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I love i hate i miss my.., p.3

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, page 3


I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

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  That’s all you wanted, Djelila.

  I tried to explain that you were wrong. I was arrogant. I was so sure of myself. I was so jealous of you.

  Forgive me, Djelila.

  But how could you possibly forgive me today?

  Stop haunting me, Djelila!

  After that slap to your face, the first slap, I ran over to you. I held my hand out for you, but I also rejoiced to see you humiliated.

  “Thank you for being there, Sohane. Thank you.” This is what you said to me.

  I didn’t want to admit it that day, but watching the whole scene without even trying to intervene was probably worse than hitting you myself. Nearly every night, Djelila, you live in my dreams. I see myself, side by side with Majid and Youssef, watching them hit you again and again. I do not move. Then I bend down and open a can. A can of gasoline.

  “Your daughters are beautiful, very beautiful.”

  Uncle Ahmed is leaning back in his chair, rubbing his stomach with satisfaction. Mom did not keep her word. It’s almost midnight, and Taïeb and Idriss are still watching a DVD. The rest of us are just finishing dinner. As usual, Mom outdid herself: her tagine was delicious. When I saw how much she had prepared, it looked like there was enough to feed an army, but that wasn’t counting Uncle Ahmed. Or Dad. Now Djelila is serving tea. Mom put out three dishes filled with the gazelle horns on the table and one on the rug, near the boys. Mesmerized by the TV screen, Taïeb and Idriss hardly say thank you before they start stuffing themselves.

  Uncle Ahmed also helps himself to a horn; he sips his tea, his mouth filled with biscuit, and looks at us, my sister and me.

  “Yes, they are really beautiful, your daughters,” he says again.

  Dad smiles. He appreciates the compliment.

  “If we were back home, you could marry them off. You’d have no trouble finding them good husbands.”

  Uncle Ahmed’s tone seems to indicate that he is joking. But we all know that he believes what he says.

  “Aren’t we already home?” Djelila asks suddenly.

  Everyone turns to look at her.

  We have an implicit rule: be respectful of guests. Mom and Dad let us dress the way we want, even let us wear makeup. They allow us to have a drink (as long as it’s non-alcoholic) with friends after school. They consented to let Djelila join the basketball team. Simply put, they aren’t always on our backs. They trust us. In return, we have to bring home good grades. We’re supposed to work studiously. But we have to be discreet when we have company, not stand up to our parents, not draw attention to ourselves. We have to be kind and respectful.

  Respect. That is what the Koran teaches us. We started praying with our parents as soon as I turned seven. Djelila was only six, but it made no difference. We loved these moments together. Dad and Mom recited the surahs of the Koran while my sister and I repeated after them. One prayer in the morning, the other ones in the evening. Impossible to do otherwise because of work or school. Then, after I turned thirteen, Mom told us we could go to the mosque by ourselves. Djelila and I talked about it in bed until midnight; we were nervous and excited at the same time. It was an important step. Our parents were granting us a freedom and a responsibility.

  I’ll never forget the first time we went to the home of Imam Mokthar Benrahmoune without our parents. It was a Friday evening. The muezzin had just made the call for prayer. We had been unable to go to the midday prayer because of school. Mokthar smiled at us discreetly. We removed our shoes, adjusted the scarves that covered our heads, and knelt in the women’s corner to pray. It wasn’t a real mosque, but that didn’t matter. The imam had set aside one room of his apartment for prayer, and he was there to guide us toward God.

  Djelila and I used to go there every Friday after school.

  One Friday, Djelila came home in a hurry. She told me that she couldn’t come to the mosque because she had to catch up on a lesson with one of her friends. She was in ninth grade, and for the first time in many years we weren’t at the same school. She promised me she would go the following Monday. This happened several more times, until she simply asked me not to wait for her anymore. Mom and Dad didn’t notice right away. In fact, it’s probably the imam who told Dad. From then on, whenever I prayed at night, Djelila read a magazine or did her homework.

  Even though my sister claims that she doesn’t recognize herself in Islam, that she feels distant from all its teachings, she can’t possibly have forgotten the notion of respect.

  Yet I have the feeling that she’s about to break this rule.

  Her ruddy cheeks and the spark in her dark eyes belie the apparent calm of her face.

  Uncle Ahmed furrows his brow. To be on the safe side, he has kept an amused flicker in his eyes. It’s always good to have an exit. Being a guest calls for the respect of manners: no scandal in your host’s house.

  “Your uncle means Algeria,” Mom says, as if Djelila had not really understood.

  My sister does not back off. “I thought you were born in France, Uncle Ahmed,” she says.

  It is true that Uncle Ahmed was born in France. Like Dad and Mom. Only Aunt Algia comes from “back home,” as Uncle Ahmed calls it. And once a year, he goes to El Aricha, the area in Algeria where his ancestors were born. We have cousins there, cousins I do not know. They are the ones who introduced Uncle Ahmed to Aunt Algia, as the custom requires. She is twelve years younger than he is. They were married in the village, according to tradition. He brought back magnificent photographs. When I saw them I wished I had been at the wedding. All the women were beautifully dressed and made up, the men dancing. I could almost hear the youyous.

  “Yes, that’s right, I was born in France,” Uncle Ahmed answers. “But I’m not one of those Arabs who repudiates his roots. France is my second country. Algeria will always be first in my heart!”

  Uncle Ahmed has grown a little agitated. He gives Djelila a defiant look.

  “Well, I don’t feel like an Arab,” Djelila counters. “I’m French and proud to be. It’s great that Jadi and Hana decided to live here. In France, liberty is a right! I think some Arabs forget that this is France and not Algeria!”

  Her tone is so unexpected that Taïeb and Idriss have stopped watching the DVD and turned their attention to us.

  Uncle Ahmed stiffens in his chair. He no longer looks at Djelila but at Dad. It is the host’s duty to maintain respect.

  Dad gets up. He glares at Djelila. She looks down but does not say a word.

  “Djelila! How dare you speak to your uncle this way?” Dad says. “Apologize, right now!”

  “Djelila, dear, what is the matter tonight?” Mom says, getting into the fray. She approaches Djelila and puts her hand on her forehead. “You’re sick, darling. You have a fever.”

  My sister sighs and looks up.

  She is pale now.

  “Forgive me, Uncle Ahmed. I did not mean to offend you,” she says.

  Uncle Ahmed raises an eyebrow. He is satisfied: justice has been served.

  “Don’t forget, my girl,” he says. “It is the whole family and your country of origin that you offend when you speak so.”

  Djelila nods silently. “Can I go to bed now?” she asks Mom softly. “I’m dead tired.”

  “Of course, dear.”

  Djelila leaves the dining table as Uncle Ahmed sips his tea again, and Taïeb and Idriss refocus their eyes on the TV screen.

  It is the second time today that my sister has needed me and I have abandoned her.

  Taïeb’s and Idriss’s voices in the kitchen, closet doors opening and shutting, chair legs squeaking on the linoleum. Dad dragging his slippered feet.

  I slept in Djelila’s bed last night. In her sheets that haven’t been changed. In fact, nothing has changed: her posters of singers, the tiny mirror she used to put her makeup on in the morning, her stuffed bunny, her school supplies, even the magazine she was reading at the time is on the bedside table that we shared. Just as if she were going to come home from school tonig
ht, all smiles, dropping herself onto the blue comforter to tell me all about her day—about her teachers and the gossip in the cafeteria. As if she were going to throw her bags beside the chair and sit at her desk, grumbling about a math problem she needs to solve.

  But she will not be back.

  Djelila, my sister, is dead. Dead.

  Is this the first time I’ve managed to say it? Is it the first time that I’ve fully realized it?

  Yet there is the slab at the door of the tower.

  We had the funeral, with Mom’s constant weeping and cries of pain, Dad’s hardened face, Taïeb and Idriss with Grandmother Leïla, Hana Leïla, their faces wet with tears.

  Before the funeral, the TV news, with their huge cameras and fuzzy microphones and nosy journalists, lurked.

  And before that, the police.

  And the flames.

  That is all I saw: the flames.

  Did Majid wait for you after school? Did he follow you the way he did the day he slapped your face? How did he convince you to go to the basement with him? Did he force you? Did he say he needed to talk? Why did you go with him? You thought you were so strong; you said you weren’t afraid of those dimwits; you called them dumb, impotent jerks. Is that what you told Majid? Did you insult him? In any case, he had already made up his mind; he probably had a few days earlier. Maybe the desire to murder you had been boiling inside of him ever since he slapped you—ever since the first slap.

  He had prepared everything: the gasoline and the matches. You probably had no time to react as he splashed you with the liquid, then struck a match and threw it on you. Right away, you shot into flames and started to scream. If I had come down earlier, would I have been able to save you? Was it still possible? Why did I come down?

  To this day, I am unable to answer these questions.

  I had just taken a break from my homework. An economics essay, I remember. I was having a hard time. Four books were spread out in front of me and I couldn’t understand any of them. It was a nice day. The sun was shining on the square, almost giving it a cheerful appearance. I don’t remember deciding to go out, and yet I put my head scarf and jacket on. When I passed the kitchen, I told Mom I was heading out and opened the door. Immediately, I heard your howls. I rushed down the stairs, knowing somehow that it was already too late. I rushed to the basement and saw the flames.

  I saw your burnt body fall to the ground.

  He was there—the madman. With his can of gasoline and his matches. It was an incredible sight. My eyes saw what had happened, but my mind did not believe it. It wasn’t him; it wasn’t you. You were not dead, and you had not been burnt alive in the basement of our tower. I could not go to you. You no longer existed. You were just a cremated outline. There was nothing left of what Djelila had been. No hair. No smile. No gazelle eyes. I charged at him then, hitting him with all my strength, my clenched fists landing on his face to make him disappear. Nothing of what I’d seen had happened. You, my sister, were alive. I could love you, hate you, lecture you, console you … Djelila!

  I’m told I was screaming. I do not remember. I’m told your murderer was on the ground and that I was pummeling him and shouting incoherently. My cries of pain alerted the tenants of the building that something was horribly wrong, not your cries, Djelila, not yours.

  Afterward, everything is a blur.

  Silence returns to the apartment. Taïeb and Idriss have left for school. Dad is at work, Mom at the supermarket. One question torments me and causes me intense anguish: how can life go on?

  I stayed at the table with Uncle Ahmed and Aunt Algia. Mom made another pot of tea and Uncle Ahmed told us stories about his colleagues at work. He has a job at a car dealership where he earns a good living that pays for his yearly trips to Algeria. Aunt Algia doesn’t work. She’s expecting a baby. Uncle Ahmed’s face beams with pride. He’s always putting a proprietary hand on his wife’s round belly.

  I wasn’t listening to their conversation. I was simply present, as if to compensate for my sister’s attitude and to prove that my father had not failed entirely, that at least one of his daughters wasn’t corrupted by the West.

  What a joke!

  I don’t believe a word of it. I’ve never agreed with Uncle Ahmed. For as long as I can remember, his arrogance has irritated me. Because he’s the eldest, he has a way of belittling my father, of giving him unwanted advice, of underlining his mistakes, of meddling with our education. I would like to snub him as Djelila did. But it’s out of the question. I want to appear at my best. For once, Djelila isn’t the center of admiration; for once, Dad reprimanded her. I want to take advantage of the situation.

  As usual, the last topic of conversation centers on Hana Leïla, my father and uncle’s mother.

  Uncle Ahmed leans forward and joins his two hands. “Have you been to see Mother these last few days?” he mumbles.

  “I went last week, but Saïda paid her a visit yesterday,” Dad answers, looking at my mother.

  “How was she?” Uncle Ahmed asks, his eyes on Dad, clearly not interested in my mother’s opinion.

  “In good shape.”

  My grandmother is far better than in good shape. Hana Leïla will bury us all. But it’s not her health that Uncle Ahmed has on his mind. He finds her eccentric. How many times have I heard him advise Dad to watch over her? This amuses Hana Leïla. “My poor son is so sure a woman’s sole role is to prepare couscous and to nod when spoken to,” she says. “I don’t know who he got that from. Not me, that’s for sure! It’s obvious that he never had to take care of a large family on his own.”

  Hana Leïla is funny. Djelila and I used to visit her often, before.

  Before. Before what? I do not know. Why don’t we go over anymore? How come we haven’t been since the beginning of the school year? I have to speak to Djelila about it. We have to schedule a visit. It’s not difficult: Hana Leïla lives two towers from ours.

  “You should watch the company she keeps,” Uncle Ahmed warns as he puts his jacket on.

  I don’t pay much attention. He may be talking about my sister as much as about Hana.

  My father nods and Uncle Ahmed goes home with Aunt Algia, who, as always, did not say a word. “She’s shy,” Mom says. I believe it. Aunt Algia is probably a lot more at ease chatting in the company of women exclusively. And preferably in a kitchen.

  The little ones have fallen asleep on the rug. Dad turns the TV off and carries them to bed. I start helping Mom clear the table but she shakes her head.

  “Go to bed, dear,” she says, smiling. “You’re tired too.”

  She has such a kind smile. I bend toward her—she is so small—and kiss her cheek.

  I have only one wish: sleep.

  When I enter our bedroom, Djelila isn’t undressed. She’s sitting cross-legged on her bed, earphones on, shaking her head slowly and mumbling the lyrics of the song she’s listening to. Probably some band in one of the posters above her desk. No comment.

  I take off my sweater. Then I sit down and remove my shoes.

  “You know what?” Djelila says. “I’m really fed up.”

  She takes off her earphones. Her gaze is somber. Nothing velvety tonight in her gazelle eyes.

  “Where did you get that iPod?” I ask her.

  “A friend lent it to me.”

  “A friend?”

  There is skepticism in my voice. What is happening to me? Do I suddenly think I’m the Taliban police of vice and virtue? I don’t. But for a reason I can’t explain—don’t want to explain—Djelila is getting on my nerves.

  I can feel the familiar jealousy bubble to the surface, but I refuse to acknowledge it. Tonight Djelila is responsible for all my anxieties, all my disappointments, all the questions I ask myself, without coming up with answers.

  “Axel. Axel lent it to me.”

  She doesn’t protest or tell me to mind my own business. She always answers my questions, a habit from childhood. We were inseparable then. Before. Even if I do not know befor
e what.

  “I think they’re all a bunch of morons,” Djelila says.

  “Who are you talking about?”

  “I don’t know, everybody. Majid and the others, Uncle Ahmed and even Aunt Algia.”

  I don’t say anything. I just frown as I put on the large T-shirt I wear as a nightgown.

  “They slapped my face, Sohane. Didn’t you see them slap my face?”

  Yes, I saw them.

  “Majid is the one who slapped you,” I point out.

  “Just the same.”

  You’re probably right, Djelila, it is the same.

  “So what has Uncle Ahmed got to do with it?” I ask.

  “Didn’t you hear him tonight? ‘They’re beautiful, your daughters. You could already get them married.’ ”

  “So what?” I say with a shrug. “You know how he is. You know how he talks. Just listen. Why pay attention? Besides, I’d like to remind you that Jadi and Hana didn’t actually choose to come to France as you claim. External events had something to do with it.”

  “I don’t understand how you can listen to Uncle’s macho comments without reacting to them,” Djelila says without paying attention to what I’ve said. “I thought you were a feminist.”

  Fair enough. I use her ignorance to argue against her, and she reminds me of our discussions. It’s true that one of our favorite subjects was feminism. I’m the one who used that big word first.

  “Not this way, Djelila. Feminism is not a fight; it’s a way of life.”

  When I’m unsure of myself I wrap my arguments in beautiful sentences. Usually it works, but right now I can’t afford to give my sister time to react.

  “And do you think your attitude and the way you dress help the feminist cause?” I continue.

  “Why do you say that? I thought feminists fought for women’s freedom. That’s what I demand—my freedom—when I dress the way I do.”

  I can’t help sniggering.

  “Is looking like those ads that make men drool—ads that follow all the clichés men impose on us—your way to claim freedom?”

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