“A woman’s opinion is not an opinion,” my father says.
His comment is directed at Imma, my mother, who’s clearing the dinner table. She has just told my older brother what she thinks of the money Baba has borrowed from the bank: “All his work will go to enrich Pastor.” (Pastor is the director of the bank.) She holds an empty platter in one hand and with the other wipes the tabletop, all the time shaking her head from side to side, her way of insisting how right she is.
“Have I ever told you what spices to put in the soup?” my father quips, half in jest, half serious. She shrugs her shoulders, grunts, and moves toward the kitchen. Baba is certainly right, he’s one of the rare Algerians to frequent the bank, who can get credit, and my mother is no businesswoman: she’s never left the house without being swathed in veils, she’s never entered a store in the village, not even my father’s butcher shop.
My thoughts ﬂy to Madame Lavallée, the second-grade teacher, and I wonder if she doesn’t have some opinions that are as good as a man’s. She’s the only female teacher at my school and she certainly holds her own with the men, the way she does with her pupils. Madame Lavallée is as pretty as a ﬂower in springtime, her walk is a stride, she’s so sure of herself. Her voice carries and with her ruler she batters kids’ ﬁngers and palms and keeps the bullies at bay, or so says my brother Mustafa, who is in her class and is my chief informant on all things.
My mother doesn’t like Pastor because he put a lien on the house before granting the loan; she doesn’t want to lose her home. I can understand that and I should defend her, but I don’t say anything because I know that a child mustn’t contradict his father, or any of his elders for that matter. My brothers keep their mouths shut too. As soon as Baba ﬁnishes telling us about his meeting with Pastor, he clears his throat and pronounces the bismillah, as he does every evening after dinner: “In the name of God, the Beneﬁcent, the Merciful . . .” Like my brothers, I repeat the bismillah after him and we begin reviewing the Koran. I should say they begin since the recitation starts with the longest sura, one I don’t know yet. I wait until my father ﬁnishes my brothers’ recitation and begins the sura I’ve memorized. As the singsong drags on, I ﬁght against falling asleep and think about Madame Lavallée. At school she’s surrounded by men, just like my mother at home with her six boys and my father.
My mother’s main preoccupation these days is to marry Ahmed, my oldest brother, who was born in January 1919. He was called up for military service at the beginning of the war, but he hated taking orders, doing military exercises, and being closed in generally, so he took to the woods, he deserted. One day, there was a knock at the stable door and I went to see who was there. What a surprise, it was Ahmed!
He looked funny with his military cap askew, his leggings and heavy military shoes covered in mud. Imma was happy to see him, but she must have had some doubts because she asked right away if he was on furlough. From the way he explained things, I gathered that Marshal Pétain had declared the war over and that the food at the barracks was inedible. As he was taking off his shoes, he also mentioned that he had entered the village through the ﬁelds, so the gendarmes wouldn’t see him. My brother Mustafa, who is three years older than me, doesn’t believe the war is over.
Mustafa takes me to school, he’s my protector and my guide in life. When I told him that Blanchette is no longer at my school, he explained why. Every morning on entering the girls’ school where my classroom is located, Blanchette, wearing a nurse’s uniform, holds up two long sticks and uses them to inspect the heads of us Algerians to make sure we don’t have lice.
“She’s been ﬁred because she’s Jewish,” Mustafa explains.
Since I don’t get what that means, he adds: “Hitler doesn’t like Jews.”
“Does Hitler like us?” I ask.
Disgusted by my stupidity, he shrugs his shoulders. “On the list of races, Hitler thinks the Arabs come after the frogs.”
The gendarmes arrested Ahmed for desertion. They turned him over to Mr. Tob, the head of the municipal jail; since Tob knows the family, he puts him to work in the vegetable garden next to the jail. I drop him off a container of food at noon and after school. Imma has warned me not to tell Baba, she doesn’t want to hear him reproach her for being soft on her “delinquent son.” Sometimes she reminds him that when Ahmed was little, he was gaga over him.
Before Ahmed there were two little girls, Zeineb, who died within the year, and Aouisha, when she was two. Four years after Ahmed came Mohamed. My father wasn’t lucky enough to go to school, but he managed to enroll his ﬁrst-born, even though, for the local population, enrollments are limited. Growing up, Ahmed began to dress “modern”; he swapped the djellaba, the sarouel, and the skullcap for European-style clothes. Baba approved of his son’s modernity, he was pleased that he was in the same class as Benyoucef Benkhedda, the kadi’s son, but he wasn’t able to help him with his homework or control what he did at school. Left on his own, Ahmed failed the primary school ﬁnal exam. He took to the streets.
Following Ahmed’s arrest, Imma worked on Baba to speak to someone in authority. He ﬁnally got Ahmed out of jail so he could go back to work at the slaughterhouse . . . and he started to drink. Furious and anxious, Imma never stopped repeating: “If he’s in trouble, it’s because of the riffraff he frequents.”
I think she’s right. Ahmed is a very sweet guy. He likes having me around and loves it when I sing the ﬁrst French song I learned in ﬁrst grade: “Il faut te marier, papillon, couleur de neige.” (You have to get married, butterﬂy, white as snow . . .) I adore that song, so he’s started calling me Butterﬂy. He loves it when he sees me in the street and I come running. He gives me a coin for candy or takes me to the bar with his friends and buys me a drink I love that tastes like sweet mint. Once he gave me a wonderful gift: he took me to ‘ammi Salah’s, the tailor and photographer, who set his magic box on a tripod and took our photo. I was seven, the ﬁrst time in my life that I had my picture taken. Imma has put that precious souvenir away for safekeeping. On the other hand, she didn’t at all appreciate it the day I arrived home smelling of perfume like a beauty parlor, my pockets ﬁlled with candy. Ahmed had taken me to the brothel to meet Arbia, his special friend there. As soon as the women saw me they knew I was Butterﬂy: they started screaming, pinching me, covering me with kisses and lipstick. Arbia gave me a bag of candy and a coin to buy more, then she grabbed a vaporizer and sprayed me with eau de Cologne. When my mother opened the door, she smelled me, wrinkled her nose, and asked the ritual question.
“Where have you been?”
I replied in an offhand way, “With Ahmed.”
She lowered her head and sniffed my hair; then with a threatening voice and her arm raised to slap me, she repeated the question. Forgetting my promise not to say where I’d been, I told her: “With Ahmed in a kind of hammam [bath house] with a lot of women.”
I thought she was going to lacerate her cheeks as the women criers do over a dead body. She screeched, let out a long scream and damned Ahmed over and over. Then she grabbed me by the collar and took me to the bottom of the staircase and stood me next to the water tap in the courtyard. She stripped me down, she was beside herself. In a panic, I screamed it wasn’t my fault and sobbed as she ﬁlled the water pail. I shouted that I had been to the hammam the day before with my father. Nothing stopped her. She lathered me with soap and scrubbed as hard as she could, then threw the pail of water over me.
“So you saw that bitch of a woman,” she said.
I raised my head, and with my eyes and mouth closed, murmured “Ahum.” Then she rinsed me off and dried me. I no longer smelled of the accursed perfume and I could feel her anger fading. As though nothing was amiss, of any importance, she proceeded with the inquiry.
“What’s she like?”
“She has tattoos on her face,” I said, pulling away, pretending to be hurt.
The last time I heard Imma mention Arbia was when her friend Fatma Bent al Ouenes, the village talebearer, came to visit. Since she wanted to be alone with her friend, she told me to go out and play, but I hid on the staircase and listened to them talk.
“You’re giving yourself heartaches over that woman,” Bent al Ouenes was saying. “Forget her, let Ahmed do what he wants. That shouldn’t stop you from helping Mohamed get married.”
“Oooh, but I can’t marry the second boy before the ﬁrst. That’s not done.”
“You worry too much about what people say. Think of your boys. Who invented the custom that the ﬁrstborn must marry ﬁrst? Men did. It’s not one of God’s dictates. You’re not going to deprive Mohamed of founding a family because his brother has a mistress!”
My mother is always happy to see Fatma, even if after she leaves she criticizes her. “I thought she’d never go home,” or “She thinks she’s something because she took the boat from Morocco to Algeria with a group of French women, the wives of some French generals. What’s there to be so proud of?” I think Imma’s envious of her experience and of her frank way of speaking her mind. Fatma Bent al Ouenes is older than Imma, she’s a widow and has no children.
She was also the ﬁrst woman from the village to go to school; she speaks beautiful French. “Boys waited for me in front of the school and threw stones at me,” she once told me. Among them was the man who’s the village imam today but we’re both old now, so I forgive him,” she added laughing. Her husband served under Lyautey in Morocco; the wife of the future marshal of France was an acquaintance of hers.
My mother must have followed her advice. She stopped criticizing Baba for “working for Pastor” and set about convincing him to let Mohamed marry ﬁrst. She also talked him into selling our car, a six-cylinder Citroën. She never stopped repeating: “That car is of no use to anyone.” Given the war- time restrictions, there wasn’t any gas for sale anymore so it never left the garage. On the back window were letters in white: delivery.
I’m mad at the war for requisitioning our livestock for the military and ruining the butcher business. The number of animals authorized for slaughter and the consumption of meat by the local population have been severely limited. The mayor is French and has issued orders for the local butchers to serve the European population ﬁrst. The Muslims and the Jews get what’s left. Given the lack of animals and the need to supply his customers, Baba has been slaughtering sheep secretly. His friend Nedjar, the rabbi, comes to the house and slaughters them, too. I carry around a basket and make deliveries to my father’s Muslim and Jewish customers.
Baba has begun following the war news. In the evening, after we’ve recited the verses of the Koran and repeated the day’s prayer, he turns on the radio on the nightstand next to his bed. He listens to Radio London in Arabic on shortwave. The crackling noise on the frequency bothers him so he ups the sound, provoking Imma’s protests: “Turn down the noise, the kids have to get their rest.” Mustafa and I sleep in the far corner of their room.
Since Berrouaghia is located in a hollow surrounded by the Titteri Mountains, Baba has my brother Basha go up on the roof and change the direction of the antenna. Later he learns that the crackling noise is due to the Germans’ jamming of the frequencies.
In the summer of 1942, when an unidentiﬁed airplane crashes into the quarry at the edge of the village, rumor has it that the pilot was German. Another rumor that spreads around is that we are going to be bombed. But the rumors don’t frighten the local population, on the contrary, the plane becomes an object of curiosity. I go to see it with Mustafa and some other kids from the neighborhood. It’s a one-seater and didn’t explode. One adult says it must have run out of gas and the pilot must have parachuted. He doesn’t know whether he ran away or gave himself up, nor what his nationality was.
For my mother, the plane is a bad omen. She enumerates over and over again the calamities that will befall us: drought, famine, typhus, rationing, black market, crickets, and insists that we don’t need any more invasions or bombs. She invokes God and asks him to relieve his creatures of their suffering.
Baba doesn’t miss an occasion to chastise the population for its lack of faith: “First of all, his creatures should think about obeying him. The mosque is empty and the cafés are full. In addition to which there are those sinners who drink, who steal, and worse.”
“You want everyone to be like you,” Imma comments, mocking him. “If we’re all different, it’s because God wanted it that way. You think that it would be better if we all resembled one another?”
Appealing to religion is standard procedure, but ever since Baba heard on Radio London in Arabic that the Americans have landed in North Africa, he talks politics more. He initiates discussions with Mohamed, who reads the French newspaper. He’s so interested in politics that he’s even begun cutting the time spent reciting the Koran so as to get into bed and listen to the radio. Mustafa and I are hoping that the Allied landing in Oran will make him forget the recitation of the Koran altogether. But no such luck.
“The Americans are here,” my neighborhood friend tells me when I meet him after school, a school where he hasn’t been admitted. “They’re going to live in the village.” He repeats what he’s heard some adults say. Because of their equipment and their language, the villagers have taken the English for Americans, but the confusion lasts barely a day. They set up their command center in the former postal relay station next door to the gendarmes. Their troops have been quartered near the railroad station not far from the town soccer ﬁeld.