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Authors: Tahar Ben Jelloun

A Palace in the Old Village

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A Palace in the Old Village

TAHAR BEN JELLOUN

Translated from the French by
Linda Coverdale

The hero of this book passes “from one time to another, one life to another,” changing “centuries, countries, customs.” His disorientation is reflected in his
misreading
of the realities around him: there are things he cannot understand, and their importance completely escapes him. Since an American reader may well be similarly unfamiliar with some of the historical and
cultural
references in Ben Jelloun’s novel, I have provided a few endnotes to explain these allusions, which are marked in the text by an asterisk.

WHEN MOHAMMED HAD FINISHED
his evening prayer, he stayed sitting with his legs tucked beneath him on the small synthetic rug, gazing at a plastic made-in-China clock on the wall. He was looking, not at the hands, but at the picture surrounding the clock face: a crowd of people all in white, circling the Kaaba* beneath a blue sky thronged with birds and angels.

He was remembering his own pilgrimage, which had left him with mixed feelings. Although he’d been happy and deeply moved while praying, he’d been affected just as strongly by the oppressive lack of privacy and the rough way some pilgrims behaved. He could not
understand
why they were always shoving and stumbling into one another, occasionally even causing accidents that proved fatal.

He’d quickly learned that holy places disrupt ordinary perceptions. People are no longer themselves; they lose their bearings. Falling easily into trances, they lose
consciousness
as well, thus inviting a death much glorified in the ravings of charlatans. Such pilgrims die beneath the feet of stronger men, giants who trample others
savagely
, forging ahead without even a glance back to see what they’ve left in their wake, pressing on, their eyes and faces lifted heavenward as if such barbaric fervor
had been demanded from on high. The weakest victims die, lying bloody in the dust. No eye falls upon them to offer a last prayer.

In holy places overrun within the space of a few days by more than two million Muslims—all intent on
washing
away their sins before returning home content, brimming with the virtues bestowed by their faith—these scenes were inevitable. It was not a pretty sight. Mohammed had always been afraid of crowds. In the grip of fanaticism, crowds become dangerous. It’s best to avoid them, shun all confrontation, and escape being swept up in their momentum. At the factory, he would go on strike with his comrades but did not parade through the streets waving a sign.

Mohammed dreamed of a solitary springtime
pilgrimage
with only a few members of his tribe, just friends and family. Dreading violent situations, he was afraid of dying while in Mecca but was probably alone in his fear, for such a death sent one’s soul straight to heaven. He never mentioned his dread of being crushed to death by fanatical feet, but he kept out of their way and studied them. What does such a foot look like? It’s dirty, sometimes bare, sometimes shod in a shabby
babouche
. Mohammed had encountered some of those wearers of dilapidated
babouches
. They were not from his country and spoke an Arab dialect he found
impenetrable
. Wherever did they come from? To Mohammed, a Muslim was an Arab or a Berber. He found it difficult to consider those other pilgrims Muslims. They were Africans, Chinese, Turks. All the pilgrims had fire in their eyes—the flame of faith, the passion of Islam. Why,
he wondered, was his own gaze steady and serene? It was simply his temperament.

He had looked forward to that trip for a long time, had dreamed about it, even a bit too much, perhaps, just because he had no other grand projects in his life. He thought about his children’s future, but this pained him, leaving him distressed and bewildered. So he performed his prayers and rituals in a strangely quiet way.

One morning, after emerging from the Great Mosque, he had not found his brand-new
babouches
, made by a craftsman in Fez. Astonished at having been robbed by another pilgrim, he could neither understand nor accept this. But he soon forgot his anger when one of the men who shared his room told him that every day, gangs attacked pilgrims to steal their money.

When a thief is captured, the man added, he gets his hand cut off. In fact, at the noon prayer today a few hands will be chopped off in public—you’re invited to the show! A week ago they flogged a Yemeni for
disrespecting
the son of a prince, and last year they
condemned
a Christian to death—I think he was Italian—after they caught him with the daughter of an important Saudi family. A Muslim woman mustn’t
associate
with—that is, be alone with—a non-Muslim, much less marry him. Oh no, they don’t joke around here, they’ve got their laws: they claim they’re in the Koran and they enforce them! We don’t argue, us—we haven’t the right. We come to meditate at the tomb of our beloved Prophet, we pray, we perform our rituals, and we go on home; that is, if we don’t die trampled or
missing
a hand, because they can make mistakes and accuse
you of stealing, and then your hand’s gone in a flash, it’s called swift justice, no time to think things over, and in any case, around here thinking is strongly discouraged, because here we give ourselves to God without any doubts or hesitation: we belong to God and God does what he wants with us. You got that, my friend?

Mohammed felt that lopping off a hand for stealing a slipper was too harsh, even cruel. He stared at his open hands for a long time and thought, Without them, I would have been nothing, not even a beggar. May Allah protect us from evil and misfortune!

A beggar held out his stump to him; Mohammed slipped some money into his pocket. He would have liked to talk with him, to learn his story. Perhaps he’d lost his hand in an accident or been the victim of some mistake—but the beggar had vanished.

Whenever Mohammed told people back home about his pilgrimage, he got into trouble. Bachir, who had an opinion about everything, gave him a lecture between sips of a nice cool beer: A Muslim must not criticise what happens during the hajj. Leave that to the enemies of Islam, those who want to see us perpetually
underdeveloped
, in rags, dirty and inhuman. Now they’ve
managed
to label all Muslims terrorists! It’s simple: we’re doomed to stagnate or to slide backward, so criticism, forget about it, even if what you say is true—or else we’ll stop calling you Hajji!

Mohammed had the last word, though, in his soft voice: If we don’t criticise ourselves, we’ll never get
anywhere
. Well, I’ll keep quiet and wish you bon voyage, a good pilgrimage, but me, if I go back, it won’t be during
the main hajj. I’ll choose the little one, the
umrah
. Besides, you know, we need to learn tolerance. For
example
: you drink, but I never mention it, that’s your
business
and I’m not going to scold you—so stop criticising those who have the courage to criticise themselves!

 

A big buzzing fly roused Mohammed from his reverie and kept blindly bumping into the wall. He would have liked to rescue it but hadn’t the energy. The fly went around and around in that room as if it too were a
prisoner
. Mohammed bowed his head. He seemed to be answering a call, listening to a voice—a sort of whisper escaping from a crack in the plaster, a fissure the
wallpaper
from the sixties could no longer seal up. The
apartment
building was in such disrepair that both the municipality and the public housing authority had dropped it from their rolls; it needed too much work, especially since the chaotic arrival of huge numbers of new African immigrants.

Those from the Maghreb—Morocco, Algeria,
Tunisia
—formed a volatile mix with the black Africans, sparking racist insults and fights between adolescents from both sides. Mohammed no longer knew whether this racism sprang primarily from the colour of their skin or from extreme poverty. He found himself
remembering
an old uncle with business dealings in black Africa who’d brought home to Morocco a Senegalese woman whom the whole village had considered a slave, a nonperson. Mohammed had been a child at the time, but he was still haunted by what had happened: the
African
woman, who spoke neither Arabic nor Berber, was
driven from the village after his uncle went abroad again to work. The entire community banded against her because she was black and they couldn’t understand a word she said. She fled on foot, and that was the last they saw of her.

This woman, whom no one ever spoke of again, still wandered among Mohammed’s childhood memories. Where was she now? Had she died? Gone home? He had no idea, and wound up thinking that the woman was eternal: she would never die. This one memory had
convinced
him—and to Mohammed this was obvious—that skin colour and poverty ganged up easily to reject a human being whose sole crime was not being white and rich. Racism horrified him. The first time he’d heard someone called a raghead was in a train where a
conductor
was yelling at an elderly Algerian man who couldn’t find his ticket. Without knowing what the word meant, Mohammed could tell it was insulting, unkind. The Algerian had stood up and begun taking off his clothes as if he were going to be frisked. All right, all right, the conductor had grumbled. These ragheads never understand anything!

 

Mohammed would have loved to move out of his
apartment
building in the projects, but that would create other problems and mean living farther away from his children, so he put up with his daily hell and tried to keep his kids from succumbing to racism. You have to understand, he told them, these Africans may be quite different from us—they’re poorer, there are more of them—but they aren’t bad people, so be tolerant.

Poverty, insecurity, and overcrowding left no room for dialogue or tolerance, however. People felt helpless and completely fed up. There wasn’t a single French family left in the building. All who could leave had fled, and the police simply let the projects stew in their own juice.

Mohammed had always dreamed of a house, a big, beautiful house where his whole family could be together in happiness, harmony, and mutual respect. A house nestled among trees and gardens, awash in light and colour, an open, peaceful house where not only would everyone feel content but all conflicts and
difficulties
would be resolved as if by magic. It would be a little bit of paradise amid the soft rustle of trees and the murmuring of water. A stubborn dream, but he knew that one day he would make it come true. He never spoke of it to anyone, not even his wife, who would have taken him for a gentle madman, off in his own world with his head in the clouds. Mohammed kept his thoughts and fantasies to himself. He wasn’t much of a talker. At the dinner table, he’d complain about rising prices and a salary that wasn’t enough anymore: Before—a long time ago—I was able to save money, but now I don’t understand how it can go so quickly. Then he’d fall silent.

 

Alone on his prayer rug, Mohammed mumbled a few more short verses from the Koran. Then he began to sense something holding him fast, preventing him from standing up. He felt heavy, as if he had a weight on his back. He tried to move but couldn’t manage to stretch
out his legs. He bowed his head again and immediately felt overcome by a slight drowsiness. The fly killed itself, all on its own, drowning in a glass of tea. What an idiot, Mohammed thought.

The wall was talking to him. He leaned forward: that same voice again, speaking to him in his dialect. He relaxed. He opened the Koran and pretended to immerse himself in it. Even though he couldn’t read it, he loved the company of this book. He loved its calligraphy, its binding of green leatherette, the whole aura of its
importance
. It was the only book he’d taken with him on the day he’d left Morocco. It was wrapped in a piece of white cloth that had been cut, following tradition, from his father’s shroud. This book was everything to
Mohammed
: his culture, his identity, his passport, his pride, his secret. He opened it delicately, pressed it to his heart, brought it to his lips, and gently kissed it. He believed that everything was there. Those who can read find within it all the wisdom of the world, all its explanations.

Not only did Mohammed sincerely believe this, but an
alem
, a Muslim sage, the imam of the main mosque in the
département
of Yvelines, had absolutely
confirmed
it: Allah created the universe; he sent his
messengers
to speak to men and women; he knows what each of us is thinking; he even knows what we don’t know, what is buried within us, so you see, the Koran is the key to all Creation. It is no accident that more and more people throughout the world are embracing Islam! Our numbers are constantly growing, and that’s what frightens America and its friends, you know: we have a
treasure, and this upsets them. They want to see
Muslims
wallowing in destitution or with bombs strapped to our waists, so that’s Islam to them—poverty or a bomb! They’re envious of our religion’s success around the globe! You heard about that dog who drew our prophet—may the blessing of God be upon him!—with a turban stuffed with bombs? Can you believe that? They’re just provoking us: they want to humiliate us, make fun of us, but God is waiting for them, and they will crawl on their bellies before him, begging for mercy, terrified of
spending
all eternity in hell, for God is great, and his word is the only truth!

Mohammed would have liked to reply but hadn’t the courage to tell the imam, for example, that it was
imbeciles
like him who praise jihad, babbling of paradise and martyrdom, yes, retards like him who send floundering young men who can’t find their own way in life off to die, because liars and hypocrites like him push
youngsters
into the arms of death, saying: You’ll be real
martyrs
, as true and good as the ones in the days of the Prophet, and you’ll be buried in clothes soaked in the blood of sacrifice, not in the shroud of an ordinary death! You will go straight to God, who awaits you in paradise! Make your ablutions in preparation, for it is better to enter the house of God cleansed in readiness for eternal prayer.

Mohammed had heard about that business with the cartoons, but he’d paid no attention. He was
profoundly
convinced that the Prophet was a spirit, not a face that could be drawn. It was only common sense. As usual, he kept his thoughts to himself. There was
nothing to see in Mohammed’s face except immense sadness, a kind of pernicious resignation he could not throw off. He would have liked to lose himself in
reading
, to discuss different interpretations of the Koran, but he knew he was condemned to the ignorance that had stuck to him since childhood. His heart’s delight was to see his children doing their homework at the
dining-room
table just before dinner. He watched them with love and a touch of envy. He adored going with them to the stationery section of the supermarket to buy their school supplies and never missed this yearly ritual that so excited them. He would take the day off to satisfy all their requests. At home he helped them put covers on their notebooks and textbooks. He had put up shelves to hold their books, which he often tidied up and kept dusted for them.

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