I did not know that these neighborhoods were cursed.
Peripheral neighborhoods, always. Beyond the colonial village, beyond the city, Blida the Muslim town, Alger, Salembier-Gardens. It was there that the family’s voyage had ended, on the edge of the Wild Woman’s Ravine, the last outpost of schoolteachers loyal to the Republic, whom the revolution had not had time to liquidate as traitors and agents of the French enemy, and whom the Secret Army Organization, clandestine French terrorist commandos, had not succeeded in getting at either. My father’s name was on a blacklist: it was necessary to cut the future elite of the young country off at the root, Moloud Feraoun, his fellow teacher, his friend, the writer, had been assassinated with others (on March 15th 1962), at the back of the classroom, against a wall, Feraoun the peaceful, he kept a journal like a scholarship boy at boarding school, his calm voice, the Kabyle accent beneath the black mustache, I had asked the writer questions, as an adolescent, I had spoken with my father’s friend. I’ve forgotten his answers, he had answered, certainly, answers modest as his thoughtful gestures. He is dead. My father would be next. How had he learned it? I can no longer ask him, telephone him from Paris to Nice several times a day to learn, a few decades later, what he had not said, because he didn’t speak of things which might cause us pain, he thought that one had to forget, not recall the troubles and grief, again and again….Of those years, I knew nothing. My father, obstinately, had said nothing about them. And as for me, no less obstinately, I call him, I telephone. His tender and ironic voice, he knows that I’m going to ask him questions again, I’m no longer a child and I ask questions like a child. He will say “So then, daughter, how are things? The children…” I will interrupt him, rudely, I only realize now, I understood that Oriental protocol too late, I ought to have respected it , my father never made the slightest remark, he didn’t like to be called to order. I don’t permit my father to go down the familial chain. “I’d like to know… — What is it that you’d like to know this time? … Why do you want to know all this? … One has to forget…. – Forget, why? You say one has to forget and you don’t want to say what… No, my child , no… let it be, forget all that…. It’s not worth it , believe me, it’s not worth it… — But papa, the things you know, you might be the only one…And if you don’t tell anything…— The only one… You’re joking, my daughter, I’m not the only one who knows, and now the whole world knows, what good does it do to repeat…—To repeat what… what? Tell me… You think that the whole world knows… Books say nothing and neither do you…— Listen, my girl, if I thought that it was important, I would answer you…So, what is it you want to know? – Everything” My father laughs. “Everything, like that, on the telephone… come to Nice, come to see us, spend a little time with us, at home. We’ll talk. It takes time, you understand. You’ll stay three days, maybe five, that’s not enough… — But every time you tell me later, later…—And later…I know what you’re thinking, later it will be too late… I know, daughter, I know… We’ll see. Go on now, kiss the little ones for me. Good-bye, my child.”
I will not be able to tell my father what I learned recently, what he perhaps knew. Salembier-Gardens. Working-class and wild. This neighborhood which first frightened the poor Whites of the colony, then the dignitaries of Algerian Algeria, revolutionaries are born in its modest houses, from the school’s passageways one could hardly see the too-narrow little streets, dark in the sunlight, like a shantytown. But I don’t remember it as a shantytown, really, the way one sees them depicted, on screens which offer ethnographic tours of Nanterre and the suburbs, not far from the capital of France, Paris. Houses made of boards, perhaps, of earth that is too dry or too wet, , not the tar reserved for the new neighborhoods, for repair work on quickly damaged roads, the odor of tar, sweet as corkscrews of licorice, acrid and smoking, it gushed out as we followed the steamroller’s progress, the road-workers’ hands, fast, skilled, they could have been badly burned, they had to go quickly like the workers who, in Paris, re-lay the pavement torn up by jackhammers, their arms jump, rhythmic, and their muscles and their cheeks, the workers are the same, they haven’t aged, some are slightly blacker, it’s not the tar, in the white smoke spat out by the rear end of the truck with the hot black paste. Houses made of boards, not all, brown and lighter, of different heights, nailed, laundry drying on the protruding nails. You can’t see the women in their closed courtyards, you had to go out on the balcony, but that school, I think, had been built without a balcony, not like the smaller one in the village near Tlemcen, Hennaya, there was nothing to see around it. Once a year, the fantasia in the stadium, to be closer to the horsemen and the rifles, you had to look out of the screened classroom window, window-screens or bars? Level with the red earth from which the lined-up horses started, all the way to the other end of the stadium, then the men, their white burnooses puffed out, fired their guns all at once, standing up in the stirrups. When they returned at a gallop toward us girls, half hidden under the schoolroom tables, choked by the dust, the armed men, shouting in the disorder of the race, we knew that they’d stop short, upright, half a yard from the school window, with the dexterity and precision of great horsemen, not one of them ever failed, yet even so, all three of us would huddle together under the wooden platform, holding our breath, we waited for the stopped horses pawing the ground, before the stirrup-kick that marked a new departure, the same choreography, simple, repetitive, every hour of the afternoon, before the storm that dispersed men and beasts, we would stay at the window overlooking the stadium, protected by the window-screens or by metal bars, my father wouldn’t have given us permission to be in the classroom, on the edge of the wing alongside the stadium if we had been able to jump from the windowsill to the red earth, among the legs of the horses, against the tawny boots of the horsemen occupied with reloading their old rifles…