The Original Belle & Sebastian – the Moroccan and his dog: a Guest Blog by Driss Laayadi

One of the goals of this blog is to capture moments and memories. The older I get, the more I find myself easily lost in a kind of momentary daze – especially if I’m visiting a place like camp or my grandfather’s farm that was a big part of my early childhood or late teens. Sometimes, even out of nowhere, that nostalgia can jolt me as if I just go into a kind of numbed trance and disappear into what was, mostly, a happy past. Blogging about those moments has been a way for me to cultivate them, a way to claim them as mine, wholly mine, as well as a way to share them with others who understand what it is to be “captured” by a good (or bad) memory.

Recently, my old pal Driss, an English teacher and activist in Morocco, was kind enough to share with me one little moment from his past. His thoughts speak to the power of old photo albums and television shows, and his thoughts even conjured up for me one of my favorite old television shows growing up, as well as one of my favorite bands I discovered while living in Scotland. Even though there’s a little French-Moroccan nostalgia here, I love how someone else’s memories can make us reflect on our own – and I wonder what yours might be, too.

So, here’s a few thoughts from today’s (and my first ever) guest blogger, Driss Laayadi:

Sébastien Le Marocain

…while rummaging through some dusty boxes in the attic, I stumbled across an old, shabby photo album comprising a few worn-out pictures of me during both my primary and middle school years. Skimming through the album’s photos, there was a genuine delight which caused me to reminisce in bittersweet memories reviving mixed feelings of joy and disappointment over my teenage life. Some memories literally rekindled that fleeting spark of joy and pride in my heart like the day of my father’s return from Bosnia where he was deployed as a member of a UN peace-keeping mission. So, too, there were tragic recollections like my grandparents’ sudden passing, for instance, which unkindly rained on my parade and mercilessly ruined my short-lived joy.

For a moment, a photo that captivated my undivided attention was one where I and my elder sister were squatting in the living room, wide-eyed and stuck right in front of the TV watching our favourite cartoon – “Belle and Sebastian.” Many of my fellow country-(wo)men over their twenties joyously recall the Japanese anime which recounts the adventures and good deeds of a six-year old boy (Sebastian) and his loyal companion, the big white dog (Belle), across small towns and villages bordering the French-Spanish frontier.

The initial impressions the Japanese cartoon might have left on any of its viewers as far as its content and overall production were ones of admiration at a time when good TV productions were quite scarce, so the show attracted a great number of appreciative viewers in Morocco. However, what many people didn’t realize was that the cartoon was merely an adapted version of a French TV series bearing the same name that was first broadcast in 1965.

The series was based on the French author Cécile Aubry’s novel, Belle et Sèbastien. The tenacious Cécile took the reign and set out on a journey of a sixteen-episode series and could not allow anyone but her fils-à-maman [“mommy’s boy”], Mehdi, to play the role of Sebastian. Mehdi El Mezouari Elglaoui is the son of Cécile and Mohammed Elglaoui and the grandson of Thami Elglaoui who served as the Pacha [an official title, like that of the governor or town mayor] of Marrakech during the French Protectorate over Morocco in 1912.

Mehdi/Sébastien, who was born in 1956, grew up only to follow in his mother’s footsteps and turned out to be a great comedian, a film producer, and a writer, though not as prolific as his mother. His latest 2013 book, La belle Histoire de Sébastien [“The Beautiful Story of Sebastian”], exposes the other tacit and covert side (the Moroccan side) of the French hero, as it traces back over the ten-year old’s lonely childhood along with his quest to seek out his mother’s love. On top of that, the French producer Nicolas Vanier recently produced “Belle et Sébastian” hence resurrecting the French odyssey and extending its lifespan once again:

The thrilling plot and actions of the movie take the viewers into a world of déjà vu, of childish innocence, and of a dogged loyalty… all of which, for me, started with a little rummaging through an old photo album in the attic and made me a kid again.

 

St. Louis, Baby Ramsilicious, and Making Memories

Just got back from a nice little trip to St. Louis to see an old fraternity brother and his wife. The weekend was packed with museums, great food-and-drink, and nostalgic conversation. It’s funny, really. When you see someone you haven’t seen in a while, and it’s like everything just falls back into place as though a year or two was just a few days. That’s a bit cliché, I realize, but I think it’s humorous how I might walk down a St. Louis street with my friend Patrick and imagine we’re back at Wabash, or I might walk through Cambridge with Avery, and at any given moment, I’m worried about falling through an uncovered manhole, just because that was a danger we had to watch out for in Morocco.

When those memories come flooding back, they’re usually ephemeral for me. It’s more like they drip instead of flood. Like, for half a second, my mind flashes back to a very vivid image, but the image doesn’t stick; it’s not something I can turn over and chew on. More than that, the past is less something I can imagine, as in picture, and more oft than not, it’s something I only feel: a happy moment or a sad one all thrown together into a few milliseconds of colorful images somewhere in the fleeting recesses of my mind. I sometimes wish it would play like a movie, but it never does, and I wonder if I’m unique in this or if this is how everyone experiences remembering the past. Because when I say that I “remember” something, I really mean I have words that recognize that I was there, but to hold onto the memory is incredibly difficult, especially to hold onto it exactly as it was.

I guess that’s why we take pictures and videos, really, but I don’t think photographs can capture the raw emotion of a memory, or it’s rare that they do. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that watching an old family video or looking at a picture doesn’t feel as real to me as how I imagine it to have happened, even if I know my memory has distorted it and made it different from how it really was.

RamsA few days before heading off to St. Louis, I had lunch with my friend Sarah along with her toddler, Ramsey, who I lovingly call “Ramsilicious.” I’ve been pretty skittish around babies for awhile, probably in part because Moroccan children were so mean to me but also because I find it so difficult to imagine having one of my own. I haven’t figured out if Ramsey has grown on me because she’s constantly smiling and laughing or if it’s just because she’s still so darn cute even when she’s not, but I’d murder anyone who tried to hurt her, and I told Sarah today that I have every intention of making sure she doesn’t listen to crappy music! So, when lunch ended the other day, and Sarah asked me to carry Ramsey to the car, she sneakily snapped a photo of the two of us just about the time Ramsey started crying over having to get in the car seat. It was my first time to hold a baby, ever. And in that sense, it’s something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

And yet, when she was finally settled in, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m not able to remember anything before, like, the year I was in the first grade. Ramsey will not remember being held or loved on as a toddler. She won’t remember having her diaper changed or doing whatever else it is that babies do. By the time she’s five, in fact, she’ll probably have forgotten what all that was like. I mean, maybe there are some weird folks out there who do remember what it was like being a few months old, but I’ve yet to meet any of them. The catch is this: just because we forget those early years doesn’t make them any less important. In a way, they’re the most important of all. In fact, I remember an episode of This American Life where they talked about how the first year of life could essentially determine how the rest of your life was going to go. In that sense, Ramsey may not be able to recall the memories she’s making, but they’ll be with her always regardless.

That got me to thinking that maybe the stuff we either forget or can’t recall can be more important than the stuff we think we’ve got down pat — that our emotional memory is just as crucial as the physical one with its deceptive, vivid images. And for me, there’s some comfort in the fact that whatever might be buried in my brain isn’t ever really “forgotten,” that every moment I encounter and experience is so, truly precious that I’m bound to carry it with me one way or another – whether it’s being held and having had my diaper changed as a baby or walking the cold streets of St. Louis with a dear friend.

Saying Goodbye to Aaron

I didn’t have many friends growing up. For about nine years or so (from third grade to senior year of high school), I only had one, real friend. I had myself convinced that there are two kinds of people in the world: social people who have lots and lots of acquaintances but few meaningful friendships and then the folks who have very few friends but the ones they have are very deep, meaningful friendships. I remember telling myself that if I had to choose between lots of “friends” versus one, close friend, I’d choose the meaningful friendship every time.

Today, I don’t think our choices for relationships are quite that dichotomous; I think that’s just something I told myself at the time to feel better about the fact that I didn’t have very many friends. But I’m not sure I would’ve done it differently if I could go back in time and redo it.

My best friend was Aaron, a Korean-American adoptee whose family moved into the house across the street the summer after the third grade. One day, when I went to get the mail, Aaron dispatched his brother, Chris, who was the same age as the two of us, to find out who I was while Aaron stood at a comfortable distance in his yard. I remember Chris kind of rudely saying something like, “Who are you? What’s your name? What do you like?” as though I were being screened for some kind of friendship test. For Aaron.

Aaron liked comic books and art and Lego’s and, like Phineas from A Separate Peace, everything Aaron did carried with it a kind of originality I always envied. In intellect, we treated each other as equals, but the truth was, Aaron was much smarter than me. He never presented himself as such, and I’m not even sure he ever thought he was, which is really what made the friendship work. I think if Aaron realized how much smarter he was, our friendship would’ve been too competitive. I remember a class assignment in the seventh grade where we were supposed to write a fiction story, and Aaron’s short story blew the teacher and the whole class away, and I think that was when I realized how gifted he was. We were a bit like the Krelboyne’s from Malcolm in the Middle, except Aaron didn’t know he was Malcolm (the leader and the smartest of the group), while I acted like that’s who I was.

I made a ton of memories with Aaron. One year, he went with my family to Ft. Walton Beach. The next summer, I went on a Greyhound Bus with Aaron all the way to Las Vegas to stay two weeks with his grandparents. Almost every semester, we took art together. In fact, our senior year, on 9/11, we were the only two students by fourth period still interested in following the news of the towers falling, and our art teacher let us drag the television into another room to watch while the rest of the students kept doing class work.

But of all the memories I have of Aaron, and I’m sure I’ll write about quite a few in the future, the one that resonates with me the most and the one I wanted to write about now was the day I said goodbye to him:

First, though, a little set up is in order. A few years earlier, Aaron’s family had moved a few miles down the road to a plantation-style home with a pond and a large barn with a rainbow painted across the top of it that said “JESUS” in large block print. Inside the large white house, there was always a radio playing country music quietly, day and night, and his mom had decorated the kitchen with jars of jam and apple wallpaper lining the walls. The water that poured from the black refrigerator came from the family well and had a sweet, frigid taste I have spent much of my life trying to match (and only topped once when drinking glacier water pouring into a cow trough in Switzerland).  The dining room was dark with pinewood paneling for the floors, and even though I hated and still sort of hate country music, I loved that it played constantly at Aaron’s house. It wouldn’t have been his house if there wasn’t a radio blasting some guy whining about his lost love and his dying dog.

I don’t know why that house stands out so vividly to me or why it’s necessarily to even mention it. I also don’t know why your best friend’s house is always so much cooler than your own. I mean, we always seem to love the things that aren’t ours more because they aren’t ours – because we grow bored of our own stuff. Even today, if I were to buy a house, I think I’d style it a little like Aaron’s. The inside would be dark with pinewood paneling everywhere. There’d be an earthy atmosphere to it, a kind of home-style, country comfort everywhere with ceiling fans hanging everywhere that slowly turned like a helicopter just starting up.

The day I said goodbye to Aaron, I drove over to that house that had become a home to me and stayed until pretty late. He was spending all night packing his bags before, early in the morning, leaving for college in Arizona. I still had three months of summer left before I’d leave, and that night was when I learned it’s much harder to be left behind than it is to be the one leaving.

I remember feeling this need to say something profound, something that could sum up a nine-year friendship or some way to say goodbye that would do justice to what he meant to me. I don’t remember what I did actually say, but I do remember that Aaron just sort of acted like it was any other day. I remember thinking that he seemed callous to it, though in hindsight, I think neither of us knew how to express our gratitude for something like friendship. I was trying to sum it all up and searching for some climactic moment, and Aaron was trying to avoid that.

He walked me outside when it was time for me to leave. He was wearing an orange t-shirt shirt and blue parachute pants. I’ll never forget it. When I got ready to walk to my candy-apple, Pontiac Grand-Am, Aaron put his hand out for a handshake, as though we were ending a good business transaction, and I ignored him and went in to hug him. When I turned around and started walking to my car, I started tearing up, and as I pulled out, I started crying uncontrollably while Aaron stood there with a sad look on his face, his hands in his pockets.

When I drove away, I knew high school had ended and that I wasn’t a kid anymore. And of all the life experiences I’ve ever had, I don’t think there’s any harder than saying goodbye. And that moment was the first time I knew what it was like to really love and care about someone. It was the first time I knew what it meant to be grateful for a relationship.

I don’t talk to Aaron anymore. There’s no bad blood between us. I’m sure if we crossed paths, we’d probably catch up and tell stories like it was yesterday. We’ve just gone our separate ways, grown apart, and probably endured a dozen goodbyes with a dozen more friends I’m sure we’ve both made over time, each goodbye likely harder than the one before it. But that doesn’t make me any less thankful for that friendship or the person it made me into over the years.

Remembering.

A year ago today, my grandfather died.  A year ago, everything sort of set in motion, and if you’d told me then that I’d be here, in Morocco, where my grandfather lived for nineteen months, well, I wouldn’t have believed that.  But as it were, next Tuesday, I will have lived in this country for six months straight.  That’s insane when you think about it.  How quickly the time is flying.

Anyway, I posted the song above, because the day my grandfather died, I played it over and over again and again.  I also played it a lot for my sister when we were driving to the funeral.  It doesn’t really have a lot to do with funerals or have some significant message.  It’s just one of those things, when a song seems to define a moment in time for your life.  And it’s a song I deeply cherish, so if you’ve never heard it, I hope you love it.

That’s all.  Safi.