Watch Us Dance

Leila Slimani (trans. Sam Taylor)

June 21, 2023 
The following is from Leila Slimani's Watch Us Dance. Slimani is the bestselling author of The Perfect Nanny, for which she became the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt. Her other books include Adèle, Sex and Lies, and In the Country of Others. Slimani is French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture, and is the chair of the jury for the 2023 International Booker Prize.

He had said no at first. No, because they couldn’t afford it.

Because water was a rare and precious commodity that could not be used for mere leisure. He had yelled no, no, no, because he hated the idea of displaying such indecency before the eyes of the poor farmworkers. What would they think of the way he was educating his son, of his attitude toward his wife, when they saw her, half naked, in a swimming pool? He would be no better, then, than the old colonists or those decadent bourgeois families that proliferated all over the country, shamelessly showing off their glittering success.

But Mathilde did not give up. She swept aside his protests. Year after year she tried again. Every summer when the chergui howled and the sweltering heat frayed their nerves, she brought up the idea of the swimming pool that so repulsed her husband. He could not understand, she thought, this man who did not know how to swim, who was afraid of water. She spoke to him softly, sweetly, imploringly. There was no shame in displaying their success. They weren’t hurting anyone. They had the right to enjoy life, didn’t they, after dedicating their best years to the war and then to this farm? She wanted that swimming pool; she wanted it as a reward for her sacrifices, her loneliness, her lost youth. They were over forty now and had nothing to prove to anyone. All the farmers in the area, at least those with modern lifestyles, had swimming pools. Would he prefer it if she flaunted herself at the municipal pool?

She flattered him. She praised the success he had enjoyed experimenting with olive tree varieties and exporting citrus fruit. She thought she could persuade him by standing there in front of him, her cheeks pink and hot, hair glued to her temples with sweat, varicose veins bulging from her calves. She reminded him that everything they owned was down to their hard work and tenacity. “I’m the one who did all the work,” he corrected her. “I’m the one who decides what to do with the money.”

Mathilde did not cry or get angry when he said that. She smiled inwardly, thinking of all that she did for him, for the farm, for the workers and their families. She thought about all the time she’d spent raising their children, taking them to dance and music classes, helping them with their homework. And for the past few years Amine had entrusted the farm’s bookkeeping to her. She wrote invoices, paid wages and bills. And sometimes— yes, sometimes—she would falsify the accounts. She would alter an amount, invent an extra farmhand or an order that had never been made. And, in a drawer for which she possessed the only key, she kept rolls of banknotes held together with beige rubber bands. She had been doing this for so many years that she no longer felt any shame or even any fear at the idea of it being discovered. The nest egg kept growing and she believed she had earned it; it was a tax for all the humiliations she had suffered. It was her revenge.

Mathilde had aged. It was true that she looked older than her years, and that was almost certainly his fault. The skin of her face, constantly exposed to the sun and the wind, was coarser. Her forehead and the corners of her mouth were wrinkled. Even her green eyes had lost their sparkle, like a dress worn too many times. She had put on weight. One day in the middle of a heat wave, to provoke her husband, she had grabbed hold of the garden hosepipe and, watched by the maid and some of the farmworkers, sprayed water all over herself. Her clothes stuck to her body, revealing her erect nipples and her pubic hair. That day the workers prayed to the Lord, rubbing their tongues between their blackened teeth, not to let Amine go insane. Why would a grown woman do such a thing? People might spray water at their children sometimes, it was true, when the sun blazed down so hard that they were on the verge of fainting. But they always told them to hold their noses and shut their mouths because the water from the well could make you sick or even kill you. Mathilde was like a child herself. And, like a child, she never grew tired of begging. She’d talked about the happiness of days gone by, the vacations they’d spent by the sea in Mehdia, at Dragan’s beach hut. Speaking of Dragan, hadn’t he had a swimming pool built at their townhouse? “Why should Corinne have something that I can’t have?” she’d asked.

She was sure it was this argument that had finally made Amine surrender. She had delivered that line with the cruel confidence of a blackmailer. Her husband, she thought, had had an affair with Corinne the previous year, an affair that had lasted several months. She was convinced of this despite never having found any clues other than a hint of perfume on his shirts, a trace of lipstick—those mundane, disgusting clues that are a housewife’s bane. No, she had no proof and he had never admitted it, but it had been so obvious, like a fire burning between their two bodies, a fire that did not last but had to be endured. Mathilde had tried once, clumsily, to talk to Dragan about it. But the doctor, who had grown even more debonair and philosophical with age, had pretended not to understand what she meant. He had refused to take her side, to lower himself to such pettiness, to join the impassioned Mathilde in fighting what he considered to be a futile war. Mathilde never knew how much time Amine had spent in that woman’s arms. She didn’t know if it was love, if they had spoken words of tenderness to each other or if—and this would perhaps be worse—their passion had been silent, purely physical. Amine’s handsomeness had only intensified over the years.

The hair at his temples had turned white and he had grown a thin salt‑and‑pepper mustache that made him look like Omar Sharif. Like a film star, he wore sunglasses even indoors. But it wasn’t only his bronzed face, his square jaw, the white teeth that he flashed on the rare occasions when he smiled . . . It wasn’t only this that made him handsome. His manliness had matured like a fine wine. His movements were smoother now, his voice deeper. His emotional stiffness had come to seem like self‑control, and his humorless face made him look like some wild beast, slumped in the sand, apparently listless, but that can, with a single bound, descend upon its prey. He was not entirely aware of his seductive powers; he discovered them little by little as they took effect on woman after woman, as if they did not really belong to him. And this sense of being almost surprised by himself probably explained much of his success with women.

Amine had grown in self‑confidence and wealth. He no longer spent endless nights staring at the ceiling as he calculated his debts. He no longer ruminated over his imminent ruin, his children’s degradation, the humiliations they would be forced to suffer. Amine slept well now. The nightmares had left him, and in town he had become a respected man. These days he was invited to parties; people wanted to meet him, to be seen with him. In 1965 he’d been asked to join the Rotary Club, and Mathilde knew that he, not she, was the reason for this, and that the members’ wives, too, probably had something to do with it. Although silent and reserved, Amine was the center of attention. Women asked him to dance, they pressed their cheeks against his, drew his hand to their hips; and even if he didn’t know what to say, even if he didn’t know how to dance, he would sometimes think that this life was possible, a life as light as the champagne he smelled on their breath. Mathilde hated herself at these parties. She always thought she talked too much, drank too much, and afterward she would spend days regretting her behavior. She imagined she was being judged, that the others considered her stupid and useless, a coward for closing her eyes to her husband’s infidelities.

But another reason why the Rotary members were so insistent, so welcoming and attentive toward Amine, was that he was Moroccan and the club wished to prove, by increasing its number of Arab members, that the era of colonization, the era of parallel lives, was over. Of course, many of them had fled the country during the autumn of 1956 when the angry mob had invaded the streets and abandoned itself to a crazed bloodlust. The brickworks had gone up in flames, people had been killed in the streets and the foreigners had realized that this was no longer their home.

Some of them had packed up and left, abandoning apartments where the furniture gathered dust before being bought up by Moroccan families. Landowners gave up their estates and the years of work they had put into them. Amine wondered if it was the most fearful or the most clear‑eyed who went back to France. But that wave of departures was only an interlude. A readjustment before life returned to its normal course. Ten years after independence, Mathilde had to admit that Meknes had not changed all that much. Nobody had learned the new Arabic street names, and when they arranged to meet someone it was still on Avenue Paul Doumer or Rue de Rennes opposite Monsieur André’s pharmacy. The notary had remained, and so had the haberdasher, the hairdresser and his wife, the owners of the fashion boutique on the avenue, the dentist, the doctors. They might show more discretion now, more restraint, but they all wanted to keep enjoying the pleasures of this chic, flower‑filled city. No, there had not been a revolution, only a change in the atmosphere, a reticence, an illusion of harmony and equality. During those Rotary dinners, at tables where bourgeois Moroccans mingled with members of the European community, it appeared that colonization had never been anything more than a misunderstanding, a faux pas that the French now repented and the Moroccans pretended to forget. Some came out and said that they had never been racist, and that they had found the whole thing terribly embarrassing. They swore that they were relieved now, that things were clearer and they too could breathe more easily since the city had rid itself of the rotten apples. The foreigners were more careful about what they said. If they hadn’t left, it was because they did not want to precipitate the ruin of a country that needed them. Of course, one day they would vacate their place, they would leave, and the town’s pharmacist, dentist, doctor, and notary would all be Moroccans. But in the meantime they would stay and make themselves useful. And anyway, were they really so different from the Moroccans who sat beside them at their tables? Those elegant, open‑minded men, those colonels or senior officials whose wives had short hair and wore Western dresses? No, they weren’t so different from those bourgeois Moroccans who, without any qualms, let barefoot children carry their shopping home from the central market. Who refused to give in to the pleas of beggars “because they’re like dogs that you feed under the table. They get used to it and lose what little motivation they have to get off their butts and work.” The French would never have dared say anything about the people’s propensity for begging and complaining. Unlike the Moroccans, they would never have dared accuse maids of dishonesty, gardeners of laziness, the working classes of stupidity. And they laughed, a little too loudly, when their brown‑skinned friends despaired of ever constructing a modern country with a population of illiterates. Yes, deep down, these Moroccans were just like them. They spoke the same language, saw the world in the same way, and it was difficult to believe that they might one day not belong to the same side, might consider each other enemies.

To start with, Amine had appeared mistrustful. “They’re hypocrites,” he’d told Mathilde. “Before, I was the dirty Arab, the crouille, and now it’s all Monsieur Belhaj we would so like the pleasure of your company blah blah blah.” Mathilde had realized he was right one night during a dinner dance at the hacienda. Monique, the barber’s wife, had had too much to drink and in the middle of a conversation let slip the word “bicot.” She raised her hands to her lips as if to push that abhorrent word back into her mouth, then sighed “Ohhhh,” eyes wide, cheeks crimson. Mathilde was the only person who’d heard, but Monique couldn’t stop apologizing. “Honestly, that’s not what I meant to say,” she repeated. “I don’t know what got into me.”


From Watch Us Dance by Leila Slimani, Translated by Sam Taylor, Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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