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First day at military school

By Geoff Wisner

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, who was born in 1955 in the Algerian desert town of Kenadsa. His novels The Swallows of Kabul (2006) and The Attack (2008) were each shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

As an officer in the Algerian army, Moulessehoul published fiction under the female name Yasmina Khadra (“green jasmine”) to avoid military censorship. In 2000, he left the army and relocated in France, where in 2001 he revealed his identity. The Writer (L’Écrivain) was published the same year, but has not yet been translated in full.

For my anthology African Lives, I asked Alexis Pernsteiner and Antoine Bargel to translate the chapter in which young Mohammed's father takes him and his cousin to the military school of El Mechouar in the town of Tlemcen.

A year before, my father had taken us to a spa in Bouhanifia, a few kilometers from Mascara. In the mornings, I would go down to the river and watch the swimming vacationers. Like young gods, they would stand erect on a rock, unleash battle cries, and jump. I was fascinated by the incredible dives they would improvise, each according to the diver’s own boldness. One night while I was daydreaming on the deserted riverbank, a man came up to me. He must have been thirty or so, and seemed nice and full of goodwill. He pointed to a tree hanging over the wadi and invited me to show him what I was made of. I told him that I didn’t know how to swim. He promised to watch over me and said nothing would happen to me. He was so insistent that I ended up climbing the tree. The miry, lapping water was three meters below and terrified me, but the stranger’s kind smile won out. I closed my eyes and jumped. After a few desperate flails, and seeing nothing on the horizon, I started to panic. The man was still squatting on the bank, his arms wrapped around his knees; he smiled as he watched me drown. I’ll never forget the calm of his face, the amusement in his eyes at my despair. As my cries grew in distress so did his smile. I now realized that he would not come to my aid. The water started to close in on me, to suck me into a dizzying whirlpool. Right as I was about to go under, the man got up and walked back up the hill, as though nothing were happening. My cousin Homaïna happened to be passing by and heard my cries for help. He had just enough time to grab my hand.

That day at cadet school, as the night spread out its black blanket above me, I was reminded of the wadi sucking me down and of the vastness of my solitude. Once more I was gripped with panic; I felt as though I were sinking, as though I were dying….

A soldier sounded a bugle call for lights-out. Each note struck through me like a deathblow.

Published Oct 23, 2012   Copyright 2012 Geoff Wisner

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