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Leila Sebbar: I Do Not Speak My Father's Language

[Leila Sebbar. Image from Author] [Leila Sebbar. Image from Author]

From Leila Sebbar's Je ne parle pas la langue de mon père

Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker.


I Do Not Speak My Father's Language


A few useful dates so as not to get lost in the maze of memory:

My father is born in 1913 in Tènès.

From 1932 to 1935, he studies at the teachers’ college in Bouzaréah, in Algiers, where he meets Mouloud Feraoun, assassinated in March 1962 by the OAS.

He will be a schoolteacher and school principal:

from 1935 to 1940, in El-Bordj

from 1940 to 1945, in Aflou

from 1945 to 1947, in Mascara

from 1947 to 1955, in Hennaya, near Tlemcen

from 1955 to 1960, in Blida (in 1957, he is imprisoned at Orléansville; Maurice Audin is assassinated the same year, by the French army.)

from 1960 to 1965, in Algiers, in Salembier-Gardens

He leaves Algeria for Nice, with my mother, in 1968.

He dies in 1997. 


I do not speak my father’s language.

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…

I would have asked my father, telephoning him once more, well before the football match which he would explain to me a few hours later, because he couldn’t miss the beginning of the celebrated game in which his favorite champion, Zidane, was playing, my mother stayed close to my father because she thought the football player was handsome, she was less bored when he played. I would have asked him what the men were shouting during the fantasia. The men howled out with a single repeated cry, on the erratic line galloping up to the other end of the stadium, where the excited boys waited for them, with a few girls escaped from the closed courtyard, they jumped and clapped their hands, in time they’d be themselves the fine horsemen with rifles, but some of them would fight, without horse or turban, and the burnoose would be their covering in the maquis of the nearby mountain. Whom could I ask today, after the year 2000, if the young men who had not been killed by the enemy or by their own countrymen, who returned to the village, to their mothers’ houses, have kept up the tradition of the fantasia? Who would know how to tell me, to whom could I recount our mute fascination with those white horsemen shouting beyond the window screens which rust attacked slowly, for years, and the terror if one of them hadn’t stopped his horse in time, but we hadn’t needed to move back suddenly, after two or three hours of battle, we knew that these men wouldn’t let their horses run away with them --- “They uttered cries, my father would have said to me, like battle-cries or cries of celebration, not meaning anything in particular, onomatopoeia. --- Are you sure? --- What do you mean, am I sure? What did you hear, you who are so clever, tell me?… I don’t know. I don’t remember… it was words that I didn’t know… --- Words… What words? Will you tell me? There were no words, no articulated words… -- But I’m sure. --- What are you sure of? That they were saying words? Then, my child, listen especially hard, and you will tell me what words.” Much later, it was the second uprising, I asked myself if the men who were playing at war didn’t cry out, then, the collective cry of jihad, of holy war “ Allahu akbar” Would my father have told me? It would have been necessary to pronounce it clearly, to translate, to explain without becoming upset, as if, in the course of the war game, words had burst out by accident, those words which would be murmured in prisons and in the maquis, against the armies of France, stubbornly sending its young, too-young soldiers into a foreign country, become a sudden and ferocious enemy, young men in uniforms green or camouflage, helmets and caps, solid walking shoes which would be taken back from those who died for France on the bank of a ditch, in a wood where the ambush had numerous victims, and the comrade, the boy from home, they had so often talked about the Vosges, the woodcutter and the farmer, would bend toward the young dead man, he would weep on the still-warm chest, before taking away what would be sent to the family, he, not even wounded, would take every risk to bring his friend’s body to the army helicopter. The letters, his name-tag, his army record, his books, the book lent to him by the officer on leave, bulky, used, the pages were beginning to come out of the notebooks, he would read it in his turn thinking of his stricken friend, the face had not been touched, the belly, yes, but he didn’t look, only the eyes which he closed and the mouth, fleshy, as if alive. He remembers the book, War and Peace, his friend loved the Russia of the czars, not the USSR, how many times did they argue, because he quoted Lenin and his friend read chapters of the novel out loud to drown out the words of the one he used to call the Bolshevik, spitting on the earth of the camp, at the edge of the army tent, near the tent-ropes where they were seated.

Did my father know who lived in the Arab quarter where the city’s poor lived at the edge of the Wild Woman’s Ravine -- what wild woman? Today I know nothing about her, the same one written about by Kateb Yacine? I seem to remember a wild woman in his books. His mad mother? Nedjma in the grotto where she was conceived or banished to the tribe’s enclosed courtyard, taken there by the tall Negro? The wild woman of Hélène Cixous who lived in a house in Salembier-Gardens, I had learned from her Dreams of the Wild Woman ? A neighborhood on the outskirts, dangerous, for whom? For my father on the blacklist, for his wife, for us, his children, but we knew nothing about the danger, only that it was dangerous, that we had to accept being in the square courtyard, watched over, the dormitories and the classrooms where we were shut up, my sisters and I. But the men of the cursed neighborhood kept watch, the men of my father’s people, over the schoolmaster and his wife, the Frenchwoman. They stopped the black Citroëns which forced their way along the road toward the town and the school, alongside the houses lined with boards and sheet-metal strips to close up the women’s courtyards. With cudgels, long wooden sticks, solid, thick, the Brothers controlled the road and access to the forbidden neighborhood. They would have thrown hand-grenades at the closest houses, the men in the black sedan. The car made a U-turn before being struck with great blows by the watchmen who knew that my father was in danger. My father was calm, he spoke with his pupils’ fathers, neighbors, in his language, close to us, their words were not words of anger, sometimes they were joyful, I could feel it because my father would laugh gently while speaking, companionable, as with a brother. I didn’t understand my father’s language, I heard it, lacking all meaning, and I knew, by the voices, that my father had nothing to fear, at the very moment when, perhaps, those men from the homes of the poor were telling him that the OAS were winnowing the Arab neighborhoods to accomplish the missions of honor to which their members were sworn, the most fanatical of them, those who made no mistake as to their targets, the Arabs on the list, and the others as well if possible, for the cause. My father laughed, in Arabic, with these unknown men. What they were telling each other made them laugh, I didn’t know, I will never know what they were saying to each other then, at the corner of the balcony, near the schoolmaster’s house, where I stayed standing in the doorway, waiting for the moment when my father and his friends would go down to his office, I heard the voices fade off towards the master’s study where they would close themselves up to chat some more, I would walk, silently, along the balcony which seemed to be hooked onto the houses built in the disorder of the little dirt streets, pieced-together roofs, laundry which divided the courtyards in so many entranceways to enlarge the too-small bedrooms full of children who couldn’t yet run on the ground, wet because, even if it didn’t rain, the drain-water dampened it. The women talked with each other in the evening, always loudly. I heard them. Resounding voices, violent, the children dawdled bringing water, bread…their mothers waited, they disobeyed and slaps didn’t discipline them. Further away, there was less anger, the women talked among themselves, the children weren’t there, the little ones, tiny against their bodies, quiet, happy, so they chatted and from the balcony, their voices seemed gentle, young, cheerful. Soon, it would be the men’s hour, I could hardly hear them, murmurs. My father calls me “Don’t stay there on the balcony.—Why? – It’s dangerous. – Dangerous? – Are you listening to me? Don’t stay there. It’s beginning to get dark. – Because it’s dark? – You know why, so don’t ask questions, I don’t want to see you there, that’s all.”

I didn’t speak Aïsha’s and Fatima’s language.

Aïsha and Fatima. Why do I imagine Fatima sterile, married against her will, they had to marry her off, they would have married her to an older man, much older and a widower, whose eldest son was her own age, he came to see his father when he wasn’t working on the Frenchman’s estate on the plains, a rich colonist who had had houses built for his workers, but their wives didn’t live with them, the boss had prohibited spouses and mothers, he didn’t want any complications. Fatima, sterile, was not repudiated, she had had to raise her husband’s last children, still small, two boys and a girl, all of whom she had loved.

She had pleaded that the boys, at least one of them, should go to the schoolmaster’s school, the “school for native boys,” it was for them, that school, the teacher an Arab also, like them… They would have crossed the town, not far, Tlemcen, where she had never been, they would have had to take the bus, it was expensive. The father had said no, they would be farm workers, like their older brother, on the estate, they would learn winemaking in the boss’s cellars, and if they were clever… Fatima said: “Why wine? You know that God forbids it… --- You don’t understand anything, it’s not to drink, it’s to know what others don’t know… The secret of the Christians…” Fatima had persisted, for the school, in vain. Her sons, she says “my sons,” had worked for the colonist, up till the day that he sent them away, he left the country, it was war, threats from the FLN every day, he had sold the estate, let them work things out with the new owner, if he wasn’t assassinated, like so many others, he would not return to this country which was no longer his country, France was giving it to the Arabs, as for him, as soon as he had sensed war coming, he had made investments in France, he left at ease. The country would be theirs, the estate, the houses, and everything that they had built, they, the Algerian French, the roads, the railroads, the factories, the ports, the dams… everything… They would have everything, so if they were clever enough crooks…they’d be the masters. “I’m leaving, fend for yourselves, I never want to hear of this country again, it’s accursed, I’m going to forget it.” Fatima’s stepsons left the estate before learning the French secret of winemaking. The youngest, her favorite, sent money orders from a city in France, the little girls (the schoolmaster’s daughters: MH ) were no longer there to show her her son’s city on a map of France, if she had had a schoolbook, she would have found it, alone, in secret, she wouldn’t have shown the book to anyone – up until the day the money orders stopped. Fatima waited, no news, cousins who came back to the village hadn’t seen her son, Fatima died without knowing that her favorite son belonged to a clandestine Islamist network, that he had helped recruit young Arabs in La Courneuve, just outside Paris, and that he had been sent to jail in France. During the trial, in a restricted space that doesn’t look like a courtroom, he claimed responsibility for his acts, political attacks. He spoke of Kelkal, child of the peripheral slums , recruited on orders, trained in the homeland, a studious young man, crazed for God, crazed for Allah, courageous, he would have become a local bigwig around Lyon, the French police shot him down in a bus station, his photo on a poster all over France, someone had informed on him, he had just left his hiding-place, the forest where he lived like an Indian in the comic books that he used to read, crouched in a corner of the library, in the town of his birth, the 4000 block in La Courneuve.

Fatima knew nothing about this son’s European years and that he would succeed in escaping from prison. He would come back to the village, the abandoned house, his father long since dead, his mother… no one could have told him the year of her death, could barely have found her grave in the little cemetery, his brothers and his sisters dispersed, no gossip about them, disappeared from the village’s memory. What he was told, could he believe it? A few days after his departure for the foreign country where he would work as a crane operator on construction sites, replacing a young Portuguese worker who died in a traffic accident, his first motorcycle, too powerful… His brother had gone underground with a neighbor girl who had begun her nurse’s training. The simultaneous disappearance of the two young people caused a scandal, the neighbor girl’s family accusing Fatima’s son of having abducted their daughter, serous and intelligent, promised to the local functionary’s eldest son. Their disappearance lasted two weeks, inquiries were made before filing charges, and then the charges had to be withdrawn on the orders of the local insurgent group. Fatima understood that her son was a soldier in the anti-French resistance. Why her son? Five times a day, she prayed to God for his young life. One night, she knows it’s him, he takes risks, they don’t speak, Fatima puts the bread she’s baked in a safe spot, he comes to get it, at dawn she knows that he’s been there. That night there are two of them, she hears them. The father is away. Fatima doesn’t sleep. She doesn’t really listen, until the moment when she hears the name, repeated several times, of the schoolmaster. Why that insistence? The two young men continue talking for a moment, the mother waits for the end of the dialogue, the name is pronounced again, they talk about the Frenchwoman, the Arab schoolmaster…She suddenly understands and bursts into the dark little room which looks out onto the mountain’s flank. She addresses herself to her son: “What are you planning to do? I want to know. The resistance, it’s you and your chiefs, the village doesn’t obey the resistance. I make bread because you’re hungry out there, a mother feeds her children, but…” The son interrupts her. “Mother, you are the home and we are the maquis. We do what we have to do. It’s the revolution, you know it, you can help us, not stand in our way… No one will listen to you. --- What are you talking about, my son, what do you intend to do? Tell me. I’m your mother, I must know, in my own house… --- Your house will be safe, mother, as long as I’m alive.---Don’t speak of death…--- Death, it’s every day, you don’t know it, we die morning, noon and even at night. Brothers fall in action, the underground infirmary doesn’t always succeed against death…. --- The neighbor girl, the administrator’s daughter, is she with you? --- Yes. She needs napkins, you know what I’m talking about, give me a package, with soap, and a comb, for her. – You’re not answering my question. What do you intend to do in the village? The French soldiers are watching… The schoolmaster, do you know him? --- You were the maid in his house, for his family, you worked like a slave…--- What do you know, you, about my life in the schoolmaster’s house? I worked every day for you, not like a slave, no, not in their house… If the schoolmaster’s wife hadn’t taught classes, with what money would I have bought your food? And I learned the language of the school… --- What good did it do you, the language of the school? None at all. And the Arab schoolmaster who teaches the boys of our people the enemy’s language, he is an agent of the colonists, worse than the French masters, he is a traitor, he must…” The son doesn’t finish his sentence, his mother looks at him, dumbfounded: “If you do that, you are no longer my son… Don’t come back to my house, you will find stones instead of bread… --- Mother…---I am not the mother of an assassin, don’t call me “mother” any more… If it’s an order from your chief, disobey, this is an order from your mother. That man is one of the Just, if you were all like him, war would not be war and you would have your victory without crime. Are you listening to me? --- I’m listening to you, I don’t know if you’re right. I said yes to this mission. I would be a coward… Do you want your son to be a coward? --- I want a son who fights for justice, not a criminal, do you hear me?” Fatima gives her son a bundle of linens and the fresh bread. He kisses her forehead. The sun is about to rise.

The schoolmaster, who is standing near the open gateway, it’s time, he’s going to blow his whistle, the boys will come rushing like soldiers charging, in groups, close together and howling, looks toward the edge of the narrow garden, where orange-trees are planted. Beneath the windows of his office… the beehives. Seven of them. At Bouzaréah, horticulture was taught to future rural schoolteachers, Moloud Feraoun whom my father knew at that school, Emmanuel Roblès, whom I met in a café in Paris a long time afterwards, I had just published Sheherezade, aged 17, curly brown hair, green eyes… So skilled schoolmasters would also know how to make a school garden grow, fruits and vegetables, they would teach the boys modern methods unknown to their fathers and grandfathers, and the teachers would have fresh vegetables for the school lunchroom, and would give a midday meal to the children who came from far off. The schoolmaster, with some notion of apiculture, had begun to raise bees, and he gathered honey, not much, but his daughters expected the golden honey as soon as they saw their father put on the white suit, an overall, gloves, a helmet with netting, of wire or metal? I don’t know, you had to protect your face, even if the bees knew my father, his bees; their territory at the end of the orange-orchard and the wild rose bushes was forbidden to us.

The schoolmaster turns his head towards the street where the boys are waiting. Suddenly a woman arrives, almost running, she has trouble keeping the haïk, the white veil which covers her, over her face. The boys move away to let her pass, surprised at such haste, mothers who come to see the teacher never come in by the schoolyard gate, they wait patiently in the hallway, beyond the porch and the big hobnailed wooden door, for the moment when each one would speak with the schoolmaster, in his office. The woman, out of breath, stops in front of the school director who has not recognized her. She does not speak until he has seated her in the room above the beehives, the window is closed. Fatima uncovers her face, she doesn’t take off her haïk, the way she did in the schoolmaster’s house where every morning the Frenchwoman’s daughters watch her, fascinated, as she slowly takes off the veil, unfold it and then fold it according to the rules she had learned, they would have liked Fatima to veil them like the neighborhood women, whose garments billowed on the days when the sirocco blew. When she had to go out to hang the wash or to do some household task which didn’t oblige her to cross a street, Fatima took her fouta, a piece of cloth with colored stripes that she placed on her head, folding each corner with a rapid movement, precise, difficult to imitate, to hide her hair, already hidden by one or two scarves, but the tight knot tied at the side of her forehead could not be visible. She didn’t know, nor did I at that time, before her magician’s effects, that she looked like an Alsatian woman with the traditional coif, the big knot flattened atop her skull… In Paris I tried to wear a fouta I bought at Barbès like that, in front of a mirror I made Fatima’s gestures, tossing first to one side and then to the other the right side then the left on my head covered with cloth at its center. All I succeeded in making was a formless bundle which would have provoked her laugh, young, resounding, happy. Have these gestures completely disappeared? How can I know? Go back to Fatima’s village, watch women putting on the haïk if it still exists, or the fouta. Each time that I’ve tried to explain these movements to put on the fouta, people have been surprised. I’m convinced that I’m not making them up.

Fatima is seated facing the schoolmaster in his office. They hear the whistle. It’s the hour for school, the first hour. Fatima knew, by the whistle, without having to read the clock, which she could not read, the moment of the day and the tasks she still had to do before the mistress of the house came home. Fatima lowers her head toward the diamond-tiled floor, she speaks, the words go too quickly, the schoolmaster tries in vain to stop her, she goes on, faster and faster, up till the moment when she brusquely stops. The schoolmaster says nothing. He waits. Fatima raises her eyes toward him, the school director’s blue eyes interrogate her. He has not quite understood. She starts again, applying herself to its importance , what she has to say… The teacher, at the end of the story, addresses the weeping woman, she is drying her eyes with a corner of the häik: “You speak of your son. Did you have a son? You left, you and your sister. I know nothing. Tell me, your husband, your children… --- I raised his children, the last ones, two boys and a girl, like my own children, you can believe me. --- Did your sons go to school? I would have known, you would have told me, I would have taken them in my own class, but… -- My husband said no. The younger one sends money orders from France, the other one…” Fatima hesitates. “He’s the one who’s been ordered to kill me?” The mother adjusts her veil, hides her face and her tears. “You’re sure? His chiefs picked him? “ Fatima nodded her head yes. “And I, when they were little, I wanted to teach them the language of the school, what I knew, to talk a little, to understand, for work outside, on the estate and, later, in the city. But to read and write… I couldn’t. And this is what he says to me, my son. It’s true. You must believe me. He will do it, he will obey. Your wife, your children, what will become of them?” Fatima weeps. She rises. “There where Aïsha lives, you are all welcome, no one will harm you, go there, Aïsha, her husband, they’ll protect you. Here is her name, her address.” Fatima takes out of a little pouch made of mattress-ticking, solidly sewn, a folded paper which she gives to the schoolmaster. He accompanies her back to the door of the school. He says “May God protect your son.--- May God protect your wife, the children, and you, you are the best…” The woman kisses the schoolmaster’s hand, he smiles at her, his blue eyes are gentle. Fatima is no longer afraid.

Did my father receive threats during those first years of the war? Were the brothers of his pupils ordered to assassinate the teacher of the French school? I will never know.

[Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker. From Leila Sebbar, Je ne parle pas la langue de mon père (Editions Juillard, 2003)]

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