In Praise of Three Spotted Hyenas

In Praise of Three Spotted Hyenas
A Novel
(Part One)

This is the story of three spotted hyenas: Allāt, al-Uzzā, and Manāt. None of them is agreeable to look at. In fact, their ugliness is pretty offensive. Granted that some repulsive women may evoke pleasure in certain men but in their case they spoil it by being who they are—slaves to their degenerate nature. In public they play the innocent while in private they behave like incompetent parrots, senile-faced and simple-minded. All three descended from the sweepings of the old world. Intellectual gymnastics is their insignia. They lead a mediocre life in the land of Sagev. None of them is an Alfa female but together they form a formidable pack reputed to be men-eaters—cannibals avant la lettre. They particularly enjoy the raw flesh of those who are out of place, ‘cultural amphibians’ you might say. They behave as if they owned the place where they all work for scanty pittances of food and clothing. Worse, they always operate the same way Shutzstaffels did in Nazi Germany and we all know what that unfortunate movement led to.

Other’hood as Accessory–The Case of Madama Butterfly (Part One)

Other’hood as Accessory—The Case of Madama Butterfly

The problem is that music today is as massively organized a masculine domain as it was in the past. Without significant exceptions, women play a crucial but subaltern role. [Emphasis Added]
Edward Said, Music at the Limits, 44.

Unlike Carmen, Salomé, or Aida, which have undergone succinct, even biting, criticism that shows their classist, Eurocentric, and sexist bias, Madama Butterfly, a protean modern myth that centers on an original domestic tragedy in Nagasaki (Japan) between 1892 and 1894, has yet to submit to a minute dissection that will enable us to trace the origins, and indeed beginnings, of the opera in the system of Western white male power, knowledge, and pleasure. So far, the attention has been centered on the purely musicological. It is obvious that the libretto lends itself to one such focus, but there is another one that must be taken into consideration—namely, reading the score from the bottom up (i.e. from the point of view of the victim not of the victimizer). This take will permit us to enjoy, by some other way of enjoying, the music, if at all, because an argument can be made about the kind of art that sets out to deliberately disfigure other people simply because they are not like “us.” My suggestion, and much the most important, is that underlying Madama Butterfly are issues of typecast that carry deeply-rooted cultural and social contradictions regarding West versus East. Moreover, in the course of the opera, issues of race and gender become inextricably linked to broader notions of shame versus control, as well as imperialist assumptions about the East. One can also attribute this seemingly complex libretto to a Western fantasy through which the Asian female (she could be African) is made available. It tells us in what way(s) Cio-Cio-San is exotic, passive, mysterious, and above all, Oriental, with all the connotations the label carries. So we are left, in effect, with a celebration of misogyny—woman as the source of a male pleasure that can quite easily turn into hatred. Thus the opera as a whole stands at the farther limits of humanity.

The Tree of Many Virtues–the Olive Tree

The Tree of Many Virtues—the Olive Tree

Olive trees are peculiar, very peculiar. To begin with, they live for a very long time and still bear fruit. Second, they adapt to the harshest of climates and terrains. They grow even in the desert. Here in the low Atlas Mountains, they can be found everywhere, in rocky areas in particular. The olive oil we extract from the ones my family has been growing for years is slightly bitter, which gives it an edge compared to the one that is produced in the Sahel or Zarsis. As a young boy, I did not take to olive trees easily for I had to help my father prune and care for them. A difficult task, I used to think. But with time and many years of dislocation in the West, I have grown to love the tree we call a’zzaitouna.
Olive trees are also difficult to photograph no matter how skilled the photographer may be. For one thing, they do not reflect the light. Moreover, the leaves tend to change their color following the intensity of sunlight. I have tried many times to photograph the ones I have in my orchard but all my efforts were in vain. There is a fair explanation as why I have failed. Both the trees and the leaves, some are old, others are young, are hard to capture in pictures, except perhaps in the afternoon when the sun begins to go down, but again that in itself is a problem because each tree becomes a specter i.e. it does not yield its details. This hindrance occurs even when I used an ISO film which is supposed to be faster than an ISA film. In addition, the color of each leaf changes its color according its location on the tree. Those facing the sun are one color and those hidden from the sun are of another color. With too much light, the color becomes steel-like and at times it looks like platinum. A photographer I know suggested I should photograph my olive trees in full moonlight, which I did and low and behold, I got some fair results.
Perhaps the best effort I made was when I took pictures of some old trees after a shower of rain followed by a good dose of sunshine in the middle of winter. There was also a slight northerly wind blowing against the light. When the film was developed I noticed that the color of the leaves was rich and full, something I had not seen before in any of the photographs I had taken.
One day it dawned on me to try and use a black and white film. I took pictures of the same trees in the full midday sun. Winter was dying then and spring was around the corner. To my surprise and joy, the photographs came out good, very good I dare say. I tried again a week later and failed miserably. I then spoke to a professional photographer who suggested I should use a different lens, which I did. But then again, I failed not better but worse. According to him, the pictures were dull because the light in the low Atlas Mountains peaks not around midday but around three in the afternoon. Still, he encouraged me to keep trying, but the more I tried, the more I failed.
A tree that grows to be thousands of years and still feeds its people, a tree that defies the very art of photography; in fine, a tree as elusive as a Bengali tiger, a tree that has fascinated us since Carthage ruled the world, a tree the branches of which can be given as a sign of peace, a tree that is female in the singular and masculine in the plural is certainly a tree that makes me wonder. I am always amazed at its endurance and kindness—yes, kindness when harvested or pruned. This is the tree that gives us oil to burn when it is dark and oil to eat when we are at the table; oil to bathe with and oil to drink, oil that cures us when we are sick. I am talking about the tree of so many virtues—the olive tree. It is to be cherished and cajoled and taken care of and treasured.
I have planted some olive trees this year. I hope I will live long enough to eat and enjoy their fruits. If not, may they live to defy time, more so than any book one is able to write.

Of Snow at ‘Home’

Of Snow at ‘Home’

Today, my helper and I woke up to a lily-white blanket of snow. I knew yesterday through the weather man that it was going to snow but I did not know it would snow this much. Soft, egg-shell like snow covers all the plains, hills and mountains around my house. My helper, who never left the low Atlas Mountains, is happy, very happy to see the snow. She jumps and laughs and sings out of joy at the sight of the white stuff that feels soft and moist and fragile when she treads on it. This is not unusual for this time of the year, for it does snow quite often in the low Mountains in the months of December and January. But this year the weather has been dry, with hardly any rain at all. So this snow fall is most welcome and is even celebrated in certain hamlets. People who have ploughed their land are always praying for rain or any kind of moisture, including frost. I too have ploughed my land for the first time since my childhood. I have sowed barley and wheat. I expect to have a good crop. May Allah smile at me!
Sitting by the fire place enjoying a hot tisane made with local rosemary honey and bergamot water blossom and feasting on a baklawa from the Cap Bon, I watch the snowflakes fall through one of the French doors in the living room. I feel a sense of joy at the magical sight, for here I am at ‘home’ being part and parcel of the terroir as well as the season. I had not lived this moment since the year I migrated to the West. And that was a long time ago. I was a little boy then. I am an old man now. To be chez-soi after so long of an absence is a victory no matter how small it is.
I reflect on my life as I look back while the smoldering fire keeps me warm. I see that at times the flames fight one another as if each one wants to die first so that I may feel cosy in my little corner. Together, they create un bain de fraîcheur. The comings and goings-on of life have removed me from what I was accustomed to: people, climate, food, humor, fauna, flora. I have become a stranger in my own yard.
My helper calls my name. I reply. She tells me that one of my three dogs, Honey, wants a drink of milk. I abide.
The snow is piling now. I am delighted. After all, I live with the seasons now: winter, spring, summer, autumn. They follow one another without rime nor reason.

Good Bye A’nnassia

Good Bye A’nnassia

A’nnassia passed away on April 11, 2015. She was 91. Her real name was Aïsha. A’nnassia (her nickname) was my mother. I did not have a chance to say good bye to her because I was away at the time of her death and because no on informed me of her quick deterioration which led to her end. There has been a rift in the family. My brother and/or sisters and I have not been on good terms for a while.
A’nnassia had a rare form of hepatitis which devoured her liver. She suffered terribly. By the time she passed away, her weight was reduced to a mere 25 kilograms. She lived alone for about six years. My father had died in 2009 leaving her to fend for herself and she did so until the end. She moved out of her little house only when she could no longer manage personal matters and/or things on her own. She lived with one of the sisters until her extinction. She was a daring person. No one in the family had the boldness or courage to mess up with her.
Strong-willed and fair-minded, A’nnassia gave birth to many children, most of them did not survive. She lived through World War Two and the social upheavals that followed. She came from a wealthy family. Her family owned land, a lot of land. But she kept away from her brothers and sisters after she had married my father in 1944.
My father died in my arms. I was at his side up to the end. I also saw to his burial and the farewell ceremony that followed. I could not do the same for my mother. Displacement prevented me from being there for her. When I visited her newly made grave, still fresh with the smell of death, I was not emotional. I felt a certain coldness going through my blood as if I had frost bites all over my body. I sat on the ground by her grave and did not move for hours thinking to myself where she was and whether she could hear me if I called her name. But I did not call her name for fear she might hear me and feel angry at my absence. I was for a long time her eye ball. My being away for most of my life and her closeness to her other children gave me the sentiment of a stranger every time I saw her. She would complain to me and blame them for my estrangement. I always felt alienated in feeling and affection and so did she.
I said a prayer and left. I have not returned to her grave ever since that first visit. Somehow, something tells me that she does not want me to be there, too close to her even after her death.
Our (that is my mother and I) odyssey is a long one. It goes back to the time when I was a little boy. I went away when I was four to go to school and would return to be with her and my sisters and later my brother during the holidays only to leave her again when I embarked on another school year. Year after year after year of schooling led to my leaving home for good to head for France to study. It was the thing to do at the time. Every aspiring child was sent to La Métropole to taste the milk of the La Grande Fouance. When I look back now I realize that I spent most of my life away from ‘home’ where my mother and the rest of my family resided. On sporadic visits, I felt a stranger in my own house. Modernity has a price, you might say. In order to be educated in the language of the Master, one had to leave home, travel to a foreign land in order to learn and be educated in the fashion set for us by our ancestors from Gallia! That way was the only way to ascend, to rise in thought and station, to become an évolué of sorts. Going to school in France at that time was and still is an expensive commodity every family from the colony must be able to afford so that their children could better themselves and mine was no different. I have always had the feeling that the tearing apart of my family has nurtured in me what I have called the ‘immigrant syndrome’ i.e. because I left my homeland and adopted more than one, I could never be who I really am, so I have ended living in fear all my life—the fear of losing my passport, the fear of failing, the fear falling seriously ill, the fear of schizophrenia. ‘I contain multitudes,” the poet says. Then the fear was transformed into an attitude. I would go out of my way to please, not offend, my hosts who are at ‘home.’ Needless to add that one suffers another alienation when and if one goes back to one’s ‘homeland,’ which is no longer my homeland. Neither here nor there, I have led half a life.
To come back to A’nnassia is be reminded of the human condition that forces one to feel marginalized no matter where one finds oneself on the planet. A line from the tenth century poet Abu al-ala Al-Marri fits the bill and conveys what I have in mind: ‘I sought to live anywhere / but nowhere would take me as a dweller.’ Al-Marri was blind, poor, and lonely most of his life. He led a solitary life devoted to reading and writing. He lived to be 84 and had no children. He even blamed his father for having had him. A rare find in the world, except perhaps for a Sartre.
In the end, we tend to live a little life that had been planned for us and not a life we plan for ourselves. I am not being fatalist when I utter these words. Far from it. I come to think that A’nnassia also lived off the center. After all, she was a victim too, a victim of her time—patriarchy, colonialism, motherhood. Maybe her parents had made a mistake in giving her life, maybe she made a mistake in giving me life, who knows. At any rate, she is dead now. May she rest in eternal repose!
With love, much love as always, A’nnassia.

My Quarrel with the English Language

My Quarrel with the English Language

Part I

It was at my French school in the colony where I was first introduced to the English Language. I was five years old. At first, I felt liberated from the shackles of the French Language and its rules—grammar in particular, but then, after my first trip to England I resented the language terribly as much as I resented its people. I found them cold and calculating. They smiled and smiled and smiled but underneath the wonderful smile they wore with skill on their milky faces lurked a hypocrisy they somehow managed to disguise well. What I did not like at all was the way they set out to ask me questions, all sorts of questions as if I were interrogated. The questions turned around my family, my country, my race, my life, and even my intimacy. I felt as if they were setting a trap for me to fall in. And so I grew up literally hating the language and possibly its people whom I thought preached one thing and did another. They would lecture me about honesty and fair play and justice and generosity and kindness and even their prowess as colonizers the proof of which I saw when my host family took me to visit the so-called British Museum—a kind of Ali Baba cave full of artifacts they plundered and took away by force when Britannia ruled the world. I then realized that people who deliberately set out to deprive other people of the things they hold dear to them—let us remember how by the end of the 19th century the English people despoiled 25% of the planet—cannot be all that good no matter how hard they tried to convince me.
Ever since that visit to the British Museum, I decided to play the English Game which consisted of temperance i.e. think like an English person, behave like an English person, write like an English person, speak like an English person, knowing fully well that with time one would become a mimic man.
And when my mimicry became adept, I began cavorting with the English Language. I would frisk and frolic with her late into the night. The exercise has been like an intense game of chess during which you must sacrifice the queen and the two knights every time you play in order to win, if at all. There were times when I was rough with her: taming her, cajoling her, caressing her, kissing her, loving her, fucking her, impregnating her, forcing her to abort and at times to give birth to Zombies and Fridays and Calibans. What I also found out along the way of learning and/or writing is that she in turn has forced herself on me as if she were a hard-hearted rapist intending to not only fuck me real hard but also leave a trace, a wound, a blessure that never heals. And no matter how feelingly I have performed, I have ended aping my Masters—the English. With time, I have realized I can never get out of the web that the English Language has spun for me. The more I have tried to free myself from her embrace, the more I have felt entangled. Like a black widow, she has devoured me with sang froid. Or has she?

Weaned on Bread and Olives (Part I)

I grew up eating bread and olives. All sorts of bread (shawat, matlua, tabuna, mtabga) and all kinds of olives (black, green, grey; small size, medium size, big size). I must admit at the time I did not enjoy either one. To persuade me to eat them, my mother would appeal to Allah and the Prophet Muhammed to guide me to the right path so that I would consume as much as I could. And there were days when I did. Still, what I found odd was the taste of olives, especially the black ones. They were sour and sweet at the same time. They were also fat. Even so, when I bit them, they exploded inside my mouth like a freshly-picked orange filling it with a tasty juice in which I drowned the piece of bread that accompanied it.
The fact that we grew and still grow wheat and olives did not make life easy for me. Still, my love for the little black pearls grew with time. In fact, it culminated in the wonderful experience I lived this past year when I harvested them myself and it was fun, a lot of fun. I also took them to the press and watched them being dusted, washed and crushed. There was something magic about being there at the press when the olives were transformed into honey-like olive oil which came out of a stainless tube pure and crisp, its color resembling that of freshly harvested vanilla. When I held the first bottle, it looked like like a fifteen-year Balvanie: so much character, so much individuality, so much pleasure.

My Good Old Name

My good old name
you are home now
so live and have fun and thrive
jam, you may even jive
for life is too short
to be spent otherwise.


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