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Is This How Women Grow Up?

It is all a matter of décor
Change your bed change your body
What’s the use since it is still
Me betraying myself
Indolent and scattered
And my shadow undresses
In the arms of girls, all alike,
Where I thought I’d found a country

—“Is this how men live”
Louis Aragon

August 1994.

The afternoon seemed endless, the heat relentless. She was stretched out on the bed, hardly dressed, reading, smoking, splashing herself with water, dropping off into a deep sleep. Then she roused herself and went back to her reading.

So much for her days, until nightfall. Once silence and darkness were at their peak, she left her room. She slipped into the bathroom, where she relieved herself and washed, then into the kitchen, where she threw a meal together, generally a glass of milk and a slice of bread, or some leftover rice, which she then swallowed down within the confines of her room, door and louvered shutters closed.

Her clandestine journey lasted no more than a quarter of an hour. Any more than that and she risked running into someone, in particular the someone she had once loved, and who had loved her, before love turned to hate and scorn. My sworn enemy, she murmured, and crushed the cigarette butt in the overflowing ashtray.

She lit another cigarette and closed her book. She wanted to think about the days to come. In vain. She returned to her reading and while she was looking for the page where she had stopped, the door opened and he appeared. She should have jumped with surprise, cried out in anger, told him he had no business in her room, honestly, who did he think he was to burst in like this without warning, without knocking . . . But a sort of tenderness overwhelmed her, tightening her throat with pain. How handsome he is, she thought.

For days he had not come into her room, for days she had not seen him walking quickly along the corridor, or leaving the bathroom, the kitchen. For days, in fact, as she had already said she would, she had avoided using the toilet during the daytime, keeping it in as best she could. When she could no longer bear it, she would reach under the bed for the bottle she’d made into a chamber pot, a plastic bottle she’d sliced in two, and she would squat over it and try not to splatter the tiles. A tiled floor that had once been white and now was grayish, or yellowish, because of the milk stains and ashes and sauce and piss she had neglected to wipe up. So for days, weeks, months she had been avoiding him, as he had been avoiding her. He only appeared to her in her dreams, continually, in order to transform them into nightmares that woke her and left her bathed in sweat and caused her to cry out and rouse the other inhabitants of the household, annoying them to the extreme. But in the end her cries merely reinforced their belief that she had irretrievably lost her reason.

Pfft, whistled the women before returning to their slumber.

Thus he avoided her. They avoided each other like the plague, but that endless August afternoon, as she waited for nightfall, he came to her. He came into her room. Her cell. In solitary. He burst into the room without warning. Without knocking. A sovereign bursting into his vassal’s hovel. And this surprise visit did not bode well.  She froze. Her entire being froze: body, mind, blood, soul. A dying woman is more alive than I am, she said.

With a sure, measured step he walked toward her. His voice monotonous, but no less peremptory, he said, Here.

When she saw the envelope he held in his hand and was waving in her face, she regained her composure and with it the energy that had enabled her through the days to resist his plans, his schemes that would send her to hell.

She said, What is it?

He said, Just read it.

She put her book down on the nightstand, adjusted her T-shirt, and stubbed out her cigarette.  She stood up straight and grabbed the envelope, which had already been opened; she recognized the stamp from the courthouse and saw her name. She took out the letter and read it at the speed of light.

She swallowed, then said, So you’ve gone ahead.

He said, All I have done is apply the law.

She said, You’ve gone too far . . .

He said, I am your brother and your sole guardian. Your guardian for life. You wouldn’t listen, so now you can read it.

She said, This is final?

He said, And don’t even think about trying to leave the country. I’ve notified the police, including the border patrol . . .

She gave a brief snort of laughter.

He echoed her laughter: With your shaven head, all skin and bones like that, you won’t go far.

Then he turned on his heels. She was trembling.

She crumpled the letter and threw it against the door that he had closed carefully behind him. Her breathing accelerated, her heart was pounding fit to burst. She thought she would suffocate. She lay down and closed her eyes. When her heart began to beat more normally, she was overwhelmed with the desire to cry. But she did not yield; this was no time for crying.  A sudden frenzy made her jump up and open the closet. She got dressed. Her jeans hung loosely on her. The mirror on the wardrobe reflected the image of a young boy. She decided against any baggage. Slipped her wallet into the back pocket of her jeans and her car keys into the other pocket. Waited for nightfall. When at twilight the muezzin began the call to prayer she looked at her watch. She put a tennis cap on her hairless, almost smooth head, and caught herself talking out loud.

—Why are you running away, Yasmina, daughter of Boualem and Jeanne?

—To grow up, sister of Kamel.

—Is this how women grow up, daughter of Boualem and Jeanne?

—This is how, sister of Kamel, son of . . .

—Forgive me, forgive me, my mother . . .

She rereads what she has written, then blinks frenetically, in a sign of displeasure. She deletes the text. Looks at the blank screen. She must take notes to start with, then write.

Until that day in August, 1994, my twin brother and I had never been apart. We were eight years old when our parents died in an automobile accident. We were living in the center of Algiers in those days, near the Grande Poste. Our parents were teachers, they’d collided with a tank truck. Their car was a white Citroën 2CV, they had just bought it. It was in July of the year 1972. Ten years had passed since General de Gaulle surrendered and the Europeans of Algeria gave up on French Algeria. And Algeria, just plain Algeria, was savoring her independence. The president, Houari Boumediene, a putschist and inveterate despot, removed his predecessor, a certain Ben Bella, in 1965, then evacuated the French from the military base at Mers el-Kébir in 1968, and now he was embarking on a program for three great revolutions. First industrial, then cultural, and finally agrarian. Three revolutions in one go. Mao was jubilant, and Stalin was dancing the polka in his grave.

We did not know our maternal grandparents, for they had condemned the marriage between our mother and father, who was not only an Arab but also poor as Jesus. So when our parents died we had only our paternal grandparents, small peasants who were struggling to survive on a little farm located to the north of a seaside city a hundred kilometers or so from Algiers. They were the happy beneficiaries of the agrarian revolution, and saw their plot of land expand. My grandfather set to work enthusiastically on his new farm. My grandmother, cheerful and good-natured, continued to raise her chickens and rabbits, and no longer had to milk the two goats, which in any case my grandfather had sold. Now there were cows, fine milk cows, twenty or more grazing in the green meadow, and in the evening they dozed and ruminated in their barn, a real barn, where machines imported from the Eastern Bloc were stored. My grandfather hired two farmhands, who busily fed and milked the cows and looked after them. Milk flowed in abundance, flooding the market. My grandparents watched as their coffers filled before their eyes. We would be able to continue our education at the French school in Algiers, something to which we were entitled through our mother, a Frenchwoman banished by her own family. Our uncle who lived in Algiers had said that we could stay with him. In addition to the salary they would send our uncle, my grandparents would provide for our personal needs. Everything was arranged.

We spent the summer before school at my grandparents’. But just before autumn, at the request of his young pregnant wife, my uncle changed his mind, so we stayed on the farm.

There was no longer any talk of us going back to our posh school; the one in the village near the farm welcomed us with honors. We were called “the orphans.” When we turned eleven we were sent to the French lycée, as boarders, and we were good pupils.

In 1982, the year of the baccalaureate exam, my brother told me that he wanted to go to France to find our grandparents. Maybe we could go and continue our studies there. I said, “So be it.” Not long thereafter my brother informed me that he’d given up searching for our mother’s family. There were too many French people with the name Duchemin. Might as well look for a needle in a haystack. I relented. To tell the truth, I was relieved. Even if we did not say as much, we were afraid of being rejected and humiliated. We never spoke of it again.

We passed our final exams with flying colors and were admitted to the best schools in Algiers. My brother began medicine, and I chose the humanities. From a distance, university life seemed peaceful. But closer up, everything was in ferment. Every sort of tendency, activism, militant conviction, all jostling together. There were Stalinists and communists, Marxists and Trotskyists, Islamists and members of the Ba’ath party, Arabic speakers and French speakers, capitalists and even those who were nostalgic for colonialism . . . The single party reigned supreme. Campuses, editorial offices, hospitals, schools, administrations, ministries—perhaps even cemeteries, said people ironically—were all swarming with agents from the military secret service; a neophyte would not know how to identify them. It took us some time to learn how to spot them. Everyone was wary of everyone else, like in Moscow; silence was golden. And like in Moscow, gag orders, frustration, the arbitrary, and the hatred of others prevailed. And yet our despotic, putschist president was no longer with us, he had died in 1979, an untimely, mysterious death. A white-haired colonel with a syrupy voice was the only candidate, elected with 99.99% of the ballot. His near-angelic voice did little to hide his practices, identical to those of his predecessor.

In short, we went on living with fear in our guts but for reasons we did not quite understand we had the wind in our sails.

At the end of the year, my brother and I finally found our way. With some of our fellow students we founded the Movement of Independent Students. An underground movement, that goes without saying, advocating freedom and a philosophy of sharing. We denounced nepotism and censorship, prosecution for one’s beliefs and torture in the prisons, injustice and the reign of the arbitrary. Nothing was left to chance. My brother often took the floor at our general meetings, for he was a born speaker, while I was in charge of the fliers, which I wrote and then distributed on the quiet.

Before long I discovered the feminist associations, which were also clandestine. The family code, a text legislating the hegemony of men over women and drawn up by the late putschist, was only a draft bill at the time. Polygamy, repudiation, obligatory obedience to the husband, guardianship, inequality in both inheritance and testimony . . . Every imaginable affront to womankind, put down in writing.

My brother and other comrades too supported us in our struggle. They found apartments for us, where we could meet in safety. They supported us during our sit-ins outside the National Assembly, where we sang the “Internationale” in unison at the top of our lungs, in both Arabic and French. When the police showed up we scurried away like rabbits, and those who didn’t run fast enough ended the demonstration in the paddy wagon bound for the commissariat, to be held in custody long enough to remember it only too well. To compound the humiliation, the women were thrown in with common criminals and prostitutes…It was all so long ago, she thought, rereading her notes. Then she went back to work.

Summer 1984. In the middle of parliamentary recess, while some of our comrades were on hunger strike in the jails of Algiers, the family code was adopted.

She saves her notes. Lights a cigarette. Goes to her window. Smokes, looking out at the street. Stares at the top of the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the distance. The bell on the church of Saint-Sulpice tolls midnight. She goes back to her desk.

The administrative family booklet, for example, has room for four wives. First wife, second wife, etc. A woman, no matter her age or her profession—judge or state prosecutor, lawyer or minister, chef or homemaker—cannot marry without the approval of her guardian. And if she has no guardian, a judge whom she does not know from Adam will represent her. That is the Algerian paradox. They sent us to school en masse, encouraged us to go on to university, then, as if to curtail all that freedom, as if to punish us, as if to bring themselves in line with the codes of patriarchy and call us to order, wham! they debated, wrote, then passed these laws that have made us minors for life.

Subsequently, after the major riots on October 5, 1988, the constitution of February 26, 1989 came into being. We went from a single party to a multiparty system.

As an activist who had a certain renown by then, I gave interviews left and right. At meetings I spoke out quite freely . . . How can we accept and approve of a text that legalizes life-long nonage for women? Algeria is not Iran, I chanted. The auditoriums were full; we were overwhelmed with a feeling of triumph.

Dream on.

In vain did I speak of Rosa Luxemburg, Louise Michel, or Olympe de Gouges and her famous, “Man, are you capable of being fair?” In vain did I recall how they contributed to the struggle, our Algerian women—Djamila Bouhired, Hassiba Ben Bouali, Djamila Boupacha, Abla M’Chentel, and so many others, paying with their lives for Algeria’s sovereignty, and for the citizenship of women . . . All to no avail.

I even resorted to demagogy. Yes, yes, I did. Did the Prophet not love his women? Did he not respect them? Aïcha, his favorite wife—had she not fought alongside the men? His daughter, Fatima, had she not forbidden her husband Ali to take other wives? That was the way of the Prophet, and no doubt he knew that misogyny was the pillar of religious fascism, I emphasized, every time I spoke.

It served no purpose. All it did was land me in never-ending trouble. Intimidating letters, threats. Letters filled with insults and slander. Lectures about morality, fatwas . . .

After university we went back to live with our grandparents. The little farm had become a prosperous agricultural business. We found work in the neighboring town. My brother had a practice at the dispensary, I was teaching in the brand new lycée. One year later our grandparents died. One after the other. After the funeral I informed my brother of my intention to go and live in the on-site accommodation to which I was entitled through my position at the school. But the principal had one of his cousins living there and refused to give the apartment to me. I wanted to fight, to assert my rights; my brother dissuaded me. Why bother, he said, why go and live in that dump, anyway?

We decided to move in together. We got along so well. In Algiers, in addition to our political activities, we had had the same friends, gone out to the same places—restaurants, cinema, theatre; I remember the Caracoia on Rue Didouche Mourad, its shaded courtyard, the gambas and white wine . . . My brother would drink copiously, ranting against Montherlant and his Jeune Fille: When you think that it’s here in Algiers that he began to hate women, said my brother indignantly. Our friends agreed. My brother turned to me with pride: Go ahead, Yasmina, tell us what he said.

( . . . ) but in fact he only liked girls who were healthy and simple, like Solange, and that is why he took pleasure in desiring a woman who was unhinged, I replied, pleased with myself.

We sold our grandparents’ farm and bought a villa in the town where we were working. It was a small town, fairly conservative, but it was situated on the prettiest bay in the region. Our villa was modest, but elegant. We had a view overlooking the little fishing port. Life was sweet. We savored it as if that sweetness could end at any moment.

Which it did.

When the massacres began in 1990 we had our doors bulletproofed. Friends from Algiers came to find refuge with us. Others lost their lives, in their beds, leaving work, merely going round the wrong corner. Long before he was killed with two bullets to the head in the spring of 1993, Tahar Djaout had come to visit us. We had talked all night long. He was not a talkative man, he was humble and discreet, but that night, behind our bulletproof doors, he spoke of his trip to Paris, the promotion of his new novel, Les Vigiles, his joy at being awarded the Prix Mediterrannée,  and his visit to the poet Mohamed Dib. He seemed so happy.

A few days after Tahar Djaout’s assassination, my boyfriend, who was also a journalist, left the country. He would stay with his uncle outside Paris until he got his bearings. At the airport I promised to wait for him. He said, Promise to come and join me. No matter the course of events, whether this insane situation continues or not, I will not leave Algeria. I will never leave my brother on his own. That is what I was thinking, but I kept it to myself.

Months went by, and the massacres increased. We reinforced our bulletproofing, installed an alarm system, and took in more and more friends from Algiers, Oran, from wherever death was imposing its reign. Our meetings turned into noubas that lasted until dawn. This is the best act of defiance in the face of fanaticism, said my brother.

Then he fell madly in love with the judge’s daughter. Unlike his other girlfriends, the judge’s daughter didn’t come to our house. Which intrigued me.

—Where do you see this love of yours?

—I don’t see her. Her parents are incredibly strict. But we write to each other. Her maid acts as our messenger.

—Romeo and Juliet?

—In a way. In any event, it’s thrilling.

One month later my brother got married. In spite of the curfew, the bride’s parents managed to throw a party. My sister-in-law was very pretty, and above all very young, only just twenty, and I saw the difference between her and my brother immediately. Their conversations were limited to shopping, the menu for the day, the décor of the house . . . Whenever my brother was talking on the phone or with me or one of his friends, my sister-in-law would dream up all sorts of pretexts to interrupt and distract his attention. Doctorate in diversion, I called her in secret. Sometimes a conflict arose between them, but it never lasted long, and was based on something utterly pointless like how long to cook the pasta or the lack of raisins in the couscous.

When she first arrived in our home she didn’t speak to me a great deal, but she was polite: You’ve stayed up again, the circles under your eyes are black as coal, You’re so thin it’s unhealthy, my poor Yasmina, have some more meat. And so on until, emboldened by her pregnancy and her Salafi veil, which was dark and showed only her eyes and her gloved hands, she began to provoke me. Oh, these old maids, or, They’re good at hiding their vices behind their so-called education . . . And a flurry of other jibes, whenever I went by. I didn’t respond, nor did I mention it to my brother, I was convinced that her taunting would eventually stop, that in the company of my brother and me she would change and become more mature, that she was bound to rally to our way of thinking and stop wearing the veil, that she would become one of “us.” Above all that she would come to respect the close ties between my brother and me and our unconditional love for each other.

But it was my brother who began to change. On his days off he spent all his time with his wife, at her parents’. He went there without ever inviting me to come along, and he only invited them to our place when I was away. When my niece was born he came up with some excuse so that I was never able to go with them to the maternity ward. That is when I confronted him and asked him why he didn’t want me to meet his in-laws. He replied that my breath stank of tobacco, that the way I spoke was inappropriate, and this, and that. Then in a slightly less aggressive tone he added that the judge and his wife didn’t have the same mentality, that it would be better to give it time, you know how it is, gossip, his reputation to protect, and so on.

When my sister-in-law came back with the baby, my brother put an end to visits from our friends; our conversations became rare and only ever ended in arguments, You have no respect for anything, You’re marginal, Look at you, you’re getting old and ugly . . . The sort of comments that just weren’t like him.

After the attack that nearly cost me my life, my brother said it had been all my fault, I was attracting attention, the way I behaved was bound to provoke people, the interviews I gave could be damaging. Then he advised me to take his wife as an example, Look how she behaves, so discreet behind her veil. He said I was the last woman to go around town with my head and calves uncovered. If I was attacked, it was because I’d been asking for it, he shouted.

A few days later I was still licking my wounds when he came to talk to me about a suitor. A polygamist as rich as Croesus, he said cheerfully.

—You’ll have everything you need, you can stop working. You’ll live in Sidi-Bel-Abbès, he added, while I stared at him, eyes wide open, not sure whether I should laugh or start to worry.

—Sidi-Bel-Abbès? I said, to say something.

—I’ve heard he has palaces there, my brother continued, with a regal gesture. One for each of his wives. My father-in-law has it all arranged. All you have to do is say yes, and the good life will be yours.

—Is this a joke?

The way his face suddenly closed, I realized he was not joking. I burst out laughing and my brother went into a mad rage. He pounded his fist against the wall, threw a vase on the floor, broke other things. His wife came rushing in and he calmed down.

—You are almost thirty, women your age are bringing up their children. You should be flattered that at last there’s a man who wants you, he hissed, picking up the broken glass.

—This is my home, I said. I too inherited—

He cut me off: Oh really? If I apply the law, you’ll be left with a few bricks, that’s all.

—Is that so? I said ironically, fighting the piercing anger in my throat.

And as always, he was able to read my thoughts.

—Don’t think you can leave the country. You’re going nowhere except Sidi-Bel-Abbès. And if you resist, I’ll keep you locked up here until the end of your days. Don’t forget that I have and will continue to have every right over you. I am your legal guardian. For life. And that’s final.

No sooner said than done.

I was not allowed to work, or go out, or make telephone calls. He went and asked my principal to fire me. To comply with the law, the principal fired me. I tried to get my job back, to alert my friends, I sent letters, telegrams. In vain. If they were not already dead, our friends were abroad, or were hardly ever at home, sleeping here and there, practicing what we referred to back then as “zapping,” one way of covering one’s tracks, the better to give death the slip . . .

That spring was one of discord and conflict. To avoid marriage with the polygamist from Sidi-Bel-Abbès I shaved my head and eyebrows every morning. I stopped eating. I walked around the house in my underpants. Whenever I went near the baby it screamed with terror, heartbreaking to see. The rest of the time I shut myself away in my room where I read and smoked to exhaustion. My sister-in-law couldn’t take it anymore. She said I was insane, and I was afraid she could be right; she threatened to go back to her parents’ if my presence in their home lasted much longer. It’s her or me, she hissed. She did not leave, but had her mother move in. To be on the safe side.

Then came that day in August, 1994. The letter from the tribunal. Leaving, taking nothing with me. In the night. Braving the curfew. Slipping past the roadblocks. Islamists or not. Reaching Algiers. I found refuge with Faddia, in the casbah. They tracked me down, I left the casbah and did zapping of my own, bedding down here or there, with friends or in small hotels.

Two months later the bay of Algiers gradually vanished behind me: I scattered its blue waters with my farewells. Twenty-four hours later Marseille came into sight. Then Djamel. Then the Gare Saint-Charles. Three hours in the TGV, time to reacquaint myself with my friend’s smell. His voice. His life.

Then the Gare Montparnasse. The Rue de Rennes. A restaurant, La Rotonde. An enormous tableful. Noria, Nadia, Fatima, Mohamed, Farouk, Naima, Ouarda, Yassine . . . All scattered. Uprooted. Smiling. Alive.

She stops and rereads her notes. She is ready to start writing.

Stretched out on the bed, hardly dressed, reading ( . . . ) Escape ( . . . ) Grow up . . . Is this how ( . . . )?

Translation of “Est-ce ainsi que les femmes grandissent.” Copyright Leila Marouane. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Alison Anderson. All rights reserved.