Set between Casablanca and Chefchaouen, Morocco
When Father thinks about the topic, his lips start to bloat, like he is having an allergic reaction. His face seals up. He is not ready to say the words.
It is the evening, and they are in their quaint little home, in their suburb of Casablanca. Carpets are strewn across the living room. There are paintings on the walls from various periods of art from Europe. Porcelain vases decorate the tables as well as the tops of the counters. A plush red sofa worn out from decades of use is on one side of Father.
Mother sits on it. Her hair is uncovered, and she is looking at him. The television is on, the soaps blaring loudly, and yet her attention is on him.
This is the home they have made together. He should feel like he is able to express anything.
He loves his wife. He trusts her. They have grown to be comfortable together as husband and wife, but over the past few years, it feels like something has shifted.
Father’s lips remain puckered together.
He isn’t ready to say it, but he knows that he has to.
3 September, 1977
When Ayoub first visited the city of Chefchaouen, he could not help but note how different it was despite being tens of kilometres away from his village. The buildings were painted an ebullient blue, they bobbed against the coasts of the hills like floating seagulls. The weather was also so cold. There was a difference of almost ten degrees Celsius because of the height in the Rif Mountains, and Ayoub, not accustomed to that, shivered in his thob.
He was visiting this city that he was a foreigner to because he was arranged to marry a beautiful woman, Mahnoor. And much like the surprise of a full moon in the sky, when Mahnoor emerged to serve his family mint tea as they gathered in her family’s common room, she made him smile.
She was so quiet. She barely spoke, as was the tradition of most women of that time. But despite their parents mostly talking around them, finalising when the marriage would be and how it ought to be, Mahnoor would look up every so often to make eye contact with Ayoub. Whenever she did, Ayoub felt something burn deep inside of him, and a part of her spirit exhaled out of his mouth. Love, this had to be that emotion. Or an attraction, a power, some sort of inexplicable feeling that drew him to her. Mahnoor had such expressive eyes. Sometimes they expressed confusion as to why Ayoub was looking at her so strongly, sometimes annoyance at the way all of this was proceeding, and sometimes it was an earnestness, an openness, a sense that every aspect of her could be revealed without her ever opening her mouth.
As the brothers took a shared taxi back to their home village, in the direction of Tetouan, his eyes stared aimlessly out the window as his younger brother, Zouhair, teased him.
All he could feel was happiness that the meeting between the families had gone well, and that he’d soon come to know this woman as his wife.
25 September, 2023
There they were again, staring at each other, not saying a single word, as had become their habit. Finally, Mother said:
« .You want to say something .Je sais que ç’est vrai .So, you should say what you are thinking .Or I will make a guess »
8 November, 1977
Mahnoor and Ayoub were standing against the pillars of her family’s riad. It was the night before the khutuba, or the engagement ceremony, which would confirm that Ayoub and Mahnoor were to be wed. It was beginning to snow though it had yet to pile up. Ayoub shivered, nearly dropping his packet of cigarettes as his hands twitched in the cold. Mahnoor looked comfortable in her red flowing kaftan. Then she said, out of nowhere, « .You are not close to your family »
It was said so abruptly that Ayoub interpreted it as an accusation. Warmth flooded all over his body, and his brown cheeks reddened. He no longer felt the cold.
Mahnoor chuckled. « .I guessed it .I am good at guessing .My father used to say I possess special intuitions » She started walking around the pillar, circling it, the red of her kaftan a crimson contrast with the white arabesques on the windowsills behind her. « .I knew you were not close to your family because I am the same way .Or rather, I was close to my family when it was my family .The father you met is not my actual father .My father is no more .My mother married again .These people you are meeting are people I myself barely know .I love my mother, but she is the only one I have left .Everyone else is a stranger .You also talk to your family members like strangers, so I wondered to what extent you knew them »
Ayoub stared at his cigarette. He was unsure how to respond. She was right about how he felt about his family, but the reasons were completely different. He wondered if he should go out of his way to explain how he felt about his family, or if he should express sympathy for her situation.
When he finished his cigarette, a completely different question came to him.
« ؟Why are you telling me this »
Mahnoor stopped pacing about and turned to face him.
« .You are to be my husband .I should feel comfortable saying anything to you .I will also be your wife .No matter what it is, you should be able to express any thought to me ؟Isn’t this how a husband and wife should behave »
Ayoub nodded, but it was not his genuine response. In all honesty Ayoub never expressed what he actually thought. This was because he came from a family in which no one ever talked about their emotions. They were not of the habit to say things directly. Instead they spoke superficially, about the crops of the day, the state of the animals, when food would be prepared.
Ayoub’s legs were shaking. His eyes remained cast downwards as the cigarette smoke around him curled.
Then Ayoub felt hands on his cheeks. They were warm like summer sunlight after one woke from a long nap.
Mahnoor was staring at him, forcing him to meet her eyes.
« .Don’t be scared when you talk to me » she said. « ؟What are you thinking .Tell me »
25 September, 2023
Father and Mother’s eyes met. It was funny how much things could change. Father had pushed himself into speaking more openly with Mother, and it had filled him with joy, but as the years passed, old habits returned and he got used to Mother mostly complaining or gossiping about others while he just silently listened. It was starting to become rare in his old age, as it had been in his younger days, for him to state exactly and succinctly what he was feeling.
And so Mother and Father continued to sit in silence.
Mother turned back towards the television, rolling her eyebrows. Father thought she was going to turn off the sound. Certainly she was fiddling with her remote, but then she pointed it towards him.
« .If you’re not going to say it, I will »
10 July, 1978
« ؟So, you want us to live in Casablanca » Mahnoor asked Ayoub while they were in bed. She was playing with his chest hair.
Ayoub balled his hands together and rested them on his belly. « .Casablanca is the richest city of the country .We will do well there »
« ؟And you want to live with your mother’s brother »
« .He has been kind enough to invite us .I think it would benefit us to consider it »
She stopped her fingers. « ؟And what if I don’t agree »
Ayoub shifted so that he was no longer lying on his belly. He propped himself up on the pillows and looked at his wife quizzically, the light of the lantern making the curls of his beard appear in the shadow like smoke wisps. « ؟ And why would you not want to go »
« .I do not trust him »
Father was offended. He shouted, « .He is my uncle .He is my mother’s own brother .I have known him all my life .By saying you don’t trust him, it is saying you don’t trust me as well »
Mahnoor was startled. She put some distance between herself and Ayoub, also sitting herself up, no longer covered by the blanket. She put her hand up as if she were pausing an advance « .Ana asif .I did not mean to offend you .Ana asif .But you should learn to listen to your wife »
Ayoub had not realised that he had raised his voice. It was only as he saw Mahnoor get out of bed and head towards the mirror that he understood the extent to which he had frightened her. Their marriage was new. They had known each other for less than a year. Ayoub was not temperamental, but he felt threatened. He had not thought that what he was suggesting would become a discussion.
Ayoub had a choice. He could be like a typical man of the family—yell at his wife, claim his wife had no place in the decisions he made.
Instead he came up to his wife, naked in the mirror, and stroked her hair. He started massaging her neck, moving his hands suavely down her back. As his hands went lower and lower, Mahnoor bit her lip and rolled her neck. He wrapped his arms around his wife and started kissing her on her shoulder and pinching her nipples.
« .Ana asif htaa »
He then lowered himself to the floor, kissed his wife’s heels, and made her forget about the previous conversation.
25 September, 2023
As if unleashing a great weight off her chest, Mother began, « .When I was getting married to you, I thought I was marrying a man .Now it often feels like I married a goat .You are stubborn for no reason .You needlessly cause conflict .You are often silent .I want to talk to a husband .I do not want to talk to a goat »
If Father had been younger, he would have been offended by such comments. But with the many decades that the two had come to know each other, Father was used to it. He rolled his eyes and gazed out their window.
They didn’t have the best view of Casablanca. Casablanca was a city of many high-rises and fancy buildings. Their building was one of the best ones, but they were only on the second floor, and their view faced out onto a very meagre lane where there was a butchery, with flies swarming around the trash bins and their chopped-up lamb chunks. Father normally despised this view, but it somehow summed up his feelings of the moment: hung out to dry, battered, and torn. Refusing to look back at Mother, he followed his gaze to the bakery, then to the hovels, and he thought back to the time when they had first moved in.