Cafés Morts

Maïssa Bey

Illustration by Florinda Pamungkas

Just like the baths, cafés that were run by Arabs and frequented by Arabs during the colonial period were called maures—Moorish cafés.

The first time I heard someone refer to a café maure in front of me, I heard café mort, or dead café. It puzzled me for a long time. I now realize that the explanation I came up with was completely absurd. I thought the expression had something to do with cemeteries—places women visited any time they had the chance, not just to pray over the graves of their dearly departed, but to meet with other women, to buy and sell all kinds of goods they wouldn’t have to declare to their husbands and even—with the greatest discretion—to consult with the fortune-tellers and soothsayers who proliferate our lands.

For a long time, those two places were intimately linked in my mind. Men went to dead cafés and women went to cemeteries, and that was that.

Because, I should add, cemeteries and hammams—or, to use the colonial vocabulary, Moorish baths—were the only public places accessible to women. The frequenting and frequency of visits to the baths were regulated by husbands and fathers. Weekly or bimonthly baths, it all depended on the men’s financial means and/or indulgence, rather than on any hygienic standard. Just like the men in their cafés, women gathered at the baths—often accompanied by a gaggle of their young—to bathe themselves, but even more so, they went to find out what was going on in the rest of the world, by which I mean in their native cities or villages, since what existed beyond that was just a black hole, a far-away space, more indefinite than infinite, and they didn’t even dare consider it. The baths were a place where reputations and marriages were made and unmade, where rumors took wing. There, in the intimacy, the darkness, the steam and the nudity, the most closely guarded family secrets spilled forth.

Most of the time Moorish cafés didn’t have names, unlike the establishments run and frequented by the Roumis. Those places served alcohol and one could—the height of indecency and depravation!—mingle with women. The gleam of Formica and zinc beneath the neon lights, bottles aligned just so, polished wooden bars, cleanliness guaranteed—that went without saying. Those cafés had signs: Café de la place, Café du commerce, or Bistrot de la gare. As for the other cafés, unassuming little places filled with bric-a-brac, barely furnished and far from the city’s main arteries, their clientele referred to them by their proprietors’ names. They’d stop by Hassen’s place or go to Kouider’s or—for the most modern—swing by Momo’s.

Going to the café or the baths means catching up on the news, taking the temperature of the world. Informing yourself so you might inform others. At the time, radios were a luxury only the privileged few could afford. I won’t even mention televisions, those rare and rather troubling devices that no one even dared to imagine possessing, so solidly had it been established that the men and women who moved across the screen could actually see their audience, could—o! the sacrilege—peer out at women in the privacy of their own homes.

In any case, Moorish cafés weren’t a part of my life. They still aren’t. Because, even though much has changed, even though women now walk more or less freely down the streets, even though they go to beauty salons, tea shops and restaurants—or, at least, certain restaurants in certain cities—even though they fill out their own paperwork at city halls, even though they go to the market every afternoon, even though they can work, drive, travel, speak in public and even run in elections, there is still one space that remains exclusively and staunchly male: the Moorish café. It’s common knowledge, recognized by all. No need to post signs on the doors like they used to, during the colonial days, when certain beaches, certain bars and certain restaurants were explicitly forbidden to dogs and to Arabs.

The memory of the first café I ever entered, in spite of myself, is linked to the violent pain of an encounter with an electric pole, an encounter as sudden as it was fortuitous. It left me with a large lump on my forehead and enough of a dizzy spell that someone carried me into a nearby café and pressed a damp cloth against my aching head—although it didn’t prevent me from developing a bruise that would last for several days. Nor did it prevent my mother from slapping me, on the one hand for having allowed myself to be taken into the aforementioned café and, on the other, for not having refused a little—such a very little—glass of black coffee one of the customers offered me to help me back to my senses.

I should add that I was twelve years old, and my breasts were beginning to swell resolutely beneath my dresses. From my family’s point of view, insofar as the ideal measurements of a marriageable young lady were concerned—and keep in mind that an average-sized young person (and even a not-so-young-anymore person) back then wasn’t up to today’s standards—I was already over-developed for my age. It’s also true that, from the very outset, it was all my fault anyway. I’d been vying for the attention of one of my brother’s friends, the mere sight of whom was enough to provoke an uncontrollable feverishness in me that I wasn’t yet able to name, and I hadn’t seen the pole. I can’t remember the friend’s name. But each time I touch the slight bump that still rises from my forehead, I see his eyes. The blue eyes of a boy from a nearby village, which, in an episode from its precolonial history, had welcomed a boatload of Frenchmen after their ship, the Banel, had run aground during stormy weather.

Perhaps this explains why I consider my first eruption—involuntary, of course—into this other, forbidden universe as inconclusive. What’s more, I was too dazed to have the wherewithal to take in my surrounding, to fill myself with its scent, to uncover the mystery that made that place an exclusive lair for the male sex. I only remember the naked light bulb above my head that gave off such feeble light it seemed like we were underground. The taste of the coffee they served me? Nothing special. But it was the first time I had ever drunk black coffee, a beverage strictly reserved for adults, much like we kids were forbidden from eating lambs’ lower brains without ever knowing why.

Curiously, the taste of another occasion’s coffee suddenly fills my mouth. A taste bound up in the memory of a trip I took a few months later, just my uncle and me. I can still see the little café very clearly; it was at the base of a hill we’d stopped beside after having driven more than half our route in the sweltering July heat.

First, there was the delight of a day like no other: after long negotiations, I’d been chosen out of all the rest (the innumerable cousins who fought for the favors of a very generous uncle) to accompany him from Algiers to Ténès where he had to pick up his mother—my grandmother. I’ll skip over the indescribable joy of climbing into the car beside him, ignoring the sea of envious faces pressed against the window, and rolling it up ever so slowly, just to rub it in. His choice had probably been influenced by the fact that I tolerated road trips well, unlike my cousins who lapsed into quasi-comatose states with the first bend in the road. Too bad for them!

There were plenty of bends, the whole length of our route. A narrow and rarely used road that overlooked the sea, with dizzying drops. Beaches, too, kilometers and kilometers of beaches, most of them deserted and wild because they were so difficult to reach. Sometimes there were shacks atop the cliffs, scattered across the inlets that festooned the coast; they served as refuges for fishermen surprised by nightfall or a squall.

Beni Haoua, that was the name of the little village where my uncle decided to stop, having been stricken by the sun and the drowsiness that was creeping over him, even despite his best efforts to reply to the barrage of highly pertinent questions I’d been peppering him with in hopes that he’d find me interesting. A village split down its center by a regional road and made up of a handful of miserable-looking houses clinging to the hillside.

And there, just a few meters from the road, a crude little shack: four stone walls, a corrugated metal roof, a door. That was all. A few trees, too, whose leaves drooped toward the ground as if to add to the starkness of the surroundings.

The presence of a café was evoked only by a couple of wooden benches arranged in front of the shack; I wondered how they managed to stay upright on the sloping ground. No tables, no chairs. Men perched on the benches in what seemed to be a very precarious equilibrium and gazed out onto the road. Mostly old men, surrounded by some bare-footed and bare-buttocked boys who were standing very still, also apparently fascinated by the road.

In this type of situation, even today when traveling as a family, the men will get out of the car, order drinks, and bring them back to the women, who must not budge, not even to stretch their legs. They realize that women get hungry and thirsty, but not that it might be difficult for them to remain still for hours and hours, unless—of course—it becomes really urgent, in which case, the whole family has to drive in search of a completely isolated spot sheltered from all eyes. It can take hours, sometimes even longer.

It wasn’t my first road trip, and the misadventure recounted earlier taught me a lesson. I sat quietly in the front seat, waiting for my uncle to serve me. And it wasn’t until he specifically ordered me to get out that I obeyed and followed him. In his eyes, I was still a child; he obviously didn’t see things the way my mother did.

Was it our presence? My presence? I thought so right away. Total silence welcomed us. A silence broken only by the hiss of a flame emerging from a gas burner and the intermittent rumbling of car engines that passed without stopping. My uncle, a cheerful man in all circumstances, offered a round of Es-salam alleikoums, to which a couple of the men responded with a nod or a mutter. Then nothing. A man sitting on a stool by the burner adjusted the flame under the coffee pot, plucked two little glasses from a red plastic basin beside him and, without asking us anything, filled them with coffee. A hirsute young man suddenly appeared, seized the glasses and brought them to us as we searched for a bench that wasn’t too rickety—and that faced the road, of course.

No one spoke and no one moved. Only the kids drew closer to us with imperceptible, tiny steps. The men wouldn’t look at us, or at least they weren’t looking at us anymore. We were sitting beside them and they still had their eyes glued on the road, waiting for a car to pass; they’d watch it vanish around the next bend. Ossified by the wait, by the immutability of a life outside time.

But maybe they had nothing to say. Nothing to reflect upon. Maybe the metallic engines that passed through their village and punctuated their lives were the only things capable of capturing their attention. Maybe they were keeping watch for a wind that would bring dreams in its wake, the dreams they didn’t dare dream but that, nonetheless, animated the hours spent sipping coffee, the taste of which they probably no longer even noticed.

The coffee I drank to the dregs was very strong, very sweet and strangely spicy. I’ve never managed to find that taste anywhere else.

translated from the French by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg