My parents ran a sweet shop, and as a child I worked with them after school, rolling and shaping the dough, blanching and grinding the almonds, placing tiny silver balls of sugar in the center of heart-shaped mkhabez. They came to Algiers from a village in the Kabyle when I was only a year old. My childhood coincided with the war: I was four when it began, seven during the Battle of Algiers. There were many days I missed school, many days I worked with my mother in the kitchen behind our storefront. But even during the worst of it, when customers came to our store they set their worries aside, they smiled, they complimented the sweets. We were in the business of pleasure, of happy occasions. My schoolmates envied me. They thought I did nothing all day but gorge on sweets, and I did not correct them.

Once a man who could not speak came into the store. He pointed first at the baklawa and then at the makrout behind the glass. I was with my father at the register. My father asked him if those were what he wanted, but all the man did was point to his mouth and kneel at the counter to examine the sweets. My father asked how many he would like but the man did not answer. He began to shake. His eyes were wild and the whites were yellow. Then he opened his mouth wide. All that lay inside were a few teeth. No tongue. Just a scarred stump. I bit my own tongue hard, hard enough to taste blood. My father laid a dozen baklawa and a dozen makrout into a white box, on top of a white doily, and handed it to the man. Neither said a word. My father did not ask for money. I had never seen him give sweets away to an adult, only on occasion to Bassam or another of the poor children that ran ragged through our streets. The man took the box and nodded stiffly, approvingly. Then he sat down on the floor beside the door. He opened the box and considered the sweets laid out in neat rows, like tablets in a graveyard. He picked up a piece of baklawa and broke off a tiny bit. I was forbidden from eating sweets in the store, but watching him I could not help myself. I picked up a piece of baklawa and took a tiny, honeyed bite. My father looked away, but I watched the man as I chewed, and he did not seem to mind, or even notice. He placed the bit of baklawa in his mouth and closed his eyes and the shudders melted from his body. His legs slumped out and he was quiet. My father tapped me on the head, motioned me through the narrow hallway into the kitchen behind us. Why, among the varied horrors of war, did he decide this was too much?

When the bell hanging from the storefront door tinkled, signaling the man had left, my father came into the kitchen and sat beside me at the table. He brought his hands up to his face, cupped them tightly around his mouth. How did a person taste without a tongue, I wondered. Could it be bitten off in sleep, during a terrible nightmare? But I did not know what to say, how to cross the vast sea to the island upon which my father sat, so I said nothing.

He laid his head on his arms with his face turned away from me, toward the red curtains over the sink. “They say he’s a harki,” he murmured, as if to himself.

Harki, the worst possible accusation in the Casbah: a pro-French Muslim. The exact dimensions of the word were blurred to me, but I did know it meant traitor, traitor to our people, to our country. Most of our neighbors would spit on such a man before giving him food.

My father’s voice cracked when he spoke next. “Allah forgive us,” he said.

My father was a devout man. Five times a day he answered the muezzin’s call, climbed the stairs to our small living room, knelt on his prayer mat. It faced east, away from the coffee table and the velvet-upholstered chairs of which my mother was so proud. Five times a day he touched his forehead to the floor and prayed. My mother put aside the baking or washing and watched the store, in case any non-believers came by. My father was a quiet man, and usually a gentle man, but when I asked him questions he did not want to answer he would become brusque, tell me to concentrate on living a holy life. It is the will of Allah, he would say. Do not question the will of Allah.

I laid my head down on my arms. I did not want to ask questions. But I did want to understand what had happened to the man without a tongue. And I wanted to comfort my father. It scared me almost more than the man without a tongue, to see my father this way, this informal, this beaten. “Beba,” I said, and I brought my face close to the back of his head, as close as I dared, close enough to see the tiny hairs that grew from the nape of his neck, colorless before they darkened into the black stubble of his hairline. “Beba,” I said, “It is the will of Allah.”

My father lifted his head and turned to face me. I sat up straight. His brow was drawn and there were tears on his cheeks. He said nothing, just raised his hand and brought it down hard across my face, once, twice. My cries brought my mother downstairs, but my father was back at the storefront, and did not respond to her entreaties.

. . .

I suspect that is when my father decided we would leave.

It is a strange thing to live a divided life. A strange thing to have an exiled childhood, one that belongs neither here nor there. The world I grew up in no longer exists, of that I am sure; I have no interest in visiting Algiers in order to confirm it. The war ended, lives resumed. And so my childhood exists only in dreams.

It was Paris that severed it — brutally, absolutely. Our new homeland, after the first shock of excitement, was a place of dulled tastes, of colors bereft of brilliance and odors numbed to pungency. We were refugees, yet France proved anything but a refuge. We arrived two months before the Paris Massacre, when the central boulevards were festooned with Algerian corpses, when the Seine spewed the bloated bodies of my people like silt. In Paris, we were ratons. The French loathed us. The Algerians, rancorously split into separatists and loyalists, wanted to know on whose side we stood. We belonged nowhere.

The land of my adolescence and adulthood is too close for dreams and myths, too barbed for the silvered sheen of memory. It is like a film, my childhood, a film that magically brightens with age. Alone in a vast theater I watch it, salvaging what I can. I invented this ritual weeks after we arrived in Paris, as I lay on a pallet and listened to the bedlam beyond our thin walls, the baying sirens and drunken brawling, my stomach pummeled with longing for home. I was still a child when I understood my childhood was lost, when I transmuted it into a dream that never ripened, a myth that did not exhale.

There is nothing that remains. Nothing but the taste of blood and honey on my tongue.

Many of my earliest memories are of war. I saw things no child should see. I saw people blackened and moaning on the street after a bomb exploded. One of them had lost a foot, and from his ruined flesh jutted a yellow-white stub of bone. I saw a French soldier doubled over a car, clutching his neck with both hands, blood leaping from between his fingers. I saw a woman shot with her two children, shot in broad daylight in front of a bicycle shop. I can still see fragments of a bicycle wheel spinning in the shop’s window after a bullet webbed the glass. The smaller child did not die, or not right away, and I will never forget his screams. My mother pulled my arm and we ran, and despite the explanations she later gave, despite all the sense it made to run, I never understood why we left that boy, how anyone could flee such a sound.

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?”

“You’ll see.”

“Tell me.”

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.”

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.

My mother leaned across the table and placed a hand on my cheek. “What your father and I want, Aysha, is peace. That is all. That is why we are going to France.” Her small brown eyes held something I had not seen in them before, something close to anger, but different. Upright. Proud. “Enough questions, binti,” she said. She straightened up, began stirring again. “Do not listen to gossip. Listen to your parents.”

So she knew — she had to know, then. I wanted to ask her how — had Khalida’s father said something? Had she simply guessed, the way she so often did with me? Or did everyone know, everyone else? But the warning look in her eyes kept me quiet. I wanted to tell her I did not believe them, that Khalida was no longer my best friend, no longer even a friend, but when I began to speak she hushed me. Yet I was comforted. I was not alone in this terrible knowledge, and if my mother was not afraid, what reason had I to fear? Unless of course she did not understand what they did to harkis. She was not in the store when the man without a tongue visited.

I picked up some stray scraps of dough and began shaping them into tiny worms, with crumbs of walnut for eyes. When she asked if I wanted to go to Khalida’s house I shook my head, my fingers busy.

. . .

I became very watchful. When the bell on the door tinkled, I leapt to the storefront to see who had arrived. New customers were the most alarming, but even those who had been buying sweets from us for years were not immune to my suspicion. Even taciturn Mr. Mameri, with his hunched shoulders and drooping lower lip — what might lurk behind his reticence? In the Casbah, the denunciation of a traitor would be considered honorable.

When my father returned from the Kabyle, I spent as much time as possible near him. I watched him in the store, adroitly layering samsa on the silver platters behind glass, greeting customers with a respectful dip of his head, squinting nearsightedly at the register as he picked out prices. I watched him when he prayed, eyes closed and lips moving, his face wearing an expression like pain. I watched him with my mother, how he touched her on the shoulder when he passed her in the kitchen, how his voice when he spoke to her was firm, but his eyes were soft.

Who was this man, my father? Was he a harki? If he could betray Algeria, could he betray us, too? Yet my mother knew the accusation, and still she looked at him with loving eyes, answered his calls with the same mild tone, the same occasional tinge of impatience. I wondered briefly whether she too was a harki, but I did not think a woman could be one, and I did not believe my mother capable of betrayal. She was too clear, too trusting. Perhaps she was too trusting to see the truth about him.

Did my father know the accusation?

Once he caught me watching him in the store. He was tallying receipts, hunched on the stool behind the register, his brow drawn. I thought he was too absorbed to notice me. As soon as he looked up I dropped my gaze to the counter, adjusted a doily of baklawa on a platter.

“Yes, binti?” His voice was gentle. “What is it?”

“Nothing, Beba.”

“Do you have something to tell me?”

“No, Beba.”

My father was not a demonstrative man, and he did something unusual then. He set aside the receipts and came to me, knelt until his eyes were level with mine. My forehead prickled, my palms felt slick. I prayed he could not sense my suspicion.

He took one of my hands in his, held it as if he was not quite sure what to do with it. “Life does not always give us easy choices, binti,” he said.

I was mystified. Did he mean the choice to leave Algeria, or the choice to betray Algeria? If he knew they thought he was a harki, why did he not deny it? How could he leave such a job to me, his daughter? Or had he denied it — had there been a confrontation? But I could not ask any of these questions. His proximity was too intimidating, too precious; I did not want to lose it, and I did not have the courage or recklessness to ask such audacious questions.

He made no effort to explain himself. “Life does not give us easy choices,” he said, “and we can only do our best.” He took a deep breath, exhaled in a soft whistle. “You are a good girl, Aysha.” He gave my hand a squeeze, then let it drop. “A good, dutiful girl.”

My love for my father swelled in my chest and I wanted to weep. I lowered my eyes like a good, dutiful girl. But was I a good, dutiful girl? Good, dutiful girls did not question their fathers. Or did they, if their fathers were harkis? Should they, if that was the case? I wanted to trust him, I wanted nothing more than to believe in my father, but I could not help wondering: was this what a harki told his children when they began to suspect the truth?

The bell on the storefront door tinkled, and I started in alarm.

. . .

The nightmares continued. Some nights the man without a tongue was my father, and he ran the store as if nothing was out of the ordinary, responding to the customers’ questions in ragged croaks. They smiled politely and commented on the weather. Other nights, I myself was mute, or choking on a piece of makrout I could neither taste nor maneuver. But I no longer woke my mother with my sobbing. As if to protect my parents from further worry, I suffered through these dreams in silence. I would jerk awake in the middle of the night bathed in sweat, my muscles taut, and will myself to stay awake until the sky beyond my pink-striped curtains lightened to day.

. . .

I did not speak to Khalida in school, did not even look at her. I stopped playing with the other girls, too. I sat alone during break, slowly eating the sweet my mother had wrapped in my satchel. Let them be jealous — of my sweets, of Paris. I did not need these friends, anyway. I would make new friends in France, better friends.

But a week after our argument Khalida caught up with me as I was walking home. She said my name, her voice nervous. She tugged at my sleeve but I only walked faster. “Don’t you want to see what I have to show you?”

I spat in the gutter like Bassam and his friends, and kept walking.

“Please stop, Aysha.” She had to jog to keep up with me. “Please.”

I stopped. I wondered if I was being a harki to my own family, but I stopped.

Khalida looked down at her feet in their scuffed sandals. “I’m sorry,” she said.

I said nothing. But I felt the brittle wall of my resistance cracking, a longing for my best friend seeping through.

“I didn’t mean it,” she said, and her eyes rose until they met mine, for a second, before darting off.

I had to clear my throat to find my voice. “Do you believe it?” I asked.

She shook her head, looked at me again, her eyes bolder. “No.” A breeze rippled through the street, and the nimbus of curls around her face lifted and settled.

“And your beba?”

She looked away again. It was a Wednesday, Friday was Jumu’ah, and across the street Mr. Mameri was closing shop, rolling the steel gate down over his store window. Khalida shifted her weight from one foot to the other in a nervous dance. “I — I … I don’t think so. I don’t know.”

I began walking again.

“Aysha,” she called after me. Her voice sounded raw, as if she was crying. “Aysha, wait.”

I did not stop. But after school on Saturday I waited until she stepped out, laughing, with another girl. When she saw me she grew quiet, came up to my side. I handed her the piece of baklawa I had saved from break and she accepted it, her eyes hovering around my shoulders. When I started to walk, slowly, she fell into step with me.

. . .

We began to get rid of things. Only two suitcases each on the boat, my mother said, and one of mine would be for linens. My father had sold the business, so we would leave everything in the store exactly as it was for the new owners. I imagined the great wooden bowl half-filled with batter, the makrout simmering and the floor dusty with flour when we walked out and they walked in. I did not know the man who bought it, I had not met him, but I knew he would be moving into our home with his wife and three sons. I tried to imagine it: three boys in my tiny bedroom. They would not want pink-striped curtains. They would scuff the clean white walls, fight and curse. I pictured them clearly, each a smaller version of the next, with clenched fists and puckered mouths, and I hated them. As for the man and his wife, they would not know our kitchen the way we did. They would not know that the back left corner of the oven burned hottest, that the black smudge on the ceiling came from the time I set my doll on fire. I had held her to one of the great burners to sniff the flames that burst from it like flowers. Her hair had congealed into a crusted black mat, her eyes were burned permanently open. They would know none of these things, and their makrout would be too jaw-achingly sweet, their baklawa sodden.

We would leave everything as it was in the store, but they did not want our furniture, this family. They had their own. Pieces of furniture began vanishing from our house. One day I came home from school and the coffee table was gone, another the matching pink vases, then the polished oak bench at the back door. Next went my small yellow dresser, my clothes in neat piles on a sheet of newsprint. Mr. Mameri came one afternoon and took away the velvet-upholstered living room chairs as my mother watched, kneading her hands and smiling palely. Only the prayer mat and a framed photo of the Kaaba remained in the living room when he had left. My father knelt upon the mat for evening prayers like nothing had changed, but his murmured words bounced around the naked room as if they could not find a place to settle.

We walked through a house emptied of all but mattresses and scattered piles, mustard lines on the walls to show where our furniture used to be, and our voices echoed in the strange new spaces. But with each day that passed, with each item that vanished, my fear receded a little, as if the less there was binding us to the Casbah, the more lenient the Casbah became. What replaced my fear was the burgeoning sadness, which gradually calcified into the longing that has never left me.

. . .

“Don’t you want to see it?” Khalida asked.

I did not need to ask her what she meant. She hadn’t brought it up since we resumed our friendship. This was the theme that had led us into rough, arid terrain; the burns of our sojourn there were still fresh. But I was emigrating in four days. There was not a lot of time left.

“Have you shown anyone else?”

“Of course not.”

We were in the bedroom she shared with her three younger sisters. One of them, Shada, was sitting on the floor playing with scraps of colored paper. She watched us furtively until Khalida hissed at her like a cat.

“Well?” Khalida’s black eyes were full of challenge. “Aren’t you curious?”

I was. Many times I had wondered what could possibly be so mysterious, but also there had been much else to occupy me. Over the weeks our customers had ebbed until yesterday the bell on the storefront door tinkled only three times. The sweets shone in their neat rows, whole platters untouched. My father’s eyes were not soft on my mother or on me; his voice was nearly always brusque. I still watched him, but I could not read his mind, could not tell whether he was absorbed by guilt or worry. Two days earlier, while my mother was dipping katayef in syrup, I saw that the shine on her face was not only beads of sweat. She was crying without making a sound, her face utterly normal, her movements sure and direct as ever. When I placed a hand on her arm she brushed it gently off.

I knew that following Khalida to this mystery meant taking streets my parents would not want me to take, and I did not want to add further to the strain they already felt. So while I was curious, also I was hesitant. “Tell me what it is,” I said.

Khalida shook her head vigorously, so her braid whipped into my face. I pushed her and she giggled.

“Why not?”

A strange expression passed over her face. It reminded me of my father when he was praying. “You wouldn’t believe me,” she said, finally.

“Show me,” I said.

Khalida’s mother was not like mine; she did not pay attention to whether Khalida was home or not, so long as she was back by nightfall. We just walked out through the store. Her father was slumped on a chair behind the iced shelves of meat, reading the newspaper, chewing on the end of a smoked cigarette. I had not seen him since Khalida and I fought; usually I came in the back door and stayed inside the house. I tasted bile in my mouth and I could not look at him, at his walrus jowls and greasy hands. This was the man who was most likely to blame for our unbought sweets, for my mother’s silent weeping. He grunted when he saw us, but I did not even look his way, did not offer the respectful greeting a good child should always offer a grown-up. I felt his eyes on me as we walked between the hanging slabs of meat. “Your mother doesn’t need you?” he barked at Khalida.

“No, Beba,” she said demurely. “I will be home very soon.”

When we were outside I cast a hard glance back, but he was slumped over his newspaper again, and only the milky eyes of a sheep’s head stared my way.

Khalida took my hand, squeezed it tightly. I was flooded with gratitude for my loyal best friend, who had chosen to believe me over her own beba.

She pointed to the left, past my house.

I shook my head. “My father might see me.”

“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.

“Almost there.”

“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.

We stood for a minute, holding hands, looking at the sky. Then Khalida led me across the remaining floor, the periphery of what once must have been a bedroom. There, she said, and she pointed to the corner.

It was a small closet, mostly intact. There was still some gloss on the oak doors. One handle was missing, but the other was carved into a rosebud. Open it, whispered Khalida, and I did.

She lay on a low shelf upon which shoes once stood, or neatly folded piles of underwear. I say she but really I do not know; it was just a feeling I had; it might have been a boy. An entire skeleton. The way she would have rested in her cradle, legs bowed out, arms slightly bent. Her ribs splaying sideways, her spine a jigsaw line. Her skull golden, small enough to fit in my hand.

The bones of her fingers delicate as a butterfly’s tongue.

“Why is she here,” I whispered, “and whose was she?” But Khalida only shook her head, and even if she knew the answers they would have held no meaning. I pressed a finger very gently to the bone of her cheek; it was cool and smooth. Her skull shifted slightly beneath my touch. They were loose, the bones, and they must have been carefully arranged to look this perfect. In the dark corners of the shelf I noticed small objects: a wrapped piece of chewing gum, two marbles, a knotted shoelace, a wilted sprig of geranium. Offerings.

“Come,” said Khalida, tugging at my arm. “Come, your mother will be angry.”

But I would not move from that spot, not until the sky was purpling, not until there was barely a breath of light in which to make her out, and the first stars stood skittish on the horizon.

. . .

Four days later our boat left for Marseilles. It pulled out of the harbor at night, and we stood on board watching the lights of our city fade. In my hand I clutched a knotted handkerchief, a gift from Khalida. “Do not open it until you are on the ship,” she had instructed as she pressed it into my palm. She was at our house when Mr. Mameri came in his shiny red Renault to drive us down to the dock. She cried as I waved to her through the back window, tears running all the way down her neck, snot murking her upper lip. But I could not cry. Tomorrow our house would be occupied by a strange family. Three small boys would sit at our kitchen table, digging the ends of their spoons into the wood. Would the customers return, now that we were gone? None of our neighbors came out to see us off. There were none of the gifts that had piled up on the doorstep of Mustafa Khelil’s house when his family left for Casabalanca. My father’s family was in Kabyle, and all that remained of my mother’s family was her sister Asma in Paris. And so there was no one except Khalida and Mr. Mameri. For a moment I thought I saw Bassam at the end of the street, but it was just a trick of the falling light. My father sat in the front seat, staring at the valise that rested in his lap. My mother sat beside me, nostrils flared and pale, eyes on the unspooling street ahead.

It was the same expression she wore when I came home from the bombed house. They were sitting in silence at the oak table when I walked into the kitchen. My mother turned to my father, but he said nothing.

“Farouk,” she said. He glanced at her, at me. It was as if we were both strangers.

“Yes, Ghazala,” he said.

“Say something,” she said.

“Allah commanded that you obey your parents,” he told me, his voice brusque. He did not look at me.

“I am sorry, Beba, Yemma,” I said. ‘Please forgive me.”

He said nothing.

My mother waited another minute. When she finally began to speak, it was in a voice so cold and flat that I wondered with terror whether she still loved me. “Your father,” she said, is a pious man. “We are a pious family. You are a very careless girl.”

While I understood I had transgressed, upon hearing my mother’s words I began to grasp the full import of my actions. My father had seen me; they knew I was not at Khalida’s house. If my father’s piety was his main defense against the accusation of traitor, then my being out on the street past nightfall — my distinctly impious act — had potentially placed my father in grave danger. All it would take, I later understood, was a single aggrieved neighbor.

“Aysha,” said my mother, “you are a careless, thoughtless girl.”

I hung my head. My tears fell to the floor, bathing scars left by blistering oil. I was implicated. I was part of the vast carelessness. Yet I knew that once we were in the bombed-out building I could have chosen no differently. That too would have been a form of betrayal, one for which I had no name.

My mother turned once more to my father, but he remained silent. She rose from the table in a single sharp motion and began dishing up tagine from the pot on the stove. My transgression was not mentioned again. But then there was not much conversation in my house during our last few days in Algeria. My mother drew no more pictures of the Eiffel Tower. When I spoke to her in the kitchen — tentatively at first, then more boldly as I saw the anger had left her — she did not listen to me with the same attention. The day before we left she cleaned all the baking instruments and scrubbed every corner of our kitchen. Then she packed our suitcases. My father sat in tense silence behind the counter, occasionally thumbing through his miniature Koran. No customers came, but he sat on his stool with his head high, like a king on a throne overseeing his subjects, his loyal makrout and samsa and mkhabez. When I went to sit with him, he told me brusquely to go do my homework, even though I had no homework, would never again have any homework from that school.

The day we left, my father still sat on his stool. My mother tried to dissuade him. I heard her telling him gently that we did not need twenty francs more, we had enough. “Go pack the suitcases,” he told her.

“Farouk, the suitcases are packed,” my mother said in her quiet voice.

“A virtuous wife obeys her husband,” my father said, and my mother returned to the kitchen. I did not go to school that day, and my mother and I were sitting in silence at the gleaming kitchen table when we heard the bell on the storefront door tinkle. We both started. When she rose and stepped into the hallway to listen, I followed.

There was no talking, only the scraping of my father’s stool on the floor. We pushed the curtain aside just enough to see. My father was taking out the largest white cardboard box we had in stock. He papered it with doilies and laid rows and rows of baklawa and makrout inside, until it was filled to the brim. For whom? There was nobody standing behind the counter. Our curiosity pushed us further, until we were out of the hallway, in the store.

He stood at the door, his cheeks sunken and his hands at his sides. The man without a tongue.

Yet now his eyes were steady, and he was dressed in a suit, patched but clean, and his chin was shaven and held high. When my father came to him with the huge box, he reached into his pocket and pulled out some bills. But my father shook his head, pushed the box into his arms. They stood for a moment, watching each other. Then the man dipped his head slowly, more a bow than a nod. My father’s back was to us, so I could not see his face, but after a moment he opened the storefront door and ushered the man out.

When he turned around, my father looked exhausted, as if he had been loading bricks instead of sweets. “Allahu Akbar,” he murmured. Then he came back behind the counter, picked up the three remaining diamonds of baklawa, handed one to my mother, one to me, and popped the third into his mouth. He chewed slowly, with his eyes closed. “Wonderful,” he said, after he had swallowed, and his eyes upon my mother were soft again. “Wonderful.” Then he began to laugh. He laughed so hard he shook.

“Farouk,” said my mother, “Farouk,” and she pressed a hand to his shoulder. But he kept laughing, on and on until the tears ran down his cheeks. He was still laughing when my mother motioned me upstairs.

When I came back down half an hour later, unable to bear the sad angles of our empty rooms, both of my parents were at the counter. It was a beautiful day outside and the street was bustling, but our store was empty. Yet my father was on his stool, my mother upright behind him. I went to them and slipped my hand into my father’s. At first his hand was inert, loose around mine, but then it came alive, tightened until it crushed my bones together. My mother shifted forward and I felt her breath ruffling my hair. Together we waited until the sun sank low. Not a single person paused outside our door. Finally my father rose and walked outside, rolling the steel gate down over our storefront. My mother’s hand on my shoulder slackened. I felt my own muscles wilt in relief.

Now we stood on the boat. The passengers gathered aboard grew quiet as the boat pulled away from the harbor. We were safely out; perhaps we should have been celebrating. But there was nothing of joy in our leaving. My mother stared at the receding city, her hands clenched around the edges of her veil, tears slipping down her cheeks. My father, his eyes blank, turned away from Algiers, to the lapping Mediterranean, the sky beaded with stars. I slipped my hand into the pocket of my dress, located the knot of handkerchief at the bottom, slowly worked it open.

What lay within was tiny and fragile, delicate as a butterfly’s tongue. I did not have to bring it to my eyes to know what it was.

A finger bone.

I wanted to leap overboard, swim all the way to the white sands, run through the streets of my city to the bombed-out house, rattle the doorknob until it gave, pick my way up the ruined stairs, open the rosebud closet and set it carefully, reverently, back in place. She was not the same, even with one tiny part missing. She was one finger bone less perfect, one finger bone less holy. Khalida had done what none of the street children had dared. Blasphemy, I thought angrily. I wanted to shake her in rage. I wanted to weep in gratitude on her shoulder. I wanted the sun to rise out of the west until it was peeking over the horizon, until the light pooled red in my palm. I wanted to stand on broken beams holding my best friend’s hand beneath a vast, blooming sky.

I wept, then. Silently, like my mother. I raised it to my face, traced it over my cheeks, my eyelids, my lips. Perhaps, I thought, it would taste of what butterflies drink.

I placed it on my tongue.

I saw him standing in the kitchen in my mother’s apron, dipping his little finger in batter, raising it to his lips. It tasted like — nothing.


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