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MY BELOVED MOTHER
From the living room come the strains of mambo and cha-cha music, the percussion and guitars punctuated by the arrival of the guests. Laughter and conversation fill the rooms, wafting up to the bedroom where I am finding it hard to get to sleep.
Invisible in the doorway, my thumb jammed into my mouth, I stand gazing at the women in their evening dresses made by the great couturiers, vying with each other in beauty and elegance. I admire their lacquered chignons, sparkling jewels and sophisticated make-up. They look like the princesses from my favourite fairy stories that I so want to be like when I grow up. Which I am longing to do...
Suddenly she appears, the most beautiful of all in my eyes, wearing a white, low-cut dress that emphasizes the curve of her neck. My heart thumping, I watch her greeting the guests and smiling, kissing her friends, bowing her graceful neck before strangers in dinner jackets. Soon she will dance, sing, clap her hands and party till dawn, as she always does when my parents give a party at home.
She will forget me for a few hours, while I fight against sleep in my little bed, thinking constantly of her, the sheen of her skin, her soft hair where I love to bury my face, her perfume, her warmth. Mummy.
My beloved mother from whom, in my childhood paradise, I cannot imagine ever being separated.
There is a bond between my mother and me that comes from a shared destiny made up of abandonment and loneliness. Her own mother died in childbirth when she was barely four years old. I in turn was torn from her gentle embrace at the age of five to be adopted by King Muhammad V. Perhaps that closeness has been cemented by our both having been deprived of our mother's affection in childhood, our proximity in age—she was seventeen when I was born—our incredible physical resemblance and by our savagely destroyed chances of fulfilment as women. Like me, my mother has always had the grave look of those to whom fate has been cruel.
When her mother died, at the beginning of the Second World War, her father, Abdelkader Chenna, an officer in the French army, had just received orders to join his regiment in Syria. It was impossible for him to take his daughter and young son with him. He placed the two motherless children in a convent run by French nuns in Meknès, where he lived at the time, so that they would receive a good education. The little boy succumbed to diphtheria. My mother, who adored her brother, found it hard to get over this loss, which left her alone amid strangers. She was to have many other sorrows in her life.
The nuns set out to turn this pretty little Fatima sent to them by Heaven into a perfect Christian. She learned to make the sign of the cross and worship the Virgin Mary, Jesus and all the saints. Then my grandfather came to fetch her and take her home. A devout Muslim who had already made the pilgrimage to Mecca, he nearly swallowed his medals with rage.
It wasn't good for a career soldier to bring up such a young girl alone. His friends urged him to remarry. He chose a very young woman from high society, whom he married primarily for her talents as a cordon-bleu cook. Khadija's skill at making pastilla—my grandfather's favourite dish—was unrivalled. My mother couldn't bear sharing her beloved father with a stranger only a few years older than she was. The birth of a sister, Fawzia, then a brother, Azzedine, made her even more jealous.
Her ambition was to escape as quickly as possible from a home where she was unhappy and where her father kept her shut away, as was traditional for girls. But she had nowhere to go that could give her the warmth she lacked. Her mother's family, wealthy Berbers from the Middle Atlas region, were nearly all dead. My great-grandparents had produced four daughters whose beauty was legendary for miles around. Three had died in their teens. The fourth, my grandmother, Yamna, married her neighbour, the handsome Abdelkader Chenna, whose land bordered on her family's.
He had to kidnap her to wed her, in true fairy-tale tradition. All I know about her is that she was a competent woman, modern and resourceful, who liked clothes, travelling and driving. At fifteen she was already a mother. At eighteen she hosted a literary salon in Syria, where my grandfather had followed his regiment. At nineteen she was dead.
My mother and her young uncle, fruit of my great-grandfather's late marriage to a black slave, were soon the only survivors of the entire family. The corn-growing lands and gold amassed over the generations made her a rich heiress, although less wealthy than her uncle, who received the larger share of the fortune, in accordance with Moroccan custom. She owned apartment buildings, villas and an entire district of the old town of Salé, an ancient fortified corsair town near Rabat. My grandfather was appointed trustee until she came of age. Unfortunately, he mismanaged the money and frittered away bigger sums than he made. However, there was still a considerable fortune when my mother came into her inheritance.
By her early teens, my mother was already very beautiful. Her father's officer friends who came to the house were not indifferent to her huge black eyes, delicate face, olive complexion and prettily curvaceous little body. She was not averse to their attentions. She wanted to get married and have a family. A young officer back from Indochina with a chestful of medals became a regular visitor to the house. My grandfathers, who knew him from before, had met him again at the mess. Charmed by the officer's intelligence and his reputation for bravery at the front, he befriended him and invited him home. Concealed behind a curtain, my mother watched him throughout the dinner. The officer was aware of her little game and their eyes met. He was struck by the intensity of her gaze. She admired him in his magnificent white uniform.