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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes in Morocco

Of Turkey and Chicken
Sidi Cherkawi Benzahra

I was eight, going on nine when my family lived in a small house in the suburbs of Rabat, Morocco. The suburbs back then were dusty, hot, and poor. There is grass all over the suburbs now, flowers at the sides of the road have grown, and a good number of people are working. Progress. At that time, there was nothing around our house but dust, small rocks, and a few other square houses like ours. At midday, the sun would beat hard on the dust, and in the evening, the wind would come and blow the dust away. The suburbs had been shifting inwards ever since I could remember, until our house was no longer in the suburbs but in the inner city.

One morning, my mother woke me up early and said, "Sidi'hmed, wake up, my son. You'll be late for school." I quickly rubbed my eyes and woke up, because if I didn't, she would pull the cover off me and stand there hustling me until I woke up.

My mother would wake up everybody according to their schedules. She'd wake up the kids first because school opened at seven. She would then, after we had gone to school, wake up my father who had to open up his auto-body shop at eight. She would never wake up my big brother, because he was always unemployed. The hot sun would eventually come down through the window around ten and wake him up.

My mother would put a handful of coffee grounds in a battered old pot and fill up the pot with water. She would then fill up another pot with milk and place both pots on the stove. My sisters and I would wash our faces with cold water in the sink while smelling the coffee, listening to it boiling and bubbling in the pot. We would then brush our teeth with our forefingers (we didn't have toothbrushes) and insert our pinkies into our small ears (we never had Q-tips), and clean the inside accordingly.

After the milk rose in the pot and the solution of coffee reached a desirable concentration, my mother would turn off the stove and run milk and coffee together through a dented aluminum filter into a larger, fancier pot. She would then mix the contents with a few blocks of white sugar and pour us, each one, a cup. She would spread butter on several pieces of bread and place the pieces in a large dish in sort of a dandelion-petals fashion. My mother had been doing this every morning, like clockwork.

She now peered into my ears and examined the inside concernedly. She gave the elevator look to my school outfit and smiled. "Be a good kid," she advised. "Respect your teacher." She straightened the collar of my white shirt and advised me again, "Watch out for cars. Look left and right before you cross the street. Wait until all cars pass by and then cross the street. Don't pick up things from the street."
"Even if it is money?" I asked.
"Even if it is money," Ma replied. "You are more valuable to me than any money in the whole world. Come right back up when you get out of school. Don't go play soccer with your friends."
"Sure, Ma." I lied and nodded my small head.

I picked up my thick leather school bag and navigated through the hallway and into the kitchen. The kitchen was roomy and high-ceilinged but had no windows. I opened a straw-made bin, reached for a large piece of wheat bread, studied it carefully for fungus, and shoved it into my pocket. I always had lint and bread crumbs in the bottom of my pockets. I quietly opened the cupboard—my mother was working on my sisters now—reached for the sugar box, and plucked four cubes out. I put one right away in my mouth and dropped the other three into the breast pocket of my white shirt. I opened the door, leaning on it, and walked out, leaving the door open.

Outside the air was fresh. The sky was bright blue like the background of a computer screen. The sun was still dormant, hiding behind the faraway square houses on the horizon. The red dust underneath my feet was sticky and cold from the morning dew.

I walked a dozen lampposts down a dirt road before I reached a large vacant lot. We called it Abu Hanbal's lot. Nobody knew who Abu Hanbal was. I had played a good deal of soccer there. There was a deep ravine on one side of the lot and a high, concrete wall on the other. The wall was all cracked up from the sun, and many large rocks were erected along its foot that kids would sit on and watch soccer games.

I kept walking across the lot, head down, kicking small rocks, when something large and black flapped right by my side. It was a huge turkey—a colossus of black feathers and clawed feet. The turkey stared at me, his eyes seized with dark fear. His feathers were perked up as though he knew what would happen to him. I suddenly dropped my school bag onto the dust and chased the turkey like a cheetah would chase a gazelle. The turkey swung around in his place and charged on the dust toward the ravine, bouncing, head going up and down, short wings beating on air uselessly. The turkey's body was too heavy for his wings to pick him up, and the ravine was too close when I jumped on the turkey and grabbed one of his legs. I spat the sand and stood up with the turkey in a cloud of dust. His legs were hard like dry sticks when I curled my fingers around them. His neck was long and awfully ugly. The turkey was tall and heavy and I had to curl up my arm, lifting him up so that his head wouldn't drag against the ground. I decided to take him home, because I knew my mother would enjoy cooking him with couscous.

I knocked on the door and Ma quickly opened it and stared down at the turkey. Her eyes were full of surprise when she saw that big of a bird, all thirty pounds of him, hanging heavily on my small hand.
"Who gave you the turkey?" Ma asked wide-eyed.
"I caught it, Ma," I said, holding the turkey with two hands.
My big brother came to the door and looked down from behind my mother's shoulders. His eyes were swollen with sleep. He arched one of his eyebrows and investigated the turkey with his big brown eyes and went back inside. My brother never liked surprises.
"Where?" Ma asked.
"In Abu Hanbal's lot."
"Was somebody watching?"
"Nobody was watching, Ma!"
"How do you know?"
"I looked and looked, Ma. Looked all around me."
"Are you sure?" Ma's eyes were black with suspicion.
"Of course, Ma. I'm very sure. I swear."
"I told you not to swear." And Ma looked left and right to see if some neighbor was watching and quickly snatched the turkey from my small hands and swung him through the door and into the house. The turkey cried and complained helplessly in her fat hands.

I followed Ma's heavy body to the kitchen to see what she would do to the turkey. Ma opened a drawer, and, holding the turkey with one hand, pulled out a small piece of twine.
"Very good, Sidi'hmed," she said, laying down the turkey on the arabesque tiles, winding the twine tightly around his legs.

The turkey jerked on the floor and Ma, to calm him down, landed her fat knee on him. The turkey lifted his head to push himself up, but then Ma, her body looming over him, pressed heavily against his chest and calmed him down. The turkey opened up his mouth to say something important, but then he closed it and blinked twice instead. His eyes were full of anger and despair when my mother finished tying him up. Ma stood up now, breathing heavily.
"Good, son," she said, smiling, ruffling my curly brown hair. She trotted out of the kitchen and went to the east room. I followed her like a baby duck would follow his mother on the lake.
"Rasheed," she called on my brother.
"Yes," my brother mumbled from inside the room. His voice was full of sleep and unemployment.
"Go get Aunt Fatna and her kids," she said. "Tell them your brother caught a turkey and they are welcome to come and eat it."
"Can't you send Sidi'hmed, Ma—"
"Go get your aunt!" my mother interrupted. "Your brother found a turkey, and what did you find?"

My brother got out of the room, bent over his dusty shoes and picked them up. He straightened up, glaring at me. He moved over to the step of the west room and sat down and laid his shoes in front of him. His head was now hanging down like a big watermelon and his brown, straight hair was dangling, shaking as he was tying up his shoes. His arms by the shoulders were soft, white like milk, but his forearms were rough and sun-beaten.

My mother rummaged for a while in her bosom behind the kaftan and produced a wrinkled 100-rial bill. She handed me the bill and said, "Go to Baba Salem at the corner store and get ten rials of black pepper, fifteen rials of garlic, a half kilo of onions—good ones—and eight rials of dry hummus, and . . ." My mother investigated the interior of the kitchen momentarily, "and don't forget to give me back the change."
"Sure, Ma." The bill was warm when I held it in my hand.

I went out to the store and my brother went out to get Aunt Fatna. Aunt Fatna had nine kids—three girls and six boys. The oldest was a girl and she was twenty, and the youngest one, also a girl, was four.

As I returned from the grocery store, I saw Ma sitting in the middle of the floor on a brick of old, cracked wood beside a pot of hot water. The turkey was dead. He was lying in front of her, motionless and lifeless. Ma poured hot water on his carcass and then snatched his feathers, bunch by bunch. Some of the feathers came off easily, and some Ma had to grunt and make a face before they would come off. She was working on him, tossing him from one fat hand to the other, ripping his feathers off. He was now naked, white, and goose-bumped all over. She grabbed the biggest knife in the house and plunged it into his guts. The turkey shook from impact, his eyes closed. She opened him up, cracking his rib cage, and pulled his guts out. Hot fumes rushed to the outside and a weird smell of guts settled in throughout the entire house. Ma shoved his guts into a small plastic bag and moved the bloody bag to the side, her hands full of slimy fat and clots.
"Don't just stand there!" she barked at me. "Go peel the onions!" Ma forgot that I had missed school.
"Sure, Ma." I rushed to the kitchen.

A few moments later, Ma entered the kitchen and dropped the turkey with a loud thud on the counter. She brandished the big knife over his body momentarily and then plunged it between one of his legs and the breast. She began to slice up the turkey into small pieces. Legs first, wings second, and then torso. She sprinkled salt and pepper and paprika on his pieces and flipped the pieces over to do the other side. She squeezed a half-lemon and sprinkled a few flakes of parsley over the pieces. She then pulled out a bunch of small plastic bags from the cupboard and unwrapped them to get to her secret spices. She poured olive oil on the pieces and sprinkled them with her secret spices. She finally washed her hands. The turkey pieces were ready to be thrown into the pot for cooking. They and the vegetables sang and danced delightfully in the sauce while the fire from the stove hugged and licked the bottom of the pot. The kitchen was hot and humid from the cooking, and my mother's face was sweating.

The turkey and couscous were cooked and ready to be distributed when my brother, Aunt Fatna, Uncle Booshta, and some of their kids came in. The whole house was full of hungry people. Uncle Booshta came up to me and ruffled my hair with his hard hand and said, "Good job, son," and went into the kitchen to talk to Ma.
Aunt Fatna grabbed one of my cheeks with her thumb and forefinger, and smooched the other cheek. "What a smart boy!" she said. My cousins watched me with envy.
"What's going on?" Pa said as he entered the house. He came tired from work, all greasy and dusty.
"Sidi'hmed's caught a turkey—a big one," Ma said. "He caught it in Abu Hanbal's lot."

Pa came up to me and ran his fingers through my curly hair coercively, making my head wobble underneath his rough hand. "Very good," he said, and he looked down at me with his big brown eyes and smiled contentedly. His teeth were yellow from smoking and his eyes were, although large, tired and withdrawn from hard labor. He always smelled of smoke, car paint, and grease, even after taking a bath. I felt proud of myself when he ruffled my hair and smiled at me. The last time he had done that, I was only four. I just wanted to go out there to that lot again and catch him another turkey, or maybe a sheep.

Ma placed one large, circular table on one side of the room and a small one on the other. The adults sat down on the floor around the large one, and the kids sat down around the small one. This, by the way, happened automatically—nobody said anything to anybody. Aunt Fatna came up, grunting, holding a large dish full of couscous and deposited it on the large table. Ma brought down the small one and landed it gently on the small table. The turkey meat was placed in the middle of the dish on the vegetables, fuming, smelling good. The couscous was dangerously hot in the bottom of the dish. Glasses of water were standing around all over the tables.

The kids plunged their hands into the couscous, even though it was hot, and, to cool it down, began to tap it and spread it against the edge of the dish. Uncle Booshta, at the adult table, started to talk to my father about his work, but he kept his hand busy, maneuvering over the dish. He suddenly grabbed a piece of meat and broke it down with his veiny hands and transported one large piece to his mouth. He kept on talking and eating incessantly, and my father kept on nodding along.

The kids beside me were too busy to talk. They were chewing fast with their powerful jaws, and swallowing and staring at each other like hyenas. We usually drank water when we ate couscous, but this time, for some unknown reason, no kid touched his or her glass. I sent one hand to the middle of the dish and tore a good-size piece of meat. Kids usually would leave the meat last until an adult came up and divided it among them democratically. But this time, I was nervous. I needed to go back to Abu Hanbal's lot to look for another turkey, so I grabbed the meat before the scheduled time.
"Aunt Fatima!" my cousin screamed at the adult table, looking at my mother. "Aunt Fatima! Sidi'hmed is taking the meat now!"
"I'm leaving, Ma," I said. "That's why I am taking the meat."
"Where are you going?" Ma cried.
"I'm going to meet my friend Mufti, Ma." I lied.
"Look both ways before you cross the street," Ma said. The reason my mother was always so concerned with my safety was because I had been hit once by a cab and thrown about 30 feet in the air—but I didn't get hurt.
"Okay, Ma." I said.
My brother scowled at me and then looked at my mother and said, "He is lying, Ma. He—"
"Shut up you . . . you lazy bum. Eat your couscous," Ma scowled back at my brother.
My brother, his eyes full of defeat, sent a handful of couscous to his mouth, looked down at the dish shamefully, and started grazing. To console him, Aunt Fatna sliced up one piece of turkey with her hot, wet fingers and placed it on the table next to him. "Eat," she said.
My brother looked at the piece momentarily and then took it to his mouth.
"I'll be back, Ma." I opened the door, leaning on it, and left.

My mother's voice followed me through the door. "Be careful!" she warned as I walked away from the house.
The sun outside was hot. Dangerously hot. It felt as though it moved closer from where it had been that morning. A gust of hot air rushed in, slapped my face, tugged violently at my shirt, and went away screaming.

I kept walking toward Abu Hanbal's lot, hoping to find another turkey to bring home. A friend of mine, Aziz, was playing with a soccer ball in the shadow of a large tree, kicking the ball against a wall.
"You want to play with me?" he said, now balancing the ball on his right foot.
"No, thanks," I said, and walked tiredly, heading for the vacant lot.

When I got there I saw the dust, playing, dancing back and forth over the lot. I walked along the wall, head down, looking for money. Kids would sometimes drop money from their pockets while pulling out a piece of bread to eat, or a butt to smoke. I saw a large rock, baking under the hot sun and flipped it over with my foot. A baby scorpion woke up and started to run crazily about. I quickly stepped on it and killed it, and then walked straight down to the ravine and looked over. A rusted, worn-down car was sitting there, lonesome, among rocks and shrubs. It had been there as long as I could remember. I stayed in the lot, waiting, loafing for about one hour before I realized I was wasting my time. I trotted down out of the lot, disappointed, and headed toward my house.

I was walking down an alley in my neighborhood when I saw about a dozen chickens in a large cage. There was a small plastic container half-full of water in one corner of the cage and a rotted wooden milk box, where chickens laid their eggs, in the other. The chickens belonged to Baba Sliman, a lonely, angry man who had only one arm. His other arm had been snatched out of him by a large machine, in a German factory. He had been receiving good checks from the German government ever since, and now he became one of the richest men in our neighborhood.

The chickens were resting quietly, peacefully in the shadow of the house when I walked toward them. After they saw me coming, they all stood up and starting making noises, readying themselves to run about in their cage. In the past, I had never thought of taking one, but now, because of the special treatment I had gotten from my family, and the envy I aroused in my brother and cousins, I decided to take one.

I looked around me and saw nobody. People had finished eating their lunches and had drank their tea, and were now taking naps, perhaps. I got closer to the cage and the chicken became really chicken. They started to run about in circles. I opened the door of the cage and my hand swiftly went inside and grabbed one leg of the biggest chicken. She struggled in my hand and opened up her beak, shrieking, complaining as I pulled her out victoriously from the cage. I closed the cage, swung the chicken around, and ran as fast as I could toward my house. I was kicking dust behind me, my shoes beating hard on the ground, my chicken shaking convulsively in my hand, bouncing against my right leg.
"Hey, you kid, come back over here!" I heard a man scream as I ran fast in the dust. "You, you Goddamn it, come back here before I sic my dog on you," the man bellowed.
Because of the Doppler effect, I could tell he was running after me and approaching. I clung hard to my chicken and ran as fast as I could between the houses and trees, almost knocking down a garbage can.
"Drop that chicken!" the man shouted angrily again.

I didn't listen to him. I was blacked out by the running. But I kept holding on tightly to my chicken like a pirate holding on to his loot. His dog barked sharply beside him and the man said, "Sic him boy, sic him!"

Since a dog was ordered to sic me, my legs automatically shifted to a higher gear, and I felt as though my body and the chicken were both flying down the alley like two small airplanes. Just as the dog approached me, his face bouncing right next to me, I rammed through the door of my house and bolted into the kitchen with my chicken held tightly in my hand. The dog stayed outside, barking furiously, and the man's fast-running feet slowed down and came to a halt.
Ma saw me when I threw the chicken into the kitchen before I ran upstairs. The man then knocked hard on the door and Ma arose and went quickly to answer it. The roof of our house was flat. Almost all houses in Rabat have flat roofs, for we never had any snow. To keep people from falling off the roof, a four-feet high wall was erected all around the edge of it. I was looking down from that wall when my mother got out to confront the angry man.
"Your son took my chicken!" the man shouted at Ma.
"My son took no chicken!" Ma retorted loudly.
Aunt Fatna got out of the house, shot a dark glance at the man, and stood beside Ma to protect her, her eyes moving between Ma and the man.
"Your son took the best layer of my chickens!" the man with one arm said again. "I saw him taking my chicken into your house!"
"You saw nothing!" Ma cried. "We know nothing about no chicken!"
"I can't argue with a woman!" the man said. "I need to talk to your husband!" and the dog sat down beside his master, staring at Ma, but still panting.
"There is no man in the house to talk to you right now," Aunt Fatna said severely. "Wait till her husband comes back from work and then talk to him."

Pa and Uncle Booshta had gone to work—they always went to work after lunch. My brother Rasheed had probably gone to catch a smoke at the abandoned railroad station where transit bums and regulars hang out.
"I can't wait for your husband. I need my chicken right now!" The man's eyes darkened, his face reddened, and a large vein across his forehead pulsed, almost bursting from the blood pressure. He was extremely angry.
My mother said "Wait a minute, mister!" and went inside the house.
Waiting, Aunt Fatna and the man exchanged ballistic glares.
Ma came out now with a skillet in her hand and said, "Listen, mister!" She readied her skillet, looking down at it. "I swear to Allah," she said, raising her head, "And our Prophet Mohammed. And the holy mountain. And our Great Grand father Omar Beni Al-Kattab. And Sheriff Ben Beni Salem—" Ma kissed the palm of her hand and then touched her forehead with the same palm. Aunt Fatna did the same thing—"That I will break your head with this." Ma shook her skillet threateningly.

The man saw the skillet and studied it carefully. He looked at my Aunt Fatna. He looked at all the children around him—they were all staring at him. A few of them had rocks in their hands, waiting for an order from above to throw them at him. He looked down at his dog and said, "Come on, Kweeta, let's go!" and he walked away with his dog following him.

The man was out of sight before long. A cloud of red dust came and blew behind him. Yet this problem had not been solved. Ma climbed upstairs, followed by Aunt Fatna and the kids. Their heavy steps were approaching in crescendo. Ma's face was dark when it stuck out of the roof. Her skillet was still in her hand and she looked like the Great Mother of mythology.
"Did you steal that chicken?" she asked me loudly.
"No, Ma. I just took it from the cage."
"Took it from the cage? Hah! You stole it from the cage!" Ma yelled savagely. "I told you once never to steal! Stealing is a sin!"
Aunt Fatna nodded, agreeing. The kids also nodded, even though they stole things all the time. They looked like they would be happy if I got bonked by that skillet.
"But nobody was watching, Ma." I said. Ma's body was looming like a tree.
"That is still considered stealing!" Ma philosophized. "What do you mean nobody was watching? What do you mean by that? Of course somebody was watching! Of course there is always somebody who is watching. Of course somebody was watching you when you were stealing the chicken."
"Who's that, Ma?"
"Allah!" Ma said and pointed to the sky. "Allah watches everyone. Allah watches even ants."
"I am sorry, Ma. I'll never steal again, never. Promise." And I looked up into the sky to see if God was watching me.
"Good." Ma ruffled my hair with her thick hand, her mouth showing a hesitant smile. "Fatna, go ahead and start cooking that chicken. You can stay overnight with your kids."
"Sure," Aunt Fatna said happily.
"But, Ma, you just said I stole the chicken. How could you cook it for supper?"
"Shut up!" Ma glared at me. "That one-armed man is rich. He no longer works for his money. He gets it from Germany. He doesn't have any kids. All he has to feed is Kweeta. Your father has to scrape up cars and breathe paint to feed us. Go downstairs!" Ma stared at the kids. "You, too, go downstairs!"
And Ma herded us all downstairs, her skillet in hand.

© Sidi Cherkawi Benzahra - July 2008 California
Sidi.benzahra at gmail.com


Surviving the Moroccan Bath
Sidi Benzahra
When I was six, or probably seven years old, my mom always took me and my sisters to the public bath. Whenever we built up a good thick layer of dirt on our skin, or had gone two weeks without washing for some reason or another, she would take us there.

A Leg to Die For
Sidi Cherkawi Benzahra
My grandfather took his leg to Lalla Fatima and she invoked the spirit and did all she could do to heal his leg


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