When I miaow like a cat, my mother and my father make fun of me, they say that there are two cats in the house now, a female and a male. My brother, who is ten years older than I am, and who always brags about studying French at school, makes fun of me too, but I don’t react to their teasing. I just smile, because they don’t understand that I only meow when I want to talk about something with my white cat, whose language I understand. I also understand the walls’ language, and the trees’ language, and the birds’.
Cats don’t utter a word until they’ve thought about it for a long time.
Walls are talkative; if you ask them a question, they’ll go on for hours looking for an answer.
Trees prefer silence, and they claim that words tire them out and make them forget their work.
Different kinds of birds have different characters. Crows only speak when the question asked sparks their curiosity; doves like gentle, tranquil words, all the nightingale’s words are songs, and the migratory sparrows talk even faster than their speed while flying from branch to branch.
A few days ago, the wall informed me that my brother had got hold of a magazine full of photos of naked women, and that he had hidden it under his bed. The wall hadn’t lied to me, because I found the magazine under the bed, and I looked through it. Then the wall asked me what I thought of what I’d seen, and I said that my brother had bought the magazine and paid money to see what I see for free when I go with my mother to the hammam in the souk. Then I showed the photos in the magazine to my cat, and she yawned and said: I’d rather have some meat to eat.
I asked the crow about the difference between men and women. He thought about it, then he said to me: ‘Women are afraid of crows, and men aren’t.’
I didn’t put the magazine back under my brother’s bed. I hid it under my own bed. For several days my brother kept looking at my mother, ashamed and confused. He obeyed all her orders, because he thought she was the one who had found the magazine under his bed and had taken it. My brother didn’t get his magazine back until he gave me his blue rubber ball that I had been longing to have.
I saw my mother deep in conversation with three neighbour women, and I went up to them and asked her what was the difference between a man and a woman. The neighbours laughed, and one of them said: ‘Mashallah ! All he has to do now is ask what the bridegroom does on the wedding night!’
So I asked my mother and the neighbour women: ‘What does the bridegroom do on the wedding night?’
The neighbour women laughed even harder, and my mother ordered me to be quiet and not to interrupt grown-ups when they were talking among themselves, and to go away and play with my ball.
I was angry, and I threw the ball as hard as I could and as far as I could. The ball flew up and didn’t come back down. I couldn’t find it, even though I knocked on the doors of all the houses in the neighbourhood.
After a while, I was sure that a crow, who didn’t answer me when I spoke to him, was the one who had taken the ball when it flew up, and given it to his own son.
When I told my mother what had happened she smiled, and said to me ‘Little crows have the right to play ball too!’
But I didn’t agree with her, and I kept on throwing stones at the crows and making them caw with rage.
My brother went into the guest room. I tried to follow him, but he quickly shut and locked the door behind him. Then I tried to look in the window, but he rushed over and lowered the blinds. I ran to the keyhole and tried to look through it, but my brother blew snuff powder through it into my face and I began to sneeze and sneeze, till tears ran down my cheeks.
My mother, who was cutting up vegetables in the kitchen, asked me what was the matter. I told her what my brother had done, and she laughed. Then she advised me to stop being so curious and stop meddling in what was none of my business.
But my mother hadn’t noticed my cat who was coming closer to the platter of meat that was to be cooked with the vegetables, and she ate it all.
When my mother had finished cutting up the vegetables, she looked in surprise at the empty meat platter and she exclaimed: ‘Where is the meat?’
I said: ‘The cat ate it!’
She said: ‘But why didn’t you stop her, and why didn’t you tell me?’
I said: ‘I only interfere in what’s my business, and I have nothing to do with what goes on in the kitchen!’
My mother cooked the vegetables with no meat at all, and I ate them grudgingly.
But my mother wasn’t angry when she caught me a few days later listening in on my grandfather who was talking to my grandmother about his will and what was in it; she whispered to me insisting that I tell her what I had heard.
The Postponed Gift
My grandfather coughed a lot. He drank a big glass of water that my grandmother gave him, then he said to her that his health was not good and that it was high time he made his will, so no one would suffer any injustice.
My grandmother said to him: ‘You’re wrong to think about such things, we only have one son and the poor boy does everything he can to please us.’
My grandfather said: ‘And you? What will become of you when I’m gone?’
She answered, laughing, ‘No one lives very long in my family. I’ll die before you do, and I won’t need anyone but you.’
Then my grandfather saw that I was there listening to them. He called me over, and he said: ‘Listen, grandson, your grandfather has neglected you, and he’d like to give you a gift that’s worth something, but he doesn’t know what would please you.’
I said to my grandfather: ‘Buy me a dog!’
My grandmother said: ‘Don’t you know that dogs detest cats, and cats detest dogs, for as long as we can remember?’
And my grandfather said: ‘The dog would fight with your cat, and he might even kill her.’
I said to my grandfather: ‘Then buy me a horse. I love horses.’
My grandmother said: ‘And what kind of love is that? Do you let everyone who loves you climb on your back?’
And my grandfather said to me: ‘Where is this horse going to sleep? In your room? A horse needs a stable.’
I said to my grandfather: ‘Buy me a little television set. I’ll put it in my room, next to my bed.’
My grandfather said: ‘Watching television will keep you from sleeping. You’re still little, you need to sleep a lot to grow.’
I said to my grandfather: ‘Buy me a bicycle’.
My grandmother said: ‘God forbid! You’ll fall off and break your neck!’
My grandfather said: ‘You might be run over by a car and we’d be reading the Fatiha for your soul!’
I stopped talking, puzzled, and my grandfather looked at me attentively, and said to me: ‘The best gift for you is a comb to comb your hair. It’s always tangled.’
I looked at my grandfather, who had no more hair, and I said to him: ‘I’m the one who’ll buy a comb for you, that will please you!’
My grandmother laughed, and my grandfather knit his brows and frowned, which was not a good sign, and I didn’t get a dog who would have barked at anyone who bothered me, or a horse I’d have climbed on to gallop together in the park, or a television to amuse me, or a bicycle that would have made all the boys in the neighbourhood jealous, or a comb to comb my hair that is still always tangled.
Rose or Onion?
When my mother saw me, I was standing in front of the mirror with a cigarette between my lips. She pulled it out of my mouth angrily, and said to me in a tone of reproach: ‘You’re no bigger than a cigarette and you’re smoking? The cigarette is taller than you are!’
I said: ‘Look at me! I’m much bigger than the cigarette!’
She said: ‘Who gave you that cigarette? Don’t lie!’
I said: ‘I took it out of Papa’s pack of cigarettes.’
She said: ‘You only took one?’
I said: ‘Only one.’
She said: ‘Don’t lie!’
I said: ‘I’m not lying! Search me!’
She said: ‘And when did you take it?’
I said: ‘Last night, after dinner.’
And my mother spoke to me in a wise, gentle voice, and put my head on her lap, and I fell asleep.
That evening, when my father came home from work and we were seated around the table as usual for dinner, my mother told him what I had done. My brother laughed, and he whispered in my ear, pleased with himself, that I was going to get a good spanking, and advised me to get ready for it or run away. I looked at my father fearfully, but he stroked my hair and said to my mother: ‘You can see that this little monkey is his father’s son. When I smoked for the first time, I was even smaller than he is.’
My mother was angry and shouted: ‘Is that what a father tells his sons? He’ll corrupt them, and ruin all the care I take in raising them!’
My father said to my mother, all the while eating his dinner with gusto: ‘Sweetheart! Don’t make a drama out of something unimportant! The little rose grows into a big rose, and the little onion grows into a big onion. The onion won’t turn into a rose, or the rose into an onion.’
My mother’s face turned very red, and she said to my father threateningly: ‘If you don’t stop talking like that I’m going to scream and run out of the house barefoot!’
I said to my mother: ‘If you scream the whole neighbourhood will think someone died at our house.’
She said: ‘I’ll tell them you died and I’m well rid of you!’
I said: ‘And if you walk around outdoors barefoot you’ll hurt your feet.’
My mother said to me angrily: ‘Shut up!’
I looked at my father, perplexed, and was about to say something when he said: ‘Are you deaf? Didn’t you hear what your mother said? Be quiet and eat!’
I didn’t say a single word all evening, and I didn’t answer when anyone asked me a question. I stayed silent, I stayed mute, and I remained silent the next day. Not a single word emerged from my mouth all day long, and all my mother’s efforts didn’t succeed in making me utter one. But I had warned my cat, the wall, the trees and the birds that I was on strike against words, and this did not sadden them, they didn’t blame me. They considered that this was a day of rest for them that they had been waiting for a long time. So I got angry with them, and I began to accuse them and insult them out loud. My mother came rushing over and she said to me: ‘What’s going on? I see you’ve found your tongue! Who were you insulting? How many times have I told you not to insult people?’
I said: ‘I wasn’t insulting anyone, I was insulting myself because I made you angry last night.’
She hugged me tenderly, then she went off and came back with a little camera.
She said that during his last visit, my grandfather had asked for a new photo of me. She had me stand in a sunny spot facing the camera, and she put a cigarette between my lips. She took the photo with the cigarette hanging from the corner of my mouth and she said to me, smiling, ‘I know your grandfather, he’ll like this picture and it will make him laugh.’
Then my mother took another photo where I was holding my father’s dagger. I had my right hand raised as if I was about to attack someone. But my grandfather never got the two photos, because my mother didn’t know how to focus the camera – in the first photo, I was a headless body, and in the second you saw only my hand holding the dagger with its curved blade.
During the week of his school exams, my brother abandoned his usual haughtiness, and became polite, modest and timid. He promised me that if he passed his exams, he would give me a book with coloured pictures of gazelles.
I said: ‘You’ll pass, and you’ll forget to give me the book.’
But he swore that he would keep his promise.
My brother knew how much I loved gazelles, since I had seen a gazelle in the market, tied to the door of the shop that sells live chickens. I asked my mother about her, and she said the gazelle was there to be sold. I said: ‘And what will the person who buys her do with her?’
My mother said: ‘He’ll cut her throat, skin her, and prepare the meat to be cooked and eaten.’
The gazelle standing in front of the shop door was beautiful. I had never seen a creature so calm: she moved slowly and looked at what was around her with sorrowful eyes. She touched my heart and never left it. At home, I got into the habit of watching my brother, and every time he laughed and was in a good mood, I asked him questions about gazelles. He spoke to me about them and I listened to him attentively and respectfully as if I were at the mosque.
‘Gazelles live in the desert… Gazelles only eat plants… The gazelle harms no one…Gazelles don’t go to school… You never see a gazelle going for a ride in a car… A gazelle walks on its four hooves as long as it lives…’
I asked my brother: ‘How do people hunt them?’
My brother said to me: ‘Gazelles are not strong, they have no weapons to conquer humans, so as soon as they see them, they escape, and they can run as fast as the wind.’
I asked my brother: ‘Can the wind run?’
My brother said angrily: ‘If you keep on asking me stupid questions, I won’t tell you anything else.’
But I begged him: ‘Don’t stop talking. I won’t say anything else.’
My brother went on telling me about gazelles.
‘Gazelles run so swiftly that they used to be able to escape from humans. But people invented a car that’s faster than the gazelle, and now they can catch them easily.’
I frowned and asked my brother angrily: ‘And who invented the car?’
My brother answered laughing: ‘As for me, praise God, I didn’t invent the car or the aeroplane or the tank!’
The day that the exam results were announced, my brother came home from school jumping with joy, for he had seen his name on the list of those who had passed with honours. I said to him: ‘And where’s the book you promised me?’
‘What book?’, said my brother.
I said: ‘The book with pictures of gazelles.’
My brother said: ‘I’ll buy it for you tomorrow.’
I said: ‘Why don’t you buy it today?’
My brother answered, laughing: ‘Not only do you act like a beggar, you’ve got conditions!’
My brother kept his promise, but he didn’t buy me the book, he gave me a little ceramic statuette of a gazelle. He claimed all the copies of the book with pictures of gazelles had disappeared. But I wasn’t angry. I was happy that gazelles had friends that wanted to know about them. I liked the statuette of the gazelle, and I got into the habit of sitting down next to it every day for hours. I’d look at it and ask it many questions, but it didn’t answer me with words, as if it were deaf.
But one day I was playing ball in my room and the ball hit the gazelle statuette and it fell on the floor. It broke into little pieces as if a car had run over it.
I was so sad that my brother promised he would give me a live gazelle.
My grandfather and grandmother invited us to lunch. While we were eating the rice, the meat and the vegetables, my father, my mother and my brother complimented my grandmother on her cooking, and I said that the meat was delicious, I had never eaten anything so good. My grandfather laughed and said that my grandmother was famous for her recipe for gazelle. My brother opened his eyes wide and stared at me uneasily, but I pretended not to care and kept on eating as if I hadn’t heard.
From The Hedgehog, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Hacke