the invention of
at café de l’univers, there were six of us, seated, observing the comings and goings of our Casablancan citizens, during a lovely lethargic afternoon in the month of May; but it could have been another place, another day, different people. It could have been Tunisia, April, a crisp morning. Seoul, December, night, all of us lying down. On the other hand, what Hamid told us was truly incredible and unique. He hadn’t said a word for an hour.Taciturn, meditating. Lost in the labyrinth of his neurons. A guy had asked us the way to the cathedral, which had brought about biblical complications. When the dust had settled again and the man had left, Hamid finally shook himself, opened his mouth, and started to talk. He began with a loose characterization of Moroccans:
“We are,” said Hamid (he paused), “we are (he swallowed a sip of coffee), we are (he put down his cup) an inventive people.”
He had put the word in italics. So we examined it closely.Then we demanded, silent, the proof (we, too, know how to use italics). Confronted with this nonverbal wall, this walled-in wall, Hamid had no other alternative than to elaborate.
“I say this because, while you were grappling with that persistent man, I remembered a curious affair that took place in the ’70s near El Jadida. It was all about, or rather it all started with, a memorandum from the Minister of National Education, a memorandum coated in the pompous style we affected in those days—and in classical Arabic if you please, the language of Jahiz and Mutanabbi.This memorandum arrived one day, like a swirling dead leaf, on the desk of all the leaders of the establishment…”
“They all shared one desk?”
Hamid, shrugging his shoulders, ignored Khalid’s interruption.
“…a memorandum informing them that a new discipline had been registered in the program for the sports portion of the baccalaureate: swimming!”
A sip of coffee, inhaled noisily, punctuated this revelation that we sensed was heavy with consequences—but which exactly? Had water in a cage, in cubic meters, ever threatened anyone? (Heavy water, maybe?) Chlorine poisoning? Stings from stray jellyfish? Amoebas? We digressed in aquatic conjectures. Hamid, his molecule of java ingested, continued his story:
“The memorandum concluded thus, threatening: all necessary measures must be taken so that those among the candidates who choose this discipline for the baccalaureate, this new discipline, can do so in the best conditions. With my most sincere regards, etc., etc. Signed: the Minister of National Education. Followed (I imagine) by a moment of astonishment.Then the leaders of the establishment held their heads in their hands…”
“…in their one office?”
“…held their heads in their hands (at least, I assume, because I wasn’t there), and a single roar ascended into the untroubled azure of the peaceful El Jadida skies: WHAT?”
Ali felt impelled to contribute his grain of salt to the affair.
“Hang on! It would amaze me if we were able to roar the word ‘what,’ which is, by the way, a pronoun. At best we might cackle or caw pronouncing it.”
“Or squeal it. We can squeal ‘what.’”
Hamid shook his head.
“Imbeciles.We can roar all the words of the dictionary.We can snarl them, bray them. It’s all in the intonation, the timbre, the breath.”
“Tra-la-la, pee-pee, hip-hop—there are plenty of words we can’t roar. Let alone snarl or bray.”
Nagib snapped his fingers, as if he had resolved a particularly difficult enigma.
“I understand now why lions have such a limited vocabulary: they can roar essentially nothing. That said, I don’t really know when a lion would have the opportunity to use tra-la-la, pee-pee, or hip-hop in a conversation. At night, in the savannah.”
Hamid put an end to these flights of fancy by loudly striking the table.
“Shut up, all of you! This is my story, let me tell it or I’ll keep quiet and never open my mouth again!”
“Oh my…Look how mad he’s getting…Go on, tell us, tell us.”
Hamid started up his story again:
“If the leaders of the establishment took their heads in their hands as one man, if they roared WHAT? as one wild beast, it was because they had immediately seen the problem, ze big problem, which was…”
He interrupted himself to bend down and pet the cat, leaving us to simmer in our curiosity.Then he straightened up and began again, his voice cavernous, his eyes tragic, index finger raised as if he were at last revealing the third secret of Fatima:
“…which was the regrettable, deplorable, but nevertheless irrefutable, absence of even the smallest swimming pool in El Jadida!”
Boom! So that was it. We got down to brass tacks concerning the tragedy, the complications, the eleventh dimension. He leaned toward us all, which was a bit of a feat since there were five of us (excluding him), necessitating that he contort himself into the barycenter of a hexagon:
“Nothing! Zilch! No pool! Nada (you can say that again)!”
Nagib furrowed his brow:
“But wait a minute…I vaguely remember those days, I was a kid then, but…Wasn’t there a pool at the campsite run by Madame Muñoz’s husband? I mean her second husband, the Moroccan, what was his name?”
Time stood still as all six of us tried to remember what the devil the name of Madame Muñoz’s (Moroccan) husband was.
“Tarik? Abdelmoula? El Haj? Abdallah? Maati? Miloud? Robio? Driss? Lgouchi? Bouazza? Mohamed? El Ghoul Jr.? Hassan?”
A quarter of an hour went by before we all agreed that we had never known the name of Madame Muñoz’s (Moroccan) husband. We saw him sometimes in her villa; he would water the garden, play with the dog, smoke a cigarette, go in, go out…He was an anonymous type, it seemed, or if he had a name, he never revealed it to us, for his entire essence came down to the fact that he was the (Moroccan) husband of Madame Muñoz, and that sufficed for a name, like all men who merge with an exploit—the man who saw a bear, the man who beat El Gourch in a bicycle race, etc. For Madame Muñoz was beautiful and rich, like all French women, and so tell me how a little guy from El Jadida had managed to replace—in her heart and in her bed—her first husband, who was French and thus handsome and rich? It was an exploit at least as worthy of being recognized as that of the man who beat El Gourch (in a bicycle race).
“Anonymous or not,” resumed Nagib, “that guy managed the campsite, didn’t he? And there was a pool in the campsite, wasn’t there?”
“Yes and no,” responded Ali.
“What do you mean, yes and no? What kind of logic is that?”
“There was a pool, in the guides and on the sign at the city entrance; there was one in rumor, in hearsay, and in memory. But there wasn’t one on the site, where it should have been: it had been filled in by the previous managers, the Révolles, who had had a lot of children and who worried that one of them would fall in.”
“But it was still, nevertheless, indicated on the sign?”
“The tourists, once they were stationed on the campsite, once they had slipped into their swimsuits and let out a cry of joy (in anticipation), searching in vain for a pool in which to cool down, were angry and disappointed, but never mind, Madame Muñoz’s (Moroccan) husband showed them the way to the beach, immense and empty, and they went en masse to drown themselves in the Atlantic.”
Hamid, glacial, murmured:
“Are we done now? Can we forget about the untitled husband of mother Muñoz? Can we forget about the Révolles and their non-regulatory campsite? Can I continue?”
“Yeah, yeah, no, no, go on.”
“So: the absence of even the least swimming pool in El Jadida. Whence the problem (at the time, we used the word ‘problem’ and not ‘concern’ as we do now), whence the problem: how were they to obey the memorandum from Rabat? Then Hammou, the director of the Abou-Chouaïb-Doukkali High School, had a genius idea. After despairing for an entire day, like all of his colleagues, after envisaging resignation, failure to comply, alcohol, he took the letter from Rabat back to his office, bringing the memorandum up close to his eye—the good one—scrutinizing it closely, and then (I imagine) a smile lit up his pirate face, his eye twinkled and he said: hehe!”
“An eloquent man.”
“Hehe, he repeated, unable to shout ‘eureka!’ Hehe, he repeated; for he had noticed a detail that changed everything: the memorandum from the minister mentioned swimming, but did not specify swimming in water.”
Intense excitement at Café de l’Univers. We looked at each other, taken aback. After a few moments of floundering, so to speak, Ali summed up our stupefaction:
“Swimming in water…You know of other kinds?”
Hamid very slowly nodded his head, his eyes expressionless, his breath barely perceptible, like a tortoise that knows something you don’t. He cleared his throat and demanded, Socratically:
“What is swimming, deep down?”
“Exactly, it mustn’t take place deep down,” replied Nagib. “One must remain on the surface.”
“You big idiot! When I ask ‘What is swimming?’ I’m being rhetorical. I’m not waiting for someone to answer me, I’ll answer myself. And my answer is this: swimming is, above all, movements. Movements! Yes, messieurs! That’s why we say swimming strokes.”
Hamid lifted himself halfway up on his seat and seemed to convulse.Worried, we looked for the Moor, so that he might quickly fetch a doctor, or, if unable to find one, the corner healer, with his herbs and dried lizards. Then we understood that Hamid was in fact in the middle of essplanining something, like the philosopher who proves his theories by acting them out, Hamid was demonstrating swimming by swimming in the (“golden brown”) air of Casablanca.
“The art of the swimmer,” he said, gesticulating furiously, “lies in stringing together the appropriate movements. The chest, the legs, the arms—all move in a coordinated fashion. Harmoniously. It’s the crux of the affair: there are only gestures. Propulsion? Well, propulsion is nothing, my friends. It follows naturally.”
We considered this proposition for a moment. Ali triggered the counterattack.
“Wait…If propulsion follows naturally, if, in other words, it is only secondary to the swimmer’s art, why is it that competitions are decided in the order in which the athletes arrive at their destination? The fastest wins; thus, propulsion is the most important thing.”
“False. It is scientifically proven that it’s the quality of the movements that assures propulsion: thus it merely follows naturally. Look at the bumpkins bobbing on Sundays at Sidi Bouzid.
Most of them ‘doggy paddle,’ which consists by and large of doing a lot of uncoordinated movements, as long as they manage to keep their heads above the water. These bumpkins don’t move more than a centimeter.You can continue your conversation with them, you on the beach, them in the water; after a quarter of an hour, they’re still there, wriggling and telling you about the moussem of Moulay Abdallah. While the rare person who manages to imitate the crawl, or the breaststroke, well, they manage in the end to travel a bit. I repeat: swimming is, above all, movements.”
We were not convinced.
“Alright, we’re convinced. So?”
“So, Hammou, the director of Abou-Chouaïb-Doukkali high school, decided to organize the swimming exams in the high school playground. Not in the water, because there was none, but on the sand.”
This gave rise to one single shout at Café de l’Univers:
“Indeed! Sand! All they needed was to bring in a sufficient quantity and place it in the playground in a big regulatory rectangle: twenty by six meters. And the wheels were set in motion! Well, I suppose ‘The wheels were stuck in sand!’ would be a more accurate metaphor.”
We were blown away.
“That’s crazy! We don’t remember this story at all. Are you sure this happened in El Jadida? Are you sure you didn’t make it up?”
“It is perfectly authentic. It was before your time.”
“Oh okay, alright, fine, okay.”
“So Hammou calls his colleagues and tells them to meet him in a café next to the local public theater, the one that’s falling to ruin today but which had its hour of glory. My father saw Jacques Brel sing there…”
“Can you ‘see’ someone sing? Wouldn’t you say my father heard Jacques Brel sing there?”
“Are you calling my father blind? He paid his five dirhams, he was in the second row behind the Corcos, the governor, and Madame Dufour, and he saw, with his eyes, Jacques Brel sing. But why are you trying to p…me off with Jacques Brel? I was talking about the café that was next to the local theater…”
“Ah yes! It was called La Marquise or La Duchesse or some similar nonsense but everyone called it Dadouchi’s since the owner was named Dadouchi. Incidentally, even after his death, we still called it Dadouchi’s even though someone named Bouchta took over the café, which was officially called La Marquise or La Duchesse—but we continued to say Dadouchi’s—which was rather macabre seeing as the guy was lying in the local cemetery.”
“Bizarre.We referred to this place with a name that had nothing to do with its owner? Isn’t there a philosophical problem there?”
Hamid stood up and pretended to take off.
“Alright, well if my story doesn’t interest you…”
“No, no, stay. We won’t say another word.”
Hamid grumbled, for appearances, shooed the cat and sat back down.
“So, Hammou explained his idea to his colleagues at Dadouchi’s. Everyone found the idea ingenious.They congratulate him, they promise him a blowout kefta grill, they marry his daughter on the spot. Everyone’s happy. Everyone, except one person: the director of the Ibn-Khaldoun high school, a certain Tijani. Tijani had a problem, let’s say a problem of luxury: a beautiful lawn, a legacy of the Protectorate, decorated the playground of his establishment. He was very proud of it and looked after it with the meticulousness of an Englishman, manicure scissors, sprinkler on standby. Out of the question, he roared right in the middle of La Princesse (that’s what Dadouchi’s café was called, not La Marquise or La Duchesse as Ali claims), out of the question, he roared, to dump cartloads of sand on that marvel which constituted more or less the only green space in the city! His colleagues shrugged their shoulders. He persisted: we’ll do without quartz and silica! ‘And how will you accomplish this miracle?’ mocked his colleagues, who had already forgotten that swimming in sand was also not very common—how quickly we adapt. ‘You’ll see!’ he replied, mysterious. And he leaves them there in La Princesse, astonished. The next day, first thing in the morning, he asks one of his students, rather supple, rather soft (so as not to ruin anything, you’ll understand in a minute), he asks him to try to swim on the lawn. The student doesn’t understand: why this harassment? He wasn’t any rowdier than the others. Tijani essplains to him that it’s not a punishment, but an ultra secret project. Is NASA involved? the student asks. Or maybe the CIA? Tijani pushes him down onto the grass; the student contorts, pants, and moves, oh miracle; proving thus that it was doable, as the director had thought, now rubbing his hands together excitedly while the earthworm continued to crawl. That very night, at the café adjoining the local theater, which was called (I remember now) La Royale, and not La Princesse, that very night, Tijani announces to his colleagues that his students would train on the green grass, the gift from God.”
“Why ‘gift from God’? Sand was created by God, too.”
“Okay but stop right there, you’re not going to compare sand and grass?”
“But…grass, it’s green, it’s vibrant, it synthesizes I don’t know what exactly, and it drinks water, I mean, s…it’s different from inert, stupid sand, which results from the degradation of rock.”
“Certainly. But everything is divine creation, isn’t it? So why rhapsodize and roar ‘oh, the great gift of God!’ when faced with a waterfall, a beautiful tree, or a cloud, and say nothing when staring at a pebble or listening to a braying donkey?”
“I repeat: because sand results from degradation of granite and other rocks. For God creates, He doesn’t degrade. That’s perhaps the work of the Devil or at least of Nature, which doesn’t deserve any better, the villain. While vegetation is the exact opposite of degradation, of putrefaction…”
(You’ll see, he’s going to talk to us about “dissipative structures.”)
“...it’s like dissipative structures…”
“…they introduce order within disorder. After all, we can’t treat as equal that which makes a mess of things and that which picks up after itself.”
“In other words, God only created that which is beautiful and orderly? Who created the ugly, the disorderly, the dumps?”
“The Devil, probably.”
“You’re lucky it’s hot out today, otherwise I wouldn’t let this load of nonsense slide.”
Hamid waited patiently for the theological storm to pass and then continued his story as if nothing had happened:
“Then Tijani announces, standing up, as if towering over the stupefied La Royale, that his students, you see, will be taking the bac swimming test on the grass; it is out of the question for him to transform into a miniature Sahara his lovely lawn, inaugurated in its time by Marshall Lyautey (go ahead and try to prove him wrong). Silence in the ranks of La Royale. The other leaders of the establishment furrow their brows, make eye contact—was there a reason to complain, to oppose him? No, they decide, and they order: who wants a coffee, who wants a beer? Then Hammou stands up. Stop right there! He is not having it.What is this bunk? Standing opposite Tijani—like two cowboys at the end of a film—he formulates what I propose we refer to henceforth as Hammou’s Theorem: ‘It is easier to swim on grass than on sand.’ The statement rings out in La Royale like the conclusion of a scientific presentation, just before the thunder of applause. Someone ventures: ‘Are you sure?’ Hammou stands by it: ‘It is easier to swim on grass than on sand!’ The bac candidates at Tijani’s school will be at an advantage compared to the others.This was unacceptable! The exclamation point was worth a veto.”
“The plot thickens.”
“The polemic splinters instantly. La Royale divides into two camps: on the port side, those who accept Hammou’s Theorem. Starboard, those who refute it a priori—we are not yet at the proofs.The arguments are flung into the air like gyrfalcons flying out of their native ossuary.Those pro-Hammou cite the viscosity of the blades of grass and the morning dew; those pro-Tijani counter with the rollability of grains of sand. Finally, the doyen of the leaders of the establishment…”
“…finds the solution: call in a specialist of fluid mechanics. Abdeljebbar, his nephew, was an engineer who graduated from the École Mohammedia for engineers and, as such, knew the Navier-Stokes equations, which determine, as you are aware, fluid mechanics. They called in Abdeljebbar, who lived five minutes away. He came. Was informed of the problem. Squinted his eyes. Pouted.Took a notebook out of his pocket. Etched a few very elegant curves. And decided thus: the results obtained for swimming on sand must be multiplied by a factor of 1.2 to be compared to those obtained on grass. Still all that depends on the quality of sand and on the ambient hygrometry, but anyway, if we kept track of all the variables and of all the parameters needed to resolve a problem, we would still be in the stone ages.”
“Not quite. The head of the establishment of Lalla Zahra, a certain Zniga, entered the scene. Possessing neither sand nor grass, Zniga proposed adding gravel into the list of water substitutes. It was too late, since everyone had accepted sand, grass, and the coefficient 1.2.”
“Gravel? That’s not a sport anymore, it’s torture.”
“That’s what La Royale unanimously decided: Zniga was denounced. (As an aside: this was perhaps the day that began Zniga’s decline. ‘Denounced by his peers,’ as wrote the local correspondent of Le Matin, he shut himself away in morose silence, which degenerated into a sort of nervous breakdown and he ended up assassinating two attorneys a few years later. But anyway, that’s another story.) So all the high school students of El Jadida began to prepare for this strange swimming test that promised surprises, perhaps even world records—in slowness, naturally, but that’s still something.The day of, everything went well. Diving was out of the question, of course. Some jumped in the sand, others stepped over a small fence and found themselves grasping at grass.”
“Which is better than finding yourself grasping at straws.”
“…they set about swimming diligently and, at the end of the day and taking into account the 1.2 coefficient imposed by Abdeljebbar, everyone had their grade.”
“All’s well that ends well.”
“Almost. For there was the case of Talal. Do you remember Talal? Whom we nicknamed Bouboule, because he was really fat? Talal was a boy with no story, with no collective importance, barely an individual. His mother was invisible, his brothers insignificant, his sisters nonexistent, his cat scared. His father wasn’t much of anything, some kind of clerk in a trial court or something of that sort, or perhaps not, perhaps he only gave off the air of running through court hallways, busy, rushed, jabot utterly askew, like those men who call themselves doctors for twenty years and then one day it comes to light that they can’t read or write. But this clerk, real or illusory, Talal’s father, kept in his wallet a document of the highest importance. Guess what it was, friends?”
“A map of Treasure Island?”
“The blueprint for the atomic bomb?”
“The list?” “No, you band of donkeys. (What list?) What he guarded preciously in his wallet was a rectangle of a few centimeters in length: a business card. But careful! Not just any business card! It was…”
He withdrew into his chair and subsumed us in a gaze sparkling with commiseration (for we didn’t know).
“It was the business card of the king’s chef!”
“Don’t forget that this story takes place at the beginning of the ’70s. Everything related, closely or distantly, to the Palace made the masses tremble with fear. The man who buttons up Hassan II’s shirt cuffs has more power than a minister. He who shines his boots commands generals. So, his chef! I don’t know how the evanescent clerk procured that business card but he hinted that the king’s head butler was a cousin of his and, as a result, this calling card that he only exhibited on rare occasions conferred on him an infinite prestige.You didn’t mess around with Talal’s father.”
“Precisely, let’s get back to Talal…”
“I’m getting there. So, the young Talal jumps in the sand, spreads out over it like an obese tarantula, swims haphazardly, but—catastrophe!—he faints a few meters from the rope that symbolizes the edge of the pool. Sunburn? Exhaustion? Abulia? No one knows. His classmates, on solid ground, cry out, wave him on, encourage him…Nothing works, he looks like a recumbent marble statue petrified by a gust of wind.Talal lies still.Talal doesn’t move. His professor, a bit of a risk-taker, throws himself into the sand and fishes out the poor boy.There he is in the middle of the playground, awoken by a few vigorous slaps. ‘Where am I, who am I, etc.’.That night, at home, he rests, surrounded by the affection of his invisible mother, of his insignificant brothers, of his nonexistent sisters, and of his cat that scrams, frightened. His father enters and announces to him coldly that he received a zero in the swimming test. General affliction, the ghosts groan, insignificance clenches its fists, the feline redoubles its pusillanimity. But what could be done? Spurred on by his pater (who fondles the business card in his pocket),Talal goes to the high school the next day and drops off a complaint. In essence, it said, conditionals included: ‘If I had taken the swimming test in water, as do civilized people, and not in sand, I would not have washed up flailing on the aforementioned sand and thus would not have failed the test’—which, I mention in passing, was formulated with a rare grammatical accuracy. ‘You would not have washed up, nitwit,’ replied his professor. ‘You would have sunk like a stone and you would be dead.’ And he adds, digressing, as professors often do: ‘By the way, a mammal cannot wash up on sand.’”
Nagib is outraged:
“He’s wrong. Whales wash up on sand. Whales are mammals.”
“No, they’re fish.”
(Thus ensues a pointless discussion, which has taken place in all ages and all latitudes, on what whales are—meanwhile people are dying of hunger (in their case, a whale, conveniently carved up, would be most welcome [but are they halal?]. Victory to Nagib and all of science: cetaceans are mammals. End of digression.)
“Anyway, the affair reaches the head of the establishment. It’s true that Talal had not finished the race…”
“He finished it on the sand,” Nagib intervenes.
“But he had begun it on the sand,” Ali retorts. “At what point do these millions of grains cease to be sand and become a part of the fiction?”
Hamid shrugs his shoulders and continues his story.
“The leader of the establishment thinks of the clerk’s business card. He knows he’s in a minefield. Talal did not finish the race but there is perhaps a way to come to an agreement. He decides then to give a grade to the toothed whale in proportion to his breaching…”
“It’s the technical term. The breaching becomes thus a relative failure. Since Talal traveled two thirds of the pool, or rather the dry dock, he would have the same grade as one of his classmates who was at his distance at the time of his wreck (if I dare say it)—a grade lowered, however, by a third to take into account the fact that he did not faint in the middle of his efforts. I said we were an inventive people. And that’s how the whole affair came to end.”
Hamid had said it. He had even proved his starting assertion. At Café de l’Univers, all six of us remained for a long moment in silence, in that lovely unending afternoon. I don’t know what my friends or the cat were thinking about. I was seized by a strong emotion—tears came to my eyes, my heart tightened. It was gone forever, that blessed age, where we faced, imperturbable, the most absurd problems fate thrust upon us. I closed my eyes…I saw once more those faces of El Jadida: the governor, enigmatic; the super, attendant; Madame Corcos, who led the majorettes on the boulevard once a year; Charef the sworn interpreter, who was originally from Algeria (we forgave him); the doctor Argyatos; the owner of the Bata boutique; the local correspondent for Le Matin.We were a city proud of its Portuguese past and its hybrid present.We were unsure of nothing, capable of anything—even of inventing dry swimming. But where are the sands of days gone by?