Marcadet-Poissonniers metro station, 7:30 p.m. An enormous bag on his back, Jeff’s looking for rue des Portes-Blanches. As if in a dream, he crosses rue Ordener, which is buzzing with life. He’s just off the plane, it’s eight years since Jeff’s set foot outside Algeria. First Orly, a slap in the face, the sheer luxury of it—ah, so that’s what it is. Heady perfume aromas, Jeff sweating at border control, visa’s in order, OK, then the bus, the luminous motorway, giant billboards all the way to Denfert. Is this for real?
In his head, raging echoes of Algeria, Hocine and Hassan, who came with him as far as the airport. Tough to tear himself away.
Next, the metro, Jeff’s at a loss—hardly surprising, it’s been eight years. Magnetic walkway marked with arrows, all sliding and smooth. Jeff can’t see straight, everything’s so sharply defined. He checks out what people are wearing, the women walking by, bodies so free, so in your face. Jeff ruminates, takes it all in, it’s crazy, a whole other planet. He’s learning, though, getting the hang of it, two thousand miles an hour.
He goes down rue des Poissonniers, then turns left into the narrow rue des Portes-Blanches. Just praying he’s in . . . Cousin Kamel, who emigrated ten years ago, hasn’t seen him in at least three years, fine to crash there to start with, sort it out later.
Number 7, old building, nicely kept up. Not a kid in sight, believe it or not. Algiers easily averages ten kids per stairwell. Swarms of them, razor-sharp eyes, capable of anything.
No, mobs of ten-year-old adults more like, sucking at every vice, already utterly jaded.
Second floor on the right, Jeff presses the buzzer and waits. Weird, no one in? He rings again, then three times . . . But I gave him a heads up, maybe he went to get something from the shops, whatever happens don’t freak out. Jeff stands outside the building, well, maybe get something to eat, there’s a small Monoprix on the left. The light’s blinding, everything blinks and dances in front of his eyes. Cold cuts, meat at thirty francs a kilo. What? Yep, you read it right, thirty francs. In Algiers it was two hundred and fifty.
Jeff feels dizzy: lucre, the rewards of excess. A hundred and thirty-two billion types of yogurt, cheese, coffee, almond shampoo for cats. Blurry-eyed, he hesitates, seriously nauseated —a physical thing, strictly speaking. Jeff leaves the shop, gasping for air.
He goes back to Kamel’s building and rings, at last the door opens and here’s Kamel, looking well-fed:
“So, the refugee! How’s it going? Come on in, was the flight delayed or what?”
Kamel ushers him in, carpeted studio flat, TV’s on, the news, Saddam Hussein, coalition forces issue an ultimatum, kitchenette, a poster of Platini, Jeff’s spaced out, can’t take it in.
Kamel’s certainly got the gear: video recorder, stereo system, microwave, totally normal here of course, but over there . . . Shh, stop comparing everything to Algeria. Kamel says:
“Sit down, dump the bag, do you want something to drink? Whiskey, beer, port, Ricard?”
Jeff goes for Scotch. Kamel brings a tray, serves the drinks, they clink glasses.
“To your getting here! I always wondered what a brilliant guy like you was doing back there, in that godforsaken place!”
Still in a daze, Jeff caresses his glass:
“Yeah well, what can you do . . . anyway, you’re doing all right, huh?!”
“Oh you know, can’t complain, I bust my nuts, I’ve got my identity papers, it’s going OK. So, have you got yours?”
Staring at the wallpaper, Jeff says:
“One-month visa, till the first of January.”
Kamel’s face clouds over:
“One month? That’ll be tough, they’re being really strict now, especially with that idiot Saddam Hussein. Anyway, we’ll work it out. You need a shower? We can go for a walk after.” Jeff says yes to a shower. Cheap stuff to wash with, ordinary enough, but the difference . . . turns on the tap, a miracle, water comes out. Never seen water gush from a tap in Algiers, water shortages since the beginning of time.
Washing off a hundred and thirty-two years of stress, frothing shower gel, go on treat yourself, Jeff, a brand-new body getting all the shit off, oh but this is untrue?! A working shower, like in the movies. After, he’ll have a good slug of whiskey, just like that.
“The eagle tenses for takeoff, Jeff,” Mr. Zoubir said.
His thoughts are all confused: frail outstretched hands, Algiers, his family, laughter, friends, childhood, dreams, and tears—thin, plaintive voices fading further and further into the distance.
He shaves, splashes on some of Kamel’s Balafre aftershave, inspects his dark brown face, dries his long curly hair. He checks the wad of notes in his socks, five thousand francs, changed on the black market in Algiers, very special rate of one to six. Rubbing his hands together, Jeff joins Kamel, who’s already refilled their glasses.
“So, all nice and clean. Finish up your drink, we’ll go for a walk and you can tell me about the shit going down in Algiers.”
Jeff’s a new man, knocks back his drink without sitting down.
“Let’s go! Just say the word.”
They go out, the air’s cool, lights and cars gleaming, everything sparkles, the women are proud like vixens, they smell delicious. Life! Whereas in Algiers . . .
Kamel shows him round, Jeff registering everything that moves, like in a film, hard to walk properly, well-stocked shops, so clean, so ornate. So this is the world, the real one, the other’s just a . . . what . . . a rough draft, that’s it . . . So where the hell was I living? Shut up Jeff, OK, OK.
A little bistro on rue du Baigneur, Kamel’s a regular here. The owner, a Kabyle, is working the till, a Frenchwoman, no doubt his wife, behind the bar.
Perching on a stool, Kamel:
“Hey Mimiche, hey Nicole, this is my cousin Jeff, from back home. Just arrived.”
They look him over, routine interest, the blonde Nicole:
“Oh yes? And how are things over there? What about the Islamists?”
Jeff, being polite:
“Oh, you know . . .”
Kamel, easy-going, cuts in:
“It’s like Iran over there, totally fucked! Isn’t it, Jeff?”
Jeff nods. Nicole, very blonde, wearing too much make-up, the type to set the ardent North African libido ablaze, and she knows it. Takes their order, two beers.
They know it too.
The boss, man of few words, welded to his till, looks furtively at Jeff:
“It’s a real mess over there. How’s the dinar doing?”
Sipping his beer, Jeff:
“One to six, six and a half.”
Kamel, acting sophisticated:
“Oh, soon it’ll be one to ten, make it an even number, one million to a thousand dirhams, it’ll serve them right.”
Apart from two or three sad sacks, the clientele’s mostly North African, and in the corner, with two black guys, an Asian woman wearing a leather miniskirt that only just covers her tush.
Jeff hones his gaze, taking in reflections, blind spots, tricks of the light, shadows, surveys the scene.
Can this be Paris?
Got to pinch myself to see straight. It’s not going to last long with Kamel, imagine soaring up, up to the highest heights, fast, a long way from this scum and their troughs, yes, as fast as I can.
Leaning her heavy, perfumed breasts toward Jeff, Nicole asks:
“Are you on holiday? How long for?”
Jeff, toothy grin, I’d flip her over and give her one right there, just as she is, against the bar, don’t you move, baby:
“As long as it takes, no idea really.”
More customers come in, friends of Kamel: Mouhouche and Akli.
Introductions all round, Jeff shakes paws, Kamel gets in another round. Mouhouche:
“D’you hear about Arezki? He missed out on the lottery, by just one number.
You should’ve seen him last night, he was drunk as a skunk.”
Jeff’s soul detaches from his body, an animal lying in wait. He’s there and not there, a significant absence. He couldn’t give a shit about the lottery, about Nicole or Kamel. Going to have to get going, quick-time.
Mouhouche, abruptly changing the subject:
“And what about your cousin, what’s the news from home?”
Jeff, rolling his eyes:
“Better off here than there, I reckon. Got to consider ourselves lucky, but most of all, pity the poor bastards over there.”
Akli, in his accountant’s glasses, says:
“I was there last year, the people are completely corrupt, it’s revolting. Everything’s gone down the drain, the black market, the shortages, and on top of all that the Islamists, for God’s sake!”
Kamel’s got a touch more class, and he knows it.
So do Mouhouche and Akli.
Putting down his glass, he goes up to them, his tone all confidential:
“I’ll tell you how it is. The FIS was created by the Russians and the Jews, they had a baby behind Algeria’s back. And our lot, well they’re just morons, they fell for it. Simple as.”
The situation in a nutshell. Jeff’s gobsmacked.
Kamel goes on:
“Even Saddam Hussein’s a Russian puppet!”
Akli, picking his nose:
“Still, Gorbachev . . .”
Kamel, on his own little journey to the end of the night:
“Exactly! On the one hand they say no, on the other they’re manipulating him, by remote control. It’s all between them and the Americans.”
Mouhouche looks puzzled.
“And where are the Arabs in all this?”
Kamel’s triumphant, especially since Nicole, who’s sprayed on more perfume, now turns her heavily made-up eye toward him, resting her plump breasts on the bar.
“The Arabs? But the Arabs are sheep! They’ve always been sheep! Isn’t that obvious?”
“Yeah, but if it all kicks off, things’ll get rough for us over here, with the Front National. Everything will change, I’m sure of it.”
Dancing in Jeff’s head: the jasmine in his grandmother’s garden in Birkhaden, Hocine’s potbelly back at the Perroquet, the tender look in his sister’s eyes, the first poem he learned, when he was ten:
On rustic paths the thin grass I shall tread,
And feel its freshness underneath my feet,
And, dreaming, let the wind bathe my bare head . . .*
Jeff savors his beer, the fact that he’s here, on his right a pinball machine and a jukebox, when you think that over there . . . . Stop it, Jeff, there’s no comparison.
Kamel, Mouhouche, and Akli discuss racing, the Front National, setting up a laundromat together, the prostitutes on rue Saint-Denis, Saddam Hussein, smuggling foreign currency. Jeff ponders his life, staring into his beer. After the fourth round, they decide to leave the bar, go walk round Pigalle, bye, see you, everyone goes.
Boulevard Barbès, Rochechouart, like a film clip, Arabs, blacks, half-whites. Whores, cops, pimps, dealers: a whole underclass in the free world’s shop window. Got to adapt, right?! Jeff’s got to rewrite the codes, quick, get up to speed.
They’re in Pigalle now, a mind-blowing ballet of lights, it’s imperial Byzantium, sex and gold, frilly panties and deep pockets, offering any variation of the arcane mysteries of fantasy, whatever you want. Jeff’s eyes devour it all, every minute of the spectacle written out in front of his eyes, calligraphic text on display, silky gilt edges, voluptuous arabesques.
The streets are alive, Jeff clocks everything, Kamel, Mouhouche, and Akli hitting on every girl they see, Jeff feels tender toward the plucky little lambs, he watches them, it’s touching really.
When they get to Place Clichy, they go into a McDonalds, it’s Jeff’s first time; heard of it but never been in. Jeff appreciates the very American power of the global image, yeah, the democracy of myth.
They order and sit down, each of them busy with his Big Mac.
Two girls at the next table, sunny blonde hair. The three men eat, drooling at the sight of them.
Jeff bites into his Big Mac, drools at the sight of them drooling at the sight of them.
Emboldened by four beers, Kamel risks it; they’re well out of his league:
The sunny blondes don’t understand.
“Have you got a problem?”
Jeff spots a copy of the Nouvel Observateur on their table. On the tip of his tongue . . . no, shut it, think first, Jeff.
Akli takes over, strong Kabyle accent:
“Are you English? Swedish? German?”
Jeff whispers: they’re French. The three of them sit back, but don’t let up. Ah, they’re French!
“Good evening, ladies, can we offer you a drink?”
“That’s kind of you, but we’ve got people waiting for us.”
The others pile in, charging into the breach, sticking like glue. We’re in there! Fuck, we’re going to get laid!
The other one, the least lively:
“Hey, you want to piss off? Or get a kick in the face?”
The three of them shrink back, Jeff laughs, they all bite into their Big Macs, in silence. They’re out of there, heading for Barbès, to the Bar de la Famille, Ramdane’s place. The bar’s murky, dim lighting, just men, Arabs, Ramdane among them, gold tooth, voice like a scorpion fish:
“Hey there, come on in, it’s my round. I like good boys.”
Jeff goes wide-angle, the bar’s hardcore and druggy, run by the local mob, dodgy little underworld. Arabic music crackling, Oum Kalthoum, supreme mother of all Arabs. Sleazy punters, pathetic in their vapid exile, rock-bottom depression. A lot of youngsters, pickpockets, gold-chain bracelets, back-alley pimps. The music changes, now rai punctuates each round of drinks, the men dancing alone on the spot, urgent tango of sex, knives, and wine.
Kamel orders a whiskey, it’s classier:
“It’s not my scene here, it’s so . . . common.”
Akli, his glasses on crooked:
“It can be good sometimes, like being back at home.”
Kamil, whose eyebrows say the exact opposite:
“No, no, not for me. As soon as I work out how, I’m going to be a French citizen, simple as.”
“But of course, we all want that. Just a matter of finding a Frenchwoman who’ll take us on.”
Kamel rubs his hands together:
“Look at Arezki, he’s no better than us. But he found a Frenchwoman. Now he’s living it up. With a French ID card, you’re a French citizen, untouchable, you get rid of all the shit. Whereas we’re about to get screwed by Saddam Hussein.”
Jeff watches his eyes swimming in his beer. Got to get going, top speed, before . . .
The conversation turns to women, all the romance of rutting pigs: “and I did this to her and I did that . . .” Akli suggests winding up the evening in Clichy, going back to his to watch a porno with Tracy Lords—God, the ass on her—getting fucked by two black guys, whose dicks are this big, I swear, this big!!
Really irritated now, Jeff begs off, saying he’s tired, needs to rest. Sorts it with Kamel, leaves the key behind the meter on the landing, OK, camp bed under the sofa, blanket in the cupboard, all right. They go their separate ways, three of them heading off to watch porn, Jeff to spend a few hours alone, catch his breath, relax.
*”Sensation,” by Arthur Rimbaud, translated Jethro Bithell, 1912
© Aziz Chouaki. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.