‘Hikikomori’: New Fiction by Mohamed Khalfouf

Moroccan writer Mohamed Khalfouf’s “Chocolate Cake” — a story about grief, about baking, about memory — will appear in the Summer 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly, guest-edited by Nour Kamel:

This is an hors-d’œuvre, a taster story before the issue appears on June 15.

Mohamed Khalfouf

Translated by Hicham Rafik

For Sanaa Aoun

The war didn’t make me tired

But the stories that talk about it do. 

The cold cities didn’t make me tired, 

But the stories that talk about them have eaten my fingers.

– The Capital. Ghayath Al Madhoun.

Dear Mama:

Mohamed Khalfouf

      Did you like the flowers I put on your grave yesterday? I was passing by the shop when I remembered you like yellow flowers, so I bought you a bouquet. Dear Mama. You haven’t left my mind since you left. Particularly these days, I feel your shadow flying around the flat with me. You left, Mama, and left me prey to this deadly solitude. You were everything in my life. You were the only thing in my life. With every breath I take, I say that I exist thanks to you. Thanks to the mother who carried me from death to life. I remember how we came “here” before everything was destroyed. We lived the beginnings of destruction and madness, but we knew how to flee. You said “we will start a new life in this capital.” You held my hand as I sat next to you on the plane and said everything would be alright. In the new country, we had our own apartment, and you had a job, and I went to school. How wonderful that school was! Starting from the principal’s office to its classrooms and toilets. Everything was beautiful and different–I remember snow. Snow that I was seeing for the first time in my life. That became part of our lives. “Here,” you were able to become a writer, and to resume your literary projects you started “there.” You lived between rearing me, work, and your writings in your own way. You woke early, made breakfast, and took me to school. After that, you went to work. In the evening, you made dinner and helped with my homework. At night you wrote, and sometimes you kept on writing till dawn. On holidays, we used to go to the park or the movies, or else we cooked something. 

 “Here,” we were able to recapture the feeling of life.

 The cover of your first book was red. Your happiness still shines in my mind. You wrote it in your language, not the language of this country. It was the language in which you read your first book at the age of seven. With time, your work began to get translated. Critics praised you and talked about the pop stories and feminist theories in your writing. Your writer friends visited us, or else we visited them. I used to go with you to their homes, or to the gatherings you were invited to. I would sit on a chair covered in timidity and pride, since you were my mother. My mother sat beside the book of this country and the other one, as they read your texts and talked about your experience in writing, in maternity, and in life.

We were happy: me, you, and writing. Then its existence in our life made me uncomfortable, and I felt it was taking you away from me, and me away from you, even though you took care of me. Before, I’d been delighted at your continuous success, (someone chose your text as one of the best in this country). Now, I would say that writing was her only success.

You sit, tired, in front of your computer or in front of your papers drinking coffee, smoking, and writing. Besides writing, I was everything in your life. I never knew what my dad looked like; you told me he was handsome, handsome with big eyes, and he passed away. I don’t remember much about him. Maybe I carried a blurry picture of him, and whenever I tried to imagine him I failed. I didn’t have any photographs of him.  You said you burned all of his pictures after his death. You said his siblings cut you off after his death. “But he was kind. You would’ve loved him, just as I did….” 

Even though I lacked one side of the parental equation, everything was going well. I was studying and succeeding, benefiting from a scholarship, free cafeteria food, and my bicycle. And you were writing and growing day after day into a remarkable writer. You even left your job, and we were able to have our own flat, where you arranged everything in a new order. I had my own room, and you had a room with a desk and a library. There was a window overlooking an empty plot of land with a tree in the middle. You put a pot in it, and you watered it every day. You liked standing there, smoking and drinking. You watched that piece of land as if it meant something to you, as if you’d chosen this flat just to look out the window and see that land. I know you were yearning to be “there,” in your first country, after all. I had fit in “here,” in this “country” (as you used to say). I had friends and a school and a new life. Over “there,” there was poverty, sadness, kindness, traffic, authenticity, prying eyes in alleyways, people getting richer one day after the other, and people dying and living at the edge of the world, and “here” there was development, civilization, work, loneliness, people who didn’t know each other, nature colored like a lizard. “There” was  not (like) “here.” People from “here” were nothing like angels, and some of them were racist… I could see it every day in the subway, the supermarket, on the TV and the internet. No human from “there” was an angel, either. There are no angels on earth. In the end, we are all humans, and “angels exist only in holy books,” as you say. 

You were haunted by “there.” Even though you had left it, it didn’t leave you, and it remained within you, preempting your wakefulness, your dreams, and your writing.

Dearest Mama, you didn’t leave me in old age; you left young, very young, in your prime. You were writing new novels; you had barely written two incomplete chapters. Then your health started to worsen, and I watched you wither in front of my eyes, I watched you and could do nothing. I plunged into my studies to avoid thinking about it. “I want you to become a successful person. Grow up now, kid.” Sometimes, you weren’t home when I got back from school. I often found tissues full of blood, and I thought it was blood from some wound. But when I saw you hiding X-ray photos above the closet, I knew that you were sick. In time, I realized that you would go away, and that was why I was constantly kissing and hugging you, and sleeping next to you even though I was 17. I wanted to get enough of you before you left. 

On that day: I came home from school early. I didn’t find you, but I made an excuse for your absence, and sat, and waited. When your absence went on too long I called you, and a man picked up and told me you were fine and you were here, at the hospital, getting treatment.

They said there was nothing to worry about, and you would recover, you were fighting, as you lay in bed smiling to my face and receiving guests. You asked me to bring a few books for you to read. When I visited you every day, I brought you a bouquet. It was the same bouquet that I put on your grave yesterday. You were so happy with the bouquet, and you hugged me. And like that, I ended up buying a bouquet and visiting you. “Can you open the window” you’d ask, and then I’d open it and you would look outside. “What are you looking at, Mama?” “I’m looking at the open sky, only the sky can absorb sadness.” 

I was a high school senior. I visited you that afternoon. I found them gathered at the door to the room. When I stepped in, I found you lying on the bed. You were calm and gentle. Death hadn’t taken your brownness away. I knew you were dead, I was aware of that. I couldn’t cry, maybe in being with you, I couldn’t know tears. All I did was kiss you on the forehead. At that moment, I was kissing Death. Then I hugged you. And let them take you. I let you go out of this world to enter another.

You left and let me face my destiny on my own. I thought we would continue our lives together, as we’d agreed. But you left, and here I am alone. It was my last year of high school. I had to pass in order to enter university. The teachers said it would be difficult for me, but I had to try, maybe for you. I don’t know how I made it. It was a surprise to me. I couldn’t even visit your grave to tell you about it. I wasn’t even able to celebrate between me and myself. The pain was too deep in my soul.

I entered a vicious cycle of sadness and depression. I was like the one who had suddenly lost his soul and left for an unknown destiny. I didn’t leave the apartment. I didn’t enjoy summer. I didn’t do anything. Just silence, a long one, and long periods of thinking, which stretched and stretched until it felt eternal. I entered a tunnel of old memories, the memories we’d lived together, when we used to live as though there were no death at the end of the road.

I entered college. I had to sink into something to forget you. I fit in slowly. I barely spoke to others. I spent almost all of my time at the university library. There, I met Sofia. She was the second woman I loved, after you. She was the one who won back my trust in the world after your death shook it. We started going out together and studying together. Going to cinemas and sitting in cafés, taking the train together, talking on the phone and chatting. I opened my heart to her, and I thought she did the same. I met her parents. I felt jealous that she could say, “Here is my mom.” “This is my dad.” I was unable to do the same. 

When I first made love to her, it was like I was entering a magical forest. It was the forest they talk about in stories, the forest of amazement, labyrinth, and loss. Sofia was a forest, a forest I entered every time I was panicked or wanted to die. I was thinking about you when I was with her. How could I not, since you’d been with me so recently. I couldn’t forget you, even with Sofia by my side. I cried when I was with her, I cried because you were far away, and because I was haunted by a past with a mixture of black and white. 

It made me tired, and so did thinking about the meaning of my life. Sofia couldn’t take it anymore. In silence, she left. She didn’t reply to my texts and calls, she unfriended me, and at university I saw her with a guy of her own nationality. Together, I lost my mother and first girlfriend.

Dear Mama, you visit me a lot in my dreams: you hold my hand, and we walk in fields and snowy lands. We walk in inhabited cities and others affected by destruction. I see you often at the window, the same one where you loved to stand, smoking and looking at the empty plot of land with the tree in the middle. What are you looking at? I ask. But there’s no answer. What do you like about that land and its tree? Again, no answer. Just looking, your cigarette burns but never ends. 

You told me dead people visit us in our dreams because they love us, and they want to take us with them. My grandmother used to visit you in your dreams. I don’t know if you dreamed about her in your final days. Did she take you with her, or are you visiting me in my dreams and sitting with me under that firm tree, so you can take me to you? 

When I feel the loneliest, I read your books. All I knew was that you were a successful writer. But I had to read them to see how great you were, and how your death was a great loss. Despite your death, you remained eternal. When I read the novel you left behind, I couldn’t understand it. The novel had no title or table of contents. Barely two incomplete chapters. It was like a puzzle that needed a solution. I read and read, and still I didn’t figure out what you meant. I didn’t understand the first sentence: “The journey starts now.” What does it mean? Which journey do you mean: your journey? My journey? Humans’ journey from life to death? How do people wake up to start a journey, when we don’t know where it starts nor where it ends? 

 I thought about going on my own journey, my big journey. To “there,” to the first country, your country and my father’s country. But I could not. I was unable to do it: get my passport, visa, ticket, and suitcase ready to start my journey, my–after all these years–unknown journey, my journey to look for the ambiguous, for something eternal inside me. But I could not. I cowered, Mama. I was afraid of opening a door to questions I’d been running away from for years.

 Dearest Mama, everything is the same as you left it: furniture, dishes, your bed, your books and library, our photographs on the phone’s sim card, your leather bag, your pack of cigarettes, your white lighter, the scarf you wrapped around you to write on the cold nights. Everything is the way you left it: the window where you always stood and smoked is still looking at that empty land with a pillar of a tree in the middle; there’s still that changeable weather outside, that left me shivering and sick; there’s still the cold human treatment; the racism that floats by now and then (a week ago, the police arrested a man for killing and cutting up the body of a foreign woman).

I stand at the cemetery gate; I just cannot go in. I know your grave well, but I walk between the graves, reading names, birth and death dates. Bouquets accumulate on your grave, which I put on it every week. Bouquets accumulate, some of them wither on your grave and on the others’, and some of them are still blossoming like my wound.

All is the same, constant and unchanging, except the inner emptiness.

Loneliness is growing inside me like a deadly plague.

Dear Mama, I am an orphan, and I’m lonely now…

Mohamed Khalfouf is a Moroccan writer who was born in 1997 in Khouribga. He graduated from the Faculty of Arts, Division of Arabic Language in Fez. He has published stories and poems in many cultural newspapers, both Arab and international. His texts have been translated into many living languages, among them Hebrew, German, Georgian, Belarusian, and more. He has published a novel, Zaman al-Hulm, and a collection of stories, Iqama fi l-qalaq.

Hicham Rafik is a young enthusiast, English teacher, chorister, translator and interpreter. He graduated from Mohammed V University with a focus on Cultural Translation.