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I love God, and I know that he loves me. If it wasn’t for the protection of the great Almighty I might have become something other than what I am now. Maybe a civil servant, or a criminal, or an athlete simple-mindedly devoted to his body. I always maintain that my love of God and belief in him are the two things that have made me a man lucky never to have walked into the ambush of routine life. God is the one who guides my steps, and always in the right direction.
Last week, I had an appointment for a job at an Italian restaurant. I woke up in the garage of Austerlitz  station, and exchanged greetings with the cleaners, who always treated me with kindness, for when they saw me sound asleep, they passed their brooms gently near my head so they didn’t stir up the dust. They were so gentle those North Africans and Africans (when they wanted to be).
I got up energetically, muttering to myself: “How long will you go on without work . . .” I went straight to the station washroom and took a shower for twenty francs, smiling at the Serbian woman in charge of the bathroom, then made my way to meet the owner of the restaurant who had agreed over the telephone that I replace a friend of mine who had left his job there. It didn’t bother me that I worked as a dishwasher, for most of my friend’s wives often considered me “the best dishwasher in history”. I was thinking, as I walked along with a swagger, of the wages that would come into my pocket at the end of the month, and of renting a small room that would rescue me from the life of the streets, and from occasionally bothering my friends.
A few steps away from the restaurant with its elegant modern frontage, I stopped for a few moments, probably to straighten my clothes or my hair, which was oiled and combed back like an Italian opera singer. Suddenly, something like lightning spread through my body and made my feet turn away from the restaurant, and point toward Saint German, to land me in the cafÈ “ . . .” There I remained drinking my favourite wine “. . . ” That day an American tourist had said to me, after he bought me several glasses, “The unemployed knows the joys and pleasures of life, and they are the closest to God’s mercy and compassion”.But, today, I swore by almighty God that I would not go anywhere near Saint German for at least three months until I improved my economic situation.
So, after the shower, I immediately washed my clothes, and put them back in the station’s left luggage lockers (a wardrobe for my clothes and papers for several years), quickly took the Metro and threw myself into Place de la Republique.“Paris is not just Saint Germain,” I said to myself. I strolled down the long Boulevard de Magenta, and began to look in the agencies for temporary jobs that suited my qualifications, like construction work, and painting, and cleaning. I examined lists of vacant jobs, and I saw myself, sometimes painting the front of a tall building, suspended in the air, and looking at the people like midgets below me. Sometimes, I saw myself digging the streets, and in this moment the spectre of a friend, who always competed with me in the streets, passed in front of me.
Standing for a few moments, he lit a cigarette, and took a can of beer out of his pocket. He stood and considered it carefully. Then I heard him say: “Ah, life is truly beautiful.” At other times, I found myself cleaning the floor of one of the offices, where three French employees were smoking cigarettes and talking about the night before. In the midst of my fantasies, I wasn’t aware that my feet were gradually changing direction and sliding towards Boulevard de Sepastopol and crossing the Place du Chatelet, then Palais de Justice, then Pont Saint Michel, so that I found myself in Saint German, to be exact, in the cafÈ “. . . ” standing with my Algerian friend, Ahmad.
Before I explained my problem, Ahmad invited me to a glass of beer. He seemed to be worried. After he invited me to have another glass, I said to him in a broken voice: “I’m sorry, Ahmad, every time I am in a difficult situation.” Sod the money, drink twenty glasses,” he said nervously, with a swift glance towards my hands. He offered me a Marlboro cigarette, but then withdrew it quickly. “I’m sorry, you don’t smoke this brand of cigarettes.” After he lit his cigarette, he added in a scalding tone: “I’m tired of my wife and of Paris . . . there is nothing left but to get away from them, from the both of them. That’s all, I have to get away . . . Yes, I have to escape . . . ” I was swallowing my beer and looking at the smoke of his cigarette. Ahmad motioned to the waiter to bring two more glasses. “I think very highly of you,” said Ahmad, then he looked outside and added: “They don’t have your kind of cigarettes in this cafÈ.” He smiled and handed me a fifty-franc note. I took it and hurried outside to buy a packet of Dunhill.
When I came back he refused to take the change, he winked and patted his thigh, so I understood that he meant there was a lot of cash in his pocket.
“An Algerian never leaves his friend in a crisis,” said Ahmad.
“Je sais,” I said, swallowing my beer.
“We’ve been friends for ten years, and as Algerians and Iraqis we are living in very, very hard times,” said Ahmad.
“C’est vrais,” I replied.
Ahmad looked at me for a moment, then added uneasily: “What’s up with you?”
“Damn you, what’s with ‘Rien’. I speak to you in Arabic and you answer me in French.”
“I’m very sorry, Ahmad, you’re right.”
Ahmad took a cigarette and I did the same, then he quickly swallowed what was left in his glass. I finished my glass but before I could make my excuses and leave, he interrupted me by ordering another drink. He began to smoke like a man tormented and said: “I’m tired of Paris, I’m tied of my wife, yes, I must get away from them. If I stay here one more day, I’ll surely die. I can’t, I can’t stand this woman, she’s evil. I swear by my father’s grave and my beautiful daughter’s life, I will not staying in this miserable situation. I’ll travel to Toulouse. No, I don’t like Paris, and I don’t like my wife. In Toulouse, I’ll be a happier man . . . ” Then he looked at me: “Don’t you want to ask me why Toulouse and not somewhere else?”
“Why Toulouse and not somewhere else?”
“Because I love a woman there. The women of Toulouse are more beautiful than the women of Pairs. I’m sure that what I’m saying is one hundred per cent true.”
After he had finished his drink, he took out a five-hundred franc note, and shoved it into my pocket, “I know you love Pascal.”  I smiled and turned to the waiter to fill up our glasses. “It’s better that you put away the money, you’ll lose me soon . . . ” said Ahmad, “and I don’t think that this amount will last you until the morning. Don’t you want to ask me when I will travel?”
“When will you travel?”
“Tomorrow, at dawn . . . just one way, yes, one way only. On the train I will close my eyes until the train leaves the borders of Paris. God, I’ll be so happy in Toulouse. You can’t imagine how happy I’ll be, leaving Paris. You know I don’t like Paris. I have to get away as soon as possible. I have to save myself from going mad. There’s a conspiracy between Paris and my wife to destroy me.”
“Ahmad . . . ”
“Try to give your wife another chance.”
“Are you crazy? I thought you hated family . . . don’t try to play the good guy.”
“I’m trying to say, Ahmad, go home . . . and . . . ”
“Why don’t you change your bad habits . . . ” Ahmad interrupted me, shaking his head with bitterness and pain, then he added: “As soon as I put money in your pocket you want to send me off home so you can go and drink with your friends!”
“Please don’t get me wrong.”
“I know you well, you’re always like this. You take advantage of our affection and friendship, and as soon as we give you money, you disappear . . . Hamid was right when he said, ‘Pay for his drink and buy him a sandwich and don’t ever give him cash’.”
I ordered another drink, while Ahmad remained silent, dragging deeply on his cigarette and exhaling the smoke forcefully towards the floor. He began to shake his head, repeating, “I don’t like Paris, I don’t like Paris, or my wife, either.” His cigarette was in one hand, and he put his other hand in his pocket as he made his way to the toilets. I pulled out the 500-franc note and put it on the table. When the waiter reached out to take the money, I looked up at his face, and the bottle of “Jameson” hanging behind him caught my eye. I asked for a glass, then another and another . . . and since it seemed Ahmad had been delayed, I went outside to buy more cigarettes.
I remember that I went into another cafÈ, and I don’t remember what happened after that. When with great difficulty I opened my eyes, I found I was asleep under the statue of Danton, which was sheltering me from the midday sun. I felt my pockets (this is the first thing I do when I sleep in the streets), and felt relieved since as soon as my hand touched the coins, the image of the public washroom of Austerlitz and the Serbian woman who handed me the towel appeared before me. As usual when I sleep in the street, I walk with my head down so my eyes don’t meet those of the passers-by until I am at least one square kilometre away from the area.
Walking like this, I left Boulevard Saint Germain, and went into Rue Danton, and Place Saint Michel, then Rue Hachet, to walk on the Quai Montebello on my way to Austerlitz, and there I saw Ahmad and his wife. They were holding on to their little girl, who was walking between them. We were face to face, and there was no escaping it – we had to say hello. Ahmad kept playing with his little girl, while his wife reproached me for not visiting them for several months, and she didn’t forget to add that she always kept two tins of “Houmous”  or “Lablabi” as they call it in Iraq. Ahmad said, looking at his wife: “He’s like this, just imagine, I haven’t seen him since last summer.” So I said in a broken voice: “What can I do? I’m working in an Italian restaurant from morning ‘til midnight.”
When we exchanged farewells, I went up to the little girl and stroked her hair, and she said to me gleefully: “Papa is taking me to McDonald’s . . . ”
I felt happy as I looked at Ahmad and his family, moving away little by little. And in spite of the fact that I was rather hungry, I wasn’t thinking of McDonald’s, not because I was a fan of Burger King and especially the Double Whopper, but because I wanted to ask Ahmad about the fate of the train ticket, as, like him, I didn’t love Paris, and I wanted to travel to Toulouse - one way only.
1 Austerlitz is a main railway station in Paris
2 The five-hundred franc note depicts Pascal.
3 Chick peas in water, ready to eat
Translated by Fiona Collins, 1998
Published in Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, 29 May 1998