The day Brigitte converted, she called Raja from the car.
“Guess what – I’m converting!”
“Ha! With Hafid?”
“Nope! Doing it alone.”
“What name are you choosing?”
“Not telling. Call you later.”
Early summer and the cockroaches were out, and Casablanca’s thousands of medina cats loved that. How Casablancans love cats and how the cats love the roaches. Fascinating toys to be stabbed, nibbled, and flipped. Brigitte spotted a parking space by a souvenir shop which actually functioned as an illegal cash exchange. The torn awning shadowed stacks of dust and faded objects. A sun-shrunken man, equally dusty and faded, sat on a mound of out-of-date, unused maps, caressing his moustache. Brigitte parked, or rather reversed directly into the curb, blaming her pregnant belly for her lack of accuracy.
The roads were frenetic. Always. On the traffic island three men lay napping beneath newspapers and the post-lunch sun, immune to relentless horns. Awaiting a gap in the interminable wheels, Brigitte eyed the narrow white passage that would lead her through many other white passages; anonymous, mumbling. The Adoul, the figure invested with the necessary religious authority for conversion, awaited in his hot, matchbox office.
Brigitte had no objections to converting. Raised by her cold, severe Catholic family in a Parisian suburb with a surfeit of siblings, she’d been packed off to a Belgian convent school in order to make space. How agonizing were her memories. The excruciating Flemish classes, which she failed with admirable consistency, leading to much knuckle-rapping with rulers. Being locked in cupboards by fuming nuns because she refused to wear her hat. The discovery of her first kiss through the railings for which she was deprived of dinner for a week.
You’re a bad girl, Brigitte. Impure and infected. Sloth and desire are sins. God will admonish.
Hafid had fished her out of all that. Brought her to Morocco into a fond, gregarious family which made lots of noise and lots of food. Children stayed up late, visitors descended in jabbering flocks, kisses were incessantly planted on her cheeks.
The gynaecologist, Dr. Sables, had raised the whole topic of religion as Brigitte lay, legs a-splay, her unborn son flipping across the monitor.
“If you want this little one to be able to inherit from you,” Dr. Sables said, “better get your papers.”
“Inheritance between Muslim and non-Muslim is, well, tricky to say the least. Didn’t you know?” she scolded.
“But I didn’t have to convert to get married.”
“Different kettle of fish. When my husband passed, I needed my conversion papers to claim inheritance. Don’t hang about. I know a super-friendly Adoul in the medina. Won’t take a minute.”
So Brigitte called the number and the super-friendly Adoul instructed her to bring certain documents to 58 Zanqat Moulay Bousselham. And here she was, following Google Maps along a string of Eighteenth Century passages to the office. She tucked her birth-given crucifix beneath her collar because the past shouldn’t be entirely forgotten.
You, Brigitte, will be punished for your uncleanness, for your devilry. You will sit in the dark for the entire morning. Perhaps longer.
There was a plaque written in Arabic but Brigitte couldn’t read Arabic (which hadn’t prevented her from signing a three-page marriage act). Nonetheless, Google Maps announced that she’d reached her destination. The Adoul, elderly face as kindly as his voice, was seated in a corner. He stood as she entered, elegant in his cream-coloured robe and matching skull cap.
“Brigitte,” he said.
To the right was a desk whose drawers had long been discarded, to the left, three plastic chairs for customers leaned against the wall. A photograph of the monarch, as is required in public buildings, graced the wall. King Mohamed VI, or M6 as he’s affectionately known, smiled from behind large Raybans astride a jet ski.
They sat down, facing one another over the wobbly desk.
“First, Madame, do you understand what it means to convert?”
“Let’s discuss the five pillars.”
“I’ve learnt them!” Brigitte enthused.
“Excellent work! Following them is important.”
“I already give to the poor.”
“And I did three days of Ramadan last year.”
“A good start. And…?”
A rather awkward pause as Brigitte tried to recollect the missing pillars. But the Adoul was sympathetic.
“Oh yes, the Hajj! I’m going to try but right now…”
They looked at her bulging belly.
“Oh course, dear. Bit difficult. Let’s not forget the prayers.”
“I know. Five-a-day.”
“Remember you don’t have to go to the mosque.”
“Right. I have a prayer mat.”
“Wonderful news. Finally, I need you to repeat the shahadah in Arabic, recognising one God, Allah, and Mohamed as his prophet.”
Brigitte almost squeaked. “I’ve learnt it! Off by heart!”
This was true.
The Adoul beamed.
“Now Madame, you need to choose an Arabic name.”
“Yes, I know.”
“There are many pretty ones. Meriem, Laila, Ghita, Zineb…”
“I’ve chosen one I like.”
“Very good.” smiled the Adoul. “May I ask…”
“Yes, it’s Adra.”
His smile dropped.
“Yes. I like it.”
The Adoul forced his focus on the papers.
“I know its meaning,” Brigitte said. “Pure, right?”
Scribbling, the Adoul, turned rosy, rather sweaty, glancing at Brigitte’s pregnant middle.
“Yes, Madame,” his breath scuffled with discomfort. “We also say it means virgin or… untainted.”
“Perfect!” Brigitte piped.
They were interrupted by the witness. Someone had to verify Brigitte’s conversion and, since she’d gone alone, the Adoul had called a friend, an old man with one blind eye. He wore an ankle-length, moss-green robe and slippers.
The papers were signed and as Brigitte left the Adoul said, “Goodbye, Adra.”
Liars, deceivers, Brigitte, will always be castigated. Wherever you are, remember that our omniscient God is watching. His wrath is inescapable, pitiless.
Brigitte called Raja.
“Done!” she said.
“Yeah, really different.”
“How was the medina?”
“The usual. Hot, pretty, full of cats and dozing people.”
“Can’t believe you went all the way there. Should have called the Adoul we used when my sister-in-law converted. He comes to you.”
“Yeah. We arranged a meeting in a nearby petrol station and he did it right there, in the car.”
“The usual. Four hundred dirhams.”
“Ah well, mine,” said Brigitte, rather triumphantly, “did it for free!”
“Sweet!” Raja said. “My Adoul added me on Facebook! Sent a message saying ‘just in case you know anyone else who needs my services.’ Unbelievable!”
The sun was hotter, higher, the traffic inexplicably thicker. Brigitte sweated, belly tight against her clothes, crucifix tickling her breastbone like a dry leaf. The old man on the stack of maps was still there, staring and silent. As Brigitte arrived, he stood, taking a map in his hand.
“Madame,” he said. “My maps are old but beautiful.”
She took the map, opened its fraying folds. She saw the roads detailing the old French names they bore during the colonial period, before independence, before re-Arabisation of Morocco had altered them. An era slowly dissolving into a new one, where nobody quite knew what would happen.
Photo credit: Hassan Ouazzani
Olivia Gunning’s fiction has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Hobart, Crack the Spine, Five on the Fifth, and STORGY, among others. As a journalist, Olivia has written for Fodor’s Travel Guide, The National, and Elle Decoration, as well as several travel supplements. She left her native London years and years ago to write, teach, and live in Casablanca, Morocco.