Mother of Milk and Honey

Najat El Hachmi

Artwork by Olaya Barr

Sitting in the driving seat, Abrqadar looked round now and then to say, come on, that’s enough, shush, dear, shush, but his eyes were bloodshot too and his voice hoarse. And he tried his very best not to look at Sara Sqali, who was sobbing next to me and looking out of the window. When we reached the city, the new sights distracted us. The white blocks of flats, the roads, the noise, the market under the arches, and the stink of rotten fish made me forget for a few moments all that sobbing echoing round my head. We took the road from the city to the frontier, I stared at the houses that loomed there. Some were white with blue doors, others were large and yellow with windows behind wrought-iron grilles. People walked along the side of the road, some with donkeys, others drove noisy motorbikes. As we drew nearer to the coast, we passed lots of women with huge bundles on their backs. Old, toothless women, others, on the plump side like us, headscarves tied under their chins, every single one burdened like an ass. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t carry their loads over the frontier on the back of an animal as we did with water or barley, but obviously it wasn’t allowed. Abrqadar told me why, but I wasn’t listening; I couldn’t take my eyes off that string of people loaded like beasts of burden. Until our brother said we had arrived and must get out of the car. We must walk across the frontier, he told me. We queued for a good long while, carrying the plastic raffia bag between us, shading our foreheads with our hands. This is news to you, but the sun at the frontier is dry, drier than the sun around here. The policemen inspected our passports with a mixture of contempt and boredom. Sometimes, apparently for no reason at all, they picked somebody out and spoke in Arabic that I didn’t understand. Then they pulled the person aside and made him wait longer than everyone else. I couldn’t understand why, I didn’t know those people, but it upset me to see them standing in a corner like that. I kept thinking that when it was our turn, the police might treat us the same, and I was terrified I might be pulled out and would have to wait in that spot. You know how I got my passport, and even though Abrqadar had told me the document wouldn’t cause me bother, I couldn’t forget I’d broken a rule. But I didn’t have any choice, as you know, I couldn’t have done it differently. I can tell you, sisters, that wait seemed like centuries, my heart thudded so hard you could have heard it and sweat kept streaming down under my clothes. I gripped Sara Sqali’s hand tight and kept saying to myself ah sidi abbi sidi, oh Lord my God oh Lord. If the police let us through, I hadn’t a clue what I’d find on the other side, but I was even more afraid they wouldn’t, because I knew only too well what to expect on this side. You see how crazy it was, sisters. I preferred to enter the unknown than stay at home. But you know what my situation was, as mothers you know what was scaring me. Staying here wasn’t an option, and that’s why I was heading into the darkness.

You can’t imagine how I stared at passport control’s gleaming shoes, listened to his laboured breathing, watched him turn the pages of my passport. I don’t know what he said to Abrqadar, but our brother replied, and then passport control started panting again and turning the pages. You know how my head runs riot, I was imagining a thousand and one things that might happen, that they might find us out, that they’d put Abrqadar and me in prison and Sara Sqali would be left all alone and vulnerable, and that my brother’s children would lose their father. And you, Fadrit, would lose your husband. I can never thank you enough for the risks you took for me, my love. Yes, now you can say it was nothing, but you know how different life would have been if I’d stayed here. And you know the risks my journey brought. 

In Melilla we waited in a big tiled square that I liked because it was full of bright green trees and shrubs. I thought, well, it must rain more here, as if rain only fell on that side of the frontier, though it was so close to our parched land. We sat on one of the benches because it wasn’t yet time to board ship, and pigeons came over looking for crumbs. Abrqadar walked off and came back with a bottle of water. That was lucky, because, for the rest of the journey, though I had the food you’d prepared for me, I couldn’t swallow a bite. I still had that lump of dust in my throat.

Abrqadar and I spoke about the past, about when we were small. In the meantime, Sara Sqali played in front of us in a small play-space for children. He said very little, he listened as I told him some of the things you know about. He said nothing, just laughed and looked into the distance as if he was travelling back in time. When I went to pay his teacher his money for the month and his teacher told me Abrqadar hadn’t been to school for days, when Father caught him smoking and threw him out of the house and swore time and again that he wouldn’t step foot in his house again until he had the pure breath of a good Muslim. We kept telling him lots of Muslims smoked and that anyway Abrqadar had only tried one, and would never try another, as he had pledged on the Koran. Of course, we knew he’d been smoking for some time, but we invented any tale so our father would forgive him and our brother would no longer be banished from home and wandering the fields at the mercy of the weather. We also talked about when he missed his supper because he arrived late. That was one of father’s sacred rules, if you weren’t at the table on time, you didn’t eat. And we girls always felt sorry for Abrqadar because we couldn’t imagine a worse punishment than going to bed on an empty stomach. We always thought that was crueller than a wallop, but Father never relented. So we’d end up taking him a breadcrust soaked in oil or wrinkled black olives on the sly. Sitting in that square, I confessed to Abrqadar that father had once caught Fadma and me crossing the yard with a plate of xarmila I had hidden behind me, which had stained my clothes deep orange. Next time, father told us, you can fast with him, if you feel so sorry for him.

Then Abrqadar changed such a lot and became a responsible man, and even more so when he married and Driss was born. He grew a moustache that he’s never trimmed, and that has always made him look much more adult.

Speaking to my brother, like we always had, in that square in that frontier city made me think the feared moment would never come. But he looked at his watch and said, get up, let’s get going. We walked to the quay where the huge boats waited, wheezing like a fat woman. I saw the water where they were moored and felt downhearted. I looked up. A bright glow was rising above a horizon I couldn’t see, and that distressed me too. Abrqadar said, just like that, Fatima, and I said, yes, just like that, brother. I would be going, just like that. He again asked me whether I wanted him to go with us all the way, and I reminded him he had to look after his own family, that he must stay with his wife and children. We hugged, and he gave me my passport. Sara Sqali hugged his knees and said, yes, uncle, come with us, come with us all the way, uncle, don’t abandon us. You know how goodbyes upset Abrqadar, and he choked back his tears, untangled himself from her arms, and said God would guide us to safety and again reminded me to look out for our kind of people to give us help, and never to be afraid or ashamed.


Oh Lord, my God, beloved Lord. If anyone had said that my heart would burst the moment I started to climb that narrow gangway, I would have believed them. Every step I climbed I felt I was running out of breath, that my soul would depart with each sigh. Sisters, I still don’t know how I reached the top. How I managed to find the little cabin that was mine. How I was able to speak to a stranger, my sister, he said, which made me feel less ashamed at talking to a man who didn’t belong to our family, he said, look, sister, go this way and then that. We went down other narrow steps where you had to lower your head to avoid hitting the ceiling, then along narrow carpeted passageways with the lowest of ceilings. I had to stoop all the time. Those passageways, that I was seeing for the first time, seemed never-ending, and we went deep inside the ship. Hundreds of doors to tiny cabins opened on to those narrow corridors where our footsteps padded quietly over blue carpet. I held tight my child, who never stopped whimpering, and just followed that young man, I had no choice but to trust him. Hey, who would have thought it, your timid sister who never looked a stranger in the face, now being forced to speak to total strangers? Well, I did, and don’t you laugh, as I’d later do so many things I’d never have thought I was capable of. God gives us the strength when we think we’re done for, and always watches over us, though we are never aware he is there. That night, to be sure, my guardian angels were on the alert. You can’t imagine how small the cabin was where we had to sleep. It was like a cupboard. Two bunk beds, one above the other, on both sides. It was so narrow I didn’t know where to put the bag, or how to take my qubbu off. I had put our papers next to my bosom, I was scared to death of losing those miserable documents. Together with the little money I had, the gold Koran, and beads. I didn’t want to wear them so as not to attract attention, so I wrapped them and stuck them down my cleavage. A woman’s bosom can hide lots of things. I also had three of those broad, curved bracelets people used to wear, but I’d had to sell one to pay for our journey and to have money in case anything untoward happened when we arrived. You see how deep inside I had a sense of what to expect. We women have this kind of intuition, we know things but don’t know how we know them. I left the other two bracelets with my mother, in case something happened and she had to help me. Though I don’t know how she would have helped me from so far away. I sometimes think I left her those odd bracelets as a sign that I would return, as if I were pawning them. You told me she put them on and never took them off even though she’s the old-fashioned kind and prefers silver.

As I didn’t know whether anyone would come into our tiny ship’s cabin, I didn’t dare take off my headscarf or qubbu. I slept fully dressed. That is, tried to sleep. I managed to get rid of the sweat in the small basin, but couldn’t wash or perform my ablutions. I climbed as best I could up the narrow ladder to the top bunk. I did think for a few moments I could sleep on the blanket on the floor, but I thought someone might come in the night and sleep in the empty bed. I begged God not to let that happen, it would have been torture to sleep in that tiny room with a man. If women came, that would be different. But it’s shameful if a man and woman who are strangers have to sleep together in the same place, I couldn’t have stood that. Though, that’s just words, sisters, when we’re away from home, we learn to tolerate things that would be unthinkable there. And, of course, I had to make a real effort to adapt to things that were different from what I knew. But fortunately God listened and nobody came in the night. I stretched out on that bunk, the ceiling ten inches above my nose, like inside a box. Sisters, the ship’s up-and-down invades your body and doesn’t go away for days. Its cradling was at first gentle and pleasant but then became really disturbing. I retched up almost all the water I’d drunk during the day. I kept hearing footsteps along the passageway and thinking of you, the splash of colour that was getting smaller, my brother, suppressing his tears at the foot of the ship. I thought to myself, Fatima, whoever told you, whoever forced you to begin a journey like this, so abruptly, when you don’t even know if it will take you where you want to go. Lying there, I told myself I’d not said the prayers for the day, that I should memorise them and say them when we arrived, and then I again remembered I didn’t know the slightest thing about the place where I was going, whether I’d be welcome, whether I’d be able to bake bread or wash properly. Or even if I’d ever get there, because I only had an address on that scrap of paper. I kept looking at it. I told myself that if I’d done the same as Malika and Najima, who went to school for a couple of years, I’d be able to read what it says, I’d have some clue about the journey. But you know I left it too late and never learned a single letter. I looked at the bit of paper every so often to check the squiggles hadn’t changed.

Sara Sqali had stretched out and was clinging to the sheets on the bunk below, her eyes goggling, wide open as usual. I told her repeatedly, if you hear the slightest noise, tell me. It went quiet for a bit in all that hum, but not for long, she kept asking, are you awake, Mum? And I replied, yes, go to sleep and be quiet, sleep, but a second later she’d say Mum . . . She wasn’t used to sleeping on a bed, and besides, we’d been sleeping next to each other for some time, and not one above the other like in that ridiculous ship’s cabin. To tell you the truth, I tried not to look at her, if I did, that lump of dust in my gullet grew bigger and I didn’t want her to see me looking anxious, although it was hard to hide how we were both so distressed. Sometimes, during that night of constant to-and-fro, she’d say, look what you’re doing to your daughter, how can you transport her around the world without a clue about what you’re going to find, about anything at all, in fact. But a daughter must be with her mother all the time, and while she’s by my side, she’ll be safe. You advised me to leave her with Mother until I saw what the situation was abroad, but I can tell you that if I’d had to say goodbye to her, my belly would have caved in from the pain, I couldn’t have stood it.

We both went to sleep cradled by an immense expanse of water I could never have imagined. Though not for long because suddenly lights were switched on and a hustle and bustle started that was more like daytime than night. A strange bellowing woke us, and we were terrified. I had dreamt I was sleeping here at home, on the floor, and even thought I could smell the first tea Mother makes the moment she wakes up. But it wasn’t so, we were further away than ever, and would travel even further. I picked our bag up, tried to get Sara Sqali to wash her face in the tiny sink, and we went out. I tried to re-trace the steps that had led us to our cabin, but all the passageways looked alike, all the doors were exactly the same. We bumped into an old lady from the Rif with an Alhucemas accent, and I asked her whether we’d arrived and if she knew where the way out was. She said we had, that her grandson was waiting for her and she could accompany us to the outside. That lady was a real blessing. Once outside I told them I had to find the bus station that my brother had said was near the ship. It turned out they, too, were going there. We dragged our bags along asphalted roads full of cars and huge buildings Sara couldn’t take her eyes off. I said to the boy, may God protect your parents, can you help me buy the tickets. He did just that, with the money Abrqadar had changed for me in Melilla, he took a couple of notes and tried to tell me what they were worth, but instead of saying “duros” and “francs,” he said “milers” like the Arabs and I didn’t get him. I had to trust him, though I didn’t know him at all. Whether he tricked me or not is between him and his Lord and on his shoulders, but what saved me was the fact he took me to the ticket counter and spoke to the woman behind the window. If I’d had to do that, I can tell you, I wouldn’t have made it.

They went with us to the bus platform and said goodbye. That little round of goodbyes reminded me of the previous day and that lump of dust lodged back in my throat, but then I looked at Sara Sqali and realised she was so hungry that I gave her the remsemmen you brought us, dear Fadma. She ate it cold, just like that, no coffee or tea, she had no choice. I still couldn’t swallow a thing, not even my own saliva. When the coach arrived, you can’t imagine how embarrassed I was showing the tickets to the driver. It was a man. Right, he was a Christian, but he was a man when all’s said and done. I didn’t know a single word in his language. I felt such a fool. I didn’t want to look at him because he was a man, but I couldn’t speak to him because I didn’t know how to, so finally I looked up, held the tickets in front of me, showing them to him. He said something or other and pointed outside the coach. I thought he was pulling me aside, like passport control that made you go to one side. But one of ours behind me said, hey, dearie, you’ve got to put your bag in the luggage space. I was so embarrassed my cheeks seemed on fire.

Sara Sqali and I sat right at the back. I remembered what that boy had said, when the driver stops and doesn’t re-start we’ll have reached Barxiluna, the big city where I had to catch a train to a smaller place. We drove very fast along huge asphalted roads, crossing countryside, towns, and cities, seeing woods, mountains, and sometimes a sea I was afraid to look at. Sisters, what most dazzled me was the green that got greener before my eyes, and more so, the further we travelled. Now I understand why that country is prosperous and ours isn’t. Because they had no shortage of rain. What I couldn’t understand was why God had given some places so much green, and others got only the drought that had given us barren fields for so long. For a few brief moments, the countryside speeding by made me forget my misfortunes, the goodbyes and the lump in my throat. I calmed down a bit, but only a bit.

The coach stopped and I thought we had arrived, but I reckoned it was too soon, that when emigrants tell us their stories they speak of long hours on the road. I sent Sara Sqali to ask the boy who told us about the luggage space if we were there, and she came back and said that there were still a lot of stops but ours was the last and the driver would tell us, because he’d asked him to. Just imagine, sisters, how much we were in the hands of that gentleman, and completely unprotected in an unknown land where we couldn’t speak to a soul.

But God is great, sisters, and although I suffered the whole way wondering if we were in that big city or not, the hours flew by and took us to a safe harbour. When the driver told me, I felt relieved, grabbed Sara Sqali’s hand, and went to look for our bag. I felt cheerful. Until I realised one thing: the youth who translated that instruction about the luggage space wasn’t there, he’d got off before us and I hadn’t noticed.

So, Fatima, I wondered, what will you do now? I took out that scrap of paper with those scrawled letters as soon as we got outside the station, which was a building as huge as a mosque, full of din and movement. The people I saw walking along the street, depending on how they looked, were either very familiar or very strange. They all had lighter skins, obviously. But not everyone, some had moustaches like our men. The women were quite different, they wore trousers, short skirts, and some had hair that stuck out. I showed them the bit of paper and thought they’d point the way to the station somehow. I could look them in the eye, sisters, and understand something there. To tell you the truth, sisters, right now I don’t know how I managed to find the trains, get on the right one, and find out where to get off. You know well enough that I’d never been on a train before. I remember being underground on the platform a long time, holding Sara Sqali’s hand tight, I was afraid she might fall on to the track where trains sped by like lightning and made our clothes fly up. I asked and asked again, never understanding the replies, hoping I would understand the next answer better. Sisters, it’s called groping your way around the world in the dark. And I thought, what if I get lost, if I get lost forever more? But then I looked at my child again and remembered what I knew so well in my heart of hearts, that I couldn’t have done anything else, that I couldn’t go back or stay where I was.

In the end I took notice of someone who nodded to confirm that this one was ours, a woman who looked at me and tried to be very expressive, I think she must have said, get on, get on or something of the sort. Once inside Sara Sqali and I were frightened to find ourselves in a dark tunnel where we couldn’t see a thing, where we didn’t know if we were in this world or the next. Until daylight flooded our eyes and we needed a few seconds before we could see properly. And we saw big, grey buildings that seemed stuck there, as if they didn’t fit on the land where they’d been built. Blocks and more blocks of flats with small windows like beehives. The train started stopping in stations and I was in a state because I didn’t have a clue where to get off, so I spent the whole journey showing that piece of paper with the address and asking, Da? Here? People looked at me gone out, of course they did, they’d never seen a Muslim woman like me, they frowned and shook their heads. Finally I got the scrap of paper out and showed it to the last man left in the coach and he said yes, he nodded and nodded again to indicate it was here. He was a little old man with brown stains all over his bald pate and perhaps that’s why I dared speak to him, but that fact was I didn’t have any choice. Sisters, you know too well, when it’s a case of dire necessity, we must ignore the rules, may God forgive us. That man made me so happy when he said yes, I couldn’t stop blessing him, his family, and his ancestors. He looked at me in amazement, he can’t have understood anything I said. Yes, you can laugh now as you picture me saying “May God protect you” to a Christian stranger, but I’d like to see you in a situation like that. What would you have done?

When I got off the train, a sharp chill ran down my spine. So many hours travelling without eating a thing, Sara Sqali had been peeling shells off eggs in the bus and swallowing mouthfuls of bread, but I couldn’t. I could only think about arriving. Arriving, wherever that might be.

We still had to ask for the address on that bit of paper, we had to make a big effort to understand the gestures people made. I scoured the streets to see if I could spot anyone like us, who spoke our language, but nothing doing. I knew some emigrants had ended up in that city, if that’s where we were and I hadn’t made a mistake, but I get in a stew over foreign names and I couldn’t tell countries from cities or towns. I was totally ignorant, sisters, and once again lamented that I’d never learned to read. I really don’t know how we reached that door. A girl with long, fair—almost white—hair and tight-fitting jeans had accompanied us along a winding, cobblestone street, that later Sara Sqali told me was very old. She left us in front of a bare, cracked wooden door, the door to a house where the flaky rendering was peeling off the façade and about to fall off. The house was so old it didn’t seem foreign. There was a little hand in the shape of a fist on the door the girl had pointed to. I hit it against the door as hard as I could. I looked up and noticed that the light in that city was different, dimmer. It was also late and would soon be dark. I knocked hard again. From down in the street I didn’t dare shout to them to open up, I just knocked and knocked. Sara Sqali’s forehead creased as it always does when she’s worried. Mother, Mother, she said, but I told her to be quiet. He’s not there, Mum, she said, can’t you see he’s not there. I kept knocking, not knowing whether it was that door, that street, or that city. The fact is we’d only got that far because of the squiggles on that scrap of paper I had kept from the last parcel Sara Sqali and I had received. How could we be sure that the people who pointed us this way after reading those letters hadn’t misunderstood the number, the street, or the city? I stood stock still, with our bag on one side and Sara on the other, and said nothing, I didn’t want Sara Sqali to get even more worried, though you could see from her face that she was very anxious. On the inside I was mortified, I kept thinking, you’re a fool, Fatima, how could you risk coming so far when you knew nothing for sure. Whoever told you to, Fatima. I invoked my mother, her mother, and her grandmother, and all the women who have gone before us, I asked them for the strength to survive that moment. I asked the beloved Lord to help me yet again. I prayed for that door to finally open. But it didn’t, it really didn’t, and I raised my eyes to heaven and said oh Lord, my God, oh Lord.

translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Mare de llet i mel, © 2018 by Najat El Hachmi Buhhu