Skip navigation
    University of Texas Press contacts  
shopping cart
  Find a book. Journals. For authors. Booksellers & educators. About UT Press.  


6 x 9 in.
129 pp.

Replaced by revised edition


Year of the Elephant
A Moroccan Woman's Journey Toward Independence

By Leila Abouzeid
Translated by Barbara Parmenter
Introduction by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea


Back to Book Description


Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Map
  • Year of the Elephant (novella)
  • Short Stories
    • A House in the Woods
    • A Vacation
    • The Discontented
    • Divorce (translated by Salah-dine Hammoud)
    • Silence
    • Dinner in the Black Market
    • The Stranger
    • Out of Work
  • Glossary


The publication of Leila Abouzeid's novella, The Year of the Elephant: A Moroccan Woman's Journey toward Independence, and the accompanying collection of experimen tal short stories is an event in cross-cultural literary history. The first novel by a Moroccan woman to be translated from Arabic to English, a task admirably executed by Barbara Parmenter, it is also one of the first works by any Moroccan writer to be translated from Arabic into English.

Modern Moroccan literature has received international attention recently, with the awarding of France's most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, to Tahar Ben Jelloun for La Nuit Sacrèe (Editions au Seuil 1982). The English edition, The Sacred Night, has just been published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1989). Ben Jelloun, however, writes not in Arabic, but in French, as the majority of contemporary North African writers have done until recently. Len Ortzen, whose North African Writing (Heinemann, 1970) introduced many modern writers to the English-speaking world for the first time, focuses on nine figures, eight men and one woman, all of whom wrote in French. The only Moroccan writers included were Driss Chraibi and Ahmed Sefroui; the only woman was an Algerian, Assia Djebar.

Tahar Ben Jelloun, who did not appear in Ortzen's pioneering volume, was born in Fez in 1944 and lives now in Paris. His earlier novel, The Sand Child, has now appeared in thirteen languages. Early reviews described it as "mythic, symbolic, poetic..." and as "a cynical, dreamlike exploration of the roles into which Arab men and women are shaped." The Sacred Night is concerned with the same themes, with "a Morocco of allegory and hallucination, of fairy tale and surreal imagining ...of protest and a quest for freedom-from roles, from possessions, from hypocrisy and from unhappiness." The earlier Moroccan works translated by Len Ortzen also dealt with the issue of freedom, but those works published in the sixties tended to focus on the struggles for independence from French colonial domination and the aftermath of those struggles, the search for identity, for economic security.

Leila Abouzeid's novel published in the early 1980s is both similar and different from these novels by men. Year of the Elephant deals with Morocco's struggle for independence and its aftermath, but through the experience of one working-class woman. And though it is like Ben Jelloun's work about men and women and the roles into which Arab men and women are socialized, the perspective throughout is that of the woman, not the man. The style is more immediate than dreamlike, the tone more ironic than cynical.

The fact that Leila Abouzeid writes in Arabic rather than French is significant. She is actually trilingual, but has chosen to write in Arabic, she states, "for political as well as personal reasons." To understand the impulse that animates her to write in Arabic rather than French, we need to see the novel—and the writer—in historical and cultural context.

Abouzeid was born in 1950 into a middle-class family in El Ksiba, a Middle Atlas village where her father was an interpreter in the French administration. She was six years old when Morocco gained its freedom from France in 1956, a process of resistance in which her own father was involved. Rather than enrolling in a French lycèe like earlier members of Morocco's elite, she attended a Moroccan lycèe, where Arabic as well as French was a major part of the curriculum. She went on to Mohammad V University in Rabat and studied as well at the London School of Journalism. Following her studies, she became a journalist, writing for local Arabic magazines and newspapers. She also served as press assistant in the Ministries of Information and Equipment and in the Prime Minister's Office. She wrote and directed an immensely popular talk show on the national radio network, and was an anchor woman for the newly created Moroccan television channel. In that capacity, she came to understand and know the problems of many Moroccans, male and female, of all classes, of rural as well as urban origin. She is thus a product of independent Morocco, and represents the members of the generation who came to maturity under a new central government, in a society very different from that of their parents. Year of the Elephant addresses three inter-related problems of this new generation: the issue of history, the issue of a national language and the issue of feminism.

For Western audiences, the dramatic events of the bitter bloody Algerian revolution have tended to overshadow the particulars of Moroccan nationalism and its impact on the wider Islamic world. But in the Middle East itself, Morocco is seen as having played an important role in the area's nationalist movement. Morocco's experience of colonialism and struggle against colonialism is unique. Morocco was never part of the Ottoman Empire, which ranged from Eastern Europe to Arabia and across North Africa encompassing almost all the countries which are today called Middle Eastern. Morocco's unique history is stressed by social scientists, both Western and Eastern, who point out that until very recently, Morocco consisted of an area of independent but related units. In the cities, a form of central government obtained (bled el-makhzen); but in the country, the tribes made their own laws and were termed bled el-siba or areas of dissidence. The tribes usually declared an annual allegiance (bayaa) to the sultan of the ruling dynasty, a symbolic act which helped reduce inter-tribal conflict, but generally they operated more or less independently. In the seventeenth century Portuguese and British merchant seamen foraged and settled along Morocco's Atlantic coast where pirate incursions were frequent. But no real challenge was posed to the uneasy balance of inland power between makhzen and siba until the invasion, first of the Spanish, and then the French toward the end of the 19th century.

Some background to the development of Moroccan nationalism is helpful in comprehending the genesis of Leila Abouzeid's novel. The era of Western colonial rule is usually seen by historians as beginning in 1798, when Napoleon invaded Egypt. The French began to settle in Algeria in 1830, but the conquest of Morocco took much longer. In the mid-19th century, the Sherifian Sultan of Morocco was still sending arms and supplies to the Algerian Emir, Abd el Kader, in his continuing resistance to France, even though substantial numbers of French settlers had arrived, taken over and were already cultivating land in Algeria. The Moroccan challenge was too much for the French, who struck back, subduing a Moroccan army on August 1, 1844, at Isly. After this, the Sultan was obliged to withdraw his assistance to the Algerian resistance. In 1860, Spain seized Tetouan, an important city on Morocco's northern Mediterranean coast. Even then, Morocco continued to fight French and Spanish take-over attempts, and it was not until much later that France "pacified" most of the rebellious tribes, made compensatory arrangements in exchange for support with other tribes, and established the protectorate, shared with Spain, that was to last for forty-four years.

But the establishment of the Protectorate, signed and sealed at Fez on March 30, 1912, did not entirely end Moroccan resistance. Resistance actually never stopped. Less than a decade passed before the famous Rif revolt began, under the leadership of a wealthy land-owner, Mohammed Abd al-Karim Khattabi, who was understandably unwilling to have his property appropriated by foreign Europeans. He began by defying the Spanish and then the French in 1921, and eventually became the leader of a large coalition of tribes from the Rif, the mountainous northern tier of Morocco, that battled Spain and France for the next five years. The Rif rebellion, though little noted at the time in Europe and the United States, caught the imagination of the Islamic world, which, since the signing of the 1919 Versailles treaty, had begun to demonstrate against the European powers. That Treaty had been much anticipated by the Arabs, for they had been promised independent statehood by Britain and France in exchange for their support against Germany. But by the terms of the Treaty, those promises were abrogated. Britain, France and Spain literally divided the Ottoman Empire among themselves, creating mandates and protectorates throughout the Middle East and ignoring the pleas of the leaders of countries that had expected freedom. Morocco was one of them.

The continuing Rif revolt helped raise hopes across the area for successful opposition to the European colonial powers. Money was collected for the rebels as far away as India and their success was used by Tunisian nationalists to rally support for their own movement in Tunisia. "A whole mythology grew up among the masses in the cities, centered around the Rifi leader," states C.R. Pennell. After all, small bands of poorly armed tribesmen in the northern Moroccan mountains had inflicted serious military losses on the modern armies of the two most powerful European countries; this was clearly the stuff of mythology and legend, and remained in the memory of the Moroccan people who were to resist later. The name Abd el Krim was often invoked in the events of the 1950's which are the dramatic center of Year of the Elephant. Spain alone estimated that 10,000 men were lost in the first years of the revolt, and another whole army nearly perished.

Abd el Krim's son finally surrendered in 1926 and was exiled to the French island colony of Réunion, but the repercussions of the Rif revolt continued. In 1946, he escaped from Réunion and settled in Cairo, where until his death in 1963 he was the titular leader of the North African Defense League, the umbrella organization of the Northwest African Nationalists (Pennell, p. 216)

In Year of the Elephant, the author has focussed her narrative on the final stage of the battle for an independent Morocco, a stage which, according to scholars of the period, "may be considered as having begun on January 22, 1943, with the meeting at Casablanca/Anfa between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Youssef." (The United States as a political model became part of that period, the particulars of its Bill of Rights borrowed for inclusion in the nationalist articles and pamphlets championing the right of all peoples to self-determination.)

Leila Abouzeid's novel carries on the cover page the following inscription: "I dedicate this book to all those women and men who put their lives in danger for the sake of Morocco and did not expect to be rewarded or thanked for it." She suggests that the majority of Moroccans were involved in the struggle, including the Sultan himself, who was to become Mohammed V, Morocco's first independent and much beloved monarch. This, too, is in contrast with the experience of other Middle Eastern countries. In Egypt, for example, the royal family collaborated with, indeed was part of the British mandate government. After the Officers Coup of 1952, led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdul Nasser, King Farouk was forced to abdicate and was exiled from Egypt. The Sultan of Morocco, however, joined forces with the Istiqlal, the major Nationalist party, was exiled by the French for his efforts and thus became a national hero. Leila Abouzeid's protagonist Zahra described this event as follows:

When they had exiled him, a deep collective grief had fallen over the nation and I mourned with the rest of my compatriots. After that Casablanca had fallen into the hands of demons. We had started to see him in the moon, and in his exile he had come to hold the fate of France in Morocco, as they had said at the time, not the other way around.... Fantastic what effect he had on our hearts! His exile had wrapped him in a sacred cloak, and for his sake the people had joined the resistance, as if he had become an ideal or a principle. Had the French not exiled him, their presence in Morocco would have continued much longer; I'm certain of that. (p. 50)

Historic events animate, but do not dominate this novella. They are the backdrop against which the everyday events of the narrative take place: the childhood and marriage of the woman narrator, the missions of the underground movement in which she plays a part, the final triumph of nationalist forces, the new government in which Zahra's husband is given a post, her divorce and her re-evaluation of what independence actually means.

The 1952 Casablanca Massacre is the event that historians and political scientists see as the turning point in the conflict: The New York Times' report of the tragedy, dated December 13, 1952, said cryptically that the number of Moroccan civilians shot down by the French police and army militias was unknown, but numbered at least "several hundreds" (Bernard, p. 100). After this event, support for the nationalists spread to the masses of ordinary Moroccans. Thousands joined the movement, like Leila Abouzeid's protagonist.

The author gives the Moroccan struggle depth in Islamic history by comparing it to an important battle in early Islam, when foreign tribes riding elephants marched on the sanctuary at Mecca. The battle of "Year of the Elephant" was won, not by arms and superior numbers, but by the support of small and unimportant elements: flocks of birds which miraculously appeared and so bombarded the elephants with clay pellets and rocks that the mighty animals were forced to turn back in defeat.

Leila Abouzeid is clearly giving credit to ordinary people for the success of the Moroccan battle of independence; Zahra becomes one of the "flock" of small and unimportant people who made the difference in the undeclared war against French rule: the blacksmiths, the housewives, the spice merchants, the rug merchants, the lorry drivers. To those who in the ' history books are called simply "demonstrators" or "protestors," the author gives faces and names. We come to know the spice merchant with "a sixth finger like a tumor;" the cheerful blacksmith; the women who hide fugitives in their store-houses; the one-legged veteran of Dien Bien Phu.

The author lets the audience experience important moments through the characters' own reactions. The March 2, 1956 declaration granting Moroccan independence, prepared and announced from Paris, reads as follows:

The Government of the French Republic and His Majesty, Mohammed V Sultan of Morocco ... note that the Treaty of Fez of March 30, 1912, (which had confirmed French rule over Morocco) no longer corresponds to the requirements of modern life and can therefore no longer govern Franco-Moroccan relations... The government of the French Republic solemnly confirms its recognition of the independence of Morocco. (Bernard, p. 349).

Leila Abouzeid passes over the formal declaration; the novel focuses on the King's triumphant return to Morocco.

For the Independence appearance, the Sultan came out on the balcony between his two sons, and the crowds in the Mechouar court raised an incredible roar. People cheered and ululated, laughed and cried...

How many times have I listened to his throne speech delivered that November 18! What a speech! I learned it by heart and can still recite it to this day. Every time I repeat its words, those same feelings of limitless mysticism return, and with them the cadences of the Sultan's voice as he drew out the long vowels. You could hear the people repeating the speech in the streets, even little children.

"On this joyous day God has blessed us twice over. The blessing of return to our most beloved homeland after a long and sorrowful absence, and the blessing of gathering again with people we have so missed and to whom we have been unerringly faithful and who have been faithful to us in turn." (p. 50-51)

The Sultan's speech was delivered in Arabic, the national language of Morocco, but a language which had held second or third class status during the forty years of the colonial protectorate. French, the language of the conqueror, had become the official language, the language of commerce, education, and power. Arabic was relegated to areas of religious affairs, where the classical language was utilized and to the family, where the vernacular, Maghrebi Arabic, was used. Thus it should not come as a surprise as we have noted earlier, that the first modern works of literature written in Morocco and published in the West were written in French, not Arabic, and generally by men rather than women. Far more men than women were educated in the few French schools.

The issue of language and its crucial relationship to identity and power was important even in the years of the French protectorate. Just as the French established schools for their children and a few members of the elite, other members of the Moroccan elite established schools where Arabic was taught, and Arabic became a symbol of resistance. The issue therefore became a major one in the first years of the new nation state. When decisions were made about the future of Morocco, Arabicization of the educational system emerged as a primary. goal. It was not simple to implement, however, as Salah Dine Hammoud points out.

For the few thousand youngsters who were enrolled in school in Morocco in 1955, 80% of their school time was spent either studying French or using it as a medium of learning rudiments of arithmetic, natural science and geography. During the remaining few hours (about 11) in their school week, they were taught the Koran and some basic precepts of Islam as well as some classical Arabic poetry, reading and grammar.

The words "few thousand" are important. The new Moroccan government was faced with a population largely illiterate and untrained, despite years of French educational missions. Although the French asserted that many Moroccans were being educated to assume responsibilities in a modern, changing world, the statistics tell a different story. On the eve of independence in 1955, it has been estimated that in Morocco there were only 40 university graduates, all men, and only six girls who had graduated from secondary school.

The educators in newly independent Morocco had a huge task before them. The Istiqlal Party had promised free education to all Moroccan citizens who wished it, and announced their policy of restoring Arabic as the nation's official language. According. to Hammoud, "In the 1956-57 school year ... in the euphoria of independence, the ruling Istiqlal party, represented by Mohammad Al-Fassi, the first minister of national education, pledged to adopt Arabicization as the language policy, and to immediately implement it in primary schools. The point was that a return to an authentic Arab-Islamic identity had to be at the base of national reconstruction." (Hammoud, p. 40)

The introduction of Arabic as the language of Arab-Islamic identity made perfect sense ideologically, but the proposals met with opposition, some of it based on practical matters. Most of the teachers in Morocco, other than the faqihs, or teachers, of the Koranic schools, had been trained in French. Where were Arabic trained teachers to be found? Very few schools had been built by the French. How would the expected large numbers of children be accommodated without the construction of scores of new schools? Curricula at all levels developed under the protectorate were based on the French system; examinations were based on French examinations. How long would it take for new curricula to be developed and who would develop them? Further, many of the officials in the new government had themselves been trained in France or in French schools and had minimal Arabic skills. The second minister of education, Abdelkrim Ben Jelloun, proposed to form an educational compromise: Morocco would become more or less bilingual and the shift to Arabic, seen as a long term goal, would not be as swift nor as drastic as had been envisioned earlier by Al-Fassi, but would take place gradually.

A major argument for the bilingual formula was made by Ahmed Slami, an influential member of the Istiqlal Party. He asked:

Are we going to Arabize completely, at all levels, train young Moroccans uniquely in the Arabo-Muslim tradition, or institute bilingualism and permit the young Moroccan to have a wide opening onto the world, by the no less solid acquisition of a foreign language; this is a vital question for Morocco. (Hammoud, p. 43)

This period, when Arabicization and bilingualism were being debated in Moroccan government circles, is the period when Leila Abouzeid herself was in school. She learned both French and Arabic but decided to write in Arabic, not only because she believes it is the proper language of her religious faith and therefore of her country, but because the audience she wishes to reach lives in the wider Arabo-Islamic world, where Arabic, not French or English, is the lingua franca of the majority of the people. She not only writes novels, short stories and reviews in Arabic, but conducted her radio show in Arabic. In addition, she is well known in Morocco for her radio dramatic readings of Arabic classics, and her Arabic screen plays for Moroccan films. She is currently translating The Autobiography of Malcolm X into Arabic.

The issue of language use is also related to the role and place of women in Moroccan society. Although a few women received a classical education in Arabic in the Middle Ages, they were always in the minority. Until the 20th century, classical Arabic was largely the province of religion, of law, and primarily of men. Arabic is an example of diglossia, different dialects of the same language being spoken in different contexts. Thus in educated and religious contexts, formal classical Arabic is used; within the home the vernacular is spoken. All this began to change with the end of colonialism and the introduction of Arabic-based education for women and men at all levels. Today, modern standard Arabic is used in the media and newspapers across the Arab world. A similar division existed in medieval Europe, when Latin, the language of the liturgy was restricted to the educated elite, then mostly men. Only when the vernacular began to be accepted as legitimate did modern literature as we think of it today begin to develop, and only then did large numbers of women as well as men begin to write and publish.

Leila Abouzeid writes her novella and short stories in what is called modern standard literary Arabic, but her dialogue is written in a modified vernacular. Hence the Arabic used in this novella is also an important innovation, as Arabic reviews indicate. "I think she has come out with a new style," said the Moroccan author and poet Ahmed Abdeslam Al Bakkali, "a mosaic of expression to describe her old and yet new world." A reviewer in the Socialist Union of Casablanca wrote "Through her use of form in Year of the Elephant, Leila Abouzeid joins the ranks of modern Arab poets and writers of fiction. Her sentences are short, but they are multi-layered, this opening up to a multitude of interpretations. However, she never loses, in her work, the flavor of classical Arabic." (March 5, 1984) By the time the novella was published in 1983, it had already attracted thousands of readers through the serialization of its chapters in Al Mithaq al Watani, a Rabat-based newspaper. Al-Bakkali, on reading these installments, said that "from the very first line, we feel that Leila is holding our hands as though we are old friends, and telling us a story in a simple, enjoyable and attractive style, a style with a high sensibility and great gentleness, the gentleness of an educated, keenly observant woman." The book immediately sold out and was reprinted. The resonances of classical Arabic, the mixture of old and new Arabic present in the novel may not always be apparent to the reader of the translation, but the description of the landscape, the relationship of the person to the land, and the careful, precise images grounded in everyday life, are clear, and as such represent elements found in classical Arabic literature.

Thus Year of the Elephant is a new kind of novella, utilizing a new kind of language for a woman in a new independent Morocco. Is it a feminist work? What do we mean by the term? In the West feminism is defined as a movement for granting equal rights to women as well as men. It is also associated with individualism and also with the separation of biology from socialization in determining people's status. Juliette Minces, a French sociologist who writes about Algeria asks, "Can the evolution of the condition of women in the Arab world be evaluated by the same criteria as in the West? Is it not Eurocentric to put forward the lives of western women as the only democratic, just and forward-looking model? I do not think so. The demands of Western feminists seem to me to represent the greatest advance towards the emancipation of women as people." Certainly most people, whatever their cultural and religious background, would agree on certain basic requirements for emancipation: equal rights under the law, for example; equal access to economic wealth and health; protection from various forms of human oppression such as prison, murder, slavery, physical abuse. But within these general bounds, each culture, each woman, surely has the right of choice, the right to form her own "feminist" program using elements from her own and other cultural traditions to fulfill new needs. The final model or ideal of feminism, then, may differ in emphasis, in the pace of implementation, but the goals of justice would be the same.

Year of the Elephant deals with all of these issues. The novel begins with the divorce of Zahra and her sense that she has been treated unjustly.

I come back to my hometown, feeling shattered and helpless. He had simply sat down and said, "Your papers will be sent to you along with whatever the law provides." My papers? How worthless a woman is if she can be returned with a receipt like some store bought object! How utterly worthless!

...Those few seconds destroyed the whole foundation of my being, annihilated everything I trusted. (p.1)

Zahra is then faced with a bleak future, since her husband, her source of livelihood, has discarded her, and the religious law by which her life has been bound has been found inadequate, a further comment on the need for reform of family law which has been expressed in the area since independence.

"Whatever the law provides." And what is that? Expenses for a hundred days. That shows the extent of the law's regard for women. Throw them out on the street with a hundred days of expenses." (p.11)

What does she do? Whom does she turn to? Her parents are dead in a society where parents are customarily the source of security for children whether they are divorced, widowed or in economic difficulty. She returns to her hometown where she still owns property—one room in a house—her inheritance from her parents. And she goes to visit the religious leader of the local shrine, whom she had known as a child. For a Western feminist reader, this is surprising; women in such trouble would not be expected to go to a religious leader for help. Further, she has been divorced, not because she is independent and difficult, but rather for the opposite reason: she is too traditional. "I don't eat with a fork. I don't speak French. I don't sit with men. I don't go to fancy dinners." (p.9)

But despite such cultural differences, the plight of Zahra is the same as that of a woman in any society who is divorced, illiterate and without economic resources. She must find a way to earn her living, a place to live, a reason to live. This is neither an easy nor a pleasant task. Zahra's life as a small-town daughter, a guerilla fighter and a housewife has not given her any experience she can use in the market place. Her brother-in-law reminds her:

"These days you need a high school degree to get any work at all. Soon they'll require a college degree, and some day a college degree won't even get you a job sweeping the streets." (p.66)

Although her sister and brother-in-law try to take her in, she refuses with the words, "I'm not anybody's inheritance," a poignant declaration of independence. But the sister persists. "Clearly she expects that like other divorced women I will abide by custom and live with her." (p.65) Zahra rebels: "Do you have legal custody of me?" (p.66) she asks, a retort that she knows will create years of estrangement between her and her sister. But she is determined to make her own way.

By the end of the novel, Zahra has built a new independence within herself, and has lost her earlier bitterness and hostility. She has begun to live a reality which, she tells her old friend, the religious leader "is constituted of work, faith and other things that aren't so important." (p.69)

The novella forces us to ask difficult questions about feminism. What is the relationship between women's political and economic activity and women's independence? What about the relationship of the woman to her kin group? What are the events that force a woman to a new kind of consciousness, a desire for change? What is the role of religion in such change? Is it a force for reform or for reaction? Does true independence imply larger participation, a measure of the world's wealth and happiness? And finally, is Zahra's choice a feminist choice?

The answer to the last question must be both yes and no. Zahra becomes an independent, self-sufficient woman, but in a narrow limited way few feminists East or West would totally accept. And Zahra's experience clearly does not conform to that of most Western feminists. She is not a Western woman, but a Moroccan woman, a Muslim woman who finds comfort in her religious faith. She is the product of a different history, a different expectation. That difference is illuminated by Leila Abouzeid in her successful effort to relate Zahra's independence and the problems associated with that independence to the wider issue of national independence and its problems. One woman's experience becomes a metaphor for society, a view that has less to do with western ideas of individualism than it does with Middle Eastern ideas of the value of the group. The novel does not make an ideological statement, but rather presents in fictional form the real life situation of a real woman, the data that all ideologies must take into account.

Year of the Elephant offers insights into the specific situation of Moroccan women. As the first novel by a Moroccan woman written in Arabic to be translated into English, it suggests new directions within Moroccan literature, the increasing choice of Arabic over French in national writing and the participation of a growing number of educated women as well as men in literary endeavors.

As a woman's perspective on the tumultuous events of recent Moroccan history which led to independence, the novella is unique. No patriotic rhetoric is found here, no self justification, although there is no doubt that the author takes great pride in the achievements of her country. A certain sense of realism is present, a recognition that there are no easy solutions to the troubles of nations—and peoples.

In the beginning of the Resistance, we believed the struggle would wash clean all spite and malice, just as we thought that Independence would relieve our cares and heal our sores like miracle cures sold in the market. In fact, we loaded Independence down with a burden it could not bear ...(p.67)

Leila Abouzeid's brief novella, in Barbara Parmenter's fine translation, opens a small window through which western readers may glimpse not only an aspect of the realities of Moroccan women's lives, but also an aspect of the rich historical heritage and the complex reality—political, economic, linguistic—that in itself constitutes Morocco in the late 20th century.

Elizabeth Fernea
Austin, Texas
July, 1989

The Discontented

The official left the meeting room. In the hall one of the custodians walked towards him and stopped. The official stared at the familiar face before him. The two men embraced, each asking how the other was and blaming one another for first breaking off the ties of kinship.

"Let's go to your house," the official said. They quickly departed in his luxury sedan. The official again inquired about his cousin's news.

"My pay is very low," he replied. "The children are endlessly in need of things, costs keep rising, and no one gives a damn about us."

"If only you hadn't left school," the official said, a note of censure in his voice.

"It was bad luck," the custodian answered bitterly. He scowled. A long silence ensued. The official realized his mistake and regretted his sharp words. The custodian, staring straight ahead through the car's windshield, muttered to himself. "Fortune, my cousin, lifted you to high office and dragged me to the ground, though you were once as wretched as the rest of us."

They came to the outskirts of town where the government had built housing for poor families. Directed by the custodian, the official stopped his car in front of a small house.

Inside, the official sat cross-legged in silence while the custodian surreptitiously observed him. Despite his fine suit, he seemed at home in the house. He looked down, where through holes in the worn mat, the cement floor appeared. He was perspiring in the heat and sluggish air.

Outside, beyond the open door, lay a large vacant lot full of trash and the remnants of ruined shacks.

Children ran in, one after another. Swarming about him, they seemed to the official to be more numerous than they actually were. The small room spun around him in confusion.

"I wish the house were more suitable to your higher station," the official heard his cousin say after another long silence. He did not know how to respond for he knew the poorer man was comparing their two lives. The custodian busied himself with pouring tea into inexpensive glasses.

"Some people are doomed to menial work," he said as he finished.

"All work is honorable and never menial," the official replied, feeling uncomfortable.

The custodian pulled nervously on his thick moustache with his thumb and index finger, then pursed his lips.

"I'll find you a better job," the official said in a conciliatory tone.

He stood up to leave. Outside more children surrounded his car, and scurried away at his approach. As he opened the car door, he saw that they had scratched "Long live Morocco" on it with a sharp tool. Before leaving he gave his address to his cousin and suggested he contact him again.

Urged on by his wife, the custodian finally arranged to visit the official. But when he arrived at the latter's house, he felt intimidated by its grandeur. A European-style edifice in the middle of a green lawn, it was surrounded by rose beds and slender willow trees. He hesitated, then pressed the doorbell, and for a moment heard nothing in the deep silence but his own breathing. A servant opened the door and showed him into a spacious parlor containing an unimaginable assortment of furniture and objects. Dazzled, he gazed around the room, that first impression settling permanently in his mind. He wondered what sort of wood was on the walls, where the rugs and housewares had come from, and how much it had all cost. Realizing that the roses in the glass vases were the only things with which he was familiar, he sneered inwardly at his own incredible ignorance.

The official greeted him and invited him to take a seat. He had found his cousin a job as a supervisor on a government farm outside Casablanca.

A supervisor? A government farm? Casablanca? "But I know nothing about farming," he stammered.

"You have only to oversee operations and distribute wages," the official said. "You'll make twice what you're earning now, plus free housing, water, electricity and all other living expenses. And you'll be surrounded by water, greenery and fresh air. What do you think?"

The custodian did not answer. He tried to imagine himself supervising peasants from Doukkala and Chaouia. He rose to leave, saying he had a train to catch. His cousin said the new job would start on the first of the following month. At that, the custodian's anxiety grew. He forced a smile and hurried out of the house.

The first of the month came and the custodian drove off as usual on his motorcycle, roaring into the traffic which soon swallowed him.

That same day, the official received a cable from his cousin. "I cannot accept your offer," it read, "as it would create difficulties in the children's education. Thank you anyway."

The official exploded in anger. "It's useless trying to help the man! He'll die as miserable as he lived!" His voice lowered. "And these are the men who blame the government for their wretched lives!"

"Some people are born to follow orders and others to give them," his assistant said, unaware that the two men were related.

The official wadded the telegram into a tight ball, then with a flick of his thumb tossed it into a wastebasket.


Search Books  |  Orders |  Catalogs |  Current Season

Terms of Sale |  Privacy Policy | UT Austin Web Accessibility Guidelines
Copyright © 2003-2010 University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.