A World Cup Match: A Battle in a Moroccan Writer’s House – Michigan Quarterly Review

A World Cup Match: A Battle in a Moroccan Writer’s House

I’m told it is Taha Ben Jelloun’s house as I take off my boots, place them in the designated shoe area in the foyer. The French expatriate hosts are renting his house: a sculptor and an urban planner with their three children, two girls and one boy. But before entering the house, the sculptor, who also is the wife and mother, asks if I support France or Morocco. “Morocco,” I say despite the warning I’ve gotten from my friend Elias, also a French expatriate who lives in the same Tangier neighborhood, called California. He invited me to watch the World Cup match with his wife and three children and his recently made new friends.  

It is raining. It has been raining every day since my arrival in Morocco. From the airport and into the small fishing village where I’ll stay for ten days, rainwater ripples tan in the streets. It is hard to call them streets, as they are so flooded. Even the taxi driver who drove me from Ibn Battouta Airport, in Tangier, called those streets rivers and laughed as the sea, to our right, overfilled along the beach.   

We, my friends and I, walk to that house with a polyester Moroccan flag in one of their daughter’s hands.  That same daughter had carefully painted two Moroccan flags on both she and her sister’s cheeks.  They’re both wearing Moroccan soccer jerseys. It is Ben Jelloun’s house, which I don’t know until Elias’ wife, Anna, tells me.

There are two large acrylic paintings in the entrance, both with Che Guevara’s face, antique American cars, and several other references to the Cuban Revolution, including the country’s general landscape: bold oranges and yellows, the sun’s boldness on that island and in the Caribbean and in Latin America. On the opposite wall, a tall wood panel leans. Painted on the panel is an African woman: Senegalese, Ghanaian, Malian, or Gabonese, wearing a blue headwrap.  

I feel strange in this house because I am the stranger. I feel strange in this house because we aren’t all supporting Morocco. I feel strange in this house because the driver who drove me from the fishing village changed the original fare, upon which we’d agreed, because this particular house, he decided, was further away than he’d anticipated.  

Elias explains to me that the Moroccan supporters are asked to sit on the floor. The French supporters have the sofa. He then laughs, as he and Anna sit on the sofa. The hostess invites me to do the same. The children sit on the floor, and the hostess and the host sit on the large white sofa with us. Above the large flat screen television is an Atlas Lion’s head made of black leather strips. There is also their children’s artwork: watercolor self-portraits with both French and Moroccan flags. When the television comes on, the first image I see is Kylian Mbappé and Achraf Hakimi embracing. These apparently great friends play on opposite teams, two Africans whose countries of origin have been colonized by France.  

The streets, sidewalks, and cafés, despite the rain, are filled with people carrying Moroccan flags. Throughout all the small towns on my drive to Tangier, there are people with flags, red and green everywhere. The crowds are exultant, palpably ecstatic. No one is afraid or cautious. Morocco has already made history, doing what most hadn’t foreseen. They’ve claimed the Iberian Peninsula—first Spain then Portugal. They’ve defeated two of their former colonizing powers. And I wait, hoping they’ll continue their streak regardless of the mountainous border.  

Four days ago, I lugged my clean laundry home from the laundromat. My friend, David, had arrived early and was already waiting outside. He would drive me to the bus station, where I’d take the bus to Boston Logan Airport. From there, I’d catch a flight to Tangier via Madrid. I asked if Morocco was winning the match against Portugal. He said, “yes.” Thrilled, I ran my laundry upstairs, tossed it on the unmade bed, and grabbed my luggage. On the way to the bus station, we briefly watched part of the match on his phone. During the bus ride, he sent me a text that Morocco had won. I raised my arms in a wide V. Yes! A few people turned to look at me. I turned away, directing my gaze to my phone and then the pines, then the oaks’ auburn leaves on either side on the highway. An African team was in the World Cup finals for the first time in history. David sent me videos and screenshots of Cristiano Ronaldo leaving the field crying, rubbing his eyes. Did he not know, could he not comprehend the larger event that had taken place? Had his tears clouded over the seismic shift to which he could have borne witness? Didn’t he have connections to Morocco: close friends, meaningful experiences in the country? Upset, yes. That was understandable. But tears? No. Not then. Not for the public. 

To celebrate that win over Portugal, David decided to wear his Moroccan soccer jersey, but it was a bit too small. He sent me a photo, to which I responded, “I’ll get you the larger size.” I immediately texted the seller who’d sold me the original jersey, asking him to set aside two, which I’d pick up upon my arrival in the Kingdom, in town.  

I’m now wearing one of those jerseys in Taha Ben Jelloun’s house. I’ve briefly excused myself to the bathroom to put it on. I return to the living room sofa, where bags of pretzels and truffle-dusted potato chips are being passed around. I’m on edge. We’re on edge. And the tension rises when Theo Hernandez of France makes the first goal. The hosts yell blissfully, as do their children and the new couple, French, who’ve recently arrived in the house. Hernandez’s arms are open wide on that green field. His knees are in the grass. The gold 22 on his navy-blue jersey is, in my mind, a kind of sudden nightfall, a precipitous realization that this game—this push toward, through, against France—will be arduous: the mighty against the mighty. I send David a text: “Awwwww!” His response is the same.  

It is halftime. I’m taken to Taha Ben Jelloun’s study. Anna tells the hosts I’m a writer.  They smile and say some version of “oh” or “ah.” Elias and the urban planner stand with me in the study. There are floor-to-ceiling bookcases stacked with books. One case has translations of Ben Jalloun’s novels: Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic. The host flips through the books, shows me Ben Jelloun’s picture book. He tells me that Jelloun’s manuscripts and more books are stored in the basement, which I am not shown. I’m shown Ben Jelloun’s own artwork, hanging in frames on the white walls. The large wood desk is cluttered with papers and books. The study is well appointed with its tall windows and tile floor. The Syrian furniture with the mother of pearl inlays give the study, as well as what I see of the house, a kind rootedness in the intricacy of a particular imaginary.

I met Taha Ben Jelloun seven years ago at Librairie des Colonnes, a bookstore in Tangier. He’d just published a new novel. He was reading from it and signing copies. I had taken the train from Meknes, a city in the middle of the country, to the north. He asked where I was from, and I told him. I handed him my copy of his novel, Best Friend, in translation.  

He signed it. “All the way from America?” He asked.  

“And I have the great honor of meeting you in Morocco,” I said. He is, perhaps, Morocco’s most famous contemporary writer and poet. As a student in Morocco, he protested police brutality. He won France’s Prix Goncourt in 1989 for his novel La Nuit Sacrée. Being a writer living in Morocco, as I’d been for several years, I wanted to meet him. I wanted to hear him read from his work. He was kind. He handed the book back to me. We took a photograph together.  Near me, near us, was a local television news’ station camera crew.  The reporter asked if I wanted to be interviewed.  She said it would be nice to have an American interviewed there.  I graciously shook my head, declining her request.  I slowly turned to Ben Jelloun who greeted the next person in line with a handshake and signed a book.  

The sculptor offers me a can of Speciale Flag, a beer brewed in Morocco. I pop the tab and sip as the other three men in the house have done, our palms suddenly cold. The match continues, and bowls of baked pasta with tomato and cheese are passed about the room. Morocco almost makes some goals. The ball just won’t go into the net; Hugo Lloris is too deft. “Awww” I text David, in Maine, once again. 

I wonder where Taha Ben Jelloun is in the world. Is he in Fez watching the match? Is he in Paris? Does he want Morocco to win, France to win? Is he somewhere writing not thinking about this World Cup match? Is he in a market buying cucumbers?  

Morocco gained its independence from France in 1952 and from Spain around the same time. Portugal had left years earlier. The people in this house are nice, companionate, welcome this stranger. They are in love with their country and, therefore, with the team that represents it. But they are all living in Morocco by virtue of their own choices, in a world that has been systematized through colonialism. What does this mean now? I can’t fully answer this question. I forget it when Randal Kolo Muani scores goal number two for France. I text David, “Nooooo!”  

He responds, “Disaster.” Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron in his navy-blue suit shouts with his fists in the air. The game ends and everyone in the house except Elias, Anna, their children, and me, erupts in a raucous cheer. The adults congregate around the kitchen island, where second portions of pasta are served. The host uncorks a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and pours each of us a glass. I sit next to the man who arrived last. He tells me he’s recently arrived to work and live in Morocco—before Morocco, Ghana for five years, before Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo for three years. He tells me the advantage of being in Morocco is that he’s closer to home, closer to France. I want to know more about his experiences in Africa. But the conversation shifts to his two-year-old, who runs into the kitchen.  

Near the door, as we put on our shoes, the host offers each of us a Ferrero Rocher Hazelnut Chocolate. We each take one, unwrap the gold foil from the chocolate sphere, and eat.  

We silently walk in that California neighborhood in the rain. At Anna and Elias’ home, in their living room, I sit with them drinking glass mugs of hot vetiver tea. There are many sighs. “It was a good game,” Elias says.  

I rub the red of my jersey, “It was. It’s just . . .”

“I know,” Anna says.  

The next morning at 7am, Elias drops me off at Le Grand Socco, a roundabout between the old part of town and the new. The sun hasn’t risen. And the café in Cinéma Rif, where I’m to catch my ride back to the fishing village, hasn’t opened. I walk around town until the darkness fades. The people I’d seen carrying and waving the Moroccan flags are gone, but those without homes are here, holding their lives together with paper, plastic, constant pacing, and pragmatism. I stop in front of the bookstore where I once met Ben Jelloun. It looks the same: cherrywood bookcases, red pillars, the store name in black letters outlined in gold, round rice paper lights hang from the ceiling. To get out of the rain, I sit beneath the green awning outside of Gran Café de Paris. I am the only one outside. I miss the flags. I mourn the return to what seems to be the ordinary. I imagine the Pyrenees, that mountain range that forms the border between the Iberian Peninsula and France, as a sheet of steel that Morocco faced but couldn’t clear—couldn’t continue his symbolic decolonial plight. I then notice the French Embassy on my right. I read David’s text, “Thanks to colonialism, France has won.”  

I write the name of the Moroccan team’s coach, Walid Regragui, on an index card. I leave the card on the café table as the rain tapers off and the morning light makes itself fully known. Cinéma Rif has opened. I order an espresso and watch the palms sway in the plaza. I remember the final image of the match, Mbappé and Hakimi exchanging jerseys: each wearing the other’s backwards to display each other’s names across their chests.  

I will return to Maine to give my friend his Moroccan soccer jersey. I’ll tell him the story of that unanticipated World Cup decolonial-colonial evening in Taha Ben Jelloun’s house. Perhaps we’ll sigh? Perhaps we’ll laugh? Nonetheless, this is the world now. ■

Myronn Hardy is the author of the forthcoming book of poems Aurora Americana (Princeton University Press). His essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. His poems have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, The New Republic, and The Georgia Review. He is currently working on his first novel. He teaches at Bates College. 

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