from “Horses of God”

In another garage, in another slum, there’s the photo of me that Abu Zoubeir pinned to the wall alongside photos of the other martyrs: Nabil smiling beatifically; Khalil with a fixed grin; Blackie, his dark complexion gone, staring with his wide protruding eyes and making a victory sign; and my brother Hamid, true to form, displaying all the swagger of a born leader. This way, Abu Zoubeir glorifies us forever in the fight against the infidels. Looking at our portraits, other boys will dream of justice and sacrifice, as we once did, watching videos of the Palestinian or Chechen martyrs.

Abu Zoubeir, our spiritual guide, wasn’t always religious. For a long time he’d led a debauched life, which he didn’t attempt to hide. On the contrary, he’d use it to convince us of the virtues of abstinence. He could be completely objective because he’d been down that road. Like many of the chosen ones who’d been touched by grace, he’d fought a relentless battle against the mediocrity of vice. Being close to the light, he was now filled with inexpressible bliss, an inner peace superior in every way to that produced by hashish. Abu Zoubeir knew the right words, the greedy words to implant in the memory, which, as they grow, ingest all the waste piled up there. He’d been born and raised in Douar Lahjar, a shantytown even more run-down than ours, if it’s possible to compare derelictions. His encounter with God took place in Kenitra prison, where he spent the best part of a decade. He didn’t like to talk about his crime, but we knew that rape and fraud were involved. It was a period of his life he described as supremely wayward. He used to say that prison had saved him from himself; having the luck to meet men of faith there was a gift from heaven. So he felt obliged to give back some of the blessings he’d received. His new purpose was to help us purify our souls, to lead us on to the path of righteousness. In fact, that path led straight to death, our own and that of our fellow man, whom we were meant to love. Slam into a blind wall, surrounded by nothingness, where there’s only regret, remorse, solitude, and desolation. Slam, slam, slam . . .

It felt good, being in the garage. The prayer mats on the walls were embroidered with verses from the Koran, in gold-thread calligraphy. The sparse furniture consisted of a raffia mat, a low table, a television, and a bookcase. Sitting cross-legged, dressed all in white, his beard carefully trimmed, Abu Zoubeir radiated a strange light. When his eyes rested on one of us, we had the impression he was reading our hearts, like a book. He had a sixth sense for discerning our innermost thoughts, our doubts, and our questions, to which he had clear and precise answers.

How old were we when those meetings began? Fifteen, maybe sixteen. Hamid was the first to start visiting Abu Zoubeir. I’d see them nattering away for hours over by the cesspools, near where we’d buried Morad. Hamid seemed fascinated by the eloquent conversation of his friend, whom he referred to as a guardian angel. To me he was more like a demon. In the beginning, I hated him, because my brother didn’t notice me anymore, he ignored me. It was as if, overnight, I’d ceased to exist. Hamid was no longer interested in the Sunday games, or the fights that came after. Or even in his own business, which wasn’t doing well. The boys he employed at the dump were stealing from him with complete impunity; but he couldn’t care less. He’d lost all authority over the glue sniffers and his other flunkies, who’d gone freelance. Worse, he’d stopped getting high and, to crown it all, he’d begun to pray five times a day. The transformation was complete. Yemma was happy because he’d taken a job selling shoes in the city with a friend of Abu Zoubeir’s. Nothing was the same as before. He’d bore the pants off us with his piety. On Fridays, he’d go to the mosque and take his place in the front row next to Abu Zoubeir, who’d then give a speech. He let his beard grow; he was a shadow of his former self. Gone was the dandy always up for a fight, sharp as a razor, organizing his own life and everyone else’s. Mine especially. I’d grown up and could look after myself now, but I missed him. If, in a game, I made a spectacular save, I’d glance around for him, in case he was admiring my exploits from afar. I needed his applause, his yelling, his sudden storming of the field to give me a hug. But he wasn’t there. His time was divided between the shop, the garage, and home, where he only came to eat. Gone, too, was the gaiety he usually spread around the table, the ridiculous stories that had Yemma in stitches. He could even extract a smile from my father’s mummified face. He’d jeer at my brothers and no one would be able to get a word in edgewise, he was always so talkative, so funny. All that was gone. He managed to spin a kind of austere web that gradually entangled us all. We couldn’t watch TV in peace because he’d be doing our heads in with his diatribes about the American-Zionist conspiracy that was brainwashing us all, corrupting our morals and insidiously infecting each one of us. Yemma didn’t understand a word he was saying, but depriving her of her Egyptian and Brazilian soaps was out of the question. So, just to irritate us, he’d start noisily reciting the Koran in the room next door.

As time passed, Hamid would come home less and less. Eventually he set himself up in a shack near the garage, lent to him by Abu Zoubeir. That hurt a lot, because he left a gaping hole at home. I went on loving him in spite of it all. He was still my idol, on par with Yachine, my soccer hero. I’d get up at dawn to go and meet him before he left for work. He’d take me to Belkabir’s, a stallholder who made doughnuts that were second to none. Sitting behind a huge vat of oil, the man with the spreading paunch would fling rounds of sticky dough into boiling oil. They’d instantly swell as they floated, giving off an exquisite smell. We’d buy a big crisp ring of them and take it to the café, order mint tea and happily munch away. Hamid said I ought to find myself a job so I’d be able to feed myself properly. He’d have a word with Abu Zoubeir, who had friends everywhere. I agreed, because I adored doughnuts. Sometimes he’d put me off my food by talking about hell so early in the morning. He’d insist that on the day of the Last Judgment the infidels would be thrown into vats of boiling oil, that their skin would keep growing back so they’d carry on frying and the suffering would be atrocious. That gave me goose bumps. I told him I believed in God and I’d never get fried like a doughnut. That’s how I became an apprentice mechanic with Ba Moussa. A grubby job, but one I was conscientious about. And since Nabil was bored and kept hanging around the bikes I was fixing, he was taken on too. Together, we made a great team. So much so that Ba Moussa, who was an inveterate kif smoker, came to rely on us and we became professionals.

The shop consisted of two connecting rooms. The one at the back, which was tiny, dark, and airless, was where the boss lived. It had a bed and a table, on top of which, enjoying pride of place, was a transistor radio, which blared from morning till night, and a suitcase in which he kept his clothes. A bare bulb, emitting a faint glow, hung from the low ceiling. We were always knocking our heads on it. The other room was our workshop: there was a crate full of tools, some old tires, nuts and bolts, screws, and a mountain of ill-assorted scrap metal that could be reused. But in fact, except when it rained, we always worked outside. The bicycle held no mysteries for us anymore. And then we progressed to the next level: mopeds. That was a whole different story, but we knuckled down. Moussa would give us easy jobs to start with, and more complicated ones as we went on. And if, when we made a mistake, he took the liberty of giving us a beating, it was for our own good. We knew that. You have to be tough on apprentices at times, even if Ba Moussa, when he was annoyed, could deliver a real drubbing. I learned to keep out of the way, but Nabil had a knack for being in range. He bore the brunt of it. But hey, that was the deal.

It took us a few months to get the hang of the work. We learned to strip an engine in next to no time, lubricate it, replace the faulty parts, and reassemble it. I’d be ecstatic when an engine started up first time; I’d take it for a trial run on the tracks over at the dump. My friends, seeing me roar past, would howl with jealousy. Some of them threw stones and shouted: “Bourgeois filth!” I’d give them the finger and keep going. The boss was proud of us. As was Hamid, who’d come to visit, bringing bread, a tin of sardines, and potatoes. It was great. In those days, I was stuffing myself, spending half my salary on food. The rest I’d give to Yemma, who’d give it back to me in different ways. She bought balls of wool and knitted us jumpers, gloves, hats, and socks; she’d buy me a pair of espadrilles or anything else she could find at the souk that was cheap and useful. I’d put on weight and had grown about ten centimeters. It was all going so well. But in Sidi Moumen, the moment an engine is running smoothly, a bit of grit will get in to jam it. Without fail. It was woven into the fabric of our destinies.

If Nabil was a graceful creature, it wasn’t his fault. If men did a double take as he walked by, he hadn’t chosen to have a pert ass, or white skin, or silky curls. The older he got, the more desirable he became. I’m not saying I was immune to his charm. His feline, delicate beauty attracted me just as much as the others. I’m not saying I’d never considered it, but I’d quickly banish those appalling thoughts from my mind. The memory of that night in his shack with the Stars still makes my stomach heave. Nabil was dogged by bad luck, which is contagious. It was an easy life, for sure, now that we were no longer scavenging on the dump. We had a cushy job that brought in a hundred dirhams a week and elevated us to the rank of princes. Not for a moment did giving it up cross our minds. But that damned ass of Nabil’s only ever caused us grief. One evening, when he was staying late at the shop to fix a bike, Ba Moussa came back from prayers and lowered the metal grille. He took off his djellaba and went over to Nabil, who instantly recognized the look in his boss’s eyes. He stayed on his guard, going on with his work as if nothing were amiss. Ba Moussa’s voice was soft and syrupy, quite different from his daytime one, which was harsh and grating. He leaned over him and pinched his cheeks: “You know you’re a beautiful boy!” Without thinking for a second, Nabil grabbed the wrench in his grease-blackened hands and struck him violently on the temple—a muffled, frightening sound—and the man’s full weight fell on the scrap metal. No doubt it was panic that had unleashed Nabil’s strength, to make him knock him out like that. He might have left it there, pulled up the grille and walked out. Events might have taken a different turn. A reconciliation might have been possible the next day: a couple of slaps and order would have been restored. But Nabil was in the grip of some demon that made him go on with the attack and lay into his aggressor, who was lying on the ground, barely conscious. He bent over him and, blinded with rage, pounded him again and again, shattering his skull. And as if that weren’t enough, he grabbed hold of the hammer that was lying around and began to batter him furiously in the balls. He was battering the man but also the fate that had condemned him from birth. The spurting blood only excited him more. And he went on until he was exhausted, until he could no longer hold the tool in his hand; then he lay down on top of the boss and stayed there motionless a long while, like a wild beast, sated, slumped over its prey.

Seeing him a few hours later, not far from where we lived, I was afraid. His face was pale, his clothes were soaked in blood, and he was incapable of uttering a word. I brought him a glass of water and we sat down on the step by our door. It took a long time for him to pull himself together, then, with unnerving calm, he said:

“I’ve killed the boss.”

I was stunned.

“Are you sure?”

“I hit him hard, very hard, the disgusting pig.”

“Maybe you just knocked him out.”

Nabil looked down and didn’t answer. I realized that he was serious and that that meant the end of our stint as mechanics. Together we went to explain the situation to my brother Hamid, who, once again calling on his garage friends, rescued us from that nightmare. Ba Moussa was buried in the dump that same night, near where Morad lay. And to avoid the risk of anyone finding the two corpses, they set fire to the whole area. We’d gone with them and it was a beautiful sight, the fire in the night. It crackled, it glowed red. The high flames pierced the black sky and, as we danced under the gaze of the silent stars, our deformed shadows trailed over the filth. Abu Zoubeir and Hamid said a prayer. I’d have liked to join in, but I didn’t know the words. I was afraid the fire would spread and said so to Hamid, who dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand, since it had rained the day before. I wasn’t entirely reassured. Thinking about it, he was right. He knew the dump better than anyone. Little by little, the flames died out, as if they were tired, over the ashes of Morad and the boss. On the way back, we barely spoke. Near Omar the coalman’s shop, Abu Zoubeir turned to my brother and said: “You ought to invite them to the garage! It would do them good to be closer to God.” Hamid agreed.

Apart from a distant cousin who visited him once a year, Ba Moussa didn’t have any family. So no one asked questions about his disappearance. Besides, the denizens of Sidi Moumen were used to people moving in and out in a hurry. People come and go without anyone really knowing why. Others take their place, make a home in an empty hovel, improvise, adapt, and maintain the general decrepitude, as if to ensure the survival of our species.

After he’d cleaned the shop, Hamid brought us the crate of tools, saying that it might be useful, seeing as we’d learned the trade. He advised us to clear off, make ourselves scarce until things settled down. Which we did. And life resumed its course, as if old Moussa had never existed.

From Horses of God, forthcoming in 2013 from Tin House Books. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.