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I love i hate i miss my.., p.2

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, page 2

 

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister
 


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  You always answered fiercely: “You too, Sohane, you’re different at school.”

  You were right.

  You added that it was at school that you felt like yourself. That when you were with your friends you didn’t feel the need to pretend to be someone you weren’t. You could laugh loudly, smoke, and talk without having to watch what you said. You felt free.

  I didn’t believe you.

  “All you want is to be like everyone else. To disappear in the crowd,” I accused you. “But you’re better than that!”

  “Really? Better than that? Are you saying I should be like you? Is that what you mean?”

  Irritated by what I considered your bad faith, I shrugged and went back to my books and my homework. I no longer understood you. What had happened to you?

  Djelila, why are you no longer here? I want to hug you so badly.

  Five o’clock. In clusters, students come out of school. I’m in a hurry to get home. I have an essay to prepare. I feel more pressure than usual, with final exams almost here. The teachers do nothing to alleviate the stress. They only make it worse.

  At midnight, I’m still working when Djelila brings me a glass of milk and some chocolate cookies.

  “Your essay is going to be fine,” she says as she looks over my notes. “You always explain what you want to say clearly. Not like me. Whenever I try, everything gets jumbled.…”

  I don’t answer. She goes on: “You should stop working now. You’ve done enough, don’t you think?” I tell her that I can’t sleep anyway. “Stress? You should relax, Sohane. Seriously. You’ll be beat tomorrow. I’m going to bed.” These few words that we exchange don’t seem like much, and yet I drink my milk and I’m finally willing to go to bed. For the span of one night, I forget my classwork, teachers, and the looming exams that are like a monstrous dragon about to swallow me whole.

  I spot Djelila and her friends in front of the school gate. They are saying goodbye to each other. Djelila is laughing, her white teeth gleaming. A boy bends toward her and whispers a few words in her ear. I don’t know him. She pushes him back gently. He shrugs and blows her a kiss from his fingertips. Djelila shakes her head and walks off. My eyes stay glued on her. She has not seen them.

  They’ve never come so close to school.

  At least, I’ve never noticed them before—Majid, Youssef, Brahim, Mohad, Saïd—the gang from the projects. They are leaning against the school wall, “warming up the asphalt,” as they like to say. It’s their main pastime. But they’re not here by accident. They don’t seem to be looking in our direction, but I’m sure nothing that happened between Djelila and the boy escaped their notice.

  Recently, my French teacher, Ms. Lombard, brought in an article about the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. A present-day medieval regime.

  Ms. Lombard made it clear that the article wasn’t related to our literature curriculum, which it definitely wasn’t. But we read the article in class anyway.

  It talked about the “Taliban police of vice and virtue” that patrolled the streets of Kabul. A bunch of bearded men who made it their job to ensure that, underneath their burkas, women weren’t wearing any makeup, that their socks covered their ankles, maybe even made sure that their smiles did not offend God. The article made for a passionate discussion in class. It was a discussion, not a debate, since everyone was in agreement. The girls were shocked, and some boys made crude jokes. I didn’t say anything; I just listened.

  Now, at this very moment, I realize that our Taliban has arrived. They aren’t bearded. Not yet. We’re roughly the same age and even attended the same school before they dropped out. We played and learned to read together. Usually they stay within the housing project, their hands stuffed in the front pocket of their hoodies, shoulders hunched. Every day they become surer of themselves and assert themselves more and more, our little judges.

  Of course, I’m not the one they’re watching out of the corners of their eyes. It is Djelila who’s got their attention. The too-beautiful Djelila.

  It’s difficult to notice anyone else.

  She moves with a long elastic stride, her carefree attitude seemingly slung over her shoulders.

  “Carefree.” What a strange word.

  She recently highlighted a strand of her hair with the help of hydrogen peroxide. I didn’t try to talk her out of it.

  It’s not ugly. It’s like a ray of sunshine in her dark brown hair.

  Dad frowned when he saw it. He didn’t say anything to his darling daughter, though—the treasure and apple of his eye, the amazing girl with gazelle eyes. He went straight to Mom. “Why did Djelila do that to her hair?” he grumbled. “Why does she want to transform herself? She’s beautiful as she is. Why does she always need to be different? Haven’t we given her enough?”

  Mom shrugged. “Yes, your daughter is beautiful. And she’s still beautiful, regardless of what she did. Give her a break.”

  Poor Dad! He shuffled off to the living room, mumbling some coarse words in Arabic—the few coarse words he knows. Then he shook his head and went back to his newspaper. That was the end of the incident.

  Djelila walks fast. She doesn’t want to be late for basketball practice. She crosses the lawn that separates the school from the gym, making sure not to step on any dog poop, and opens a door. She disappears inside.

  I watch Majid and his gang. They huddle in discussion. I can’t help thinking that with their hint of facial hair, and with the acne that is starting to eat up their cheeks, they have become ugly. What are they plotting? I see them head toward the gym. Although I have to work on my essay, I follow them.

  The gym is ice-cold. The practice is under way. Djelila is focused on her shots. Her thrust is great. Each ball arcs in a perfect curve and falls right into the middle of the basket, hardly touching the rim. Coach Abdellatif blows a whistle and the team gathers quickly in front of him. Abdellatif is charismatic and kind and has a soft yet strong voice that enables him to get the best out of his team. He is tall, really good-looking, with long hair he keeps tied in a ponytail. Djelila says he’s old—at thirty—but I’m sure she isn’t indifferent to his charm. Personally, I think he’s gorgeous.

  Majid, Youssef, Brahim, Mohad, and Saïd are sitting in the bleachers. They are quiet, which I don’t understand. I remain near the door, a strategic spot where no one can see me, and where I can make a quick getaway.

  What are they waiting for? Do they think their presence will make Djelila lose her concentration? If that’s the case, they’re going to be sorely disappointed, because she hasn’t even noticed them.

  These five guys have been hanging out together for a few months now. In the projects, you can always find them in front of Tower 38, which they’ve clumsily tagged in red letters: THIS IS OUR PLACE. What a stupid and childish way to mark their territory.

  “Just like dogs that pee along the walls,” Djelila said, laughing, when she saw the tag.

  Everyone considers them harmless in spite of their efforts to look tough. But it’s true that they’ve become more confident and are quick to insult the girls who walk past Tower 38. Their tower. A barrage of insults fly out of their mouths: “whore,” “bitch,” “slut.” They are so pathetic that nobody pays much attention to them. “At least they don’t drink,” Mom says sometimes.

  Coach Abdellatif has organized a mini-game. The girls are sweating. Djelila seems to be everywhere on the court. She braided her long hair so it doesn’t get in the way. She runs, snatches the ball from an opponent, dribbles, makes a pass, and races to the end of the court like a bolt of lightning. I haven’t seen her play in a long time. She is astonishing.

  The five dimwits talk quietly. Then Saïd spits on the floor with disgust.

  Coach Abdellatif whistles to signal the end of the game.

  “You did great, girls! You fought like warriors! If you play like this next Saturday, you’ll crush Montilan’s team.”

  The girls whoop with joy. Abdellatif smiles before telling them
to go change.

  “Go on, get out of here, ladies!”

  The girls swarm to the locker room like bees. Alice, one of the girls’ team members, puts her arm around my sister’s shoulders.

  On the bleachers, the dimwits get up. I leave quickly, before they spot me.

  I feel stupid. I’m hiding out along the side of the gym like a spy in a James Bond movie. Majid and his four loser friends appear and sit on a bench.

  They look impassive and determined. As if they have a mission to accomplish.

  The girls come out, Djelila first. Dad agreed to let her take part in basketball practice on the condition that she not come home too late. Djelila follows the rule. She waves goodbye to her friends, adjusts her bags on her shoulders, and starts walking home. She glances at Majid and his gang, rolls her eyes mockingly, and heads toward the projects.

  They give her a head start before following her.

  It’s a strange procession: Djelila in front, the dimwits a few yards behind, and me, stuck to them all like a magnet.

  As if I want to know what is going to happen.

  As if I want to see what is going to happen.

  We reach the housing projects.

  Tower 38 is at the center.

  It’s true that I let Djelila bleach her hair.

  I think I was hoping the peroxide would burn it. I imagined the wavy strands hanging limply on each side of my sister’s face.

  The beautiful Djelila would no longer have been so beautiful.

  Djelila, the treasure. Djelila with the gazelle eyes. These were the nicknames my father used when she was little. He has not forgotten them.

  Last night, just before midnight, I left my room, left my lair. I wanted a glass of milk. Mom was already in bed. She’s been sleeping a lot lately. It’s her way of escaping.

  Dad had fallen asleep in front of the TV. The screen cast a dull glow over him, over his cheeks covered in white twelve-o’clock shadow; on the screen, people were having a surreal dialogue and kissing.

  Dad probably felt my presence. He didn’t wake up, but he got agitated. I bent over him. He is old now.

  I heard him mumble: “Djelila, my treasure. My gazelle-eyed Djelila.”

  Or am I the one who transformed the sound of his grinding teeth into tender words?

  I went back to my room. I no longer wanted milk. I just wanted to work hard, so hard that I would have a way out of this place.

  Djelila looks back. She senses them behind her, lying in wait for their prey. With courage, she sticks out her tongue at them and walks on.

  They don’t give up. They keep following her, at a quicker pace now, seemingly more determined. They are sure of themselves: the projects are their turf. In no time, they’ll catch up to her.

  I walk faster too. I don’t know why. I don’t know what I’m expecting, exactly.

  The first insult is hurled. It comes from Majid. He used to be in love with Djelila when they were in preschool.

  “Hey there, slut!”

  My sister doesn’t react. She keeps walking steadily, her back straight, the heels of her Nikes planted decidedly forward in the ground. But I know her well, and I’m sure she’ll start to flinch soon. I’m sure her face already betrays fear.

  “Little tramp!” Youssef says as he catches her arm. Djelila frees herself from his grip, but she’s surrounded, with no way to flee.

  “You’re very stuck-up today.”

  “And for no good reason.”

  Brahim touches her hair, grabs a strand and releases it, then raises his hand as if he’s going to slap her face. Djelila recoils reflexively, like a frightened gazelle.

  Youssef laughs. “Are you afraid of us?” he yells. “You weren’t afraid of boys when school let out. You know that you shame your religion, don’t you?”

  “Leave me alone.”

  It is not a shout, only a moan.

  “You shame your religion, your family, and the whole projects!” Majid spits out. “We don’t want girls like you around here. You’re just a whore!”

  “See how she dresses? How dare you go out of the projects looking like that! People are going to start saying that this place is full of prostitutes!” Mohad scowls. “Why not go naked while you’re at it? All we see are your boobs and ass. Do you think that’s dignified? Do you?”

  “And what were you doing with that guy when you came out of school?” Saïd joins in. “You let him touch you. Filthy bitch! I swear, you make us cringe with shame!”

  “And the way you jiggle up and down the gym. It’s got to stop. Girls aren’t meant to play sports!” Majid yells.

  “Enough! Mind your own business!” Djelila shouts, getting her voice back. “I didn’t ask your opinion!” She pushes Majid away from her. “And you, Hamzaoui Majid, who do you think you are? Have you forgotten that you were still wetting your pants in preschool? That you followed me around like a puppy? And now that you’ve got three hairs on your chin, you think you’re a know-it-all? You think it’s Muslim to judge me?”

  My sister can fight back. The gazelle can become a lion. But she won’t get out of this fix so easily. She should have kept her mouth shut. She should have apologized. She should have run off. A loud slap lands on her cheek. She didn’t see it coming and didn’t have time to protect herself.

  Pleased with himself, Majid spits on the ground. “Women!” he says. “They don’t show any respect today.”

  “But we’re going to teach them! They’re going to learn!”

  “So you’d better dress properly. We don’t want whores around here!”

  “Yeah! Got it, slut?”

  They all spit at Djelila’s feet, and without another glance at her, they take off.

  Djelila touches her cheek, her burning cheek. She lets her bags fall heavily to the ground. I decide that it’s a good time to approach her.

  “Djelila, what happened?” I ask, running toward her.

  “It’s … it’s …”

  Huge tears start streaming down her cheeks; her kohl starts running. Not too much: she hasn’t rubbed her eyes yet. She’s still in shock. I hug her gently and she doesn’t push me away.

  “What happened? Did they call you names again?”

  “They slapped me.”

  She is not sobbing. She just states a simple fact.

  “It’s Majid.”

  “Come, Djelila, let’s keep moving.”

  I take hold of my sister’s bags and pull her toward our building. She doesn’t say a word. She steps into the elevator. She doesn’t lean on my shoulder this time. The door opens. I hold her by the waist to support her, but she doesn’t seem about to faint. I get the key out of my pocket even though I could have rung the bell. I can hear Mom inside with the little ones. I open the door.

  A warm fragrance of freshly baked pastries fills the apartment.

  “Is that you, girls?”

  “Yes, Mom.”

  “Look at my drawing.”

  Taïeb, with his little face and his rosy cheeks, comes running out of the kitchen and holds out a sheet of paper on which he’s painted a huge dinosaur.

  “I did it at school.”

  Djelila gets hold of it before I do. She smiles at Taïeb and bends down to pick him up. Taïeb buries his nose in her neck.

  “You smell good.”

  “Djelila!”

  She turns her beautiful eyes toward me. “Thank you for being there, Sohane. Thank you,” she says.

  I bite my lips. “I’ll put your bags in our room.”

  Djelila walks into the kitchen with Taïeb perched on her hip.

  “You made gazelle horns, Mom!” she exclaims joyously. “Super!”

  “Don’t touch them, dear. They’re for tonight.”

  “Do we have company coming?”

  “Yes,” Idriss says. “Uncle Ahmed and Aunt Algia. We’ll get to stay up late.”

  “No way, kids. You’ll be in bed by ten,” Mom tells them.

  “It’s not fair,” Idriss complains.
>
  “What about Hana Leïla?” Djelila asks.

  “Your grandmother isn’t coming. She’s still mad at Uncle Ahmed.”

  “Too bad, she’s so funny.”

  I listen to this conversation from the corridor, my arms hanging at my sides. I decide to put the bags in our room and join Mom, my sister, and my brothers in the kitchen. Never mind the essay. I, too, want to listen to Mom’s gentle voice and smell the vanilla-scented gazelle horns.

  At the time, I thought, Djelila will get what she deserves.

  It’s not as if she had no warning. They had already insulted her once before. Still, she continued to provoke them.

  Yes, this is what I thought, Djelila, my too-pretty little sister. Deep down, I wished they would teach you a lesson. That you would be knocked down a peg. That you wouldn’t be so sure of yourself. That you would need me again, just like when we were little girls. Do you remember, Djelila? You and I, when we played together? I was the one in charge, the one who decided what adventure we would go on, the one who saved your life. I was also the one you wouldn’t venture outside without, the one who held your hand to cross the streets, the one who read you stories, the one who comforted you when a boy bothered you at school. You were a little girl whose big eyes turned to me whenever you were in doubt. I never resented Dad for calling you his treasure, because you were my treasure too. You always had more friends than I did. You loved to play and laugh. Do you remember the jump rope Uncle Ahmed bought for us? I could barely count to ten before getting all tangled up in it. But you, you could jump forever.

  Little by little, you no longer needed me.

  You became your own person, without me holding your hand, and I resented it.

  Yet you didn’t forget me. You still loved to talk things over with me, to tell me your secrets, to share your feelings. But we were very different, and I decided that we could not get along.

  Do you remember our talks about religion? You insisted that you did not understand, that the Koran verses had nothing to do with you, that centuries had gone by, that the idea of God did not interest you, that you had other things to think about, that all you wanted was to live. Live.

 
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