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They say some survivors of war despise peace, that its smug order mocks their survival, its serene routines enervate. Yet Paris did not lack danger; for me its clamorous schools and alien streets were more perilous than the life we left behind. I had a happy childhood, I say, when I am asked what it was to be a child in war. There were days when outside our home shots rang out and hoarse voices bawled, but my childhood — well, my childhood was mkhabez and makrout, salted Mediterranean winds and the close white-walled streets of the Casbah. My childhood was dawn light filtering through striped pink curtains, walnuts and orange blossom honey, the reedy soliloquy of the muezzin.
I had a happy childhood.
It began about a month before we left. Perhaps we needed it. Perhaps it helped us. Life does that: pushes us where we need to go, often roughly.
I was eleven years old, and Paris was a gilded sweep of lights on the horizon. My mother had recounted its many glories, drawn endless pencil pictures of the Eiffel Tower. We would live with her sister in Ménilmontant until my father found work and we could move into our own place. I was excited for the adventure that lay before us, but also there was a new sadness; I sensed in my marrow what I was to leave behind. Or perhaps I overestimate myself and the sadness was my parents’, and as children do I absorbed it and believed it my own.
I was with my mother in the kitchen when Khalida knocked. My mother was a quiet woman, but with her I most often felt we were standing on the same island. After school I would work with her at the vast oak table, mixing the flour and butter and eggs, helping her shape the dough. Occasionally she gave me directions or guided my fingers with her own. I talked until I ran out of things to say, and she would nod, or murmur a few words. She really listened, as if my words mattered almost as much as my father’s. At these times, it was as if we were in perfect harmony: when she did speak, her praise and gentle rebukes often gave shape to thoughts still coalescing in my own mind.
It had to be Khalida because it was our best-friend knock — seven quick taps — and at the back door, where only neighbors came. I let her in. Curls were wisping out of her long braids and her thin cheeks were flushed, her black eyes gleaming. She respectfully greeted my mother, who nodded and handed her a warm, egg-shiny diamond of baklawa. Khalida loved baklawa, as my mother knew. The moment my mother’s back was turned, Khalida scurried to my side. “I have to show you something,” she hissed in my ear. Her breath was warm and honeyed from the sweet.
My fingernails made little dents in a heart-shaped mkhabez. “What is it?”
My mother turned back to the table and Khalida leapt away, pretended to examine the makrout simmering on the stove. She does not know how to walk, your friend, my mother would say, an edge of disapproval brittling the affection in her voice. She can only run or skip. She cannot talk, only shout or sing. And it was true.
“Mrs. Messaoudi,” said Khalida, in a carefully quiet voice. “Mrs. Messaoudi, can Aysha come play at my house?”
Khalida’s house was two doors down. Her father ran a halal butchery. In the window hung hindquarters of lamb, heads of sheep, crimson cow livers.
My mother glanced out the red-curtained windows, at the sun low in the sky. The war had left Algiers four years earlier, metastasized into other, less obvious places, and the streets of the Casbah were relatively safe. But of late riots had been breaking out, and on some nights the warm air was cut with screams. “Not today,” my mother said, her eyes back on the darkening makrout. “Tomorrow, right after school.”
“Just half an hour,” begged Khalida. “Straight to my house and back.”
“Please, Yemma.” I made my eyes large and fixed them on her face. “Please. I already finished my homework.”
She glanced at me and was quiet as she mixed flour and ghee and eggs and sugar in the huge wooden bowl. Finally she put the spoon aside and dipped her little finger in the batter. She closed her eyes as she tasted, gave a slight nod. “Half an hour,” she said, her eyes snapping open. “Straight there and back.”
My father was in the store, behind the counter. He would not have allowed it, and he would not be pleased when he found out. You’re too indulgent, Ghazala, he would say, in his brusque voice. How will she learn the ways of Allah if we do not guide her with a firm hand?
Khalida’s smile broke like a wave. It took up half her face, that smile. She grabbed my arm and together we rushed to the door. “Be careful,” called my mother. Her mild brown eyes were stern with fear. I nodded, and then we were outside.
Other than a couple of women in white veils murmuring in a doorway, the narrow street was empty. The sun was still hot, and the air heavy and close. A small yellow butterfly, a rare sight in the middle of the Casbah, flickered past my face. Against the glare, I thought I made out Bassam at the end of the block, leaning on a wall. His feet would be bare, his olive sweater frayed at the elbows. Did he have a mother? I did not know. His father sold cigarettes in the streets around the Djemaa Ketchoua.
“This way,” said Khalida, and nodded to the right.
“But you — ”
“We’re not going to my house.” She placed her hands on my shoulders, brought her face close to mine, and shook her head slowly.
“Where are we going?”
Her nose was a few inches from mine. She gave her head one final, slow shake. “Wait and see.”
The speakers from the Djemaa Katchoua crackled, and then the voice of the muezzin came on, ruminative, conversational. My father would be climbing the stairs to his prayer mat now.
“Tell me,” I said, “or I’m not coming.” I could see him praying, his forehead dipping to the floor as he muttered pious words. Then I saw his hand descending to my cheek, the faint surprise on his face as it met my flesh. He had not struck me since the day we were visited by the man without a tongue.
Khalida hopped in excitement, her fingers tight on my shoulders. “I can’t tell you. You just have to see. But trust me, it’s good.” There was something unwholesome in her excitement, something greedy that repelled me a little. “Really good,” she said. “Promise. But you can’t tell a single soul.”
In the dry goods store across the street I could see Mr. Mameri weighing out couscous on his brass scale. He placed one weight on the scale, then another, until the two pans hovered even. “How far is it?”
She squinted into the glare, avoiding my eyes. “Not too far.”