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By Laila Lalami
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill Copyright © 2009 Laila Lalami
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Year of the Flood
The rain came unexpectedly, after nearly three years of drought. In those days, Youssef still lived with his mother in a whitewashed house that huddled with others like it along a narrow dirt road. The house had one room with no windows, and a roof made of corrugated tin held down by rocks. The yard, where his mother did the cooking and the washing, was open to the sky. It was in the yard that she cleaned the sheep hides she took in on the day of Eid, and there Youssef received the rare friends who came to visit. The front door was painted blue, but over the years rust had eaten its edges, turning them reddish brown, so that holes had begun to appear at each of the four corners.
They were having lunch when it began to drizzle, the thin raindrops making craters as they landed on the fava bean soup. Youssef's mother looked up at the sky for a few surprised seconds, and then, as though a spark had ignited inside her, she jumped to her feet, grabbed the soup pot by its ears, and took it to the bedroom. Youssef's first thought was of the framed black-and-white picture of his father, which hung on the yard wall, above the divan. He took it inside, wiping the raindrops off the glass with the hem of his shirt. His father gazed backat him - a young man in his twenties, in a dark suit and gray tie, with his hair combed back neatly, as if he were on his way to an important appointment. His smile was timid, or perhaps reluctant; Youssef had never been able to tell. He left the picture next to his bed and went back outside.
His mother had already picked up the bowls and the loaf of bread, so he grabbed the radio and carried it to the water closet. He lifted the divan on which they had been sitting and positioned it on its side, under the green awning that ran from the kitchen corner to the front door. There was just enough room there for the table as well. His mother finished collecting the laundry - now everything was safe.
They stood together at the door of the bedroom, arms folded, watching the rain. "The year might turn out to be good," Youssef said. He was thinking of the farm laborers who had been moving into the city, chased by the drought. They came from the Gharb, from the Chaouïa, and even from as far south as Marrakech, here to Casablanca, where their teenage children crowded the markets and drove down wages for every kind of labor. Maybe this year there would not be as many of them.
His mother looked up at him. "We're already in March," she said. "It's too late for the rain to do most crops any good."
"Your flowers, at least, won't mind it," Youssef said, glancing at the row of potted roses, daisies, and gardenias under the laundry lines. One by one, she had rescued the flowers from the trash cans at the hospital where she worked, brought them home, and nursed them back to health. It was a rare indulgence; she was a woman who valued work over pleasure, utility over beauty. And she was beautiful. The week before, she had turned thirty-nine, and though her hair was streaked with gray and her forehead lined with wrinkles, her green eyes and high cheekbones gave her a distinguished, almost aristocratic look.
At length, they sat down on the straw mat, facing the open door. Youssef's mother dipped her bread in the thick soup and tasted it. "It's all cold now," she said. "I'll reheat it for you."
"Don't trouble yourself, a-mmi," he said. Always, she doted on him like this, as though he were eight instead of eighteen. Even though he discouraged her constant attention, it never occurred to him to resent it. He was her only child.
When they finished eating, he put on his sneakers and checked his watch. He wondered what movie he would see this week at the Star Cinema, but even before he could ask his mother for ticket money, she was already sorting through her purse. She handed him a coin. "Don't forget your jacket," she said. He left the house, hunching his shoulders against the light rain, and headed for the theater.
The Star was not, strictly speaking, a cinema. This would have been obvious to anyone who visited the dilapidated building that stood across from a butcher and a tailor on one of the garbage-strewn alleyways of Hay An Najat. Nevertheless, that was the name that a Casablanca charitable association had given to the place where, every week, a new older movie was projected on a cracked screen, and where patrons competed with rats for space on the gutted seats. For five dirhams, Youssef could watch Hong Kong action films, Bollywood romances, Egyptian dramas, or American blockbusters. He never missed a show.
All his life, he had dreamed of becoming an actor. He had performed in the only play his high school had ever put on, a reenactment of the Green March, and he had spent long afternoons playing football, hoping to have the athletic chest that was appropriate for the moment when, shirtless, he would raise the Moroccan flag and lead his fellow civilians to reclaim the Spanish border post in the Sahara. He loved inhabiting the life of the hero, loved feeling his triumph, and when the audience applauded, a surge of euphoria, much like the one he had felt when he had tried hashish with Amin and Maati, ran through him. Of course, Youssef knew that his dream was unachievable - no different than wanting to win the lottery when you can't even afford to buy a ticket - but it provided a refuge from the more sobering turns he knew his life would, by necessity, have to take: finish high school, go to university, and, with any luck, find a steady job that would finally get his mother and him out of Hay An Najat.
This week, the Star Cinema was showing Boyz N the Hood. Right away Youssef knew that it would not be a big hit with his friends: there were no explosions, no car chases, and, most unforgivable of all, only one naked woman - and she didn't even face the camera. But he stayed glued to his seat because of Laurence Fishburne's fatherly presence, his smooth voice and limitless experience. Youssef had lost his own father at the age of two, so his memories were few, and also faint. He remembered a tall man walking through the doorway, a hand tousling his hair, the smell of a stuffed pipe at night, but, maddeningly, little else.
Whatever tangible knowledge he had of his father came to him at second hand, from his mother. Nabil El Mekki was a fourth-grade teacher, respected by colleagues and students alike for his dedication. Back then, the family lived in an apartment in the Fès medina, though Nabil often worked odd jobs at night or on weekends to save enough money for a house. Some neighbors who were preparing for a big Eid party asked him to hang lights on their roof. He tripped on a wire and fell down three floors, breaking his neck on a cart filled with roasted sheep heads. He died instantly. It was an accident, the doctors said, though everyone called it fate - mektub - for how else could one accept that such a young man had died so needlessly?
Of course, Youssef and his mother weren't the only people in Hay An Najat without a father or a husband, but they seemed to be the only ones without any family. She was an orphan, raised in the French orphanage at Bab Ziyyat. After her husband's death, she had moved from Fès to Casablanca but refused to stay in touch with Nabil's parents, who had cheated her out of the meager inheritance. This was why, growing up, Youssef had often felt that he and his mother were both unmoored, somehow.
After the movie, Youssef walked out of the theater into the darkening afternoon, making his way around the puddles of water, heaps of trash, and pieces of metal. It was raining a little more steadily now, and the clouds hung low, shrinking the horizon in all directions. He always found it hard to go home after a movie. He needed time to adjust to real life, where heroes and villains could not be told apart by their looks or their accents, where women did not give themselves over on the first date, where there were no last-minute reversals of fortune.
He wanted to buy roasted sunflower seeds or chickpeas, but the cart vendors near the theater had all left because of the rain. Amin and Maati, who could usually be found at the street corner, had retreated under the blue awning of a hanout farther down the road. Standing between crates of wrinkled oranges and dark mint, they were arguing about the Widad and the Raja', the odds of either football team at the national championship.
"What's the difference between the Widadi goalkeeper and a taxi driver?" Maati asked, flashing a wide, gap-toothed smile. Even though it was cold, he wore a short-sleeved shirt. Youssef suspected it was because Maati liked to show off his biceps.
"What?" Youssef asked with a smile.
"The taxi driver only lets in three at a time."
Amin clicked his tongue. "You won't be joking like that when the Widad defeats the Raja'. And anyway, that's an old joke. Tell us one we haven't heard."
"All right," Maati said. "What's the difference between a girlfriend and a wife?"
This time, Amin slapped his thighs and laughed.
"Here's another one," Maati continued. "What's the difference between a bucket of shit and the government?"
"There isn't any."
Youssef and Amin chuckled. Maati lit a cigarette and passed it around. A girl none of them knew walked up the lane, carrying a bag. They watched her pass them by. Her wet sweater clung to her body, showing the faint lines of her bra and the tips of her nipples. "Come here, kitten," Amin said.
The kitten didn't acknowledge him.
"Hshouma," Youssef said. "You should respect the girl."
"Come on, my brother," Amin said. "Let us live a little. Didn't you see those breasts?"
"Her name's Soraya," Maati reported. "Her family just moved in, three streets up that way. Stay away from her, or her brother might come find you."
"Youssef's bringing us bad luck," Amin said. "She'd have talked to me if he wasn't around, looking so serious, wanting to respect her."
All three of them laughed. The year before, they had been taken by Amin's brother Fettah to visit a prostitute, where their Eid money had bought them ten minutes each. Now they dreamed of doing it with a girl their own age, someone who would, unimaginably, let them go all the way.
"She wouldn't have talked to you," Youssef said. "She's not the type."
"And how do you know this?" Amin asked, narrowing his eyes in a playful way, already sure of the answer.
"That's what I thought," Amin said, laughing. "So let me try my luck."
The rain grew heavy. Youssef walked hurriedly home and was soaked by the time he arrived. He found his mother struggling to move the divan, carefully covered with a plastic tablecloth, to the bedroom. "It's just some rain," he said. "Do we need to move everything inside?"
"It's going to flood," she replied. She had a habit of immediately thinking about the worst outcome to any situation, and Youssef had long ago learned not to argue when she got into one of these moods. He took the divan inside. "Can you put some more plastic on the roof?" she asked, and while he did that, she lined his side of the bedroom with pieces of cardboard to keep out the damp.
Inside, he changed out of his wet clothes. When he sat on his bed, his eye fell on his father's picture, and immediately he noticed that a drop of water had seeped in between the frame and the photograph, darkening the print. He grabbed the picture, running his palm over the spot - his father's forehead - as though he could dry it. In frustration, he put it back down on the floor and rummaged under his bed for his history textbook. His high school exams were just three months away. Amin and Maati always complained that they were required to learn things by rote, but Youssef told himself he was an actor. An actor could learn lines.
* * *
The weather forecast had said that it would clear up late in the evening, but it rained furiously all night long. Youssef could not sleep for the sound of the water drumming the tin roof and the wind thrashing the bathroom door. Halfway through the night, just as he had begun to drift into slumber, he heard a group of men splashing down the alley, arguing loudly. He pulled his blankets up to his chin and turned to the wall, where the cardboard had begun to smell of ink.
In the morning, he could not go out to meet his friends because it was still pouring. He studied by the yellow light of the lamp, fiddled with the radio for a while, and then grew restless. His mother was knitting a sweater, her eyes fixed on the Mexican telenovela showing on television. She was different from the other women in Hay An Najat, he knew. The widow, he had heard some of them call her, a scornful look on their faces, as though his mother were a leper, as though widowhood were contagious. The fact that she could speak flawless French somehow exacerbated their resentment; they said she put on airs. And she was not given to large displays of emotion. Aside from a few photographs, she had not saved any of his father's relics - a ring, a watch, a book, some prayer beads.
Youssef, too, was different from the other boys. Until he was twelve or thirteen, he had never been left alone in the house while his mother was at work. Instead, his mother told him to play in the hospital garden or go across the street to the used-book store, whose cashier she knew. He spent all his summer days sitting between stacks of books, reading. He had grown five centimeters in the past year alone and towered over all his friends. And then there were his eyes - sky blue, bright turquoises - nearly out of place on his face, certainly out of place in Hay An Najat. You would expect his eyes on a Fassi, a descendant of the Moors, one of those pedigreed men who had for generations controlled the destiny of the nation. You might expect them on a tribal chieftain from the Atlas, though even there they might come with the freckled skin of Berber ancestors. You would not expect those eyes in the melting pot of misery and poverty that was Hay An Najat.
Youssef had to wrap his shoes in plastic before going to school the next day, and in the unheated classrooms he regretted not wearing the additional pair of socks his mother had pressed into his hands that morning. When he came home, he found that water had trickled through an opening in the roof onto his mattress. He climbed back onto the roof to adjust the blocks of concrete, then stripped the sheets and blankets off the bed and set them to dry. But at least the television and the radio seemed to be in working order.
By the time his mother came home, the rain had at last faded to a drizzle. She asked him to go buy some flour, oil, and sugar, so he left the house and headed down the muddy road toward the hanout. At the first intersection, water pooled into a little pond, from which emerged a rusted old signpost, upright and persistent like a warning. In the next row of houses, the water ran into a rivulet. It quickly met with other tributaries to form a river, brown and fast and hungry. Youssef stopped at the bottom of the street. The river before him carried possessions away with it, like offerings to an ancient god - a suitcase, some tires, a broken bicycle, a few cinder blocks. A yelping dog swam helplessly in the middle of the debris.
Holding on to the wall, Youssef craned his neck to see if he could make it to the grocer's, but all along the little street, shops and houses were flooded. Hammad came out of his store, pushing a wheelbarrow stacked high with bags of flour. A group of boys splashed around in the dirty water. Standing where the water was shallow, the tailor yelled into his mobile phone, asking someone to come help him. Through the broken window of the beauty shop, a blond-wigged mannequin head with painted lips surveyed the scene dispassionately.
Across the street, three red cushions floated aimlessly outside the gaping doors of the Star Cinema. Youssef felt a pinch in his heart at the sight, though he had no time to dwell on the damage to the theater because, just a few feet away, knee-deep in the water, men and women were moving their belongings. A man and his two sons turned the corner toward him, carrying a chipped divan base, a torn mattress, and a table. In places where the mud was too slippery, they held on to house walls or laundry lines. Youssef ran up behind the smaller of the sons to help him with the table. They were moving to an uncle's house, the boy told him. It was the worst thing in the world, Youssef thought, to lose everything and, at the same time, to have everyone see that you did not own anything worth saving.
Excerpted from SECRET SON by Laila Lalami Copyright © 2009 by Laila Lalami. Excerpted by permission.
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