This is my private diary from the year 2002.
A large notebook of ninety-six pages with a deep-blue cover.
I had lost it.
I found it yesterday while cleaning, forgotten, abandoned for I don’t know how long behind my dresser.
In the middle of this notebook there was, there is, an envelope on the back of which is written this title: “The Algerian and the Moroccan.”
I knew what it contained. Words, words written as a couple, the Algerian and me. The tale of our love written day after day, side by side. Were they still there, those words, intact, legible, or had they been erased with time?
I opened the letter. I opened my heart once again to the Algerian. I opened my body to this crazy story, to this great love, the greatest and strongest that I’ve ever known.
There weren’t just words in the envelope. Besides several yellow pages violently torn from another notebook, I found four other things. A bit of paper on which was written the Algerian’s telephone number. A cassis-flavored Délice candy. A hotel bill. Two ticket stubs for the film Beau Travail with Claire Denis. Memories? No. More like proof. I truly met this man. I was twenty-seven. He was thirty-six. I was still nothing in Paris. He was everything. God. From the first instant. He danced. I joined him. I danced. He liked me. I liked him. For a year and a half, the world, me and my destiny, were him. Him. Him. Slimane. An Algerian from the south with white skin. A married man who had just left his wife. Father of four daughters. A foundry worker. A sculptor. A poet in his soul. An Arab. More Arab than me. And nuts, open and closed at the same time.
I was living at the time on Rue Oberkampf, with another man, French, Samy. Met in the Paris metro just a few days after my arrival in the capital. Love with him had faded fairly quickly. The end was approaching. Life together no longer had any flavor. We fought all the time, screaming, silently. I left him as soon as I met Slimane. While waiting to find an apartment, the Algerian and I both lived in a hotel, Aviator Hotel, 20, Rue Louis-Blanc. Slimane had a house in Strasbourg where his wife and daughters lived. In Paris, he lived with his brothers. We had nowhere to go. The hotel in the Tenth Arrondissement was for nearly two month our nest, our cage, our own house. Four walls. Eat, make love. Nothing else. Except for looking for an apartment.
We ended up finding one, Rue Clignancourt, Eighteenth Arrondissement. Metro Marcadet-Poissonniers, line four. It was on the sixth floor and it measured eighteen meters square.
That was, each the prisoner of the other, where we loved each other, where we spoke Arabic every day and brushed against insanity.
From the very beginning, we wrote side by side, one for the other, one the story of the other, his past, his characters, his images, his obsessions. We did that, this incredible thing, impossible with others: holding the pen together, moving across the page together, in love and its writing at the same time.
When it was over, in the summer of 2001, before leaving me, Slimane took the two large notebooks in which we had recorded everything, pages and pages of love. He had decided that, since I was the one breaking us up, this “treasure” was his by right, he the great misunderstood lover.
Three months later, I found a letter under my door. The one I now have between my hands. Inside it were these pages. Some of the pages I had written by myself in the diary . . .
Slimane had only given me a few pages of our journal. He had kept the rest for himself, he might have destroyed them. Burned them. Everything we had written together, body against body, hands almost joined, he had taken for himself, stolen for himself. The written memory of our relationship belonged to him from now on. Our book no longer belonged to me either. And this made me very angry. I couldn’t help seeing in Slimane’s act a desire to censor. To remove from this book whatever did not please him. Giving back to me whatever he wanted to give, almost nothing, a few small and thin pages that are, moreover, favorable to him. To exclude me, in a way. No further trace of me written by him. Me written in love by him.
I had been dispossessed. In making these cuts, Slimane had rewritten the lovers’ journal. Denatured love. Given it a different color. Incomplete.
I answered the letter very quickly.
I spent a whole night writing it. A strange letter in which I tried in vain to be logical, dry, cruel, cold. A letter of vengeance that was, in fact, not one. I posted it the next day at seven o’clock in the morning. It was the beginning of spring. It was still nighttime in Paris.
I can’t even call you “Dear Slimane” anymore, I’m so angry. With you. With me. With this injustice you are imposing upon me. With love which no longer has any meaning for me and which, nevertheless, is still there, in the depths of my heart. With this censorship that you allow yourself to exercise in our “Love Journal.” I’m angry because I have the impression of having given everything of myself, my body, but that never satisfied you.
You wanted more. Always more. To know everything about me, about what I was thinking, what I did when you weren’t there. About my heart, which gave itself to you from the first second of our meeting. My body had become your body. But you wanted more and even more. What more? I no longer knew what to give you . . . You demanded that I be there for you, all the time. I was. With pleasure. With love. With devotion, I loved you. I adored you. I left the others, my life, my career in Paris, my projects, for you. I stopped seeing the people who mattered to me. What good are friends when you’re in love? What do the others give you that I can’t give you? And who are these people to whom you’re so attached and that I don’t know? A thousand questions. I answered, I justified myself. A thousand questions repeated thousands of times. Some days, I dared to not answer you. I remember how beside yourself you were . . .
You didn’t believe me. For you, all I did was lie to you, cheat on you, sleep with anything that moved. I was a devil, a demon, that’s what you said, a little demon you were in love with. Crazy in love. “Possessively” in love. Unhealthily in love.
You left your wife and your children for me? I never asked you to. You were already living in Paris without them when I knew you.
Some days you left for work at seven o’clock in the morning as usual and, an hour later, you were already back. “It’s horrible, I can only think of you. You are me. I can’t do anything else . . . except be here with you, in this studio, this bed, in this darkness in the middle of the day.” That happened several times and each time I cried from emotion and rushed to open the bed, put on the sheets, the pillows, the covers and quick, quick, we were undressing and would meet, would press against each other, breathe each other in, sleep, wake up, go back to sleep. Eat almost nothing . . . Do you remember all that? Of course . . . How could you forget those instants of real love, pure love, of love more important and stronger than anything, anything?!
Do you remember the light in my eyes every time you opened the door? You commented on it once, just once. Afterwards, you lived in your own idea of love, your love for me obviously greater than what I felt for you. Your daily entrance into the little apartment was a total upheaval, a reversal of myself. You arrived, you barely smiled, you said, sometimes gently ironically, sometimes darkly: “Labass, Sidi Abdellah?” I watched you and I noticed the changes taking place in the air, the world that was nothing but you. YOU.
I was happy and I was afraid. You were the man, the king. I accepted your authority. I accepted your silences, your reprimands, your drama, your obsessions. You smoked. I would sit on the ground and I would take off your shoes, your socks. I enjoyed doing it, you never forced me to at all . . . How I loved, when it was cold, to wash your feet with hot water in the little red basin we bought together next to the Strasbourg-Saint-Denis metro station. I washed them, I dried them and I kissed them; they were mine.
You were Algerian, Arab like me and you were mine. But I could see that you had doubts, constantly had doubts.
In the beginning, you told me: “Tell me about your stories from before me . . . Your past loves . . .” I told you everything, the boys and the men that had passed through my life, all the details, the slightest details, you wanted to know everything. Later, long afterwards, you returned to these stories and you ordered: “Reject your past. Yes, you heard me right, abjure your other love stories, say that they weren’t worth living . . . Say that you can only envision love with me, and with them it was nothing but pleasure, fun, nothing more . . . Say: Before, I was a whore! Say: Before, I was going astray! Say: Before, I was a slut! Say: Before doesn’t exist . . . does not exist!” You were serious, this wasn’t just some new fit of jealousy. Your eyes were red with hate for this past, for this existence without you. You could not stand the idea of me living and being happy before knowing you. I absolutely knew not to even try to convince you, to make you change the subject. I said: “Before you, I was nothing!” You said: “Also say that you were just a whore!” I said that too. And we made love. While we both cried.
Now, it’s over, over. And I’m the one who made the decision this time. It’s over for us both having to love each other according to your own rules, according to your possessiveness and your neuroses, which I found sweet and interesting at first. It’s over even if love continues to exist between us. That’s how I want it. And I’m sticking to it. It’s over. I’ve had more than enough of being your love. Your object, in a word.
You did with me as you wanted. I became a submissive Arab woman for you. Every day, I had to finish everything I had to do before your return at five in the evening ,and prepare everything for your comfort. The tagine, the mint tea. Clean laundry . . . It’s true, I admit it, I liked doing all that. Wash your dirty clothes, feed you, take care of your body. You didn’t force me. It’s also true that you invested yourself as much as you could in us as a couple.
The exterior world did not exist. I tried to do the same as you for a long time. The feelings that united us were enough for me as well. Our spiritual communion was precious in my eyes. You believed in the same things as me. Saints. Jinns. Sorcery. Superstition. Incense. Jawi, chabba, harmal, fasoukh, you knew what they were. The same that you knew that orange blossom water was essential to my survival. Sometimes I was ill. You took this water, you washed my face and my hands while chanting prayers. It soothed me. You understood that particular state, the hal that took hold of me, and you knew the right gestures and the right words to bring me back to life, to love with you. To the bed close to you.
You did that for me. I let you come inside my body and inside my soul. What other proof of love did you need?
I know that the Arab man is complicated. You were a thousand times more so. I understood you and I did not understand you. I knew that love is a thing that escapes us. I know that love is jealousy. Illness. I read it in books. We verified it together in the Anthology of Arab Poetry which you gave me at the beginning of our relationship. We experienced it for nearly two years. You wanted power. I gave it to you, willingly, without thinking about my future. The future was you and me, together, chest against chest, heart against heart, in the same breath. I renounced my ambition. I renounced the cinema, my greatest love since adolescence. For you, I stopped working out. I took off all the masks, all the masks, in front of you. The social persona which I had started to construct in Hay Salam ceased to exist as soon as you appeared before my eyes. Were you aware of all that, of all these sacrifices? Did you not see that you had made me a prisoner, the female prisoner of Rue de Clignancourt? No, I don’t think so . . . You continued to doubt, to make me submit daily to your interrogations. When next to you, I couldn’t even listen to the phone messages people left for me. And if by some misfortune I did, then I had to spend hours and hours explaining everything, who these people were, when I had met them, if I had slept with them, why I continued to maintain a relationship with them, what they looked like, how they behaved . . . Everything, everything, it had to be told, not forgetting anything . . . It was too much . . . Intolerable . . . Impossible . . .
At the same time I must admit that, even in the midst of hell, a part of me was happy, enjoyed it, this machismo, this dictatorship . . . I would say to myself: “This is love, this is love . . . I’m lucky . . . Just hang in there . . . This is love . . .”
I did as much as I could. I stopped working. I became like a little woman. Your vision of a woman. I became Saad, your childhood friend. I became a sculpture in your hands. A body for you, that lived only for you. An Arab name for you. They butchered it in Paris, but you, you honored this name. I rediscovered it. For two years, only your way of pronouncing it counted. You had the power to make it come alive, Arab like before, like never. At night, in the darkness, we fell asleep calling each other’s names. Slimane. Abdellah. Slimane. Abdellah. Slimane . . . I always won this competition. Sleep most often overcame you before me, you would snore lightly, you let go of my hand, but I, I continued, I prayed . . . Slimane, Slimane, Slimane, Slimane . . . You were there, a body breathing inside of me. I could not see you, I recognized you, I breathed you in. I spoke to you in Arabic. Our own language in which, outlaws, we loved each other.
With you I became Arab once again and at the same time I passed beyond this condition. This skin, this culture and this religion. Sex, in this context, was each time like the first time, a transgression, a meeting in heaven. Sex with you had ceased to be just sex. Every part of you found a place on and in me. Shyly, you spoke the dirty words of Algerian bad boys. Shyly I blushed, I lowered my eyes only to raise them immediately and ask to hear more. They weren’t insults. In my ear, they were poems, in my heart a love poem and in my groin the image of your body, your thick and naked body. You were a zamel. A gay. So was I. We were gay for one another, naturally, without pride, without shame.
You liked to go to the mosque from time to time. You said you liked the gymnastics of prayer, to be in the middle of strangers in prayer, in simple and direct communication with God. As soon as we met, you quit doing it. You no longer dared. Our bond was sacrilege in the eyes of Islam. You couldn’t manage to rid yourself of this feeling. I didn’t try to change your mind. I myself lived in this contradiction. I also needed to believe. I wanted to believe.
We ended up finding a solution. I took you to the Saint-Bernard Church and we watched others pray. Churches weren’t meant for us originally, they represented nothing in our spiritual memory. Nothing tied us to them and yet we returned there several times and in the end found a new spirituality. We invented it together, this religion, this faith, this chapel, this solemn and luminous corner, this time outside of time. This Christianity not far from Barbès.
I digress. I wanted to overwhelm you with reprimands and here I am telling you about the beautiful moments we spent together . . . I digress . . . I must still love you. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t anymore. I’ve suffered. I am suffering. You’re stronger than me, even while absent. I’ve deprived my heart of you and I must learn to live again in solitude. You are in Paris, not far, in a suburb nearby, at the end of the RER B line, I see you, I follow you, you come home, you go out, I detach myself and I attach myself, I close my eyes to push you away and soon to curse you . . . But I don’t dare . . . I don’t dare…
You left me I don’t know how many times. We would fight. I didn’t give up easily. Like my mother, I’m stubborn, commanding, when I want to be. You were sick. Jealousy had become your motor. You always wanted to have the last word. I didn’t always give in easily. You would grab your workman’s lunch bag and you would say: “I don’t love you anymore. I’m leaving. Go, make your life with the others, those other people you love more than me . . .” There was no one else, there was just you, how many times I swore it, shouted it to you. My existence had ended up being summed up by this, screaming, crying, justifying myself. You abandoned me. You left. Ten minutes later, I was running after you in the streets of the Eighteenth Arrondissement. Rue de Clignancourt. Boulevard de Barbès. Rue Doudeauville. Rue . . . And the little bridge. And the little bench. You were there. You were waiting for me. Seated on the little bench. I joined you. And together we watched the trains in the Gare du Nord go by. In silence. The black African immigrants we liked and who we found touching for some reason beyond our understanding spoke for us. Shouted in my place. Intervened with you on my behalf without realizing it. The smile returned to our lips. You returned to reason. Each time, calmly, we stood up, we went to buy some melon, your favorite fruit, and we went back to Rue de Clignancourt to celebrate our assuaged love. Momentarily distant from insanity.
It always ended up reappearing in our life and destroying, little by little, something inside of me. I was crazy too, but much, much less so than you.
You ended up tiring me. Wearing me out. I had no more strength, at the end of a year and a half of intense, possessed love, of repeating the same stories, of being subjected to your authority, of being less than you in love.
You succeeded, over time, in instilling in me the idea that my love was inferior to yours. You were a mystical poem. I was just a little short story by Guy de Maupassant . . . You were grand in love, it’s true. I could see it, I saw it from the very first day. I had to follow you, continually run after you to be even just a little bit at your level. You have no idea how much it cost me. You never recognized my efforts. Never rewarded them. Deep down, you never once had any idea of the amorous solitude you imposed upon me . . . Deep, deep down, you were right; a part of me, a tiny part, resisted you, and I’m sure you knew it well before me and that this is what made you suffer, what made you truly sick and insane.
I could not let my dream of Paris fade away completely. I was in this city to grow, to become an adult. Become someone. A Name. To fulfill my projects for films, for life, carried fervently inside me for a long time, too long. You never understood that. And I too did not understand that this dream was stronger, the strongest. Encountering love in Arabic is an unhoped-for miracle. But I could not speak to you about all that I wanted to do with my life. Of what was beyond me. So I silenced myself. I hid, without realizing it, without meaning to. I did not speak to you. I spoke to Paris.
I confess, I admit it; your love was the most pure. But this sort of love requires an iron constitution, a different kind of insanity which I do not have. I gave. I gave. I am poor beside you who are so rich. I am nothing next to you, fulfilled and assured of your vision. I am small, small, small. You raised me up one moment, but you let me go too many times. After falling so much, my legs no longer walk like before.
I went for a walk somewhere else. You pushed me to it.
I needed to stop. To betray.
It happened in the underground of the Gare de l’Est. He was a baker. The total opposite of you. Blond. Thin. Very young. From Lille. It lasted a quarter of an hour. Fifteen minutes to dirty myself, to regain my old life from before you, to lose myself again, alone. A little, insignificant moment of sex to commit a sin and depart from our religion, to turn my back on Christ and his churches.
I did it. I knew what I was doing. I did with this boy what I never did with you. New moves. New practices. Danger. A great violence. Darkness other than with you.
I went back home. I waited for you. I didn’t prepare anything for dinner. You cooked when you returned from work. We ate. And for the first time I provoked a fight with you. I pushed you to leave me. I knew what to say, I had everything prepared to drive you insane, to leave, to break it off.
I didn’t go after you.
You crossed the streets and the boulevard. Alone. At the beginning of night. Just before sleep.
How many hours did you remain waiting for me on the little bench on our bridge? Did you cry? When did you understand that it was over, that I would not be coming back? Were the Africans nearby, with their music, their dancing?
How many packs of cigarettes did you smoke? And when you ran out, what did you do? Wait and watch the trains going by?
I know you didn’t cry. You never cry. You close yourself up. And I have to come to you, to open you to the world and yourself. That night I didn’t come to take you back. To take you back as you are. To love you despite everything, despite myself.
In the strange darkness of the studio, I waited the whole night. I was shocked. You were never going to be back in this space, in this light, next to me. I had chased you away. I had taken back the power I had given you over me. And I did not know what to do with it. I still don’t know.
Like you, I did not cry.
Like you, I became a man from over there once again. An Arab image of a man. Dry. Proud. Hard. A puppet. Ridiculous.
Like you, for the first time in my life, I smoked. They were your cigarettes. A pack you had once forgotten that I was preciously keeping, well-hidden.
Your cigarettes were strong. My throat hurt. I could no longer breathe. But I smoked them all and I did not open the window to let any air in. I wanted to suffocate. To suffocate us. To place a fog between us. A wall. A prison. A new prison for me alone.
There, in that darkness, in that execution, that voluntary death, I remembered my spirit-possessed sister. I called upon the jinns. They came. I stood up. They entered inside me. And I fell down.
In another state, I had this dream.
I was in Cairo, the only city that we had wanted to visit together one day, and I was finally crying as I told our story to its ruins.
From Une mélancolie arabe. Published by Editions du Seuil, 2008. Copyright 2008 by Abdellah Taïa. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Lydia Beyoud. All rights reserved.
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