In this excerpt from a novel by Algeria's Mohamed Magani, folk tales foreshadow a family's sorrow.
In the middle of an interior facade sunken in abiding shadow hung a water-swollen goatskin lashed to an iron rod. It wept lazy droplets into a broad, flat-edged metal saucer. Safe from prying eyes, stray cats and dogs, birds, rats, parched snakes and scorpions came by turns to slake their thirst at this ganglion that with the start of high summer became an unstinting wellspring through the attentions of Sefwane’s father, who saw to it daily that all God’s creatures, whether locals or just passing through by, drank their fill. Never, said Sefwane, had a member of his family been bitten or stung. His father died, mourned by his mule, which refused its fodder and passed away shortly thereafter. Sefwane swore he’d seen tears fall from the animal’s eyes.
One month before his daughter was to wed, Sefwane, who never spoke of things that had been, shared this scrap of the past with her. The memory had suddenly risen up from the depths of his own tender childhood years.
The daughter was touched by her grandfather’s humanity. Sefwane continued to rattle off memories from his childhood, noticing that they soothed her, procured her moments of respite from the apprehensions and uncertainties of her imminent new life. Having exhausted his personal memories, he moved on to tales and legends heard from grandparents, parents, grownups from the greater family. The days flew by; but a dozen and his daughter would be wed; she was showing signs of anxiety. Sefwane thought then of all those contemporary fables picked up here and here, at a café among friends or strangers who claimed to have heard them from the horse’s mouth. Subjects of frequent discussion, familiar at the end of the blood-soaked ‘90s, such contemporary stories, would-be fairy tales, spread through society like a final balm on the wounds of a dark decade. He began with the following fable:
In a hamlet perched on a plateau, a man and a woman lived in poverty. A thatch-roofed hut with walls of mud provided their only shelter, and a donkey their only keep. The man used the animal to transport goods and earn money. All they had in the world was this means of subsistence. One evening in April, three men armed to the teeth came, kicked in his door, and ordered him outside. He rushed to obey, falling before them with fear in his belly and panic in his eye. He knew nothing good could come, night or day, of such unexpected guests, who left slaughter, terror, and misery in their wake. But he was soon reassured: they wished him no harm and required no payment of any kind. They simply wanted his donkey. He surrendered it to them, along with the saddlebags, into which his visitors stuffed six big black plastic bags and then vanished into the darkness that now covered the land. Mute with fear, and without the slightest hint of curiosity, the man hastened to hide himself away in his hut. Once he had told his wife what happened, she asked him many questions about what was in the bags. The only description the man could supply was of their size and the strings that tied them tight. He never saw the three men again; they had disappeared for good. But the next day, the donkey found its way home in the hours before dawn, wandering through an untended wheatfield amid a riot of spring wildflowers, still laden with saddlebags and plastic bags alike as its owner looked on, dumbfounded.
The contents of these plastic bags proved, for the man and the woman, a source of profound stupefaction mingled with joy and fear. Bundles of a thousand dinars cascaded from the upended bags. The man and the woman had the presence of mind to bury the spoils in a hole inside their shabby hut, and soon forgot all about the source of their windfall. Now that safety had returned to their lives, those lives turned upside down. They built a big house and bought the surrounding land. As for the donkey, it was treated to a luxurious barn equipped with such amenities as heating and air conditioning. After all, it had slaved away for them as both ox and donkey.
All the fairy tales of the civil war, with or without the contribution of a donkey, prominently featured the spontaneous enrichment of simple folk after a series of singular events. Armed men would show up at someone’s house—usually someone retiring, honest, and unassuming—pass on trash bags full of jewels and banknotes, the gains of extortion and plunder in God’s name, and order that someone to keep the bags until they returned on a day yet to be determined. Many times, the bags’ owners never returned from the war, slain or fallen in an ambush or a skirmish with security forces. The safekeepers never saw them again. They kept quiet about the spoils in their possession, resorting to them when the just exercise of their patience seemed to them to have reached its reasonable limit. Beneficiaries of manna fallen from heaven, they went on to enjoy the affluent lives made possible by the money and jewels.
Rumor named them. Sefwane cited these names to his daughter, and she was surprised to hear among them those of three families she knew—families of friends, even—but at the same time, she was indignant to discover that these families owed their fortunes to men with bags and ropes, men who were, moreover, true believers with lethal convictions about the uncrossable line between good and evil. Her father nodded. She told him she was happy to belong to a family that led a comfortable life free of suspicion of theft or dishonesty. Sefwane nodded again, his face awash in utter agreement. He did not neglect to reassure his daughter about her immediate future: she was about to join an honorable family, safe from want, well-to-do long before the advent of the civil war and its fables. Her future held exhilarating possibilities.
His daughter Yesma could dream of everything a girl of eighteen springs might dream of. Mainly, a husband just one year older, accommodating and open to her plans for the future. With his approval, she had chosen the school of life first, and would be free to resume her studies in biology whenever she wished. One subject impassioned her above all else: the preservation of the Saharan bee, a species threatened by the introduction of the Tunisian bee into its natural habitat. Astonishing creature, the Saharan bee! They could travel up to six miles in search of red date trees whereas Tunisian bees had a range of barely two. Yesma, a jujube tree unto herself, would need no easy money; in her future awaited no laden donkey, bearer of a treasure from the civil war’s most wondrous fairy tale. Her father approved of her resolve and told her the very last from the series of fables of troubled times, the one that brought them to an end, stripped them of all wonder, and called down the intervention of powers far greater than man. The wife of a wealthy informer who had gone underground due to his faith and then resurfaced filthy rich, a convert to commercialism tinged with religion, asked her husband to reserve a Turkish bath for just the two of them. Money opens all doors, and closes them too. Once they were naked in the steam room, she asked him for two hundred dinars, to be handed over at once. Obviously, he could not comply, and told her he didn’t have his jacket at hand. His wife insistently demanded the sum from her flabbergasted husband. Finally she said, “When Judgment Day comes, this is how you will appear before God. You will have nothing on you, nothing.” With these words, Sefwane concluded the tales of the cycle of terror and wealth joined by a reminder of divine justice. He had then turned that day to an album of family photos and begun to leaf through it with Yesma by his side. From one snapshot to the next, they noticed details amusing and unusual, recalling their context, and then Yesma’s finger came to rest on a photo in which she appeared, a faint smile floating on her face. Pensive yet serene, her penetrating gaze was fixed on a point beyond the camera’s lens, some imperceptible thing. She tapped the photo and said, “When I am dead, this is the photo of me I want you to keep.”
He had no time to react, or even grasp the meaning of his daughter’s words. Yesma’s two faithful friends had just arrived, at the same hour as the previous evening, and the evenings before that, since the school year started. They had begun studying biology and were no doubt reporting to Yesma the salient facts of their new experience as students. Sefwane would hear the three young women laughing, and no one in the house dared disturb them or interfere with their time together except to bring them fruit and cakes. As he carefully pried the photo of his daughter loose from the album, he noted, that night, a rare silence from her room. It lasted for a good forty-five minutes. His ear barely made out the murmur of hushed voices. At last, the two visitors reappeared and headed for the exit, silent and serious, in something of a hurry to leave. Yesma remained in her room. Sefwane fell in step behind her two friends. He had pocketed the photo and intended to have it enlarged and framed so he could find a fitting place for it in the living room or hang it in the hallway. He would also have it shrunk to a wallet-sized print he could carry around with him.
He came back from the photographer’s to find Yesma hadn’t left her room. He knocked on the door and heard his daughter almost scream: I want to be alone! Uncertain, he waited outside the door until his wife waved him over to join her in the kitchen. She didn’t understand, she told him. Yesma refused to see anyone. And that must certainly have had something to do with the visit from her two friends. Nor would she let her two brothers into her room. Sefwane gathered his family for a summit: under no circumstances was his daughter to be disturbed. It was just under a week till the ceremony, and no word could be allowed to leak out about abnormal behavior from a girl about to be married.
Two days later, his daughter’s friends returned, spent less than half an hour in her room, then took their leave with the same haste, their faces suffused with a somber gravity. Yesma persisted in her isolation as if overcome by a sudden desire to dissociate herself from her own family. She avoided all contact and would not open her door to anyone, refusing to eat or change clothes. With the certainty of the marriage up in the air and incomprehension increasing, anxiety crept through the household, obliterating all signs, expressions, and indications of preparations for an imminent celebration. A palpable unease set in among the occupants and neighbors come to help them and share in their joy. The two friends came back one last time. The girls disappeared behind closed doors even longer than ever before. Shortly after they left, Sefwane came home, his daughter’s gift-wrapped portrait under one arm and a smaller photo of her in his wallet. His wife stopped him short in his rush to show Yesma the framed photo. She steered him to their bedroom, shut the door behind them, and brought him up to date on the latest developments concerning Yesma’s marriage. Her face wan with pain, she did her best to speak calmly. His legs cut right out from under him, Sefwane dropped to the bed, on the verge of passing out. He took his head in his hands, as if to howl.
“The wedding will not take place—not in a week, or ever,” his wife said. The pronouncement of catastrophe, true or false, came from her daughter’s close friends. Yesma’s former husband-to-be had made the irrevocable resolution not to get married, without giving any explanation. He had first announced the news to their two mutual friends, the biology students who often visited Yesma. Tasked with conveying his decision, they had first tried to change his mind, make him aware of the pain she would suffer, her and her family. The last three times they’d been to see him, they’d been messengers involved in a situation already settled to one party, so utterly did the young man dismiss all possibility of going back on his decision. Sefwane recovered his wits and then calmly went over the facts as if to convince someone else, an incredulous onlooker. His wife repeated what his daughter’s friends had said. She had intercepted them when they came out of the room and begged them to tell her why Yesma had locked herself away and would not speak to anyone but them. They had the hardest time in the world revealing the brutal truth to her—the cancellation of the marriage—without being able to explain.
The parents left their bedroom and headed straight for their daughter’s. They found her sitting on the floor, curled up in the corner to the left of the door. Her face exuded despair. She was a shadow of herself, the light gone out of her eyes. She was a ghost of herself, in a loose white dressing gown that hung from her like a shroud. Sefwane and his wife helped her to her feet and laid her down on the bed. “We know,” he said. Yesma burst into sobs. “Every time a door closes,” her mother said. “You can go back to your studies. You have all the time in the world to get married.” “It’s too late for this year,” Yesma said. “More than a trimester has already gone by.” Her two brothers came running and learned at once of the unhappy reversal that had just befallen the family. Sefwane wanted to know if anything, a quarrel, some event, a misunderstanding, a mistake, had set the fiancés against each other. “Nothing, nothing at all,” his daughter maintained. A heavy silence immured all present in embarrassment; they wished to speak of their distress, their grief. The father forced himself to remain quiet, although he was tempted to voice his doubts as to the cancellation of the marriage since the boy’s family had announced nothing of the sort.
The next day, in the hour after breakfast, he received confirmation of the boy’s unthinkable about-face from his father, who called him on the telephone and melted into a thousand apologies and pleas: he didn’t know what his son was thinking, to have become fiercely hostile to the idea of marriage overnight. He then asked after the fate reserved for the groom’s dowry and launched straight into insisting on the jewels being returned. Sefwane hung up that very instant and let out an oath; he no longer wanted anything to do with that man or his family. The jewels will pay for the humiliation we have suffered, he thought. Pleas to recover the jewels and take back the dowry ran smack into Sefwane’s disdain and inflexibility but above all those of his wife. He had trouble accepting the other father’s powerlessness to influence his son and force him to wed. A “respectable family,” the former future husband readying to take the reins of his father’s business. Sefwane’s daughter and their son had been seeing each other since high school; everyone knew about their discreet relationship and considered them already husband and wife. This breakup on the eve of marriage, even were it their son’s doing, could not have come from him alone without injunction or consent from the head of the family, or at his instigation.
The why of the cancellation had yet to be determined. Sefwane went over the criticism the boy’s father might have had of him. The two men knew and liked each other, had coffee together now and then, discussing business and supporting each other when needed, in one way or another. The union of the two families grew clearer, stronger, with their every encounter. When asked to intervene, Sefwane had activated his network of acquaintances. When called upon to give his opinion and arbitrate, he had always sided with his friend without failing to enumerate his wrongdoings in private. What of his family, then? What fault could be found with them? Sefwane opened up to his wife, who told him to forget the whole thing and think of his children’s future. He could not bring himself to accept the facts and locked himself up at home, brooding over the dire fate that had struck his family. When he was not with his daughter, trying to cheer her up, he spent most of his time in his room, pretending to be engrossed in the pile of newspapers one son or another had brought him.
Leaning over the pages, he remembered that he had once taught drawing in elementary school, felt pleasure in guiding those little hands. It hadn’t been so long ago. He recalled his colleagues: some of them had given up teaching when the village school had gone up in smoke. Others had stuck to it and conducted class in impromptu shacks. He appreciated their company in a small town that communicated so little with the outside world, deprived of meeting places apart from two cafés. They had confided their dreams to one another, his own consisting of sliding into pigeon keeping, raising messenger birds atop the mountain that overlooked the village. Within his family, his daughter Yesma had a soft spot for Saharan bees. Two decades earlier, he had nurtured the ambition of ushering his village out of isolation with pigeons. Deep down in their hearts, father and daughter alike had kept the hope alive of serving a cause without asking anything in return.
In an initial display of social withdrawal, Sefwane spent his days cloistered at home. The humiliation, silence from family members, the prying eyes of neighbors come to ask after them—these formed a conspiracy that forced him to shut himself away. It permeated the air and water in the house. In the evening, he stepped out for an hour or two into a capital city where the absence of nightlife was perfectly suited to his soul tormented by his daughter’s misfortune. Seeing to his affairs came to a brusque halt: he no longer had the heart to host festivities in the banquet hall he owned. After a dozen or so difficult days, he informed his family of his next trip to his home village. A simple inspection of the first house they had had as a family, where Yesma and their first boy had been born. He also planned to do a few small repairs as needed, make it look less like a place that had been abandoned, keep rust from devouring the locks. The night before he left, he spoke day and night with Yesma, doing his utmost to convince her to come with him. For a long time she remained undecided, then announced her desire to stay in Algiers and think about other life paths. Sefwane took these words as evidence of a positive attitude and refrained from insisting further.
Setting to work as soon as he arrived, he tackled housekeeping by dusting and cleaning all surfaces, horizontal and vertical, with soapy water, rags, a broom, and a sponge. Next he polished all the furniture until it shone. At four in the afternoon, he sat down in an armchair and beheld the fruit of his labors over the last three hours, what he’d accomplished in one fell swoop. The house was only a single story—so much the better, thought Sefwane. He wouldn’t have had the strength to go on had there been another floor, as was the case with most of the new houses in this village and beyond: they all had upper levels and garages pressed into service as places of business. His house would lose neither its traditional charm nor the features his family had known. He plugged in the TV and allowed himself a little nap; for years now, a barely visible screen and murmuring sound had exerted a restful influence upon him. He waited until night had fallen to go out and wondered when he would be able to shed this recent habit. On previous trips back, it had been his custom to meet up with a circle of childhood friends—teachers, municipal and postal employees—after cleaning the house from top to bottom. This time, crippling indecision led him to delay seeing them.
Darkness smoothed the final pallor of day. Sefwane avoided familiar streets and walked, the despondency he’d left behind in Algiers dominating his thoughts. But how else could it be? The issue of the canceled marriage sprang forth from walls and ceiling. That was how it would be for a while to come, he feared; his daughter’s ordeal had tarnished the splendid prospects she had quite innocently believed in. Something in Sefwane rebelled: “Yesma is young, less than twenty springs! All she has to do is move to a new neighborhood in Algiers and she’ll find her footing again. Every family member has to pitch in: together, they’ll create joy and the desire for happiness around her. The total eclipse of hope in her life was but a passing thing. She would gain confidence, and time would play its part as a great healer.” For a moment his chest swelled with a surge of hope, and he began to hum as he walked down the deserted street. “S'hab el baroud,” a celebratory song that loudspeakers played in wedding venues, that his daughter and her friends had danced to when they took part in the festivities. The song dwindled as he neared a grocery, no doubt the only one still open. Sefwane wanted cheese and some yogurt. To his great surprise, he ran into an old acquaintance inside. The two men emerged from the store rattling off memories from youth and young manhood as they walked. Then his friend from the village informed him of the arrival of a stranger of a certain age who had been discreetly asking questions about him two weeks or so ago. Sefwane showed outward surprise, surmising his identity right away: the father of his daughter’s ex-fiancé, or else his envoy, sent with a specific task.
The would-be in-laws owed it to themselves to conduct a prenuptial investigation of his hometown, birthplace of himself and his parents, a classic approach aimed at avoiding any unpleasant surprises and ensuring the good reputation of the other party in the new joining of families. Sefwane, however, had eschewed this preliminary step, for his first and final impression of his son-in-law’s father had sufficed to forge a favorable opinion. The second thing he had been told that night in the village where he was born plunged him into restive perplexity, like a troubled and unsettled slumber.
According to the former acquaintance he’d run into at the grocery, a second wave of fables from the civil war, less fecund in wonder, had spread after the stranger’s appearance. Rumor had it that beneficiaries of manna fallen from the sky who refused to return the spoils were paying with their lives. There were three such in the village already, and all awaited the next. In Sefwane’s case, people wondered where he had gotten the money to open up a banquet hall in Algiers. Sefwane reiterated the unimpeachable source of his funds without going into details well-known to friends, neighbors, and everyone, he thought. The revelations broke off; the man he’d met at the grocery checked his watch and took his leave, in a hurry to return home. Sefwane continued on his way, convinced he wouldn’t run into anyone else he knew because everyone tended to head home early. As in the capital, towns and villages across the land had a sort of self-imposed mental curfew, and only when such a barrier was crossed would the page indeed be turned on the dark decade. He pushed on to the edge of the village while, as it had been doing for years, an artificial fog formed and spread, born of dust from the many aggregate quarries along the vast dorsal flank of the mountain, so very close by.
All around him, the shapes of things became fluid, unreal, uncertain. Sefwane reached the final buildings, well beyond the former public dump dug into a deep crater, once a reservoir of quenching water for humans and animals. He returned to the very spot where, in the shadow of a wall one night in the year 2000, he had glimpsed a dark mass advancing behind a moving shadow. He saw the scene again now like something from a film noir. The absolute secret enclosed in the final, impenetrable folds of his existence had just been born.
From Un Etrange Chagrin. © 2021 by Mohamed Magani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.