I was surprised when shopping for my son’s Valentine’s Day class project to see that Easter items were already on the shelves. I had never heard about Easter or the Easter bunny before I came to the U.S., and the holiday didn’t register with me before my first child went to school. I also didn’t grow up reading picture books about rabbits—I didn’t grown up reading picture books, period. But for some reason I had an affinity for rabbits, and this image and others in my memory reminds me that rabbits were my companions, they were my bunnies.
I am perhaps four years old, in my late grandparents’ courtyard in Oujda, a far eastern Moroccan city that borders Algeria. Oujda is also the hometown of my aunt, the one who breeds rabbits, and that must be how I ended up with this bunny. It’s strange that the bunny appears to be looking straight at the camera. From what I remember about bunnies, they keep their head sideways when they’re watching you, pretending they don’t care, when in fact their visible eye is intently sensing your every move. If you look closely, that’s exactly what I am doing in this picture as well. As a child I was uncomfortable being photographed. In family pictures, you have to search for me like it’s a scene from Where’s Waldo? I remember feeling that all I could do was to avoid eye contact with the camera, looking sideways. That’s how bunny and I were one. We shared food-bread for me, mint for him. My brother had a dog, my cousin had a cat, and I had a bunny.
One day my aunt from Oujda came to visit us in Meknes, where her mother, her sister, and her brother (my father) had settled. Female guests integrate easily, as they smoothly join the house workforce, especially helping out in the kitchen. I remember that it was sunny outside and cold inside, typical of Moroccan homes during winter, as rooms are large and no heating systems are in place. I returned from school for lunch. The living room was more crowded than usual, and it was time to huddle up around the table. Some moved little, like my grandmother and my father, who wore heavy wool and tried to settle in by gathering large layers of clothing close to their bodies. The rest of us are hopping—or pretending to hop—to the right or left, to make space for someone else. One more chair is brought from the other room for the last person to be seated. The tajine is finally placed in the center of the table, and a mixture of relief and anticipation fills the air, as if we were lighting a long-awaited fire.
The tajine’s top is removed, releasing steam that hides faces from my memory, and I inhale a unique warm and spicy aroma of what is clearly a fine braised meat and vegetable stew. Then, in absolute silence, I break off a piece of bread and dip it into the silky saffron sauce. All speaking is gone, all subjects are out of context – if you need someone to pass you more bread, you whisper. Everyone is focused on the meal, but no one touches the meat… not yet. Then someone, most likely my mother, swiftly detaches select pieces of the still burning meat with her fingers, then places the best piece in front of the person at the top of the hierarchy: my grandmother. This gives the green light to the rest of us that we can begin eating the meat.
“This is the best chicken I have ever had, Allah yatek saha! (May God give you health!),” I recall saying. Then I notice my aunt smiling in an awkward way, as if her smile failed to match the expression in her eyes. More noticeable was her silence, when according to Moroccan table manners, she should have acknowledged my compliment. What follows is an unidentified voice piercing through whispers and laughter that still echoes in my memory: “This isn’t chicken, it’s rabbit!”
“Bunny rabbit?” I swallowed in disbelief.
I kept quiet, so as not to be rude to our guest who went to the trouble of slaughtering bunny in our yard, near his home that I regularly cleaned for him, slicing through his body with our serrated kitchen knife, searing his flesh in strong spices to suffocate it in its own juice, drowning it in muffled water and abondoning it there over the heat until it completely let go and fell apart from the bone. I kept quiet in the presence of my father, our guest’s brother, and I waited until the subject changed, which didn’t take long. Then I discretely left the table with a heavy heart.