As countries around the world celebrate Pride Month, this week’s Translation Tuesday reminds us of the challenges many members of the LGBTQ+ community still face every day. In this short story by Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, a gay man agonizes over the death of his mother, with whom he had a fraught relationship, and reflects on the power of both her disapproval and her love.
“My mother has gotten younger. The wrinkles on her face are gone. Look. Look. Her skin is brighter. You can see her veins. They’re blue. You can see the inside of her. Look. Look. It’s red, red. Mother’s younger than us now. She’s sleeping. That’s all. She won’t cry out anymore.”
It’s your daughter Samira who says this about you. And I’m surprised. More than surprised. She’s not afraid of you dead. She’s not gripped by any strange feeling or vertigo. You’re her mother. You’re dead. In an hour she won’t be able to touch you anymore, to physically feel the link to you. She’s not afraid at all. She looks at you. She sees you like she’s never seen you before. She puts her hand on your face. She says “my little mom” and she doesn’t cry. Like the other sisters, she stays focused, she doesn’t want to miss this last real moment with you, she doesn’t want to spoil this ritual. She puts all her heart into it. She forgives you, for absolutely everything. She says it.
“Allah, she was our mother, our mother to the end. Accept her as she is. Don’t hold against her any wrong she might have done us. I forgive her. We all forgive her. Every one of us. Allah, she was a good mother, a good mom, a good wife. Not always, it’s true. But we forgive her. We forgive her, Allah. Before You, in this great moment, I bear witness, sincere and true. Forgive her. Forgive her. We entrust her to You, clean, pure, and purified. We ask You to show her Your generosity and Your lenience. And Your mercy. Take her and love her and protect her until the moment of Last Judgement . . . Pray with me, my sisters, for her. And don’t cry. Don’t cry on this day of leaving, on this day of marriage to God . . . Sing . . . Sing, my sisters. . .”
I’m told your daughters started to chant together, reciting the same prayer beautifully, softly and devoutly.
Later, after your burial, it was different. Days and nights of silent tears, in anger, in rage. In terrible lack. In terrifying solitude.
I didn’t cry myself. I would have liked to. But I couldn’t.
I found out when my little brother Ali sent me a text. “Our mother fell after breaking her fast. Brain haemorrhage. Call . . .”
I called and called.
Should I come? Should I stay in Paris?
Don’t come. It’s too hard to see her. She’s suffering. She’s unconscious and she’s suffering. Don’t come.
What to do with myself that August in Paris? Where to face the death that became more certain every day? Where to run?
It’s unbearably hot. I go to the pool on Rue de Pontoise twice a day. I go when I know it’ll be almost empty.
I dive. I scream in the water. I move through the water, under the water, invaded from within by the water, with you.
I am more than sad. I am changing, again. Other revelations about myself arrive. I see them coming. I don’t resist at all. I am (almost) naked in the blue water. I see red sometimes. Your blood which runs and keeps running. An underground stream, at the very bottom of the pool. I come close to it. I see that it runs through me, this river, that it passes through my skin, my bones, my cells. But when I touch it it disappears. The river of your blood dissipates in the water of the pool. It no longer exists. But it can’t be, it can’t. I scream in the water. I stop breathing. It’s total despair. I’m abandoned. Abandoned again. I take no pity on myself. I take note of where I am in this world, in this life and in this death.
Mom, you’ve disappeared. You’re going to disappear. And we’ve told each other nothing. I know everything about you. Everything. But you don’t know the most important thing about me, about what’s in me. You don’t know what I want you to know.
I’m in the water and I want to stay there. For a whole week, I go to the pool every day, twice a day, to remember, to die with you, to begin to understand without you.
I hear your voice. You are everywhere and suddenly nowhere.
I can’t see you anymore.
I start to resent you. You have no right to leave, to die like that, without me.
I resent you more and more. I am not like my sister Samira, I have no tenderness in my heart for you.
I am gay. You brought me into the world gay and you rejected me.
It’s your fault, all of this. Yes, entirely your fault. This endless unhappiness. These unfixable misunderstandings. This feeling that I can’t really exist anywhere. And yet I’m still here, forty years old, between two countries, France and Morocco, with no anchor, no lasting love, no legitimate history that is my own and no one else’s. I’m lost (I was from the start, back in your stomach) in France now more than ever.
Every morning I go back on my word. I open my eyes, I remember that I’m gay. No matter how hard I work to accept myself, to wash myself of insults, no matter how many years I spend repeating to myself that I have the right to live freely and with dignity, to live a life, nothing works: this gay skin the world has imposed on me is stronger than I am, harder, more stubborn. This skin is my truth that goes beyond me. I don’t accept it completely but I know I only exist because of it, despite my multiple attempts to run away, to free myself.
You are dead, Malika.
I am gay. Gayer now than ever.
The personal gay hell I’ve been living through seems like nothing compared to this.
You’re gone. And finally I understand that even from far away, your existence protected me from a certain truth.
The ultimate truth. Hell in its purest sense.
It’s only since you’ve become a soul, nothing but a soul, that my true existence, my true nature, has been revealed to me.
Before, I lived and thought of myself as gay. Now, truly alone in the world, with no protection, I don’t think anymore, I see who I am. Gay. There’s no filter now. I can see my destiny. And I see that nothing will stop the inevitable. Death in absolute solitude. With a hard, closed heart, getting dryer and dryer. A dictator’s heart.
That’s what I’ve been until now. Until your death.
Over the last ten years I’ve destroyed all those who loved me. They amused me for a while, until I mercilessly and systematically destroyed each one of them. I left after giving them a little taste of heaven. I forgot them straight away. I ran away on a whim. Suddenly they didn’t make the cut. No matter how much they tried to hold onto me, no matter how much they cried, or begged, I never went back on my decision to leave. I did everything to make those men fall for me. Then—Ciao! I don’t love you anymore. I’m no longer yours and my heart never was in the first place. It’s really not worth all those tears, all this moaning. Be disgusted by me. Hate me. Curse me. Kill me. Do what you want. . . I won’t come back. I’m already far away. Far from you, far from everything, far even from myself.
I fell back on the selfish heart you gave me, Malika. And believe it or not, it made me feel better every time. To leave, to quit, to break it off, sever the link. To leave nothing for the other. To go back to where I started. Alone. With my terrible, terrifying heart.
Over time, and especially in France, ending a relationship, breaking up with someone, throwing them and their love to the ground, gave me a rare pleasure. By my own free will, I found myself more alone than ever. Without anyone to imprison me with their feelings, with their affection and their sex. I was alone and hard. Alone and alone.
It felt like I finally existed, in that perverse pleasure, that determined solitude, coming closer to you, mom, with what I learned from you. To be pitiless.
You didn’t want me. You were going to kill me. And yet of all your children, I’m the one who resembles you the most. I have the exact same heart as you.
I have your heart. It’s all that’s left until I die.
Translated from the French by James Bennett
Abdellah Taïa was born in Rabat in 1973. He has published several French-language novels with Éditions du Seuil, including L’Armée du Salut (2006; available in English translation as Salvation Army with Semiotexte), Une mélancolie arabe (2008; available in English translation as An Arab Melancholia with Semiotexte), Le Jour du Roi (Prix de Flore, 2010), Infidèles (2012; available in English translation as Infidels with Seven Stories Press), Celui qui est digne d’être aimé (2017) and La vie lente (2019). In 2014, he directed his first film, L’Armée du Salut, based on his eponymous novel. Taïa has lived in France since 1999.
James Bennett was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1992. His translations have been published in Mexico City Lit and K1N, the translation journal of the University of Ottawa. His poetry and prose have appeared in various Irish and international publications.
Photo credit: Jeremy Stigter
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