A Night in Casablanca
By Muhammad Zafzaf
Translated from Arabic by Mohammed Albakry
You could barely view the sea under the night’s darkness and heavy rain. Cars would careen around the road uncontrollably because their drivers were too drunk. Accidents were frequent and the police always arrived late and asked the same question to the inquisitive crowd who gather around the accident scene: “Was the driver drunk?” The ambulance would often come even later, and then, finally, the crowd would disperse. Sometimes, one of the nosy bystanders might receive a kick or a punch, or get shoved inside the Jeep by the police, but after he paid a fine, he would then be thrown back out in the middle of the road.
You could hear the strong roar of the sea, but the sound of thunder was even stronger. The rain added to the noise as it fell on the surface of the cars parked next to the pubs and hotels.
Blaring music was coming from the “Oklahoma” nightclub. Close to the nightclub was a pub where groups of people would come in and out constantly. Loud groups would stagger out from the pub every night and often get into fights with other groups; whether with fists or sharp razors. Often a female victim would be left bleeding on the sidewalk and people who had nothing to do with the incident would gather around her. When the police arrived, the ones who remained could not even vaguely bear witness to what happened. Then the police would usually say, “That’s the fate of prostitutes. They bleed on the sidewalk as much as they bleed men of money.”
Now the sea was rumbling in the thick darkness, and rain was falling less intensely. Suaad dashed out from the narrow “Oklahoma’s” door and the sharp sound of the door bolt followed. She tried to tighten her coat belt and moved a little forward to the small round plaza surrounded by large mud vases. Then Said came out talking with the well-dressed doorman who seemed to know him well.
“You are drunk tonight; will you be able to drive?” the doorman asked.
“I didn’t drink enough! That prostitute out there drank the whole bottle and of course she’ll pay for that.”
“Are you going to do it again tonight? Be reasonable, Said.”
“I’ll do it all nights! I’m King Schahriar.”
Then he laughed and stuffed a ten-dirham note into the reluctant doorman’s hand.
“We are friends, why waste your money?” The doorman asked.
Said expressed his impatience while looking at Suaad, who looked tired standing in the small round plaza. He put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her towards him.
“The car is over there.”
“It’s close by.”
“Where are we going?”
“Wherever your heart desires. There are still other places open. Tonight is our night.”
After they stumbled into the car, she pulled a cigarette stuffed with hash out of her handbag and started to turn it in her fingers.
“Said, let’s drop by to see a friend of mine. Poor woman, I’m sure she doesn’t have anything to smoke tonight.”
“And why doesn’t she? There are many dealers selling hash on the Corniche promenade.”
“Poor thing, if she doesn’t get it, she will die or commit suicide. She is a close friend of mine, but she has many problems with her stepfather and with her boyfriend. She has a beautiful baby girl, but her boyfriend doesn’t want to acknowledge the baby. He is from a rich and powerful family, you know?”
“I know these families; women like you seem to like them too.”
“I don’t like them, but I like to live.” She said that with a lazy tone in her voice while he was driving through the empty streets separating the villas from each other, elegant villas with gardens illuminated with various colored lights. She lifted her hash cigarette almost with closed eyes and asked him, “Do you smoke?”
He picked the cigarette from her to take a puff and gave it back to her.
“And now what do you say? Where is my girlfriend?” She teased him.
“I don’t know, maybe she is somewhere in this world.”
“And us, where are we?”
“Those you love.”
“I don’t love anyone. I used to love Almutii, but I left him, because he didn’t have money. He used to steal my money to buy drugs. If he didn’t get the money, he’d go mad and threaten to kill me. We went to high school together, but we were kicked out. His father tried to kill his mother many times, you know. I don’t know his father, but he told me about him. No doubt, like father, like son, and if I married him, he’d try to kill me too. But I don’t want to die. I love life.”
The music was loud inside the car, which was moving very slowly. The windows were closed. It was rainy and cold outside and the car became like a closed box, suffocating with the hash smoke. But Said did not want to open the window. In the meantime, a large motorcycle raced in front of them causing Said to tremble a bit. With his hand, he wiped the front windshield.
“I wish I had a big motorcycle like that one,” Suaad said.
“So that when you get stoned, you’d mow down all the trees on the road in front of you?”
“Ha, ha, don’t exaggerate. All those who own motorcycles of this kind smoke hash.”
They passed the villas area and the city looked calm after the rain. Some puddles formed by rain were glittering under the night’s lights. From time to time, some night patrols would cross slowly with their lights off and stop next to the sidewalk searching for vagrants. Suaad was feeling warm inside her coat, leaning her head back and feeling relaxed. Her eyes were closed and she could hardly open them. She mumbled something and Said understood that she wanted something to eat. He was also feeling hungry. Usually after a night like this, he wouldn’t eat and sometimes would even sleep with his clothes and shoes on.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“Let’s go and have Harira soup.”
“Harira is sour and the humus and lentil in it taste like stones.”
“Hash gives you an appetite, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, once I ate a huge pot of couscous that big all by myself,” she indicated with her hands.
“I swear with my honor.”
“Do you have honor, you…” he paused abruptly
“Say it; let it come out of your mouth. For the record, I have more honor than the daughters of those villa owners. I know them; we smoke hash a lot together.”
“All right, it doesn’t matter. So you don’t want to eat Harira?”
“No, I would rather eat kufta hamburger with eggs and sauce. It’s cheap at the Tanjawi restaurant that is close to Cincinnati Beverages.”
“But it gets busy there and often at the end of the night fights between the drunk men erupt over girls. The police patrols also go there and check for ID’s. Do you have an ID with you sweetheart?”
“Do you think I came from another planet or something? I’m Moroccan too and I have a father and mother like the rest of the people. Do you despise me because you picked me up easy? If I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t go out with you. I can smell men’s type, you know. Do not think that I just liked your suit and tie. No, there is something else about you, maybe something you yourself don’t know. You know, few are the people who know themselves.”
She shut her eyes completely. She didn’t fall asleep, but was lost in listening to the music and the sound of chirping small birds. In her half-awake state, she saw a beach surrounded by palm trees, and on the beach naked people bathing and basking in the sun. Some women had beautiful flowers hanging in their hair, flowers that glittered under the glow of the sun. When Said turned to his companion, her face looked dreamy and innocent like a small child’s. He picked up another cigarette, lit it for himself, and with some difficulty found a parking place for his car. Suaad opened her eyes and asked him to light up a cigarette for her too. The rain had almost stopped now, but when Said looked up at the sky, it still looked pitch black to him.
No doubt, it will rain again in a moment, as well as tomorrow, and after tomorrow, he thought, the land needs rain. All people complain about the lack of water including his father who owns lands in the “Almuzakara” area, an area still without irrigation canals. The digging of the canals stopped at the lands of a rich person related to an important official in the government. Said wished with all his heart that it would rain but not for his sake. He owns an apartment and a car and his wife also owns a car, and he also has a bank account; all this is not easily available for people his age.
Suaad left the car and closed the door lazily and indifferently while trying to wrap the collar of her coat around her neck.
“You need to close the door hard; it’s not that cold and it also stopped raining.”
She opened the door and closed it again violently this time to make sure it was shut. Then they walked toward the Tanjawi’s. The voice of Stevie Wonder was coming from inside, quietly spreading into the corners of the place, which was small and decorated with many colors. Some girls were sitting on the benches in front of the counter, but men outnumbered women. The workers in their clean uniforms were fast and agile. One of them was flipping a piece of steak in the air, dancing to the Stevie Wonder song.
A girl who was leaning on her arms raised her head. She was beautiful but looked tired from lack of sleep and overdrinking. It seemed that she was lonely. She called the waiter who was dancing, but another waiter who was not dancing jumped over to her.
“A glass of ice water here,” she ordered.
“You drank a lot of ice water tonight. What’s wrong with you? Did you smoke a lot of hash?”
“Mind your own business, or I’ll go up to Tanjawi upstairs.”
“Go to him. Tanjawi doesn’t like your kind.”
“Get me a glass of ice water and mind your own business.”
The waiter brought her a glass of water and put a piece of ice in it and she drank it all at once and then went back to leaning on her arms. The waiter said: “If you’r getting sleepy, just go home.” But she ignored him.
Said and Suaad were standing in the crowd after ordering two sandwiches. Some people were eating rapidly while standing. He picked up the sandwiches and they left to eat inside the car because little drops of rain were still falling here and there. Suaad opened her wrapped sandwich and started devouring it. While she was busy chewing, Said asked:
“Didn’t you eat anything today? Why are you eating so ravenously?”
She didn’t answer. Her mouth was busy chewing her food. A piece of tomato fell on her coat and she picked it up and quickly put it in her mouth. A shadow passed behind the car and Said turned around to see a policeman knocking at the window. When he opened it, the policeman greeted them and asked for Said’s papers. He looked inside the car in the backseats and examined Suaad’s face without asking for her papers:
“Who is she?” He asked.
“Go to bed. It’s getting late. Otherwise you could spend the night in the police station.”
The policeman gave him his papers back and left. “Those pigs are like flies everywhere,” Suaad commented.
“Shut up or I’ll send you to him. The guy was a gentleman and yet you say “pigs”. If you were not with me, you’d have spent your night in the police station.”
“And what for? Did I kill somebody?”
“What do you do at night? They are patrolling the area to crack down on suspicious activities. There are many thieves nowadays, and the rate of crimes has gone up,” he explained.
“I’m just a…” she shrugged her shoulders, “the real thieves sleep quietly in their homes.”
“Don’t talk about what doesn’t concern you.”
“If you were not with me now, I’d say that you are one of them.”
He lit a cigarette for her and she laughed and stroked his right thigh after throwing the torn sandwich paper outside the car. The crumpled paper was now lying on the pavement after rolling on the wet ground.
“I always like to smoke after eating; a cigarette has a special flavor then. Tell me where you are going? Don’t tell me to a hotel, I’m afraid of the police. Do you have an apartment?”
“I know an empty place near The “Hazem Alkabeer” area.”
“The Hazem Alkabeer is far away.”
“But it’s a safe place. It’s good to enjoy ‘the fresh air’ there. All people go there for the fresh air.”
“Do you always go there to enjoy the fresh air?”
“Only with people like you of course, when there is no apartment available. I also have a friend who owns an apartment in the area of “Ferdan”, but her boyfriend spends four nights a week there. I don’t want to cause her any problems.”
The car drove towards the “Hazem Alkabeer” area. Eros was incarnated as a human being, puffed as a peacock behind the driving wheel, racing through the city streets. He stopped at a gas station for fuel. The cashier there woke up with difficulty at Eros’s persistence and no doubt, the honking horn woke up the whole neighborhood as well. The cashier rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, and then went back to his sleep. When the car left, he switched off all the station’s lights to avoid anyone bothering him again.
The car passed through all the deserted streets at this late time of the night. Surprisingly, some light poles were still on, but that was unusual. Usually, these lights were turned off after midnight. The road became darker, but some light came out of a few buildings while most buildings were hidden in the dark.
“In a short while” Suaad said, “you will turn right, to get to the place where we can enjoy the fresh air. Have you come here before?”
“It’s a wonderful place and you should know it. Everyone who likes fresh air comes in here.”
“I suppose the ‘air’ there must be special, not like the other kinds of air.”
“Exactly, and you’ll see for yourself.”
The car passed slowly down the dark road where there was nothing but empty space and nighttime darkness. Said could feel his heart pounding and he put his hand under his seat to get out a small bottle of “Black Label”. Suaad took it from his hand, opened it and took a little sip before giving it back to him. He took a sip to summon some courage and to allay the fears he instinctively felt on this dark, empty road.
“We must stop now, aren’t there police patrols around here?”
“No worries, I know the place very well.”
A little later, the car stopped and Suaad said, “I feel terribly cold here, give me that bottle again. Actually, I’ll go out for the breeze.” She took a big sip this time and opened the car door to get out.
Said lit a cigarette and watched her walk in the dark.
No doubt she is not a regular girl, and the hash she smoked must have affected her. She is such a heavy smoker, he thought.
In a moment, four men appeared out of nowhere and surrounded him. One of them was wearing a wool hat, and a scarf covering his face and neck. He then heard Suaad’s voice from a distance:
“Don’t hit him Abdul Qader, he is a kind and generous man. Take everything you can, but leave him his official papers. Let’s not repeat what happened the other goddamned night with that stupid man. And don’t forget that he has a whisky bottle if you want to get warm.”
Muhammad Zafzaf (1945-2001) was regarded as one of Morocco’s foremost novelists and poets. He lived in Casablanca and his work includes short stories, novels, poems and plays, in addition to translations from French and Spanish. He received the Grand Atlas Prize in 1998.
Mohammed Albakry is an Egyptian-American academic and translator of contemporary Arabic literature. In 2011, he lived and taught in Morocco on a Fulbright fellowship. Some of his translations of Egyptian drama have been performed in major U.S cities including theaters in New York, Boston, and Chicago. He is currently a professor in the English Department at Middle Tennessee State University.
Extract from the Cockerel’s egg