The king’s fool has had a distinct, privileged and vital role to play at royal courts throughout history. Mahi Binebine’s fool is contemporary, even though the story reads as though it happened in a distant past, since it is inspired by the fate of the author’s father and brother at the court of King Hassan II of Morocco.
“The scum of Marrakesh’s rancid effluence,” Mohamed ben Mohamed is the son of a barber. A sensitive and brilliant man with “a prodigious memory,” he can remember everything he hears. He ends up at court thanks to being the protégé of Ben Brahim, the legendary poet known for having “a marked fondness for alcohol and handsome young men.” Mohamed hardly ever sees his wife and children as he is bound in servitude to His Majesty. His “ultimate aim is to make the king happy. I live for that. Nothing gives me as much joy and satisfaction as seeing Sidi’s face light up.”
Despotism and sycophancy go hand in hand. Mohamed and the other courtiers – the dwarf Boudda, Saher the musician, Bilal the fortune teller, Moussa the herbalist, Dr Mourra, Monsieur Brek the chamberlain among them – all live in fear, having put their fate into the hands of their sovereign.
As the king’s fool wanders the gloomy corridors following his ailing master weakened by illness, he looks back and conjures life at the palace. The king who once inspired terror is but a shadow of himself, although still capable of punishing favourites or banishing ministers with just a scowl.
Mohamed’s razor-sharp anecdotes culminate in the failed coup against the king. His oldest son is thrown into a military prison in southeast Morocco and his wife despairs but never gives up hope. Abel (Aziz in real life), a recent graduate of the Royal Military Academy, had not fired a shot, but was one of several army officers sent to prison.
Ben Faccini’s fluid and evocative translation beautifully renders Mahi Binebine’s musical style, poetic tone and empathy that is free of bitterness or rage. His novels are of an exceptional quality. They are full of warmth, dark humour and sensitive reflections told through touching portraits of universal human suffering while maintaining locality.
Aziz Binebine’s account of the eighteen years he spent in the desert hellhole, Tazmamart: 18 Years in Morocco’s Secret Prison, is the perfect, illuminating and disturbing companion read to The King’s Fool.
“No one is irreplaceable in the king’s court”
Whether at court in Rabat in Morocco, the White House in Washington D.C., Downing Street in London, the Kremlin in Moscow or Zhongnanhai in Beijing: the corrupting nature of power, how individuals experience power, and how powerful people behave towards others are some of the oldest themes in the storyteller’s repertoire.
“History is written by victors,” is the saying attributed to Winston Churchill, but what if it had been written those who had been defeated or crushed, or by women and not men? When a real life event is seen by people who have different perceptions informed by different experiences, at what point does the retelling become fiction?
A favourite book based on a single event perceived in myriad different ways is Finbar’s Hotel by Dermot Bolger, the dramatist and novelist who co-founded New Island Books. The line between truth and embellishment, fiction and an actual event is wafer thin. Mahi Binebine excels at this kind of close-to-the-bone, fictionalised, polyphonic narrative.
A democratic pluralism of voice
Mahi Binebine’s novel Horses of God, translated by Lulu Norman, is based around the activities of a group of slum boys in the neighbourhood of Sidi Moumen on the fringes of Casablanca who end up carrying out the 2004 suicide bombings, killing innocent people and themselves. Khalil the shoeshine, Nabil son of Tamu the prostitute, Yussef a.k.a. Ali a.k.a. Blackie son of the coalman, glue-sniffing Fuad son of the muezzin and imam, the narrator Moh a.k.a. Yachine in love with Fuad’s sister, and Hamid, eke out their daily existence playing football or on the garbage dump, scavenging what they can to resell. They watch out for each other, one and all united against the world.
“Hamid knew exactly which district any particular garbage truck came from, and he didn’t stint in bribes for the drivers in return for information. So rather than foraging blindly like most people, he’d search methodically. By the age of twelve, he was already employing one kid to clean and repair his booty and another to sell it off at the flea market at a price he’d set in advance. I was fascinated by my brother Hamid. He protected me. And spoiled me.”
The wasteland described by Binebine, with its fighting and football, shoplifting and squabbling, camaraderie of surviving against the odds, murder and disease, hashish and the black market, has its parallels elsewhere in the world – whether in Mumbai and Delhi, the Payatas dump in Manila in The Philippines, or the Gramacho dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro where dust clouds swirl into the sky when the wind blows, and coloured shreds of plastic dance against the blue like festive streamers except there is very little to celebrate.
Adopted by “spiritual guide” Abu Zoubeir, a reformed debauchee, the boys are spellbound by his words and vision, and that of his cohorts, the Oubaida brothers. The gang no longer plays football, but now prays five times a day, and is sucked into a whole new world which ends up making martyrs of them as they dream of reaching paradise: “Jihad was our only salvation.”
The last in this topical triptych is Mahi Binebine’s Welcome to Paradise, also translated by Lulu Norman. Its focus is a motley group of illegal-migrants-to-be dreaming of the El Dorado that is Europe, and the trafficker known as “Boss”, waiting on a beach near Tangier for a signal from the passeur in the watery darkness.
“For Aziz and the rest of a small group of hopeful illegal immigrants, the sea represents many things at once – a threshold to another world, a dark mystery, a cruel joke. As they huddle along its edge over the course of the book’s one long night, Binebine delicately, patiently, spins their individual tales to reveal how they’ve arrived at this fateful moment with their lives entrusted to a cagey trafficker, one small boat, and the fickle, treacherous sea,” Lulu Norman
Aziz and his cousin Reda, Nuara nursing her baby wants to join her husband in France, are accompanied by “Kacem Judi, an Algerian from Blida who’d been a teacher in the days when his country was at peace, Pafadnam and Yarcé, two Malians visible only by the whites of their eyes, and Yussef, who said he came from Marrakesh but whose thick accent sounded Berber.” They are united by moments of fear and helplessness, and so the need for mutual help and support.
The Mediterranean waters off the Strait of Gibraltar have become one of the largest cemeteries of the world. What are the motives behind each of these characters pushing them to make such a treacherous journey, and risk their own life?
Through their poignant personal stories, the psychological, economic and human problems underpinning the decision to go in search of a new life gradually comes clear. Mahi Binebine gives a human face to the statistics of news clickbait, political speeches and NGO’s reports. Morocco’s almost feudal social structure offers little hope of a progressive future to most people. Western TV channels flood the screens of viewers across the Maghreb with seductive images of life in Europe. The irony of the under-developed south of the Mediterranean being the dream holiday paradise of Western tourists while its inhabitants are desperate to get out hits home at the beginning of Ai Weiwei’s film Human Flow.
Grim tales of migrant deaths at the southern frontiers of Europe, at the US-Mexico border and along Australia’s Pacific shores are set to get worse as political leaders resort to the age old reaction of engaging in defensive rhetoric and repression, blatant denial, while our post-pandemic planet melts into global warming.
Ideologues with their right vs, wrong, good vs. evil, true believers vs. apostates, heroes vs. enemies attitudes totally miss the point. As Abel (Aziz in real life) says at the end of The King’s Fool: “Before harming others, hatred poisons the heart of those who harbour it, and it erodes and gnaws away at you, kills you bit by bit . . .”
The King’s Fool by Mahi Binebine translated by Ben Faccini | 128 pages 6 August 2020 ISBN 9780857058256 | MacLehose Press
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine translated by Lulu Norman | 160 pages 4 April 2013 ISBN 9781847085139 | Granta Books
Welcome to Paradise by Mahi Binebine translated by Lulu Norman | 192 pages 1 June 2003 ISBN 9781862075177 | Granta Books
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