Translator’s Note: Maïssa Bey lost her father in the Algerian war for independence. A grade-school teacher in a small town south of Algiers, and a political organizer for the National Liberation Front, he was arrested, tortured, and executed within the space of forty-eight hours in February 1957. Bey was six years old at the time. The trauma of early loss has marked her life and work. A high-school French teacher in Sidi Bel Abbes, in western Algeria, she began writing for publication only in the mid 1990s, under pressure of another Algerian war. “Sofiane B., Age Twenty ” is based in part on the brief, tragic life of her own nephew.
Sofiane is dead. I learned the news from the paper. There was an article that described his last adventure. It may also have been his first, I don’t know, I’d been without knowledge of him for a long time, ever since this filthy war began. No one in the family kept us informed.
He was twenty, the same age as my son.
Sofiane was the little blond boy with the shy smile and lively, inquisitive eyes, who attached himself to me whenever we went to visit his parents. He used to follow us around, he never spoke, he just listened attentively to what we had to say, no matter how trivial, until his father noticed his presence, unobtrusive though it was, and sent him away, with a harsh command. He obeyed without a peep, left the room, and didn’t dare reappear in the doorway till our departure. We would find him down in the road, standing by the car. He submitted in all docility to our good-bye kisses and stared after us until we vanished around the first bend in the road, at the very end of the main street of the village.
Sofiane is dead. I probably forgot to mention that, according to the bulletin issued by security forces and reprinted verbatim in several newspapers, he was “a dangerous terrorist.”
He was also my nephew, my brother’s son.
How old was he the last time I saw him ? Fifteen, maybe sixteen. I can see him clearly in my mind’s eye, a good-looking adolescent, still beardless, with a voice that wavered comically between deep and high notes, and always the same shy smile that contrasted strangely with his older brother’s exuberant self-confidence. He was holding his baby sister, the lastborn of the family, and I remember noticing how patiently and tenderly he fed her, while his mother was busy serving us. Amina stood beside him, another quiet one, as dark as he was blond, his other sister, his twin.
I could add more details, I could say I had a presentiment of something different about him, some slight, barely perceptible signs, the kind that seem insignificant and that can only be decoded afterward . . . when it’s too late . . . but I see nothing, nothing but a nice-looking boy, appealing, sensitive.
“The most sensitive of his brothers,” his mother says on the phone. Her voice is hoarse with grief. “He died a week ago, we only found out yesterday. He disappeared over two months ago, we had no news of him until . . . ” and she adds, in a barely audible whisper, as if in fear of being overheard, “Don’t come, please don’t come, the road is not very safe, you never know . . . his father went to bury him, they told him to come alone . . . he’s not back yet.”
I’ve been rereading the article I clipped from the paper, hoping to find some sort of preliminary explanation. It’s just a brief item announcing “the elimination of Sofiane B, age twenty, a dangerous terrorist slain while running a checkpoint in a stolen car, outside the city of M. He was not alone, but his two accomplices managed to flee and are being actively sought at this time . . .” It is further reported that he was found in possession of a revolver that had belonged to a policeman assassinated the previous day, in the center of town. Sofiane was slain, then, something like twenty miles from his own village. Was he planning to go home, to see his family again? Was he in fact the killer? There is little doubt in the minds of the men who wrote the official report.
I need to make some sense of this, I keep telling myself on the drive to their place. I’m sure I’ll find some explanation at the end of this interminable journey, hours of anguish till we reach their village, formerly a quiet place, the outskirts guarded now by checkpoints where young soldiers—so terribly young!—stand with itchy trigger fingers, ready to pounce.
Furtive glances from passersby, houses crushed by sun and silence, doors and shutters bolted, where are the children who used to come running from all sides when we drove up? They would swarm around us, their smiling faces pressed against the car windows, neither begging nor aggressive, just curious. The only thing I recognize is the heat, a dry dusty suffocating heat that grabs you by the throat, and with it a sense of abandonment and desolation that seems to have invaded this apparently peaceful little village perched on the slope of what was once a heavily wooded hill but has now been stripped bare, the trees burned off or sawed through, like in all the other villages we passed on our way here.
In front of the house, the street is empty. Odd that there should be no signs of a family thrown into mourning. I see none of the chairs that are usually set out on the sidewalk for the week, for the men friends and neighbors who used to come from all over, even from great distances, to offer their condolences. I hear no women weeping or wailing within the silent house. Has no one come to comfort my brother in his ordeal, as was always and everywhere the custom in our country? It’s fear, my husband says, fear of associating with the family of a reprobate, of demonstrating a solidarity that could be misinterpreted.
All I see in the doorway is my brother’s haggard face, his features hollowed by suffering he strains to keep hidden, the heavy pressure of his hand on my shoulder, a brief pause and then that knot of sorrow finally released in tears, as we cling to one another, weeping, bonded in pain that forces us to rediscover feelings we both imagined had been deadened by our too many years apart, and the wear and tear of life.
Then I see her: Malika, Sofiane’s mother, seated on a mattress in the middle of the front room, which has been emptied of all its furniture, Malika, with dry bloodshot eyes, even tinier than I remembered her, Malika, a vision in white, from head to toe, perched at the center of a group of women who have come, discreetly, to surround her with their compassion. She recites a monotonous litany:
“They deceived him, they talked him into going with them, he was too young, he couldn’t understand.” That’s all she says, that’s all she knows, no need for her to be more specific, it’s easy enough to understand whom she means, whom she’s accusing. Her son was handsome, he was kind, he was innocent. “They” means the others, a vague mysterious entity with irresistible powers of persuasion and seduction, it’s their fault if he is no longer there today. She has to convince herself of this in order to preserve the image of the child, her favorite son, she says, the only one who took the time to listen to her sometimes, to talk to her too, without telling her, no, he never told her what might be tormenting him, what could have pushed him to listen to them, to believe them, to follow them, and she, his mother, saw nothing, suspected nothing, not the slightest hint, nothing, till the day he left, without baggage and without farewells.
They nod their heads, they agree with her, all these women who surround her, and I gather, from the snatches of their conversation that reach me, that some of them have sons who have also “gone up” into the maquis. They speak of it in veiled terms, eyes downcast, these women who ordinarily do not hesitate to open their hearts to other women on the rare occasions when they are able to meet. It’s true I’m there, and to them I’m an outsider, and you have to be wary these days. The white scarf I’ve tied around my head as a sign of mourning does not offer them sufficient reassurance, they can’t let go and reveal dangerous secrets. Alone in my corner, I observe them and keep my counsel. Perhaps the explanation I’m desperate to find is right here in the sighs that accompany their words, in their whispering punctuated by the recurring refrain. “What can we do about it?”
They don’t seem to be searching for answers to this question, it’s just another avowal of the resignation irremediably inscribed in them. No one ever taught them, no one ever permitted them, to say the simple word no, to rebel against the sad fate that shatters all their dreams, silent passive acceptance: father, and then husband, and then son. Renunciation is their lot, soul-wrenching, gut-wrenching at times, but even when they suffer intense physical pain they hold themselves back, with great determination, they don’t complain aloud, although this aggravates their pain, and they find no release. And as for their sons who grow up too quickly and become men in their turn, how could they possibly hold them back?
From Nouvelles d’Algerie. Copyright Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1998. By arrangement with the publishers. Translation copyright 2008 by Suzanne Ruta. All rights reserved.