More Khatibi

Here, a second extract from Abdelkebir Khatibi’s  autobiographical 1971 novel La Mémoire tatouée as translated by Peter Thompson. A first one can be read in an earlier Nomadics post  on 20 December.


   Cold, often swept by the current of the Canary Islands, the beach rises from the water, pushed by the bent horizon. A pale, mischievous glance is what you’d need, to avoid the grains of sand that attack when you turn your head, and fly up lazily, in every direction. The shore lets itself  be frilled by little wood shacks, running peacefully off in a monotonous line; things fall well into place if your gaze accustoms itself, you rely on your eye and the line straightens itself, and they, the shacks, cute and doll-like—what if a gusty wind came up, one that really bit? Self-effacing waves, too, jostling each other slightly, as if to get by, they round a small island with its prison, near the port, the Portuguese empire with its emblem of huge forts, wheezy grandeur of those who thought to chain men to the rock. A city for sale, the urchins say now.

   There is, in this robust urbanism, the grandiose dream of all history’s pirates. There, too, the sandy wind undoing the majesty of these fortresses. I used to aim my shouts toward the sea, beyond the mounted cannons. The god of our childhood—is he dead, a hundred times dead, and hurled on the rocks?

   Orson Welles shot his Othello there, dark, decisive, a knife. The city that played in it, recruited by force of dollars, knows by heart the theme of the assassinated queen. And thus jealousy, another queen for sale.

   A shell surrounded by sand, this city sketches itself as a miniature in tender colors, and I’m holding back other vibrations:  the surprise of the sun, the town curling in on itself and the scent of the argan tree, the common element of all the Moroccan south and the soft hint of a continuous flight.

   The Jewish quarter is not far, other odors, another lightly sing-song dialect that made me burst out laughing. I snatched the skullcaps of old gents, and sold them. With the money, you started over the other way. You hear that Jews will remake history against the grain, prisoners of a thousand year old difference. These are only the legends of The Venerable. Peace! Peace! Peace!

   Green-eyed kid, you dump in your pants, in broad daylight, and the lordly house laughed. I was the idol of the harem, where my aunt visited her friends. I played around the water basin. Let’s be clear:  the sacred, in my childhood—was knowing how to separate the rituals of the body by means of water, this is useful and that is harmful by water, the West by pink paper and the meat-eating fork. They say:  Child, be faithful to our tenderness, rivers will flow, this is sure, and you must flow, green-eyed child.

   So many women all for nothing, a harem lodged behind my evanescence, I lost them one and all. I will turn back against you all, the Day of The Great Rending.

   They, too, the little girls of my recall, pubis against pubis on the terrace, as the cats brushed against each other. The mothers yelled, I ran off into the maze, later on hashish opened the sky for me.

   From my aunt’s house I surveyed the street, the haïk veil is so much dancing drapery. My request to go down to the street then led me once again into the game of the eye-blink, women hereabouts covered their whole bodies and one glimpsed, beneath the fiery apparition, a single eye, a sole eye well above any appeal of mine. I went astray before these vague forms. Run for it..

   This town doesn’t live only on sand and mythology. The boats idle in the port before or after fishing. Other times, the fishermen follow the wandering sardine as far as Senegal. Starved all year, the town waits; when abundance comes, the sardine rules over all. As sometimes happens, you throw it back in the sea when there’s surplus.

   As a kid, when your cruel thoughts make you used to sardines and their odor, when the port falls into place in the evening silence, before fishermen ever smaller and poorer with the century—child, when you flit about barefoot in the maze of the streets, you must know your way. Know that which you don’t dare, beware of the unformulated!

   With one direction only, the solitary, basic way, you will brain yourself on the subtlety of com-

binations, you will encounter a group of cats, gathered in their moment of splendor for sardine carnage, soon rendered implicit. In this town everyone will hound your desire, who’ll deny it? They will sell your tenderness—who will go into exile for you? Don’t you see how they speak for you, against you? Will you grasp the atrocious truth without screaming in the wee hours? With your pal, you used to wander in this town that refuses you now, you had two mothers along with baby formula, the war wasn’t over, all will recede, despite your brother in wet nurse and in every syllable.

   One step into the impasse, another into a different one, I knock on the door, no one comes, I walk, a stone in my hand, I throw it, I roll it, so goes the world, by little jolts, the child that I had become was breaking apart on the off-chance of finally dying, finally living, finally dying, the chance that one can live against oneself in a gap of memory.

   An image comes back to me, a woman all in white, with a sharp face, who disappeared with the cock’s crow. My first film was a horror movie.

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