LARBI AMRANI DIDN’T consider himself a superstitious man, but when the prayer beads that hung on his rearview mirror broke, he found himself worrying that this could be an omen. His mother had given him the sandalwood beads on his college graduation, shortly before her death, advising him to use them often. At first Larbi had carried the beads in his pocket, fingered them after every prayer, but as the years went by he’d reached for them with decreasing regularity, until one day they ended up as decoration in his car. Now they lay scattered, amber dots on the black floor mats. He picked up as many as he could find and put them in the cup holder, hoping to get them fixed later. He eased the Mercedes down the driveway and into the quiet, tree-lined street. Traffic was unusually light, even when he passed through the crenellated fortress walls at Bab Rouah.
In his office at the Moroccan Ministry of Education, he opened up the day’s Al-Alam and asked the chaouch to bring him a glass of mint tea. In a few minutes he would tackle another pile of dossiers, deciding where newly graduated teachers would perform their two years of civil service, but for now he took his time reading the paper and sipping his tea. The headlines announced a train workers’ strike and yet another hike in the prices of milk and flour, so he skipped to the sports page.
Before he could read the weekend football scores, his secretary buzzed him to announce that he had a visitor. Larbi put the paper away and stood up to welcome Si Tawfiq, an old friend he hadn’t seen in fifteen years. (Or was it fourteen?) They had lived next door to each other in a new apartment complex in downtown Rabat, but after moving out to the suburbs they had lost touch. Si Tawfiq entered the room cloaked in his white burnous, even on this warm September day. After salaams and other pleasantries had been exchanged, Tawfiq cleared his throat. “It’s about my niece. She’s finishing her degree next summer.” His protruding eyes, the result of a thyroid condition, made Larbi uncomfortable.
“Congratulations,” Larbi said.
“And she wants a job in Rabat.” Tawfiq smiled knowingly.
Larbi tried to conceal his annoyance. The greatest need for teachers was in smaller towns and in the forgotten villages of the Atlas Mountains.
“I was hoping you could help her,” Tawfiq added.
“I wish I could, Si Tawfiq,” Larbi began. “But we have so few jobs in the city these days. The waiting list is this thick.” He held his fingers wide apart, as if he were talking about the phone book.
“I understand,” Tawfiq said. “Of course, we would try to do anything we could to help you.”
Larbi stroked the ends of his thin mustache, twisting them upward. He was not above taking the occasional bribe, but he recalled the morning’s omen. “Please,” he said, holding up his palms. “There’s no need.” He cleared his throat and added weakly, “I’m happy to serve all teachers. It’s just that when so many people want the same thing, it becomes impossible to get all of them the assignment they want.”
Tawfiq looked disappointed, and he stared at Larbi for a long minute. “I understand,” he said. “That’s why I’ve come to you.”
Larbi sighed. He didn’t want to disappoint his friend, and anyway, what sense did it make to refuse a favor to a department head in the Sureté Nationale? “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. Moving Tawfiq’s niece up the list would require creative handling of the paperwork. He’d have to be discreet.
Afterward, Larbi swiveled in his chair and put his feet on the desk, crossing them at the ankles. He looked out the window at the row of eucalyptus trees outside and thought again about his mother, her benevolent face appearing in his mind’s eye. He lit a Marlboro and inhaled slowly. Times were different now. He didn’t create the system; he was just getting by, like everyone else. He turned to face his pile of dossiers.
WHEN LARBI GOT HOME that night, there was a nice surprise waiting for him on the console—a rare letter from his son, Nadir, who was studying electrical engineering in Québec. Larbi stepped inside the living room and sat on one of the leather sofas, moving a white-and-pink silk cushion out of the way. Two years ago, Larbi’s daughter, Noura, had taken up silk painting and, besides cushions, had made scarves, handkerchiefs, and watercolors. The results of her labor were scattered around the house. Larbi had thought that she’d taken a serious interest in decorative arts, but it turned out to be nothing more than a high school fad, and all the brushes and bottles of paints she’d insisted on buying were now in a plastic bag somewhere under the kitchen sink.
Larbi opened the letter. These days, Nadir sent only hurried e-mails with scant details of college life. Whenever he wrote real letters, it was to ask his parents for money. This one was no different—he wanted 10,000 dirhams to buy a new laptop. Larbi shook his head. Nadir would probably spend it on CDs or a weekend out of town. But he didn’t mind, so long as the boy did well in school, and he always did. Larbi loved to think of his son’s future and of the position Nadir would be able to get with an engineering degree, especially one from abroad.
Larbi walked through the corridor to Noura’s room. He thought for a moment that she wasn’t home, because her stereo wasn’t blaring rock music, as it usually did, but he heard voices and so he knocked. Noura opened the door. She wore jeans and a black T-shirt with glittery letters spelling out the name of a rock band. Her hair fell in curly cascades on her shoulders. She looked at her watch. “It’s already six-thirty?” she said, sounding surprised.
“Look what I got for you,” Larbi said, handing her some magazines he’d bought on his way home.
“Thanks, Papa,” Noura said. She took the magazines from him, and when she stepped aside to drop them on her desk he saw her friend, a girl who sat on the chair by the window, her hands folded on her lap. She wore a gray, pilled sweater and an ankle-length denim skirt, and her hair was covered in a headscarf. Noura introduced her as Faten Khatibi, one of her classmates at the university in Rabat. Noura was supposed to have gone to NYU, but her scores on the standardized TOEFL exam were not high enough, and so she had to take a year of English at the public university. She was going to apply again in December. The delay had left her somewhat depressed, and the feeling was compounded by her loneliness—most of her friends from the private French lycée she’d attended had gone on to universities abroad. Larbi stepped into the room and cheerfully extended his hand to Faten, but Faten didn’t take it.“Pardon me,” she said. Her eyes shifted back to Noura and she smiled. Larbi dropped his hand awkwardly by his side. “Well.” There was unpleasant pause; Larbi could think of nothing to say. “I’ll leave you two alone.”
As he went toward the kitchen to get a drink, Larbi heard the key turn in the lock. His wife, Salma, walked in, her leather satchel on one arm and a set of laundered shirts on the other. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “The judge took a long recess.” Larbi took the shirts from her, dropping them on a chair in the foyer. He asked her who Noura’s friend was. Salma shrugged. “Someone she met at school.”
“She’s not the type of girl I’ve seen her with before.”
“You mean she’s not an enfant gatée?” Salma gave him a little ironic smile. She had little patience with Noura’s friends, private-school kids who spent most of their time worrying about their clothes or their cars. Years ago, Salma had disapproved of the idea of Noura’s going to a French school, and Larbi himself had occasionally felt guilty that his own daughter was not part of the school system he helped to administer. Yet he had insisted; his daughter had so much potential, and he wanted her to succeed. Surely even an idealist like Salma could understand that.
“I just don’t want her to mix with the wrong type,” he said.
“She’ll be fine,” Salma said, giving him that woman-of-the-people look she affected from time to time and which irritated him supremely— just because she took on several cases every year for free and was active in the Moroccan Association of Human Rights didn’t mean she knew any better than Larbi.
© 2005 by Laila Lalami
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