The Personal Letter
“Dear mister Ciccion,
Please ask my mother to forgive me.
I wish Nabil eternal happiness.”
By the time Mr. Ciccion, his face white as a sheet and his hands trembling, would begin to read and try without success to understand the sense of the note, so clear and limpid even in its reticence, the young man who had just written it would already be stretched out on the courtyard’s clay ground.
. . . Stretched out . . . beneath the clouds . . .
Sweet scents don’t tickle his nose;
He sleeps in the sun, a hand on his chest
Motionless . . .
It is from memory and in memory of an unforgettable courtyard sleeper—a courtyard that, an instant before it received the celestial, splendid body’s fall, was still dusty, and from that moment on became a princely court—that I begin and dedicate this “little chronicle.”
Which opens no holiday in my days.
Pleasure or amusement, even less.
No more than a quarter of an hour had passed between the moment when I climbed the staircase with him to reach the fourth-floor classroom where Mr. Ciccion would have already started his history class—we were both late— and the moment when he became this sleeper in the bloodied courtyard; this smiling sleeper in the valley.
Motionless . . .
More than forty years later, I see so clearly unfurling before my eyes all the stages, the unstoppable sequences of this transmutation.
Five sequences; each one thoroughly defined, each thoroughly distinct.
Autonomous yet interdependent, as bound as the fingers on a hand.
The outlines of a drama, in a form already drafted before its eruption into the world, so clearly sketched that for a long time the idea of this little chronicle seemed to me a kind of profanation, an attack.
Against a face at once gymnast’s and ballet dancer’s, a face closed in on its own unspeakable grace, its final and tragic beauty, its mortal perfection.
A face with no need of chronicler, narrator, nor celebrant to challenge, in its pure immateriality, the perverse work of time and oblivion.
At the time these events take place, the time of the facts reported in this little chronicle, Settat was nothing more than a tiny village dozing like a lizard under an unchanging blue sunlit sky.
To startle it out of its lethargy: the seasonal, faithful fire that kindled those thatch huts nestled on a hill at the edge of town, the nouallas, doggedly surviving and rising from the ashes like phoenixes; and the unpredictable flood crashing out of Wadi Ben Moussa.
A burgeoning liaison, still in its first stutters, but already known to everyone and as censured as adultery . . .
A suicide . . .
Would it be right to treat her as an adulterous woman, responsible for her son’s suicide?
Khalid’s mother had been a widow for such a long time. Her best years were burnt to ash by a searing fidelity to the memory of her dead husband.
In his brief missive, the first person Khalid evoked was this woman hunted by a mob of opinion. In the final moments of his life, he addressed his mother and begged her to forgive him.
One of the most beautiful, moving gestures, rising from the depths of our geographical, mental, and cultural soil, is the one by which two people, in the same movement and at the same time, give each other chaste kisses on the head and on the hands. They might be of different ages or sexes, of different social standing or character, but in this gesture all their dissimilarities and disagreements, even their hatred, if there has been any, evaporates.
What remains is this gesture of reconciliation, this pardoning of mutual offenses, incomprehension and wrongs that each might have done the other.
I imagine, I am even certain without having been witness, that this gesture had flowered between him and his slandered mother, this woman hounded by rumor, just a few moments beforehand, on that morning when I climbed the staircase with Khalid.
This invisible gesture accompanied him like a traveler’s viaticum.
For his last journey.
We’re climbing the stairs.
We’re late. I’m hurrying, but he scales each step with an extreme, strange slowness. It’s as if his sculptural, athletic body is caught in a swell. As if with each step his body, tossed by invisible waves, is tottering between peak and trough.
Perplexed, slightly worried, I stop and begin to observe this pitching movement.
His right arm is in a cast held horizontal by a band of white fabric tied at the neck, and it swings imperceptibly at each step before falling back to his chest.
Laughable rudder, in white plaster, of a ship pitching toward its brief, final port of call.
Another staircase, far in space and time from the one in Settat, at what was then the only high school in town.
A chair rises slowly, high in the air—every time I remember it, this is the first image that looms up—the chair rises in slow motion, so high its upturned legs almost touch the paneled vault of the ceiling, extending like four extra arms from the policeman lifting it. An avenging Hindu divinity with multiple arms, a colossal Hercules dominating in all his height the Moroccan students occupying their own embassy in France, wedged in the stairwell and bludgeoned full force by a police squad.
The four supernumerary hands wave slowly, like recently hatched and still awkward pincers from some enormous insect in the middle of metamorphosis that just abruptly hit the imago stage.
Eyes bulging, face flushed, mouth ajar, the metamorphosed police officer pants with rage, with hatred, with compressed, restrained jouissance. He purposefully takes his time, letting fear stir the entrails of the prey snared in his trap, the unspeakably pleasurable moment when his newborn pincers will bash into the cranial domes that will then spurt, in thin trickles or in geysers, scarlet blood, hot and thrilling. Then the officer’s panting will become less constricted, less rapid, and a treacherous and gratified torpor, as after an orgasm long held back, will sweep over and inundate him after the deflowering that his four extra members, like so many sex organs, will have savagely accomplished.
But for the moment the chair legs still oscillate under the ceiling’s vault, and I can’t remember from which direction those sylvan wings opened, monstrously, that fantastical chair that instantly made itself part of the police officer’s body, extending it, crowning it, high up under the vault of the ceiling, starting to wobble nearly imperceptibly, unsustainably delaying the onset of the predictable, inevitable fall.
As soon as the course of that inevitability was set, before I saw the blood spurt from the skull of one of my friends—was he the secretary of our group?—I started to scream, or, more like it, burst from my throat, animalesque , instinctive, without a sliver of thought or will intervening, a cry that could not be stopped: “No! No! No!” A panic-stricken, impotent denial.
Then, in my turn, I fell.
From Une chute infinie. © Mohamed Leftah. By arrangement with La Différence. Translation © 2016 by Eleni Sikelianos. All rights reserved.
 I’ve borrowed this expression from the Italian writer Leonardo Sciasia, who gave this title to a group of tales and stories. In one of these little chronicles, “Mata Hari in Palermo,” he explains his approach: “The small true facts of the past, which the chroniclers relay with imprecision or reticence, and which historians neglect, sometimes open in my hours and days something like a holiday. I mean that they become a vacation and amusement both, like reading an adventure book or detective novel.”