Corruptionby Tahar Ben Jelloun
Casablanca and Tangier provide the backdrops for Corruption, an exotic and erotic tale of modern-day morality, reminiscent of Camus's The Stranger. Mourad is the last honest man in Morocco. Much to the chagrin of his boss, his colleagues, and his materialistic wife, he adamantly refuses to accept "commissions" for his work. But his honesty goes unappreciated.… See more details below
Casablanca and Tangier provide the backdrops for Corruption, an exotic and erotic tale of modern-day morality, reminiscent of Camus's The Stranger. Mourad is the last honest man in Morocco. Much to the chagrin of his boss, his colleagues, and his materialistic wife, he adamantly refuses to accept "commissions" for his work. But his honesty goes unappreciated. Criticized for condemning his family to a life of poverty, encouraged by his boss to be more "flexible," Mourad finally gives in: just one envelope stuffed with cash, then another... Ben Jelloun's compelling novel evokes the universal dangers of succumbing to the daily temptations of modern life, as Mourad lives the consequences of betraying his own conscience after a lifetime of honesty and resistance.
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The bus is late, as usual, and when it arrives, it's filled to bursting. Mourad looks at his watch. He can decide to shove his way onto the bus, crushing some toes in the process, or wait for the next bus and risk arriving late at the office. Mourad, however, is always on time, more out of principle than neurosis. Two options remain: he can take a taxi to workwhich will cost ten dirhams, the price of two packs of Casasport Bluesor walk and arrive panting. He's been wanting to quit smoking for a while now, more to save money than out of pity for his lungs. At his last checkup, the doctor at work told him, "For a smoker, your lungs are clean." That was all he wanted to hear. But when he walks a long time or climbs stairs, he's out of breath, and that the doctor doesn't see. So he decides to take a taxi, vowing never to buy cigarettes again.
The driver is in a bad mood. He keeps lowering his window and spitting into the street, shouting insults. Mourad doesn't dare ask what has gotten him so mad. He is talking to himself, then turns to Mourad and says, "I've had this taxi for ten years, and can you believe I'm still paying off the man who got me the license? what a bastard! I work day and night to pay my debts. I don't see him anymore, that bastard. He got his money, but now I owe my uncle, who loaned it to me. It was either that or nothing."
Along the way, Mourad does his daily calculations: "Taxi, ten dirhams; lunch, thirty-three dirhams; five for coffee; five for cigarettes; fifty-four for Wassit's geography book; and then at least a hundred dirhams to take the little one to the doctor, and that's notcounting medicine. Basically, I can't get ahead. As usual. I know it, and even if I forget, there's my wife. Hlima will remind me."
AT THE OFFICE, THE CHAOUCHTHE ERRAND BOYBARELY says hello. Here the warmth of the greeting depends not on your rank but on how much extra the job brings in. Mourad is an engineer. His role in the administration is to study construction plans. Without his approval, no construction permit. It's an important and much envied position and it comes with a pretentious title: Deputy Director of Planning, Prospects and Progressafter all, his engineer status, for which he took part of his training at a french school, and his bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Mohammed V in Rabat must be acknowledged. On his modest salary he supports his family, pays the rent and his children's school expenses, and also provides for his mother. But he can't make ends meet. He lives on credit, thanks to his grocer, and knows he can't have a third child. They can say all they want that every birth is an asset, that God will provide for the needs of his creatures. Mourad is adamant on this subject, and to put and end to the discussion insisted Hlima start using an IUD. It was then that she told him, angrily, "Your assistant is a real man! He earns less than you but he lives in a beautiful house with two cars. His children go to the French mission school, and he also takes his wife on vacations to Rome! All you give me is an IUD and meat for dinner only twice a week. This is no life. Our vacations at your mother's, in that old house in the medina in Fezyou call that a vacation? When are you going to realize how miserable our lives are?"
"MY LIFE IS WORSE THAN MISERABLE," HE THINKS TO himself. Is it my fault that everything is going up, that the rich keep getting richer while the poor like me are stagnating in poverty? Is it my fault that the dry season has made the poor even poorer? What should I do? Steal? Swindle people out of their property by convincing them that real estate is a bad investment?"
As he thinks this, his assistant, Haj Hamid, enters whistling.
"Good morning boss! Did you have a good night?"
"I'm okay, thanks."
What he hates more than anything about this man is his arrogance and his smile, with its sly air of complicity. Even though they're not in the same officea door with windows separates themhe's exasperated by this person. He doesn't like his sweet cologne. He has to open the window to get rid of the smell. He also doesn't like the noise his chain bracelet makes when he writes. Haj Hamid is the antithesis of a cultivated man: he's probably never read a book, though he spends a good hour every morning reading the news. Mourad wonders how one can spend so much time reading such empty newspapers. Maybe he doesn't read them, maybe he's only pretending, putting on an act. From time to time, he comments out loud, things like, "Saddam, now there's a man!" Mourad feels like responding, saying, for example, "Someone who sends his people to be massacred for eight years in Iran, then does everything in his power to provoke a war with half the planet, that's your idea of a man?" But no, he prefers to keep quiet, and in any case he has no choice. If he starts a discussion with Haj Hamid, he'll have to go all the way, leave out nothing. There are things he notices but chooses not to mention, like, for example, the visit of Mr. Hakim, a rich landowner who like to speak in metaphors and insinuations. He often spouts proverbs, some of which are beautiful and enigmatic, such as, "The minaret has fallen, the hairdresser has been hanged," or, "Kiss the hand you cannot bite." Mourad knows that deals are being made outside the office. Mr. Hakim comes here just for show, to bring documents and take others away; the stratagem doesn't escape Mourad's morose yet watchful eye. Then there are the giftssacks of wheat, cases of fruit, lamb for Aid el Kebir, the festival of sacrifice. All this is attributed to the generosity of peasants. Haj Hamid is very appreciative of these gestures, made just like that, for nothing. No denunciations, no accusations, no secret reports. In any case, there's no proof. Corruption is, by its nature, not immediately visible. Unless one sets a trap, but Mourad isn't shrewd enough for that. He doesn't have the soul of a cop, no matter how strong his desire is to cleanse the country of these practices. True, he's the boss, yet he notices that his power is being threatened. True, he signs papers, but who's to say that other deals aren't made verbally, secretly. One would have to live day and night with Haj Hamid, not let him out of one's sight. No, that's impossible. Fortunately they're not in the same office. He is boring, self-satisfied, and vain.
Mourad remembers the story of the Egyptian policeman who had decided to move in with the person he was keeping under surveillance. Their cohabitation ended badly. The person under surveillance wound up killing the police officer. Mourad doesn't want to die for this slimy assistant, perhaps the only one in the entire office within the Ministry of Development to use brilliantine in his hair. That too is unbearable. That smell of rancid oil. Maybe one day Mourad will strangle him. In any case, he won't get a promotion. Of course, he doesn't need one, his salary is merely symbolic. A few thousand dirhams a month don't pay for trips to Europe and his little biannual pilgrimageumrato Mecca.
The chaouchs like Haj Hamid. He's generous, talkative, attentive. He keeps up with their problems, helps them out, gives them his old clothes, thinks of their children at the holiday season. He's a good man. On Fridays, he leaves the office at eleven to go to the mosque. On this day, he arrives all dressed in white; djellaba, shirt, trousers, slippers. After prayer, he goes to lunch and returns to the office a good half-hour late. Mourad says nothing, but he jots down these latenesses and dates them. You never know. Perhaps one day Haj Hamid will be summoned before the Disciplinary Committee, which may lead to court. But that almost never happens. Nonetheless, he remembers a cousin who had spent a large part of his life teaching, until the day he became an inspector and discovered the possibility of earning extra money by cashing in on his inspection reports. He had barely begun getting rich when he was denounced and arrested. He tried to justify his behavior to the examining magistrate by saying that people's low salaries were inciting them to corruption. He prepared a fairly detailed report on what he called the parallel economy that fills in the gaps left by the state, and ended up calling for the legalization of "personal contributions" as a means of advancing the country. His fancy discourse just served to sink him even further. He was condemned to five years in prison. Three years later he was set free, full of rage, and promptly disappeared. Some say he is trafficking in narcotics, others claim he's emigrated to Canada, where he sells fake Persian rugs. There is also that mysterious visitor, a tall, bald man who calls himself Marrakchi. As soon as Marrakchi enters his office, Haj Hamid gets up and goes into the corridor with him. He apparently finds these visits unpleasant; afterwards, he is often in a foul mood. Mourad believes the man must be blackmailing Haj Hamid. He would like to unravel the mystery, question this man and eventually use him as a witness. But that's impossible. Mourad is a peaceful man. All he wants is to ensure his children's future while maintaining his dignity. He is ready to make any sacrifice, but not to violate his principles and do like the others. Nonetheless, he does have brief moments of regret, remembering the wad of banknotes that a real estate developer, Mr. Foulane, once placed on the table of a cafe for him. There must have been ten thousand dirhams there. With that kind of money, he'd buy a moped, a dress for Hlima, and holiday outfits for each of his children, take them all out to a restaurant for a fish dinner, smoke American cigarettes and maybe even buy himself a Montecristo No. 1 cigar for eighty dirhams, the price of two meals under normal circumstances. All he would have had to do was sign, just one little signature at the bottom of the page. But no, he wasn't for sale. He'd gotten up and left the cafe, furious. Mr. Foulane had caught up with him. "But I was told that ten thousand was enough... If you want more, we can arrange that, take this an advance and you'll get the rest after you sign..." Mourad had looked at him and spit on the ground. "I don't take bribes."
Had he been furious because someone had doubted his integrity or rather because deep down he regretted having so many scruples? This question still plagues him. He absolutely must not speak to his wife about the bribe; she would probably throw him out the window. Her bursts of anger are frightening. She sews at home to make ends meet and often curses her luck. Her sisters all married wealthy men and live well, while she married Mourad, whom she met at the university, for love. As soon as they married, Hlima got pregnant and was unable to continue her studies or take a full-time job. Things slowly got worse, especially under pressure from her family.
She could live in peace with a husband of modest means, but her entourage looks out for her interests and pushes her to protest. Her father says nothing. He appreciates Mourad and knows how serious and honest he is. Her mother is a hypocrite. She smiles at him, but makes fun of him behind his back. She finds him small-minded, poor, and dull, and never misses an occasion to make a snide remark: "Sidi Larbi is getting a new car, I could ask my daughter to talk to him about selling his old one to you at a good price. How much could it cost? Fifty, sixty thousandthat's nothing by today's standards!"
Sidi Larbi is just the type of person Mourad despises. He's a wormy lawyer who's gotten rich off car accident victims; he makes a deal with the insurance company, gives a share to the victim's family, and divides the rest among a small circle of agents. He flaunts his wealth and sleeps very well. He's capable of falling asleep anywhere and at any hour. He eats fast, burps, and naps, snoring. Money comes in from every direction and nothing bothers him. As far as he's concerned, Mourad is a failure, a poor guy, unable to adapt to modern life.
IT'S TRUE, I'VE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO ADAPT, AS THEY SAY. What is adapting? It's doing like everyone else, closing one's eyes when necessary, putting aside one's principles and ideals, not preventing the machine from turning. In short, it's learning how to steal and share the benefits with others. Personally, I can't do it. I don't even know how to lie. I'm not shrewd. I know that what they call "the machine" doesn't work with people like me. I'm the grain of sand that gets inside and makes it squeak. I admit to liking this role. It's rare and precious. I devote myself to it even though my wife and children don't live all that comfortably. It's my pride and joy, but I know it won't do them much good.
Anyway, what can I say? All I know is that my mother-in-law is not only a hypocrite but that, with all due respect, she would have made a good madam in a brothel, and in fact she married her daughters off not according to their suitors' moral or intellectual qualities but according to their financial prospects. You might say she sold her daughters to the highest bidders. Of course it all happened in a roundabout way, veiled, indirect, never straight on. I'm the only one she abuses, since I spoil the picture. I'm her mistake, the one who shouldn't have gotten into the family. She'd told her daughter this but ended up giving in, counting on my eventual adaptation to the machine. I've disappointed her. I remain passive, calm, without getting agitated. My wife's screaming, however, is hurtful. She doesn't understand me. There is no solidarity between us, no complicity. We're poor and have no business living beyond our means, as if we were rich. It's simple, but she refuses to accept the truth. She bugs me, constantly comparing us with others. I hate when people compare things that aren't comparable. There is a gulf between Sidi Larbi and myself. We have nothing in common.
Why did I marry Hlima? I often wonder. I search my memory to reconstruct the fateful moment when this decision was made. I'm not even sure I was the one who made it. My hand must have been forced. I notice that often a man fairly rapidly and even lightly makes a decision of great importance and seriousness, without realizing that he is pledging away his most precious possession, his freedom, and in certain cases his entire life. This same man would think for hours before making the most ordinary purchase, hesitate between two shirts or two ties, ask the advice of a friend or a mechanic before choosing a car. I have the impression that I didn't even have the right to hesitate or think about it. The fact is, Hlima was the oldest of her sisters and therefore had to be married off as soon as possible to liberate the younger ones. We met at the university; I liked her luscious lips and large breasts, which I fantasized about like a child. I wanted her. I wanted to satisfy my sexual urges. She was there but refused to give herself to me. The price to pay was clear: marriage, for in her family you didn't touch a man outside of matrimony. She leaned forward as she told me this, her marvelous breasts partly visible for a few seconds, then she stood up and told me, winking, that she liked my nose. This surprised me. It was the first time anyone had said anything to me about my nose, which is just ordinary. I found it amusing. I relaxed and took her her hand, which I brought to my lips as I had seen Cary Grant do with Ingrid Bergman. It was may fifteen minutes of romance. I though that life was movie. I would see it, my movie, in the bigs screen, in black-and-white, with jazz music, Duke Ellington on the piano, and me drawing near, my heart pounding; Hlima in cinematic close-up, her lips trembling, closing her eyes to receive her first kiss, falling into my arms, while from the corner of my eye I watch the clock, because she has to be home before her father.
Our movie lasted several weeks. We didn't have any place to go. We took refuge in dark cinemas for our flirtation until the day her brother caught us. Then and there I understood that in order to have some peace, the relationship had to be made official. Once and only once were we alone and almost naked, in the room of a friend who had left me his keys before going away for the weekend. She wore me down. I had to fight to get her to take off her clothes. I succeeded in pulling off her bra, but she kept her panties on. Already she was stronger than I was. She wasn't going to give her body to me; I had to conquer it, and the only means was the legal route, the one that would chain me down for life.
When her brother came to see me at the entrance to the university, I knew it had all been arranged between them. The cinematic interlude, even the room my friend had lent me, it was all a set-up. Her brother was supposed to have surprised us, but, by chance, or luck, he had gotten the floors mixed up. But all this doesn't explain to me why I married her. True, I wanted her, but I knew little about her family.
Was it love? My shyness, my hang-ups, and my seriousness were handicaps to knowing the truth. Now, I know that I desired her physically. At the beginning of our marriage we spent a lot of time making love. What was surprising was that she went wild in bed. She made love with her entire body. One day, from underneath the bed, she pulled out the book of Sheikh Nafzaoui, a manual of Muslim erotology, and decided that for one month we were going to execute every position described by the sheikh, twenty-nine in all. It was funny: we made love with a manual in front of us. She knew this book by heart and recited entire passages to me. I memorized a few names of positions I found comical, like "black-smith's copulation," "the camel's hump," "Archimedes' vice," and so on. Why the black-smith? At a certain moment, while the woman is on her back, "her knees raised toward her chest so that her vulva is exposed, the man executed the movements of copulation, the removes his member and slides it between the woman's thighs, like the black-smith removing the red-hot iron from the fire..."
We had as much fun reading as we did trying to put Sheikh Nafzoui's advice into practice.
Twenty-nine ways. One a day. But on the whole they're all fairly similar: the man always on top of the woman.
When her period came, she lay on her stomach, put a cushion beneath her to raise her buttocks, and I gathered she wanted me to penetrate her that way, a position that was not in the book. I think the sheikh discourages approaching the woman at all during menses.
I refused to perform. I don't like sodomy. That was the day I was treated to my first attack. "You're not a man!" she told me, getting up. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, my penis shriveled. I felt ridiculous and understood that with this insult, and my failure to reach to it, my life, before long, would be transformed into a hell.
The next day, I tried to have discussion with her about the previous evening's incident. It was a waste of time. She had her own definition of virility and I was stupefied to learn that physical violence, blows, were one of its signs. She asked me to hit her while we were making lovea far cry from the gentle, romantic kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. We had fallen into the everyday grind. She informed me that she was pregnant and that during this, time I was requested not to touch her. I confess that this prohibition suited me fine. I slept alone, in the living room, and began thinking of Najia, my cousin who had just lost her husband. With Najia it was love. I loved her voice, the gentleness of her gestures, the pleasure she took in talking about the books she was reading, the sense of decency that came out of our times together. I would see her almost on the sly, when she came to visit my mother, he aunt, in Fez. She would accompany her mother there, and while the two sisters talked, we would sit together on the terrace like kids and chat. At the time she was engaged to a young doctor. She loved him. I knew this and didn't dare mention my feelings. When she would ask me about Hlima, I would give vague replies. I didn't want to get her mixed up in my problems. I could have been more aggressive, and maybe I would have married her, but my mother said she was my "half sister"; she had supposedly nursed her while Najia's mother was sick. I don't know if that's true. In any case, it was the main reason give; maybe the two sisters didn't want a marriage between cousins and used this subterfuge to discourage any attempt at a liaison.
Najia rarely sees her father, who married a second wife.
Now, when I think of Najia again, I measure the breath of the mistake I made by marrying Hlima, who would have been happier with a brute or a corruptible man.
I remember the first years, when I began working at my office within the Ministry of Development. Hlima was the first to suggest that I demand a "commission" for each permit I signed. It was one of our most violent arguments. At the beginning, I tried to explain to her the corruption was a cancer that was eating away at the country and that my upbringing, my sense of morality, and my conscience were firmly opposed to the practice. Again she told me that I wasn't a man! This time I laughed; she couldn't bear it and began throwing things at me. To quell her hysteria and calm her down, I thought of her as a fire; I ran to the bathroom, filled a bucket with water, and emptied it on her. This was extreme. She sat on the floor, her entire body wet, and began to cry softly. She mumbled things like, "I'm telling you this for your own good, for that of your future son: if you prefer to stay poor, that's your business, but I can't stand poor people..."
We weren't poor at the time; we lived modestly. Occasionally I though of changing jobs. With my engineering degree, I could have gotten hired by a private firm. For that, one needed connections, to know powerful people, to be from their world, from their class. So I didn't try. It wasn't for lack of ambition, but more out of shyness. That said, I have never been shy in the face of people who try to bribe me, and am proud of it. There's never been a crack in my resistance. Finding myself to face with a man who is trying to buy me gives me strength and courage. I don't preach. I stand up and kick him out of my office without saying a world. The man backs out the doorway while I, without losing my cool, return to my desk and continue my work. This is how I earned the reputation for being "a man of iron." But for the others, I was the "grain of sand." One day I amused myself by jotting down the various ways in which people had tried to corrupt me. There was the one who had placed on my desk the title to a parcel of land on the edge of town. Then there was one, a simpler fellow, who delivered two superb lambs to my house on the eve of Aid. There were also the two cases of Johnnie Walkerto this day I still don't know who sent them. Once I received an invitation to dinner at a well-known restaurant, an offer I was weak enough to accept. A woman showed up in place of my host; she was beautiful, and professional. I also received an airplane ticket for pilgrimage to Mecca, umra. I returned in to the sender without a note. There were a certain number of gifts for my wife and my children: jewelry, clothing, games, a dog, a cat, a horse, and even a parakeet. These were all amateurs. The shrewder one went through Haj Hamid. While I was working conscientiously, signing only those applications that met the criteria, Haj Hamid was negotiating behind my back. When I rejected a file, he was always the one who brought it back to me with all the necessary documents in the days that followed, requesting my signature. I was doing my job without suspecting anything, neither that my assistant was abusing my trust nor that he had his own little sphere of influence.
I was neither a man of iron nor a grain of sand, but simply an honest man.
But for the little people, I was neither iron nor sand. For them I was a saint. That's what a young doctor who had just been named to the city's large public hospital told me one day. He was even more naive than I was. I'd met him they day I brought Wassit to the emergency room after he'd swallowed something toxic. I noticed that the attendant responsible for signing people in was neglecting my son's case and making us wait without telling us why. He was a stout man and rather pretentious. He had the never to diagnose patients and direct them where he wanted. I noticed that he shook some people's hands more than once. They were "greasing his palm," as they say. In the meantime, people like me, who didn't understand the system, were waiting in the draft of a dirty corridor. So I raised my voice. He didn't care. I demanded to see the head doctor; he laughed. He turned his back on me and gave the impression of being very busy. A doctor who was passing by the one who was to become my friend and who saved Wassit, stopped and asked the nurse for an explanation; he gave none, shrugged his shoulders, raised his arms to the sky and said it was God's will.
I later learned that this attendant was a powerful man. He had grown rich by "taxing" patients; he also sold them medications and sometimes sent them to private clinics, which paid him a commission. I filed a complaint with the head doctor for nonassistance to a person in danger. I received a response thanking me for my testimony. I realized that this attendant had a great deal of influence and couldn't be touched.
It was at this time that one of the top health officials, himself a doctor, was discovered diverting supplies purchased by the state for the hospital to his private clinic. It was also at this time that the same man was found to be preventing certain medications from crossing the border because the Swiss-German manufacturers refused to pay him a commission. This man, later removed from his position, now lives peacefully off the revenue from his clinic and his private income, despite the fact that he was responsible for the death of hundreds of patients.
I dreamed of retribution from the sky. I made plans in the course of my sleepless nights to stop this individual and have him judged by an honest, independent tribunal. I dreamed of a court martial, of justice for the people. I dreamed of a national cleansing; a magic hand would pass over the people, bringing order to this society in which ultimately anything goes. I turned my dreams over in my mind until I was stricken with laughter or a fever.
By Jean Echenoz
Translated by Mark Polizzotti
THE NEW PRESS
Copyright © 1997 Mark Polizzotti. All rights reserved.
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