A Pigeon in AmsterdamBy Tahar BEN JELLOUN Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam
She complained about the health system in Morocco, how only the rich could afford to be treated, saying that her mother had had to sell some jewelry to pay for the operation. She wanted him to open his wallet, he realized, and so he suggested that they meet. He gave her a check for 10,000 dirhams written to the order of the Assalam clinic. She said, “You know, they’re so corrupt, they don’t accept checks, they only want cash.” He tore up the check and wrote another one, this one to the order of “the bearer.” He understood what they were up to, telling himself that 10,000 dirhams to get laid was a bit much. He called her the next week to inquire about her mother, whom she said was recovering well. Everything was fine. She had just returned from a trip to Switzerland, where friends had invited her to go skiing. His desire to make to love to her had become obsessive. He couldn’t stop thinking about her and he wanted to get even. He wanted her, he desired her, even though he knew all too well that she was either perverse or the kind of self-absorbed woman who is after nothing but money, comfort and luxury.
How could a man who was aware of her tricks fall prey to her? He told himself that he would not succumb, perhaps others would, but not him, he was as clever as she was, she would not get him! The Sofitel company had asked him to participate in a program called “Literary stopovers.” He was invited to spend a week at one of their luxury hotels, anywhere in the world. In exchange, he was required only to write a short story that would be published along with those of other writers in the program. There was no obligatory theme. Total freedom. Luxury and comfort guaranteed. He agreed to go to the Amsterdam Sofitel. He could have chosen Hanoi, but he didn’t like taking long trips anymore. He would content himself with Europe. Why Amsterdam? He had a soft spot for the city, with its canals, bicycles and laid-back lifestyle, which was a welcome change from the frenzy of Casablanca and Paris. He loved the city, too, because of the Jacques Brel song. He would often sing it to himself: “Dans le port d’Amsterdam, il y a des marins qui chantent les rêves qui les hantent au large d’Amsterdam…”
And then there was the Van Gogh Museum. He called the artist “my friend Vincent, Théo’s brother.” Like a ritual, whenever he came to Amsterdam he would pay a visit to his friend Vincent and each time he would rediscover his little-known Japanese paintings. He would linger in front of the works and imagine this small man, deeply distressed, closing his eyes and killing himself
at the age of 37. The first two days, he made his pilgrimages to the Van Gogh Museum, to the flower market, to the romantic Jordaan neighborhood, whose little boutiques, antique shops and charming cafés he loved. The hotel was perfect: The Grand, a former town hall that Sofitel had transformed into a palace. The building dated from 1578. Everyone was at his beck and call. The director welcomed him warmly. The room was quiet and spacious, with high ceilings, and the bathroom was simply magnificent. He reveled in the comfort down to the smallest detail. But despite the luxury, he was lonely, and the solitude was growing, becoming unbearable. He remembered having once read a short story in which a repentant Italian Mafia boss kills himself after his former cohorts have condemned him to live alone in luxury.
So he decided to call Pandora. She won’t be able to play hide-and-seek with me here, he thought; she loves luxury, privilege, shiny, frivolous things, the perfect dream as presented by the glossy women’s magazines, where all the women are beautiful and covered with diamonds. Here, I can offer her all that for a few days, not the diamonds, of course, but at least some timeless moments in a suite made for love. She’ll love it, she’ll be crazy about it. She’ll be happy and she’ll let herself go in erotic games and more. He imagined the scenes, replaying them over and over in his mind like a film edited to his liking. She would refuse him at first, but then she would give herself to him voluptuously, with delight and love. He imagined her satisfied, then asking for more of his sexual prowess. He would be tireless, an indefatigable hero even without the help of one of those pills that work miracles. Delighted, overjoyed, she shrieked like a child on the telephone. He asked her for her name so that he could send her an electronic ticket from Casablanca to Amsterdam. Her name was Fatiha Bouazzazi. Nothing to be ashamed of, he thought.
She arrived the next day, wonderfully decked out in tight jeans and a splendidly plunging neckline, her face only lightly made up. He hugged her, kissing her neck. She gave herself to him for a moment. He ordered Champagne. The party could begin. She preferred red wine. He ordered a bottle of 1990 Saint Emilion, a superb year in Bordeaux. They took their time, not drinking
excessively, telling each other stories. She showered, wrapped herself in the hotel’s lovely, thick bathrobe and sat down in front him to smoke a cigarette. He wanted to open the window to let the smoke out. It was impossible. She renounced the cigarette, saying, “I suppose it’s no problem to smoke as many joints as you want here! Holland is so advanced compared to the rest of Europe!” After a few drinks and some laughter, they went out to have dinner at a restaurant in the center of the city. They strolled from canal to canal. She asked him what the river was called. He explained that these canals were in fact branches of the Amstel River. She replied, “Oh! Amstel like the beer!” It was a beautiful evening, a bit chilly. They talked about Morocco, about the rampant corruption, the condition of women, the street children, and finally about the growth of male and female prostitution. After dinner, they walked through De Wallen, the red-light district, and saw the women in the windows waiting for clients. It was her first trip to Amsterdam. She had heard about this spectacle but couldn’t believe her eyes. For a moment she felt nauseous, then turned away and hurried out of the district. Among the women had been an older lady, weary and standing nearly naked beside a portable heater, signaling to the men who stopped. There was something pathetic about it. None of this was in the glossy magazines.
On the way back to the hotel, he took her arm, then her hand. She subtly slipped her hand away, supposedly to get her telephone in her bag. He felt her warm body and could not stop imagining the moments of pleasure that this woman was going to give him. He brushed against her breasts. It was nothing, but he excused himself all the same. She seemed surprised. There was a fierce look in her eyes — something inflammatory, a mad glint, and it was not necessarily kind. He knew this look, having seen it once in a Gypsy. He had requested a room with two adjoining beds. Because he had difficulty sleeping, he preferred to sleep alone. Fatiha stayed in the bathroom for a long time. She emerged wearing a red nightgown. She had kept her bra and panties on underneath. He watched her buttocks when she bent over to get something and felt the erections already. She had removed her makeup, and now stood before him like a statue, saying: “Take a good look at me — no, you can do better than that — look my entire body over, then close your eyes and memorize what you’ve seen; keep your eyes closed until you fall asleep.” She was speaking in a firm voice, holding a book by an American writer in her hand. She then slipped like a siren under the covers of her bed. “Good night!” she said, and began to read, or to pretend to read. He offered no reply, but, thinking that the game had begun, approached her and bent over to kiss her. She turned her head and pushed him away with an almost imperceptible movement.