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Mohamed Mahou | Beyond Reproach

Zayd, disgusted and exasperated, bounced about on the ripped seat of an old bus destined for Ayt Hmad, a half-forgotten village in Morocco’s far south. This marked a pivotal point in his life, as he was about to begin his teaching profession after an interminably long year of training at the Casablanca teaching center. He had sat through tedious lectures and squeaked through exams, his efforts too low to be offered any choice as to where he would be placed. He saw clearly that teaching and him made a poor couple, but he could see no alternative for a poor boy from Derb Sultan’s ancient neighborhood.

As the bus backed out of its slot in the busy Casablanca bus terminal, Zayd leaned his forehead against the window glass and caught a glimpse of his mother waving goodbye amid the crowd. But his mother’s repeated waves went unacknowledged and his gaze remained icy and distant. Though he knew that waving to his mother was the least he should do, he couldn’t stomach it and instead closed his eyes. He was depressed not because he would be separated from her, but because she was the source of his torment.

 

On the bus heading to the station, she had harped, “perhaps the place isn’t as horrible as you imagine. Be fearless like your mother, a true Bedaouiya. They’ll transfer you to a nearby city after a year or so. Be patient. And be sure to rent an airy second-floor apartment. You know that I suffer from asthma. I can’t live on the ground floor. And don’t trust girls who smile to you.” His mother’s voice rang at the forefront like a bad headache vibrating on the bus window.

“Ugh! I’ll just try to forget about her for a few days. What a mother!” he said, his voice tired and louder than intended. The lady passenger next to him gave him a look of surprise, but she did not utter a word.

It wasn’t just the profession of a teacher, which he disliked in any case, that made him uncomfortable. It was also the decision to stay in the south, stuck in a life he didn’t desire, a life of mediocrity, a life without flavor. His ambition was, and continues to be, to emigrate to Europe. He had met beautiful, blond Renate on the beach the previous summer and had a brief, but passionate time with this honey-eyed German tourist. She had written him four letters over the course of the year, fuelling his fantasies about her and a new life in Germany, and then, in her last letter, she had promised to marry him. He closed his eyes and saw her short, blond hair brushing across her neck as she laughed the night before she left Morocco. Lying on top of her, he felt her enchanting, graceful body was a flying carpet transporting him from the old Medina to Bavaria’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, her mesmerizing perfume filling his mind with swirling dreams.

He had whispered into her ear, “ich and du get married bald,” in the broken German he had recently learned.

Ja, vielleicht. Warten wir es ab,” Renate said, caressing his hand.

Of course, he hadn’t told his mother about Renate. He knew she wouldn’t accept a daughter-in-law she couldn’t control; she would see her as a deadly threat to her little dream of living in a second-floor apartment. After all, he had been his mother’s last hope in life, after ever since his father was crushed at a construction site four years ago. She wanted him to be at her side, or perhaps in her shadow, till the end because he was her only child. She had planned to quit working as a maid in Casablanca as soon as Zayd received his first paycheck.

After the relatively smooth hundred kilometers out of the city, and bouncing another hundred as the roads got steadily worse, the old bus began wheezing and sneezing and came to an abrupt halt. The driver, who was familiar with the problem, walked outside to assess the situation, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The passengers exchanged worried or tired stares. It was nearly midnight, and the darkness outside made seeing what was going on difficult.

The driver turned on the interior light and told the passengers not to worry and that the bus would be back on the road in five minutes. Zayd, who was sitting in the seat right behind the driver, hadn’t been able sleep. He sipped from his tepid water from his plastic bottle and stared into the night. His phone was ringing. It was his mother. Not only did she bother him all day, but being an insomniac, she also pestered him throughout the night. He ignored it and pressed the mute button. “Your mom means everything to you,” a voice inside him kept bugging him, and it sounded like his mother. “You owe her your life and she has the right to ask for it back. At mosque and at school, you’ve been taught that heaven lies under a mother’s feet.”

“Not under my mother’s feet. Under Mother Zoubida’s feet all my dreams are being crushed.” He wanted to scream and cry, but, cowed by his upbringing, he remained silent.Bottom of Form

Of course, it was not just five minutes, but finally, after an hour, the aging bus continued its voyage. The driver, triumphantly beaming, had restarted the weak engine. Are German buses like that? No way! Zayd murmured.

Zayd was about to fall asleep when the lady next to him yelled,

“Fire! Fire!”

“What’s going on?” demanded the startled driver.

“I smell something burning,” the woman said, terrified.

“Where? I don’t smell anything.”

“Most likely just my cigarette,” said Simo, the driver’s assistant, from the front but just to be sure, he stumbled back along the aisle sniffing as he went. Satisfied, he retreated to his seat, wrapped himself in a dirty blanket and immediately began snoring loudly. The woman covered her head after hearing his explanation and she too fell asleep, snoring as loudly as Simo. Zayd preferred the snoring to her talking. Though she had nothing of his mother’s strong Casablanca accent, her voice sounded with the admonishments and disappointment that always edged his mother’s comments. He could feel it like a rope around his throat and he wished only to forget her and cut the ties that bound him to her. But an eerie feeling engulfed him, as if she were sitting right beside him at that very moment, watching him, haunting him. He sighed. In any case, she was his mother, and he would try not to be overtly disrespectful to her.

The bus arrived at Ayt Hmad’s small bus station at nine o’clock the next morning. It was dusty and devoid of any signs of life. Zayd’s mouth felt like it was full of cotton. Simo urged the passengers to disembark as soon as possible.

“Come on! The boss is waiting for us. We’re running late!”

“To hell with your boss,” Zayd grumbled as he clutched his bag tightly.

“Ayt Hmad is here. Got it?” Simo fixed his gaze on Zayd.

“I got it only too well. Just be patient,” Zayd said as he exited the bus.

The woman sitting next to him couldn’t find her bag and began yelling at the conductor. Her yell reminded him of her mother ordering him to do something he despised. Zayd made his way forward, taking one look back at the clanking and smoke emanating from the old engine and stepped outside the little station, relieved to be away from the whining woman.

The village was quiet and the morning sun was already scorching, just as he had predicted. Unsure of where to go, he took the only street in front of him. Three boys were playing near the station. One was throwing stones at the door of a graffiti-covered deserted cottage, while the other two were hugging and squealing at every thud of stone against wood. Zayd approached the youngster with the stones.

“Hello, young man,” Zayd said, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“I got it! I got it!” the boy exclaimed.

“What?”

“The door! The door!”

“What’s the point of hurling stones at the door?”

“I’m doing like the kids on TV.”

“I see. But it’s just a door.”

“I know. It’s better to play with the door than with the white-helmeted men.”

“Do you know of any hotels around here?” Zayd asked, trying to change the topic.

“Yes, I do.”

“Can you show me the way?”

“Yes, I can,” the boy said and chucked one last stone at the door.

Zayd’s phone rang just as the boy was pointing to a way on the left. Of course, it was his mother. He became agitated as he read Mother Zoubida on the screen. He hit the On button.

“Yes, mum!” he said with a sigh.

“You didn’t answer the phone yesterday,” Mother Zoubida exclaimed bitterly.

“I was sleeping, mum.”

“Did you find a house, I mean the school?”

“Mum, I’ve just arrived this very minute. I need to get some sleep first.”

“You said you slept on the bus. Show a bit of ambition, boy. Hey, you forgot to take the cakes and dried fruit I packed for you. Anyway, I’ll figure out how to send them tomorrow. Go ahead now and get some rest and avoid talking to girls. I’ll call you later.” He felt relieved when he hung up. The boy remained beside him, waiting.

“What made your mother shout?” the boy inquired.

“It’s just the way she always speaks. But never mind. Show me the hotel, please.”

Zayd followed the boy passing through sandy streets littered with empty cans and plastic bags to a small hotel that was really just a three story house that had a few rooms to rent. The Berlin Hotel was written on a plate above the front door and the irony was not lost on Zayd and made him sigh bitterly once again. The windows were covered in dust, and the paint on the walls was peeling. Zayd thanked the boy, handed him a dirham, and entered. An elderly man behind the counter assigned him a room on the third floor. Once inside the room, he dumped his bag on the bed and gazed out the window. The scene was desolate, as if the entire village had died and draped the houses with dust. With a fresh jolt of disappointment, he turned off his phone and went to bed.

Zayd went out late in the afternoon to find his school. Villagers were walking down the main street, the same sad one he had taken from the bus station. He passed a pair of cafés and a few shops and peered down the dusty cross streets. He detected a deep sense of resignation and hopelessness on the faces of the people. They appeared to have accepted their fate and resigned themselves to a life of isolation in this place.

He didn’t want to ask anyone about the school, but he was sure it would be on the main avenue. He soon found it on the corner, right behind the bus station. Four rooms with slumping roofs on the right side and an empty yard on the other. Strangely enough, the school had no boundary wall. “Education for Everyone” was written in large Arabic letters on a big blackboard near the doorway. Zayd approached a frail-looking ancient man, introduced himself, and inquired about the headmaster.

“What? can’t hear you!” The old man shouted.

“The headmaster!” Zayd repeated.

“What!”

Zayd had to raise his voice to nearly a shout to be heard. When he got his message, the old man smirked and said, “Headmaster! Headmaster! I suppose I’m a headmaster at the moment.”

“But I need him to show me my classes and my timetable. I’m going to work here, you know,” Zayd shouted.

“Your classroom will be this room.” He pointed to one of the rooms in front of them.

“Can I see it?”

“It’s always the same with you, new teachers. When you first arrive, you’re all so always eager to get to work. The first to arrive and the last to leave. Not for long though. Okay, come see your tomb.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing, boy. Once you step into the classroom, it is like a tomb, there’s no escape. Follow me.”

Zayd trailed him into one of the rooms. The door was stuck so the old man simply kicked the door open, and they were in. The room was large and strange, with small tables scattered all around as if it had been abandoned after an earthquake or war. The walls were painted a muddy bluish purple, either chosen to avoid getting dirty easily or the result of some happier color having faded over time. Students had written their names on the walls and, if these were any evidence, penmanship lessons were sorely lacking. There were a few dirty spots here and there, which were possibly intended for decoration. On the front wall was a large and badly scratched blackboard. In the right corner, opposite the door, there was a small desk and a chair.

“This is your classroom. If you wish, you can make it your home as well. Just like Si Abdelkarim.”

“Who is Abdelkarim?” Zayd shouted.

“A teacher whom you are replacing. He lived here for five years. He’s on long-term sick leave now,” the old man said and shuffled down the back of the classroom. Zayd trailed after him.

The old man drew back a black curtain hung on a sagging rope that separated the tables from the windowless corner of the room. Behind it was a small sagging bed leaning against the wall, covered with a greasy-looking blanket. Deflated and disgusted, Zayd looked at the ceiling and saw spiders welcoming him.

“You have to get up early before they come in,” the old man said, kicking a boney cat which was licking an empty sardine can on the floor.

“Who?” his shout now sounding more like panic.

“The children. You’ll have about forty students. Two or three grades are in each classroom. Remember the shepherd pays for every sheep the wolf eats. Be responsible.”

“How long have you been here, Uncle,” Zayd bellowed, ignoring the old man’s tip.

“More than twenty years. I left fishing and found this job as a janitor. Not making much, but it’s safer than coastal fishing,” he said, panting heavily. “One piece of advice, boy: Don’t ask too many questions here because nobody will answer them. Close your classroom door and work with the kids. Don’t pour all your honey on the hay. And remember that the state will pay for your presence and God will pay for your work. This is exactly what the three other teachers do.”

Zaid paused, letting all this sink in. “When is the first day of school?” Zayd asked.

“Perhaps in a month, perhaps not. It’s too hot for students to go to school right now. In any case, the decision is made by the headmaster, not me, and I haven’t seen him around for the past two months. Return and spend some more time with your family. Remember haste makes waste. Take it easy. There’s no point in running.”

Zayd left the old man and walked out of school. On his way back to the hotel, his mind kept wondering; is it an end to my dreams? And Zayd suddenly saw himself in the sagging bed under the greasy blanket waking sweaty from a recurrent nightmare. He turned and looked back at the school whose walls resembled the Berlin Wall ruins. He stumbled down the road as if already in the nightmare.

He came to himself back near the deserted cottage. The boy was still there, singing softly to himself. His voice was high and thin, and his face was very serious, as if the song was a national anthem. He stopped singing when Zayd was near him.

“What are you singing, boy?” he asked.

“A song of freedom. I’m singing for them,” he said.

“Who are they?”

“The Palestinian children who are killed every single day. These children who don’t have time to sing nor play. They’re in constant struggle to free their land. I do it for them.”

“Why?”

“Why! Why! How can you ask that! We need to do something. Are you a teacher at this school?” he said, tilting his head dismissively in the direction of the school.

“Yes, I’m a new teacher here. Do you go to school?”

“No, thank heaven, we’re still on holiday and I hope to never go back.”

“Why not?”

“It teaches nothing but how to obey; only to do what we’re told, but nothing about what to live for. To speak, to play and to have a good time. I’d rather be in the open doing cool stuff than reciting empty words in a cage. Teachers need to get that not everyone learns in the same way, you know?”

For a while, Zayd thought he was talking to an old teacher in the teacher training center in Casablanca. The boy and these teachers share similar theoretical perspectives about education, but putting those ideas into practice was a whole different story.

The boy then turned and ran away without saying good-bye, but Zayd could hear his fading song that trailed behind like a slight breeze in the stifling afternoon air.

Zayd went into his room, flopped down on the bed and turned on his phone. He had managed to block its nagging existence from his mind for a while, but here it was, staring back at him. He fixed his gaze on the screen. Six unanswered messages from his mother. His heart began to race.  He thought, now what does she want from me? She’ll be furious, but I don’t care. I will marry Renate and move to Germany. I’m not cut out for teaching. I will finally confront her. Then he rolled his eyes at himself. He began reading the messages.

Mother Zoubida: Why aren’t you answering me? Call me back. What are you doing now? Pay attention and don’t trust anyone who talks to you, especially girls.

Mother Zoubida: Where have you been?

Mother Zoubida: Man, call me.

Mother Zoubida: Call as soon as you see this.

Mother Zoubida: Are you ok? Call me

Mother Zoubida: …

The last message was sent six hours ago. He hit Reply and typed,

I’m coming back. There’s no future here.

He pressed the send button and turned off his phone once more, his heart racing with fear. He knew she’d call at any moment, shouting at him and forcing him to stay. But the decision had already been made, and there was no going back. There is no room for regrets now.

A wave of unease washed over him as he gathered his belongings and checked out. His clothes stuck to sweaty skin and felt uncomfortably hot, but he couldn’t tell if the heat was from the scorching weather or the fever of his sudden decision. Fatigue consumed him, leaving him lifeless and drained. Stooped under his backpack, he lurched back down the street he had lurched down just hours before. He despised this place, and even more so, he despised giving up his dream.

He eventually arrived at the bus station. The shaky old bus was nowhere in sight, and he silently thanked God. He had no intention of returning on that worn-out relic. Approaching one of the ticket boys, he inquired about the arrival time of the next bus bound for Casablanca. He had hoped for a bus to leave right now, but he found that he would have to wait another two hours.

Seeking to kill time, he made his way to the station’s only café and took a seat. As he held the hot cup of tea in his hands, an idea came him. Why don’t you contact Renate? Perhaps a gentle nudge would urge her to hasten her own plans. After retrieving a pen and paper from his backpack, he began writing his letter in English, their only common tongue.

 

Rue Abou Naser, N °12                      

Derb Sultan- El Fida, 20000, Casablanca,

 September 4th

 

 Dear Renate,

            I picture you in my mind as you looked that last moment I saw you and wonder how you are. I hope you are doing well. It’s been so long time since we last corresponded though it is perhaps my longing to see you that distorts my sense of time. I wonder how your brother is doing. Has he returned from his adventures in Africa? I really envy him. I wish one day I could do the same thing of venturing into far-flung areas, immersing myself in foreign cultures and using my skills to make a meaningful difference.

            My Renate, I must confess that I am deeply in love with you. I think of you every waking moment. You have become an integral part of my being, and I believe the time has come for us to leap over the distance between us and to unite. I am willing to do everything for you, even if it means relinquishing my current employment. Yes, my love, I would gladly quit my job for you.

            In fact, I have made some plans for our future. Once we get married, we’ll live in Germany, and I’ll find a job, any kind of job, even working as a janitor.  I am adaptable and resourceful, I am confident that I can thrive in any situation. My unique desire is to be with you, to build a home where our children can flourish.

            Concerning the language, I’m determined to master German in one year. I will enroll in a language center here in Casablanca, to accelerate my learning. I assure you, I am a fast learner, and nothing and no one will stop in my way of my progress. Don’t worry at all. I’ll do anything you want if you accept we get married. My love, let us begin the process of gathering our documents to bring our union into fruition.

            My dearest Renate, I must bring this letter to a close, as I must go to work. My students are waiting for me. Write soon, my love, for your words are like a balm to my soul.

Take utmost care, my Renate.

Yours,

Zayd Fahim

 

For twenty more seconds, he was lost in his thoughts. Half of his words were lies, but he forgave them because of the other half that spoke his deepest truth. He put down his blue pen on the letter and sipped from the last drop of mint tea from his cup. Glancing at his watch, he realized that he still had one more hour before his bus would arrive. He slipped the letter in his bag, paid the waiter and placed his backpack on his shoulder, and set out to look for an envelope for his letter.

As he stepped out the station door, he slightly bumped into a plump woman in a blue Djellaba. She was talking to a man who stood twice as tall as her, beside a bus. When she turned, he was the one who staggered. His face froze, his mouth agape. The woman staring back at him was his mother Zoubida.

“What are you doing here?” he stuttered.

She apologized to the man and frowned, turning her glare to Zayd.

“Hi there, my liver. I brought you the cakes.” She pointed to a white bucket next to her feet, which was securely closed with tin foil. Then, she asked, “Why is your mobile off? Did you rent a house? Show me your school.” She yanked forcefully at his arm to urge him to move. “Come on. I’ve some good news to share as well.”

“Good news,” Zayd scoffed.

“Yes, I’ve arranged a marriage for you with Zahira, our neighbor’s daughter. I’ve talked to her. We’ll have the wedding next month.”

“Mother, it is time you listened to me. I don’t want to get married now. I’ve another plan. I am going to quit teaching, emigrate and make for myself a better life.”

“What? Are you nuts? I’ve spent my money and my health on your education and now you want to leave me. What an extraordinary reward you offer me! What an ungrateful worm! Enough of this nonsense. Lead the way and show me your school.” She violently tugged at his sleeve.

“No, we are not going there. You need to listen to me. I’ve thought about it. I know a girl in Germany and we agreed to get married. I’ll live for a year or two, get settled and then you’ll join me.”

“What? A girl? A thousand times I told you to be away from girls. I knew you’d fall in their traps like your father.”

“My father?”

“Yes, your father. He complained that all I did was keep him from his big, puffy dreams, but I was the one who kept him on the ground so that we could have a roof over our heads, bread and oil and the respect of our neighbors. Like you, he acted like he was caught in a spider web, but these are the things that keep the world together. And you want to fly off into the arms of a spider woman!”

“I understand your worries, mum. Believe me Renate is different.”

“Listen to me! You know we have no relatives. You and I have acted as relatives to each other for more than twenty-five years. You’re the apple of my eye, but now you want to leave me alone. Forget about Rania or Renate, my Zayd. I’ve already agreed with Zahira’s parents. The wedding is due next month. She’ll live with us here.”

“No, no, a thousand nos. I am going abroad.”

With a surge of anger, she slapped him across his cheek. Zayd was frozen in his place, rolling his eyes.  

“Where’s the damn school?” she asked, grabbing his arm again.

“Go there alone. This is the first decision I take of my own free will and no one will change my mind,” he said, his cheek bright red from his mother’s slap and the flush of his determination.

Mother Zoubida’s eyes darted around in confusion, seeking help. She slapped him again. In reflex, Zayd slapped her back, causing her to lose her balance and tumble over the bucket of cakes.

As she screamed, he ran blindly away, stumbling under the weight of his backpack. Without realizing where he was headed, he found himself leaning against the wall of the deserted cottage, trying to catch his breath and composure.

He hadn’t seen that the boy was still there until he heard the clatter of a stone hitting the door. “Teacher,” the boy asked, “Why are you running?”

“I… I did a horrible thing… I hit my mother. There are some people running after me. Can you show me a place to hide?” he said, panting.

The boy looked hard into Zayd’s face, and suddenly as if he recognized something there, he said,

“Yes, come to the Jew’s cottage. No one will find you there. Be quick!”

“Jew?”

“My grandfather said that a Jew used to sell silver there. He left a long time ago. Come, be quick.”

As they rushed into the cottage, Zayd could still hear his mother’s yells echoing in his mind. He was filled with dread and guilt. He swallowed heavily, his saliva thickening, but he knew he had to hide himself. He scrambled in after the boy kicked the door open. Zayd felt cobwebs stick to his face and flailed in the dark like a man in a dream, trying to clear them off. The boy shut the door, ran back to his original spot, and resumed his game.

Zayd held his breath as the sound of many footsteps approached.

Someone shouted to the boy, “Did you see that maskhout lwalidin, one undutiful to his parents?” A voice he recognized as his mother’s added, “he is wearing a red shirt and black jeans?”

Zayd heard two more stones hit the door, and a single word, “Nope.” Then footfall again, continued searching, leaving Zayd sitting alone in a dark corner of a cottage where only spiders live.

———-

An Arabic word referring to a woman who was born and lives in Casablanca

Yes, perhaps. Let us wait and see

———-

Image: Cdd20 via Pixabay modified

Mohamed Mahou
Mohamed Mahou
Mahou Mohamed is a Moroccan high school teacher. His short stories have appeared in publications such as Adelaide Literary Journal, Indian Periodical, Publish'd Afrika, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Isele Magazine, and others. In recognition of his literary contributions, he received the Amazigh Writers' Award (Tirra) in 2011 and the Publish'd AfriKa Magazine Award in 2023. In addition, in October 2023, he was nominated Brittle Magazine's Writer of the Month.

18 COMMENTS

  1. très bonne histoire. mes encouragements professeur mohamed.vous etes sur le bon chemin d’enrichir notre culture et votre repertoire de littérature avec de bons souvenirs.

    • Merci d’avoir lu l’histoire, cher ami. C’est toujours un plaisir de lire tes commentaires. Ils ont beaucoup d’importance pour moi. 🙏

  2. This captivating story skillfully explores the intricate dance between personal aspirations and familial expectations, set against the backdrop of Morocco’s cultural tapestry. The vivid characters, particularly Zayd and his complex relationship with his mother, lend depth to the narrative.
    Thank you,Mr. Mahou,for this wonderful story!

    • Thanks for reading the story. Zayd’s in a bit of a pickle, caught between what he wants and what his mum expects. Culture’s got him feeling a bit suffocated. Appreciate your interesting comment!

  3. Really liked reading this masterpiece saeing how zayd was trying to be equal between what he desires and what his mother expects from him really shows how our culture plays a big role in some people’s lives.

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