Woven

Woven
By Amira-Géhanne Khalfallah
Translated by Michael Overstreet

Volume 8, Number 3 (Spring 2021)

I had the pleasure of working with Algerian author, dramaturg, and journalist Amira-Géhanne Khalfallah while at the University of Iowa’s Translation Workshop; she was a resident in the 2019 International Writers Program. We met each other the very first night of her residency and had coffee not a week later to discuss my translation of her play Les Draps (2015, La Marelle), a piece that has been mise en scène in France as well as Morocco.

Les Draps, or Woven, is a tragic farce in nine acts that illustrates the story of the historic oppression of women in Algerian culture. The atmosphere is bursting at the seams with strange, oneiric moments; anachronisms are present throughout, an intentional blurring of a modern family with that of traditional, centuries-old gender roles. This critical analysis is hidden, though, deftly tucked behind a wry, disabused, and comedic dialogue. The plot focuses primarily on a mother and daughter, Malika and Habiba, who are grieving for Malika’s late mother while simultaneously trying to plan for the arranged marriage of Habiba; the themes of death and marriage are entangled throughout (in traditional Algerian culture women are wrapped in a hand-woven white sheet upon birth, marriage, and death). The audience receives little information about the setting, which is clearly one of the intentions of the play—to be in a state of timeless limbo, where women are right where they have been subjugated to for as long as anyone can remember—at the natal, marital, funerary loom; the localization of indoctrinated, gendered, subaltern industry.

The play’s feminist bent is first seen in the taut relationship between Malika and her daughter—taut, because Habiba appears to be cursed with an incessant, mad laugh, as though she is always on the point of breaking. While Habiba jokingly complains of her fingers hurting from “the needle’s bite,” Malika, instead of showing sympathy, only asks her daughter if she has finished weaving her sheets, prompting her to get out of her sight (and earshot). The chasm between mother and daughter is a striking and prominent aspect of the play that is often elaborated in the stage directions, moments where Khalfallah clearly displays her talent for literary prose. These lapidary transitions are some of the richest parts of the play, à la Marguerite Duras.

Habiba shares her moments at the loom with her stepsister, Leila, who is also at work on her own bridal sheets. These scenes of intimate sorority and commiseration are both heartful and tragic, which contrasts well with the ubiquitous humor of the play; comedy, here, could be seen as a Cixousian method of subversion, an emotive deconstruction of women’s subalternity.

As Habiba weaves, Malika meets with the mother of her daughter’s betrothed, Aïcha, in the cemetery next-door in order to ask for her late-mother’s blessing. When Aïcha and Malika begin to argue about what the dowry should be for an incessantly laughing daughter, they are suddenly transported into a courtroom where we encounter the one man of the play, The Judge.

On trial for arguing in a cemetery, The Judge sentences them to prison, to which the two women only laugh—what would this change in their lives? The two women then begin cooperating against their common foe. The Judge is bitten by a spider, a bite much like that of a needle, which paralyzes him, forcing him to finally listen. The last act of the play weaves together the scene of the two women and The Judge with that of Habiba and Leila, drawing thread between a spider’s delicate web and that of a woman’s ceremonial sheet. The play ends with a spotlight on Habiba at her loom, strumming the threads as if it were a harp.

When it came to translating Les draps, the title was the first obstacle to hurdle. Due to the unpleasant sonic quality of the word “sheets,” the author and I exchanged ideas about the English title for months. Woven presents an admittedly significant embellishment from the original, however, the author and I found that this addition only served to expand the allegorical capacity of the text. Spotlighting the act of “weaving” in the title, I chose to translate the word draps sometimes as “weaving” and other times as “loom” in an effort to use multiple points of closeness to contour the original.

The most difficult aspect of this play to translate was undoubtedly the tone. The author sticks to a colloquial, spoken-word French in the original. French, to begin with, tends to be a more condensed and laconic language. It was up to me to interpret whether the author was trying to be especially minimalist or simply leaning towards a casual and vernacular dialogue. In an effort to render the candid, conversational exchanges into English, I frequently added small fillers to help its auditory ingestion. My colleagues and I found adding English padding to be necessary in translating this already bizarre and stilted atmosphere into another language. For example, when Habiba promises her mother that she’ll stop laughing, in the original Malika replies, “Comment te croire?” I choose to expand this into the much more unwieldy, “And why should I possibly believe you?” In effect, the voice of Malika in particular proved to be troublesome to pin down. Floating between the more rigid speech of a superior, and other times speaking to Habiba as though she were a peer, her odd, vacillating register of speech indeed asks a question through its ambivalent identity. How does an artist represent a voice that is timeless and unmoored to begin with? That is to say, how can literary art recreate the sensation of being stuck, arrested, in history, the years clearly having moved forward, but the Feminine having remained subaltern and entangled in the wefts of patriarchal custom?

In addition to workshopping my translation in the University of Iowa’s International Translation Workshop, rehearsing for a reading with Khalfallah as well as Mexican playwright, director, and actress Gabriela Román was indispensable to my process of translation—hearing the dialogue come to life was akin to spraying suds on a leaking tire.

Amira-Géhanne Khalfallah is an Algerian playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and journalist with a degree in cell and molecular biology. Her first novel, Le Naufrage de la lune (2018, Barzakh), recounts a fictional narrative of an important but forgotten moment in Algeria’s history, when it was accosted by the navy of Louis XIV on July 22nd 1664; it is currently being translated into English. She is based out of Casablanca.

Michael Overstreet is a Nebraskan literary translator, teacher, and poet working out of Iowa City. He has a masters from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in French Literature and is currently finishing a joint degree program in literary translation and French studies (MFA/PhD) at the University of Iowa. He has spent several years in France teaching English. His most recent publication can be found at the LA Review of Books.

Woven

A tragic farce

by Amira-Géhanne Khalfallah

Translated by Michael Overstreet

Characters:

HABIBA

MALIKA, the mother of Habiba

LEILA, the adopted daughter of Malika

AÏCHA, the mother of the groom

THE JUDGE

—I—

Malika is alone on stage dressed all in black. In her hands is a vase that she carries to the table in the middle of the room. Immediately upon setting it down she picks it back up and carries it to the windowsill in the corner, sets it down, then carries it back to the table, then to a different window… Each time she sets the vase down, a loud laugh rankles her, causing her to reposition it. A sort of choreography evolves in Malika’s frenzied movements, a dance set to a woman’s laugh a loud, rich, incessant laugh coming from off-stage.

Malika: Curse the day I brought you into this world…

The laugh continues off-stage.

Malika: that dark and moonless night…

The laugh becomes more and more hysterical.

Malika: Oh, that screech… I was so ashamed!

The laugh continues.

Malika: Shut up, you lunatic!

The woman off-stage laughs even harder. A limpid and joyful laugh without a trace of sadness. A frenzied laugh.

Malika (even louder): Would you be quiet!!

Habiba enters completely out of breath, choking on her laughter.

Habiba: It’s… uncle…(laughs)…he fell, he’s hurt…!

Malika: And that makes you laugh. Compassionate as always!

Habiba (laughing): You have to admit that it’s… (laughs) … it’s … (laughs)

Malika: … I don’t want to hear it. Stop laughing. Your father is almost here…

Habiba(laughing): … and you’re going to tell him like you always do…

Habiba and Malika (at the same time): … my daughter’s crazy, she’ll never get married, people make fun of …

Habiba:of you (she bursts out laughing)

Malika: … of me

Malika (running to the window): I told you to shut the window whenever you even THINK about opening your mouth! — the neighbors, my God. What will they say! (she shuts the window).

The whole town has to know by now. I just can’t keep it hidden! That you laugh like a damn madwoman, and for no reason! Oh, but that’s right, you don’t care. About anything. Not even my suffering!

Habiba (laughing): … I do too!

Malika looks at her, furious.

Habiba (suppressing her laughter): Don’t get upset…I’ll stop, I promise…I will!

Malika: So, how is your weaving coming along? Getting anywhere?

Habiba: I’m almost done, as a matter of fact. And you?

Malika: And me, what?

Habiba: Have you gotten anywhere in your search?

Malika: Yes, you could say that. It’s not easy though. You know as well I…

Habiba: They really are almost done.

Malika: Good, just keep your nose to the loom… It’s the only thing you should be concerned with right now.

Habiba: How can you say that? It’s my marriage, after all!

Malika: Finding you a husband is like finding a needle in a haystack!

Habiba (laughing): Yeah, and speaking of needles — look at my fingers.

Malika (without looking at her): Yes, yes, I know. It’s always your fingers!

Habiba: Yes, my poor fingers always hurt. (She examines her fingers and laughs) And he still hasn’t come.

Malika (sighs): You still don’t even know how to hold a needle…

Habiba keeps studying her fingers.

Habiba: Can I go out for a bit?

Malika: No, you’re not leaving, I already told you. You’re not leaving the house ever again. You have no business being outside.

Habiba: But it’s not fair.

Malika: Do you think you’re fair to me? With your incessant laughing?

Habiba: I swear, starting tomorrow, I’ll stop laughing!

Malika: And why should I possibly believe you?

Habiba (erupting with laughter): Because I’m sad!!

Habiba leaves the room laughing.

Malika: Stop dragging your feet when you walk, you lunatic!

While her mother continues organizing, Habiba comes back with an armful of plates. The two women push the coffee tables together…This all happens very quickly, mother and daughter fully in sync, yet not sharing a single word.

—II—

Leila is at her loom. Her face can be seen through the threads. From time to time, she spreads them apart to speak. Half of her body is covered by the sheet she is weaving.

Habiba is seated, surrounded by the folds of white fabric. She takes the openwork section of the sheet and examines it, bringing it up to her face. Only her mouth is visible through one of the open gaps. In this scene, the two women continue to hide their faces, each in her own way.

Habiba: I don’t see anything anymore. He must be so far away.

Leila continues to weave.

Habiba: Oh, it’s wonderful!

Leila: What?

Habiba: What I can see.

Leila: And are you going to tell me what that is?

Habiba: It’s him.

Leila: Who?

Habiba: … my future, my husband…

Leila: Well, who is he? Do you know him? Have you seen him before?

Habiba: Of course I don’t know him yet! But these beautiful sheets are for him, and all the hours I’ve spent nursing my needle-bitten fingers, too… So, when I’m here, under the sheet, all I see is him.

Leila: And what does he look like?

Habiba: He’s tall, very tall. I can’t see his head. Maybe he doesn’t have a head!!! But…wait, he has a limp!

Leila: A limp?

Habiba: Yes, that’s definitely what’s happening. He’s limping.

Leila: You’re sure? But why?

Habiba: How should I know, I don’t know him yet.

Leila: You know, you’ve got really bad luck.

Habiba: Why?

Leila: A man with a limp?

Habiba: A man with a limp, a man without one, what’s the difference?

Leila: Well, maybe you’re right. So, can you see anyone else?

Habiba: His mother… she’s bringing me wonderful presents.

Leila: Presents? What kind of presents?

Habiba: Oh!!! …Oh no…No, no, no…

Leila: What, what is it? Habiba? — tell me already! What are you seeing?

Habiba: She tripped and fell… my poor presents! They’re all on the ground… You see! A woman without a limp, and she’s still the one who falls!

Habiba breaks out in nervous laughter.

Leila (gets up and pulls the sheet off her): Would you get out from under there and get to work? Look, you still have this whole section to block and trim.

Habiba: But I’ve got to finish my story.

Leila: Well. There you go, that’s that. Now get to work.

Habiba: I can’t stop thinking about that man with the limp…

Leila: Are you crazy? Why?

Habiba: Why not?

Leila: Why don’t you get back to work?

Habiba: I’m waiting for him. He’s going to come back, and I have to be here. For him.

Leila: You really think he’s going to come?

Habiba: Of course I do, he’s just slow, because of his leg.

Leila: Did you really see all those things under your sheet?

Habiba: Of course I did. You just have to concentrate… So, do you believe me?

Leila: About what?

Habiba: About the man with the limp.

Leila: This is an omen! A very bad omen…

Habiba: I’m waiting for him. He’ll come, you’ll see. I’m sure of it.

Habiba gets out from under her sheet and throws it over Leila.

Leila throws it back and covers Habiba again, as if playing a game, a silent game, set to the rhythm of Habiba’s laugh.

—III—

Malika is watching television, she sits close to the TV set. She appears very focused.

Habiba enters and sits down next to her.

Habiba: What are you watching?

Malika: Shush!

Habiba: I’ve never understood why you find the news so interesting.

Malika: It’s how we learn what’s going on in the world! There are other places in the world, you know! And these people on TV, they go to these places, and have magical powers I don’t know a thing about.

Habiba: And it’s not like you ever will, either! So don’t stress about it too much.

Malika: Well if you’d let me concentrate, maybe I’d learn something! But they’re all very clever. They say it isn’t magic. They call it science so they don’t frighten anyone. It’s an important word, science, we need to learn it ourselves…

Habiba: Why don’t they just call it what it is?

Malika: People are afraid of magic, so they invent new words.

Silence.

Habiba: So, how’s the world doing?

Malika: There are catastrophes everywhere. Ya latif!

Habiba: Well then why are you watching!

Malika: I told you — to know, to understand.

Habiba: Really, I think it’s so you have something to tell the neighbors, and to get the ladies from the next village flocking around you, too.

Malika: They’re a bunch of illiterates! … they don’t understand a thing. They believe everything I tell them!

Habiba: But you can’t read either…

Malika: It’s not the same. I don’t know how to read, but I do understand everything they say on TV.

Habiba (laughing): I can’t take this, it’s too sad. I don’t want to see this anymore. They’re not even speaking in our language. These men on TV only talk to each other and all we do is watch how their mouths move.

Malika: Shush! My soap is starting! Keep it down.

Habiba: Why doesn’t anyone speak our language? Why do we have to be different from everyone else?

Malika: Because that’s the way it goes! We have enough trouble understanding each other as it is, but just imagine if there were more of us. They call us the mi-no-ri-ty. I don’t know what that means, but I think it means that we’re the weak ones. So, it’s up to us to try and understand.

And, at the same time, it’s nice to see all the pictures.

Malika turns up the volume.

Habiba: Why are you turning it up then?

Malika: Could you please stop bothering me? When you’re not laughing, you’re asking questions.

Habiba: I don’t like TV.

Malika: That’s because you don’t understand anything. I told you to be quiet. Let me listen.

Habiba: Listen to what?

Malika doesn’t answer.

Habiba: Wait a second — that woman, what’s gotten into her?

Malika: Which one?

Habiba: That one, in the white dress.

Malika: Her husband died. The funeral just wrapped up.

Habiba: You’re sure?

Malika: Yes.

Habiba: But then why? …

Malika: Why what?

Habiba: Why…is she dancing?

Malika: Why wouldn’t she dance? She’s finally free! She can dance, she can do whatever she wants. It’s about time, too!

Habiba: Regardless, her daughter, off to the side, there (she points at the TV). She looks sad.

Malika: That’s not her daughter, it’s her sister’s daughter.

Habiba: She has a sister?

Malika: Yes, everybody has a sister. Except you.

Habiba: How come I don’t have a sister?

Malika: Because you took my fertility.

Habiba (laughing): Really?

Malika: Yes, you and your father, you took all that was alive in me.

Habiba: I do have a sister, though. Leila is my sister.

Malika: I’ve told you time and again. Leila isn’t your real sister, she was found on our doorstep, wrapped in a white sheet, like a corpse. A beautiful, hand-woven sheet with a baby inside. No one knows how she got there. May God forgive her parents.

Habiba: I don’t want to know where she’s from. I love her even if she isn’t my real sister.

Malika: Now that she’s free, I wonder what she’s going to do…

Habiba: Who?

Malika: The woman in white.

Habiba: What’s she saying?

Malika: I don’t know — because I can’t hear a word!

Habiba: But look, she stopped. She doesn’t know what to do. She looks so lost! I think she wants to go back home with her daughter.

Malika: I told you, that’s not her daughter.

Habiba: But we can imagine it’s her daughter.

Malika: And what else do you want to imagine in this fantasy of yours, while we’re at it?

Habiba: That she can’t abandon her daughter, and that she doesn’t have a sister!

Malika: I know her better than you do. I’m telling you, she has a sister, she doesn’t have a daughter, and she just buried her husband. I’ve been watching for a long time, long before the olive harvest. Now that she’s free, she’s going to end up leaving, I’m sure of it.

Habiba: Well, I think…

Malika: What do you think?

Habiba: That she wants to stay with her family. She’s not going to be able to live alone.

Malika: Ha! I think she’ll be very happy by herself.

Habiba: What is she saying now?

Voices can be heard coming from the TV.

A woman is speaking, she says a single word in another language.

Malika: She says she’s tired of putting up with it all. That she’d like to relax and go far, far away. She’s going to start a new life. She’s finally free!

Habiba: She said all that?

Malika: Yep, that’s what she said.

Habiba: People don’t do everything they say, I think she’s going to stay, in the end. Nobody just up and leaves like that.

Malika doesn’t answer.

Silence.

Habiba: Nothing’s happening now.

Malika gets up and turns off the television.

Habiba: What did you go and do that for?

Malika: I heard what I wanted to hear, I saw what I wanted to see, and the rest doesn’t interest me. And electricity is expensive, you know. We can’t let ourselves watch just anything, otherwise we won’t have electricity for tomorrow. Also, the guests won’t be long. Go work on your sheets. You know we can’t let them see you… Get out of sight and don’t let me hear another word out of you…

Habiba gets up and leaves, dragging her sheet and her feet.

Malika (shouting after Habiba): …or laugh!

—IV—

Malika is taking care of the last details for her reception. The large room is surrounded with coffee tables. They’re all covered with tablecloths and plates full of cakes. Habiba shows up on scene out of breath.

Habiba: She’s here.

Malika: Who?

Habiba: Our guest…

Malika: Well our doors are wide open.

Habiba: But she might find out — about everything…

Malika: I don’t understand.

Habiba: She’s not one of the women we were waiting for.

Malika: Can you please talk like a human being and not like a plucked hen?

Habiba (in a nervous laugh): It’s…It’s really quite the disaster.

Malika: I don’t have time to deal with your riddle! The real disaster is you and that laugh!

Habiba: She’s here for my engagement!

Malika: Oh my God! How can this be…

Habiba: Don’t you remember? You told her to come today!

Malika: Oh god, did I forget to cancel? …

Habiba: Well, she’s at the door, you have to do something!

Malika (counting): I know I said the first day of the honey harvest…

Habiba: That’s today!

Malika: Oh my God! Oh no… But I didn’t know my mom was going to die! It was months ago that we scheduled. And so what about our honey? Who’s taking care of that?

Habiba: You didn’t cancel?

Malika: I didn’t have the time! or the energy… oh, you’re exhausting… She’s got to leave.

Habiba (laughing harder and harder): You’re going to ruin everything! And I’m going to be doomed to live hidden, out of sight, forever!

Malika: No, you’re the one that’s going to ruin everything with your damn laugh! This is day forty, you know what that means don’t you?

Habiba: Yes, I do. We still can’t talk about marriage, not until it’s been forty days after a death.

Malika (cutting her off): And more importantly, you’re not supposed to laugh.

Habiba: Why not?

Malika: We’re not grieving anymore, but we’re not celebrating either! We mustn’t laugh nor cry.

Habiba (laughing): Who invents these laws?

Malika: That’s how it is and that’s that! Stop asking questions. When you should cry, you laugh, when you should have laughed, you didn’t do anything. Ach! you drain the life right out of me. You’re going to ruin the ceremony and I’m going to have to grieve my whole life. You’re going to bring us bad luck!

Habiba: We’re going to have to start grieving all over again, grieving our whole lives. (She laughs)

Malika: Half the town already thinks you’re crazy because of your laugh… if she happens to pass by someone… what if we warn her? Fattouma is going to show up, I don’t want them to see each other. She hates me, she’s going to tell her everything. We can’t let her meet our guests, and we especially can’t let her see you!

Habiba: But if you tell her to leave she won’t come back.

Malika: Well what do YOU suggest I do here then?

Habiba: Let her in. When you think about it, there are already things set out to eat and drink and the guests aren’t going to show up right away anyways. You just have to be sure to not bring up the death.

Malika: Okay, so don’t just sit there! Get out of my sight and stop laughing right now! She might hear you. She can’t have doubts — about anything! Otherwise there’s a chance she’d never come back…

But she isn’t going to see anything. The body isn’t here…that’s right, it’s the fortieth day! The smell of death isn’t stuck to the walls anymore…yes, no smell, no signs of departed life. Just my drying heart and waning voice…my heart needs a refill! Some joy, new memories…go on, quick, get out of sight so I can let her in…But she absolutely can’t meet anybody else…

The two women leave the stage, each to their own respective side before they realize that they both went the wrong way. They come back, passing by each other without sharing so much as a glance, and continue in the two opposite directions.

—V—

Aïcha, Malika and Leila are all on stage. Coffee tables are adorned with tablecloths and cakes…Malika walks beside Aïcha and helps her sit down.

Aïcha: What a spread…You really shouldn’t have!

Malika: It’s the least I could do. The whole family is going to come. Everybody wants to meet you.

Aïcha: What an honor! What an honor!

Malika: Oh but we are the ones honored by your presence.

Aïcha picks up a cake.

Aïcha: May I have one?

Malika: Of course!

Leila (offering a juice): Thank you for coming and sharing these difficult times with us.

Aïcha: Difficult?

Malika (shooing Leila away): Yes, these are difficult times that we live in. Don’t you think?

Aïcha: You think so! What makes you say that?

Malika: There is so much wrong in the world! Don’t you watch TV?

Aïcha: Of course I do! You want to talk about that new soap?

Malika: I’m not talking about a series, but about politics. There’s a lot going wrong in politics, you know! Politics, current events, everybody’s talking about it! There are revolutions all across the globe. And soon, there’ll be one here, too.

Aïcha: Politics!! I don’t understand a thing about politics, that stuff really isn’t for me.

Malika: Come now, politics are important…

Aïcha: I just don’t understand what’s gotten into the world, it’s like everyone’s gone mad! … but lucky for me, I’ve at least got my garden — my tomatoes, my peppers — they keep me busy and help me pass the time. All that’s missing is an apple tree!

Malika: Politics are the reason that things are in such bad shape these days. Wait a second! That’s why there was all that flooding this winter!

Aïcha opens her fan and begins to shake it with nervous, quick movements.

Aïcha: All that because of politics!

Malika: Well, of course! The news always says it’s going to rain before there’s even the slightest hint of a cloud in the sky.

Aïcha: And so?

Malika: And so, you don’t seem to understand. They’ve predicted everything!

Aïcha: How’s that?

Malika: With all the pollution!

Aïcha: Pollution…that’s what they call it when you cough and have chest pains…right?

Malika: Yes, but not only that, it’s also when it rains in the summer and is hot in the winter.

Aïcha: I had no idea! It’s true that it’s strangely hot today… But why are they doing all this?

Malika: It’s so we forget the real problems! And then they raise the prices of tomatoes, potatoes… They’re scared of revolution, you see…oh, you have to take an interest in politics!

Aïcha: Yesterday I bought a bushel of onions at five times their normal price…or was it two times…yes, two times… (counting with her fingers). Two or three times…I can’t remember! I should plant some onions too.

Malika: That’s always how it is. Every time they talk about pollution, two days later they raise the price of vegetables…

Aïcha: May God protect us from bad days and pollution…

Malika: …and men…

Aïcha: Ah yes, especially men. You’re current on everything, my friend.

Malika: I try, I try…Drink! While it’s cold.

Aïcha drinks it in one gulp.

Aïcha: But let’s cut to the chase, shall we? You know why I’m here don’t you?

Malika: It’s an important day, a very important day!

Aïcha: You know, these days I live rather far away and I’d like to be able to wrap things up quickly. My husband…

Malika: What’s wrong with your husband?

Aïcha: He doesn’t like it when I’m gone. I have to be home before he gets back, otherwise…

Malika: Ah yes, I see.

Aïcha: Well?

Malika (worried, her eyes scan the room): Well, what?

Aïcha: Well, tell me your conditions.

Malika: But we’re not to that point yet! What can we hope to have besides peace and understanding.

Aïcha: Yes, of course, I agree. But I’m talking about the dowry. I’m a little worried, it can be quite the delicate subject.

Malika: Come. It’s too hot in here. I’m going to take you to a more peaceful place, a cooler place, better for talking, where nobody can overhear us.

Aïcha: But where can we go?

Malika: The cemetery is right next door, we almost live on the grounds. Come, I’ll explain everything to you…Would you do me the honor? My mom would have loved to meet you. And I promised her that I’d send her a share of each and every one of our joys…it won’t take long… just come say a prayer for her spirit! You’re a believer, aren’t you?

Aïcha: Of course! I was certainly already going to say a prayer.

Malika (dragging her by the hand): It brings luck! Come… we mustn’t forget the dead, we need their blessing.

—VI—

Malika and Aïcha are in the cemetery.

Malika (crossing and uncrossing her closed fists): Look at these silent tombs! May God protect us from Iblis! We are all subjects of God and the angels. Occults forces are subject to the will of God.

Aïcha (making the same signs): All these incantations are scaring me!

She moves away.

What’s this tree? Do you think it’s an apple tree? Can I take a branch and plant it?

Malika: Not in this season, I’ll give you an apple tree later. Come on, follow me.

Aïcha: Because I need an apple tree, you know!

Malika: Yes, I know. But come on, keep walking, there’s nothing to be scared of, they’re dead! Here’s where my father sleeps. Noise never bothered him, don’t worry, he’s not about to wake up now…You don’t have to be so careful…come, come…Over there is our neighbor, she fell, poor thing, she never could walk again after that, and then her arms went and abandoned her… she left us like that, piecemeal, limb by limb…

Aïcha jumps.

That’s my uncle Abdallah…we didn’t have time to build his tomb. Poor thing, he’s buried right next to his wife. He hated her. We didn’t have a choice. There’s not much space left in cemeteries these days. But now they have all eternity to squabble.

It’s crazy to think… He’s right here in the dirt, his gold teeth still shining in his mouth!

She laughs nervously.

Aïcha: Are you alright?

Malika: Yes, I’m fine.

Aïcha: Oh, Malika! I share your pain, you know!

Malika: It’s a lost cause!

Aïcha: What are you talking about?

Malika: About his teeth of course! He refused to so much as speak before he died… and then he left with that beautiful treasure for all of eternity. May God forgive his avarice.

Aïcha: I’ve always been afraid of cemeteries, you know. The dead…

Malika: What’s wrong with the dead? They’re dead.

Aïcha: Yes, of course they’re dead. My mother is buried in this cemetery, but I don’t remember where. I don’t dare ever come here!

Malika: I know everyone here. Tell me, how long ago did she die? What’s her name?

Aïcha: Ourida…may God grant her mercy and welcome her in his expansive paradise. Ourida’s father was the great Haj Smaïl, may God shelter his soul, too.

Malika: Ourida, bent Haj Smaïl…wait a second…she died at the dentist’s right?

Aïcha: Yes, that’s my mother, she was so afraid of the dentist, you know…but they made her go…poor thing…she was in so much pain and couldn’t bear it, she had an infection, her fear grew to the point that there wasn’t room for anything else…her heart slipped out…

Malika: Her heart slipped out?

Aïcha: Yes, it slipped right out of her body…it just slipped out. That’s how she died.

Malika: I remember the day of her funeral…. Oh, but look! She’s right here, at the edge of the cliff, right beside my mother. What a coincidence!

Aïcha: It’s true! You know, I don’t see that well anymore and, may God forgive me, but it’s been a long time since I’ve come to see my poor mother. I’m so afraid of cemeteries. And I live so far away now.

But tell me again, why are we here? I want to leave!

Malika: But what about our party!

Aïcha: Really? In a cemetery?

Malika: We need our parents’ blessing…

Aïcha: I don’t like this atmosphere one bit. I want to go back to the house.

Malika: What more can we hope to have at this party besides brainless people who have nothing to say except for their blessings! Men and women who are only going to listen to us. I can dance, sing, nobody will ask us to be quiet. Nobody will tell us what to do. You don’t have to give me a dowry. Nobody will know. We can walk barefooted here. Nobody will tell us off.

Aïcha: Are you sure! I mean to say, maybe you’re right! We can conclude our children’s marriage right here and now. But did I hear you right? You don’t want a dowry?

Malika: Dowries are for other people, for stopping wagging tongues. But we’re here, alone…I mean, with only the dead as our sole witnesses. No one will know. I just have one thing I want to say. You are so kind and beautiful, my friend. My daughter won’t find a better husband than your son. Everybody in town respects him. He’s an honest boy — a man of principle! And your family too…your family doesn’t have any drama about them, no skeletons hidden away! And what are we looking for in life if it isn’t a bit of tranquility.

Aïcha: In the end I think it was a good idea to meet in a cemetery to seal our children’s union! Things are so simple. Why complicate them? We don’t have to give you anything? That is what you’re saying isn’t it?

Malika: Yes, I told you, on my side, there’s nothing to fear. I’m certain that I won’t find a better match, but…

Aïcha: …but what?

Malika: It’s just a formality, a question of respect, but I have to ask my mother what she thinks. You know, that is why we’re here, it’s the tradition.

Aïcha: How can you ask her what she thinks? … She’s dead!

Malika: You must be joking…I consult her all the time! I ask her questions every day and she answers me.

Aïcha: She answers you! … listen, I already told you that I’m not into this type of thing.

Malika: Nonsense, you’ll see, it has nothing to do with sorcery.

Aïcha: What is it then?

Malika: It’s science.

Aïcha: Science!

Malika: Yes, just like on TV… you see things, you hear things! When two people who were very close in life separate, they continue speaking to each other…but without speaking… only in your head. All you have to do is concentrate.

Aïcha: You’ve totally lost me.

Malika: You do watch TV, don’t you?

Aïcha: Yes, and so?

Malika: And so, don’t you see people all the time who are talking to each other from one country to another? Sometimes, they’re people who’ve been dead for a long time, right?

Aïcha: Yes, I suppose you are right.

Malika: So, why don’t you believe that I can speak to my mom who isn’t in this world anymore?

Aïcha: Because nobody does that.

Malika: I’m going to show you that I, Malika, I can do it.

Malika sits down on the tombstone of her deceased mother, caresses it…

Malika: Tell me, my dear mother, will the son of this honorable woman make a good husband for my daughter? For my only daughter, my sweet and beautiful Habiba.

Silence

Malika (gets up in surprise): Oh, what good news!

Aïcha: But I didn’t hear a thing!

Malika: That’s normal. No one can hear her except for me.

Aïcha: And so what did she tell you?

Malika: She told me that your son Mourad has an excellent reputation and that he has a promising future. His new garage brings him a lot of money. Enough to make the coffee shop owner jealous, anyway. So much that he didn’t pay him for repairing his bicycle. She also says that he got some good news in the last few days. Is that true? That he just came into a lot of money?

Aïcha: She told you all that? But how does she know?

Malika: It’s the world of the dead. The dead know everything, don’t underestimate them!

Aïcha: You see, even the dead know my son. He’s a real magician in mechanics, he has fingers of gold, chiseled arms, the eyes of a hawk…

Malika (cutting her off): Alright, it’s time we come to an agreement.

Malika lets forth an ear-splitting ululation.

Aïcha follows suit, the two women start singing and dancing.

Suddenly Malika stops.

Malika: My mother said something, but I couldn’t make it out.

Aïcha falls into a hush, frozen.

Malika: She says that we can’t offer our daughter to your son without a dowry. I guess it would bring dishonor on the whole family.

Silence. Malika stretches out her ear again.

Malika: … My mother is furious. She says that just the thought of it has disturbed the other world.

Aïcha: The other world! But why? What harm can come of handling these trivial matters amicably?

Malika: We’re going to handle these matters amicably, don’t you worry. Nothing spiteful is going to come between us. It’s just that we mustn’t upset the dead.

Aïcha: How much do you want?

Malika: What?

Aïcha: For the dowry? How much do you want for it?

Malika: I told you, I don’t want anything! I assure you, it’s my mother who is demanding it, and I can’t cross her.

Aïcha: Okay, so how much does your mother want?

Malika: She wants her daughter to be able to hold her head high.

Aïcha: Which is to say?

Malika: A belt of gold, just the running rate.

Aïcha: A belt of gold! The running rate, you say! You’ve got to be joking!

Malika: Considering where my mother is, she never jokes.

Aïcha: We don’t have the means to offer you such a thing! and at the same time, your daughter…

Malika: What’s wrong with my daughter?

Aïcha: She isn’t so young anymore, or so pretty.

Malika: But you haven’t even seen her! Who told you that! It’s that old hag Fatma, isn’t it! She’s jealous of my daughter because she hasn’t managed to marry off her stubby little trolls!

Aïcha: You didn’t let me see her, but people are saying…

Malika: What are people saying? My daughter has an excellent reputation, not a single man has ever laid eyes on her, she hasn’t left the house in three years — even the sun hasn’t touched her skin. She’s as white as goat’s milk and her heart is too!

Aïcha: No! That’s not what I meant!

Malika: Then what did you mean?

Aïcha: They say that she laughs!

Malika: They say that she laughs. People say that my daughter laughs. Well of course she laughs, you don’t actually want her to spend her days crying do you?

Aïcha: They say that…she laughs a lot…I mean, that she doesn’t stop laughing.

Malika: Are you calling my daughter a madwoman or what?

The women are speaking louder and louder, more and more quickly, and at the same time.

Malika: Just wait till you see my beautiful Habiba, she’s worth her weight in gold.

Aïcha: I’m only asking to see her, I’m not the one who…it’s everybody else who thinks that…

Malika: Who thinks what? Who told you that, tell me…I don’t want to hear things like that…God will punish you for your slander!

Aïcha: No, it’s Fattouma who told me…it’s not me…I haven’t seen your daughter and what’s more…

Malika: May God curse her! Her and her future generations!

There’s a loud whistle. The two women freeze.

—VII—

At court

The judge: And now we’re going and disturbing the peace and quiet of cemeteries?

Malika: No, Sidi. The dead are the ones who disturbed us!

The judge: Oh?

Aïcha: We’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, your honor. We only wanted to share our joy with those we love…But then they went and ruined my son’s engagement!

Malika: And my daughter’s.

The judge: Who did?

Malika and Aïcha: The dead, your honor.

The judge: The dead?

Malika: Yes, Sidi. They ruined everything. The wedding’s off. My poor daughter never had a chance…

Aïcha: We’d reached an agreement though, hadn’t we? Everything was going swimmingly, that is until the dead came and meddled in the world of the living!

Malika: Exactly. They’re the reason everything fell apart.

The judge: Let’s be honest, you two. You don’t actually think I’m going to believe this story of yours!

Malika: But we’re not lying! I swear on my honor and in the name of Moulay Driss…

The judge: That’s enough out of you woman! Calm down! We’re in court. I represent our countries’ Highest Institutions. We are a democracy! Or rather…a monarchy…I mean…there are laws! A constitution! …You can’t just do anything you want !

Malika: But we haven’t done anything.

The judge: You haven’t done anything? You haven’t done anything! How dare you say that. You were fighting in a cemetery. People even heard you singing.

Malika: Are we here because we sang or because we fought?

The judge: The nerve!

Aïcha: Forgive me, your honor, but it’s not the same.

Malika: It’s not the same at all!

The judge (taking a deep breath): Okay…I’ll allow you to make your case, you may speak.

Aïcha: Singing used to be a ritual of blessing. Religious songs are permitted in cemeteries.

The judge: But I heard about the sway in your hips too. Was that for God too? Or was it for Satan?

Aïcha (spits on the ground): May his name be cursed until Judgment Day.

The judge: Silence!

Aïcha (sweetly, walking towards the judge): You aren’t going to tell my husband that I danced are you?

Malika: How does he have anything to do with all this!

Aïcha: My God I’m going to be repudiated! and at my age!

The judge: Then you confess! You danced on graves.

Malika: A bit of joy in the cemetery. That’s all they ever ask for…

The judge: Is that so? Who told you that?

Malika: My poor mother, Sidi.

The judge: Don’t you try to trick me, woman.

Malika: I would never, Sidi.

The judge: Then speak, what do you have to say?

Malika: …My mother died before getting to attend my daughter’s engagement. I wanted her to share our happiness. I promised her…

The judge: Tell me how this all started.

Malika: She insulted my daughter.

Aïcha: That’s not how it happened!

Malika: How did it happen then?

Aïcha and Malika start trying to speak over one another.

Aïcha: She’s the one that started it, your honor…

Malika: …serious accusations, Sidi. You know as well as I that matters of honor can only be settled in blood.

The judge: Enough! Be quiet. What blood? Only speak when I have allowed it, you old witches! Did you know it’s forbidden to loiter around in cemeteries?

Malika and Aïcha: No, Sidi!

Aïcha: We weren’t doing anything wrong. We just didn’t want any witnesses.

The judge: And you confess to more crimes! You didn’t want any witnesses!!

Malika: Would you shut it, you brainless bag of bones!

Aïcha: Who is she going on about? Was that directed at me? …

The judge: Be quiet or I’m going to lock you up for contempt of court!

Malika: I wasn’t talking to you, your Excellence, but to this madwoman who’s lost her mind.

Aïcha: A madwoman! Me!

The judge: Both of you have desecrated holy ground, I hereby give you a six-month suspended jail sentence!

Malika and Aïcha laugh at the top of their lungs.

Malika: That isn’t going to change a thing in our lives.

The judge: Is that so?

Malika (laughing): From prison to prison…my entire life…from prison to prison…to prison…

Aïcha: I don’t want to go to prison, your honor! You can withdraw your sentence, I’ll never go to the cemetery again, not even the day I die. I don’t like cemeteries. I want to be buried at home. In my little garden, next to the well.

Malika (teasingly): In a garden, just like a little flower!

Aïcha: What are you trying to say?

The judge: Ow!

Aïcha: What’s gotten into him?

Malika: What did he say?

Aïcha: He said, ow!

Malika: Why?

Aïcha: I don’t know.

The judge (scratching himself): Owww. Oh it hurts. What stung me?

Aïcha: What’s happening to you?

The judge: Something stung me, or bit me! … Oh, it hurts….

Malika and Aïcha look at each other.

Malika: Say, you’re not from around here are you?

The judge: I tell you I’m in pain and you want to make small talk?

Malika (turning toward Aïcha): He isn’t from here?

The judge: So what if I’m not? Gah, it hurts!

Malika: So. She bit you didn’t she!

The judge: Woman, what are you raving on about? Who is this she?

Malika: Come now, the spider!

Aïcha: What spider?

Malika: The spider!!

Aïcha: She bit him?

Malika: I guess so, he isn’t from here apparently.

Aïcha: Oh, poor thing!

Malika: I’m not too sure we should be feeling sorry for him, he looks like a rabid dog.

The judge: Tell me what’s going on? What is this cursed little bug! I can’t even find it.

Aïcha: She’s our spider.

The judge: Your spider? And she?!

Malika: Yes, she protects us.

The judge: From who?

Malika: … ha, well, from imbeciles, intruders, from the hardships of our days…

The judge: She protects you…by biting people?

Malika: This spider only bites strangers. I just can’t believe that no one told you…And how long have you been here?

The judge: It’s been about a month now. But that’s beside the point, these are just a bunch of old wives’ tales!

Aïcha: She didn’t lie to you, your honor. Our spider only bites strangers.

The judge: More of your witch tales! I’m getting tired of this!

Malika (to herself): They all make the same mistake…

The judge: Dirty, cursed little spider! Where is she? I don’t even see it!

Malika: Ah, the arrogance of strangers!

The judge: What do you mean? I’m not arrogant. I’m the victim here, and I haven’t done anything wrong, I’m just doing my job. I even learned to speak your bizarre language.

Aïcha: Sentencing people and throwing them in prison is your job? Really? You went to school for that?

The judge: Yes, it’s my job to sentence people, that’s exactly what it is, what about that do you find so shocking?

Malika: And what do you find so shocking about a spider that bites? That’s its job too.

The judge: But why me? Why strangers?

Malika: You strangers are all the same. You show up in our town, in our lives, without even trying to understand.

Aïcha: Without understanding a thing…

The judge: Can someone please explain to me what the situation is with this spider? Oh, it burns!

Malika: Oh, you’ll see, that’s only the beginning.

The judge: Do you really think she poisoned me? You’re not playing around?

Malika: Does it still hurt?

The judge: Well… It hurts less than before. Now it’s just a mild burning.

Malika (nodding her head): Yep, that’s a bad sign.

The judge: Why?

Malika: Well, it’s a sign that… paralysis is setting in.

The judge: I don’t think I feel…I mean I can’t…move my feet anymore!

Malika: You still have your knees, your arms, your hands…

Aïcha: Yes, you still have all those, your arms, your hands, your knees…

The judge: I feel empty, I can barely speak.

Malika: If you’re out of words, you’re dead, completely dead. No more mouth to condemn, no more words to judge with…death is peace, Sidi.

The judge: Just tell me what you want — admit it, you’d enjoy watching me die!

Malika: Oh, I didn’t catch that, you need help?

The judge: I’m suffering.

Malika: You are the one that makes people suffer, Sidi.

The judge: I’m only a middleman; order has to be maintained. We can’t very well live in anarchy, can we?

Malika: I can stand for having order in the world of the living, but you want to bring order to the world of the dead too! Let us speak to our dead however we want!

The judge: Laws are created for the living as well as for the dead. We are there to protect them.

Malika: Protect the dead? But from who? From what?

The judge: Protect them, that’s all. Protect them from the living!

Malika: How do you plan on doing that? And, tell me, have you already been in our cemetery?

The judge: No.

Malika: And the prisons, have you visited them?

The judge: No.

Aïcha: And our houses?

Malika: He just answered that. Try to keep up a little bit.

The judge: I’ve never been inside, no. I don’t have time, if you see what I’m saying.

Malika: Of course, we see quite well.

Aïcha: Uh, yes, we understand, your honor, you don’t have time!

Malika (gets up and speaks emphatically): It’s not the dirt that buries here, nor the man that condemns. We want joy in our cemeteries and that’s how it’s been for millennia.

The judge: I’m holding you in contempt of court.

Aïcha: What does that even mean? He’s been saying it since we got here.

Malika (to Aïcha): I don’t know. Don’t pay him any attention. They use complicated words to intimidate us, but none of it means anything.

Malika (turning to the judge): I’m not the one saying that, Sidi, it’s my ancestors that were reciting those words.

Aïcha: Oh yeah? Our ancestors said all that?

Malika: No, my ancestors, not yours. We don’t have the same ones!

Aïcha: Oh, I didn’t know. Wait, where are your ancestors from?

Malika: From cemeteries, you old loon!

The judge: That’s enough! There is one code — that of the nation. We are not going to go and create a new one for each individual. Customizing for every little town. That’s how it is, it’s in the Constitution.

Malika: Well why don’t you look in the Con-sti-tu-tion to see if there are any remedies for spider bites!

The judge: I take it back, make it two and a half years in prison! Where’s the bailiff? Backwards dirty little town, no one ever does their job around here! You’ll see, I’ll teach you what good manners are! Someone has to bring order to this dump!

Malika: Too bad you won’t have time!

The judge: Where’s the bailiff? Oh just tell me what I have to do! Otherwise I’ll add even more time to your sentence, woman!

Malika: You must wait!

Aïcha: You must wait!

The judge: But wait for what?

Malika: If you panic you’ll just quicken the poison’s work. Stay calm, we are all condemned to stay here.

The judge: Me! Condemned! What a crock.

Aïcha: A sorry twist of fate, isn’t it?

The judge: I have to be dreaming, what is going on here? Wretched little spider! I’m going to kill her!

Malika: Don’t work yourself up, what did I just tell you? She’s a good spider.

The judge: Yes, she’s giving me just the warmest welcome!

Malika: Calm down and try listening instead…maybe you could eventually understand us?

The judge: You sure are strange people.

Aïcha: I don’t think he’s going to recover.

The judge: That has nothing to do with what I think of you!

Malika: To recover, you have to have a pure heart. Hate holds onto the venom!

The judge: Of course, more wives’ tales, you must have books and books of them.

The two women look at each other and nod. They proceed to speak quickly, and on top of one another.

Malika: Do you want us to bury you here?

Aïcha: What city are you from?

Malika: You have to tell us everything now!

Aïcha: She means to say that you don’t have much time left!

The judge: Thanks, I missed that.

Malika: Do you have friends here…?

Aïcha: Family?

The judge: You wish to bury me. You’re insane! I’m going to smash that ill-omened spider! If only I could find it, I’d kill her…flatten her, annihilate her, grind her, squash her…

Malika: If you kill her, you are dead…

Aïcha: …from horrible pain! It starts at your feet, there, you see?

Malika: Look at the splotches on his face. You must really be suffering!

The judge: No! I have splotches on my face? What color are they?

Malika: You are a very strong man, that much is clear. But don’t try to hide your pain, we know what it’s like.

The judge (touching his face): Oh no, my body feels so cold!

Malika: Yep, those are the chills setting in.

Aïcha: I wouldn’t move if I were you.

Malika: Take deep breaths. Stop fidgeting around like a broken top.

The judge: Oh my God! What’s going to happen to me!

Malika: The message of the spider’s bite is clear.

The judge: I still don’t understand what you’re on about.

Malika: Cleanse your heart, do not resent.

The judge: What must I do, quickly, tell me?

Malika: Get on the ground!

The judge: Why?

Malika: On your knees!

The judge: What?

Malika: Do it, we don’t have much time.

The judge gets on his knees.

Malika: On all fours!

The judge: Is this going to take long?

Malika: What?

The judge: This humiliation.

Malika: This is a cleansing. You are not superior to anyone. You’re smaller than a fly, no more significant than a cockroach…

The judge gets up showing a strong limp.

The judge: I should have thrown you in prison without trial!

Malika: This is just a ritual of healing.

The judge: If I have to die, I’d rather die with my dignity intact.

Aïcha: Actually, she’s trying to help you out, your honor!

The judge: Oh so I should thank you, is that it?

Malika: He’s showing the final signs.

Aïcha: Already?

Malika: Look at him, poor thing, he’s already gone.

Aïcha: May the earth be his light.

The judge: I’m not dead, you ill omen birds!

Aïcha: What is going to become of us?

Malika: Prisoners.

The judge: And of me? A corpse? I didn’t come here to die, I wanted to change lives…

Aïcha: At least you’ll find relief soon, while we, on the other hand…

The judge shows more and more signs of fatigue.

Malika: Would you like me to call your wife?

The judge:

Aïcha: … So as to let her know — you’re going to die soon!

The judge doesn’t answer.

Malika: You do have a wife don’t you?

The judge: No!

Malika: Why?

The judge: My wife passed away.

Malika: Oh poor thing, so young! Was she sick?

The judge: No, just sad.

Malika: And?

The judge: Well, she died of it.

Malika: That’s why you’re sad?

The judge: No, I’ve been sad since…well before she died.

Malika: Why?

The judge: Because she was always sad.

Malika: Was she sick?

The judge: I already told you! No, she was just sad!

Malika: What did you do to her?

The judge: Nothing! I mean, I don’t think I did. She’d just always been sad.

Aïcha: Something surely must have happened.

The judge: I already told you, she was just a sad woman, a very sad woman, that’s all. You understand. Nothing could make her laugh or smile. She had to bear that burden since she was born.

Malika: And so?

The judge: And so, and so… it wasn’t funny!

Malika: And you never tried to make her happy?

Aïcha: He spends his time handing out sentences, sending people to prison. He didn’t have anything funny to tell her. Poor girl…

The judge: I forbid you to judge me!

Malika: If it’s you who says so! I’ll be quiet. But do continue, you were saying? and so?

The judge: And so, and so…. She got angry.

Malika: What was your wife’s name?

The judge: Amel.

Malika: To bear the name of hope and die of sadness! What a sad fate. I don’t know anyone to have died of sadness. I don’t think anyone dies of sadness, just like no one dies from laughing!

Aïcha: That’s not true, remember young Redouane? He died from laughing.

Malika: Oh yes! Poor thing, but he was so sad. (she looks at the judge) Lie down. (To Aïcha) Give him some space… (the judge is on the ground, Malika looks at Aïcha) Alright, let’s do it!

Aïcha: What?

Malika: Let’s go!!!

Aïcha: Oh, yes, of course!

Malika and Aïcha start circling around the judge, their actions ritualistic. They laugh strangely. As if they were crying.

The judge (coming out of his stupor): What on earth are you doing, old, crazy hags!

Malika: You’ll be buried with dignity! Even if you don’t have any family.

Aïcha: Yes, that’s true, even without any family, we’ll make sure you’re taken care of!

The judge: That laugh is insufferable! You really are a couple of madwomen aren’t you!

Malika: And even when you’re buried, sidi, I will come to your grave to laugh and remind you of better times.

The judge: I don’t want to hear a thing out of you when I’m dead. I forbid it! Have mercy, please, quit your laughing!

Malika: You can’t stop me anymore.

The judge: I’m still alive and you’re going to see that I can still make decisions!

Malika: I’m on the side of the living and you’re on the side of the dead, you can’t even speak anymore.

The judge (screaming): But I am speaking, I can still shout, you hear me!!

Malika: Yes, sidi, of course I hear you. I recognize that tone, those words…those are the words of death.

Aïcha: The words of death?

The judge: The words of death?

Malika: When there is no more poetry, sidi, we have died. Completely dead!

Malika and Aïcha laugh harder and harder as if it were a vocal performance.

The judge (more and more irritated): Of course, no one will come to cry on my grave! Yes, everyone will be happy to see me cast under the dirt. You’re going to laugh the day I die, that much is obvious!

Malika: Oh, sidi, of course we will!

The judge: You’re merciless!

Malika: We will honor you as we ought to, now that you’re one of us.

The judge: I’m not one of you! And if I were one of you, you would at least have the decency to shed a few tears!

Malika: You’re going to be buried here, among us. You’re going to spread your roots into our earth, nourish it, we won’t forget you. (turning to Aïcha) Isn’t that right?

Aïcha: Yes, of course, of course!

The judge: Does watching people die make you laugh? Watching people turn into dust, into food for the earth? Does it make you laugh to watch people being… eaten by worms! (he’s pained pronouncing these final words)

Malika: Of course it does, sidi, it’s not like all that is going to make us cry!

Aïcha: What were you hoping for?

The judge (shouting again): A little bit of decency, I already told you!

Malika: You obviously don’t understand, then, sidi. We don’t cry for our dead. We laugh. You haven’t understood a thing!

The judge: You laugh!

Aïcha (cutting him off): Yes, your honor. Only her crazy daughter laughs for the living! and to think, she wanted to marry her to my son!

The judge: What is going on! You are very odd people!

Malika: My daughter, a madwoman, a lunatic. My daughter laughs because we were… grieving. Yes, that’s right, we were grieving.

Aïcha: She’s totally off her rocker. She should be admitted…What an insult! How shameful!! My poor son!

The judge: Quit your bickering! Did I hear that right? You laugh when you grieve?

Malika: Yes, sidi. I told you, we are different but you refuse to understand anything.

The judge: No one told me that!

Malika: You don’t listen, sidi.

Aïcha: That’s why she bit you, your honor!

The judge: There surely has to be a remedy, help me out here.

Malika: For ignorance? No, there isn’t, sidi!

The judge: I was talking about the venom…

Malika: No, sidi. We human beings, we know forgiveness…at least most of us! Spiders are like you, they don’t like when people break their rules. People around here respect spiders and their wishes, and don’t disturb them.

The judge (getting more and more tired): I had no idea.

Malika: Well now that you know, you can leave in peace.

The judge (tenderly): I don’t want to leave. I just got here. And to think that I personally asked for this assignment, who knew I was putting myself to death. I wanted to get away from everything, from the city, from pollution…

Aïcha: You’re affected by pollution like we are?

The judge: I have allergies all the time. As a matter of fact, I’m allergic to your laughs as well! Your laughing is insufferable. There’s pollution everywhere in the cities. The air we breathe, the water we drink, our food… everything is contaminated, rotten… the doctor recommended fresh air to help me get better. That’s how I got to this hellhole in the middle of nowhere. No one, not a single person wanted to come here… “Go as far away as you can,” that damn doctor told me. And here I am stuck between these god-forsaken mountains because of a spider. It’s true that I hadn’t thought of that, a spider!

Malika: You can’t predict everything!

The judge: Nonsense! I’m experienced — a foresighted man. I get check-ups every month, sometimes several times per month. Medical exams, physicals, blood tests, you name it! It’s very important. I’ve been allergic to eggs since birth, to cilantro and tomatoes since I was a teen. To chives, carrots, parsley and lemon since I don’t know when. Every day I find out I have new allergies. I can’t eat avocados anymore, or red fruits or dairy products…acidic fruits too. Sugar as well, I can’t handle sugar. Ringing telephones drive me crazy. When there’s a change in temperature, I can’t stop sneezing and I start sweating, I start pouring sweat, and now I see that I’m allergic to spiders too. That must be it…allergic to spiders. My God, I never thought…

The judge looks at her, impotent, and says nothing.

Malika: What do you want me to say? All you can do now is pray.

Aïcha: Maybe you should free us before you go!

Malika: Yes, if you worsen our stay, you will experience a no different fate. Don’t you see? It’s your final judgment! Show clemency!

The judge: Where is that damn bailiff?

Malika: No use looking for him now!

The judge: Where is he!

Malika: In his store.

The judge: What store, he’s a bailiff, he should be here in the courtroom!

Malika: He has a family to feed, you know. So, he works mornings as a bailiff and in the afternoon he works in his father-in-law’s store.

Aïcha: He sells pencils and flowers!

The judge: Flowers and pencils, I have to be dreaming. This just can’t be, this is a nightmare! You’re all insane. What am I doing here?

Malika: People passing through like you can’t understand. Don’t want to understand.

The judge: I’m not passing through! The proof? I put forth the effort to speak your language.

Malika: Language isn’t just words, sidi.

The judge: What is it then?

Aïcha: You have to…You have to know…how can I put this, you have to know how to weave them, your honor. The words, I mean.

The judge: I’m a judge, I don’t weave! and what’s more, I’m allergic to synthetic fabrics!

Malika: He’s going to leave us soon.

The judge: …radishes…

Malika: What?

The judge: … snow…snow peas…

Aïcha: Poor thing, he’s delirious.

Malika: Already?

The judge: I’m also allergic to radishes, snow peas and whole wheat…

Malika: There aren’t any radishes here, don’t worry. You have to free us before you die, you’re going to be judged as well, you know, don’t you forget that.

The judge: I’m not going to die as quickly as that! And you’re both going to prison for disturbing the dead!

Malika: You’re nearly a corpse and you’re disturbing the living!

The judge: Go, leave me, I don’t want to have to lay eyes on you anymore, I don’t want to hear another word out of you.

Aïcha (overjoyed): We’re free!!…Are we free?

Malika: No, not like that, you have to put it in writing.

The judge: I can’t feel my hands anymore.

Malika: We have to get the bailiff.

The judge: … I feel the paralysis setting in…My body is leaving, limb by limb…

Malika: I’m running to go get the bailiff.

Aïcha: Well I don’t want to stay here alone with him. I’m afraid of the dead… I already told you!

The judge: I’m not dead yet, you old witch!

Malika: Alright fine, you go run and get the bailiff! I’m not scared of the dead!

Aïcha leaves.

—VIII—

Habiba is pacing the stage, dragging her lacy sheet behind her. Leila is behind her loom, barely visible. The image woven into the fabric in the loom is more imposing, the woman with her baby slung to her back more visible.

Habiba: My mom isn’t back yet. That’s a good sign right?

Leila: I don’t know.

Habiba: Yes, you do! Usually this sort of thing wraps up quickly.

Leila: Yes, with a fight.

Habiba: But this time, she’s taking her time, too much time. They’re finishing up now, I’m sure of it.

Leila: I don’t know. The guests are going to show up soon and there still isn’t anyone to receive them.

Habiba (laughing):I don’t care one bit about guests. I just want this torture to stop.

Habiba takes her sheet and wraps it around her body like a wedding dress. She looks at Leila as though she were looking at herself in a mirror. She lets the lace spread on the ground. Leila gets up, takes a strip of white fabric and belts the sheet to her hips. Habiba plays pretend bride, she begins to dance…

Leila comes back with another strip of fabric and ties it to her, this time even tighter, around her thighs. Habiba is swaddled, she laughs loudly…

Habiba: I can hardly move!

Leila: You don’t need to.

Habiba: Or breathe!

Leila continues to bind her, immobilizing her arms.

Habiba: I don’t have arms anymore.

Leila: You don’t need those either.

Habiba laughs.

Habiba (jumps in place): I’m a larva. The larva has to break free!

Leila: Why? What do you need? The larva is happy, fed, has nothing to complain about. And she’s pretty in her beautiful clothes. You don’t like your pretty sheets?

Habiba (laughing): …I’m just like you when you first showed up!

Leila: Yes, we’re the same. You and I, we are sheets. Look.

Habiba laughs. Leilatakes her sheet and wraps herself in it from head to toe.

Leila: Remember? I was like this.

Habiba (struggling to move): How am I going to walk? How am I going to get out of here?

Leila: You have no need to walk, Habiba. Remember, I showed up here before I even knew how to walk.

Leila moves forward in her sheet and bangs against the table.

She retraces her steps and runs into the table again and again and again…against the furniture, against the walls. Each time Leila runs into something, Habiba laughs. Leila finally falls to the floor.

Habiba: Stop, stop, you’re right, you don’t need to be able to walk. The man with a limp doesn’t have to either. My destiny will come to me without me having to do a single thing, that’s the way it is, right? It is written! Isn’t it?

Leila: I don’t know, I don’t know anything. I’m just a sheet.

—IX—

Two scenes are happening at once.

Towering in the back of the stage is the loom with the embroidered mother and child.

Habiba and Leila, surrounded by sheets and scissors, embroider and cut lengths of fabric. Habiba stands up and gets under the sheet.

To the side are Malika and the judge.

The judge: Am I really going to die?

Habiba (under her sheet): I don’t know anymore, I can’t see anymore.

Malika: What do you want me to tell you?

Leila (stabs herself with her needle): Ow!

The judge: That hurts!

Habiba: Ow?

The judge: I don’t want to leave like this, because of a bite?

Habiba: You’re not alone, my fingers get bitten all the time.

Malika: To each their own wounds…

Leila: Let me take your place. You want me to ?

The judge: It’s easy for you to say that of course! But I can’t move!

Habiba (Hands her the sheet): Here, get under it and tell me what you see.

Malika: I can’t do anything either, I’m just as condemned…

Leila gets under the sheet.

Leila: Are you sure? I’ll go slow, okay?

The judge: I want you to tell me the story of the girl who laughs because everyone is trapped here, might as well pass the time!

Habiba: Okay.

Malika: We have to start from the beginning then.

Leila (still getting under the sheet): I don’t know where to start?

The judge: It doesn’t matter! I’m listening.

Habiba: Just tell me what you see!

Malika: It was a dark, moonless night. The sky had died out.

Leila: It’s hard to see anything like this.

Malika: It was that night that she came into the world. That she came out of me.

Leila: There’s no sign of life here.

Malika: And without a moon, sidi, we can’t see much of anything. Without a moon, we can’t count… we have to just accept that we don’t have enough fingers to count, which is why we beg the moon and why the moon curses us. That night, I felt the night under my body. The night was there, deeper than a root, more painful than a thorn.

The last month, I knew, I knew what was going to happen to me. My belly was getting bigger, the moon was getting smaller, paler, disappearing… I begged and I begged, but the moon was indifferent to my suffering.

Leila: Everything is dark. I don’t see anything.

Malika: Since that night, my daughter makes up stories and she laughs, she laughs all the time. What else is there to tell you, she spreads bitterness everywhere, in my tea, in my bread, in the water I drink. Every time she laughs, I feel the curse of that night. Her laugh is a wound. There are women who are born to laugh, without a moon or sun…I don’t know… in any case, they can’t hold themselves back, don’t know how to contain themselves. They carry the part of the sky that stops them from lying… or maybe they’ve just inherited the part of hell that makes them laugh!

Habiba bursts out laughing, pulls the sheet back from Leila and covers herself with it, from head to toe.

The judge and Malika are in the dark, they are barely visible. They remain quiet.

Habiba: I hear footsteps.

Leila (slightly scared): I don’t believe you.

Habiba: They’re getting closer! But slowly. One of his legs seems to be hurting. That must be why it’s taking so long.

Leila: Stop finding excuses for him.

Habiba: It’s what I hear.

Leila tries to take the sheet from her. The two women pull on the fabric which begins to unravel.

Habiba takes it by force and covers herself.

One of her eyes is visible through the hole in the sheet.

Leila sets herself back to cutting fabric.

Habiba: Can you see my eyes?

Leila: I only see one.

Habiba: One eye for you and one eye for me.

Leila: What do you see?

Habiba (putting her fingers in the holes of the sheet): There are more and more holes in the sheet, my vision is getting worse and worse. Say, are those flowers you’re making?

Leila: I am cutting flowers, yes. Flowers without roots.

Habiba: Can you add some bees? For the pollen?

Leila: No.

Habiba: Why not?

Leila: Bees can fly. You can’t catch them.

Habiba: What do you know how to do?

Leila: Nothing, I only know how to cut flowers.

Habiba: But if you could do anything, what would you do?

Leila: I would leave with them.

Habiba: With who?

Leila: The bees.

Habiba: You have the fingers of a fairy.

Leila: I just have injured hands.

Habiba: Are you in pain?

Leila: No.

Habiba: I am, that’s why I ask.

Leila: I don’t feel much these days.

Habiba gets out from under the sheet and covers Leila once again without speaking to her, the two girls take up the familiar game without hesitation.

Habiba: Go ahead, now’s your chance. Fly away.

Leila: I told you I can’t see anything.

Habiba: Concentrate, you’ll see.

Leila: Darkness, I already told you.

Habiba: Describe what you’re really seeing. Go on, focus. I know you can see some things.

Leila: You won’t understand.

Habiba: That doesn’t matter.

Leila: I see other girls, besides you and me.

Habiba: Do I know them?

Leila: No, nobody knows them.

Habiba: What are they doing? Who are they?

Leila gets out from under the sheet, goes to the loom and pulls on a thread.

The sheet with the mother and child unravels to the rhythm of her words.

Leila: They’re our age, they weave, they weave from morning till dark.

They’re in workshops and factories.

They weave and weave… they’ve been swallowed by giant machines.

They’ve been there for decades, for centuries they’ve been weaving, for millennia.

Every morning they show up with an empty stomach.

Every night their stomach is even emptier.

Habiba: But why are they there?

Leila: They are there for us. They don’t exist without us.

Habia: You’ve lost me.

Leila: They weave and weave and I gather the pain of their hands,

They weave and I withdraw their needles from my flesh.

They weave and I listen to their stories, their aching songs.

They weave and I borrow their mouths, their voices.

They weave and I cut the threads of their story, the stories that run through their fingers.

They weave and forget.

They spin their thread and at the tip of their wounds, there is you and me.

They spin their thread and I, every year, confuse autumn and spring.

They spin their thread and I, out of all of man’s wounds, these are the ones that I see.

Habiba takes the sheet back and covers herself again. Leila walks up to her and starts frantically cutting the fabric. Habiba puts her fingers in the holes of the fabric. Habiba’s face is more and more visible.

Habiba: Stop, stop, I can’t see anything anymore!

Leila: The sheets remember more than you or I, don’t worry. All the stories are still there.

She continues to cut.

Leila: We have to free the stories from this horrible stuff.

Habiba looks for a way to get out from under the sheet.

Leila: You don’t want me to cut you a story? A story that you like? How about one with a prince charming?

She continues to cut.

Leila: They pull the threads tight and don’t let through any air, freshness, day, night, stars, rivers, seabirds or their songs…

She cuts again.

Habiba laughs very loudly, her laugh resembles a cry.

Leila continues to cut the sheet but without speaking.

Malika and the judge slowly reappear.

Malika: That’s it! Nothing is going to come of us waiting.

The judge: Are you sure? There’s really nothing left to do?

Malika: … well no, it’s obvious…

The judge: Look, I don’t know any prayers, I’ve never prayed, I don’t know what to say to the Lord.

Malika: Pray that he pardons your ignorance.

The judge: Do you really think that these are my last moments?

Malika: Of course I don’t, though I do think that idiot Aïcha isn’t going to come back!

The judge: Ah yes, you’re talking about your victim!

Malika: I don’t know who the victim is anymore.

The judge: I’m going to die, that’s what you’re trying to tell me.

Malika: Good heavens, would you get up already!

The judge: Don’t make light of this.

Malika: Get up, you’re not going to die, nothing is wrong with you!

The lights focus back on Habiba and Leila.

Habiba is under the sheet which has transformed into lace. She is looking for a way out but is struggling.

Habiba: I can’t see anything anymore.

Leila: Open your eyes already!

Habiba: They’re open but there’s too much light. I can’t see anything!

Leila: Habiba, look at me, the man with the limp doesn’t exist.

Habiba: Of course he exists.

Leila: No, Habiba, he does not exist.

Habiba: Why did you do this? My poor sheets…

Leila: He’s not going to come, Habiba. He isn’t going to come. The man with the limp doesn’t exist.

The judge gets up limping.

The judge: Oh, yes, you’re right. I’m on my way…

I can walk, I can! I’m walking, I’m not dead!

The judge traverses the stage from end to end and is incredulous that he can walk.

The judge:Tell me, what happened? A few minutes ago I was completely paralyzed. You put a curse on me.

Malika: Are you still going on about that? You weren’t paralyzed. You were just a little bit paralyzed. Just enough for us to have the time to get to know each other.

The judge: I sure was, I couldn’t move.

Malika: Yes, I suppose you’re right, but the spider had nothing to do with it. That spider is as harmless as a larva in a cocoon.

The judge: What happened to me then? I didn’t just make up all that pain!

Malika: It’s fear that paralyzed you.

The judge: Don’t be absurd, I wasn’t afraid! It takes a lot more than that to scare me!

Malika: Yes, I know, we’ll say it was the spider. We always say it’s the spider. Look how strong you are! You survived the spider’s bite. Very few men come out of that alive, do you know why you did?

The judge: Not the faintest clue.

Malika: Because deep down, your heart is pure, very pure!

The judge: Ah, yes, that’s exactly right. My purity is what saved me, isn’t it? And it was just a stupid little spider that bit me. As a matter of fact, I’m so noble of heart that I drop all charges against you.

Malika doesn’t move.

The judge: Go, go on, before I change my mind, and don’t let me catch sight of you in a cemetery ever again!

Malika (without moving or looking at him): Have you ever seen a spider weave its web?

The judge: No, I don’t have time for that sort of thing, if you see what I’m saying.

Malika: Yes, of course I see. As for me, I’ve seen it already, I’ve long watched spiders at work.

The judge: I don’t doubt it for a second! You have so much time to lose!

Malika: Spiders cast a thread between two branches, two walls, two worlds…

The judge: Watching spiders with all your time would make for a common thread in your days, wouldn’t it! … hahahaha…

Malika: She casts her thread, constructs a bridge on which to run. She runs, making round trips, one after the other, after the other.

Her bridge soon transforms into a web. An enormous web.

The judge: What a beautiful discovery! It’s inspiring!

Malika: But it’s not the web that captures insects, you know!

The judge: What are you going to come up with next! 

Malika: Her secret is not the web… Insects can see her web. The trap, it’s what they can’t see.

The judge: More of your tales! I’m warning you…

Malika: Her secret is the thread. Spiders weave two different kinds.

The judge: I’m in a hurry, you know, I’ve already lost so much time.

Malika: There are two different threads…

The judge: … you already said that!

Malika: Yes, but you keep cutting me off.

The judge (laughing): Oh, I’m sorry, I definitely don’t want you to lose the thread of your story. Hahahaha…

Malika: Insects are always caught in the middle of the web. One of the threads the circles are woven with is sticky. That’s her secret, the nature of the thread itself.

The judge: And what about the spider? How does she get around? Does she have on anti-sticky-thread shoes? Hahahaha…

Malika: The spider moves about ever so slowly, paying close attention, carefully avoiding the threads that stick. Like a tightrope walker, she avoids her own threads…

The judge: And what happens if she mistakes one thread for the other?

Malika (getting up): Ah, when we mix them up, we’re done for. Tricked by our own game, fallen into our own trap, our own forgetfulness…We’re done for. I’m done for, absolutely done for…

She leaves the room while talking. The judge leaves from the other side of the stage.

Habiba is left alone on stage fighting to get out of her sheets.

Upstage, Leila clings to her loom. She is playing with the taut, vertical threads, touching them as though they were harp strings. She seems to be at peace.

A distant sound, perhaps music, can be heard.

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