Since she’s been ill, my mother’s become a frail little thing with a faltering memory. She summons members of her family who are long dead. She talks to them, is astonished that her mother hasn’t come to visit, and sings the praises of her little brother who, she says, always brings her presents. They file past her bedside, sometimes they linger. I don’t interrupt them, I don’t like to upset her. Keltum, her paid companion, complains: ‘She thinks we’re in Fez, the year you were born!’
Mother’s revisiting my childhood. Her memory’s been toppled, lies scattered over the damp floor. Time and reality are out of kilter. She gets swept away by the emotions that come surging back. Every quarter of an hour, she asks me: ‘How many children do you have?’ Every time, I answer in the same even tone. Keltum is agitated and interrupts to say she can’t stand Mother’s repeated questions any more.
Mother’s afraid of Keltum. She’s a woman whose eyes betray her wicked thoughts and she knows it. When she speaks to me, she looks at the floor. When she greets me, she’s obsequious, bowing and attempting to kiss my hand. I don’t want to push her away, or put her in her place. I pretend not to know what she’s up to. I can see fear in my mother’s eyes. Fear that Keltum might leave her on her own when none of us are here. Fear that she won’t give her her medication. Fear that she’ll let her go without food, or worse, give her meat that’s gone off. Fear that she might spank her, as if she were a naughty child. In one of her lucid moments, my mother said to me: ‘I’m not mad, you know. Keltum thinks I’m a little girl again. She tells me off, she threatens me, but I know it’s the pills playing tricks on me. Keltum’s not a bad person, she’s just prickly. She’s tired. She’s the one who washes me every morning, you know, son; she’s the one who cleans up the stuff that leaks out of me. I couldn’t ask that of you, or your brother, so Keltum’s here for that too. It’s as well to forget the rest …’
How can I forget that my mother’s in the care of a woman who, over the years, has become hard, cynical and grasping? Why is my mother journeying back to childhood under the malevolent gaze of this bully?
Mother started talking about the midwife, Lalla Radhia, again. She insisted I invite her to lunch and told me where to go: ‘She lives just before Batha, the big square at the entrance to the medina. Go to the café run by Sallam, Khaduj’s husband – you know, Uncle Moulay Ali’s daughter-in-law. Go into the café and ask for her. Everyone knows her, she has to come!’ I try to remind her that Lalla Radhia’s no longer with us, but she insists she wants her at the house for lunch.
Since Mother’s moved into a different bedroom, she’s convinced she’s in a different house and is living in a different city. We’re no longer in Impasse Ali Bey in Tangier, but the Makhfiya district in Fez. We’re no longer in the year 2000, but 1944. Her dreams won’t be extinguished. They assail her waking hours, refuse to leave her alone. The present is lurching. It flickers, sputters back to life and then fades altogether. It no longer concerns her. She’s become detached from it, which doesn’t worry her in the least.
She tells me she saw a man and a woman talking in the hallway. They must have come to buy the old house in Fez. She warns me not to let it go cheaply: ‘Times are hard. The war’s not over and besides, your father won’t be happy! I heard the man say to the woman, “It’s a bargain, we should seize the opportunity.” Anyone would think they lived with us and knew we were struggling. The man’s not from Fez, he has a country accent − Fassi’s more refined. And in any case, we’re not selling!’
Today, Zineb, her nurse, has come to change her dressings. No longer able to recognise her, Mother refuses to let her touch her foot. Zineb says she won’t hurt her. Mother smiles: ‘If you do, my father will know all about it. I’m not a child, so go on, clean the wound and don’t treat me like a frightened little girl.’ Then things fall back into place and she remembers everything. It was just a lapse. A memory lapse. Her recollections are a little hazy.
Mother threw a pretty gold chain down the toilet. Keltum fished it out and washed it repeatedly for two days, then soaked it in adulterated eau de cologne.
My sister has come from Fez to look after her. Mother’s annoyed: she thinks she’s her own mother. My sister’s getting on a bit too, she’s only sixteen years younger than my mother, the daughter of her first marriage. Mother remembers very clearly: ‘I’d just turned fifteen. My husband was strong and handsome. The typhus epidemic carried him off before my daughter was born. A widow at sixteen!’
My mother’s body continues to shrink. She is tiny. A tiny, light little thing with meagre flesh that causes her pain. Her sight has deteriorated but her hearing is perfect. She detected the call to prayer in the chirping of a sparrow. She said: ‘It’s calling God.’ My sister didn’t contradict her; she agreed the bird was an angel come to pray with them.
Once again she confused me with my older brother, asking me how his children were, getting everything muddled. Then she thought my children were my brother’s. I prefer to see the funny side, but he gets upset and his eyes fill with tears. I feel like crying too, but resist, because at times she is perfectly lucid and I see her as she always was – beautiful and graceful, clever and astute, conscious of what she’s suffering and of everything going on around her. She never loses her mind completely. My brother took it upon himself to work out how long her moments of clarity last compared with her rambling. He claims the periods when her mind wanders last longer.
Yesterday, sounding embarrassed, Keltum asked me to buy some pads. Mother’s increasingly incontinent, but she refuses to wear them. She tears off the adhesive strips and flings the pads under the bed. Keltum’s furious. She can’t take it any more: ‘You’re only here a few hours, but for me it’s all the time, day and night – and it’s worse at night. She hardly sleeps and wakes us up to talk about Fez and her brothers, who died a long time ago. Tell the doctor to give her a pill that will give her back her mind, or make her sleep. I can’t stand this any longer!’
Mother’s always had a serene attitude towards death. Her faith in God has driven out any fear of it. Once, in the days when her health gave no cause for alarm, she asked me for a large sum of money. ‘Why? Don’t be like your father, always asking what I wanted money for. I’m going to redo the sitting room, buy some new fabric, repaint the entire house, get two lovely low tables and some more cutlery and napkins.’ And why all that? ‘I want the house to be clean and tidy for my funeral. People will come from all over the country: I want them to find the house looking nice. They must be served good food; I’ve always received my guests generously. My farewell should be lavish, the best reception of all! That’s why I need money, son. I’m telling you now, and don’t forget. It has to be a grand occasion.’
My friend Roland’s mother celebrated her ninetieth birthday by going round the world. She lives in Lausanne, and her health is good, she plays bridge every day, reads books and goes to the cinema. Life in Switzerland is less tiring than it is in Fez. My mother never went to school, she doesn’t know how to play bridge, has never been to the theatre or the opera. She’s had three husbands and given birth to four children, fed them and raised them. Three husbands and only one true love. I’ve never heard her tell the story – I guessed. My mother doesn’t talk about love. It’s a word she uses only for her children. She says: ‘I’d die for you, light of my eyes, rainbow of my life, I’d die for you!’ She’s uneducated but not uncultured, she has her own culture, religious beliefs, values and traditions. To live an entire life without ever deciphering a page of writing, without ever being able to read numbers, to live in a closed world surrounded by signs, unable to understand them… The problem became acute the day my father had the telephone installed: she felt the need to learn numbers so she could call her children, her sister and her husband. My father taught them to her but soon lost patience, leaving her with the numbers written large on a slate. She decided to learn two phone numbers, no more: mine and the one for my father’s shop. She spent all day dialling them until she’d learned them by heart. One day she managed to dial mine correctly but to her disappointment she got the answerphone. She spoke to it: ‘You, machine, you’re the machine of my son in lafrance, aren’t you? Now you listen to me, and whatever you do, make sure you don’t forget a word I say, so you can tell him when he gets back. Now you tell him that his mother called, she’s fine – well, more or less, she’s dying to see him. Tell him too that his father’s coughing a lot and won’t go to the doctor. You must make a point of that, so he’ll call his doctor friend and get him to come over. He’s coughing up and spitting out nasty stuff. Tell him too that his sister Touria has gone to Mecca. So that’s it, machine, don’t forget to tell him to speak to his father, tell him as well that my blood sugar’s up after Keltum upset me. Right, I’m putting the phone down and I’m counting on you to pass on the message. One more thing – I’ll be quick – tell him that El Haj, his cousin, has lost his wife and he should call to offer his condolences. Thank you, thank you very much!’
Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman
Used by kind permission of Telegram. About My Mother will be released in bookstores later this month. Click here for more information about the book.
Born in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include The Happy Marriage, This Blinding Absence of Light, The Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter.
Ros Schwartz has translated a wide range of Francophone fiction and non-fiction writers including Andrée Chedid, Aziz Chouaki, Fatou Diome, Dominique Manotti and Dominique Eddé. She was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her services to literature in 2009.
Lulu Norman has translated the work of Mahi Binebine, Albert Cossery, Mahmoud Darwish, Amin Maalouf and the songs of Serge Gainsbourg. Her translations have been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Best Translated Books Award, among others.
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