The Barbary Figs

Rashid Boudjedra
Publisher
Arabia Books
Price
£9.99
ISBN
9781906697426
My twin brother Zygote was always trying to pick a fight with me, argue with me and tell on me. Parents - who were gener­ally apprised of such practices - usually looked away in order not to bring a man of God into disrepute. They were supersti­tious and didn't want to be subjected to the teacher's sorcery.

One of my sisters said that this was a throwback to the Arab Golden Age. Later, I learnt that poverty was what had driven the teacher to homosexuality, since one needed a lot of money to get married in our city. Women were sold for exorbitant prices, and whorehouses were simply unaffordable.

The school gates were painted green; on the inside, the walls were vermilion. We always sat on worn-out straw mats with our writing tablets in our hands and to rile the teacher we hollered so loudly it was as if there were 10,000 of us. The teacher would then get angry and start striking us randomly. Wham! The accursed cane whipped the air and struck our faces. We then reverted to an abrupt and total silence. Caught short, the teacher did not conceal his glee at having subdued us. He nodded his head contentedly. While learning our surahs we came across many words whose meaning eluded us and remained opaque. Some stories were amusing, while others weren't. They are all myths, my brother Zahir would say. He was a medical student, as well as an alcoholic, a homosexual and an atheist - I didn't have a clue what this last word meant.

On the street below, the old beggar women had already arrived. They quickly added their voices to ours until there was no telling whether they were asking for alms or reciting the verses of the Qur'an. As a result, we lost our train of thought and the beggars seemed to be perversely amused at the sound of our mumbling. The teacher didn't chase the beggars away. They too were able to blackmail him because he had made......