‘Cinema was invented for this. To make us see our mothers in a different light. To have them forever. To share them without holding back. Without any jealousy.’ From Document's Fall/Winter 2012 issue.
A man is cutting down a tree. He is swinging the last blows. Three. Two. One. He stops. He steps back a bit. The tree is tall, very tall. You can see it. You couldn’t see it before, it wasn’t in the camera’s field. You can see it now, this tree that is falling, that will fall completely. But first, it has to detach from itself, from the rest of its body, from its roots, very deep in the earth. It does. It will decide to do it. It falls. It is no longer straight, its long body, its roots toward the sky, throws itself, falls, bit by bit, in slow-motion, then very, very fast. At the same time, separation occurs. Detachment. A body with two roots. An old body, from before, that was going to live for a long time more, hundreds of years, more than any man, an eternal body, literally, is dying. It is cut in two. It is divided. It will no longer be in the earth, from the earth. The tree is demolished. It is violent. The speed of the fall, at the very end, accelerated. It is breathtaking. It doesn’t look like anything human, it is a speed outside of us, in a reality that is unknown to us, black, strange.
The tree is in pain. I hurt for it. For its branches. Each time.
I am in front of the television. I devour the images of this movie. My mother, Slima, is working. I hear her. In the next room.
I don’t know the name of this tree that just fell. What kind it is.
It is alone now. You realize it visually. Our tree is lying down, it is dying. Around it there are other trees. They look like it. Truth is, not exactly. They all have the same mother, probably. Not the same father. The father, anyway, doesn’t count. Brothers? So many brothers? Sisters? So many sisters? Nephews? Nieces? Who knows. But you can see that all of the trees on the screen are the same age, the same green in the branches, the same ocher all along the body, as our tree on the ground. It’s obvious. It’s meant to be obvious. This separation and this resemblance.
A tree was just cut from the earth. And the sky. Its fall caused a trembling of signs and stars. It is invisible. We imagine it. And it is very true.
We’re not going to mourn this tree? Why? What’s the point of this murder? And what will become of the roots in the earth? Will they give life to another tree? Will they dare to betray our tree whose body is still warm, not completely dead?
And the man, this cruel man, what does he do?
He saw the same thing as us, as me. He missed nothing of this scene, this decline. He got off on the spectacle of his own cruelty. An ax in his hand, he recorded everything. He stayed calm. Neutral. He said nothing, expressed nothing.
He’s tall, the man.
He’s wearing jeans, a shirt, a belt, cowboy boots.
He’s a cowboy.
He’s not sad.
It’s strange; he steps away. He doesn’t look at the tree. He doesn’t touch it. He leaves. Just like that. He picks himself up. He keeps the ax. He leaves the frame.
We don’t understand the man. We judge him. I judge him. Mercilessly.
He’s a cold man. For the moment we don’t want to make excuses for him.
He leaves the scene.
We are with the tree. We are on the ground with it. We look at it. We don’t know what to do. The other trees look away. They’re afraid to look. We understand. Death is hard to look at. We close our eyes. We see them—the trees are all slowly closing their eyes. But us, we’re fascinated, captivated, and we keep looking. Looking without knowing when we too should close our eyes.
Sadness dominates the world.
The stage. Colors, however, are warm, explosive, violently alive. They always will be. Cry as we might about scandal, these colors will not change in tone, will not vary. We know that they’re beautiful, that they’re a celebration of life. We know it. We understand and we are sad. God hears us then and joins us in our infinite sadness for this tree, cut down, torn out, with no feet. God has mercy on us. On it.
The three following scenes show the beauty of the grief of the world that the tree departed at that very instant. Forest. River. Mountain. Grandiose space. Heaven and Earth, united and singing.
There is no man. There is only the world. Only noises. Another language that we don’t understand.
It only lasts a minute, maybe. The funeral. The world without the tree.
And the man reappears. Amidst it all. He is short. He rides a beautiful horse. They go together. They go. They don’t explain anything at the moment. Will God punish the man? Judge him for this crime, for the sadness he has just caused us? Punish him and throw him in hell for the soul he has just taken in cold blood? Ask him this question for us: why?
The man and the horse move away, melt into Nature. The credits begin.
My mother is alone now in the next room. She is resting between two tricks. I’m watching this movie for the tenth time. The credits role and with them music and a song. I don’t understand English, but I know almost all the words to this song. River of No Return.
The whole film is in French. Other voices took possession of the actors’ bodies, the characters. I eventually understood. One of my mother’s clients helped me get it. He gave me two tapes of the same movie, one dubbed in French and the other in the original English. And he explained the title to me. River of No Return. “Riviere sans retour.”
And later, just before this client left to go to war, when he had started calling me “my son,” we studied the words of the title-song together.
Here it is:
If you listen, you can hear it call
There’s a river called the River of No
Sometimes it’s peaceful and sometimes wild
Love is a traveler on the River of No
Swept on forever to be lost in the stormy sea
I can hear the river call
No return, no return
I can hear my lover call: Come to me
No return, no return
I lost my love on the river and forever my
heart will yearn
Gone, gone forever down the River of No
He’ll never return to me
No return, no return
My mother’s client really understood these lyrics, these words. I felt them deep down inside, I got them in my own way. With my heart. They spoke of love, of course. Lost love. My mother’s man didn’t need to tell me that. Sad love on an endless river.
He told me he was leaving one early morning, my mother wasn’t awake yet.
“Tomorrow, I’m leaving. I want you to sing this song for me tonight. You have all day to memorize the lyrics. You know how to read, of course. Right? You’re 12 now. You go to school. Right? You will? I’ll do the chorus. I’ll do the ‘Wail-a-ree.’ Okay? You want to? Give me this little gift…”
How could I refuse?
He was the most beautiful of the soldiers who came to our house, to sleep for a moment with my mother. To play with me, talk with me.
He was handsome like an imaginary father. He didn’t exist. My mother’s job had made him exist. The dream, the impossible fantasy, had become a reality. Twice a week, this soldier was our father in our new house.
My mother Slima had finally listened to me.
We had left the terrible neighborhood of Hay Al-Inbiâth. Like I wanted, we moved to the Hay Salam neighborhood. For as long as possible we pretended to be just like everyone else. The neighbors eventually figured it out, of course. After only a month. The men who were frustrated, married, lonely, soon knew the way, our house, my mother’s naked body.
I never slept when they were there. I was in the other room. I listened so I wouldn’t be ashamed, so I wouldn’t sink into panic.
I know everything. Everything. Everything about sex.
I’m not embarrassed by anything. It’s just sex. Everyone needs it. My mother provides it. Sometimes for free. She gives herself to others. And we eat. You have to eat.
Two years now we’ve been in the Hay Salam neighborhood. I don’t go to the hammam anymore. I don’t like hammams anymore. I’m watching the movie again. River of No Return. I have to memorize the song’s lyrics.
Make sure that I have them perfectly in me.
I thought I knew this film. I thought I knew every detail, every color. I was wrong. The film opens with a tree that is killed. That means something. That must mean something. But what?
It is all I can see now, this tree that falls.
River of No Return is the story of a tree.
Why sacrifice a tree?
I see the film again. I sing with the film. I understand. And I do not understand. The story is suddenly another story. Another key.
It is dead, the tree. Its soul is ascending.
We mourn for it.
I mourn for it.
We say a prayer in unison. River of No Return.
The words enter me differently tonight.
It’s powerful. It’s lethal. I want to hold out my hand. I do. I hold my breath. I leave my soul. I join with the tree’s soul. We are friends. Our souls surpass us. They look at me, encourage me. My body stays close to the tree’s body.
I am in heaven. I learn the song again.
My mother just closed the door to her room. A new client. Another soldier, surely.
I close my eyes. My soul no longer belongs to me. The movie continues to play on our television set. I see it. I listen to it. I stop it. I concentrate on the first moment. Cutting. Killing. Felling. Not burying. The earth will eventually cover everything up.
The song. Again. It comes back. In my troubled memory. Before my blind eyes.
I accompany it. I say the words that carry me, without completely understanding their meaning.
I sing like the song. In the same rhythm as the song. In another language.
I sing with my man’s voice.
I say and I repeat.
First there are feminine voices, voices of angels, that softly sing, “woooohh.”
Men’s voices appear. They say: “No return, no return, no return.” Then the single voice of a man takes over, takes control of the song. It’s the credits, but the song began well before the credits, as soon as the soul left the tree.
The singer does the singing. The chorus backs him up. And I mimic him. I murmur his English words. I say them just after him.
I made it all up. I even think that, somewhere, unconscious and lucid at the same time, I wrote while singing for the first time. As if inspired, possessed by a fleeting genie. A strange poem. I have since lost it. Forgotten. But the taste of this inspiration, of this unexpected encounter, remained with me.
I will have to write again one day. Before I die for good. With this taste. Its trace. While seeking heaven in another way. In English words. Seemingly English. Deep down, way deep down, they will always be Arabic. That’s the language in me, well before me. It sticks to my skin. Surpasses me. Speaks me in spite of myself. Records our fate, our days, our nights, my mother’s stifled cries, her solitude, her distress, and sometimes her happiness.
I kept learning the song, softly bringing it into myself. My mother’s soldier had challenged me, wanted proof. He believed in me. I had to be a man. Like him, a man. Little soldier. Big soldier.
Not far from the Hay Salam neighborhood there was an immense military base. A vast and terrifying wasteland lay between us. I never dared to cross it. It was the land of bandits, real ones, drunkards cast out by everyone, killers, druggies. A lawless zone right next to the most important military base in Morocco. I never understood how that was possible. Once I asked our soldier about it. He didn’t have an answer either. He settled for:
After work the soldier crossed this zone to come back to Hay Salam, where he lived like us. He was never afraid. He was probably protected by his military dress and his mother’s prayers.
Hay Salam belonged to him.
It was the middle of the ‘80s. Morocco suddenly needed more soldiers. They were trained in Salé, Kenitra, Meknès, and sent to the south, in the Sahara, to defend a desert suddenly becoming a national territory, a sacred cause. A taboo. A mystery. A fiction. Science fiction.
Our soldier was about to finish his two years of training.
He had first come when I was 11 years old. That day I was almost 13.
I got used to him very quickly. The room he rented from a Berber from the Sous wasn’t far from our house. He came to see my mother at least twice a week. And I went to see him in his messy bachelor’s room four or five times a week. He never complained about my too-invasive presence, my too-naıve songs and my too-skinny bottom. To make him love me a little more, I invented a role for myself. His maid. The mess in his room, I tidied. His dirty linens, I washed. His dirty dishes, I cleaned. The odor of musk that we breathed at his place, I caused. The musk was a link between our two rooms. Our two lives.
Two years of coming and going.
Two years to know a man inside out, a human being, a male sex. To know everything of his words and his silences. Of his breath that quickens. Of his heart that goes mad. Of his pleasure. His moan. And his body, in heaven, that falls violently. Two years to be inspired by a man, copy him, walk like him, hold myself like him, fall like him, invent a place in this world close to his, a path parallel to his.
I saw nothing but him. Him and my mother Slima. Him, my mother and the movie River of No Return.
Two years that were ending that night.
He was being sent to fight in the south for Moroccan honor, Moroccan pride.
He was dignified next to me, to us.
Now he was going to enter a bit deeper into the submission that we were subject to, all of us Moroccans.
“The Polisario. That’s the name of our enemy. They want to steal our Western Sahara.”
The soldier said that and laughed.
Later, years after, I understood the meaning of his laugh, his transgression. His sadness.
I had nothing against the Polisario. I didn’t know the Moroccan Sahara.
I knew the soldier.
He was going to leave that night.
He was marching toward death.
He knew it.
I knew it.
No one would be able to force this fate. Divert it. Cancel it. Fight it. Cajole it.
The Sahara was Moroccan. King Hassan II had decided. And after the departure of the Spanish, he had organized a great march in 1975 to get it back, make it a Moroccan land. The Green March.
The soldier had packed his suitcase. I had helped him. He held on to it.
The soldier was going to cry.
My mother made fun of him. For her, he was just a client among so many others.
I had seriously learned the song from the film. It was out of the question to betray him. To sink into an outward sadness. He came to us looking for joy. Joy was my last gift to him.
A song. A little dance. A refrain. A language that we finally make our own.
In the long night we were going to rewrite everything. Never sleep again.
My name is Jallal.
When we moved to Hay Salam, my mother Slima bought a television set. In color. That was rare at the time, in the middle of the ‘80s.
She did her work. Men. More men. Whites. Sometimes, but rarely, Blacks. She had a lot of success.
After school, in my blue bedroom, I watched television.
In her green bedroom, my mother worked hard.
I was never bored.
I did the housework and the cooking. My mother took care of the rest.
The years in Hay Salam were when everything was going to be redefined. My role. Hers. What we were going to do together, apart, communicating through the wall that linked my room to hers.
I never woke my mother when she was sleeping. Her body had a different rhythm than mine. Lived other experiences.
I knew everything.
Sometimes I asked a question.
“That’s how it is, my son. I was born for this. Living naked. Not being afraid to be naked for others. I’m not ashamed.”
I still didn’t understand.
I watched television. That’s where I learned to better perceive things, the threads between people. Evil. Good. Masks. Languages. Illusions.
I couldn’t tell anyone else that we had a color television. Not the neighbors or my schoolmates. Jealousy, still, forever, everywhere. Being wary of other people, everyone. Nudity doesn’t mean revealing one’s soul, one’s secrets, to everyone.
“The world doesn’t understand the earth. We don’t know how to be true anymore. You should never give yourself completely to others, my son, even to those who love you. Resist. Resist. Don’t say everything about yourself, your history, your heart. Never give yourself totally. No one is worthy of it, this honor. You understand?”
The color television symbolized this attitude, this thought. This strategy. Hiding the essential. Hiding the true. Learning to cast spells. To counteract those cast by others. Walking while constantly watching out.
No one knew. No one got me right. Except perhaps the soldier. He knew about the color television. He knew that it had been invented to speak in place of us, to write our stories in place of us. “It’s our memory,” he often said. “It’s our friend,” I responded, “my friend.”
Television showed me another way of thinking about the world and about myself.
It gave us movies.
Westerns were by far my favorites. All westerns. And especially one: River of No Return, of course.
This is how I discovered it.
It was Sunday, my mother’s busiest day. From 10 o’clock to 7 o’clock it was a parade. Men of all ages. Regulars and new ones alike knew that they had to behave themselves at our place. Be polite. Wait their turn in silence. Not smoke. Not ask for tea. We only offered coffee. And, above all else, never cry out at the moment of orgasm.
Silent, the clients sometimes played
“Everyone knows I’m a prostitute, but that’s no reason to turn my house into a souk. Rules are rules.”
That’s what she constantly told them and told them.
They waited their turn like good little schoolboys. The exam looked to be hard. And that excited them. Their eyes betrayed their mad erotic dreams. They were no longer of this world. Their head was already with my mother, plunged into her generous body.
“The heat of your thighs melts my worries away.”
One of my mother’s soldiers came only for that. To sleep on my mother’s thighs. Thirty minutes. No more. Wake up. Say that sentence. And leave.
He was the oldest. 45 years old. He always went last.
That Sunday he had told my mother that we absolutely had to watch the television around 8:30 p.m. His favorite western was showing.
My mother had taken a quick shower in the Turkish toilets.
Dinner was ready. Bissara (fava beans) with olive oil and cumin. Without tomatoes.
It was very cold. Winter didn’t want to leave, to finish.
My mother joined me in my little bed.
We were under the same cover.
In the same heat.
Rain was falling. Hard.
On the color television the movie had already started.
A blonde woman was singing. Dancing and singing. All around her were men, cowboys as happy as children.
I didn’t know her.
My mother, yes, knew her well.
With sincere adoration she said,
“It’s Marilyn! Marilyn Monroe!”
It was as if she’d found a lost sister, passionately loved in another life. Proof that it was right for love to exist, to impose its divine law on us. To leave us with no reason. And to return one tranquil day, with no specific event.
A love that surpassed my mother, her gender, her sex, her history. Beyond her position and its reality.
Cinema and Marilyn Monroe brought my mother out of her silence, out of her constant refusal to exist in words said and said again.
“It’s Marilyn! It’s her! It’s her!”
I would have liked to agree with her. But I didn’t know this American actress. A blonde woman. Very blonde. On her head: fire.
My mother, later that night, told me what she knew about her. About her loves.
“She died the year I was born. I know from the radio. They’ve said it several times. The year she left. Suicide it seems. But that’s a lie. This woman can’t die. Death can’t catch her. Death is afraid of blondes. The fire on their head chases death away, all deaths. Marilyn was sad, very sad, profoundly sad, that’s true. You can always see it on her, in her gestures, her way of walking, singing. Laughing. Lowering her eyes a second or two before finally daring to look at others, the other. She plays, she fakes joy, happiness. She believes in it. I believe in it. She’s able to convince me, every time she lets herself be taken by the cameras, that life isn’t only life, there’s something else. There’s this body, hers, mine, yours, the world’s body. There’s beauty. There are rules. Marilyn Monroe shows me how to go beyond these appearances. She is the whole world, its origin, its development, its holes, its black matter, its sky and its volcanoes. She carries all of that in her. And of course, it’s heavy. Heavy for a child rejected by all, from the beginning, from the first day. Eternally wandering. She was born sad, and she will always be sad. Sad because she knows everything, knows men and women. Before her men are no longer ashamed. They say anything to her. Filthy words, hidden desires, ordinary little acts of cowardice. The secrets of parents. She takes it all. Smiles. Being spat on. Tears. Arrogance. Doubts. She travels the world for us. I follow her. I’m following her to the end. She isn’t dead. She’s waiting for me in paradise. She’s watching us too. From there. She sees everything. She knows that, tonight, this movie with her in it is playing at our house. She isn’t dead. She’s with us. Do you understand? She’s here. Do you see her? It’s Marilyn Monroe. Repeat after me: Marilyn Monroe. Ma-ri-ly-n Mon-roe. Marilyn Monroe. I love her. You must love her. You must love her, Jallal. You must.”
My name is Jallal.
My mother Slima, before nightfall, just at the very beginning of night, initiated me into the mystery of this woman on fire, in flames. An actress. A single being. Naked. Between heaven and earth. In transit. A prophetess. A poetess. An ignorant woman. An inspired woman. A debauched woman surrounded by love. A comedienne who shows too much of herself and hides the essential, a pure soul, interminable tears. She comes from America. But she is not only American. She speaks English and, in my ears, my heart, it’s as if it was Arabic.
I haven’t seen any other movies with her.
That night, while River of No Return was playing on our television, my mother didn’t stop crying for a single second.
I understood this identification. It’s not only blood that unites people. Souls meet, recognize each other, speak to each other, even when seas, oceans lie between them. They surpass these insignificant barriers. They walk on water. Fly in the sky. Speak with prophets. Suddenly recite, without ever having learned them before, sacred Sufi poems, written centuries and centuries ago. Chant the Koran, the Bible, and One Thousand and One Nights.
Souls gaze at each other. They are one.
My mother, that night, was named Marilyn. She was a miscreant like her. Unhappy like her. A whore. A servant. A goddess. She hid herself. River of No Return revealed my mother to me in a different way. She wasn’t only my mother. She wasn’t only mine. She was the mother of others too. The mother, the twin sister of Marilyn.
Cinema was invented for this. To make us see our mothers in a different light. To have them forever. To share them without holding back. Without any jealousy.
My name is Jallal.
I am the son of Marilyn Monroe.
In the end, the soldiers left.
My soldier will disappear.
He gave me a gift. Two gifts.
An old Sony VCR.
A movie. A VHS tape. A western. In two versions, original and French.
The tree is not dead. Finally I understand.
Without the soldier, without my mother, I’ve watched and watched again, without ever tiring of it, River of No Return, this movie whose colors shatter, explode, caress us. This movie is empty of the world. Empty of other people. This movie returns to the very beginning. Where there is no one. Only danger. Only liberty and its dangers. Only temptations and their misunderstandings.
There are three in the movie.
Him. Her. And the little boy.
Tonight the soldier is leaving for the obscure war in the south of Morocco. There will still be three this night in our color television set.
My mother will be with a client. The soldier will quickly tell her goodbye. He will come to see me. And I will sing.
The film will begin in the same way. The tree that is cut down. It falls. It dies. It is on the ground. It takes its final breath. Will it be resuscitated tonight?
The movie is the uprooted tree, soon
It took me some time to get it, to put the signs into the same thought, the same sentence.
I don’t understand French.
I watch the movie and I reinvent it in my own way. Bodies speak better than languages. I’ve always known that.
In Arabic the tree calls itself chajara. It’s a feminine word.
Tonight, the chajara will fall again. Will die again and again.
Tonight, with a song, with my throaty young adolescent’s voice, I will save her, this chajara. She will change sex, orientation. Identity.
I will die with her.
We will fall together.
We will rise again. By faith. My faith. My song. And this promise: Marilyn Monroe is waiting for us, she will never betray us.
It takes place in a camp. There’s nothing but cowboys. They’re all searching for gold. In vain. They take a rest. They forget. It’s nighttime. A man returns. He just got out of prison. He cut down the tree. Did something else that we don’t know about for the moment. He found himself a horse. And he set out for the camp. The lost men are drunk. They wait. A discovery. An apparition. An end. The crowd gets larger and larger. You can see it all over the screen. A wild crowd, at its breaking point, in search of a fleeting moment of tenderness. They drink. And they drink. And they drink. In the middle of these men, a little boy, a little man. 10 years old. 11 maybe. He is at home here, in this dangerous crowd, at the edge of despair. He serves them. He knows them all, the men of this crowd. He wanders like them. He waits like them. He hasn’t started drinking yet. He isn’t innocent anymore. He has seen everything here in this camp. The desperate. The deranged. The mad. The saints. The prostitutes. The priests. The singers. The warriors. The dead. The survivors. The leaders. A mother. Marilyn Monroe. Fire on her head. She shows up on the stage of a cabaret. Under a tent.
The man quickly finds the child. He says, “I am your father. I am here to take you back. To find you.”
The child asks for proof.
The father takes out a star. The child has the same one on him.
It doesn’t even last a minute. They didn’t know each other an instant ago. Now they call themselves father and son. And they leave.
They quit the tender and dangerous crowd. The crowd in love with Marilyn Monroe. Kay. Her name is Kay in the movie. She is onstage. She sings. She shows her legs, her shoulders, her arms. Her soul. She radiates softness. She isn’t vulgar anymore. Her gestures are almost childlike. Her words are prayers. The men opened their mouths. They no longer care about alcohol. With Kay, they fly high. They aren’t greedy gold diggers anymore. They regress. They play like children.
Kay is mother to all of them.
Father and son have crossed the whole screen, the whole frame. Now they are in Kay’s dressing room.
The son introduces his new father to the singer.
The father looks kindly at her, with a cautious respect.
The singer and the son say goodbye to each other. Embrace. It doesn’t last long.
That’s the end of the first part.
These three characters never see each other again. There is no reason for that to happen.
The dream can start then. Cinema can show its true power. The impossible will
Outside of the world. On the loose. On a fragile raft. A family. The son, the father
and the singer live through a flood. Indians pursue them. Impending death forces them
to drift on a furious river. The hope of another paradise makes them stay together, save their skin, their soul, their body. To attempt family. Reinvent it. In war. Hate. Betrayal. In love, finally.
The tree wasn’t cut down for nothing. It is resuscitated. It was used to build a raft. This simple and strong raft.
River of No Return is also the story of this raft that goes, that goes, that goes… The intrepid river will not stop it. Death will be its enemy but will never break it.
The tree dies a first time. At the very beginning.
It went to heaven.
The movie takes place in another world. A beyond where the tree can live again, transform itself.
Resurrection is not a fiction. Cinema proves it. Marilyn Monroe is convinced. My mother and me as well.
I run to the television and embrace it.
I want Marilyn Monroe’s blessing. I want her fire.
The soldier came back at that moment.
My mother wiped her tears. She rose to her feet. And, silently, left the room for one next door.
The soldier told me,
“See you later, little guy. Don’t forget me…”
I stayed glued to the television screen. I entered it.
I joined the other family. On the raft.
I sang River of No Return.
And I understood that, a little later, I would sing the right way, like Kay. The soldier would be proud of me.
I knew it now.
Marilyn Monroe’s eyes and hair confirmed this intuition – life doesn’t stop. Something happens. I see it. I follow it.
I had changed realities, I had entered fiction for real, I had crossed over. Taken other colors.
I was in the real.
On a tree.