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I didn’t believe her. The war was not my only consideration: Allah-fearing girls did not walk the streets past dusk, and it was already late in the afternoon. “How did you find it?”
But she did not answer, only took my hands in her own, still laughing, and began walking, quickly, the only way Khalida could walk. When she turned to the left six houses up, at the fabric store, I stopped. This was not a street I used. Each day I scurried to and from school, clutching my satchel. I did not feel unsafe, so long as I kept to the streets I knew. My mother did not need to warn me about the dangers that lay beyond.
When Khalida pulled my arms I did not move. I was sturdier than her, heavier.
“You’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “Never in your whole life.”
“And if I don’t show you, you’ll never see it. Not in Paris, that’s for sure.” She said Paris like it was a dirty word.
I pulled my hands out of hers, took a step back. “You’re just jealous.”
“Am not.” She narrowed her eyes. She had lost patience with me. “My beba says Algerians live like rats in Paris. That the French hate them. They stamp on them like little rats.”
Neither of us had any idea how close she was to the truth.
“Your beba,” I hissed, glaring at her, “is jealous because he can’t get papers.” I regretted the words the moment they were out of my mouth. But it was true. I’d heard my mother telling my father at the counter. I had come down to the kitchen to scavenge stray sweets; I was supposed to be upstairs doing my homework. Allah sees all we do, said my father in response, although I did not know if he meant Khalida’s father had gotten what he deserved or that my mother should not indulge in gossip.
“That is not true.” Khalida folded her skinny arms across her chest and glowered at me. “My beba says you’re traitors. That’s why you’re leaving. Traitors to Algeria.” She paused, and her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “He says your beba is a harki.”
I stared at her.
She looked away from me, down at her feet in their scuffed sandals. “That’s how you got your papers,” she said, looking back up, her eyes hard. “Algeria is winning the war, and France has to protect its harkis.”
Khalida had a very short fuse. In a few hours she would be repentant. But still, this was not about sweets or homework or which game to play. This was my father, my family. I felt something I had never felt before: I wanted to hurt Khalida, to slam her against the dusty white wall, kick deep into the soft flesh of her belly. I wanted her to be moaning and bleeding on the street, like those people after the bomb. Was this what my other friends thought, what the neighbors believed? “We got our papers from my aunt,” I shouted, as loudly as I could. A woman walking by holding her little boy’s hand crossed to the other side of the street, shaking her head in disapproval. I spat like a street child, right at Khalida’s narrow dusty feet, then turned around and ran home.
That night, the man without a tongue walked into our kitchen, tied on my mother’s apron, picked up a spoon and began stirring the batter in the huge bowl. He stirred methodically, his face tranquil. When the batter was smooth as honey, he laid the spoon aside and dipped his little finger in the bowl. His eyes eased closed as he raised his finger to his mouth. A moment later, as if he’d just recalled his mutilation, they snapped open. His lips parted slowly until his mouth gaped wide and the stub inside was not flesh but bone, bone that branched into a yellow-white mangle of sound, a roar so feral and desperate that the corners of the kitchen began to fold in on themselves, pans leaping from cupboards and spoons from the rack and bowls from the counter, all flying into that yawning maw, even the table and chairs, the cupboards themselves, then the entire kitchen and the storefront and from upstairs the velvet-upholstered living room set and my father’s prayer mat and finally our bedrooms with us sleeping in them and probably the whole house and the neighbors’ houses and even the Casbah, perhaps the whole country, had not my sobs brought my mother to my bedside, where she had to shake my rigid, drenched body into wakefulness.
When I came home from school the next day, I asked my mother why we were leaving Algeria. My father had departed for the Kabyle that morning to visit his mother and brothers before we left, so my mother was minding the store. But it was a very slow day. She was in the kitchen, rolling slabs of dough flat and powdering them with flour. If the bell on the storefront door tinkled, she would wipe her hands, untie her apron, pull her veil over her head, and walk out with a smile.
She looked at me with some surprise. I suppose it was strange for me to ask this question now, after I had known for weeks. Or perhaps it was unusual for me to ask questions of this kind at all. When my father announced we were leaving he simply said we were fortunate to have this opportunity, Alhamdulillah, and that life would be better for us in France. I understood what we were leaving behind, or I thought I did, but until Khalida made her accusation I nonetheless believed myself the luckiest girl in the world. It hadn’t occurred to me to question my father’s decision.
My mother picked up the sack of sugar, poured carefully into a measuring jug. “We are leaving because this is a country at war,” she said, her eyes on the rising white line. She emptied the jug of sugar into the batter bowl, plucked the big wooden spoon from the rack and began mixing energetically.
I saw the man without a tongue standing exactly where she stood in her apron, his face tranquil. I bit down hard on my tongue before speaking. “But we are at war with France.”
She paused, looked at me with new attention. “We are not at war with anyone, binti,” she said quietly. “This war is not one that your father and I chose. France is where Aunt Asma is. And we speak the language.”
“What about Morocco?” Mustafa Khelil’s family, which used to run the grocery store on the corner, had moved to Casablanca.
“What about Morocco?”
“Why don’t we go there?”
“We do not know anybody in Casablanca. And we are very fortunate to have papers for France.”
When every business in the Casbah had shut down during the general strike, my father had closed our doors, too. When customers spoke with zeal of the work of the FLN, my father nodded as if he agreed. To me the FLN was a spiny thing, holy syllables in angry mouths, an urgent voice on the radio, words like vengeance, freedom, salvation, blood — but it was on the side of Islam and Justice. Of Good. The French soldiers were the ones who kept our city from us, who set bombs in the Casbah and did unspeakable things to our people. Yet somehow I had failed to draw out the connection between these soldiers and the gilded sweep of lights on the horizon. What could these grim, uniformed men possibly share with the shimmering beckon and promise of Paris? As for my father, I had never thought to question his loyalty, or whether he felt the same as our neighbors. I had simply assumed it. But in the wake of Khalida’s words a bright barbed fear had taken root in my chest, spreading rampant as a weed.