Excerpt from The Lovers of Algeria

By Anouar Benmalek and translated by Joanna Kilmartin

Aurès, 1955

The day is hot, and yet, in the bus, everybody is shivering with fear. From time to time, a nervous cough, a resigned sigh, breaks the silence. Outside, spring is exploding in splendour. The yellow of mimosa is everywhere. Myriad poppies and wild roses dot the hillsides, lending an air of gaiety to the austere landscape beyond the vehicle’s dusty windows. But no one has the heart to notice. The passengers have just caught sight of the massive roadblock ahead. “Good God, there’s even a chopper!” someone exclaims. A long-bodied, twin-rotor helicopter is surrounded by army lorries, jeeps and large groups of soldiers, a mixture of infantry and Red Berets. Sentries stand, rifles cocked, behind walls of sandbags. Anna shrugs and tightens her grip on her bag. It contains all the essential documents. In the eyes of the world, whether people like it or not, the man sitting on her right is now her husband. To Arabs and French alike she would be seen, at best, as a naïve girl who has taken leave of her senses; at worst, as a slut who has managed to find a husband, but at what price! She repeats the word husband to herself, comparing it to lover, unable to decide which she prefers. She would like to have talked it over with Rina. Or with her real mother. Both are dead and gone, lone since reduced to small piles of bones…Her companion, dark-skinned, moustached, “a typical Arab,” as she sometimes tells him, looks at her fondly. He guesses that she is thinking of their official papers from the town hall, and forces himself to smile at her. Yet again, he pats the inside pocket of his jacket with the flat of his hand. His fingers crack with anger. Yet again, he curses himself for having agreed to carry this damned letter. What’s more, he doesn’t even know whom it’s for: they had told him that somebody would introduce himself once they arrived at his mother’s house. The roadblock is coming within earshot. He steels himself to mask a sudden onset of panic, for he has just caught sigh of the figure lurking on the fringe of the first group of soldiers, slightly stooped, the head shrouded in the loathsome black hood of an informer…

The previous day had been horrendous. The rickety Algiers bus had had to stop overnight in the last Arab village before the mountain douars. A major offensive was in progress a few kilometres away, and from what they could gather there had been heavy losses on both sides. The road was choked by half-tracks and GMC lorries carrying, aloft, soldiers on the alert, tense, heavily laden, their faces lined with fatigue. T6s and P28s flew over the Arab village, launching rockets and bombs at the crests barring the horizon. The army herded the terrified villagers on to the main square, outside the mosque. Beside himself with fury, a sergeant screamed at the bus passengers, who didn’t seem to think that the assembly order applied to them. When he noticed a woman aged about 30 or 35, modestly attired, staring at him apprehensively, the soldier took her for a compatriot. Giving her a conspiratorial wink, he growled that, naturally, the order didn’t apply to the French and she could stay on the bus. As he left his seat, Nassreddine discreetly patted his wife’s hand. This raised her spirits. But her anxiety returned when she saw him roughly handled by an infantryman. Dry-mouthed, she watched as, one by one, the passengers dismounted, helped along by an occasional kick. The interminable waiting had begun.

Now they are almost at the barrier, close enough to see the chains strung taut across the road. Infantrymen and paratroopers, some of them at the ready, rifles cocked, behind their half-tracks, watch with displeasure as the vehicle grinds to a halt with loud groans from its worn axles. Anna, her stomach knotted in an onrush of anxiety, sees that her husband is doubled up, as if needing to be sick. Even though he has turned away from her, towards the window, she has caught sight of the gleam of sweat on the Algerian’s tense face.

A heady scent rises from the landscape which, in all its glory, is utterly contemptuous of soldiers, of their quarry, to the sordid ugliness of their combined fear and rage. An occasional breeze wafts over the roadblock, like drifts of perfumed mist with complex associations of wisteria, lavender, and wild roses.

The passengers are lined up, hands on head. Anna watches, white-faced, standing a little apart. A soldier examines her Swiss passport and her brand-new family dossier from the town hall. He spits on the ground in disgust: “Madame, you are a traitor to your race!” At that moment, Anna hates everybody: she hates these military men with blood on their hands and a crushing contempt for anyone who doesn’t bear arms; she hates these cringing Arabs literally shaking with fear; she hates her husband, who can only stand there, his hands on his head like the rest, and allow her to be insulted. To calm herself (“My God, my God, what am I doing in this damned country?”), she closes her eyes and, under her breath, calls on her children, her beloved children…The hooded man limps forward, breathing loudly behind the cloth. Evidently, each step is an effort. Nassreddine guesses that he has been beaten up. The informer has just pointed a finger at two people, a man of about 40 dressed in a white gandoura and cheche, and a terrified adolescent who is sobbing like a child. Two Red Berets drag them roughly out of the line and, with a kick in the buttocks, direct them to one of the lorries. The man, who has the air of a rich cattle-dealer with his stout walking-stick, turns round to protest. A paratrooper grabs the stick and hits him across the face. There is an unmistakable sound of breaking bone. Blood spurts out almost immediately, spotting the immaculate gandoura. The man, grim-faced, pulls out a large checked handkerchief, calmly wipes his face, then climbs of his own accord into the lorry indicated by the soldiers. Whimpering, the adolescent follows him docile as a puppy.

The informer is now within a few steps of Nassreddine. The sergeant in charge of the checkpoint waits, visibly impatient, for him to pick out someone else. As if regretfully, the hunched figure points a finger at the man next in line to Nassreddine. The toothless peasant, half paralysed by stupefaction and terror, sees the Red Beret with the walking-stick approach and makes a run for the lorry.

Now the hooded man is staring at Nassreddine. Something in his attitude has changed. Nassreddine feels his tongue grow wooden and scrape against his palate like a foreign object in his mouth. He sees the dark eyeholes light up as the informer abruptly raises his head then quickly turns away. It is as though Nassreddine’s heart had been seized in flight by the talons of an animal: he knows those eyes, despite not having seen them for years! Astounded, he hears himself say, “Is it you, Hadj Slimane?”

Eagerly, the sergeant grunts: “How about him?” The informer shakes his head and moves on swiftly to the next man. The sergeant grabs him by the sleeve, barking: “Don’t play games with me, you stinking jackal’s arse, why didn’t you point out that man there? One of yours, is he?”

Copyright 1998 by Calmann-Levy. English translation copyright 2001, 2004 by Joanna Kilmartin. All rights reserved.