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through in the tone of her words or the sheen of her eyes.
“We were both completely shattered. Robbie had escaped by a miracle from a traffic accident; he had been driving distractedly, disconcerted and distressed at the realisation that he could no longer live under the same roof as his wife. I had spent a month in a clinic following a failed suicide attempt because I could no longer bear myself or Copenhagen. When I left the clinic I went directly to the nearest travel agency. My idea was to leave for Egypt as soon as possible, but I was told that there was a package tour departing for Morocco the following day with one seat left. Since I was anxious to escape at any price I immediately took the necessary steps and, next day, joined the other tourists. Robbie was also one of the passengers on the tour, most of whom were elderly: retired people who in the evening of their days had become aware of the world around them. Neither of us attracted the other’s attention amid the chatter of the old folk, their cries of contrived amazement at everything they saw and their constant grumbling at the service they received. It was all very frustrating. Then in Beni Mellal our eyes met.We were supposed to spend the day there, then go to Marrakech.We talked throughout the morning and, over lunch, decided that our presence among those human wrecks was a mistake. At exactly four o’clock we agreed to abandon the tour and spend some time in Beni Mellal. Something incredible happened between us, something impossible to describe or to analyse. We booked two rooms in a small peaceful hotel called the Touring on MohammedV Street.Who knows if it’s still there?
“We strolled through the gardens surrounding Beni Mellal and along the mountain paths, telling one another our personal dramas. In the margins of those sad stories we found that the shadows of life were neither absolute nor endless and, in the dust of desperation and despair, a renewed trust in life and love began to arise between us. Everything that happened to us after that was a gift of this small enchanting city. A month later we went back to Copenhagen carefree, joyful and full of self-confidence. Robbie settled matters with his wife and we got married and had two children. We lived a peaceful and serene existence, carrying the memory of this merciful place in our hearts, until Robbie fell ill with cancer. I won’t tell you about the suffering of his slow
14 BANIPAL 40 – LIBYAN FICTION ABDELKARIM JOUITI
decline, the feeling that part of yourself is being lost and fading away, or about his body being eroded to mere skin and bone . . .
“One morning he told me that he had dreamt about a small and distant city which chided him for forgetting his promise to plant a tree there. The most beautiful mark of respect people can pay to a place that has saved them is to plant a tree, he said.Trees are of the earth, they grow tall, become green, sprout leaves, isn’t that so? Dear God, why did we wait all this time? A few days later Robbie died. Since I have come to hate the passage of time, and have no confidence in what it will do to my own feelings and health, I immediately consulted an expert as to what kind of tree is best able to adapt to the Mediterranean climate, then hastened to bring it here, a gift from us to this small city and its inhabitants”.
The expression on my face at her story was not sad but sincere. I expressed condolences for her husband’s death on behalf of the inhabitants of Beni Mellal and was on the point of telling her that the small and enchanting city she had known had grown, becoming ugly and disfigured, and that the engrained conviction shared by successive directors of the Municipal Office was that of hating trees and inventing all means and reasons to uproot them; however, out of consideration for the gratuitous pains she was putting herself to, I preferred to play to the full the role of the civilised Municipal Office employee appreciative of the great symbolic significance of her gesture.
As we walked towards her car to get the tree she told me how she had been treated rudely at the Prefecture. They had kept her waiting for several hours and, when she had finally managed to make the various people sent to question her understand that she did not speak French but they had somehow grasped the reason for her presence, they had sent her to the Municipal Office. She opened the boot of her small Fiat, explaining that she had hired it in Casablanca, and I saw a small ficus tree in a black plastic pot, its slim trunk topped with three small leaves, erect like mouse ears. She took the pot and handed me the envelope she had been holding in her hand, telling me it contained a quotation from Oscar Wilde which Robbie had hoped could be written on a copper plaque under the tree. The envelope also contained her address, she said, and if the local authorities needed money for the upkeep of the tree as it grew she would send it immediately. It also con-
BANIPAL 40 – LIBYAN FICTION 15