Bahija as a Mother
Bahija thanked God that she had not been swindled; she had deliberately adopted a policy of being wary and cautious to avoid deceit and being gulled. Even though she was sitting inside this dark and crowded boat, she tried to feel slightly more optimistic now that she had successfully avoided falling victim to the con artists who steal money from migrants only to take them back to the shore of Libya when the attempt to put to sea fails. Once she boarded a fishing boat from the inflatable Zodiac tender, she believed that she had scored a reassuring success.
What upset her, though, was the number of migrants who had piled onto the boat’s deck, while most of the families had entered the dark interior.
Had it not been for the curiosity of the concierge Rida, she would have felt more at ease, but he kept pressing her to tell him about Sarah. It no longer bothered her to reveal other people’s secrets, because she had begun that two days earlier at Yusra’s house. She felt she could reveal the true nature of each of her friends to the others now that she had bid adieu to them and their concerns. Let them pick a fight, overlook the provocation, or terminate the relationship called friendship that had existed between them!
The woman writer was the only one who had learned some of the details about Sarah and had offered to help her. She had wanted to learn everything. When her thoughts reached this point, she turned to Rida, brought out the metal recorder, placed it in a small pocket under her gallabiya, and told him, “Sarah never really was my daughter. I wished she were, but fate and bureaucratic red tape prevented me and, frankly, also my fear that I might be accused of kidnapping the girl. Then if my attempt to emigrate failed, my punishment would be more severe.”
Rida was listening with intense interest despite the engine’s roar, which mixed with the roar of waves that nearly reached the wooden deck, which was almost half submerged by sea water, not to mention the screaming of the frightened children, who were clinging to their mothers. He did not want to interrupt her and did not dare think about anything except listening to a story that would help him forget about this trip as he attempted to appear courageous.
Rida had lost his wife in an automobile accident after he had finished building a small house of his own in preparation for a child who would fill his life with delight. Like a woman, he had wept a lot, and all the residents of the apartment building had chipped in to help buy him a ticket so he could travel to Egypt. There he had found himself even more alone and more miserable. So he had returned to Libya after selling the house that he had worked for years as a concierge in different apartment houses to finance. Like other emigrants he had heard about people who had become rich in Europe. Then he had taken matters in hand and decided to take the plunge.
The ship was still inside Libyan territorial waters. A big row suddenly broke out; some men were shoving against each other, trying to climb to the deck. A young Iraqi man stopped them, blocking the exit to the short stairway.
“Guys, only one person can climb up there.” He turned his back on the others and agilely ran up the steps. In a few minutes he was back and told them that the coast guard had suspected the ship and opened fire but that the captain had signaled them that this is a fishing boat and at least for the time being had successfully evaded them.
Terror spread through the hearts of the waking; the others had succumbed to sleep, each leaning on someone else’s shoulder. Some had placed a small bag beneath their head and tried to tuck in their knees, because it was really crowded.
Bahija said to Rida, “May God conceal us! If Sarah were with me now, I would have gone crazy.”
He was ready to gulp down Bahija’s stories as if they were tranquilizers and amnesia pills that would allow him to forget the past all in one swallow. He asked her to continue. She sighed. She also felt a great need to cleanse herself of the past.
She said, “After I left the mansion of Mr. Abd al-Majid, I looked for work and a place to live. It occurred to me that Hasna, the Moroccan secretary who worked for one of my former master’s companies, might find a way for me to work as a janitor in one of the firms she knew.
“I contacted her, and she greeted me graciously and very affectionately. At her bidding, I waited for her at the company’s main entrance. When the workday ended, I saw her about to climb into a small, old car, although really it was fine. She took me to her apartment and asked me to help clean it. Some days later she suggested to me that I should stay with her and work cleaning the homes of some people she knew–including a lady named Huda, who introduced me to other people with apartments in the same building and elsewhere.
“Hasna started to change her lifestyle. She bought new furniture for her small home and then a late-model automobile. She began to wear many beautiful clothes and was generous with me.
“At first I suspected Mr. Abd al-Majid and told myself, ‘Perhaps she’s his new lover.’
“Then she began to ask me to leave the apartment at specified times on fanciful grounds. I thought she was a charming woman and feared she might get hurt. But I had no right to question her, because she had been my benefactor many times over.
“One day, her eyes swollen from weeping, she returned home earlier than usual. In that moment of weakness, she told me that she was pregnant and that the father of the fetus wanted her to travel to Tunis for an abortion.
“I was thunderstruck, but she said the child was the fruit of a legal marriage that had been conducted according to Islamic Shari’ah law but had not been registered officially. The father was a Libyan who was already married. Once he learned of this pregnancy, he began to treat her badly.
“Hasna no longer went out to work. I started to pay for her and tried to return some of her many favors to me. Then she gave birth to the child, whom she named Sarah. A month later she told me that Sarah’s father would return to her, marry her officially, and had asked her to travel to Tunis with him for a week. She placed some cash in my hand, picked up her suitcase, and left. No more than four days later, I was surprised one morning by the police knocking on the door. They started to interrogate me about Hasna and everything I knew about her. I grasped that she was in prison, accused of killing a man. This was the greatest catastrophe I have ever faced.”
Rida’s expression changed–he looked stunned and frightened. She felt that her throat was dry and pulled out a plastic bottle filled with water, which she sipped very cautiously as if afraid it would run out.
Rida asked, “How did she kill the man? And why? Is she still in prison?”
Bahija shook her head to deny the murder. That seemed enough to convince Rida of her innocence. Then, before he could open his mouth with another question, she added, “She didn’t do it. After only two weeks she was released. The charge was concocted by the man whose baby she had had. He just wanted to cause problems for her, and she had no connection to the matter.”
“Then what? What did she do?”
“She continued raising Sarah. We stayed together until the child’s second birthday. Then one day she packed her bags and told me that Sarah’s father had threatened that if she remained here, she would face many more problems and that, for this reason, she had decided to travel to Morocco for two months. Then she would return secretly and live some other place. She gave me a large sum of money and left. Since then I haven’t heard anything from her.”
Rida began to open his mouth to comment, but she prevented him by continuing, “Sarah began to think that I was her true mother, but my attempts to register her officially as my daughter failed because I’m not married. Now I’ve gone to a home that cares for fatherless children and provided them with all the documents and information about her. I said goodbye to her and wept a lot but promised her to return soon.”
Bahija said this and wiped away the tears that had poured out; Rida never would have thought she had such an affectionate heart–not because of anything she had done but because the very sharp features of her face suggested that she was a stern woman–and then there was her massive build. He had also observed her prudent treatment of Sarah more than once. One day he had seen her scold the girl severely because she had run out ahead of her into the street in front of the apartment building. Perhaps her great fear had driven her to discipline the girl. But she almost never went anywhere without taking Sarah along as her companion.
Rida could think of nothing to say to console Bahija; so he wept along with her. That, at least, was how she saw it. Actually, he was weeping for his young, pregnant wife, who had died in a traffic accident some months earlier, far from him.
Bahija and the Storm
The wave rose suddenly, shook the boat violently, woke the people who had fallen asleep to escape from waiting and from their fear, and terrified the hearts of the silent people sheltering against the vessel’s wooden wall. Its smell of fresh paint mixed with those of the fuel stored in jerry cans and of the fishing nets that reeked of dead fish. The metal fuel cans served as seats for the fortunate. There was a new swell and a heave to the right stronger than the previous one. Some people slid the opposite way. The frightened people’s screams, which they had previously kept hushed from embarrassment, were liberated and intensified. The voices attempting to calm people were lost in the confusion of miscellaneous stuff, the clamor, and the dark. Passengers on deck were even more wretched and terrified. Meanwhile, their footsteps overhead added to the fright of the migrants hiding in the ship’s hold. Every time the waves swelled and the shaking of the vessel increased, the fear and despair did, too. The urine of the children and frightened adults began to flow toward the feet of the people sitting on the floor. This was what was upsetting Bahija at that moment when she seized the hand of Rida, who won the touch of a female body at a dire moment. Bahija did not hear the sound of the vomiting of the woman sitting near her but the smell of it was very strong. So she squeezed her nostrils and breathed through her mouth.
Finally, after more than half an hour, the engine went totally still. Following a discussion with the captain, it was deemed safer to stop until the storm, which wasn’t strong enough to sink the ship, calmed down. Rida estimated that they were halfway there.
To reassure his traveling companion he told her, “This is a fairly big boat, and strong. It’s not like those little fishing boats. Never fear, because these boats stay out to sea for more than two days before reaching shore.”
She profoundly wanted to believe this claim and remembered that Umm Farah had related that after their rubber boat had sailed off with them for only an hour, the Zodiac’s engine had stopped. They had tried to start it again but had failed. After attempts that lasted more than an hour, the engine began working again and they steamed off but found themselves nearing a distant shore. Its radiant lights seemed a life preserver to them. But they had returned to the shore of Tripoli and a coast guard vessel was near them. Weapons were aimed at them and orders were given over loudspeakers to stop and disembark.
At that time they discovered the deceit practiced by the organizer and understood the meaning of the statement made by the young man who had started the engine: “Recite the credo now to protect your souls.”
Bahija, who was terrified, attempted to afford herself some peace of mind and a feeling of security by affirming that they were surely outside of Libya’s territorial waters. Otherwise they would be surrounded by the coast guard as had happened to Umm Farah.
That had happened to this woman, who had fallen prey to a swindle, and to thousands of others who dreamed of migrating, but even so they had tried again a second and a third time and only drowning or arriving in Europe would stop them.
Umm Farah had told her one day, “Our safe return to the shore of Tripoli was the most beautiful thing that happened to us.”
That was true, even though they had no documents with them to verify their identity, not even a phone card, because the trip organizer had convinced them that the Italians would subject them to a detailed interrogation and that even a telephone number could reveal the place they had left. She had said that the Libyan coast guard usually plucked from the water living people who had failed in an emigration attempt and pulled out the bodies of those who had failed to survive.
She had told her about her great happiness when they were in the police vehicle, how they had laughed and recalled film comedies, and their delight at being saved even if they entered jail after that for a week while the necessary investigations were carried out. The Africans would travel to their home countries while the Iraqi families would be registered with the commissariat for refugees to safeguard them and guarantee assistance for their living expenses.
For this reason Bahija would be happier to succeed in her flight, because for her to return to Libya would mean she would be sent back to Morocco. It seemed that the rolling of the vessel as a result of simple currents did not warrant all this fear.
A man seated near them said, “This isn’t a nawwa squall. If it were, then that would be serious.”
Bahija asked him, “How do you know?”
He replied, “In a nawwa squall, the ship moves vertically, up and down, and no matter how big it is, if the nawwa is strong, the boat will tip over. These are merely sea currents.”
The vessel began sailing faster than before; they had been at sea and putting up with the stink of the rotten fish remains on the nets and the other new putrid smells for more than six hours.
Bahija thought she was at a decisive moment in her life and it was rougher than she had thought it would be. She had experienced some hard times in the past. She had, for example, been all on her own when she was fired from her job in the home of Mr. Abd al-Majid, who had left her severance pay on the dining table. She had taken it but had not been able to ask why she was being let go…
* * *
The sea turned calm after its turmoil had upset the trembling bodies that were squeezed together, and this proximity precipitated a mixture of feelings that originated in the distant past and continued up to the present. A nautical eddy carried the smell of disintegrating fish, mixing it with the stink of dirty feet, the urine that puddled by the ship’s keel, and the twisting cigarette smoke. Bahija felt very seasick and nauseous. Her exhaustion and brooding had made her anxious. She hadn’t slept for two days. Her mind wouldn’t let her sleep, and fear tipped the balance in favor of wakefulness in this horrid, stifling atmosphere. Besides, her eyelids were inflamed, and the boat shook violently in every direction while she teetered between all these feelings.
It seemed to her that she suddenly saw a bag beside her. She tried to remember when she had brought it and when she had owned a bag with a combination lock. It resembled a bag that Mr. Abd al-Majid carried. She remembered that its lock broke one day and it was tossed down somewhere. She tried to ascertain what had happened. She clutched the bag to her breast and fiddled with the numbers. Then it suddenly opened. She stretched out her hand; it was half open. She took out a bundle of bills. Her hand went back inside the bag again and then another time. Each time a new bundle appeared. The bag had numerous hiding places. She looked at the amount she had collected. She was flustered as she tried to count it, because she didn’t want any of those around her to notice her precious treasure. When she glanced to her right, everything around her went up in smoke. In that instant she realized from Rida’s glances that she had dozed off and that everything she had seen was merely a dream.
Bahija was by nature an ambitious woman. She knew that she did not possess a sensuous, feminine body but nourished dreams greater than her ability to realize them. This is what she had suspected for many years. Then she had resolved to strip off her maid’s uniform, because she was too clever to remain on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. She decided this without any hesitation; she would have a new life in a city where she knew no one and no one knew her past, even though her exhausting work brought in a good income, especially compared to her miserable past in Morocco. This was her second migration. On her first, she had conveyed a counterfeit past to Libya. She had said that she came from a wealthy family and that her sister was a medical doctor in France and that…and that…. She had lied so much that she didn’t feel embarrassed. Her sister in France worked as a receptionist in a private clinic and was encouraging her to migrate. At the same time she told her frankly that she didn’t have the right to invite her, because she didn’t have French citizenship yet. On her first migration, Bahija had carried with her both the past that she wanted and the one she hadn’t wanted. Now all she wanted was to erase that past and everything linked to it once she reached the far shore.
This metal recorder she carried was her last link to the past. She wanted to try to empty her biological memory by transferring its contents to this metal memory device and then to begin a new future that she would design and draw according to her desires and dreams.
At that moment she felt she had achieved what she wanted. A feeling of victory swept through her, and her emotions reached a stage when it would have been equally possible for her to laugh or weep. She was more likely to cry. She was as agitated as a young teenager who weeps when she wants to laugh. Bahija was thirty-three but just before boarding the ship she had felt she was over a hundred. Now as her feelings poured forth, she sensed that she was a young woman again, just starting out on life.