Street of Thieves - Excerpt
I have never gone back to Tangier, but I’ve met guys who dreamed of going there, as tourists, to rent a pretty villa with a view of the sea, drink tea at the Café Hafa, smoke kif and fuck natives, male natives for the most part but not exclusively, there are some who want to bang princesses from the Arabian Nights, I assure you, I’ve been asked so many times to arrange a little stay for them in Tangier, with kif and locals, to relax, and if they had known that the only ass I ogled before I was 18 was my cousin Meryem’s they’d have fallen down or wouldn’t have believed me, they so associate Tangier with sensuality, with desire, with a permissiveness that it never had for us, but which is offered to the tourist in return for hard cash in the moneybag of misery. In our neighborhood, nobody ever came, not a single tourist. The building I grew up in was neither rich nor poor, my family likewise, my old man was a pious man, what they call a good man, a man of honor who mistreated neither his wife nor his children—aside from a few kicks in the backside now and then, which never harmed anyone. He was a man of a single book, but a good one, the Koran: that’s all he needed to know what he had to do in this life and what awaited him in the next, pray five times a day, fast, give alms, his only dream was to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, which they call the Haj, Haj Mohsen, that was his sole ambition, it didn’t matter if through hard work he transformed his grocery store into a supermarket, it didn’t matter if he earned millions of dirhams, he had the Book prayer pilgrimage period; my mother revered him and combined an almost filial obedience with domestic servitude: I grew up like that, with suras, morality, stories about the Prophet and the glorious times of the Arabs, I went to a totally average school where I learned a little French and Spanish and every day I would go down with my buddy Bassam to the harbor, to the lower part of the Medina and to the Grand Zoco to check out the tourists, as soon as we had hair on our balls that became our main activity, eyeballing foreign women, especially in summer when they wear shorts and miniskirts. In the summer there wasn’t much to do, in any case, aside from following girls, going to the beach and smoking joints when someone handed us a little kif. I would read old French detective novels by the dozen, which I bought used for a few coins at a bookshop, detective novels because there was sex, often, blondes, cars, whisky and cops, all things that we lacked except in dreams, stuck as we were between prayers, the Koran, and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear. We would take up our places on top of the cliff facing the Strait, surrounded by Phoenician tombs, which were just holes in the rock, full of empty potato chip bags and cans of Coke instead of ancient stiffs, each of us with a Walkman on his ears, and we would watch the to-and-fro of the ferries between Tangier and Tarifa, for hours. We were bored stiff. Bassam dreamed of leaving, of trying his luck on the other side as he said; his father was a waiter in a restaurant for rich people on the seafront. I didn’t think much about it, the other side, Spain, Europe, I liked what I read in my thrillers, but that’s all. With my novels I learned a language, I learned about other countries; I was proud of these novels, proud of having them for me alone, I didn’t want that oaf Bassam to pollute them for me with his ambitions. What tempted me more than anything at the time was my cousin Meryem, my Uncle Ahmed’s daughter; she lived alone with her mother, on the same floor as us, her father and brothers farmed in Almería. She wasn’t very pretty, but she had big breasts and round buttocks; at home she often wore tight jeans or half-transparent house dresses, my God, my God she aroused me terribly, I wondered if she did it on purpose, and in my erotic dreams before I fell asleep I imagined undressing her, caressing her, placing my face between her enormous breasts, but I would have been incapable of making the first move. She was my cousin, I could have married her, but not felt her up, that wasn’t right. I made do with dreaming, and of talking about her with Bassam, during our afternoons spent contemplating the wake of the boats. Today she smiled at me, today she wore this or that, I think she had on a red bra, etc. Bassam nodded saying she wants you, no doubt about it, you turn her on, otherwise she wouldn’t put on that act, what act I replied, isn’t it normal for her to wear a bra? Yes but it’s red, you idiot, don’t you realize? Red is to excite. And so on for hours. Bassam had a stolid peasant’s head, round with little eyes, he went to the mosque every day, with his old man. He spent his time devising incredible plans to emigrate secretly, disguised as a customs officer, or a cop; he dreamt of stealing a tourist’s papers and, well dressed, with a pretty suitcase, of calmly taking the boat as if nothing was amiss—I asked him but what would you do in Spain without cash? I’d work and save a little, then I’d go to France, he would reply, to France then to Germany and from there to America. I don’t know why he thought it would be easier to leave for the States from Germany. [. . .]
We would exchange our castles in the air, trade Meryem’s breasts for emigration; we would meditate this way for hours, facing the Strait, and then we’d go home, on foot, him to go to evening prayers, me to try to catch one more glimpse of my cousin. We were seventeen, but more like twelve in our heads. We weren’t very clever.