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I love i hate i miss my.., p.4

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, page 4


I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

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  Djelila remains silent. Not because I’ve convinced her of anything, but because she’s surprised by my answer and its vehemence. I’ve never said anything like this to her.

  Actually, I’ve never said this out loud before. Last time, in French class, when Ms. Lombard made us read the article about Afghanistan, the discussion immediately switched to the right to wear the Islamic veil in France. That was the teacher’s intent. She hadn’t chosen the article by chance. The law had already been voted on, but that didn’t stop the questions. Should it or should it not have been tolerated, that was the discussion. What did it mean? Who was forcing young Islamic girls to cover their hair? The girls argued that they weren’t being forced. So then why would a woman agree to it? Because, of course, the veil can only be a way to undermine the freedom of women, a sign of humiliation.

  We had a discussion, not a debate, since everybody agreed. They only repeated what we hear on the radio and TV. That’s why I kept quiet. Listening to everyone, I quickly understood that I would not be able to declare, as had the others, that I was shocked by the Taliban’s actions in Afghanistan. Not while also affirming that forbidding the veil—or the head scarf—seemed to me an infringement on liberty. Besides, with the teacher and the class in consensus, how was I supposed to make myself heard? My arguments were too scattered, too personal.

  I’ve turned these ideas over and over in my mind for a good while, though. Who am I, exactly? Are my goals contradictory? Is it possible to be a woman and Muslim at the same time? What image of myself do I project to those around me? I’m getting tired of my partitioned life: school, the projects, home. I don’t feel like myself anywhere anymore. I have friends at school, but we talk about everything and nothing. We aren’t really close. I never confide in them, and they don’t ask me to. I never see them outside of school. I’m known as a hardworking girl, which I am. A nice girl, no doubt, but I’ve declined so many invitations to parties that people have stopped asking. I’ve never spoken to Charlene or Sofia about what is important to me. Nobody knows, for instance, that I am Muslim. Nobody asks. When I refuse a cigarette, nobody cares why. I could explain that my religion prohibits smoking, but who would be interested? It is important. But who can I talk to? My own sister doesn’t want to understand me anymore.

  I wish the whole world could know what I am. Who I am.

  Most journalists talk about what they do not know, about matters they don’t take the trouble to understand. They adopt the clichés that suit them—take one aspect of an issue until it becomes a caricature. For them, being a Muslim man means wanting to enslave women, to deny them any rights, any life. I can’t say that this isn’t a reality. But it’s only one reality among many—the one that is best known since it’s the one that gets the most media coverage. All I need is to be in sync with my beliefs and religion, even if that seems ridiculous to other girls my age. It’s true that I’ve never gone out with a boy. So what? I have lots of other things to think about for now. Besides, love seems too important to last only three days or even two months. Or does being a teenager mean you have to be frivolous? Should your main interest be the color of your eye shadow, or the clothes you wear? Should whether my thong shows above my jeans be my sole concern? What a fascinating debate, right? Am I strange because all this leaves me indifferent? Actually, I am not indifferent! I am raging mad. I’d like to be able to confide all of my feelings to my sister. To my Djelila. I wish she could understand me. Approve of me. Be like me.

  “I’ve decided to wear a head scarf, Djelila,” I tell her.

  Djelila’s mouth goes slack. Her eyes search mine, trying to decipher whether I’m provoking her, joking, or serious.

  “I’m going to wear a head scarf,” I repeat.


  It’s almost as if I just announced I’m on drugs!

  “I don’t understand,” Djelila goes on stubbornly.

  “I need to feel like myself,” I explain. “I need to be respected. I want my beliefs and my choices to be respected. I’m an Arab, Djelila. Arab and Muslim. That is our parents’ and our grandparents’ religion.…”

  “True,” Djelila says. “But Hana Leïla is Muslim and she doesn’t wear a veil. Neither does Mom.”

  Djelila speaks softly. I hear disbelief in her voice. She is giving up, as if she’s suddenly realized to what extent we have become different.

  I take her hand. I don’t want her to forget we are sisters.

  “We already talked about this, Djelila. You know how I hate seeing girls exposing themselves on billboards and in magazines. I don’t want to be like them. That’s not what it means to be a woman. I need to be respected.”

  “I want to be respected too,” Djelila says. “Without having to disappear or hide my face.”

  Djelila retrieves her hand. The tension between us is palpable. We are enemies. Enemy sisters.

  But it’s not what I want.

  I would love to make her see things my way. If she were to follow my example, I’m certain she would be happier. And less in danger.

  I guess I want to protect you, little sister. But from what?

  I wanted to protect you, Djelila. But from what?

  I have no photograph of you except the ID picture on your public transportation card. It also happens to be the one that appeared in the newspapers. I guess the journalists got it from your registration card at school.

  No journalist dared come to our home. Uncle Ahmed was on guard in the lobby of our tower and threatened them, along with anyone whose face he didn’t like, anyone who ventured beyond the mailboxes, with a lawsuit. He stayed there three days. Maybe he slept there too. I’m sure he would still be at his post if the police hadn’t told him to leave. I watched him walk away, shaking with sobs, his back stooped. Uncle Ahmed was crying in public, without shame. The neighbors shielded him from the prying eyes of the newsmongers.

  Eventually I had to go out to buy groceries. I crossed the square to reach the supermarket. Most of the journalists had left after two days. And no one knew my face. Only once did a woman approach me, as if by accident.

  She was slim and pretty, with blond hair. “Excuse me …,” she said.


  My voice was almost hostile. My throat was dry. I hadn’t uttered a word for days. I had only hugged Mom and fed Taïeb and Idriss.

  “I don’t mean to disturb you,” the woman said, “but do you live in this tower?”

  I almost chose not to answer. The woman—probably twenty-three, twenty-five at most, a news intern maybe—turned red. I cashed in on my advantage and shot her my darkest look.

  “I … My question may seem indiscreet, but I … It’s … You’re very young, aren’t you?”

  I nodded in spite of myself.

  “It’s about your veil. I’d like to understand why a young woman chooses to cover her hair as you do.”

  I am almost certain that her question was personal. Naive and personal.

  I smiled. Or rather, I managed a grimace that could be mistaken for a half smile.

  “It’s not a veil, it’s a head scarf.”

  And as I turned on my heels, paying no more attention to her, I was filled with a strange feeling of satisfaction.

  When I returned from the supermarket, a bag in each hand, the woman was interviewing some kids who were playing outside. From the mischievous looks on their faces, they were having fun telling her horrible stories about the projects. They’ve been doing that ever since the journalists began taking an interest in them. I guess the newsmongers have nothing better to jot down on their pads. The woman glanced at me out of the corner of her eye and quickly bent over her notebook as if to reread some of her very important scribbles.

  I smiled inwardly.

  Do you remember, Djelila? “It’s not a veil, it’s a head scarf.” Do you remember?

  Your ID photo is pinned on the wall above my desk. Your gaze is on me all the time.

  In our family, we don’t click away with a camera at ch
ildren from birth through adolescence, from first steps to each birthday, or the vacation on the beach, and all the rest.

  Anyway, we never vacationed at the beach, and Dad never owned a camera. Uncle Ahmed has one, but he uses it only in Algeria.

  So I don’t have any other photos of you, but I do not need one.

  When you were four years old, Mom put your hair in pigtails. The barrettes you liked best were sequined plastic butterflies. When we went shopping, we each held one of Mom’s hands, and whenever she stopped to look at a dress we didn’t like, we would run off and dart between the racks, and play hide-and-seek in the fitting rooms. Do you remember the day you lifted a curtain and a woman screamed because she was wearing only her bra? Or was I the one who lifted the curtain? We ran off quick as lightning. Mom caught up with us. She hadn’t seen anything, but she had no trouble guessing what had happened. The other shoppers and the saleswoman threw her a nasty look that clearly said “Watch your kids!” Mom dragged us outside, her head down. She didn’t scold us. She was too ashamed of herself to do that. I don’t remember our mother ever raising her voice. She was too self-conscious, with some sort of inferiority complex she had managed to convince herself was real. But we weren’t sorry for her: we were only six and seven years old and didn’t have a worry in the world. Not like our mom—we dreamt of a life that we would build, a life in which no one would step on our feet, in which we would walk with heads raised. The world had better watch out!

  We had our whole lives in front of us.


  I wanted to protect you, but from what?

  I did not recognize the enemy.

  I wanted to protect you, but I let vicious people attack you. I let Majid and his gang hurt you. I was too sure of myself. I wanted to protect you; I did not understand.

  I was so sure I was right. And if I was right, you had to be wrong.

  Enemy sisters.

  I didn’t want it to be that way. But the only way to be close to you again was to put you on the right path. I thought you were lying to yourself, that you were betraying your family, your roots, your God, out of boldness. I was your big sister. And I was going to bring you gently back to reason.

  God, forgive me.

  Arrogance is a sin.

  I wanted to protect you and you are dead.


  Djelila is the one to make peace. She can’t stand being on bad terms with me. She comes and sits beside me on my bed and puts her head on my shoulder. Her hair is silky, except for the blond strand, which is a little rougher. I stroke it.

  “If wearing a head scarf is important to you, Sohane,” she murmurs, “you should do it.” After a while, she adds, “But you know, you’re going to run into trouble. Head coverings are forbidden at school.”

  I gesture dismissively.

  “You can’t forbid people to be who they are and to think what they think,” I say. “I don’t want to convert anyone. I just want to be me.”

  Djelila snuggles closer. When we were little, we sometimes slept in the same bed. I always loved her smell and the warmth of her skin.

  “Do you remember, Djelila, when you wanted to be a princess?”

  She laughs noiselessly. “Nothing has changed; I still want to be a princess. You’ll see, one day a prince will come and take me away. He’ll have a white horse and—”

  “Garments of light,” I finish for her.

  “Yes, exactly.”

  Garments of light. Djelila always loved this expression. We discovered it in one of the stories I read to her. She always wanted me to read her stories, so I used to go to the small library in the neighborhood and choose picture books with beautiful illustrations.

  “And he’ll whisk me off on his horse and I’ll have a beautiful white dress as light as snowflakes.”

  “Djelila …”

  My sister smiles. “What? You think I’m too old?”

  I shrug.

  “And you,” Djelila declares, “you wanted to be a scientist. After you read the biography of Marie Curie, you wanted to find a vaccine that would save the world!”

  It takes her no more than thirty seconds to get undressed: she keeps on her T-shirt, her underwear, and, as usual, her socks. She hates having cold feet. She lies down and tucks herself in under my comforter. I quickly remove my bra, put on the T-shirt that I wear at night, get rid of my jeans, and lie down next to her.

  This is how I find you again, little sister.

  It’s just as if you were never lost.

  “It’s been a long time since we went to visit Hana Leïla,” Djelila whispers.

  I close my eyes. “True.”

  “We could go there after school tomorrow. What time are you done?”

  “At four.”

  “Cool. I finish at three. I could wait for you at the Green Handkerchief.”

  The Green Handkerchief is the closest café to school. It’s a convenient meeting place for Racine students.


  I hesitate before asking, “You don’t have anything to do after school tomorrow?”

  Djelila shakes her head. “No, nothing. We’ll meet at the Hanky and go together to Hana’s, OK?”


  I can’t help thinking that Djelila has found herself a bodyguard. There is no way Majid and the others will dare approach her if we are together.

  Djelila has fallen asleep beside me. Her breath is steady. She even snores lightly.

  When I wake up in the morning, she is already out of bed. Her hair is tousled, but she’s dressed. She shoves her books and notebooks into her schoolbag.

  She yawns as I rub my eyes.

  “Don’t bother asking me if I fell off the bed,” she grumbles. “Because I did, you space hog.”

  My alarm clock indicates 6:54. Usually Djelila stays in bed as long as possible. I pick my pillow up from the ground. It probably fell when Djelila toppled onto the floor.

  “You haven’t changed your mind, have you?” she asks.

  I frown. “Changed my mind about what?”

  “About the veil …”

  “Not the veil, Djelila, the head scarf.”

  “What’s the difference?”

  “The difference is in the word. I don’t want to wear a veil to hide myself from others’ eyes.…”

  “From men, you mean.”

  “Well, if you want to put it that way. It doesn’t matter. I’m not ashamed to be a woman. All I want is to show my beliefs. I want them to be recognized. They’re a part of me.”

  “OK, OK. So what are you going to cover your head with then?”

  I hadn’t thought about it.

  “Not with one of Mom’s old things, I hope.”

  “I don’t know, I—”

  “Here, use this!”

  Djelila throws a silky and colorful scarf on the bed, one she bought at the flea market last summer.

  I feel like bursting out laughing.

  “I can’t wear that,” I tell her.

  My sister’s shoulders collapse. “I know.”

  “I think I have what I need.”

  I get dressed and open a dresser drawer. I have the two top drawers, my sister the bottom two. I take out a square off-white cotton scarf.

  “Hmm. At least it’s not black,” Djelila mumbles.

  I go over to the tiny mirror hanging between the two posters on Djelila’s wall. I fold the square in half before I put it on my hair. It’s not very large. I’ll have to find something better. I decide to go to the supermarket after school. Meanwhile, I tie the scarf under my chin, trying to cover my neck as much as possible. Obviously, it will not stay in place like this for long.

  “Djelila, can you hand me the hairpins on my desk?” I ask.

  “You know, it’s not that ugly,” she answers.

  I turn and face my sister. She has put the colorful scarf that she offered to lend me on her head. It’s tied up nicely, and she’s making faces as she tries to see herself in the mirror.

  “One good thing is that if you wake up with a pimple on your forehead or neck, it won’t show with this.”

  “Djelila …”

  She shrugs, removes her scarf, and hands me the hairpins.

  “Of course, better not to have a pimple on the tip of your nose … unless you live in Afghanistan.”

  I attach my scarf with three hairpins. I’m almost pleased with the result. Strangely enough, I have the feeling Djelila is afraid. Of what? I wonder. Why should she be more afraid for me than I am for her when she wears a T-shirt that exposes her navel?

  “Don’t you feel weird?” she asks.

  Absolutely not. I feel relieved. The image the mirror reflects is, at last, the one I have of myself.

  “Hurry up, Dje, we’re going to be late,” I say.

  It has been forever since I’ve called my sister “Dje.”

  It is past seven-thirty. We had better hurry. I won’t bother with breakfast this morning either.


  Djelila is putting on makeup—always the same lines of kohl, one under each eye, another fine one on her eyelids, mascara, and a bit of gloss on her lips. Then she brushes her hair vigorously.

  “I have to untangle my hair since I’m not hiding it,” she tells me.

  No comment. I grab my book bag and open the door of our room. I hear Dad’s electric razor from the bathroom. Mom is giving Taïeb and Idriss their breakfast in the kitchen.

  I walk in.

  “You’re pretty, Sohane,” Idriss says.

  Taïeb shakes his head. “I don’t like it.”

  As soon as Idriss voices an opinion, Taïeb says the opposite. Mom looks at me with a strange spark in her eyes. Is she surprised? I don’t think so. Is she proud? Maybe a little. It’s hard to tell. I’ve never seen Mom wear a head scarf. Suddenly I wonder why, but I don’t dare ask.

  “You look very nice, Sohane,” she says.

  “Thanks, Mom. We have to go or we’ll be late.”

  “Morning, Mom,” Djelila says, walking in behind me. Quickly, she kisses Mom’s cheek, then grabs a piece of buttered toast from the table.

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