The American Dumpster

Rachael Small translating the French of Abdellah Taïa

click here for the French text
click here for the translator's note

Everyone had heard about it, but no one knew where it was.  It fascinated, transfixed my whole neighborhood, adults and children alike.  The American dumpster was a dream for kids like me.  We all wanted to go there in search of a pair of new shoes, a wallet, a toy, or anything really.  Americans were so rich, we were told, that they threw things away when they were still perfectly good.  They bought new furniture every year, clothes too, dishes, tablecloths, bicycles, even cars.  Daouiya’s son found a perfectly good TV there, a Philips in color.  The news traveled all around Hay Salam.  That’s when expeditions doubled.  Wondrous things were brought back from that special dumpster, things often described yet never seen.  Superstition kept those who’d been lucky enough to see it from revealing its location.  They were afraid it would vanish for good.  And so it stayed, set aside for the privileged few.  The mystery that surrounded it only magnified its mystique.

There was, however, one question that gave me headaches and to which I couldn’t find an answer.  Why had the Americans decided to put their dumpster on our land?  Didn’t they have enough space of their own?  Did they really cross the enormous Atlantic just to dispose of their waste?  Impossible: Morocco never would have accepted it.  Then again… I went without a satisfying answer for a long time.  Much later, I would discover that there was an American military base in Kénitra, a small city twenty-five miles from Salé.  The Americans were closer to us than I’d thought, almost among us. At the same time, I learned that the ambassadors’ fancy neighborhood, Bir Kassem, wasn’t far from the famous dumpster.  That explained it all then, or almost – I still didn’t know exactly where to find that dumpster of dreams.  Like everyone else, I wanted to go there and try my luck.

Brahim, whose Philips TV had made him famous, once came over to our house with his mother Daouiya, at M’Barka’s invitation.  Since he was a bit older than me and already looked like a man, my mother told me to tend to him: “He can’t stay with us women, he’s a man now.  Your father and brother aren’t here, so you need to take over.  You’re the man of the house.”  A man at barely ten years old.  Brahim was sixteen.  He had left school to become a carpenter’s apprentice.  He was clever.  I was fascinated with him of course, like all the neighborhood boys.  Brahim had become an instant hero.  So I was in the presence of a hero.  In other words, with my mother’s blessing too, I was completely at his service.  M’Barka laid it all out: “You will entertain him, give him anything he asks for.  Don’t embarrass me, you know his mother, she’s a harpy.”  “Yes M’Barka, no problem, I’ll do whatever he wants.”  Brahim was a god, a little god, so handsome.

“You don’t have pimples yet,” he said, easily striking up conversation.

“Like you do?” I replied tentatively.

“But I’m going through puberty.  Are you?”

“I don’t think so.  How do you know?”

“Your voice changes, you get hair everywhere, you grow faster, and most of all, you have strange urges.”

“Strange urges!”

“Yeah, and you need to satisfy them, any way you can.  If you don’t you get sad.  Oh and I almost forgot, your chest gets harder.  It hurts if anyone touches it.”

He came close to me and felt my chest – it didn’t hurt.  He lingered, making sure he’d checked it thoroughly – still no pain.  Even a little pleasure.  And he read his verdict.

“The way I see it, you’re not far off.  It’s not hard enough yet, but in a year max, you’ll be like me.”

“Handsome like you?”

When my mom came in to serve us lunch (simple, delicious and warm: lentils with tomatoes and onions), he’d luckily already taken his hands off my chest.  M’Barka said “bon appétit” and left, closing the door behind her to keep the room nice and warm.  While we ate, I took the opportunity to talk to him about what interested me most: the American dumpster.  I asked him to describe it to me.  He did so quickly, with a smile, but he spent a long time telling me about how he’d found his TV set.  He was animated, in good spirits.  This gave me courage to ask the crucial question.

“So where is the dumpster?”

“You want to go too, huh?  Sorry, I know where it is but I can’t give it away.”

“Come on, be nice.  I promise, I won’t tell a soul, trust me… If you want, just tell me the general direction it’s in.  I’ll look on my own.  I’ll figure it out, and you won’t have to give the secret away.  Please?  I’ll do anything you want for it, anything.  Besides, my mom made me promise to take care of you.  I’m your slave.”

“Oh really?  That’s news to me.”

Daouiya decided to nap at our house; it was raining buckets outside.  Her son stayed too.  We napped together, in the same bed.  In exchange for the secret, I gave him everything he wanted.  It made him very happy.  He had a great time.  After all, it wasn’t the first time – I’d gotten used to it with the neighborhood boys.

The American dumpster is in the forest between Salé and Rabat, very close to the pottery center.  That’s all he told me.

“Couldn’t be clearer,” I told him, relieved, grateful.

“We’ll see…”

Even today, I still don’t know where it is.  I tried to find it, of course, to follow Brahim’s directions once and only once.  Instead of stumbling upon it at long last, I got lost in the forest, like an idiot.  But that dumpster, so distant and desirable, isn’t imaginary.  It’s real.  In late October 1999, Le Monde published stories about four Moroccan cities after the death of Hassan II.  In the one dedicated to my city, Salé, the journalist mentions the mythical dumpster.  I’d nearly forgotten over the years, but it lived on.  Where?

Rachael Small is a native of Los Angeles, California whose love of language and literature have moved her around the world, from upstate New York to Paris and Dakar to Mexico and Iowa. A graduate of Bard College, she recently earned her MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa with a translation of Abdellah Taïa’s My Morocco. She has translated works by Philippe Adam, Disiz, François Bon, Giovanna Rivero, and most recently, an exhibition on the life and works of Albert Camus. She was a 2012 resident at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre and has worked for the Book Department of the French Embassy in New York.

Abdellah Taïa was born in Rabat, Morocco and grew up in Salé, a city across the Bou Regreg River from the capital. He studied French Literature at the University of Rabat, the University of Geneva and the Sorbonne, and has lived in Paris since 1998. “The American Dumpster” was first published in his debut book Mon Maroc (My Morocco, 2000), a collection of autobiographical vignettes about his childhood in Morocco and subsequent move to Europe. He won the prestigious Prix de Flore in 2010 for his third novel, Le Jour du Roi, and his first feature film, L’Armée du salut, based on his 2006 novel of the same name, is a featured selection for the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and International Critics’ Week in Venice, Italy. He came out of the closet publicly in 2006 and is to date Morocco’s only openly gay author.