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Back to the Beginning

By Akli TADJER Sofitel Algiers Hamma Garden

This is how it started.
It was the wettest month of May I had ever known. Each day brought torrents of rain, wind, hail. To make matters worse, the forecast was for more of the same for days and days to come.
Only windshield-wiper salesmen, umbrella merchants and snails were happy. My mother, who in April had still been sprightly when we had feted her 77th spring, had turned gloomy. She spent hours sitting on the couch, head down, arms crossed, staring at her feet. And she refused to say a word. We communicated only with unintelligible sounds, clearing our throats or making gestures and signs. She also had no appetite. In mid-afternoon, she would dip a piece of buttered bread in a cup of lukewarm tea and that would be it for the day. I had attributed her blues to the weight of the steely sky hanging so low that it blended into the gray zinc roofs of the Haussmann-style buildings. So I was waiting impatiently for a breeze that would clear away the dismal weather
and reveal a great yellow sun in an expanse of blue. The days passed, gray, thick, cold. And my mother faded, reduced to nothing but a limp old thing slumped on the couch, which made visiting her so trying that each time I would left feeling phenomenally depressed.
My mother and I lived in the same building, on the top floor. She had a one-room apartment to the right of the elevator, while I had an apartment that was scarcely bigger at the other end of the corridor. (I will explain this later if the opportunity should present itself.) I thus end this aside, which, by the way, had no reason to have been started.

As I could no longer stand to watch her deteriorate, I invited a doctor friend to come help me understand what was afflicting her.
After the usual examination, he diagnosed a severe depression. The horrible weather tormenting Paris had only served to exacerbate her own melancholy. My friend wanted to prescribe various anti-depressants, paid for by the state medical insurance, but he thought better of it as he took a last look at her.
“A waste of money,’’ he muttered. “Better to take her mind off it. That would be more effective. Between downpours, give her some fresh air at the park, let her see people, a lot of people, or at least people other than you.”

At the door, he repeated that my mother was suffering from a severe depression and that if I didn’t do something to distract her… He put his bag down, imitated a gravedigger shoveling a hole and then crossed himself. Once the door was closed, I pulled up a chair and sat facing my mother :
“You heard this fool. He wants me to take you to the park so that you’ll see faces other than mine. Do you agree ?”
She signaled no with her finger. I agreed. Yet the status quo was no longer satisfactory, either. I needed to find some way of distracting her before I found myself donning a mourning coat. The next morning, I discovered her asleep on the couch. She was beautiful, but deathly pale. There was on old shoebox open on the floor beside her. I knew this shoebox well. It was our box of photos, our box of memories. There were photos of my father. In one of them, he was a dapper young man arriving on the ferry from Algiers. In another, I was no more than 10 years old. I was holding his hand at the Foire du Trône. In another — this was just before the accident — he and his fellow immigrant construction workers posed proudly in their hardhats. Then there was mother, a young girl. Not yet married but already as sad as a widow. In another photo, she was leaving the maternity hospital with my father. She held me in her arms. On the back, a shaky hand had written my birth date : Paris, 13 June 1980. I picked up the picture of my father in his hardhat. He was smiling a full, toothsome grin. He had no idea that 15 minutes later the scaffolding above him would collapse… My dad was killed instantly. I slipped the photo into the bottom of the box, my heart aching. At that moment, my mother gave a start. As I covered her with a blanket, I noticed that she had a picture in her hand. I took it from her fingers. She didn’t move. It was a picture I had never seen before. In it, her long hair reached her hips and she was holding a small somber-looking girl by the hand.
“Take me to Algiers, my son. I want to see Yasmine. I want to find her before leaving.”

Yasmine ? I questioned her. I wanted to know who Yasmine was, who was this person she had never mentioned to me, but she only repeated over and over that she wanted to see Yasmine before she died. I reminded her that the girl in the photo was by now a woman, perhaps married and living on the other side of Algeria, that it would be crazy to try to find her. A tear, then two, three, four, then many streamed down her face. We were now in the plane heading to Algiers the White. I had given in to her whim as I often did, as I always did. In fact it was because of her whims that Camille, the love of all my days and nights, had left me two years before. My mother had seen only flaws in her. She was too tall, too white, too blonde, too joyous, too coquette, too French for her taste. She was hoping to find me someone like her : small, brunette, clingy, a royal pain…
Camille had never managed to find her place between us. I wandered around for weeks, shouting my love for her under all the windows in Paris, but she never came back. There was a small apartment available across the landing from my mother. Signing my name on the lease was like signing my own prison sentence. For months I remained closed in by silence and boredom and then with time everything passes… except Camille.

We had left the airport in Paris under an overcast sky. Two hours later, Algiers offered us the blue sky, balmy sea and brilliant sun of a picture postcard. Returning home had cheered up my mother. She walked along the streets and boulevards with a bounce in her step while I lagged behind, struggling with the luggage. “Where are we going ?” I asked at every intersection. She wasn’t listening to me and went on. In front of the main post office, I couldn’t go on. I put down the bags and sat on a bench to catch my breath. She turned around and came to join me. I called to a street kid with a cooler full of drinks and bought a can of Sélecto, which we drank in great gulps, the midday sun having parched our throats.
“Now that we’re in Algiers, tell me, who is this Yasmine ?” She took me by the hand and whispered as she looked out toward the Mediterranean stretching before us :
“I will explain to you if I find her, otherwise I will take the secret with me.”
She stood up and took a few steps, but she didn’t have the strength to go on. She waved down a taxi and told him to take us to the Jardin d’Essai. What immediately strikes a newcomer to Algiers are the endless traffic jams, the crowds drifting along the sidewalks and the cops on every corner, fingers on their machine-gun triggers. It seemed to be a city at war with an invisible enemy.
“We are at war against terrorism,” said the taxi driver, although I had not even asked him the time of day.
At the first intersection, my mother fell asleep on my shoulder. Our enthusiastic driver had quickly understood from my Parisian accent that I was not a local. He thus proudly began recounting the history of the Algerian capital. He first pointed to the sea.
“As you can see, it was very blue, very big. That’s why it’s called the Big Blue. On a clear day you can see France.”

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