When the older children talked about school they became all mysterious, as if discussing some great secret. Listening from some way away, the child could hear what they were saying. He’d certainly tried to learn more about it, but every time he’d made as if to get any closer, the others had fallen silent. And then there were those peculiar symbols they drew on pieces of paper. Symbols that were somehow messages, but he couldn’t decipher them.
He was intrigued by these enigmas for a long time, and then it occurred to him that he too could go to school. He told his grandmother this was what he wanted, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She refused to listen to any explanations. He wouldn’t be going to school. He had to make himself useful, earn the right to be under her roof. He’d learn his trade as a shepherd.
The school was several kilometers away and, more significantly, it was in the village where his father lived. Barriers enough for the grandmother to hope the child would be put off. But every morning he could hear children laughing as they headed for school. Every morning he stood by the door, watching them walk away, and every morning his longing to go with them grew stronger.
And so one morning he waited for the bustle to die down, slowly pushed aside the blankets so as not to wake his grandmother, lifted the canvas from across the doorway with infinite care, and slipped out, quick as a desert fox. He could see the other children’s cheerful outlines already far ahead among the cotton plants. He set off, struggling to keep up with them. He was slowed by legs too short to match their pace and by his efforts to stay hidden. To follow without being caught. An art he’d mastered long ago. It was a bumpy path of sand and stone, and his bare feet hurt. He tripped several times, and occasionally had to run to keep sight of the tiny, distant cluster of schoolchildren in the sunlight. He followed it for a whole hour.
At last they reached the village. He stopped before the last turn in the track and stood on tiptoe to watch. The schoolchildren had gathered outside a house just like all the others, and had quietly arranged themselves in a neat group. They stood upright and quiet, waiting, their chatter and laughter silenced. The only sound in the morning air was an eagle’s cry, way up in the sky. Then a man appeared, walking toward them along the track, tall, stiff, his chest held high. He went over to a flagpole outside the house that the pupils were facing, and when he reached it,
the children sang the national anthem. The man proudly took the rope and raised the flag, pulling powerfully and solemnly. A black and a red stripe framing two green stars fluttered in the flush of morning light. His duty done, the man walked away and the children went through the doorway.
The child knew the man. He was his own father.
The children disappeared one after the other, swallowed up by the dark opening, and the child waited a while. When no one came back out, he thought this must be some secret entrance and from here a path would lead to the school as he’d pictured it, a palace with a wealth of fountains and gardens. He hesitated for a moment before heading for the passageway himself.
As he walked toward it he heard a man’s powerful voice through the wall. His stomach constricted with fear. Was there someone guarding the passageway? He risked a quick look though a hole near the foot of the wall, where the cob had broken away under the scorching sun. What he saw came as more of a shock than the booming voice reverberating in his ears. On the far side of the wall there was just a single room, exactly like the one in his grandmother’s house: square and white, with bare walls. Was this the school? But where was the palace, and where were the gardens? He was so disappointed he almost turned tail, fled, ran home, and gave up the idea. But he checked himself; he didn’t want to back down. He leaned a little closer to see the room as best he could from where he was. Nailed to one wall was a painting of a plant greener, brighter, and more luxuriant than any he’d ever seen in his life. This reassured him. Even in that plain, bare room there were wonders!
He could now also see the pupils sitting in silent rows. To the right of the painting a stern-looking man was brandishing a long cane, beating the hands of a contrite boy.
“If you don’t bring any firewood for the school tomorrow, you’ll have a double punishment,” the man said.
Some of the pupils laughed at their scolded classmate. The child watching wasn’t surprised: he knew how spiteful they could be. He stayed watching for a long time, then, for fear of being caught, eventually decided he should leave. On the way home he promised himself he would find out more. But he’d only just come in sight of the village when he spotted his grandmother’s yellow headscarf bobbing agitatedly outside her house. When he appeared she launched herself at him.
“I’ve looked everywhere for you! You’ll be the death of me— just like your mother.”
He flinched, then stared so intently at his grandmother that she froze, openmouthed. Making the most of her astonishment, he walked on past her and continued on his way, unhurried and indifferent to the shrieking that started up again behind him. He stayed away the whole day and came home only in the evening. Of course he was punished. He was sent to bed without so much as a mouthful of mutton. It didn’t matter. He was looking forward to morning.
* * * *
The child had made up his mind and knew what he had to do. He just had to take the step . . . but perhaps that was the hardest part. The following day he went to the next village again and spent the morning at the foot of the school wall, listening to what was being said inside. When the teacher announced it was time for lunch, he stood up and took himself home. He hadn’t had the courage to go in. He spent a week like this, wandering around outside the classroom but not daring to go in.
His grandmother screamed at him again, and he stood up to her.
“If you won’t let me go, I’ll ask our neighbors if I can live with them,” he said.
She glowered at him.
“Oh yes, you have it in you to shame me like that in front of everyone!”
Eventually she stopped her recriminations. The child’s afternoons were set to the rhythms of the flock, and he allowed his courage to ripen.
Today was the big day. He brought, rolled up in a piece of canvas, a few things he’d gathered together on the sly: a worn pencil, some sheets of paper, and a cloth. He had gotten up before anyone else, even before the exuberant group of schoolchildren passed. When the other children arrived at school, they found him sitting outside. Although they were all barefoot, they had new clothes and shiny satchels while he had only his djellaba and his piece of canvas. When they saw the little new boy, the schoolchildren clustered around him, laughing, jostling him, and making fun of his djellaba. At first the child felt something like the burrow of a desert fox opening up in his stomach, then a cold feeling seeped inside him. He looked around but found not one friendly face, not one sign of understanding. In the end, his shame made him break out of the hostile circle. Distraught, he went and stood some distance away on the path, in the irrational hope of seeing his brother appear, the brother who’d been kept at home by his father. He would defend him, the child thought; he would console him. But the path was empty.
The teacher had heard the commotion and came outside.
He saw the child standing on his own and went over to him. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Why aren’t you with the others?”
“I’m waiting for my brother.”
* * * *
The teacher studied the child’s pale face, his worn djellaba, and the belongings he’d awkwardly scraped back together after the other boys scattered them. Without a word, the teacher took his hand and turned back toward the others, who fell silent.
“Stand in proper rows!” he barked. “It’s my job to look after new pupils. I don’t want to hear any more comments about him.”
Maïouf didn’t see his brother that day. He later learned that his father’s wife didn’t want him going back to school now. But Maïouf himself was impatient to learn. In the evenings, to avoid his grandmother’s reprimands, he stayed behind in the cotton fields to do his homework, copying out the letters and numerals that the teacher had written on the blackboard.
Days went by. The first nip of cold was in the air. In the mornings bare feet could stick to the frosty ground, and the children had to run to get to school without freezing. Maïouf was soon making good progress. But the other children struggled to accept that this poor kid, the son of a repudiated woman, was their equal; and worse than that: he was a better student than any of them.
One afternoon while the teacher was handing back homework, he congratulated Maïouf: he had achieved the best grade.
“You work hard. I’m proud of you. You don’t need to bring any firewood tomorrow.”
When the lesson was over all the children put their things into their satchels. The teacher said good-bye and they were free to leave. Maïouf was happy. He felt full of courage, ready—if need be—to cope with his grandmother’s ranting when he arrived home. He could already picture himself telling her how his hard work had paid off.
“Oh, and now you’re proud to be a layabout!” was all she said.
What did he care?
Lost in his thoughts, Maïouf didn’t hear the others come over to him. In a flash someone grabbed his arms, his head was covered with a rag, and he was dragged off the path. He couldn’t see anything, but he could tell from the crunch of sand under his feet that he was being taken toward the desert. He struggled to break free, tried to scream.
His voice was stifled by the rag. The only sound he could hear was his own breathing. Then one of the boys holding him started laughing. It was a laugh loaded with spite. Now he thought he understood and struggled again.
“Leave me alone!” he bellowed.
He could hear them digging in the sand. Someone gave him a sudden shove, and he toppled forward. He was in a hole in the ground, and only just had time to roll over before the sand was being thrown onto him. Soon he was buried—sand everywhere! Weighing down on him, percolating through the cloth, into his nose, his eyes, his ears, and his mouth. There was another cruel laugh.
“That’ll teach you to be friends with the teacher!” said a voice.
Then silence. Paralyzed in the hole, imprisoned by the sand, with the hood still over his head, Maïouf waited, though he didn’t know what for. For the nasty prank to end, perhaps, for someone to come and get him out. But no one came and he started to suffocate. The blood roared in his temples, stars danced like butterflies before his unseeing eyes. He was close to passing out.
With a surge of fury and boundless sadness he stiffened his whole body like a blade. And just as he’d given up hope, the sand opened. He hauled himself up in the trench, freed his arms, pulled himself out, rolled onto his side, and then pulled off the rag at last. It was only after he’d greedily taken several deep breaths and cleared the sand from his mouth and nose that he looked around. He was alone.
The empty desert was filling with shadows. A fox’s cry rang out far in the distance.
It was dark by the time Maïouf pulled aside the canvas doorway. He hardly heard the scolding and threw himself onto his bed.
From now on, he promised himself, he’d be the best.
From BADAWI. Used with permission of Black Cat. Copyright © 2016 by Mohed Altrad. Translation copyright © 2016 by Adriana Hunter