The maverick literary genre known as the short story has become increasingly popular in the West since its beginnings in the nineteenth century. But in other cultures the short story is a relatively new phenomenon. Leila Abouzeid, author of the stories presented here, herself states that "the short story" is not held in high esteem in Morocco, her own homeland. Further, the short story, she believes, "is receding ... before the fact of the novel" all over the Arab world.
In the West, critics and readers debate the definition of a short story. It may be called a truncated narrative, part of an unfinished novel, or a vignette, a brief snapshot of a character or an event. As Hortense Calisher wrote some years ago, "A short story is a tempest in a tea-cup." What some critics mean by a "truncated narrative" is a tale which begins in the middle. The reader assumes that some of the action has taken place before the story begins. The writer proceeds to continue that previous action and brings the tale to a conclusion, a conclusion in which something has changed in the lives of one or more of the characters.
The definitions—vignette, unfinished novel, or truncated narrative—have never, however, prevented writers in past centuries from experimenting with different forms to achieve their storytelling goal. In Western letters, for example, the stories of William Faulkner, Sarah Orne Jewett, Paul Bowles, Isaak Dinesen, and Jean Stafford vary enormously in theme, plot, context, setting, characters, and expository style.
So it is with writers in other cultures, as the short story begins to appear in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Many of these older cultures have an advantage in attempting the short story: the much-admired storyteller, one who is in the so-called oral tradition. In the Middle East, the Arabian Nights stories remain an influence, but so do the tales of grandparents and professional storytellers.
Leila Abouzeid's new stories exhibit some of these influences, but as an artist she takes the story in new directions. "Grandfather's Story," for example, is indeed exactly what the title announces, but Abouzeid has set it in a new frame: it is "the only story my maternal grandfather ever told us" (11), and she questions all the assumptions about orally communicated stories. Was Grandfather really illiterate (most traditional storytellers are so characterized)? If so, how did he learn the archaic Arabic terms with which his story is peppered? The reader begins to see the "oral tradition" in a new light.
Some of Abouzeid's stories follow what might be termed an expected short-story form, but "From the Diary of a Parliamentary Employee" is clearly of another, newer mold. Many of the stories are indeed truncated narratives, in the sense that the tale begins in the middle, and the reader is expected to assume that some of the action has taken place before the story begins. This is particularly effective when both the past and present of Morocco are concerned.
Abouzeid uses different styles and forms to approach the "new" Morocco. In "A Genius Filmmaker" and "The Director," she criticizes the "new" professionals who have learned from the West but, she suggests, have been corrupted in the process. She, the writer, is often the protagonist. Events in her own life—travel to Britain, encounters with French residents who have chosen to stay in Morocco at the end of the colonial rule—are the basis for subtle critiques of foreign customs and mores, as in "Mrs. O'Grady," "A Paying Guest," "Medi," "A Jealous Wife," and "Phone Call."
Problems of readjustment to a different world are also the subject matter for stories such as "What Attitude?" "The Trade Unionist," and "Her Best Friend." "The Bathing Suit" is a kind of reverie—a remembrance of an earlier time in Moroccan history and a comparison of past and present.
The story "Abderrahim" comes close to fulfilling Hortense Calisher's definition of a short story as "a tempest in a tea-cup." This sad tale of a young man whose talent for singing was seen as shameful by his traditional father does indeed demonstrate a potential for explosion. Abouzeid here becomes a commentator, entering the story to criticize the father's cruel action which leads to Abderrahim's death. "This young man was constantly on my mind," she writes. "I imagined the father really very old now, walking slowly, slowly. I imagined his loneliness in the large, cold, and empty house.... He could not have absorbed all that tragedy so naturally.... Deep inside, he must have regretted his actions and must now blame himself" (61). Abouzeid criticizes the story itself. "Were it my story, I would send the father to jail or at least make him sink in depression.... I would have [Abderrahim] reject the father's tyranny, and I would give the women some presence in the scene, the mother at any rate" (60).
Tragedy and pathos are present in the collection, as is irony—a stage in the acceptance of the new nation-state and attempts to deal with the states' new demands. "The Baker" is a triumphant conclusion—a boy who is expelled from the new government school becomes first a baker's apprentice and then a master baker who becomes so wealthy that he eventually supports his educated siblings and his parents in old age.
As Abouzeid utilizes different styles and forms to reflect different experiences and different emotional moods, the reader glimpses elements of everyday life for the men and women in the young nation-state of Morocco.
The work contradicts the author's own statement that the short story is "receding. " This collection demonstrates a new vigor and variety in the form, in Morocco, at least.
—Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
It was the first visit ever, for their relationship had slackened somewhat since the aunt had married and moved to the capital. Administrative posting does wrench people away from their hometowns and tear their family ties asunder.
The visitor looked puzzled, and the aunt was seized by an increasing anxiety.
"Where've you been?" she finely said, fidgeting with the collar of her faded housedress. "None of you visits me."
"We would, if it wasn't for the long distance and work."
"There's no end to work in this world, is there? But what's this visit about, niece?"
"I've been transferred here, Aunt. And ever since I settled down, I've been thinking of visiting you. But I haven't had time."
"No blessing in time any more, eh, nor in anything else. How are you all?"
"I haven't seen you since ... ?" She counted on her fingers, as she stood up and walked out of the room, her plastic slippers clacking on the concrete floor.
Across the courtyard, the wall opposite had experienced humidity, its lower part mossy. Ragged shadows swing on it in the light of the setting sun and autumn breeze.
The house contained two rooms, one leading to the other. The inner one, probably the bedroom, was windowless. A full-length curtain, dropped on obscurity, assumed the function of a door. The furniture in the first room consisted of hard mattresses on banquettes of worn wood, upholstered in a cheap old fabric. A Turkish rug, mostly threadbare, covered the floor under a low table. On the middle wall, a wooden shelf held an accordion. In the corner sat a radio in the fifties style, on it a gold clock with pillars and a pendulum holding a ball inside a glass dome. The kind of clock the notables used to bring back from Tangier when you still needed a passport to go there.
Next to the watch was a picture of the husband on his big motorcycle, wearing boots and riding trousers, a tweed jacket, a cap molding his head with the earflaps turned down, enormous spectacles pushed up on his forehead, the kind used by pilots at the beginning of the century. He looks defiantly at the camera. The aunt is riding behind him with her face veil.
The photograph brought back to the visitor's mind that scene live, from when she was a girl of seven, and the couple had come back home for the first time, on that motorcycle. They had proceeded into town on foot, grinning. Children crowded and followed them. Women peeped out from roofs and doorways. Pedestrians stopped, and shopkeepers interrupted deals and stepped out of their stores.
The husband went on pushing the motorcycle in the alleys right to his in-laws' courtyard where it stood, sparkling in its metallic attire. The niece had walked around it without touching it, lest some device would burst or the whole thing would start off.
The aunt had been matched with the motorcycle in the little girl's mind, embodying for her modernity and prestige. As a matter of fact, the aunt had been the first woman in town to enter school under colonialism and had spent two years in it. That was why she knew a little French. As for Arabic, she stayed illiterate in it, not knowing the difference between a stick and an alif, the first letter in the alphabet.
Yet the aunt thinks of herself, right up to these days, as an educated, modern, enlightened, and unique woman, etc.... She wears her hair short and puts on sunglasses and European dresses made of satin with gold squares and voluminous, bell-shaped skirts. She reads, even though with difficulty, the romans photos, those love stories in the form of pictures, with lines of dialogue joined to the characters' mouths. She takes photographs, attends resorts and movie theaters, and carries her own identification card and passport.
What had made her leave school so soon? Marriage perhaps. For she had married a civil servant, "a great director" as she calls him, whose education level was hardly above hers. In those days, civil servants had been kinds of aristocrats in the public eye, combining as they did education (even if it was of a low level), enlightenment, prestige, and money. When she moved to the capital with him, her own prestige went up and she became a model of fashion, elegance, and modernity for the women of the town.
Her conversations were about herself and her things. "I bought," "I traveled," "I have," "My hairdresser," "My dress," "My seamstress." "From the heart of Paris you know, the seamstress of the police commissioner's wife, a close friend of mine. I wish I could take you to her but she sews only for high-level people. Even I, a great director's wife, need intervention and mediation to get to her." When she described her things, she used French to show off more.
Her homecomings were real spectacles. Food, drinks, cookies, she brought along in fancy tin boxes, unheard of fruits people turn over in their fingers, raising their eyebrows in astonishment. Some greenish things, studded with knots like knuckles on a fist, with a delicate skin and a white, very sweet flesh that leaves you with a mouthful of hard, flat, black seeds. Another dark green cylindrical thing, the size of a big date with a sandy taste. Then that thing she calls the lawyer, l'avocat (avocado); she would pronounce the word slowly. They would peel it, eat a portion with bread, "like butter, a butter grown on trees, praise the Lord!" they would say. And they would wait for summer for these fruits of hers.
Yes, the town women looked up to her, but they also avoided her.
"She's so full of herself," they would say. "She only mixes with the rich."
"That standard is above me. No ma'm, I cannot compete. No matter what I cook, she'll still find a defect in it."
"What makes you think she'd accept your invitation, anyway? Don't you know what she did to her own sister? Her sister invited her to a lunch that left the sister in financial straits. Do you know what she did?"
"No. What did she do?"
"Well, she never showed up, because her sister is a poor woman. Have you ever heard anything like that? She simply left them waiting like dirt. If her sister's poverty is a disgrace, why did she let her borrow money and take all the trouble?"
"During the celebration of her son's birth, the sister's husband gave the woman keys in a dirty white rag, and asked her to give them to his wife. You know what she did? She lifted them with thumb and index finger, away from her face, and went in to the celebration shouting: 'Whose keys are these?' The room was full of people who mocked and laughed. 'Some people still carry their keys in rags,' she went on giggling. Then standing above her sister, she added: 'I think they're yours. Hee, hee.' And so saying, she dropped the keys and they fell in her sister's lap. The guests were amazed by her shamelessness."
"Oh my! What did she do? The sister I mean."
"Her face became pale as a ghost, and she kept wiping her forefinger below her eye."
"And what does she carry her keys in, gold or silver?"
"Everyone who learns two letters of French, starts treating the world as their servants."
"And lives in the capital."
"And marries a director."
"A director who rides a motorcycle and plays accordion.
"What accordion does he play? He just spreads and folds the instrument; all that comes out are cracked sounds."
"Anyway, the first time he showed up ,with it, people were dumbfounded. They called it the music bellows."
"No one needs to be so haughty. There's this woman from my village. She was the sheikh's wife. She couldn't speak a word of even Arabic. She used to take things from the servants with a ladle. She was so contemptuous she disdained touching the servants. Well, I lived to see her herding a cow for food alone."
"And how about the Pharaoh? What made him haughty?"
"There you are."
"Haughtiness did exist in the time of the Prophet, God's prayer and peace be upon Him," said the daughter of the town imam and scholar. Then she recited the following Hadith: "A man entered the mosque. He looked right and left but found no place except near a poor man. He sat in it and gathered his clothes around him. 'Are you afraid that he will contaminate you with his poverty or that you will contaminate him with your wealth?' said the Prophet. 'I yield half my wealth to him,' the rich man said. 'Take what your brother gave you,' the Prophet, God's prayer and peace be upon Him, said to the poor man. 'No,' he replied, `I'm afraid that if I become like him I'd act in the same way.'"
The visitor was visualizing her mother, her forefinger wiping her lower eyelid on the day of the celebration and the keys, when she heard the plastic slippers clacking again. The aunt came back, holding a tray on which stood a big, pink, ceramic coffee pot, striped with light green. She poured coffee with milk and sugar from the pot, handed the visitor a glass and a plate of cookies, and the latter began to chew gloomily.
The next week, a delivery boy knocked on the visitor's office door. She was bent over her papers, and when she looked up, she was face to face with her own aunt's husband. They blinked and stared at each other.
He handed her a letter in a holder. She took it and signed in a register. He folded both the folder and the register, turned away, and then drifted down the staircase without uttering a word. She sat there with her head in her hands. An office boy came in.
"The man who just walked out..." she said to him.
"You mean the Ministry of Agriculture delivery boy?"
"Is he a delivery boy then? Since when?"
"Oh!" he exclaimed, waving his hand backwards to a remote past. "Since the days of colonization."