should think it over.”
She reminded Mama of when she was your age and already managing the drivers and hired hands for their father. Yasmina is 19, she told her, and Nadia is 24. When Mama silenced her with a stern look, Auntie replied with pleading in her eyes.
Though your French was good, Baba tried in his careful way by reminding you of your complete lack of hair cutting skills.
“I could learn. Nadia would teach me. Wouldn’t you?”
Nadia smiled broadly. “Of course,” she replied, as if it were as simple and routine as washing a dish or sweeping the floor.
I could not believe what I was hearing and tried, in my own way, to keep you in Morocco.
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” I said. “Sometimes they get angry. They want everything to be perfect and if it isn’t, baf!”
“I would be firm with them,” you said, then in a serious tone in your best French you added, “Sit in chair! You are friend!”
Mama clasped her hands, saying, “Do you think we are rich people? We all work here. This is what living is. Be strong, be happy, and try to laugh as much as you cry. There is nothing else.”
“I want to do something important with my life. And to make money and help the farm, too,” you added cleverly.
“Our life may not be perfect, but sometimes that is good enough. At home you are safe.” She lowered her voice, adding, “Do you want to end up like poor Leila S. with no one to take care of her?”
All eyes were cast to the floor. Only I and Cousin Fatima, who had been sneaking broken pieces from the tray of sweets, looked around the circle. (No doubt she was making mental notes for the gossip mill in town.)
When you heard of the suffering of Leila S., cast out and mistreated by everyone because she’d had a child out of wedlock, you led a group of women to the town center to demand that the father of her son help them, as required under law. (It is intolerable the way he rides in his Mercedes while his child, his own blood, rides on the back of a donkey! you said.) After gathering enough food for a feast from neighbors, you and your followers delivered it to her home. Your exploits were well known in our town and appeared in the local paper once or twice. I bought copies just to give away on the street to passersby, grabbing them by the arm and practically shouting at them that you were my sister.
We all thought one day, perhaps after some more time working on our farm, as Mama had said, and after some time at university, as Baba had hoped and saved for, you would do great things in the world. But not in this unplanned way and not so far from home.
Being still a boy, my thoughts were purely selfish. If you left, who would confront the bullies at school who picked on me for having my big nose in a book during break time? At night who would keep me company when I could not sleep?
One by one our guests wandered away from this disturbing scene—Nadia tugging the cousins out the front door, Auntie and Uncle to the kitchen to check on the food.
I had known for some time going to France was your dream, but had never seen that hard look of determination in your eyes. Mama must’ve read your expression, too, for she turned on me.
“You! Have you been encouraging her senseless ideas behind my back?”
To my surprise, Baba joined her, accusing me of being a bad brother and careless in my role as your protector.
Mama hissed at you. “You may be happy for a while, but trouble will nip at your heels until one day it catches up with you. When this happens you’ll call your Mama and I’ll say, ‘Yasmina, poor thing, weeping at last.’ Only then will you know the compassion of a mother!”
I opened my mouth to give some opinion of my own, some hopeful sign, as if I could, but nothing came out. In my confusion I failed. I was as stupid and mute as the platter of dried fruit on the table. Instead, like a pathetic child, I broke down and bawled into my hands.
“Ah, you see? Now it begins. And all because of your crazy talk of going away.”
You pulled me onto your shoulder where I sobbed some more, though finally my outburst and Mama’s insistence could not sway you.
“Please, Mama. I wish to go to work in Paris with Nadia for only a short while. Baba, when I return I will go to university or whatever you wish.”
With this, Baba went to the bedroom and shut the door. Mama placed her head between her hands and moaned at length, marking the depth of her despair, while you stared out the open window where the mountains stood in the distance.
If feelings had sounds, mine at that moment would’ve been a horrendous wind like a vacuum sucking the hope and lifeblood from my heart.
You used to say it is hard to live as an imposter, pretending to be someone else. You cannot be anyone but yourself. I say it is easy. People do it all the time. Just look at Cousin Nadia who sat on your bed in a shiny Parisian holiday outfit and spread out photos of rich women in her hands like unfolding a deck of cards.
Never would a gesture mean so much.
You immediately grabbed one. “Her. Elle.”
“Sylvie Bernicard. Actress. La Comédie Française. Tips me thirty Euros like giving away candy.”
“Thirty,” you gasped.
Nadia shrugged elaborately. “It is the usual way,” she said rapidly. Since returning from Europe she seemed to do everything (talk, walk, grow) rapidly and put shimmer around her, around her eyes, on her clothes, her toes, wherever she wanted, and her parents could do nothing to stop her. Her hijab, once a sign of her devotion and modesty, had become an alluring fashion accessory wrapped around her head covering her hair.
“Gave me an old Chanel dress she was bored with. I will wear it as soon as I am skinny enough.” (A reddening in her cheeks and her sweet voice only added to her believability.)
You stared at your food-stained dress and smoothed the wrinkles with your hands. Mama told you to wear her used skirts and blouses while cooking, cleaning and working in the fields. Mama told you they were still in fine condition, better than hers at your age. They looked like an older woman’s clothes (Nonsense! Mama would say), a mature woman who’d worked and had had children and didn’t have time to care about appearances. They were not the clothes of a young woman. They were not the clothes of Nadia.
I cared not one bit for appearances and wore whatever was clean on the floor of my closet, but I was only a boy of sixteen and not a woman of nineteen with dreams formed from movies and magazines and Baba’s travel stories. So of course when Nadia wanted to cut your hair to make you look different (more like an imposter like her), you replied with an enthusiastic, Yes!
“Yasi, why would you want to cut your hair? You love your hair,” I interjected. “Besides, Mama will get angry.”
“She can do as she pleases. No one can tell her what to do,” Nadia said, then added, “Except her husband.”
You looked at her and back at me then pulled me to my feet.
I was in the way of Nadia’s plans, and she must’ve seen this because she said, “Eh him, no. The bathroom is too small.”
You laughed at her in your little bells way.
We barely squeezed in and shut the door. You sat on a tall stool facing the mirror. Nadia removed the pins and clips holding your hair in place. Your face and neck were brown from the sun. Black hair spiraled down your back and over your shoulders, curving around your shoulder blades.
“Bend forward,” she said.
You leaned over, letting your hair fall into the basin. Nadia turned on the faucet and soaked the ends of hair then filled her cupped hands and poured water on your scalp. She wrung the water from the hair.
I helped by placing a towel around your shoulders. You winced as she combed out your great mass of hair.
“Take it easy,” you said.
“Your hair is really a mess.”
“Yasi, I don’t know,” I murmured in your ear, but you frowned at me as if I were the tiniest irritant like a gnat in the field.
“You’ll make me beautiful, won’t you?”
“When I’m finished with you, you’ll look like a Parisian or at least like a fancy lady from Rabat.” (There was nothing she would not say for authenticity.)
Nadia combed the hair into a smooth sheath hanging down your back. I offered the scissors as though handing over a precious surgical tool. She took them and pulled the hair taut in her left hand, cutting straight across from right to left at the nape. Then, to my horror, she cut layers and last jabbing and snipping into the hair to remove its inner thickness.
“There!” she said, running her fingers through your new hair. “Now you’re in style.”
I was stunned—your long, thick curls had been replaced by mismatched layers like a bowl placed over your head.
You squealed and touched the hairs around your temples.
Nadia kissed your cheek, clumsily gathered some hair clippings and threw them into the wastebasket. I looked down at your hair mixed with useless, unwanted garbage—a brown sponge, a used tissue, an empty bottle. Hair, sponge, tissue, bottle, hair.
“Well,” you said still gazing at yourself. “What do you say?”
You were grinning, apparently elated at what you saw and unable to see my sadness through your shining eyes. Your hair scattered at your feet, your fragrant mass of brown and black currents, would be a magic carpet to whisk you away from the valley, from Morocco, from me.
“Don’t go,” I choked out.
That was the second mistake, Mama says, your leaving. The first was letting Nadia cut your hair. (Mama will never forgive her. My girl was shorn! she sobs to this day. Like an animal!) And our poor Baba, ever the stoic one, supplied some savings for what was expected to be a brief sojourn in the City of Light.
You went to Paris to work with Nadia in the Salon Gabrielle in the 18th arrondissement near Montmartre—Sweet chiot, my life has begun! you said to me over the mobile phone you shared with the imposter in her flat on the second floor. It had three small windows with a view of a building and two hot plates as your stove, but you didn’t care. You sent us postcards with scenes of the Eiffel Tower at night all lit up and the twisted, green ironworks of old metro stops in the rain. My Dear Family—began your early letters. I sighed. Your words were tempered—the people are nice and the food is quite good, and you thanked Baba for wiring you money to the American Express office.
After several months, Nadia returned to Morocco, but you decided to stay to work more, she said. I wrote to you, many letters, asking why, why won’t you come home? and signed them, Le Grand Chiot, for I was no longer a helpless puppy at your heels. You always replied, saying you were fine, just fine, and everything would be all right. One day we received a letter with some sweet, carefree words and your signature at the bottom followed by the words: Yasmina Oddeira. Stylist. Parisian Provocateur. We joked about it for a week. Imagine: The Great Yasi making her mark!
Sometimes you called and gushed about your new friends who were involved in helping rescue homeless children from the streets. We rejoiced for days. But after some time, we stopped hearing from you altogether on the phone, in the mail. We thought perhaps you were in danger. When you called, Mama and Baba told you they were worried and reminded you of your promise to return. Next month, you said, to our relief.
Then one day your mobile number stopped working. Mama had me call the salon and in my broken French ask where you were, but they said you had just left or gone for a coffee and once shouted at me for tying up the line with personal questions. In news programs about the inevitable strikes in Paris, we searched for your face, expecting to see it swimming up out of the crowd. Once I thought I saw you in front of hundreds, leading them through the streets and carrying a banner demanding better treatment of immigrants, but the eyes were not quite yours.
Mama has seen you in things around her—a newspaper clipping about a local woman who started her own restaurant in the capital (Yasmina could have done this!), a 13-year old neighbor who saved a lost goat in the fields (She looks like my little girl…) or a TV actor she admires who reminds her of you—kind, adventurous, honest. More frequently it is as though she is trying to conjure you in her daily life.
And still I hope.
Dreamer, maverick, mighty adventurer, drinker of the marrow of life, say the ones in our town who imagine you at a ball dressed in a couture satin dress like a newly risen pop star. Cursed, unlucky, reckless, bad daughter. Some say that, too, the ones who lie in bed at night imagining you bruised and bleeding in a hovel in the bad part of town. I cannot believe any of it.
I dreamt of you last night. You were in the fields with Mama bent over sheaves lying flat on the ground and picking at them with your rough, brown fingers. Your face was also brown from the sun, half-hidden in the shadows of a scarf pulled over your forehead and that blue dress of hers you wore only during gleaning season, big and faded like a tent covering a market stall. It was frayed at the edges and dragged along the ground with each small step as if this dress, like you, were also without hope. The way she looked over at you with pride and love! When you stood to stretch, I could see Mama speaking to you. I could read her lips as she said, Hands are made for work, the way she always did with that little smile and a lightheartedness, and see you not even glance at her until after a few minutes when her mood shifted and she said it louder and sharp-tongued with your name at the end, Yasmina! as if in reprimand. You, a dreamer, yes. A maverick, perhaps. But disobedient, no. It was not you. You reacted calmly, bent over again, picking at each scratchy sheaf, every tiny seed, and tucking them into your sack.
Mama only leaves her room for bathing and cooking now. Aunt Siman goes to market once a week, carries it all herself, and cleans, washes dishes and vacuums the dirt and sand blown inside. Even the valley winds have been unfair, depositing sand in our shoes at the front door and giving no relief to a house in despair, and yet miraculously Mama pays them no mind. Her entire being seeks you. She has changed.
Her sadness weighs heavily on Baba, who after all these years must understand her aloofness toward him is her way, unlike his way of working and traveling more. He takes me everywhere with him. He talks to me the way you used to, telling me his dreams and encouraging mine. He says I am a genius with numbers and teases me, saying if I had worked harder on painting when I was younger, I could have been as famous as Mahi Binebine, who studied math in Paris before ever picking up a painter’s brush.
I think they’ve given up on finding you. I think he thinks if we stay in the same place long enough, you’ll come to us when the time is right.
Mama insists her baby is lost and trying to find her way home. She says she cannot feel you anymore because the distance has increased. You’ve left France. Yes, that was it. You were alive, but her native Berber intuition could not sense you because you left French soil for someplace cold and orderly like Sweden. Or perhaps a Frenchman lured you away from your faith with red wine and promises of wealth (or, Allah help us, with threats and force), perhaps to America, if only you would follow him. An ocean away! Mama cries repeatedly. Only a weak girl would willingly follow a liar. Not a strong, stubborn woman like you, she says. Not someone happy and full of life. Not a mighty adventurer.
Perhaps someone came along and said you are my one beloved (I know something of this) and suddenly you believed all the old romantic myths—love at first sight, everlasting love, smooth sailing for the rest of your days. But listen to your wise little brother now. The loneliness you may wish to smother will appear at dusk like a shadow of yourself. You, but not you, coming and going like an unexpected guest. When you realize this is all it is, you will come home to us.
Baba’s friend, the one who went looking for you, told us about the salon where you were last seen. He brought back photographs of it and a notebook full of scribbling from his discussions with everyone who’d known you. But of course they could not really know you. They said very little of interest except to suggest you were hanging around the wrong kind of people. The only other thing he could give us was a tattered, spiral notebook, small enough to carry around in a coat pocket and filled with prayers written in Arabic by your lovely hand and basic phrases in French—(il fait beau aujourd’hui; le livre est sur la table)—alongside their Arabic translations and phonetic spellings.
Out of guilt and at some expense, Nadia returned to France and reported back, bewildered to find the room vacant and the neighbors giving her the dismissive, Gallic shrug. She has offered to take your place in the fields this year, but Mama told her no—(She shall not step foot on this land!).
For my part, I am preoccupied with the salon where you were last seen. And I wish I had gone with you. No, no, not for me, not for work, not for money, but for you. To protect you.
I saw the place in my mind’s eye until seeing it for myself in the fall when I managed to visit for the first time. It was raining and foggy, and the many-colored leaves were falling. With money I’d saved, most of it from Baba’s dealings with the generous Egyptian Mr. Malek, I went expecting to find you waiting for me. When first I entered I could swear I smelled you, your hair perfumed with anise seed and cinnamon mixed oddly with the shampoo and antiseptic odors of the place. My despair grew then for I could not imagine you in such a sterile and cold place. I could not imagine your being anywhere except home with me.
Now when I pass a salon de beauté in downtown Cairo or hear the sweet sound of a woman’s laughter in the Casablanca market or the phone ring at a late hour, I think you’re near, you’re coming back from a dark place, having been brought down and hidden away like a beautiful bird shot out of the bright sky. I should have been with you then in cold, gray Paris at the precise moment you might have disappeared, timed it right to leave the salon to take you to eat at a café on Rue des Abbesses, perhaps on break from my job as an accountant at the bank (and painting at an atelier on the weekends). We would’ve strolled, your arm linked tightly in mine, along slick, dog-soiled sidewalks like nomads in a strange land, ignoring the openly callous stares that would try to gauge just how far we’d come by the contours of our faces. (What would they know of Uncle Othmane’s immigration ideas?) But more than anything I want to hear you say just once more, “Come with me, my sweet chiot!”