The African Library: A life full of holes by Driss ben Hamed Charhad

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A life full of holes
Driss ben Hamed Charhadi
Publisher: Rebel inc
ISBN: 9780862419493

Driss ben Hamed Charhadi is the pen name of a Moroccan man named Larbi Layachi (1937–1986), who, by means of his friendship with the famous American writer, composer and translator Paul Bowles, had the text of his dictated and tape-recorded narrative (originally in Arabic) translated into English and published in 1964. It is, therefore, a formally collaborative effort, but A life full of holes is the fruit of an illiterate man’s imagination and harsh experiences, reflecting a life from childhood to young adulthood that must closely resemble the author’s, who was a street vendor and a lowly household employee, like the central character. This most unusual novel is characterised throughout by the matter-of-fact, laconic-seeming tone, even as it reflects an intensely felt sequence of experiences. The novel could be described as mimicking an autobiography or diary. As a literary composition, it has nothing of the slow unravelling of secrets, the gradual revelation of its characters’ natures, or the build-up to a climactic moment of closure of conventional novels. It "simply" tells a day-by-day, sometimes moment-by-moment story, as if a "reality TV" show were chronicling the quotidian existence of a poor and perpetually socially isolated, yet admirable, Moroccan man – a single desert "flower" that for once does not "blush unseen". One possible reason for the fascination that his tale holds and the spell it weaves to entrance the reader, even on a second engagement with the text, is the conviction carried by the candour with which every encounter is described, and the immediacy of the evocations, as if we are eavesdroppers or eyewitnesses to every event of Ahmed’s tale. There is a compact intensity in this narrative. To evoke another well-known poem, Charhadi has no "cool web" of sophisticated or complicated language coming between the character’s perceptions and his words; he does not have command of the quality of speech that would "chill the angry day": his relations of experiences are unfiltered and uncontaminated – directly given. The time frame appears to be from the forties to the later fifties, and moves from a French-colonised society with soldiers around every corner – as well as police and secret policemen and many European foreigners (French, Spanish, etc) – to and beyond Morocco’s eventual independence from France (1956).

The novel’s 1999 British edition used here retains the informative Paul Bowles introduction, which begins as follows:

The man who invented this book, and along with it the name of Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, is a singularly quiet and ungregarious North African Moslem. His forebears are from a remote mountainous region where, however, Moghrebi Arabic rather than a Berber tongue is spoken. He is totally illiterate. His speech in Moghrebi is clear and correct. Like a peasant’s, it is studded with rustic locutions and proverbs. The fact that translating and compiling the novel was a comparatively simple process was due mainly to the sureness with which he proceeds in telling a story. He knows beforehand just what he is going to say, and he says it succinctly and eloquently. (ix)

Bowles (who lived in Tangier) indicates that Layachi took to visiting him on return from the cinema, and was puzzled after seeing a film depicting the destruction of Cairo, since he had not heard this reported on his radio. Two things are indicated by this detail: that despite his illiteracy, Layachi – though he may appear naïve in taking a film fiction for literal truth – was not uneducated, although, like his character, he may have been formally lacking in anything beyond early primary schooling; also, that he was a man who took cognisance of and had an interest in events and developments in a wider world than the small circumference of city streets and rural areas that he had lived in or been to. And he made use of the modern technologies available to him – both cinema and radio – while his social circle encompassed not only his mates, family and employers, but included the cosmopolitan Bowles. When the American writer (who would later assist other North Africans in having their works published in English) explains the difference between imaginative fiction and impermissible "lies" to Layachi (as a conscientious Muslim and congenitally truthful person), he is delighted at the revelation that he, too, could compose a work of fiction and that, if published in the States through Bowles’s mediation, it would not have to be subjected to the Moroccan censorship system. A few days later, Layachi telephones Bowles, making an appointment to discuss a serious issue. In the ensuing conversation, although Bowles tells him that a great deal of work is involved in making a book, Layachi is pleased to hear that if a sample short narrative proves good enough to merit the immense work of producing a translated transcription, Bowles would be prepared to take on the project.

Even the first evening’s narrative (interestingly, recounting events from around the middle of the future book, rather than its opening chapter) impresses Bowles, though he cautiously tells Layachi that only after the translation into English has been attempted would he be able to know whether the project could work. Layachi, after an initial pause, has told his story unhesitatingly and fluently; Bowles is, moreover, impressed by the author’s sure touch in the lucidity of his tale and the suitability of its style and narrative form. After some months, Bowles is able to tell the anxious author that the idea has proved a success in this first completed section, literally translated, and that they can proceed in collaboratively creating the whole book.

Although Bowles does not inform us how long the entire process took, and does not provide a date for either its inception or its conclusion, he tells us that Layachi came to his place to tape his story "several times a week", and that he as transcriber made no attempt to influence its style; once, when the author was for excising a short section from one of the chapters (for the narration moves in "chunks", or sections, often being set within particular locations or conditions), Bowles persuaded Layachi to retain it, as he thought it interesting for the brief glimpse it gave of Morocco’s pre-Muslim past. Layachi on only a few occasions himself decided, Bowles testifies, that a clarifying insertion was needed, and the taping process made this possible. I found Bowles’s introduction most interesting and pertinent, hence the inclusion here of what are, in my opinion, its most salient points or aspects. I conclude this part of the present text profile by again citing Bowles’s remark on Layachi: that he spoke, never "var[ying] the intensity of his eloquence" (xii).

The "holes" in the life evoked here are probably firstly, and most importantly, the absence of a loving and nurturing family; also, the separation from an orphanage where he had found himself by chance, and where he had friends his age, decent food and clothing, and education; the absence of continued schooling when the clearly very bright boy is forced to return to his mother and soldier stepfather’s home; his perpetually penniless and often malnourished life from the time that his stepfather puts him out to work (from a very young age) for earnings that go straight into the step-parent’s pocket; and the general lack of respect he meets with in what might be described as a militarised and/or police state, with the majority of officials disinclined to believe the words of the indigent and powerless members of society.

Another arresting aspect of the portrayal of Ahmed (the central character and speaking voice of this tale) is his ability to expose injustice, cruelty and hypocrisy, almost invariably without any explicit commentary – merely by telling what happened as it occurred, and relating who did or said what as he personally observed it. The reader has the impression of having unmediated access or of being direct witness to every event and experience as it occurs. Ahmed seems to comprehend the moral and immoral dimensions, the class aspects and the larger contexts of what he evokes, but this remains uninterpreted in any explicit articulation. He understands the way the social web enmeshes him, yet laconically makes what he can of the poor cards dealt to him, without relapsing into futile anger or explicit resentment, as there is usually little he could do to alter or improve matters or to have the injustices committed against him either rectified or punished. He is, until the very last section of the tale, always surrounded by those more powerful than him, because he is younger and smaller or despised for his poverty, or without the "connections" to assist him when brutally treated by officials, his stepfather or his various and many successive employers. Strangely, this depressing-sounding scenario is nothing of the kind. I believe that the engrossing nature of the narrative derives partly from Ahmed’s steadfast belief that despite the common saying that a person who has "a life full of holes" is worse off than someone with "no life at all" (as Ahmed concludes quite late in the novel), he himself chooses "an empty sack" over "no sack at all" (252). He remains always undefeated, undismayed and ready after a while to try again, or to take a rest period when a bit of kindness from a café owner or his husband-oppressed mother accompanies some basic sustenance and accommodation. And always, Ahmed’s interest in life in its variety – in his world and beyond, and in all that occurs around him – persists. He is, hence, no mere stoic endurer, but a man who lives fully.

The bald facts of Ahmed’s early life are the following: his father (whom he appears neither to have known nor even to have met, though he knows his name) divorces his mother before he is born, and she marries a soldier when the boy is eight years old. When the barracks to which his stepfather is assigned is moved to a different town, and the family follow, little Ahmed one day gets lost when he goes off a-wandering. Brought to the police and asked where he lives, he can only remember the name of the town where he grew up until recently. He is taken there, but when his parents and home cannot be located, the boy is placed in an orphanage. He likes living there very much (for reasons described above), but is eventually identified and made to go back to his mother and stepfather. The stepdad has been fairly decent, or at least neutral, in his attitude to his little stepson, but when he and Ahmed’s mother have a baby of their own, a boy, the soldier turns against Ahmed and begrudges him every bite he eats. He soon demands that the boy go out to work, mostly on surrounding farms, while every bit of Ahmed’s hard-earned earnings goes straight into the stepfather’s pocket. Ahmed has no buffer against such exploitation, such contempt and the occasional violence he meets with, and this "exposed" condition persists for a very long time. Although he cannot prevent the appropriation of his money, liberty, energy or time, Ahmed – even as a boy – seems to realise the injustice to which he is subjected. The novel appears to be more or less chronologically arranged, so a list of the intriguing and well-chosen chapter titles can serve as an initial indication of the trend of the narrative. They are as follows, and in order of appearance: "The orphan", "The journey to Menarbiyaa", "The shepherd", "The oven", "The whores", "Malabata", "At Mustapha’s café", "The wire", "The journey to Tanja", "Merkala", "Zohra", "Znagui", "The house of the Nazarenes", "Farid’s sisters", "Omar", "The master of the house" and "Mseud" ("Contents", np). It may be noted that Ahmed refers to all Europeans (like others of his acquaintance do) as "Nazarenes" – presumably because he assumes that as European foreigners, they must be Christians.

Even when Ahmed is likely still a boy of eight or nine, he shows the steel of his character and a mature independence of mind. He enjoyed life in the "Fondaq en Nedjar" [the word fondaq meaning (roughly) "orphanage"], as was outlined above, so this is what happens when his mother shows up on the premises after his whereabouts have been discovered, having declared to her husband (concerning Ahmed) that "he should be with me" (4):

When my mother came to see me, I told her: No, I won’t go. It’s better here. I can study and everything, and on Fridays we go to the mosque with the khalifa and afterward we go to the beach at Rio Martin. I sleep well and I eat well and I like to study. It’s the place I like best.

No, aoulidi, she said. You should come with me. I want you with me. You come to Tanja and you can study there.

No, Mother. Leave me here. It’s better.

You know best, she said. And she went away by herself. When she got home she told her husband: That boy. We’ve got to make him come back. You must go to Tettaouen and see the pacha, and tell him the boy’s mother wants him with her.

He said: Ouakha [OK]. I’ll go. So he went back to Tettaouen and told the pacha: his mother can’t live without him. He must go home as soon as possible and be with her.

The pacha said: We’ll ask the boy. If he wants to leave, we won’t stop him.

They came to see me. Which do you want, the pacha asked me. To stay here or to go and live with your mother?

I told him: I’d rather stay here. I know the other boys and everything. It would be better if I stayed here.

You hear? said the pacha. Listen to what he [Ahmed] says.

I want him to come with me and that’s that.

There he is, said the pacha. I have nothing more to say. So I went with him in the bus to Tanja. And there nothing happened. They did not send me to school. Nothing. (5)

Even though, later on, Ahmed’s mother persuades her husband to take Ahmed to school – and he does take him to the Qor’anic school, where he is allowed to continue for about a year – upon the birth of his little half-brother, Ahmed’s stepfather turns against him (perhaps ten years old then), and refuses to let him go back to school, insisting that he is a parasite in the household and should go out to work. Despite Ahmed’s mother pleading (mildly) for her elder boy to be further educated, the callous husband is unmoved: "I don’t care what he does, but he can’t stay here without working" (6). So the boy finds work with some fishermen, helping them to pull in their nets, and is paid a little money and an occasional handout of fish. Clearly, many unrelated men in this society are much more sympathetic to the boy’s plight than his mother’s husband. (Ahmed, revealingly, stops referring to him as his stepfather.) At age thirteen, Ahmed feels himself "a man, and I began to think. If I had stayed in the Fondaq en Nedjar, I’d have known something when I came out" (6).

Ahmed decides to go and speak to his mother, announcing his decision to go to Tettaouen to see whether he can find the orphanage. She points out, validly, that too much time has elapsed, that he is most likely too old to live there now, that he does not know the town and would probably be unable to locate the place (as proves true) and that he knows no one there anymore. Still, Ahmed is determined to go. He tells her that he has to go, since her husband "shouts at [her] all day" and that "it’s all about me". He says he is going "to take the life Allah gives" him. Adding that he is "tired of looking for better work" (7) in Tanja, he tells her that he wants to try life in Tettaouen, but promises that if he cannot find the orphanage or other employment, he will return. He meets with difficulties and unprovoked hostility on the way, but several people also take pity on him. Ahmed does try to find work at other places on his way, although evidently the main motive for the journey is to get away from his stepfather’s disdain and hostility. But he is too young and not strong enough to take the available employment, which requires physical stamina, and he knows too little about negotiating the streets of a half-forgotten town that he has never seen very much of, in any case. So, he makes his way back to Tanja, but revealingly Ahmed does not return to his mother’s home before he has made a little bit of money by finding and selling some waste paper. After he admits that he could not locate the Tettaouen orphanage, what he tells his mother reveals poignantly that the orphanage was where he felt "parented" – and he candidly reproaches his mother and stepfather:

I wanted to see it again looking the way it did the first time. It was hard, but I thank Allah that I went. In my head and heart I was always in the Fondaq en Nedjar. It’s an orphanage, and I’m an orphan. And I’ve always said to your husband: Let me go! Let me go! And even you wouldn’t let me stay there. You came to see me there and said to me yourself: Come. Come with me. I told you: No, Mother. Leave me here. It’s better here.

And now see how much time has gone by, and I still say the same thing to you. For five years I’ve been telling you my place was in the Fondaq en Nedjar. If I’d stayed there, I’d have learned to read. I’d have learned some trade, or at least how to take care of myself in the world. Now there’s nothing I can do. Allah will judge you, you and your husband.

No, my son. It’s not my fault, she said. I can’t do anything for you. That’s just an idea you’ve put into your head.

I said: No. You did it. You sent your husband to get me. Now I can’t read, and I have no trade. And I have no one to follow. (23)

A passage like the above shows Ahmed’s clarity of understanding and unusual ability to convey – without crudely expressed anger, but in lucid, compelling speech – exactly how he has seen through both his parents’ selfishness, even though his mother is more tender-hearted than her unpleasant husband and does remain loyal to Ahmed, while not daring to go against her husband’s treatment of her elder son. He knows that they were behaving with conventional correctness, but lacked deep feeling or real love in insisting on his return to them; in addition, they were short-sighted in comparison with this impressively mature young boy. This brief exchange with his mother also indicates a quality of morally evaluative thinking, which remains a solid basis enabling Ahmed to cope with the injustice, undervaluation and various forms of abuse to which he is subjected throughout his lifespan evoked in the novel. This "foundation" is his sure sense of the utter justice and moral reliability of the divine, all-seeing eye. We do not see Ahmed visiting the mosque or reporting the imam’s teachings, but he is a person of deep and enduring faith.

In the interest of space-saving, I outline how the image of "holes" in Ahmed’s life applies also to his intermittent changes of scene and context, giving something of the quality of a picaresque novel to this text. His succession of short-term jobs reflects the universal problem of perpetual employment insecurity that poor, uneducated people everywhere face, with their vulnerability to the power and exploitation of the wealthy and socially secure sectors and role-players in the world. And, as with so many of the unemployed, the boy’s (and later, man’s) willingness to work hard and learn new skills "on the job" (again proving his undervalued intelligence) and his enterprising nature – in the face of his awful stepfather’s constant accusations of his "laziness" and "parasitism" – are in evidence throughout. Ahmed works from the time he is around ten (if that): first as a boy shepherd on a farm, then as a bread carrier in an economy where prepared dough is brought to a "public" oven for baking. Then, he (after getting his first taste of sex in one of the city brothels) undergoes a spell of imprisonment for taking an unexpected opportunity to sell a sack of marijuana (locally known as kif) illegally at a profit. Subsequently, Ahmed works as a swineherd for a decent employer (a Spaniard), which ends when the employer has to sell his herd and move elsewhere. After this, the boy returns to his refuge from his hostile stepfather, sleeping in his kindly benefactor Mustapha’s café – a spell during which he, for some weeks, sells country fruit (a type of cactus fruit or "prickly pear") as a street vendor, followed by opportunistic selling (with an associate) of a store of copper wire which they "appropriate" from an abandoned warehouse. This is followed by his arrest and a three-year sentence for theft. (His jail experiences involve some hard labour, his unjust abuse by jailers and his friendship with a lonely, elderly Jewish man shunned by other [of course Muslim] prisoners.) Later, there is a group jailbreak, ending in eventual recapture and punishment, following which Ahmed returns as a penniless ex-convict to his mother’s home. This leads to a time during which Ahmed is unable to find any work and again provokes his mother’s husband’s harassment and animosity. Fleeing these circumstances again to Mustapha’s café, he is given secure employment by the latter as caretaker of his remotely located second (beach) café. Then, his foiled but serious wooing of a heartless social climber leaves Ahmed temporarily shattered, so that Mustapha fires him for neglecting his task (re-employing him after the young man recovers his equanimity). This is followed by several sections evoking Ahmed’s at first very pleasant employment by an artistic French male couple, who teach him furniture-making (he is also their housekeeper-cum-cook), and its gradual deterioration, until he walks out at a later stage when only one of the two men is left, at which point the narrative concludes.

Although the above outline may make it seem that Ahmed’s story "never really gets anywhere", there are two strong points qualifying what would be an inappropriate, overly hasty assessment: in the first place, the overview of colonial Moroccan society, mostly from the low end of the social scale, gives readers fascinating insights into the operations of an authoritarian North African colonial government, and into the survival methods of its subjects; and, in the second place, it shows us how Ahmed constantly learns and grows in his understanding of his social and political sphere in its various dimensions – while very, very gradually, he grows more assertive. Throughout, the candour of his voice remains in evidence, as does his usually unspoken contempt for foolish, unjust or cruel behaviour.

When Ahmed accepts Mustapha’s offer to become the watchman at his rather out-of-the-way beach café, he assesses the situation with his usual equanimity: "Here is where Allah has put me. I’ll stay here. Something else will happen. I’ll get better work later" (176). We also catch a glimpse of the young man’s sensitivity (and his loneliness) as he evokes the location:

Sometimes the moon was bright and the sea was calm. And only the frogs were shouting in the dark. Qrrr! Qrrr! They lived in the swamp behind the café. Everything else was quiet. And the moon was so bright that you could see a white ship far out at sea. I had a mat and a blanket. I would climb up onto the roof and spread them out. And I would make tea and carry it up there and drink it. Then I would lie down and smoke a cigarette, and look between the rails at the beach in the moonlight. (176)

Ahmed does get midday meals at Mustapha’s nearby family home, and he spots a passer-by, an old friend, who fishes and gathers wood for selling, and joins him in this activity. And in summer, things liven up when visitors come to the beach and the café. Ahmed sees a pretty girl on the beach, who eventually relents after initially ignoring him. They grow close and become lovers, and he proposes to her. He gets an invitation to meet her family, but he is humiliatingly treated, the mother sneeringly saying to him: "[W]e all know who you are. You work for Mustapha. You’re the watchman at Merkala. You’re nothing," to which he merely replies, "Yes. Maybe" (192). He expresses his hurt by describing his uncertain dreams and how he sometimes discovers himself crying when he wakes up. "But no-one to hear me. There was only the ocean" (192). Soon afterwards, he is again invited to the young woman’s home, but this occasion seems engineered merely to humiliate him further by showing him another young male visitor – "a professor, a teacher" (194); the mother brags to him that this is a man worthy of her daughter’s hand, and forbids Ahmed to see her again. This brutal loss of a woman he has hoped to make his wife disheartens and emotionally disturbs Ahmed profoundly, and he is unable to fulfil his duties for a time. Much later, he recovers and is given back the job, but, he says, when she later on (the other suitor perhaps having got cold feet) attempts to rekindle his love, he refuses to look at her.

A further shock comes when Ahmed and his employer, Mustapha, are both implicated by a cheating painter, who disappears with the advance he has been paid to buy paint with. He gets drunk on the money, and – when he is found and scolded by Mustapha, and is subsequently beaten up by unknown men – he goes to the police to accuse both Mustapha and Ahmed of having caused his injuries. The policeman declares total belief in the drunk’s veracity, no matter what Mustapha and Ahmed say to contest his false assertions, and Ahmed (presumably because he is a poor employee, rather than a "respectable" employer like Mustapha) gets the worst of it (he has, of course, a "record"):

The inspector hit me in the face. You won’t get out of this, no matter what you tell us, he said. [To which Ahmed replies:] That’s all I have to say, what I’ve already told you. I can’t say any more than that. Now stop hitting me. I’m already beaten. Can’t you see that? I do everything I can so I don’t have to come here to the comisaria and be hit by you. If you’re going to call me a criminal, it would be better for me to go out and steal right now. Then at least you’d have a reason to hit me. And I wouldn’t have to stay alone at Merkala [at the beach café] winter and summer for a hundred francs a day. (208)

The inspector even takes Ahmed to a bathroom and orders him to get undressed – whether to torture or rape him, we do not know – but he cleverly shouts out that he’s ready for his "bath" to make sure that someone hears him and comes to check, which fortunately happens, so he escapes this further abuse, although he and Mustapha are kept in prison until their trial, when a lawyer employed by Mustapha obtains their release.

What is interesting about this event, in particular, is Ahmed’s impeccable logic in saying what he does (with merely apparent naïvety) to the corrupt police inspector, as a way of exposing a kind of absurdity in the injustice and lack of proper investigative procedure in the way he treats his prisoner. It is the kind of speech that bullies invariably call cheeky, but which conveys ironic yet clear comprehension of injustice meted out by one more powerful against a weaker victim. It manifests Ahmed’s emotional, as much as moral, integrity, as well as the clarity of his understanding of events impacting on him. Both his beloved’s mother’s contemptuous sneers and the police officer’s abuse fail to penetrate Ahmed’s indomitable sense of his own innate worth, and neither succeeds in making him change his dignified speech and conduct. The American expression of someone "losing it" – referring to their self-control or usual avoidance of vulgarity, etc – hardly ever applies to Ahmed, despite his multiple encounters with the injustice, nastiness or injury dogging his footsteps.

In the final section of this profile, I focus on the last period of the portion of Ahmed’s life depicted in his narrative. It portrays the various stages of his relationship with (for a time) both members of the French male couple for whose employment he leaves Mustapha’s watchman job, and then eventually with the man who remains in Morocco, and his various other employees and associates. It is initially a distinct step up the social ladder, with considerably better pay, an opportunity to acquire carpentry skills, and respectful treatment by – and easy interaction with – two quite wealthy professionals. That they are Europeans who do not exhibit class or racial contempt towards him, but appear to think him (albeit an employee) a man to be treated as an equal, must be an added attraction to this job, although the point is not articulated – and, unfortunately, the pleasant conditions eventually begin to deteriorate when one of the two employers (Marcel) returns to Europe.

Ahmed’s employment with "the Nazarenes" overlaps with another attempt to marry a young woman he fancies. She is a friend’s sister and a neighbour, but this endeavour also comes to nought in a manner resembling the previous "romantic" disaster – this time, because he cannot cover the cost of the dowry demanded by the woman’s father. I skip describing this in detail, moving to the portrayal of Ahmed’s first impression of the two Frenchmen’s home and lifestyle:

Their house was full of plants and paintings and statues. They ate all their food from wooden plates. Everything they had was made of wood. Their trays and bowls and spoons and forks and dishes. They had a big bed in a room upstairs. They would paint pictures and hang them on the walls around the room. Then they could see them from the bed. They liked to stay in bed. (220)

Ahmed’s innate modesty and good manners and a kind of shyness manifest in his never calling the men homosexuals, even though he clearly recognises that they are such; his tone in the above quote depicts him as taking it calmly in his stride, although, as a devout Muslim (in his own way), he must be aware that Islam condemns homosexual practices as "unnatural" and "obscene". The men have a carpentry workshop where they make furniture that is sent for sale to Europe, and they soon teach him how to help with this; Ahmed also cooks and cleans house for them. They treat him with trust, and show confidence in his intelligence and honesty. Occasionally, they exchange banter with him. Ahmed, too, is confident in their presence, daring to ask them a mild but challenging question as he serves them coffee in their bedroom: "Is that a good idea, for two men always to sleep in one bed?" They laugh, and the younger man, Marcel, answers: "Yes. Why don’t you sleep with us, too? That would make three." Ahmed declines the invitation with no expression of condemnation, merely saying, "It’s better for two," remaining unflustered and recognising that they are merely teasing him without malice. The first sign of an eventual shift of balance comes when Francois, the older member of the French couple, shows obvious interest in Ahmed’s friend Farid, when Farid and Francois assist Ahmed in moving his goods to his new city lodgings. Still, the two Frenchmen continue to treat him well:

They would show me my work for the day and leave me alone to do it. They would get dressed and do their own work. At lunch time I would ask them what they wanted to eat. Then I would go down the road to the Soussi’s store and buy the food, and make their lunch. They were both good to me. It was like living with a family. We were all happy doing our work. And we ate at the same table, and talked and laughed together. (225, emphasis added)

The italicised sentence above is especially poignant, and, given that the narrative has recounted Ahmed’s past situations and experiences, it is tinged equally with nostalgia and with a lonely man’s unassuaged yearning for relationship.

Later on, the Frenchmen ask Ahmed to find someone to help them cope with the increasing workload, as more orders come in. He asks his friend Farid, and they immediately employ him, Ahmed showing him the ropes. Francois is evidently titillated by what one assumes is a handsome young newcomer’s presence in the household, although the real (later) shift in alignment is actually towards someone who is a stranger to both Ahmed and Farid, another young Muslim man living in the city, whom the couple goes off to visit. The Frenchmen formerly stayed home most days, working, but now start going out partying and socialising. Ahmed comments drily: "This was the time when they began to have bad habits" (241). Ahmed evidently senses something dubious or fraudulent about Omar, the man whom the French couple have picked up, disapprovingly describing his trousers as "very tight over his legs" and noting that although his shirt is white, "the collar was almost black with dirt". Ahmed notes that "Francois was always touching [Omar] on the shoulder and saying: What a good friend he is, this Omar" – Ahmed, with amusing impassivity and obviously "disguised" sarcasm, replying: "Yes. He’s a very good friend" (243). Things initially continue somewhat as before, but there is a discernible change in the household that becomes more and more openly evident. Ahmed describes this: "Today and tomorrow we worked. But the Nazarenes were not living the way they had been living before." Whereas the Frenchmen used to work mornings after having their coffee in their room, and then continued working during the afternoon "until dinner time", they take to going back to sleep after their coffee, getting up at noon to go out, and leaving Ahmed and Farid at their home to work on their own. "And sometimes they were shouting at each other for an hour or more" (244), Ahmed reports. Not surprisingly, Marcel not long afterwards tells Ahmed that he is going to work in Portugal. He even indicates that if Ahmed could get a passport, he would like him to continue working with him in the other country.

Francois, by now evidently very much in love with Omar, whom he has installed in his home and bed, allows the newcomer (whom Ahmed views as a fraud and an interloper) almost unqualified leeway in household matters. Behind his back, Omar reveals heterosexual inclinations and (when Francois is not nearby) flirts outrageously with a female house cleaner, Khaddouj, a local woman. Ahmed tries to warn his employer by telling him that "Omar has a girl friend now", and identifying the woman as Khaddouj. This is what ensues, and how Francois reacts:

Ah! He laughed once. Then he sat down in the chair where she had been sitting. Omar put his legs up and rested them in Francois’s lap, and Francois held on to them with both hands. He moved his chair nearer to Omar’s chair, and then he put his arms around Omar’s neck.

It’s nice to sit that way, isn’t it? I said to him. Ah! he said. It’s wonderful! Everybody likes to sit this way. Every man has a body to do what he likes with, I told him. (250–1)

This passage reveals Ahmed’s sophistication and the subtlety of his speech, probably quite unnoticed by Francois, unfortunately. Ahmed’s powers of vivid evocation of both openly displayed feelings and emotional undercurrents, along with his own evaluation of their worth and aim, are conveyed with a sure touch and in the simplest of words.

Considerably later in the novel – as it nears the end – Ahmed openly confronts Omar. At this stage, the besotted Francois has begun handing over all his money – both the dwindling income from furniture sales, and that which his apparently very wealthy and indulgent family sends him – to Omar, who now not only holds the purse strings, but controls the household, treating Ahmed as an inferior and behaving with insufferable arrogance, although Ahmed sees him as an interloper and also a con man. Ahmed thinks to himself, as they stand in the grocery shop and Omar pulls wads of cash out of his pocket: "Ah, the baby’s really spoiled now. He’s got forty or fifty thousand francs there" (254). The household is going to pot, everything deteriorating because of the lack of proper management: Khaddouj no longer does her house-cleaning work, and Francois never comes to the workshop to check on activities. When Ahmed tries to alert Francois, asking him to address the situation, he only weakly murmurs, "I don’t know. … Omar will know what to do. I’ll ask him" (254). In the meantime, Ahmed notices that Khaddouj has taken to stealing from the home – Francois’s watch, his clothes, a blanket from his bed – but all the employer says is, "It doesn’t matter" (255). Nor is Omar prepared to take action; instead, he and Francois take Khaddouj out to the beach with them. As the income dwindles, however, Omar decides that there is too little to pay Ahmed and Farid and a maid, so he at last fires Khaddouj, telling Ahmed that he has to take over the house-cleaning.

Marcel returns briefly, teasing Francois that he has found a "good wife" (264). He does not remain very long, but makes a sizeable contribution to the household expenses – which lands in Omar’s pockets, while Ahmed is increasingly erratically paid. A squabble erupts on a day when Ahmed is not feeling well, soon after he arrives in the morning. Omar orders Ahmed to make him coffee, but he bluntly refuses, telling him to make his own coffee. Omar trots off to report this to Francois, and when the Frenchman questions Ahmed, he replies fiercely if rudely: "Who is Omar? Why should I make coffee for him?" Omar responds furiously, but revealingly, at this provocation: "Who am I? I’m your master. I pay you your wages. I keep you alive. You work for me." But, knowing the layers of falseness and manipulation in this arrogant reply, Ahmed bursts out: "You keep me alive? To me you’re worth one piece of shit!" – repeating the words in Spanish so that Francois will understand. The Frenchman is very upset, and asks Ahmed to leave; the latter walks off once he has at last been given the pay due to him. Nevertheless, Francois runs after him, asking Ahmed to come back the next day, and so he does. Francois, soon after, packs for England, though he never manages to leave. Omar is terrified of losing his cash cow, crying (in Ahmed’s hearing): "He won’t get out of my hands! I’ll keep him here" (268) – and he succeeds.

To make matters even stranger, when Omar shortly afterwards announces that he has found a woman and will be getting married, Francois agrees to buy everything the originally dirt-poor Omar wants to set up in his married life – a nice house, luxurious furnishings (either newly bought, or stripped from Francois’s place, with his full permission), even the furniture workshop equipment, since Omar intends setting up a business in a building next to his home that has been bought for the purpose. The only condition the pathetic Francois gives voice to, is to ask Omar: "Even if you get married, you’ll still always come to sleep with me?" (268). "Yes, yes, said Omar." On the night of the wedding, Omar and Francois go to a bar, where they get drunk, and Francois starts crying when Omar brags about the sexual stamina he intends displaying in the marital bed. He then demands that Francois take him to his wedding. Ahmed, it seems, has been implicitly transferred to work in Omar’s home, as Francois’s place has been emptied. He then also helps to keep clean the lowly and poorly furnished place that Francois has bought so that he can live near Omar. One day, Francois comes home with a new man. He is Mseud, whom Ahmed used to play with when they were boys. Omar is visiting at the time, and they all lunch together. When Francois takes Mseud to the beach afterwards, Ahmed warns Omar that Mseud will replace him, leading Omar to boast that his hold on Francois is secure, and that he owns half of what the Frenchman has, grotesquely claiming: "I got everything by myself. I worked hard to make him give it to me." Ahmed blandly assents: "Yes. You’re right," but demurs more openly by saying (about Francois): "[H]e’s always been good to me. … And I’ll never forget all those things." And he tells Omar: "You’re the one who ruined the house and separated [Francois and Marcel]" (273). From this exchange, it seems that Ahmed is probably staying on, despite the greatly deteriorated conditions of employment, to keep something of a protective eye on Francois.

Unfortunately, Mseud all too soon, if predictably – given Francois’s manipulability by good-looking young local men – becomes another Omar, a cuckoo in the nest. Ahmed shows his animosity towards him in another quarrel about getting his earnings, and the to-and-fro of remaining in Francois’s employ and then walking off before being asked to return and work for him again, resumes – either because Ahmed has no alternative source of income, or perhaps due to an enduring loyalty to Francois, despite all the man’s foolishness. One day, Francois, Mseud, a visiting American woman and an additional young hanger-on in the household (a "Spanish boy" named Pepe) are in the upstairs room of the Frenchman’s house, where Ahmed has to serve them tea. He does so, then continues washing the filthy staircase, working down to where they are sitting, when they all start laughing at him – he believes, because he is poorly dressed – slaving away to clean a place they dirty, as they sit relaxing. At last, Ahmed reaches breaking point. He spits in Mseud’s face and afterwards threatens him with a blowtorch. This "turning" of the man they treat as a mere "worm" makes one want to cheer Ahmed, who finally leaves this now degrading job.

A perfect final touch, on the last page of the novel, displays Ahmed’s personal growth under so many adverse circumstances and influences. When the kindly Mustapha, immediately sensing that Ahmed is again unemployed as he returns to the city, again offers him free accommodation at his café, Ahmed declines. We have no idea where he will go next, and what he intends to do, but his spirit is unbowed. He expresses his indignation at the inappropriate, unworthy conduct of the now wholly decadent Francois, who ejected him from his household with curses, presumably in defence of his lover, Mseud – despite Ahmed’s loyalty and hard work. "The stork has to wait a long time for the locusts to come," he says. "Then he eats" (288). These are the concluding, consoling words of this narrative – showing us a person whose courage, resilience and enterprise may never make him wealthy in this unjust world, but are qualities likely to keep him morally sane and help him to survive what fate throws at him. Ahmed is, in his own low-key way, an exemplary person, a man of deep worth. A life full of holes provides a story that lingers in the mind. As Alfred Chester wrote in Book Week in words cited on the back cover of the novel: "The work is not only unprecedented, it is also very good, and much of it is marvellous."

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