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God bless you, good people all! No lack of good humour here! Are we not in the prime of life, sturdy, of sound mind? What more do you need? The earth is long and wide; there’s a place for everyone in it; everyone can live here as he pleases, any way he likes. Great is our mother Algeria, may blessings rain upon her! And many of our kind are very sympathetic to us: this we shall proclaim before the entire universe, as long as a breath of life remains in us.
Our brothers have never allowed to die of starvation the creature you see before you. Yes! the whole world knows us. We are like the bird that sips water from the fountain and nests in the tiles. Some, the majority call us Djeha, and others, friends and acquaintances, Djahdjouh.
Oh, the things they’ve said about us! They all know some tale concerning us; simple minds and intellectuals alike rejoice in our vicissitudes; strolling players, never short of imagination, invent fresh stories about the trials we suffer. And all because, may God forgive me, never once was I able to hold my tongue.
To tell the truth, I spread the good word among those who have no wish to hear it: merchants, fat bellies, the holier-than-thou, pious frauds, the great ones who know heaven is not as high as they are, fake savants, the lowly ones when they have the souls of slaves. The poor, I swear, have never been attacked by me! The poor are already sufficiently trodden underfoot. I hope that will weigh in the favour of a sinner like me. And what if I have blustered and bragged beyond all reason, pooh! that’s simply because at bottom I’m just a hopeless nincompoop.
But all that’s a lot of wind. What I really want is to tell you the tale of misadventure, the most recent to befall your poor old Djeha . . .
Well, that individual, I can still see him in my mind’s eye, was dressed in a manner not suited to our land – he was wearing more clothes than necessary, and all very dark in tone – came up to me one afternoon when I was taking my customary stroll through the town, and asked:
“In person,” I admitted, as I was endeavouring to think of what sort of countenance to adopt faced with this stranger.
“I know you!” he said.
“Who doesn’t know Djeha, young man!”
“But I know you in a special way.”
Whereupon he gave me a wink.
“Well, really . . . “
“You came to our district once . . . I was still a kid, really.”
“Where haven’t I been, son . . . If these feet could speak! . . .
All the same, I began to feel a bit worried. I looked the man in the face: “Whatever will he bring out next?” I was thinking: he had such shining eyes, they were like blazing coals. Though he was short and slender, this man, still young, seemed possessed of a great nervous strength. While talking to me, his fine-featured face crinkled in amusement and a wave of wrinkles played on his hard, narrow forehead.
My inspection did not seem to disturb him. He went on:
“You had described your adventures to a group of locals who were considerably entertained by them. One of them, Uncle Salem, wanting to show his appreciation, had brought you a magnificent live cock . . .”
All the time he was speaking, he kept blinking his eyes; I kept my distance. In spite of some incomprehensible surge of sympathy that brought me closer to him, I refused to let him blarney me. This youngster was doubtless some shameless farceur. But whether it was the frank smile that made his eyes sparkle from within, or else the suddenly aroused desire to know how far this fortuitous encounter would lead me, I was won over. Was there not some more serious reason for it? I no longer recall what it was that persuaded me to lend him a sympathetic ear.
I answered with as much detachment as I could muster:
“It may well have been so, but anyhow I no longer remember.”
“They had all drifted away,” my interlocutor continued, paying no heed to what I’d said. “There I was alone beside you. I kept gazing at you in wonder, telling myself: ‘It’s Djeha!’ I might have stood forever staring at you wide-eyed if you had not suddenly looked at me, beckoned to me to approach you, then whispered in my ear: ‘Here, lad, take this cock. Take it to your mother; get her to make you a good couscous with it.’ You put the bird into my hands and strode away hurriedly.”
Now I looked at this companion with even greater curiosity and we started to chat.
He soon told me all about himself, telling me he’d just arrived, that very day, from across the sea. From France! After a four-year absence, he had taken a holiday, and had returned to see the old country. And his family, too: his wife and three children. These, he explained, were all boys; in his eyes, the pride he felt at this made a joyous flame start dancing. But it had not been easy to return home. He was afraid of not being able to recognise them: “Four years, dear soul, just think! I could feel something terrible stirring within me. I was terrified at the idea that soon I would be confronting them.”
All at once, my doubts disappeared. How well I understood his heart! All the same, he could not bring himself to talk to me about his wife, even though it was obvious he never stopped thinking of her. It is not the custom, in our land, for a man to speak of his wife. What a stupid idea! What? Is it a shameful defect, to have a beautiful and loving wife? That’s husbands for you – idiots!
If you want to talk in comfort, there’s nothing better than sitting down to a good brew of fresh tea, is there? So I suggested to the young man that we should go and relax in a cafÈ. But he seemed very upset, for he refused outright to go one step of the way with me. He said that it was he who should invite me, and would be very honoured if I would accept: he was really sorry that he hadn’t thought about it first.
“All right, if that’s all it takes to please you,” I replied.
And he calmed down. Naturally, he had not understood that my proposition was just out of politeness. I didn’t have a penny to my name. Yet his whole attitude had aroused in me such a strong feeling of friendship that, without realising what I was letting myself in for, I hadn’t been able to resist inviting him. In any case, he would have paid for the drinks, out of consideration for me, I’m sure.
In fact, there was something else. Have you ever noticed that at certain moments we long to demonstrate our gratitude to someone because of a rush of happiness that makes the heart as light as a bubble? So it was with this young man.
Seated in the courtyard of an old funduq, we were drinking some excellent tea. It was the end of November, still mild. From the four corners of the building entirely occupied by craftsmen were coming the songs and dhikr or religious chants of slipper-makers, the swallow-cries of the weavers’ shuttles, the nasal whine of leather merchants coming and going. Birds were chirping in their cages; others, flying free, were answering them from the top of a pomegranate tree growing there. All at once, I relaxed and gave myself up to the sense of peace that came from this buzzing of a busy hive all around us.
Suddenly my companion, who had remained in silence until then, asked me:
“Is everything really all right with you here?”
This question suddenly shot at me made me jump. I had not been expecting such a question on the part of my comrade. It made a sharp contrast with the agreeable sensation of well-being that the surroundings had instilled in my soul! Shaking his curly head, the young man, who had already told me his name was Zubir, leaned towards me. I gave him a penetrating look: his lively expression seemed to me quite honest. But it was difficult for me to guess what he was getting at.
Nevertheless, I inwardly felt that all was not well with us. In fact, things were worsening.
Without waiting for my answer, he declared:
“Here’s what things are like now in this place: you have laws, plenty of laws, but no justice, no truth . . .”
There now gleamed in his eyes looks as piercing as daggers. He spoke with simplicity and conviction. Impossible not to believe this man. I listened to him. The things he talked about created within me a dull alarm, an unease growing hard to bear.
After a brief pause, he added, his face darkening:
“I know it’s bad to become an expatriate. I deserted my country, but do you think I did so with a light heart? There was nothing else I could do. I’m strong, clever with my hands, but I couldn’t find anything here in the way of work.”
He started to laugh. Praise heaven! How delighted I felt to see him in a less sombre mood; his eyes, so serious, now flashed with pure goodness of heart.
But at once he began again:
“I was never able to find suitable work. Odd jobs. yes, but never real work that gives you satisfaction when you’ve finished it, never! So I left! Since then, my children have begun to eat their fill. They do not see their father, but at least they have something to eat. I’ve saved a little money, too.”
As he said that, he laughed openly.
“Peanuts!” he grumbled. “And yet . . . it’s something after all.”
At first I could not understand why his laugh sounded so extraordinary. He was young, of course. At that age, all you need is a sudden touch of humour for everything good in you to express itself in your face. So a man who is able to work, to buy food for his family and still save a little – such a man is something wonderful.
Such were the feelings that gradually arose within me. I was smiling at my companion; he was smiling also whenever his eyes met mine.
In the end, I had to tell him:
“That’s admirable. True, you’re still rather young; but you have character and you’ll be a success.”
“I’m not so sure,” he replied simply.
“Above all, love your fellow man, but look him full in the face. In that way, even if he has wicked intentions, he’ll leave you alone.”
“I get on well with all men, except my father-in-law, who has a viper’s tongue, and all people in authority.”
Surprised, I took another good look at my companion. And I thought:
“Ah, what it is to be young! The young have their pride, they know what they want! Look at yourself, Djeha, the way you muddle everything up and never know which way to turn.”
I could feel his presence warming my old heart. It was such unexpected happiness, undeserved, to have such a being sitting beside me. In my young days, we did not talk like that; young people know only a narrow, tedious existence, a useless existence!
I seem to see him again as he appeared before my eyes. His image will never be wiped out of my memory; I can see the green cape he was wearing: it did not reach right down to his knees, it was tied at the waist by a wide belt. His boyish face with the sharp features was crowned by a voluminous head of black, curly hair on which he wore neither cap nor chechia. His shining eyes spread a comforting light all round him.
Alas, sadness and joy live side by side, and under the same roof. After a few minutes of silence, during which Zubir seemed to be recalling his entire past life, he scratched his head, sighed, and continued, his eyes looking into the distance:
“All the same, there is so much misery in this country, it’s difficult to know where to start talking about it. You realise that especially when, like me, you’ve just come back from a land where everyone works, makes money and enjoys life.”
Once again, I felt uneasy. The self-assurance of his criticisms, the maturity of the reflections he expressed, obviously produced a surprising effect. But as he delivered those words, an expression of unbearable tension appeared on his face. When I saw that, I felt an absurd anxiety. He went on talking, and began to tell me about his father. He had been a coffee-grinder. Zubir wanted to show me – he upon whom fate had smiled – just what had been the sort of life his own father had led.
“Today,” he said, “you can go anywhere and find your coffee ground in a few seconds by a machine. In my childhood, things were different. A man had to use all his strength to reduce to the finest powder – finer than flour – the coffee beans. And my father had that task!”
As he was speaking, his fist clenched violently as if seizing some invisible enemy. I for my part remained silent. I did not want to interrupt him while he was struggling to collect his memories.
“My father had to work in a deep, dark hole, a sort of ditch at the end of a filthy dead-end impasse. The place was always shut off by a heavy door. Like a prison gate I felt – I don’t know why. You could hardly see a thing; it was like being buried alive in the place! The pestle was of solid black iron, I remember it was bigger than me and weighed at least forty pounds. All day long, my father had to lift and drop it without stop, never a pause to rest, until his bones were cracking. He pounded and pounded, with frightful gasping breaths. In the end, he no longer really knew what he was doing. His face would drip with drenching sweat, and its black rivulets would gleam faintly on his forehead, his cheeks, his withered neck. He was already old; his sight was dimming and he was becoming blind. The hollows of his eyes also filled with blackish sweat. You could have sworn that they were tears dripping from his wrinkled eyelids, and that those tears were black. There was great sadness in him, but he went on pounding, pounding, and panting heavily. Every blow he delivered in the enormous mortar reverberated right through his chest.”
I could no longer bear what he was telling me, I felt annihilated by his tale, and yet I was all ears. If I had not felt ashamed to do so, I would have howled with pity there among all the craftsmen’s workshops, amid all the comings and goings around us. That boy was tearing at my very heart. “This is our life,” I told myself, “and that is the life our brothers have to endure!” And the repressed sobs caught in my throat were strangling me like a hangman’s rope.
But the young man kept on:
“Sometimes, unable to go on, my father would collapse, with his nose against the ground. He was glad to be in that position, I’m sure. But I was put there to supervise him. I had to stay with him all day long. So I would set him on his feet again at once, for fear that the boss might come along and find him flat on the ground. And I would tell myself: ‘You’ve used up all your strength, my poor father. You’ll have to take a rest, or die.’ But above all I could not allow myself to feel such compassion for him. I could not allow him to rest his aching limbs on the earth that would one day receive them. If I had, he himself would later have scolded and punished me. So I would wipe his face with a rag and, using all my strength, lift him up and put the pestle back in his groping hands. As he started work again, he would whisper: ‘Thanks, son.’
“His energy would return and then one could hear the regular pounding of the pestle in a tranquil rhythm, a slightly dull sound, that shook the foundations of the old houses all round us. He would even start a discussion with me; in fact, he was not by nature a sad person. Though he would express himself in the bitterest terms, it was not sadness that made him do it . . .”
Having reached this point in his tale, my friend stopped speaking for a while and his face took on a hard look.
I gently encouraged him to go on: “Come on, tell the whole story!”
With my encouragement, he began slowly, very slowly, to gather his thoughts again, his gaze under the arched eyebrows fixed straight ahead of him. He seemed so pitiable! As I listened to him mumbling like that, I became overwhelmed by a strange presentiment, while at the same time there awakened in me an irresistible desire, something never known before, to meditate upon all those things I had heard. Of course it was not the right moment to embark upon such questions. So I decided to await a more propitious moment. His youthful voice, level and slightly subdued, went on:
“Whenever the boss came, several times a day, to collect the powdered coffee, he would shout, as if it was a good joke: ‘Ahmed, you’re too old; we’ll have to find someone younger!’
At first, my father would protest, saying he’d never felt stronger in his life: he seemed to have resigned himself to the fate that awaited him. So after each visit from the boss, invariably I would hear him mutter: ‘When I’m blind, I’ll go begging and I’ll be more happy.’ Whenever I heard those words, I would sincerely wish he would lose his sight as soon as possible. I could already see myself guiding him. We would wander over many lands. This project filled me with hope. One day I talked to him about it: he smiled, and answered me: ‘That’s fine: we’ll set off together holding out our hands in the name of Allah.’ But it didn’t happen as we had hoped: my father passed away with his hands still gripping the pestle.”
The young man fell silent, as if something invisible had suddenly frightened him: his features shuddered and his whole face contracted. He lowered his forehead, and sat without moving. He seemed to be listening to something. After a while, he raised his head. Just when I was least expecting it, he abruptly ended his story with these words:
“It was towards the day’s end that it became so terrifying. He would utter such cries of pain and suffering, it was unbearable. It was getting dark then. I would run and call my mother and she and I, each supporting him on one arm, would drag him back home.”
I, too, remember a mean, miserable childhood. We were bored, for a soul-extinguishing lassitude emanated from it like an asphyxiating fog. We were so bored, we felt as if we were being stifled: a leaden weight seemed to load down the chest. When I evoke that past, still recent, I find it difficult to believe that it was really like that. Certainly, man was shrouded in a cloak of ignorance and fear. He walked with lowered head; full of timidity, he dared not show himself to the world. And today? Today you can see how he has learnt self-respect, refusing to be humiliated. We have lifted the mourning veil knotted round our hearts. God has given us longer life, all of us, and we shall see better days. Take Djeha’s word for itl And when that time comes, it will only be certain individuals who do not have a clear conscience.
To return to my companion, here he is now, happy to be the father of three boys, and to be employed . . .
There we were, talking away, the two of us. It was as if he were re-living a long nightmare during those few moments; he closed his eyes and, as if seized by remorse, wondered: “Why on earth did I let myself be carried away by such memories?”
He had a stricken look. Then he opened his eyes: his face was illuminated by a healing smile.
It was just at that second that I saw the black groups of police rushing into the funduq and descending upon us like a flock of crows. My friends, what can I say? Was this some calamity falling upon us? I did not realise what was happening. Ah, my brethren, what horror! They fell upon us with fists and truncheons hip and thigh. Blows rained down upon us. Those assassins attacked, their metal helmets pulled down to their ears. We received punches to the stomach, blows to legs and backbones. Many people were trying to run away with bloody mouths, others with split heads. Turbans flew off the heads of honorable citizens; peaceful craftsmen were driven out, trampled underfoot; others – me, my companion, in a trice all of us were arrested and put in chains, as if we were criminals. And for what reason, almighty God? But it was not until much later, when I emerged from prison, that I understood the reason.
Zubir recovered straight away. After what had happened, manhandled by all those police pigs, it was hard to gather one’s wits together, to speak out loud. As for me, I was stunned. But that brave young man called to me quite without emotion: “Are you there? Ah, there you are! Don’t be afraid, it’s all over . . .”
All over? I held my tongue: I was not as sure as he was. My heart was pounding hard: it was sending me fearsome warnings in an unaccustomed fanfare, distant but clearly perceptible. Anyhow, despite my disarray, I had reason to feel glad, for I had found my companion again. You cannot imagine what a comfort it is in such circumstances to see a friend’s face. Little by little, I regained my self-confidence. But by God, sirs, what a rough-and-tumble it was! I don’t know whether it was with fright or surprise, but my back was all wet. It could well have been terror, after all.
But it was because we were going to be marched through town under the eyes of the whole population. Oh, the shame . . . I bent my back, kept silent and started walking. Seeing me thus cast down, Zubir questioned me in a low voice as the other captives followed or walked in front of us:
“Are you feeling frightened?”
“It’s nothing, really.”
At that moment, I had a strange thought. “The cafÈ owner,” I asked myself, “he served us tea without expecting anything like this would happen. Who’s going to pay him, pay for his broken glasses, his shattered chairs, tables, benches?” I imagined him lamenting the useless remains of his business and, may I be forgiven, I could hardly suppress the laughter that started to shake me. Why? It would be difficult to explain. As they say: “I laughed till I cried.”
That was when I noticed, walking in front of us at the head of the group, the man himself, without his turban that he must have lost in the free-for-all! I recognised at once his rough-hewn Kaimuk head, close shaven, massive, descending to his neck in thick rolls of flesh covered with prickly hairs. The cafÈ owner was marching along as dignified as if accompanying a wedding procession, with lifted chin, that seemed to defy the police by indicating the road they should follow. “Djeha my boy!” I said to myself, “You simply must adopt the same impressive bearing.” So I puffed out my chest, drew my eyebrows down in a frown and went on my way proudly, just like my fellow notable, swinging my arms. At once I felt as if I had grown taller, to be taller than my real height. And I thought to myself: “We are going to see their prison. So what?. . . Men are born to know prison also.”
Quite cheered up, I was walking along sustained by these thoughts when, out of the crowd lining our route and gazing at us in respect, a European broke through and rushed upon us. He was foaming at the mouth, the man was yelling at us. Raising his fist above his head, he screamed:
“Stop . . . stop! . . .”
Then the beast began to hit out and shriek at us as if he was out of his mind. And we couldn’t understand why it was my young friend who received most of the blows. He stepped aside to avoid them; he was trying to defend himself, but his wrists were in handcuffs. And I started shouting:
“Arrest that man! For goodness’ sake, arrest him!”
No one made a move to do so among the police. From among the curious bystanders a murmur arose. Were we going to be delivered from this raving madman, yes or no? The police raised their pistols, pointed on one side at us, on the other at the crowd. The crowd fell silent; it made no further movement. At that very moment I finally felt fear, and an irrational panic seized me. The European, protected by the police pistols, went on punching our comrade. I was observing everything, including myself, as if detached from my body, in an unbelievable state of divided personality; nevertheless, I cannot confirm that I remained self-possessed. Suddenly Zubir uttered a groan: a faint, horrible sound, the dull sound made by a branch snapping. He waved his chained hands in the air, reared up and then fell to the grounds dragging me down with him in his collapse. He was shaking all over, but uttered no sound. Arching his back higher, he stretched his neck and looked towards me: his eye shot a demented gleam whose horror no human tongue could descibe. Then his head fell back. I was stretched almost full-length beside him.
The man went on raining blows upon him. He was yelling:
“Think I’m going to let you off alive, you bastard!”
My brethren, I had never guessed that a human heart could contain so much hatred. That day, I saw things your eyes would never believe. Heaven save us from such madness, silence that voice within us.
I should be telling lies if I described to you how we were able to go on our way: from that moment on, the succession of events grows dim, becomes vague in my mind. All the same, a few isolated facts remain engraved in my memory with a maddening precision, while others drift around in a capriciously moving mist. For example, I only imperfectly recall how we got on our feet and what state we were in as we prisoners, supporting our companion, struggled on our way as best we could . . .
It was a way that led us to the prison. Pain had gripped my shoulders like a savage beast of prey. I dragged myself along, stunned; I was appalled by the noise my companion’s bones had made as they broke in his crumpled suit all covered with dirt so it resembled an old sack. And within myself, the fine flame of fraternity I had felt for all the world was extinguished; I was wandering in bottomless obscurity. Zubir’s head was banging against my chest, his back was bent double, his arms dangled; he was no longer walking, we were simply carrying him.
After that, I do not know what happened.
When I came to myself, I was hurting all over. My body was drenched as if several buckets of water had been thrown over me, but a water that was filthy and with a sickening stench. My head was swollen, hanging down heavily: it was still throbbing with that great uproar. I only wanted to say nothing, see nothing: everything seemed to me so horrible. A great number of strangers were piled in beside us in a long, narrow cell: all lay stretched out, motionless, like freshly-sawn tree trunks; a few still had the strength to groan with pain. I waited: I could hear the sound of water running not far away. As I lay there, I gazed on my surroundings, understanding nothing, my thoughts wandering.
After a few minutes, I could make out a few faces, hairy, grey, stuck to the cement floor. Somewhere, in a far corner, or through a wall – but where in fact – someone was watching. Yet I could see no one there. It was like a face lost in the half-darkness and turning its rolling eyes upon me; I had a great desire to sit up, despite the curious feebleness that drained my limbs, in order to study the face better. But, rooted to the spot, I was unable to move, not even to lift an arm. Suddenly a need to escape took an irrepressible hold upon me. Then I managed to realise the monstrousness of the situation I was in: daylight dawned in my mind, and I thought to myself: “Djeha, Djeha, what’s happening, to you. Where have you got yourself now? Poor old Djeha! . . . ”
I could not resist the impulse that at once urged me to raise myself from the ground. Then barely had I managed to sit up, a prolonged howling made me jump out of my torpor. I cast frantic looks about me. It was not coming from our cell: it was strange! Anyhow, it gave me such a shock, I fell back full-length again on the ground, powerless, almost losing consciousness. In my semi-consciousness, I realised that there were prisoners on the other side of the wall. At the same moment a door banged shut, making the dark, massive building shudder, footsteps slithered along a corridor and a long death-rattle lingered in the silence. I curled up in my corner. Those noises began again, a wave of sound again penetrating the whole building. After that a mournful, rhythmical complaint, rising above the nearer death-rattle, let itself be heard for a long time before dying away in total exhaustion. Lying on my belly, I listened, panting, staring at something in front of me, and what I saw made me almost lose my mind.
There on the floor Zubir was lying, face upwards; his clenched fists, the thumbs inside, were laid on his chest. His eyes, which had lost their brilliance, looked like congealed fat. Yet his eyebrows were arched very high, as if he were still telling the tragic story of his father to some invisible listener. That look was growing very strange; it seemed extinct yet it was still obstinately riveted to the ceiling’s murky pallor. Then I could see the gaping mouth; its blackened lips were letting brownish rivulets of blood trail from their corners and all along the cheeks and the neck. The blood had formed a sombre puddle under the young man’s head. Zubir was motionless. The blood kept trickling out of him without cease: it was almost as if my companion was melting away. Suddenly it felt very cold in the place, and I was seized by a peculiar sense of horror. Jaws clamped tight, I grew numb.
Later – much later, it seemed to me – I saw that they had moved me to another place: the setting in which I now found myself was quite different. I was in a spacious hall, well-lit, along with other people of course. My companion had disappeared; there were no more traces of blood on the floor.
What had become of him? I questioned those near me, but none of them could answer my question; some did not even know what I was talking about. And it is quite likely that they took me for someone whose mind had become unhinged by all those events. I could see from the expressions on their faces that they seemed to feel sorry for me. It was all just beginning!
But then I learned that we were going to be put through an interrogation: we had been tidied up and brought there for that purpose. At once, a powerful voice began calling people’s names: they were the first to have to appear before the authorities.
When my turn finally arrived and I presented myself, a man seated behind a big desk began to shake his head and grumble something: then he shouted:
“Dja-kha! Dja-kah! What sort of a name is that? What’s this nincompoop doing here? Yet another crazy bastard! Go on, get out of here!”
When he uttered these last words, which his foul breath spat in my face, he raised his eyes. What a head, what a look! . . . He was just another creature like ourselves, you might say. Yet if all the world were like that, we would have reason to fear man, and to fear for mankind.
I was pondering these thoughts and they were far from joyful until I forgot even the presence of this representative of law and order, so incongruous did it all seem to me. Suddenly, I was seized by the collar, shoved without ceremony to the exit, and there I received a boot up the backside. The cop who chucked me out must have had long experience of that sort of treatment of his fellow men.
As if by magic, I found myself back once more in the street, surrounded by the comings and goings of passers-by going about their affairs – itinerant salesmen who rent the air with their endless cries from street to street, kids scuffling like frenzied sparrows, cars rushing at top speed without any consideration for pedestrians. The crowd’s powerful current engulfed me, carried me along with it among countless cries, countless noises, hysterical bicycle bells, voluptuous popular songs spewing out from cafÈ gramophones, donkey-men yelling at the tops of their voices “Balek! Balek!”, the battering of open-air cobblers’ hammers. Finding myself mingling with human beings, hearing all that free and easy way of living, filling my lungs with fresh air without paying a penny for it, feeling on my back God’s good sun, shining warm even though it was almost winter – well now, should I confess it? – I felt neither happy nor satisfied.
Was I not free? Was I not like those pigeons I saw hopping here and there on the street, peck-pecking here and there, then, suddenly scared away, rising up into the air in which they flew around so gracefully one never wearied of admiring them? Was not I, too, going to return to my old way of life, and like those birds “drink at the fountain and nest in the tiles?” I didn’t know. I no longer really knew.
Certainly, I was not at all disposed to take up my former habits, and the thought never even entered my mind. No, I still did not feel I was a free man! I am incapable of explaining what was happening to me, but that was the sort of thing I was feeling. I still had the impression of being back in my dark cell, crammed to suffocation with my companions in misfortune. On the streets, it could be said that I was transporting my prison with me, on my back, or that my soul had also been cast into prison and had stayed there, while I was making my way through the great world unfettered. I walked all over the town; and disconnected ideas, catastrophic ideas, crowded and bustled around my aching brain. The good people who saw me passing by, and they all, praise be to God, so many of them who still remembered their good friend Djeha and waved him greetings, found themselves ignored, and nodded their heads sadly. One of them complained loud enough for me to hear him say, “That’s what prison does to you!” Ah! how well he understood my condition!
I went on wandering a long time in that state: how many hours? Who could say? The thick, suffocating heat of November without a cloud was weighing the city down. The image of my dead companion kept reappearing in front of me, his blood started running again before my eyes. Something went on swelling up in my head and in my heart . . . All that had happened because, as I had realised a few minutes before being booted out of the prison, all that was because protesters had risen up to defend their land. Then a strange calm descended upon me, my head became quite cold. A lucidity, a feeling of unbelievable strength, a sort of wild enthusiasm like some terrible chant invaded my soul. Our brethren over there in the mountains – have they given up their arms against the vermin that devoured the interior of our eyeballs? What do you believe will happen next? Every day will see fresh combatants going to join them!
Translated by James Kirkup
From the short story collection Au Cafe, published by Babel, Actes Sud, Paris, 1996.
Published in Banipal 7.
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