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ZACARIAS, MY BROTHERthe making of a terrorist
By Abd Samad Moussaoui with Florence Bouquillat
Seven Stories PressCopyright © 2003 Abd Samad Moussaoui and Florence Bouquillat
All right reserved.
My maternal grandmother's name is Amina. In Arabic, amina means serene, peaceful. The name suits her well. My grandmother is a character, in the fullest sense of the word. She comes from a noble lineage-if you trace her genealogy from one generation to the next, you end up at Moulay Idriss, the great saint descended from Prophet Muhammad [??]. The descendants of the prophet are the Cherif, the family of the kings of Morocco.
Amina was born in Tafilelt, in Morocco's far south, ninety years ago. Needless to say, Amina lived through the colonial period. She readily tells how, in the 1920s, Tafilelt stood up to French colonization. She recalls the Foreign Legion's bombardments and the battles between French and Moroccan troops. Early in the colonial period, the region was struck by famine. So Amina's family moved, heading off to the Middle Atlas and settling in Azrou, a rugged village high in the mountains. In winter, the alleys of Azrou are filled with snow. It was in Azrou that Amina met my grandfather. He was her second husband. My grandmother doesn't talk much about her first one, with whom she had one daughter, Rouqayyah. My grandfather was called Mekki, "the man from Mecca." He was a lot older than my grandmother, maybe twenty years her senior. He was a widower. In those days widows and widowers didn't stay widows and widowers for long.
Mekki came from a well-off family, and owned several butcher shops in the region. He wasn't afraid of hard work. And he was a good man, renowned for his great generosity to the poor. Those in need would travel many miles, on donkey or by foot, in sun and snow, across the mountains to ask him for help. Mekki would give them meat to feed their children. He was a practicing Muslim for whom it was a spiritual requirement to give help to the poorest.
Mekki also liked working his land. And it was on his land that death claimed him in 1953, in the middle of harvest. My grandmother was just forty, with five children-her daughter from the first marriage and four children by my grandfather; Muhammad, the eldest of the boys; then Omar; my mother Aïcha; and my aunt Zouhour. My mother was saddled with the task of bringing up all five of them. Alone-and to everybody's surprise poor, because Mekki had not managed to put one sou aside. The first thing Amina did was to sell the remaining butcher shop. Then, being good with her hands, she started making canouns, terra cotta braziers which all cooks used then. She sold them at market, gradually earning a livelihood. But she was poor.
My mother was about seven, and my aunt four, when my grandfather died. My two uncles were a bit older. I say "about," because birth registers in those days were not as accurate as they are today. Because my grandmother was unable to feed everybody with her meager income, a cousin offered to take my mother into his home and raise her. Needless to say, by way of exchange, Aïcha had to help with the housework.
So my mother grew up separated from her parents. At a very young age she began looking for something better. Aïcha had just turned fourteen when she met my father, Omar Moussaoui. He was from Fès, some forty miles from Azrou. Fès is a large city, renowned throughout Morocco and abroad for its tiles and mosaics, and above all for the Qarawiyyin theological university. My father was a tiler, who traveled a great deal in the region for his work. That's how he met my mother.
Aïcha wanted to get married right away. At first, my grandmother refused. Aïcha was fourteen, and to my grandmother she was still a little girl. But in those days, in a southern Moroccan village, marrying off daughters that young was not uncommon. Aïcha dug her heels in, and my grandmother finally agreed to the marriage-that, anyway, is the story as told by my grandmother and my uncles and aunts. It's not at all my mother's version. Throughout our childhood, Aïcha told my siblings and me that she had been "forced" to marry at the age of fourteen.
Soon after she was married, my mother gave birth to two children, who died very young. Then, when she was about seventeen, she had Nadia, my eldest sister. Two years later my other sister, Jamila, was born. It was then that my father heard about the possibility of work in France. The year was 1965 and French recruiters were going from village to village, explaining to people that France was looking for craftsmen, masons and tilers. They said that France was a rich country where the pay was good. In Morocco, my father made a good living. He even had a motorbike! But he thought that working in France would bring in more money, so he and my mother decided to move. Once again, I know all these details through my grandmother, my aunt and my uncles. My mother told us no more than that she had learned to sew, that she had been forced into marriage, that our father was a hard man, that her mother was mean and that she had been brought up by a cousin.
The Moussaoui family settled in Bayonne and my father found work straightaway with a tiling and building company. He was very good at his job. He could pour an eighty-foot-square concrete screed, and could pick out the tiniest flaw or lump by sight, without even using a level. In no time he was making good money and he managed to buy himself a Renault. I remember the car well because of the time we wrecked it. The car rolled and landed on its roof, and we all crawled out through the back window. I also have clear memories of the huge color TV set which had the place of honor in the living room.
I was born two years after my parents and my sisters arrived in France, on the first of January, 1967, at half past midnight. I am told that the doctor came to our house in his party clothes. My brother Zacarias was born in St. Jean de Luz on May 30, 1968. Three years later my parents were divorced. I have no memories of domestic violence, but I was very young at the time. What I do remember is the day my mother told us, "We're going to a resort." "We" meant she and her children. So all five of us left home and went to the Dordogne. I was four and Zacarias three. Aïcha had found a job as a laundress at the resort, and small lodgings. I don't remember her ever explaining to us that she had left my father; we simply weren't living with him any more.
It was summer, and there were bikes in the camp for us to ride. It was like a holiday, a totally different atmosphere because my father wasn't there. I don't have many memories of him; Zacarias can't have any at all, because he was so young when we left. When September came we went even further away, to Mulhouse in Alsace, because my mother had found a job there. I don't know how and I don't know what the job was.
No sooner had we arrived in Alsace than my mother put my two sisters, my brother and me in an orphanage, run by the local Social Services Department. She couldn't afford keep us with her. So from one day to the next, we found ourselves both fatherless and motherless. The few memories I have of those grim childhood years are dreadful ones. We had the feeling that we were not like the other kids. Zacarias and I looked at them as if they were Martians! And even the youth workers seemed strange to us. I remember that first year they came and woke us up at midnight, to celebrate my fifth birthday. They had made mulled wine. I have assorted other memories, of the way the rooms were furnished, of the wooden floors and the spiral staircases. We slept two to a room. The boys' building was separated from the girls' by a courtyard, overlooked by the cafeteria. I spent all my time with my brother-Thank God they didn't separate us! Zacarias was quite small. My sisters lived in the girls' building, but we would meet up during the day. My big sister Nadia watched over us as best as she could. Perhaps my mother had told her to keep an eye on us.
It has to be said that all sorts of things went on in that orphanage. Some of the older children took drugs, and others prostituted themselves. We took great care not to be like them, not to use the vulgar language they did, and to avoid the mean ones. Many of the children were suffering from a lack of emotional warmth.
Zac and I were always together, be it in the yard or the cafeteria. We played a lot of ball games-bench-ball and soccer. We also had stilts. Our best game was stilt fights. He and I lived through that year as if in a dream. We didn't really understand what we were doing in the orphanage. But we had a pretty good hunch that our situation wasn't altogether normal. With every passing day we would say over and over that we weren't going to stay long, we were quite sure about that, our mother had promised us. Every day we would nag Nadia to find out when our mother was going to come and fetch us, and she would patiently answer, "Soon." But we were a bit worried from time to time. I don't recall my mother taking us home for weekends. She came to see us about once a week, but she never took us back home. Maybe she did not yet have a place of her own.
One day, after about a year, she really did come for us. Oddly enough, I recall no details of the departure. I do remember that we moved to the Rue des Châttaigniers, into a rather classy building. There were nice carpets and there was a lift with big mirrors. We had a large apartment on the fourth floor. The contrast was striking. For Zacarias and me, our mother was a heroine, a fighter who did everything she could for her children and made sacrifices for our happiness.
Aïcha found a job as a cleaning woman in the central post office in Mulhouse. The inspector in her department was a man named Joseph Klifa. Later he would become mayor and win fame for opposing the extreme right in the region, as part of the republican alliance. Klifa felt sorry for my mother. She was a woman on her own with four children, and would tell anyone who would listen that she had been forced into marriage in Morocco. One fine day, after she had obtained French nationality, Klifa helped her to get a permanent position. She became a post office employee.
She had a second job at night after the post office closed. So my sister Nadia, now twelve, took over my mother's role at home. She did the shopping and the cooking and cleaning, and looked after us. At night she made us supper and in the morning she helped us get dressed. And there was no messing about or else the slaps fell thick and fast! My other sister, Jamila, backed her up. It took both of them to keep an eye on Zacarias and me.
We soon moved house again, this time to an apartment in the Bourtzwiller project. Bourtzwiller was what is now called "a problem neighborhood." At the time, Zacarias and I thought only about having fun. We went to school to have fun, and we came out of school and had more fun. Boys will be boys.
At our school there was a notorious family with seventeen children by the name of Deau. It was better not to cross them, because if you got in an argument with one, the other sixteen would come to his aid. Zacarias did get into a fight with the Deau boy his age, and in no time things escalated: the Deau boy called his big brother, and Zacarias called me. Then the second Deau called his even bigger brother, so I had to call for help from my sister Jamila. She was awesome when it came to defending us. She could pack a punch as well as any boy. And if that didn't do the trick, we could call Nadia. Unfortunately, Nadia was our last trump card, and they still had at least thirteen.
At school, we pulled a lot of stunts. One September, all the kids in the neighborhood agreed that term was starting too early. So we put our heads together, and came up with a plan. A day or two before we were due back, some of the kids broke into the school. They put all the chairs and tables in one classroom, and painstakingly spraypainted them. And it worked! The beginning of term was delayed for a week.
Zac and I liked to have bike races, but because our bikes were too big (they were salvaged) we had to lean left and then right to reach the pedals. It really hurt was when you missed a pedal! We were reckless. Our favorite game was to climb along the drain pipes up to the roof as quickly as we could. We raced the other boys to prove our bravery and agility.
Many of the families in our housing project came from North Africa. We got along well, except for the families renowned for their dislike of foreigners. In our building there was the Kol family; the parents were very racist. And when Alsatians are racist, it's quite something! Whenever the Kols bumped into Zac and me they called us "dirty niggers." Not "dirty Arabs," but "dirty niggers." They didn't make any distinction between Arabs and Blacks, we were simply Not White. One day, for no particular reason, the eldest Kol son, who must have been fifteen or sixteen, insulted us, setting off a general brawl. He was really mean and quite a lot bigger than us. In the free-for-all, he threw me against an iron post which got stuck in my back. I ended up in the hospital, and I've still got the scar.
Near the Bourtzwiller projects there were some ponds. We built rafts and had sea battles. For us real life happened outdoors. In the apartment was not much; my mother didn't have a lot of time for us. She always had other things to do. It would have been misguided to expect the slightest tender word from her, or the merest gesture of affection. She didn't know how to do that. She often scolded my sisters, who did so much work. So Zac and I kept to ourselves, giving each other support and sometimes giving our elder sister a little bit of thanks. At school we did nothing, or next to nothing. It wasn't until my fifth year of primary school, when I was ten or eleven, that I realized that it was better to work a little. Zacarias realized it too.
Our father came to see us now and then. Or rather, he tried to see us in Bourtzwiller. For us it was a kind of a game, with strict rules laid down by my mother. She had trained us. She told us that our father had hurt her, that he was a hard man and that she would be greatly upset if we agreed to see him. So when my father came, we would run off, just as she had told us to. All four of us, all in different directions. We were running away from the big bad wolf. Poor man!
I remember one episode particularly well. My father had given us advance notice that he was coming, that he had visiting rights. My mother told us, "Okay, he'll here about two P.M., so just before that, you all disappear." We obeyed her. When my father arrived and realized that we weren't in the apartment, instead of wasting time arguing with my mother he started looking for us everywhere in the neighborhood. He had travelled miles to see us. (Maybe he didn't even know that we were hiding. Maybe he thought that my mother hadn't told us he was coming.)
Excerpted from ZACARIAS, MY BROTHER by Abd Samad Moussaoui with Florence Bouquillat Copyright © 2003 by Abd Samad Moussaoui and Florence Bouquillat
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.