I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Other countries that went through hell in the 1990s—Rwanda, Bosnia—have had truth commissions and war crimes tribunals. Algeria has had amnesties, press censorship, and propaganda. Historic truth remains the province of writers living or publishing abroad. Anouar Benmalek, mathematician, novelist, and poet, has lived in France since 1992. His novel Les Amants Desunis (1997) (The Lovers of Algeria, Graywolf Press, 2004)—a brutalized North African Dr. Zhivago—spans 60 years of wars and revolutions scuttling the official histories of both France and Algeria. Benmalek has since published three more provocative novels, set in Lebanon (Amour Loup), Tasmania (Child of an Ancient People) and Los Angeles (Ce Jour Viendra).
But before the novels came the chroniques, freewheeling newspaper columns published in the weekly Algerie Actualité between 1988 and 1991 during a brief period of democratic experiment in the country. It began in violence: in October 1988, 500 mostly young people were shot in the streets during protest riots against the corrupt one-party state. And it ended in violence, when in January 1992, the military canceled the second round of the country’s first ever democratic parliamentary elections, banned the victorious Islamist party, jailed its leaders and interned 10,000 followers. The armed rebellion that followed engulfed the country for more than a decade. The death toll: 200,000.
Benmalek’s verbatim reports from cafés, streetcorners, and meeting halls chart the downward spiral of a country on the skids. But the chroniques can also be read as an oblique memoir, the appalled confessions of a guilty but grateful survivor. These ten chroniques have been cut and spliced like an Italian neorealist film, gritty, picturesque and unbearably sad.
I leaf through the manuscript I’m about to send to my editor and realize that each page corresponds to nearly a thousand deaths in the new Algerian war, not a civil war but a war against civilians. So many of my friends and others I would have been happy to count as friends died a horrible death—writer, reporter, pediatrician, psychiatrist, theater director, singer with his tongue cut out for the crime of song, women—I won’t name anyone for fear of forgetting someone, and because besides them, there are so very many whose names are never mentioned, who were thrown into wells, burned alive, massacred with axes, hanged, torn limb from limb.
Is it possible that these events unfolded in the country of my childhood, that taught me good and evil, the price of brotherhood and honor?
My father’s combat medal hangs on a wall in the family apartment. He died in 1982, well before the torment that lacerated Algeria. What would he and his brothers have said, those partisans who sacrificed their best years, their very lives in many cases, for the independence of their beautiful Algeria; what would they have said if they could have come back to life, about these thousands of Muslim St. Bartholomew’s days, this demented pruning of Algerian lives by Algerian hands, across valleys and mountains, towns and villages.
Lockjawed with shame, they would have said nothing at all. Fatally discouraged, they would have lain down on the ground to die all over again. And I imagine that even in hell or in paradise, even among themselves, these witnesses from beyond the grave would have kept their mouths shut. Because some acts wholly defile even a mere witness.
I was born in 1956 in Casablanca, to an Algerian father and a Moroccan mother. My mother’s mother was Swiss, from a small canton near Geneva. She was a trapeze artist who traveled for many years with the great Knie circus. I was fortunate enough to know her well. She had a flamboyant personality, kind and quick tempered, and cradled my early childhood with stories of magical tours and amazing exploits. Her mad feats made a deep impression on me. How beautiful, to fling yourself into the void, with infinite trust in your partner for your “return” to existence (since life itself was at stake), defying mortal gravity, transcending the shabby human state. My grandmother never talked about it to us in those terms of course, but her grandchildren felt in a confused way that her history was more mysterious than a fairy tale: she flew, she really flew; there was nothing make-believe about it.
My maternal grandfather had a mother who was a descendant of Mauritanian black slaves. On my Algerian father’s side, I could mention, among others, a great-grandfather who showed exceeding insolence to the Bey of Constantine during the Turkish occupation. The family, fearing reprisals, took refuge in Biskra where one day they received an enormous package from the Ottoman administration. It was nothing less than my heroic ancestor, carefully stuffed with straw, courtesy of the Turks.
As far back as I can recall, our house was always teeming with books. Everything from plays to political economy, along with novels and all sorts of scientific works. By force of circumstance, I became an indiscriminately voracious reader. At 13 or 14 I devoured the comic books I adored right along with such disparate or age-inappropriate works as Shakespeare and the Memoirs of Casanova (this last well-hidden from my parents, of course). I was a thousand miles away from understanding what I read. I read English drama in the same way I would have read The Adventures of Sindbad or The Last of the Mohicans. I guess it goes to show what happens when you fool around with the unconscious mind.
Yet it was always clear to me that my future profession and my life would be indissolubly bound (as they say of marriage) to some scientific activity, and later I chose mathematics, which seemed to me at that time to represent the height of intellectual asceticism. I remember those long summer afternoons in Constantine when everyone else was asleep, overcome by the heat, while I slowly immersed myself in the cool refreshing pleasure—unfortunately unknown to those who are not lovers of the so-called exact sciences—of surmounting a mathematical obstacle or solving a demanding problem in algebra or geometry with the sole assistance of one’s own cerebral convolutions.
That night in Algiers I hated poetry.
It wasn’t very late, but late enough so that the streetlights had been lit and the streets were mostly empty.
We were going to the cinematheque to see some movie or other. A half hour’s leisurely stroll from Bab el Oued to Ben Mhidi.
My brother and I chatted about this and that and laughed aloud at the absurd anecdotes we took turns inventing. Our conversation wasn’t about anything in particular, it was just verbal relaxation after a day of work, a noisy display of pleasure in each other’s company.
I was pretty pleased with myself just then. The day before, after many futile attempts, an editor had accepted my first manuscript. I was still walking on air.
Poet, I tell you, I was beginning to feel like a poet. From head to foot. The allure of a poet, the versatility of a poet, the contentment of a poet.
For some time then, days or weeks, I couldn’t say not having paid close attention, if the hour was late the following sight could be seen at the entrance to the Bab el Azoun beneath arcades at the point where the street makes an L-turn: a woman and her two children lying asleep on a mattress of cardboard scraps.
Algiers is a big city, anything can happen. The heads of the three sleepers, two small, one larger, resting on a pillow also of cardboard emerging from a large gray blanket had become familiar to me. In the end they were just part of the scenery. A sort of sullen complacency dictated my thoughts. “There have always been beggars. What can I do about it?”
So we came to that bend in the street, Samir laughing uproariously, or maybe I was the one laughing, and meanwhile I happened to glance toward the corner where the small family usually took shelter. My brother automatically looked the same way.
We hadn’t slowed the pace. It took us two or three seconds tops, to pass by the spot.
“Did you see?” Samir’s voice, his laughter suddenly interrupted, was thin, distorted. The expression “a blank voice”—connoting fading speech–was never more appropriate. I didn’t reply, but the same emotion grabbed me by the collar, like a thief. What could I have replied? Neither of us spoke.
The “bed” was already made up and although only the little girl was in it, the spread blanket indicated that her mother and sister were nearby. Under one of the arcade lanterns, the older kid had the faraway look in her eyes of someone completely absorbed in a complicated assignment.
With a pencil in her mouth, bent over her open notebook the schoolgirl—she was a little schoolgirl—toiled studiously at her homework.
Summer is hell in Constantine. The temperature can easily hit 110 or higher, in the shade I mean. At the time of which I speak, the water in my North African Toledo was frequently cut off. Few trees had been planted and the oaks and ash that bordered some of our downtown streets must have thought, with dumb resignation, that it was no joke to have to compete with those damn palm trees, certainly more suited to this city not very far from the Sahara of sand dunes and oases.
In my memory of those summers, water played a prominent role. We so coveted it we would wait for hours in front of a faucet or a pipe, as unhurried as a city hall clerk at his counter. Chilled water was taken like a reward from the precious refrigerator in our apartment, steeped in darkness while outside that implacable jailer, the sun, stood watch. Despair seized the entire family when the refrigerator broke down. The repair man we called in to save the day lectured mercilessly, like a doctor with a doomed patient, about the shortage of spare parts.
Miraculous (because uninterrupted) was the flow of water in the little fountain in the old town, the Souika, across from the entry to our family mosque, the mosque where my paternal ancestors have been laid to rest for generations and of which I, despite my agnosticism and if life had not decided otherwise, would have volunteered to manage. I still have the school notebooks in which my austere father scrupulously recorded minor repairs, donations from the congregation and his occasional rather sharp comments about certain imams. This mosque was to become a great source of worry to my father before his death. A new group of imams had begun to deliver sermons that were increasingly political and violent, so that my father, who believed in a fairly tolerant traditional Islam, came to feel betrayed in his own mosque. In a great rage one day, he went straight to an office of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and signed a statement transferring complete ownership of this house of worship to the Algerian state. Of course, as soon as he got home he bitterly regretted this decision and could know no peace until he had recovered the blasphemous document that put the government in charge of the mosque, and our family memories. My aged and venerable father, who in his youth had directed a theater troupe, perfected a tricky rescue scenario with my mother’s help. The next day, at the Ministry of Habous (religious donations) everything went off as planned. My mother, wrapped in her white veil, raised a terrific row with my father in the presence of a government official flabbergasted to see the previous day’s donor return accompanied by such a fury of a wife.
“My wife doesn’t believe me when I tell her I deeded the family mosque to the government,” my father complained sanctimoniously. “Show her the paper I signed yesterday, so she’ll understand the measure is irrevocable.”
The official pursed his lips to show his disapproval of this conduct, defying description, of this wife who dared to raise her voice against her husband in public, and in Constantino no less! But he finally made up his mind to remove the deed from the drawer where he had carefully filed it (it’s not every day the city receives the donation of a house of worship!) and displayed it proudly before the irascible woman.
“Where is it written, this accursed business about a donation?”
“But there, woman, right there!” And he heedlessly shoved the paper under my mother’s nose, whereupon she grabbed it and lit out of there without another word. Choking with rage, the official threatened to send the police after her. My father pretended to be just as upset as the official was, yelling that this time his wife had gone too far, that she was really in for it, that divorce was likely and that the official had no cause for worry because the document would be back in his hands within ten minutes. Later, my father, in great hilarity, told us that our mother got carried away and continued to play her role with great passion, even after they were well out of sight of the Prefecture and the hoodwinked official.
“People were turning around to look at us. She took advantage of the situation, she gave me a real dressing down that day!” he grumbled, half amused, half annoyed.
A friend, let’s call him Abdelkrim, told me about a conversation he had a few days ago with pals from his neighborhood, Belcourt. On his way out of a building in his crowded housing project, he is stopped by a group of ten of his oldest friends, all around his age (between 25 and 30). After cordial handshakes all around, some pats on the back, some lame jokes, comes an embarrassed silence. Abdelkrim understands that they have joined forces to tell him something, but no one dares to begin.
“Hey guys, what’s up? Why the long faces?”
One of them clears his throat.
“Krimo, we really like you, you know that …”
“I should hope so, after all the stupid tricks we’ve pulled off from the time we were yay high.”
“It’s just that … you’re never around anymore these days.”
Abdelkrim is startled.
“Hey, I work and then, you know, and I’m married now. It’s almost a year already … I’m no longer on my own … I have obligations.”
Another speaks up.
“A year, fine, but a year is a long time.”
Abdelkrim is about to lose his temper.
“A long time? What’s the matter with you?”
Alilou, who used to be the cutup of the gang and now wears a narrow fringe of beard, replies, “The first few months, we could understand that you came home from work and didn’t leave the house again. But now … you understand, Krimo, we just want what’s best for you. So we decided to counsel you. Like brothers.”
Abdelkrim is just about stunned speechless. Alilou continues, growing bolder.
“It’s not very healthy to spend too much time with a woman, even if she is your wife. Of course, as soon as you get home from work, you should devote a few minutes to your wife, have coffee with her; she’s entitled to that much. You have to give her her due, but nothing more. After that, you go out and join your brothers from the project to talk, exchange opinions. Then we all go to the mosque together, we pray, we listen to a sermon. Then we continue the discussion and once it’s late, that’s when you go home.”
Abdelkrim is goggle-eyed over this crude meddling in his private life. He’s upset, he starts to cough.
Omar, usually so quiet, raises the stakes. “What Alilou told you is for your own good, Krimo. Woman is the commencement of Hell.”
A middle-sized town in central Algeria. A large café called the Snack, where young guys and those not so young do their best to kill time, which, for its part, is slowly killing them. Some drink endless cups of coffee. Some play cards or dominoes, some throw themselves into interminable conversations in which they squawk about everything and nothing and in which, because the boredom is deadly, their gossip all too quickly skids toward malice.
Last week, the subject of their scuttlebutt was an unmarried middle-aged nurse whom everyone recognized as above reproach in her profession, a demon for work, but accused by all of having the worst vices. One guy says she was the boss’s mistress, the guy next to him says she’s had dozens of adventures. And all the guys are more or less hot and bothered and more or less frustrated and ready to invent sordid details. In fact, these coffee drinkers know, in their heart of hearts, that none of this is true, that the nurse is a virtuous woman, but what can you do? Human nature is so constituted that men in groups love to be cruel.
Said and Redouane (I’ve taken the precaution of changing their names) participated in this slander contest along with the others. Gleefully, but separately, because of the sacrosanct principle of horma (the requirement of modesty among members of the same family). The two brothers are basically no worse than their companions; they’re between 23 and 25 years of age, married with children, good family men. They lost their father early on. Their mother, in her forties, is a courageous widow, still beautiful. Said lives with his mother, Redouane with his in-laws.
Friday. For lack of other diversions, after the soccer match Redouane heads back to the inevitable Snack. When he approaches the table where he usually sits with his friends, they cut the conversation short. Redouane has the unpleasant feeling he heard his mother’s name before the talking stopped.
“What were you talking about anyway?”
The guys sitting there are embarrassed. No one dares look him in the eye. He repeats the question, struggling against his rising anger. Beside himself, he grabs D by the collar.
D decides to admit that they were talking about … his mother and that …
“And what!? What?”
Redouane finally hears that so and so learned from whatshisname that his mother is supposed to have a lover and someone else maintains that another someone is supposed to have seen them together. The identical scenario as with the nurse.
Without stopping to think, Redouane, raging mad, goes looking for his brother and the two of them, with vengeful steps, return to their childhood home in order to thrash the widow—their mother!—making her pay dearly for her alleged lapse.
Their duty fulfilled, they head back (where else?) to the café. The coffee drinkers act like they have no idea what’s happened, but a sort of tacit approval is written on their faces: who loves well, chastises well, right?
The “incident” is already distant in their minds when suddenly a disheveled, wild-eyed woman, possessed by some form of madness, enters the Snack. Everyone turns around. The two brothers freeze at the sight of their mother.
The woman claws at her face, her nails draw blood, she howls at her two children, taking the whole room as her witness.
“When I brought you into this world, when I nursed you, when I wiped you, I wasn’t a slut then, was I?”
People tried to calm her down, and only succeeded in enraging her further. The two young blades, backed into a corner, listened, paralyzed.
“When your father died and I had to drudge so that you could go to school and eat your fill and have clothes to wear, I wasn’t a slut. When I pawned all my jewelry so you could marry, you, older son, and you, younger son, I wasn’t a slut. No, I was not a slut.
She’s weeping now, tears mixed with blood from her scratched face.
“I had to wait for the end of my life, so that my sons … ” Her voice broke. “Yes, so that my own sons could beat me, because I had finally decided to become a slut.”
Algiers, Place Addis Abeba, Friday 1 PM: the traffic is intense, the usual blare of car horns from the usual impatient drivers. The fact that it’s Friday, the weekly day of rest, doesn’t seem to make much difference at this busy intersection.
All of a sudden a young woman dressed in an enormous black sheet starts across the intersection at its widest point. Her steps are hesitant; her tight black covering concealing her entire face seems to greatly restrict her field of vision. A car almost hits her.
A boy of about ten catches up with her. He’s wearing a little white djellaba and matching skullcap. He takes her hand to guide her and she lets him, with no loss to her hieratic posture. The child may be her son or her brother.
I follow her with my eyes, unreal black silhouette amid the chaotic traffic. She seems to glide across the street, sure of herself now, enclosed in her world of black cloth.
She reaches the saving sidewalk, lets go the hand of her little guide and hurries onward, silently triumphant, the child still trotting gaily beside her.
Catching my breath, I wonder, who is this woman … and who am I, for my own part? The lady is my compatriot; does she acknowledge me as her compatriot?
On October 17, 1988, a few days after the week of riots and harsh reprisals by army and secret police—hundreds shot dead in the streets, hundreds more arrested and tortured—a general assembly of university professors from central Algeria was convened at Bab Ezzouar. It was a tremendously emotional occasion because for the first time since independence Algerian citizens were able to speak out in public about the torture to which they’d been subjected while in the custody of security forces. In a collective surge of outrage, we decided to adopt two resolutions, the first a national petition against torture and the second roughly corresponding to a Charter of Freedoms that the signataries wished to see applied in Algeria.
A committee was assigned to draft both statements. The first was easily adopted, but the second—containing our democratic demands—met with stubborn resistance on one particular point: the demand for a multi-party state. Then it came to a vote, and to the surprise of some of us, this item was eliminated. The majority who voted to remove it from our list of demands offered various excuses, all boiling down to one unseemly explanation: we mustn’t divide the democrats by voting for something so radically new.
The Pouvoir would soon make a mockery of this argument, by “granting” a multiparty state in February 1989, thus demonstrating our incapacity, as an intelligentsia, to spearhead the movement for democratic reforms.
If anyone is to be held responsible for the “creation” of religious fundamentalism, it is without doubt the Algerian state, or more precisely, the Pouvoir that has ruled the state since independence. What’s at work here as in the rest of the Arab world is a simple but ironclad law: extremism begets extremism.
The political extremism of the men who without sharing power have ruled us since 1962, who in the name of some strange “revolutionary legitimacy” have claimed the right to require Algerians to think as they do and only as they do under penalty of prison, internment camp, even torture, this extremism has spawned, almost automatically, another extremism cloaking itself in religious legitimacy and threatening severe punishment to those who can’t make up their minds to submit to it.
Algiers, place du Premier Mai, one of the first rallies of the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), huge crowds of bearded activists dressed Afghani style and ordinary people (!) under their command, trembling with joy and hatred, in unison in their communion with their leaders. Crowds yelling at the top of their lungs in an orgasmic rush, an improbable, “We’ll beat them!” lumping together the abhorred Pouvoir, the intellectuals viewed as apostates, women without the veil, artists …
We should have been on our guard when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators—drunk with the discovery of some meaning in their scornful, wandering, expendable lives—took to the streets chanting their well-known declaration of love for the Islamic Republic: “By it, we shall live; for it, we shall die.” We made fun of them at times, so as not to fear them. We secretly envied their unity. We democrats were so ridiculously divided. We attributed the Islamists’ spectacular exaltation to Mediterranean expansiveness, the pleasure of shouting in a group, like in the soccer stadiums. We were wrong because this time the group was about to become a mob.
There were warnings, the first threatening letters, sent to the paper anonymously. Neither I nor my colleagues took them seriously. The excessive fulminations, the swollen religious terminology, made them unreadable, almost a joke. We simply concluded that what we wrote had an impact, created a disturbance, was, in short, not entirely useless. The future would prove us ferociously wrong. Several of my colleagues at the magazine would later be executed by the terrorists.
It was right after the local elections in June 1990, a few months before the scheduled elections to the national assembly. Algeria was in a feverish state but not yet plunged into terror. The clutch on my car was giving me trouble as usual and I had left it with a mechanic on the other side of the highway to the airport. I walked home, newspapers tucked under my arm, thinking about the press conference the Committee against Torture had held the day before. We’d had a large turnout from the press and several dailies had given extensive coverage to the results of our investigation into mistreatment of Islamist prisoners following a failed prison break in the Algiers region. Photos of committee members (including mine, since I was the group’s chief secretary) ran on the front page, alongside our detailed accusations of abuse by prison personnel.
About half a mile from home, I passed a group of young idlers, greeted them absentmindedly, and continued on my way. One of them suddenly exclaimed,
“Hey, it’s Benmalek, the one who writes those articles against God in Pharoah’s papers.” Pharoah is what the fundamentalists call the state and its authorities, considered apostates, criminals, enemies of Islam.
I felt like saying, “Hey guys, what are you carrying on about? Be serious, me, a member of the Committee against Torture, a supporter of Pharoah? Here, read the paper … ” An insult erupted, the group made some threatening motions, someone put out an arm and nearly latched on to me.
And suddenly I was running, pursued by a furious mob hurling an armada of dire curses. I managed to shake them, maybe because, as they say, fear has wings. I spent the day ruminating over what I felt was a terrible injusice: to have these hittistes, bored kids without jobs who kill their boredom by “propping up the walls” of their neighborhood, view me as a hireling of the Pouvoir, that accursed violent dishonest Pharoah, to the point where I deserved to be beaten up or worse; and this despite my efforts as a member of the Committee and my mordant articles about the mismanagement and looting of our common homeland.
But I swallowed my bitterness and blamed the whole episode on the inevitable glitches of a democracy in its apprenticeship phase.
The first time I was really shaken to the core was in conversation with a colleague at the university. It was a week after the first round of elections to the national assembly. The fundamentalists had won a majority in nearly every district. Their leaders, awaiting the apotheosis of the second round (supposedly giving them complete control of the Assembly) strutted on screen, and noisily proclaimed that the Constitution and that filthy impious western import, democracy, had only a few more days to live.
The atmosphere was strange: end of the world and unreal at the same time. As if the staggering results achieved by the FIS in the first round of voting had been only a grim farce staged by the Algerian people, a nightmare from which we would soon awaken.
S was a mathematician, like me. We got along extremely well. I valued his forthright manner, his sense of humor, his kindness. We all knew he practiced his religion, never once missed his prayers, but without making a display of it; he adhered to the easygoing strain of Islam historically traditional in our country, unlike certain hotheads (of both sexes) at our institute who no longer allowed themselves to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. One of them, with the rank of full professor, refused to look unveiled women in the face; when addressing a female student, he turned his head to one side.
We talked, like everyone at that time, about what was to become of Algeria. To my great surprise, this warmhearted, moderate, and reasonable colleague seemed to approve the most extremist positions taken by those whom the elections designated as our new leaders. I was flabbergasted. Finally I couldn’t take it any more; at my wit’s end, I challenged him,
“You know me well, S, we’ve been working together for a long time, right? You’re an honest man and without malice toward others, right? So answer my question candidly: As you see it, would there be a place for me in your new Islamic republic? Would I still have the right to live in this country?”
He stared at me apologetically.
“I don’t know. In your case, we’d have to consult the fquih, the theologian.” His frown was friendly, but it was the kind of frown you wear with someone who is seriously ill. He would have liked to help me, but I was beyond help.
I’m at the train station waiting in turmoil for my wife and daughter whom I haven’t seen for nearly a year. A two-week tourist visa has at last been granted them. A woman steps off the train with a little girl in her arms. The child is my daughter, 17-months-old. My throat tightens, because I know it’s my daughter and yet I don’t recognize her, she has changed so much.
All day I try to tame her, but as soon as we’re alone in one room, she rushes to join her mother in the other room. In the late afternoon we go out together but after about ten yards she starts screaming with fear. I look like a kidnapper with this little girl wriggling in my arms, demanding her mother. Pursued by the hostile stares of passersby, I rush back indoors. I feel like a fool.
I left, I returned. Several times. Between two massacres. Between two butcheries. Between two bouts of despair. Algeria began to escape me. My country frightened me more and more, horrified me too. I understood it less and less. I loved it as much as ever, even if, as was often, I hated it with a passion.
Summer 2002: Nightfall in the capital. The owner of a large retail establishment is about to roll down his iron curtain. A woman with a small child in tow sits on the sidewalk two or three yards from the store, in all likelihood intending to spend the night in the shelter of a niche in the facade. She may be a refugee from the hills, one of the hundreds of thousands who fled the murderous countryside for the illusory safety of the big cities. The shopkeeper is annoyed; he rolls the curtain back up again and goes to fetch a broom and a bucket. Pretending to clean the sidewalk, he empties the bucket of water in their direction, splattering the wretched woman who stands up, and with painful effort and without protest, goes off with her baby to find another, no less precarious spot to bed down for the night.
Midday, Algiers again. Stifling heat. I’m walking along Didouche Mourad, the capital’s main thoroughfare. A man calls out to me. Well, a filthy scrap of a man, let’s say—armless, legless, leaning against a wall, the stumps of his thighs “resting” on a soiled bit of carpet. His head streaming with sweat.
“Buy me a Coke, brother, I’m thirsty.”
I buy a can of soda at the café across the street. But when it comes time to hand it over, I’m at a loss because the guy has no arms.
“Help me drink, may God preserve you.” I open the can and hold it against his mouth. He drinks avidly. Soda drips from the corners of his mouth, runs down his chin and lands on his T-shirt. When he has caught his breath, he blinks wearily, relishing the liquid coolness. I stand there speechless, with the can of soda pressed to his lips. He signals to me to set it on the scrap of rug.
I hesitate to leave, ill at ease in the presence of so much misfortune personified. The man notices my hesitancy. He flashes me a mocking smile with just a touch of irony. He sighs, “What do you say, brother, our Dzair is really difficult.”
I manage to smile back at him.
“Yes, brother, who could say it better than you: Dzair, our beloved Algeria, gives us a really hard time.”
I was all choked up when I left him.
Translated by Suzanna Ruta
Suzanne Ruta is an author (Stalin in the Bronx and Other Stories), translator and book critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, VLS, Newsday, Women’s Review of Books, and Entertainment Weekly, among others. She is a human rights activist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
—Mathematician, novelist, and journalist Anouar Benmalek was born in Casablanca in 1956. He was a co-founder of the Algerian Committee against Torture, following the 1988 riots. His novel The Lovers of Algeria (1997), a best-seller in France, won the Rachid Mimouni Prize. His works have been translated into ten languages. He has lived in France since 1992.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee