For once, this evening I’m going to tell you a story of love, an overwhelming impossible love, lived fully until their last breathe by each of these characters. But as you will see, behind this miraculous story there is hate, contempt, wickedness and cruelty. Its normal, that’s how people are. I preferred you should know so that nothing would surprise you.***
In the city of Fès in Morocco, each spring, a storyteller sets up his equipment and waits for a crowd to form, this is how Ben Jelloun’s tale of three generations of a Marocain family begins, and then to further warn us and thus distance us from the substance of the story , he tells if of its contents as illustrated in the opening quote. The story then pulls us in. The storyteller, Goya, tells us of a pious and upright merchant in the 1940’s, Amin, whose father and grandfather before him, have for generations made the two week trip to Dakar in Senegal by train then wagon and finally by camel where they passed several months negotiating spices and had contracted pleasure marriages whilst there. Amin who wished to respect the rules of Islam then consults the Moulay Ahmad, a professor of theology:
Moulay Ahmad reassured him. He quoted verse 24 of the sourate “women” : “you have the obligation to use your wealth to marry honourably and not to live in common law. It is a requirement that you hand over the arranged dowry to she with whom you have entered into marriage…” in other words, it is legal for a man away from home for long periods, to enter into a marriage of “pleasure”, “of enjoyment”, “of well being”, which guarantees the wife a dowry and the respect of the one she marries. God established this to fight against prostitution.***
This is the the basis of the story, each time Amin goes to Senegal he contracts a “pleasure marriage” with Nabou, a young Peul, with whom he discovers a sexual freedom and satisfaction he has never known with his first “white” wife the Lalla Fatma. After one trip he cannot imagine leaving her and decides to bring her back to Fès as his second wife. Goya in several parts of the story lets us understand how difficult this may be, he tells us of the slave market in Fès that was active until a few decades prior to the story, of the way the peasants from the land when they fall on hard times are used as unpaid cooks and helpers by the méchants of Fès, of stories of other African wives that are brought back to Morocco and used as sex slaves and how even the well meaning men have no stay over the way the first, “white” wife runs the house. As if to confirm this as Lalla Fatma says:
You’ve brought into this house, misfortune, evil and discord, you want to marry a servant, a negress whose skin colour betrays the darkness of her soul, but does she even have a soul? I wonder. And finally you’re a disappointment, do whatever you will! I’ll take care of my children’s education, I’ll keep them away from that wicked, stinking thing. You’re neither the first nor the last to risk a family for a negress allied to Satan. God is great.***
Nabou then gives birth to twins, one black and one white, Hassan and Houcine. From the treatment of Nabou and that of her sons we follow the differences in racial treatment of her two sons, of Houcine’s integration and of Hassan’s difficulties. Discrimination seem to improve with time over the decades until the wheel comes full circle and faced with the mass migration across Marocco of Africans towards Europe, the attitude to these darker skinned Africans hardens until one day Nabou’s grandson and Hassan’s son, Salim, is rounded up with other people of the same skin colour and deported to Senegal where after some time discovering his grandmother’s roots he sets off on foot for Europe.
First Published in French as “Le Marriage de Plaisir” in 2016 by Gallimard
*** my translation
The quotes as read in French before translation
Une fois n’est pas coutume, ce soir je m’en vais vous conter une histoire d’amour, un amour fou et impossible pourtant vécu jusqu’au dernier souffle par chacun de ses personnages. Mais comme vous le verrez, derrière cette histoire miraculeuse, il y a aussi beaucoup de haine et de mépris, de méchanceté et de cruauté. C’est normal. L’homme est ainsi. Je préférais que vous le sachiez pour que vous ne vous étonniez de rien.
…Moulay Ahmad le rassura. Il lui cita le verset 24 de la sourate “Les femmes” : “… il vous est loisible d’utiliser vos biens pour vous marier honnêtement et non pour vivre en concubinage. C’est une obligation pour vous de remettre la dot convenue à celle avec laquelle vous aurez consommé le mariage…” Autrement dit, il est légal, pour un homme absent de son foyer pour de longues périodes, de contracter un mariage “de plaisir”, “de jouissance”, “de bien-être”, qui garantit à la femme une dot et le respect de celui qui l’a épousée. Dieu a institué cela pour lutter contre la prostitution.
Tu as fait entrer dans cette maison le malheur, le péché et la discorde, tu veux épouser une domestique, une négresse dont la couleur de peau trahit sa noirceur d’âme, mais a-t-elle une âme? Je me le demande enfin tu es décevant fais ce que tu veux moi je m’occuperai de l’éducation de mes enfants je les tiendrai loin de cette chose mal faisant, mal odorant, tu es ni le premier ni le dernier à mettre en péril toute une famille pour une négresse alliée de satan. Dieu est grand.