Wherever she went, Aïcha carried around a heavy burden of shame. She was ashamed of her clothes, which her mother sewed for her. Ashamed of the grayish blouses that Mathilde would sometimes brighten up with a little added detail—flowers on the sleeves, blue edging around the collar—but which never looked new. None of the clothes seemed truly hers; they all looked second-hand. She was ashamed of her hair too. In fact her hair was what bothered the most: that shapeless, frizzy mass, impossible to style, which—almost as soon as Aïcha arrived at the school—would escape from the clips that Mathilde used to pin it in place. Mathilde didn’t know what to do with her daughter’s hair; she’d never had to deal with anything like it before. The individual hairs were so fine that clips broke them and irons burned them, but the mass itself was so dense that it could not be combed. She asked Mouilala for advice, but her mother-in-law just shrugged. No woman in her family had ever before been cursed with such kinky, unruly hair. Aïcha had her father’s hair. But Amine always kept his hair cut short, like a soldier. And because he went to the hammam so often, and sprayed his hair with hot water, the bulbs had atrophied and his hair had stopped growing.
Aïcha was cruelly taunted because of her hair. In the middle of the courtyard she stood out like a sore thumb, with her he slender figure, elfish face and enormous hair—an explosion of coarse blonde strands that shone like a golden crown in the sun. How many times did she dream that she had hair like Blanche’s? In front of the mirror in her mother’s bedroom she would hide her hair with her hands and try to imagine what she would look like with Blanche’s long, silky tresses. Or with Sylvie’s brown curls. Or Nicole’s neat locks. Her uncle Omar teased her. He told her she would struggle to find a husband because she looked like a scarecrow. And it was true, thought Aïcha: her hair was like a clump of hay. She felt ridiculous in her second-hand clothes, with her impossible hair.Wherever she went, Aïcha carried around a heavy burden of shame.
The weeks passed, all of them identical. Every morning Aïcha would wake at dawn and kneel the dark at the foot of her bed, praying to God not to let late for school. But there was always something. Black smoke pouring from the oven. An argument with her father. Shouting in the corridor. Her mother finally arriving and stopping to adjust her hair, her scarf, then wiping away a tear the back of her hand. Mathilde wanted to look dignified, but sometimes she would just turn around and start screaming that she had to get out of this place, that she’d made the mistake of her life, that she was a stranger here. She yelled that if her father knew the truth, he would beat up her bully of a husband. But her father didn’t know the truth. Her father lived far away. So Mathilde surrendered to her fate, and took out her frustrations on little Aïcha, who was waiting patiently outside the door, biting her lip so she wouldn’t yell at her mother: “Please hurry up! Just for once, I’d like to get there on time!”
Aïcha cursed her father’s van. He’d bought it from the American army for a reasonable sum. Amine had tried to scratch the painted flag off the bonnet but he’d been afraid of damaging the metal, so a few flaking stars and part of a red stripe were visible on the bodywork. The van was not only ugly, it was also unreliable. When it overheated, gray smoke would pour from the bonnet and they would have to stop and wait for the engine to cool down. In winter it wouldn’t start. “It has to warm up,” Mathilde would always say. Aïcha blamed that vehicle for all her troubles and she even cursed America, a country that everyone else seemed to revere. Those Americans are just a bunch of thieves and incompetent fools, she thought. Thanks to that old banger, she was constantly mocked by her schoolmates—“Your parents should buy you a donkey instead: you’d get to school faster!”—and told off by the Mother Superior.
Amine had managed to fit a small seat in the back, with the help of one of his laborers. Aïcha would sit there surrounded by tools and by crates of fruit vegetables that her mother was taking to the market in Meknes. One morning, still half-asleep, the child felt something against her tiny calf. She screamed and Mathilde almost swerved off the road. “I felt something,” Aïcha said. Mathilde didn’t want to stop, in case the van wouldn’t start again afterward, so she just grumbled, “You’re imagining things again,” as Aïcha put her hands under her soaking armpits. When the van came to a halt outside the school gates and Aïcha jumped on to the pavement, the dozens of little girls crowded around the entrance began to scream. They gripped their mothers’ legs and some started running toward the courtyard. One of them fainted, or pretended to. Mathilde and Aïcha looked at each other, completely baffled, and then noticed Brahim, who was pointing at something and laughing. “Look what you’ve brought with you,” he said. A long grass snake had escaped from the back of the van and was lazily following Aïcha, like a faithful dog being taken for a walk.
When the wintry weather began in November, they also had dark mornings to contend with. Mathilde would hold her daughter’s hand and lead her into the driveway, between the frozen almond trees, and Aïcha would shiver. In the black dawn they could hear nothing but their own breathing. No animal sounds, no human voices broke the silence. They’d get into the damp van and Mathilde would turn the key in the ignition, but the engine would just cough. “Don’t worry, it just needs to warm up.” The poor vehicle, numb with cold, would hack and hawk like a consumptive. Sometimes Aïcha would have a meltdown. She’d cry, kick the wheels, curse the farm, her parents, the school. She’d get a slap. Mathilde would get out of the van and push it down the driveway to the gates at the end of the garden. In the middle of her forehead, a vein would throb. Her purplish face would frighten Aïcha. At last the engine would start, but they’d still have to climb a steep hill. The old van would whine and growl ever louder, and often it stalled.
One day, despite her exhaustion and the humiliating prospect of having to ring the school’s doorbell again because they were even later than normal, Mathilde started to laugh. It was a December morning, cold but sunny. The sky was so clear that above the horizon. In a stentorian voice, Mathilde shouted: “Dear passengers, please fasten your seatbelts. We’re about to takeoff!” Aïcha laughed and leaned back in her seat. Mathilde made loud noises with her mouth and Aïcha held on to the door, ready for the van to roar into the air. Mathilde turned the key, pressed down on the accelerator, and the engine purred before wheezing asthmatically. Mathilde gave up. “We’re very sorry, dear passengers, but it would seem that the engines aren’t powerful enough and the wings are in need of repairs. We will not be able to take off today, so we’ll just have to continue on the ground. But have faith in your pilot: in a few days, I promise, we’ll fly!” Aïcha knew a van couldn’t fly and yet for years she was unable to approach that steep incline without her heart pounding, without thinking: This is the day! Despite the improbability of such an event, she couldn’t help hoping that, just this once, the van would soar up into the clouds, carrying them to new places where they could laugh like hyenas, where they would see their remote little hill from another angle altogether.
Excerpted from In the Country of Others by Leila Slimani. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Penguin Books. Copyright © 2021 by Leila Slimani.