Thos Zimigrins from Bakinthir

Mohamed Kacimi

Illustration by Naï Zakharia



“Dos, dosse.”

“Quat, quat-bla.”





That’s the strange language of dominoes spoken summer and winter in the cafés of Bou Saada, a city on the High Plateau. Colonial mystique endowed it with the most affectionate of names: Bou Saada, the City of Happiness, the famous Herrero Mill, the palm groves, and the Transatlantic Hotel lost in the sand and adorned with an immense cypress tree that they’d drape with garlands at Christmastime while the department stores at the Rose Blanche lined their window displays with a multitude of little cotton balls in hopes of convincing us that it was snowing on December 24, 1969, even though it’s ninety degrees in the shade.

Bou Saada, the Gateway to the Desert, it’s the famous Bousaadis, too, those sharp knives whose handles are made from the horns of goats or gazelles, the dance of the Ouled Naïls, and alas, since there’s always a dark shadow, it’s Etienne Dinet’s canvases, a kitschy painter from the boonies who ended up going off the deep end of Islam and bequeathing his remains and his work—which I consider as an offense against the desert and an insult to the light—to the city.

Bou Saada, the Pearl of the Oases, the city that enraptured Maupassant and Gide, Eberhardt and Louis Bertrand, is made up of a multitude of cafés.


The old town’s main café is called Café Oum Kalthoum and is filled with belote aficionados, rummy buffs, and poker-lovers who, from eight in the morning until ten at night, play cards, drink strawberry milk when they’re in the money or coffee when they’re not, and listen to the same Oum Kalthoum album on repeat, Inta Oumri, You Are My Life. The customers, never raising their eyes from their hands, sing the chorus about the Egyptian pyramids in unison at the top of their lungs, punctuating it with a couple of “cut the deck!s” and their thundering “I’m in! I’m in!s” before returning to the song: 

“Khalini ganbak khalini

Fi houdhni albal khaliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinni”

Keep me by your side, keep meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Keep me by your side, keep meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Around the corner, there’s the Café du beauséjour, where the anti-Oums gather—in other words, the devotees of Farid al Atrache, the romantic Egypto-Druze Prince of Tearful Love Ballads. Here, too, it’s just one album, but now it’s actually just a single song—an hour-long song—that’s been spinning since before time. Or maybe just since the Year of the Dog Race. That enigmatic expression, Bousaadi for “ages ago,” refers to the 1920s, back when a local military boss decided to organize a dog race in the city to mock the warlike ardor provoked by the horsemanship of the Fantasia. A colonial atrocity the Arabs aren’t ready to forget.

Downtown, it’s the Hôtel Transat and its vast swimming pool, its luxurious gardens, its Moorish-style décor, and the pop concerts given by a local group, the Swingers. Every Saturday night, it’s another Woodstock for the hippies of the Bou Saadaian metropolitan area—bell-bottoms, floral-print shirts, shades, long curling hair, thick Ringo Starr moustaches, wide belts, everyone singing in the local accent: Oubladi, oublada, oubla di oublada wa, lalalala.

Just across from the Transat’s gardens, in the middle of Ramlaya Square, there was the Café des nattes, which had nothing to do with the one in Sidi Bou Said on the Tunisian coast. It was situated between a kiosk owned by Si Ahmed-Spirou, the bookseller—a title bestowed upon him because he sold comics—and a shop that belonged to the city’s sole Tunisian émigré, plyer of the sole trade permitted to Tunisian émigrés in Algeria: donut seller. There was no music in that café, no belote, no longhairs, just woven rugs and low wooden tables around which groups of four repeated all day long:

“Dosse, dosse, one time, dosse doubli, I’m out. Hands up.”

And when, as children, we’d approach the tables to follow the game with our eyes, the men would hurl strange curse words at us in gawriya—in French that is—berating us:






That’s where the city’s émigrés gathered. They arrived each summer, in caravans of Peugeot station wagons, overloaded like they are—on top, inside, and underneath. The dashboards were window displays overflowing with loose goods: golden-haired wigs, plastic puppies whose heads shook over every speedbump, compasses, thermometers, magnetic frames clinging to the glove box, the rear windows occasionally lined with heavy red velvet curtains to hide the women from passersby.

We could pick out the émigrés, or Zimigrins as we ironically dubbed them, from afar thanks to their license plate, 38 for Isère. Their motto was “Isiri saves us from misiri,” Isère saves us from misery. (The majority of the city’s émigrés worked in that region.) Out of a sense of patriotism, they’d all stick one of those black Fs on a white background to their bumper. The Algerians claimed the immigrants bought the stickers especially for the occasion because they thought it meant “Facances.”

I must admit that we didn’t like the Zimigrins much. They themselves didn’t make any effort to be likeable. The morning after their arrival—they always came in August—they’d get together at Bou Saada Square. After installing themselves at an empty table on the Café des nattes terrace, they’d exhibit before our very eyes everything and anything that might tempt us, the inmates of Socialist Algeria. At the time—I mean during the seventies, during the era of Ubumédianism—to leave the “national territory,” you needed a special authorization that was in theory only granted to people who were seeking urgent medical attention in France. Those rare tourists were allotted by law no more than one hundred francs in currency for the entire duration of their trip, even if it lasted ten years. As for the official parading of the nation, I believe that Marxo-Leninist Albania had nothing on us.

I remember one year when the FLN launched the rallying cry: The Revolution must elevate the cultural development of the masses. The next day, the shelves in every state-run shop and every souk-el-fellah were buckling under the weight of unabridged editions of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, purchased from Soviet comrades. And the poor herders, sharecroppers, and peasants who’d come down from villages like Aïn Qrab, M’sila, Aïn Dis, and Dar Chioukh, after having searched in vain for tomatoes or potatoes, returned home with piles of symphonies on vinyl, wondering why the Revolution would feed them hard, thin loaves of licorice root.

Of course, there wasn’t a single record player on the market anywhere in the whole country, because they’d been deemed an abominable aftereffect of colonization—the nostalgic and wistful might have used them to listen to “Ya Mustapha,” which had been prohibited from the radio waves, or to spread the epidemic of long hairs overtaking the nation, they’d translated “hippie” into classical Arabic, khanafis, cockroaches. The Bou Saada police were known to stick wads of chewing gum in the hair of beatniks from good families and tar on the mangy skulls of the proletarians’ offspring.

But let’s get back to the Zimigrins. Once they’d taken their places on the café’s terrace, they’d exhibit their inventory of “French riches” for the benefit of the whole city: they’d open huge plastic bags from Darty—a sure sign that they’d bought a Moulinex mixer, the “Pigeot of household appliances”—to uncover an assortment of goods: red and gold packs of Dunhill cigarettes, little bars of “Fa” chlorophyll soap, back issues of Paris Match, bottles of Coca-Cola, disposable lighters advertising various retail stores, bottles of Saint-Michel eau de cologne, tattered copies of Dauphiné with color illustrations (what a miracle in comparison to the “Pravda-for-the-illiterate” that was El Moudjahid), Nuts bars, quartz crystal watches with black bands that would light up at the touch of a button, chain bracelets in silver and gold with the names of their innumerable mistresses—Carole, Suzie, Dominique, Patricia—bars of “Lux” soap whose wrappers were decorated with the bust of a bare-shouldered blonde who’d impassioned whole generations from the Hoggar all the way to the Djuradjura Mountains, little Radiola or Philips receivers, the “Pigeot of radios,” which were, they assured us, so sophisticated that they picked up the news long before any other radio receiver.

As soon as the performance of their “homecoming” was over, the Zimigrins would hike up their white gandouras to reveal their Marcels and their blue Coq Sportif shorts, all the while dabbing at their foreheads with mentholated Kleenex tissues and muttering:

“Gadam, iss unbilifabil, the hite inis shitty kontri.”

God damn, it’s unbelievable, the heat in this shitty country.

Then they’d tell us all about the marvelous country they called Bakinthir, back in there, in France:

“Bakinthir, yu haf the binani, yu haf camimbert, yu haf bloujeans, yu haf rikord blayers, yu haf the railwiys, yu haf eferythin, aksep yur baba and yur mamyn.

Over there back home, you have bananas, you have camembert, you have blue jeans, you have record players, you have railways, you have everything, except your father and your mother.

And the ones who were really feeling their oats would add:

“Bakinthir, yu skriw braktikli all the time, yu skriw the Spinis, yu skriw the Ataliyan, yu skriw the Portugis, yu skriw the Dutsh, yu skriw braktikli efirithin, aksep yur baba and yur mamyn.”

Back in there, you screw practically all the time, you screw the Spanish, you screw Italians, you screw the Portuguese, you screw the Dutch, you screw practically everything, except your father and your mother.

The Zimigrins’ good humor didn’t last long. Within a week of their arrival, they’d already start feeling homesick. So, they’d emigrate to the Transat’s bar where they’d sing their hymn of the uprooted:

“Limayhebech Ibastis

Goulou rak rkhis”

If you don’t like Ricard

You must be a dullard.

Strangely, almost all the Zimigrins had suffered the same heartbreak and lived the same story of love gone wrong. When you approached one of them at the bar, he’d immediately pull dozens of photos out of his wallet—history would eventually reveal that they’d cut the pictures out of old copies of Femmes d’aujourd’hui—then lingering on the most beautiful of all, he’d burst into sobs: “That’s her, my friend, that’s her. See, my friend, the blonde boumba, a Swedish,” (they were always Swedes). “I met her dancing, she’s the boss’s girl,” (they were always the boss’s daughter). “She fell for me, it’s not me who says so, she’d screw and then sob, screw then sob every day. Then she begged me to marry her and spend the rest of my life with her, I refused, I won’t sell out my country. When I bought my ticket, I swear on my mother’s head, her mother came to see me, she was crying, ‘Please, I beg of you, marry my daughter, I’ll fill out all the papers, I’ll give you the keys to the mansion and to the Mercedes.’ But the nif got me, brother, nothing doing, I came back to the bled, and I swear my blondie took me to the airport, crying all the way there. So I told her, ‘N’ahinda frança, tahya lalgerie,’” Down with France, long live Algeria.

The story always ended tragically, the Zimigrint (the singular form of Zimigrins) would order one last round, lift his glass, shout “long live Algeria,” then take his wallet out again, place the photo of the blonde on the counter and crumple into tears, moaning:

“Ya rabi, ya rabi

Oualach jayt Iblad zabi”

Oh god, oh god

Why did I come back to this fucking country?

The longer the vacation lasted, the more the nostalgia for Bakinthir grew; by late August, relations had seriously deteriorated between us. Conflict broke out most often on the days when the water had been cut off. Accompanied by their children, the Zimigrins would overtake the café terrace, armed with bottles of Evian water and Seb coolers, they’d hike up their gandouras and adjust the berets perched atop their heads before eyeballing us with contempt and, raising their gaze skyward, to the admittedly atrocious and criminal sun, they’d shout:

“Sonofabish bled, iss unbilifabel, thirs not efen watir arund hir.”

Son of a bitch bled, it’s unbelievable, there’s not even water around here.

“Bakinthir, thirs watir eferywhir, ispisishali in Isiri, bakinthir it ryns braktikli ifri day.”

Over there back home, there’s water everywhere, especially in Isère, over there back home, it rains practically every day.

But that was crossing the line, the Swedish girls, the bananas, the Dunhills, the bottles of Evian, the Levis, the Darty bags, the Radiolas, the Coq Sportif, the little Fa and Lux soaps, the disposable lighters, OK; but the rain, well, that was just too much. In the south, in any case, we call it rahma, blessing, or ni’ma, grace, in the divine sense of the word. I’ve often seen children rushing to lap up the splashes left behind on the sand by the rain drops. Which ought to give you an idea of how rare and longed-for the rain is. Without rain everything would wither: the palms, the herds, the oasis, the people. We knew perfectly well that all the things we dreamed of were over there in France, but to tell us that in France it rained day in and day out and meanwhile our parents worked themselves to the bone hoping that it might rain just one day a year, no, that was just too much.

At that point, we’d lose our composure and let them know they’d crossed a line:

“Poor Zimigrins, go on, beat it, if you’re not happy here all you have to do is go back home to Bakinthir.”

And they, ever so proudly, would readjust their berets, stack up their Seb coolers, gather up their Darty bags, their Philips receivers, the Evian bottles, and the Fa soaps, and once they’d put some distance between us, they’d shout:

“Bunsh of Bicouts, firtunitli di goulle gafe you indipindins.”

Bunch of bicots, fortunately de Gaulle gave you independence.

After that, they knew we wouldn’t have anything else to say. They’d take out their ferry tickets, fan them out across the tables, and gather in groups of four at the Café des nattes to shuffle the dominoes before returning to the only language that unproblematically linked them to their homeland:








translated from the French by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg