Chapter 9: Memory in the Flesh
Translated by Phoebe Bay Carter.
Mohammed al-Idrisi was ten years old when he ran away from home – and from his whole village. He’d been fatherless since he was four. He had hardly any memory of the man who’d been killed in one of those army skirmishes that broke out outside of Hoceima following the Rif Revolt, which the army had squashed nine years earlier. The father died without getting to see his son through childhood, and it was only a matter of months before the mother had remarried to a widower with two sons of his own, whom she raised alongside Mohammed. Later, little Mohammed started hearing the rumors about his mother’s new husband – that in a fit of rage, he had beaten his first wife until she died in his arms. The adults said it was nothing but talk, but Mohammed knew all too well that it was the truth and nothing but the truth. For six long years endured his stepfather’s violence, until he could take it no longer.
Mohammed al-Idrisi was ten years old when he was awoken by his mother’s sobs. He knew that once again, her husband was to blame. He waited until close to dawn, when he saw his mother get up and, with a slight limp, go to milk their only cow and prepare breakfast. Then, without hesitation, he got up and went to the kitchen. He got out the biggest knife they had, the one they used for slaughtering sheep, and headed towards his mother and stepfather’s bedroom. The potbellied husband lay on his back, snoring. The boy paused at the door. He faltered for a moment and almost retreated. But he stuck to his plan and crept forward until he reached his stepfather’s head. Clasping the knife between his two small hands, he plunged it into the man’s neck, throwing all his weight behind it. The man spluttered and blood splattered onto the boy’s face. The husband reached to pull the knife out with his left hand, while reaching for Mohammed’s throat with his right. His death throes did not prevent him from wringing the boy’s neck. Mohammed felt himself suffocating as he clawed uselessly with his small fingers at the man’s formidable arm. Just then his mother appeared and saw her eldest son suffocating under the grip of her husband’s brutish fingers. She didn’t stop to think. She raised her right foot and brought it down, with all the anguish she’d accumulated over the past six years, onto his stomach. He gasped silently, another fountain of blood spurted from the wound in his neck, and his grip on Mohammed’s throat relaxed.
Mohammed al-Idrisi was ten years old when he ran away from home and from his whole village. Little Mohammed, stumbling over the gruesome nightmares that haunted him, reached Tetouan without any trouble. No one blocked his path as he made the brutal, two-week trek barefoot. He did not suffer from lack of food, which he easily acquired from the residents of the villages scattered along the way, nor from lack of sleep. Nonetheless, he reached Tetouan with depleted strength, torn clothes, cracked feet, bloodied hands, and a blackened, frowning face. He was so tired, he collapsed at the city gates and awoke in a house to the sound of Spanish voices. He soon learned that he’d been taken to a home for abandoned children, run by the Church of Our Lady of Victory. The Church had officially started its activities in the country just days after al-Khattabi’s army was defeated by Spain and its allies: France’s strongest foreign legions fought alongside local tribes vying with al-Khattabi for power, while Spain dropped mustard gas bombs on the people of Hoceima, leaving them with the cancerous legacy of Spain’s illegal chemical weapons. Though of course, Spain has never acknowledged this.
Mohammed al-Idrisi would stay at the church for two years, where he would learn to read and write in Spanish and tell stories from the Bible by heart. After only a few days, everyone had dropped his first name and made do with calling him al-Idrisi. Apparently, no one knew the name’s connection to the Prophet’s family tree, otherwise they would have dropped the last name too and found him a new one. At first, they did try to rename him, but he would not respond to anything but al-Idrisi. He remained feisty and rebellious throughout his two-year stay. He did not perform the Muslim prayers, of course, but he also never set foot near the church pews. He was content to stay in the classroom with his Bible stories and every Sunday morning, he was nowhere to be seen. How often they thought about getting rid of him, and oh how often they shook their heads at this lost cause.
On one of those Sunday mornings when he’d fled the church, the priest intercepted him at the doorway as he was coming back. He grabbed Mohammed by the ear and pulled so hard the boy had to stand on his tiptoes. He shouted at him, calling him a filthy infidel and a dirty Muslim. At that moment, the faqih from the local mosque was passing through the alley and heard everything. He rushed over and pulled Mohammed towards him, pointing his finger at the priest in warning. He was taking the boy with him, he said. The priest shrugged indifferently, then muttered that filth deserved to live with filth, and they had no need for him here.
So off Mohammed went with the faqih, in whose care he would remain for the next several years, until the faqih married. The boy went on to memorize portions of the Qur’an, indeed, to memorize it almost in its entirety, though he would forget most of it as the years went by. He learned to read and write in Arabic, though he held onto his Spanish as well, which he would later employ as he wandered the side streets and alleys of Tetouan and Tangier.
The faqih came from one of the Jbala tribes of Tangier and had settled in Tetouan as a boy. There was a history of animosity between the northwestern Jbala tribes and the northeastern Riffian tribes to which the young Mohammed belonged. But Mohammed didn’t know and the faqih didn’t care.
Three years went by, during which the faqih treated the little one, who remained little even as the fuzz on his upper lip began to darken, as the brother he’d never had. The poor thing had no idea what a nightmare fate had in store for him.
In Tetouan, the young faqih established himself as an imam in the local mosque and a teacher to the neighborhood boys and girls, teaching them to recite the Qur’an and a bit of grammar and poetry. He was a model of righteousness in the neighborhood and loved by all. And so it was that Hajj Masoud, one of the city’s notables and owner of the largest spice shop in town, stayed after the evening prayer one day, waiting for the others to leave, then approached the faqih, shook his hand and, with a bowed head and a stutter, asked if he would consider marrying his daughter. The faqih was tongue-tied with surprise, and he didn’t know what to say. He knew Hajj Masoud and his righteousness well and had heard tell of his daughters’ beauty and their righteousness, too. What he did not know was that many suitors had come for the two younger daughters, but the father refused to let them marry before their elder sister. The faqih stuttered a reply, saying he hadn’t yet thought of marriage because he wasn’t in a financial position to do so. The Hajj offered to cover all expenses. After some hesitation, the faqih agreed, saying it would be an honor to become a member of Hajj Masoud’s family, but he insisted on marrying by his own means. He would accept no help from his father-in-law and no extravagance in the wedding. The Hajj let out a sigh and readily agreed.