The Writer

An excerpt

Yasmina Khadra

Artwork by Ellen Blom

The Walls of El Mechouar

My father did not accompany us to El Mechouar school. No sooner had we crossed Tlemcen's first back streets than his stiff demeanor wavered and his driving became nervous. He started railing at pedestrians, tailgating other motorists, the corners of his mouth suddenly frothing a pallid secretion. Something had just broken in him, eroding the composure behind which he did his utmost to hide his faults. My father was careful about his appearance because of an unhappy childhood. He was the one who taught me not to be content with accepting cheerfulness at face value, and that often, if it sounded hollow, an eruption of laughter was being used as a diversion.

On the backseat, my cousin was rubbing his eyes. He asked where we were, which earned him a grunt in reply. The car negotiated many vennels teeming with onlookers before stopping in front of a squat and dirty building. Sergeant Kerzaz met us on the landing, firmly shook hands with my father, and invited us into his apartment. My cousin and I were seated around a miniature table where a meal was waiting for us: salad, a small carafe of water, and a tureen filled with a thick casserole whose smell instantly dissuaded my appetite. My father chose to speak with the sergeant in the hall. On the wall, his shadow traced embarrassed movements. His voice remained low. The sergeant had his back to us. He kept nodding his head and repeating: "Very good, Lieutenant." After a brief, hushed exchange, the door creaked before softly closing again. The sergeant returned, his face expressionless. "Eat fast," he said. "We can't be late." I swerved to the side to see if my father was still there. No one was in the hall. He had left on tiptoe. Without even hugging us goodbye. I would have liked it if he had just taken a moment to talk to me, to put his hands firmly on my shoulders, or to ruffle my hair and gaze into my eyes. It wouldn't have been enough to comfort me, but maybe it would have consoled me, in the space of a smile, for a separation that resembled both breaking up and being torn apart.

Sergeant Kerzaz was a man in a hurry. He slipped on his fatigues in a flash, polished his boots, and asked us to follow him. Neither Kader nor I had the time, much less the heart, to touch a single crumb. We silently fell in step behind him, and had to hurry in order to keep up. Originally from the Great South, our guide walked very fast, as desert men tend to do. After several streets, we found ourselves running after him. He didn't turn around once. He just quickened his step, keeping his shoulders hunched, his expression impenetrable. The people around us went about their business in a chaotic merry-go-round. Veiled women and turbaned peasants assailed the stalls of traveling merchants. Punctuated with the chatter of children, the shopkeepers' cries gave the market an air of carnivalesque cheer. A fragrant warmth permeated the world, embracing it with almost human affection. It felt like springtime. It was a perfect day for skipping. Sergeant Kerzaz seemed intentionally unaware of the jubilation that surrounded us. Unfazed and almost blasé, he forged through the gaps in the crowd. In one square, a gang of kids was knocking around a cloth ball in the middle of a crystalline clamor. They played hard in an effort to catch up to their opponents, bruising their shins in hysterical confusion, exploding in joy whenever a dribble sent the other team flying or they made a shot. Without realizing it, I stopped to watch the game. "We're going to be late," the sergeant reminded me as he continued on. My cousin must have yanked my arm to shake me out of it. It was as though he were tearing me from a wonderful dream. I pushed him off fiercely, annoyed by his unfortunate gesture. The desire to turn back, to disappear into the crowd weighed heavily on my chest. I wanted my mom, my everyday rituals, my neighbors and my friends. The sergeant grudgingly retraced his steps. His hand closed coldly around my wrist. Jerking my arm, he shook me from head to toe and dragged me to the gate of a gigantic fortress with ivy-covered walls. Two on-duty soldiers opened a smaller version of the gate, exchanged salaams with the sergeant, and ignored us. Looking back, I saw the gate close inexorably on the buildings, cars, people, and noises; something told me that the outside world being erased before my very eyes was also erasing me; a page had just been arbitrarily turned once and for all. I was so distraught that I started when the soldier closed the latch.

We climbed a path lined on either side by old, stunted buildings. I was first struck by the faded tiles, the roofs sagging in places, the haggard windows, and the shocking whiteness of the façades. The individuals hanging around here and there, some in washed-out overalls, others in combat suits, looked nothing like the people who lived in my neighborhood in Oran. They appeared preoccupied and sullen, and moved without ever relaxing their crushing grimaces, or even greeting one another. A pot-bellied corporal holding a belt in his hand railed at a group of prisoners with disheveled uniforms and shaved heads. These latter were on fatigue duty; they collected trash with their bare hands and deposited it in a creaking wheelbarrow, which another frail and feverish prisoner struggled to push over the gravelly ground. Farther along, we arrived at an immense courtyard framed by colossal plane trees. There, kids cinched in squalid tunics paraded around. They all wore berets, but not the same shoes. Some had on regular shoes, others combat boots. Divided into three squads, they marched in step, arms slashing in time, backs stiff and chins high. Facing this arrangement, perched on a concrete slab, an old chief warrant officer was counting time at the top of his lungs, his eye on the lookout for the slightest false move, a shattering curse at the ready. Seeing us, he asked a subordinate to supervise the march, jumped to the ground, and came to meet us. I was astounded when, reaching our level, he withdrew a dental prosthetic from his pocket and put it in his mouth. He wiped his lips on the back of his hand, stared at us (my cousin and me), and then asked the sergeant if we were indeed Lieutenant Hadj's sons. The sergeant nodded.

"I was expecting them this morning, but whatever. You will show them their beds so they can rest. The barber won't be free at this time. They'll stay with the new recruits. Tomorrow they'll get a buzz and a shower. We don't have new uniforms yet. They'll keep their personal effects until further notice."

"Very good, sir."

The old chief warrant officer smiled at us while refraining from giving any hint of affability. He was short and spirited, with a swarthy, emaciated face that had shriveled in the scrubland. Though his jacket hung off him, one sensed his implacability, his energy in the face of all obstacles. Before going back to harass his squads, he removed his denture and put it back in his pocket. His mouth sagged with such desolation it gave me the shivers.

The sergeant led us to a building overlooking the schoolyard, a scaly and hideous edifice measuring a width of about a hundred meters. We entered through a skinny door that gave way to a long, narrow corridor that was dark and stank of urine. There were classrooms on the ground floor lined with tables and benches. On the disquietingly gray walls drooped engravings of scenes inspired by La Fontaine's fables. Above the podium, tacked smack in the center of the blackboard, hung a cardboard headdress topped with an ass's two ears to crown the dunce of the day for an entire class period...The sergeant climbed to the second floor, noting the depth of the cracks on the ramp and drawing our attention to the staircase's dubious steps. He led us to a large room illuminated by a makeshift window, where he showed us two vacant box springs and how, in double-time, to fold the sheets and covers into "forty-five-degree corners," according to common barracks regulations. With extreme delicacy, he spread the first blanket over the mattress, then smoothed the pair of sheets with exaggerated care, before laying out the second blanket and tucking it under the mattress from the sides; then he adjusted the pillow, straightened the bed's perimeter, and stepped back to admire his work. "Your bed should look like a munitions box," he said, "with crisp corners and a surface as flat as a board; the top sheet should be turned out exactly like this. Let me warn you that the instructor won't hesitate to throw it all on the ground if he sees a single crease, and he'll kick you up the backside until you can show him a perfectly planed bed." My cousin nodded his head, far underestimating the seriousness of these instructions. As for me, I wanted to go home at once.

The sergeant gave us a tour of our territory; showed us the common room, though he didn't tell us what it was for, as it was closed; and delineated our area, since if we crossed certain borders we might end up in the soldiers' quarters, which were strictly off limits. He instructed us on how to take care of ourselves, on whom to talk to when something was wrong, on how to spot an instructor in order not to trust just anyone. In the late afternoon, he took us to a small courtyard where boys in plain clothes were moping about. These new recruits had arrived a few days before us. For the most part, they were war orphans. Some had no family or surname, and had been found wandering the streets or in the charge of neighbors too destitute to take care of them. Some wore rags and had sores on their feet. Others had unkempt hair, rheumy eyes, and slugs creeping from their noses. All wore a confused and pained look, as though they were expecting the sky to fall on their heads. Visibly intrigued by our clothes, one of them approached us to get a better look. His blistered and chapped hand stroked my jacket, lingering on its cut; he stepped back, and in a dumbfounded tone said that he had thought suits were just for adults and that, with the exception of the French administrator who had managed his village during the war, he had never seen a single Arab dressed in such a fashion, much less a child. A teenager told him that we were probably bourgeois. The other kid went back to where he'd been standing but kept his eyes on us, unable to reconcile himself to the idea that the children of a rich family could fall so low. Sergeant Kerzaz took his leave, promising to be back the next day. Caught off guard, we watched him go. The second he disappeared behind a wall, my cousin fell to the ground, put his head between his knees, and started crying and calling for his mom. I could neither sit by nor talk to him. I was too overcome with grief to take care of him...

A whistle blew from far off. A boy in a uniform told us it was time for dinner. The new recruits left to eat.

"Go with them," I suggested to Kader.

"What about you?"

"I'm not hungry."

"Do you want me to bring you a piece of bread?"

"That's okay."

Kader didn't insist. He ran after the others.

I was now alone. The sun was already setting, on the sly, as though it, too, were trying to give me the slip. I sat down on a slab and turned my back to the esplanade, to the clatter of forks that soon emanated from the dining hall. My shoulders sagged, weighing on my whole being. I felt as though my soul were becoming numb. Slowly, to quell the growing hunger and dizziness, I dug my hands into the hollow of my stomach and faced the night...

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 bellowing note struck through me like a deathblow.

"Don't stay there, kid," he advised as he tucked his instrument under his arm. "Go find your mates in the dorm and make sure to cover up. It's going to be cold tonight."

I shared the room with twenty other kids, all restless sleepers. They had survived massacres, and their nightmares never failed to catch up to them the second they dozed off. Some cried, their fists in their mouths. Others awoke screaming, and quickly fell back into a deep sleep. But that's not what kept me awake. I was thinking of my mother, of my brothers and sisters, of my neighborhood, of the corner grocer, of my dog, Rex, of the familiar sounds and my games of Hunt the Thimble. I spent hours staring at the window. Outside, the sky was teeming with stars, and the moon, a pearl hanging off a branch, tried to convince me that the tree had a cold...

"I do not like to repeat myself. When I say get up, everybody had better be standing at attention at the foot of their beds before I'm done yelling."

All of a sudden, the earth was shaking. I was vaguely aware that a violent blast was catapulting me somewhere. The ceiling turned and I found myself knocked half senseless under my mattress, with my face in the tiled floor. A pair of grotesque boots was poised before my nose. A soldier crouched down to show me his angry mug:

"You think you're still at home with your dear mommy, you little snot? You better get outta here fast if you don't want my foot in your ass."

He got up, yelling after the other cadets, then left the room like a gust of wind. My cousin came to my rescue. He pushed the metal bed that was crushing me to the side, removed the mattress, and helped me get out from under the "rubble." The other kids were finishing up with making their beds, indifferent to me.

"What just happened?" I asked Kader.

"The soldier knocked over your bed."

"That guy is bad," a chubby kid explained. "When he claps his hands, nobody had better still be in bed. If you take extra time fluffing your pillow or something he'll knock you over."

"I didn't know."

"Well, now you do. If I were you, I would be getting dressed right now instead of asking questions. We have roll call in five minutes."

It was still dark when the bugle signaled roll call. The cadets rushed to the stairs, poured down the steps, and ran to the courtyard where they lined up in tight rows for the gravely waiting instructors. Unsure of where to go, I made a place for myself in a unit. Almost immediately, arms started shoving me from all sides, before ejecting me out of the line. I realized that everyone had a specific place and that no one was willing to give it up. A corporal noticed me and pointed to a corner where my cousin and a dozen new recruits joined me. All of a sudden, orders were boomed: "At ease, attention! Line up...Don't move. You, number 53, stop wiggling or I'll skin your ass with my boot buckle...Roll call..." The instructors counted their rows, tilting a head up here, chastising a rebel there, and yelling, one after the other: "First grade, all present!...Second grade, all present!...Fourth grade, all present!...Fifth grade, all present!" There were no absences, so the chief warrant officer clapped his hands. The units started to jump in place, their knees pedaling up to their chests; then, row by row, the students hurried in single file to the dining hall, where they swallowed bowls of steaming coffee and slices of buttered bread before I was even able to orient myself.

After breakfast, Sergeant Kerzaz took my cousin and me to a rat hole set up as a barbershop. A man tied tightly in a puckered apron sat me down in a chair facing a dusty mirror, and cut my hair from neck to forehead while humming an Andalusian tune. His sibilant accent and marbled skin betrayed his Tlemcen roots; he was as devoid of emotion as a shepherd shearing a sheep. His graying hair was pulled into a hepcat do, his profile sharp, and his mouth deformed by giant yellow teeth that filtered his rotten breath. He seemed to have as much passion for his clippers as a sculptor for his chisel; as for the rest—his clumsiness, my resultant whimpering—he couldn't care less. He was only annoyed by my jerking around. Whenever a cut forced me to swerve to the side, he gave me a painful and authoritative clout. He clearly couldn't stand kids. After a quick back and forth of the clippers, my head looked like a smooth pebble. I didn't recognize myself. I looked completely different. The barber undid the gown, but didn't bother to brush the balls of hair from my shoulders before pulling me out of the chair and pointing Kader into it. My cousin remained rooted to the bench, terrified by my bald head. At first he gestured no with his hands. Then he gripped his chair in an attempt to resist the sergeant and his arms. The barber grabbed him by the collar, as though my cousin were a bundle, firmly jammed him into the chair with one hand and, with the other, quickly cropped his hair. As we left the barbershop, Kader and I gave each other a sad look, and then we both broke out—he in tears and me in laughter. We looked like two little convicts on our way to prison. Sergeant Kerzaz didn't bother consoling us. Somewhere deep down he felt sorry for us, but didn't admit it to us. He didn't have children and probably didn't know how to act. My cousin started to dry his eyes. He timidly ran a trembling hand over his scalp, feeling the tiny, prickly hairs on his head. I made a face, hoping to cheer him up. He pouted. And then, to my great relief, he burst out laughing, throwing his head back and pointing to the pumice-stone attached to my neck. "You look like a genie," he said. "You, too" was my reply. Then, holding hands, we followed the sergeant to the showers, where we were probably to shed everything that, up until two days ago, made us regular children.

In the afternoon, they gathered the new recruits into a small courtyard. They had our surnames and first names on a roster; they lined us up according to height, with the littlest ones in front; they numbered us.

"Starting today, you will go by your number instead of your name," instructed the warrant officer, a giant beanpole with teeth crowned in gold, who kept fiddling with the cord on his whistle as he peered at us. "No more patronyms and nicknames. No more hijinks or fussing. You are now soldiers and you will conduct yourselves as such. Many of you have no family, no home, no nothing. You now have no worries. In your instructors, you will find what war took from you. We will make sure that you want for nothing. This is true for you others, as well. Rich and poor, Bedouin or urbanite, orphan or the child of a soldier, you are all equal. We will favor no student over another. In return, we expect discipline, model obedience, and unbending rectitude. Here, we make men, real and brave men, men worthy of the Algerian nation, a nation of one and a half million martyrs who cannot rest in peace until we have proved that their sacrifice was a worthy investment." My cousin was baptized number 122, me, 129.

Two days later, we were each issued a bottle-green tunic, a beret, undershirts. Those with big feet got boots. Those who wore smaller sizes got rubber sandals. When we went to inspect ourselves in the mirror, we saw adorable little toy soldiers. We practiced yelling our identification numbers and putting our hands to our temples in perfect salutes. We were now number 19, number 43, number 72, number 120, and nothing else. We no longer existed for ourselves...We had become cadets, which is to say, the adopted children of the Army and of the Revolution.

translated from the French by Alexis Pernsteiner and Antoine Bargel

From African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies, edited by Geoff Wisner. Copyright © 2013 by Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Click here to read Geoff Wisner's essay about Yasmina Khadra.

Click here for more information about this anthology.