Salim Bouhadi, who used to be the police chief in Tiznit until he left in disgrace, hurried up the dirt road away from the bluffs. He was waving his hands like a mad man. “Here, here”, he shouted at the black car coming up the N1. The car turned and came down the narrow access road dragging a long tail of dust. When the car reached Salim, the driver’s tinted window lowered and the general prosecutor’s face dropped down. “Where are they?” asked the prosecutor.
Salim pointed toward the ocean. He saw that the prosecutor was alone. “There,” he said finally, pointing with one hand and holding his tie against the wind with the other. “But the tide is coming in.”
“I’ll take care of it”, said the prosecutor and drove on.
Salim had meant to mention three boys perched half way up the towering sand dune above the cove. He had questioned the boys earlier then sent them away, but when they saw him running up the access road they returned. No matter. Having served in the interior ministry during les annees noirs, Salim knew how to handle bystanders, and he was quick to find out that they lived.
The general prosecutor drove to the bluff, turned off the motor, and remained in his car. He could not remember if he had ever been to this spot but one of his investigators described it as a beach for les amants. To his left, he tried to make out the smoke stacks from the electricity plant on the outskirts of Agadir, from where he had just come. He saw smoke but nothing else. To his right, one hundred meters away, he noticed three boys standing at the base of the towering yellow sand dune that marks this place. The boys were looking down into the cove and now they looked at him. He got out of the car and leaning into the wind walked toward them. After a moment, like egrets, the boys flew up the dune and over.
The prosecutor passed a shallow gorge and noticed a footpath winding down through the rock to the cove below. The path was steep and littered with old water bottles and shredded black plastic bags caught in the rocks. He could hear waves breaking in the cove, but he could not see them.
He continued along the edge of the gorge toward the boy who had not run off. The boy looked to be 12 or 13 and held a long stick. He was a stringy and wall-eyed Chleuh.
“Water,” said the boy, putting his thumb in his mouth and throwing back his head.
The prosecutor shook his head. “Is there someone down there?” he asked.
The boy nodded and held up two fingers. The prosecutor reached into his pocket and held a dirham above the boy’s hand, which opened and closed for the coin.
“A man and a woman?”
The boy looked for his friends now just visible at the top of the dune.
“A man and a woman?” the prosecutor repeated.
The boy nodded.
“How long have they been here?”
“Since the morning”, said the boy, and then added something.
“What? I can’t hear you,” said the prosecutor.
“They can’t come up,” said the boy.
The boy looked troubled for a moment, then opened his mouth as though to say something, but didn’t. Again, he looked for his friends.
The prosecutor bent toward the boy. “Why can’t they come up?”
The boy looked down into the cove. “They can’t reach the rope,” he said.
“There’s a rope that goes down to the beach.”
“And no other way to get back up,” said the prosecutor.
The boy shook his head.
“Why can’t they reach it?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “The tides”, he said, and then added, “They were yelling before.”
“Not for a while.”
“Go down and see where they are now,” said the prosecutor. “Go.”
The boy hesitated.
“What’s wrong?” asked the prosecutor. “Go.”
The boy looked troubled. “They’re not wearing clothes,” he said and closed his eyes.
“I don’t care,” said the prosecutor. “Go.”
The boy whirled and ran back 50 meters, then dropped down out of sight into the gorge. The prosecutor moved closer to the cliff edge and was disappointed not to be able to see more of the cove. As it was he could see only a sliver of beach at the far end and that was gradually disappearing with the tide. He wondered if they could swim out of the cove and around to the rocky sore on either side. But then it occurred to him that his daughter could not swim.
She could not swim, could not cook, could not drive. And even if she had been able to drive, she had no sense of direction. “Look where the sun sets, Amina”, the prosecutor said to her once when she was a tall, willowy child growing up in Beni Millel. “That’s west, and if you know that then you can find the other directions. Can’t you understand that?”
“Can’t you put more stars in the sky?” Amina replied, and then looked at him with the mock furrowed brow of a concerned adult. “Can’t you?”
You never think of Mustafa Benalilou as a sentimentalist, but he always remembers that moment, and how from the beginning he could not match his daughter’s wit, or her intuition. Often, he literally doesn’t understand what she’s saying. She speaks so quickly and in French, a language he detests and purposely has never mastered. The truth is he has always hated the French. It’s a lesson from his father, one of the Goums employed by the French to run the countryside before the war.
And there’s more to it. The prosecutor is no intellectual certainly but he’s clever and he knows full well the history of despair in this country, that exquisite despair, isn’t it, both doomful and life-affirming. Like a professor he can explain its roots in Wahabism as well as in the bones of Berber culture. But he would also trace it to the French and their own culture of despair, their passion for what is most inconsequential.
Incidentally, the general prosecutor is the ideal looking man: tall, slender, graceful. Very distinguished. You should see how European women swoon before him. His eyes, ‘the color of the dunes at Erg Chebbi at sunset,’ that brownish hue turning to black. So said one of his mistresses a few years ago. And always a steadfast look, full of confidence. He has perfect teeth, perfectly white and the cleanest breath. At a lover’s distance, you might also notice the scent of frankincense from his breast pocket. His instinct is to be dapper, but out of habit, and respect for the conservative code of the Makhzen, he confines himself to understatement.
Until three years ago, when she went off to university to study, it was Amina, ever the loyalist, who guarded his self-image. She was the one who knew how to awaken him from a nap, to draw the back of her hand along his cheek; even his wife doesn’t know such a nuance, such a reminder of a mother’s touch. And it was Amina who knew how to pack his traveling kit, with his favorite clippers and razor. She was the one to notice a tiny blemish on his face, or a gray hair in his eyebrow or the need to cut his nose hair. It was she who rubbed the Argan oil on a particular spot between his eyes, to relieve his headaches, and to insure that, at 67, he always looked refreshed and calm.
Such is the demeanor for which the general prosecutor is famous: ever serene, even in the face of disaster; even, for example, in the middle of that controversial matter a few years ago involving the Ravieitma factory. This was when some union members waged a legal and peaceful strike, and then the police arrived, tied up several workers, and beat them with ‘iron socks’ — inside the factory no less.
But then the general prosecutor stepped in to restore order. He brought the factory owners to his office, along with one of their French lawyers, who dismissed the strike as the work of provocateurs. “The communists have been replaced by Islamicists,” said the lawyer, “and we shall deal with them in the same way”. Everyone in the room nodded, even the prosecutor, although he detested the Frenchman for saying ‘we’.
Nevertheless, two months later, and after his critics suggested he was being true to his reputation for being indecisive, the prosecutor argued before the Court of First Instance that two of the union leaders should receive 18-month prison sentences, and they did. The truth is that if you push him against the wall the prosecutor has always been known to be merciless.
Of course, it was all very stressful, and it was Amina who sat him down in his favorite cedar arm chair and listened to him talk about how much it hurt when people said that this strike business was a reminder that the general prosecutor was part of the old regime. “Of course, we are all ashamed of the abuses that occurred during less annees de plomb”, the prosecutor said as though rehearsing a speech. “But I was never one of those people.”
The prosecutor never gave such a speech. Indeed, he has kept his activities during les annees noirs behind walls as high as those at the infamous Tazmamart prison. He is, after all, to himself, a humble man, incapable of such things. By the way, he comes from the area around Guelmim, those people who came originally from Mali and Mauritania.
But if he is humble and a great admirer of tradition, the general prosecutor is also modern. He knows the latest intricacies of the law, and has built a reputation for being honest, practical, but unpredictable. When the word from Rabat was to not charge the hotels in Agadir with abetting prostitution — because that would anger Saudi businessmen and, more important, the Saudi princes who use Agadir as their private brothel — he would not go along.
“I will not tolerate the abuse of young women,” he told Amina in one of those speeches that always made her think of a dictator on a balcony. “Do these people not have daughters of their own?”
And what about the time the prosecutor ran down the old man on a bicycle. Not the prosecutor’s fault, obviously. It was a moonless night; the old man was in the middle of the roadway. Of course, the prosecutor stopped and called the gendarmerie. But by the time the ambulance arrived it was too late.
When the prosecutor got home it was Amina who brought him his dinner, poured his glass of wine, and listened to the story a dozen times, from every angle, until the accident was perfectly rendered and fate was clearly responsible. Still, the prosecutor was uneasy.
“What should I do?” he asked. “Should I do something more?”
Amina suggested he arrange some modest payment to the old man’s family.
“Yes, but that could lead to other problems,” he said, and then shook his head. “But you’re probably right. I will arrange it. You are always my best advisor.”
And why wasn’t the general prosecutor’s wife able to do any of these things? Because she has left the picture. Suffice to say she had once been a great beauty, and he saved her. The case of her abusive husband was well known at the time. The prosecutor found out about it by accident, but as soon as he saw her photo in the file and read the description of what had been done to her, he decided to manage the prosecution himself. Which he did and sent the husband away to a long prison term.
But that was not the end of it. Mustafa Benalilou then did the extraordinary: he, a widower, in his late 40s, married this young woman and took on her three children. None of his friends could remember a time when someone at such a high level, made such a noble gesture. However, not everyone approved. His mother thought it was a disaster and begged him not to marry the woman. “How could you do such a thing? She will come to ruin you,” his mother warned. But he wouldn’t listen and married the woman. Amina was their first child.
All these years later his wife, now in her fifties, is still attractive; a little portly but still distingue. There’s also an indestructible quality in her face, a face you would imagine for a monument. And yet you meet her and you realize there is not much behind the look. Moreover, she has declined the opportunity to become more than she had been when she was rescued. She still cannot read or write, and although she has been to Europe many times and can affect the look of a well-dressed, sophisticated woman, she doesn’t speak a word of French.
Her daily routine rarely varies: she goes to the spa at the Sofitel, or to one of the better hotels on Boulevard du 20 Aout, to have lunch with friends. Her coterie matches her husband’s cult. And always Madame Benalilou advises the other matrons how to deal with their children. Her signature advice is to be stern and steadfast when it comes to discipline. Otherwise, you will see all the bad things that can happen, and she will tell you once more, in a whisper and with a look less of sadness than deeply engrained anger, about how her older daughter went to Marseilles some years ago to study and contracted gonohorrea, and how her younger daughter, Amina, has become secretive and untrustworthy, and frankly, unstable.
“Remember the most important thing,” she will say, “you must never allow your husband to be brought down by scandal.”
Madame Benalilou also never misses her Wednesday séance with the fortuneteller who assures her that her husband is not with this woman or that woman, and that good luck is just around the corner. The only bad news the psychic ever gave Madame Benalilou was that Amina might be romantically involved with an older man, a French photographer, perhaps. In fact, the psychic was merely feeding back rumors she had picked up in séances with friends of the prosecutor’s wife.
It’s true that after she went away to the American-styled university in Casablanca, Amina became a different person. She became more brazen, less self-conscious. But it’s also true that she had been diagnosed with certain psychiatric problems, including schizophrenia. She was put on psychotropic medicines, which the prosecutor was later told she did not take as prescribed.
This psychiatrist was well respected, although he had no experience with young women and did not believe many of the stories Amina told about her family’s dysfunction — or else he didn’t see them as unusual — including the story about how her mother once locked her up in her room for two weeks, with no food or water, or how her mother beat her, or how her uncle seduced her, or how twice Amina had an operation to restore the hymen.
The doctor asked that Amina keep a journal, which she was to share with him once a month. Naturally, he made copies and turned them over to her father. Here is one entry.
People steal the most beautiful things in your life, your life itself, and they never look unhappy or have regret. This is one of the things no one has ever explained to me. I grew up in such a beautiful place; everything was beautiful, except for the moments when my mother was there. But the days I remember most clearly; I was half naked, chasing butterflies, cleaning the chicken house, and digging in the ground hoping to find a dead body. I was sure the garden was full of bodies. Fortunately, I never found anything, only a red plastic soldier. But that place taught me, through all my senses, that the air feels fresher when it’s clean, the trees are happier when you trim them before winter, and the ground smells incredibly good when it rains. Things need time to grow and grow old, and there isn’t anything as loyal as a swallow bird. Back then everything was harmonious, and only the scent of jasmine in summer was true…
“She writes beautifully, doesn’t she?” the psychiatrist said to the prosecutor. But the prosecutor didn’t understand. It made no sense to him. Bodies in the garden? Of course, she must be sick. But one thing he did grasp was that she had been unhappy, and at the hands of his wife, and that hurt him deeply. He asked the psychiatrist for advice; but the only advice was to keep her on medication and perhaps send her away to school.
A few months later the prosecutor did just that, and that was the end of things. He talked to her each day, sometimes several times a day. He demanded that university officials keep a close watch on her activities, particularly after it came out that there was widespread drug use at the university and sex parties at which date rape was common. He encouraged her to take trips to see an uncle in Amsterdam, anything to keep her and her mother apart.
At one point he considered bringing her home in the summer but his wife would not hear of it. Then a few days ago he received a call from an old friend in the interior ministry, who had been advised that the previous day a French journalist — who worked for a left-wing daily newspaper no less — had been stopped on the toll road to Tangier for speeding and Amina had been a passenger. It seems the photographer was also drunk, married, and on a watch list because of ties to the leader of a local Islamist leader.
“I just wanted to tell you, as one father to another,” said the friend, whose son the prosecutor had once saved from six months in jail for possession of cocaine.
After 15 minutes the boy came up out of the gorge. He was limping. “I can’t see them,” said the boy.
“But they are not drowned,” insisted the prosecutor.
“People have drowned here,” said the boy.
The prosecutor turned away for a moment to look down at the cove, which was filling with shadow. “Do you know if the man is French,” he asked, but his voice was blown away.
“I know where you could find a boat,” said the boy.
“I will handle this,” said the prosecutor.
The boy held out his hand once more. The prosecutor waved him away. The boy scrambled a few feet up the dune and then made his way slowly, the sand giving way with each step.
The gusts began coming in earnest. The prosecutor slowly hurled himself back to his car. It was all he could do to open the door and get in, but once there he was immediately comforted by the orderly, dark interior and the fact that he could see out but he could not be seen.
He took his cell phone out of his inside coat pocket and pushed the call button; the little window lighted up. He scrolled down a list of names and chose one. He glanced in the rear view mirror and saw Salim back up on the N1. The prosecutor held his forefinger on the call button but did not push it. After a long moment, he let his arm fall, with the phone in the palm of his hand, and simply looked out to sea.