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“The back way would take longer, and it’s getting late.” The light was already growing soft, and we both knew my mother would be upset if I was home past dusk. “I’ll check that it’s safe,” she said, and before I could stop her she scampered ahead, walked casually past our sweet store, then nodded back to me.
My father must be in the kitchen with my mother. I walked past just like Khalida, casually but quickly. At the last moment I could not resist and I glanced into our store.
My father was not in the kitchen. My father was at the counter, slumped just like Khalida’s father. Except he wasn’t reading the newspaper. He was slumped over nothing, his head in his hands. It was like when the man without a tongue had come to our store, when my father had sat down at the oak table and laid his head on his arms. But that was in the back, where customers could not see. In the kitchen, where my mother was now, baking sweets no one would buy.
And then I understood.
He was not a harki, my father. How could I have believed such gossip? He was a just a father, a husband, like any other. I felt strangely disappointed. He was not fighting for a cause. He was only a man — a small man who felt afraid and helpless, just as I did. One frail human being knocked about by the careless words and careless forces that shaped our lives. What was the will of Allah now, father? And I despised him, almost as I had Khalida’s father, but this was different, a complex knot confused with love and shame. The Eiffel Tower was nothing but a sketch, the gilded lights on the horizon inconstant as stars. Our furniture was gone and our lives were about to come loose and what could this small man do in the face of all that carelessness? I paused and watched him and my father felt my eyes upon him and looked up. His gaze was blank, vanquished. For a moment we stared at each other. It seemed there wasn’t a window between us but a telescope. He could see me, but he could do nothing. He could not tell me to be a good, dutiful girl. He could not hit me. He did not speak, my father. He did not even move. He would not try to stop me; I would bury what I had seen; this we both understood. And then I stepped forward and he was gone.
Khalida led me through the maze of the Casbah’s cobbled streets, beneath tiled porticos and wrought iron lamps, past blue-painted doors and windows opening on shadowed rooms, past women walking purposefully, holding their white veils closed beneath their chins, men hunched on doorsteps in ardent, endless conversation, scrawls of Muslims Awaken! and French, you will be massacred, the high minaret of Djemaa Ketchoua, the tables of figs and dates and almonds and walnuts, the stone eyes and pale jaws of four French soldiers with sleek shining rifles, the shrieks and cackles of the ragged children who gathered on the streets in the afternoons and wreaked mischief on law-abiding, Allah-fearing citizens. I drew my shoulders up and sank my neck in like a tortoise, clutching Khalida’s elbow as we scurried along. Within ten minutes I was lost, and while the white walls and blue doors of the Casbah were familiar, the faces and intersections were new.
“How much farther?” I asked Khalida. The streets were suffused with color, everything lit with the gold wand of approaching dusk. My mother would grow anxious soon.
“How did you find it?”
“Bassam,” she said.
Then I was afraid. Bassam did not go to school. He had a long purple scar on his left cheek and his hands were grimed and one morning I saw him sleeping on the street right in front of Mr. Mameri’s dry goods store. My mother shook her head when his name came up, said he had not been taught the ways of Allah, that I was not to speak to him. But when he came into our store to beg sweets he was respectful. My father would ask him how he was and he would say, Well, Mr. Messaoudi, Allahu akbar, all the while gazing at his scabbed, filthy feet, and then my father would pick out a few sweets and hand them to him over the counter. He did not even wait until he got outside to begin crushing them into his mouth. Bassam! I was amazed at my best friend’s bravery, shocked by her recklessness. “Khalida,” I began, pulling at her elbow, slowing my stride. “I don’t — “
“One more block,” she said, and kept on walking, pulling me with her.
“Tell me what it is.”
She wouldn’t. “You stay here then,” she said, her eyes growing narrow and opaque with anger, “and I’ll go.” But I was too scared to stay on the dimming, unknown street without her. What if she grew angry enough to leave me? She was capable of it. How would I get home? Yet if we did not turn around now, we might be walking back in the dark. I stood motionless, torn. Her refusal to tell me — even this close, when I’d come all this way — made me nervous. I recalled the look that had passed over her face earlier when I asked her why she could not tell me. Khalida’s urgency was not simply eagerness. There was something desperate in it, something helpless.
Perhaps that helplessness is what decided me; I would like to think in that moment I recognized it, and chose to give my friend that for which she did not know how to ask. But perhaps it was not like that; perhaps I was drawn by her desperation, the way we are drawn by the earth when we stand many stories above it. I began walking again, and we turned down an alley no wider than my outstretched arms. Khalida stopped before a door that looked like all the other doors in the Casbah: wooden, painted blue. But when I looked up I saw the house had no second or third floors. It was as if a giant hand had descended from above and ripped out its torso. I had seen another house like this, one that had been bombed during the Battle of Algiers. From its ruins people had pulled limp, blackened bodies. That house had been rebuilt. But this one stood naked to the sky, naked and ragged as a scream.
Khalida rattled at the knob until the door creaked open. Her other hand was tight around my wrist.
A few broken pieces of furniture were scattered inside — an upended table missing two legs, a warped bench, a rusted blue chair with its seat slashed open. A shard of mirror reflecting a charred wall. Crumpled newspapers, walnut shells, a few faded, twisted cans of Hamoud Boualem. The place smelled burned, burned and wrong, like the kitchen smelled after I held my doll to the stove. Dust motes swayed drowsily in the golden rays of evening light filtering through the large gaps in the ceiling.
“This way,” said Khalida, pulling me to the back of the room, to the remains of a staircase. We picked our way carefully up the steps, skipping those that were caving, testing each one to be sure it would hold. When we reached the second floor I caught my breath. Instead of a ceiling there was the deep pink of the sky, framed by bitten-off beams and listing, blasted pipes. The light was a subtle redness that pooled in my palm, that turned Khalida’s narrow, brave face seraphic. I thought of my father on his prayer mat. Was this what he felt when his eyes closed, his lips moved without a sound? More than anything I had ever known, this felt like the will of Allah. Blasphemy, my father would say, and my mother would nod with pursed lips. I saw her face, tight with worry, but it was as if this new, strange place was removed from time; she passed from my mind the way a cloud’s edges pass into nothingness.