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I love i hate i miss my.., p.5

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, page 5


I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

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  “Hey, that’s not yours!” Idriss shouts.

  “It’s mine now,” Djelila answers.

  “You’re lovely too,” Mom says as she pats my sister’s cheek. “Go now. Be good.”

  We take the stairs four at a time and run across the lawn of the square. The bus is there and we jump on.

  Djelila sits next to me. We put our bags on the floor and prop our knees against the glass partition.

  The landscape goes by. Towers, parking lots, kids riding their bikes on sidewalks.

  Karine and Estelle board the bus. Djelila waves to them but doesn’t get up. She stays seated beside me. She even turns to me.

  “What’s your first class?” she asks.


  “Ah. OK.”


  What a strange way to talk to each other! It feels awkward, self-conscious, artificial. Have we gotten totally out of the habit of speaking to each other in public?

  “Umm … History with that stupid guy.”

  “You mean Ducasse. I always thought he was funny.”


  We get off the bus side by side. Djelila leans toward me and gives me a kiss on the cheek.

  “Don’t forget we’re meeting up at the Hanky this afternoon.”

  “No, I won’t. See you at four o’clock.”

  “Yeah, at four.”

  Djelila walks off. This morning I get the feeling she wants to make a declaration to the whole world: “This is my sister! This girl with a scarf on her head is my sister!”

  “It’s my sister.”

  Djelila, my sister.

  Your name is engraved on a slab that is surrounded by grass. A commemorative slab the town hall paid for.

  You wanted to be a princess, Djelila. You had magnificent dreams. Of course, I would make fun of you.

  We used to invent games by the hundreds. Our imaginations had no limit. Our bedroom was a castle, a ship, a forest swarming with monsters, a jungle.…

  Once, when you were seven and I was eight, two tigers attacked us. We had to kill them to save our lives. Then we discovered that they had a cub. We took it with us, you bottle-fed him, and he became loyal to us. Do you remember, Djelila? He became our protector.

  Why did you grow up, Djelila? You were pretty with your butterfly barrettes.

  Our games often ended in arguments. When I wanted to conquer a new country, you would meet a charming prince and demand to get married.

  “Djelila, it’s not fun if you get married,” I would say.

  “Please, Sohane. I’ll get married, then I’ll come back with you into the jungle.”

  “No. I know all you’ll do is take care of your Prince Charming!”

  “Sohane, I promise you I won’t. Come to my wedding. Then you and I will leave together.”

  “Adventurers don’t need to get married!”

  “Then I won’t play anymore!”

  “I don’t care. I don’t need you!”

  “Too bad. You always want to be in charge!”

  So I would lie down on my bed and read a book, ignoring you, and you would sulk. You would go to the kitchen and help Mom cook the meal, complaining about me the whole time. “Sohane doesn’t want to play with me anymore,” you would whine. “She always lets me down.” And as Mom peeled vegetables or stirred a sauce, she would tell you stories about when she was young, with her sister. She always managed to make you laugh.

  My sister would come back, lie down next to me, and put her head on my shoulder. She couldn’t stand having us mad at each other.

  I never rejected her.

  Time goes by. Without you.

  I try not to think. I try to focus solely on my lessons. I have only one desire: to leave this place. I went into Paris last week, to pick up the famous Student Connection Guide at the main university center in the city. The guy at the reception desk told me at least four times that my school was going to distribute the guide shortly and not to worry. I finally got frustrated and told him that I wasn’t attending school anymore, that I was studying by correspondence. He looked at my head scarf knowingly and muttered, “I understand,” then kindly started to explain each paragraph of the application form. I listened patiently, without really hearing him. I had already obtained all the necessary information by phone, and I had all the documents required to fill out the scholarship and residence application forms.

  I’m beginning to have a knack for filling out applications. Since enrolling in correspondence courses, I’ve had to sort through all sorts of forms: registration forms to courses by mail, where you have to make sure to answer all questions if you want to receive the lessons in a timely fashion; forms to take the French and biology exams, where you can’t overlook anything if you want to be admitted to the test room; forms for the graduation certificate …

  I asked him where I could find computers with Internet access and he showed me, saying, “You’re lucky. One of them is just freeing up.” I thanked him.

  I had to fill in all the blanks. Name, surname, address. I had already calculated my tuition based on my parents’ income taxes. I would receive about 250 euros a month and I would be entitled to a room on campus. I would be fine. A new life was opening up in front of me. As soon as school starts again, I will be in Paris. I will no longer be Sohane Chebli, sister of Djelila Chebli, the girl who was burnt alive in the basement of the Lilac housing project.

  I also had to indicate how many dependents my parents were providing for. I wrote four.

  I try to forget you, to escape you, but everything brings me back to you, Djelila.

  I can’t take it any longer. I can’t look at your posters or at your bed anymore. I can’t look at your blue comforter, at the pair of socks rolled into a ball at the foot of your bed.

  You always wore socks to bed. You hated to have cold feet.

  Nothing has been moved. Nothing.

  I wanted it that way.

  The doorbell rings. I am alone in the apartment. Mom and Dad are at work. The boys are in school.

  Is it Mrs. Achouri again with a cake? She says she comes to offer “comfort,” but I know her eyes take in the state of our despair so she can feed the gossipmongers in front of the mailboxes.

  I get up, determined to be less polite than last time, and open the door. There are five of them. I recognize them all. Djelila talked about them all the time, and I watched them often in the schoolyard. Also, they have come before.

  Sylvan, Karine, Estelle, Jerome, and Basil. A delegation.

  They never came to see Djelila, not even to pick her up to go out. The dividing lines had been drawn. Neither my sister nor I had ever invited friends over.

  Karine is the one who starts talking.

  “Hi, Sohane.”


  My answer is anything but welcoming.

  “We’d like to talk to you.”

  The first time they came, Mom opened the door. It was just a few days after Djelila died. Her death made the front pages of newspapers. They printed theories, created facts, spitting their lies and using all the gossip they could pick up here and there: Djelila, Age 16, Murdered by her Boyfriend. Djelila Chebli: Violence in the Projects. Tragedy in the Lilac Housing Project: Racism Is Alive. The Djelila Affair: Crime of Passion or Politics? Dead Because of a Slap. And of course, the unavoidable, The Rise of Islam in the Projects.

  Karine had spoken for all of them at that time too. Her eyes were red and swollen. They all had red and swollen eyes. Mom had not invited them in. She simply hadn’t thought to. I had stayed in the corridor.

  “We came to offer our condolences, Mrs. Chebli. For Djelila.”

  Mom had looked at them lifelessly, as if she didn’t understand what they were talking about. She turned her head, her face distraught, glancing at me, then at Dad, who was crumpled in his living room armchair. Prostrate with grief.

  “Thank you,” Mom had mumbled as she started to push the door closed.

  “Mrs. Chebli—”
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  Mom didn’t listen to the rest, probably hadn’t even heard what they said. She had shut the door.

  “What? What do you want to talk about?” I ask Karine today.

  My voice is hostile, almost in spite of myself. Why do I resent them? Is it because they are alive, go to school, laugh, love?

  Estelle and Sylvan are holding hands.

  Karine takes a deep breath. “It’s almost nine months since Djelila died,” she says.

  She pauses. I do not speak.

  “We’d like to commemorate the anniversary of her death.”

  “Of her murder,” I say.

  “Yes, of her murder.”


  “So that no one forgets it.”

  Estelle speaks now. “We want everyone to remember Djelila, her joy and laughter,” she says. “We loved her, you know, Sohane. We loved her.”

  It’s probably true. Estelle is about to cry, but she goes on.

  “We also want to make sure that no one forgets her awful death—her murder, as you just said. We don’t want anyone to forget the atrocity of the crime.”

  I shake my head. “I don’t want my sister’s death to be used as the rallying point for your cause!” I yell.

  “That’s not what we want. All we want is to express our love.…”

  Estelle is crying now.

  “I’m busy.”

  “Sohane …”

  “I’m busy.”

  That is all I manage to say. I want them to go away. They have no right to grieve. I do not grant them permission to shed tears over my sister, my treasure, my gazelle.

  I close the door gently. I do not slam it. I lean my back against it and let myself slide down slowly. I am seated on the floor, in the entryway. But I am not crying.

  I approach the gate. They all turn toward me—Lola, Sofia, Christian, and Charlene—and stare in surprise.

  “Hi, Sohane.”

  No one is going to ask me the question.

  The bell rings. Charlene and Christian put out their cigarettes against the wall.

  “Get to class!”

  I can feel furtive glances as I walk across the schoolyard. But everyone’s curiosity is short-lived, as if they are embarrassed, or maybe they know that trouble is about to descend on the school. Each of them must be thinking, I’ve heard about this on the news; now it’s here at Racine High. We’re going to see some action!

  I have to admit that it’s more difficult than I thought. I feel ill at ease with so many eyes on me, and the head scarf keeps me warm, too warm. My skull is itchy, and the scarf’s edges tickle my neck. In the hall, I hear whispers as I walk by, but they die down.

  I enter my classroom and take my usual seat near the window, not too close to the blackboard, not too far either.

  Sofia sits near me. If I have one friend at school, it’s her. She seems to hesitate a second, then leans toward me.

  “You’re wearing the veil?” she asks.

  “A head scarf,” I correct her.


  “I’m wearing a head scarf.”

  Sofia gives me an inquiring look. I already feel too tired to explain.

  “Why?” Sofia asks softly.

  “I’m Muslim.”

  Sofia keeps silent a moment.

  “I know you’re Muslim,” she says, “but you can’t wear that. A law was passed.”

  Ms. Lombard just walked in, impeccably groomed as always. Today she’s wearing an elegant sweater over a pencil skirt. She smiles. I like her even though she’s a tough grader. She closes the door behind her. Gradually, the whispers stop. She puts her briefcase on her desk, lifts her head, smiles again—until her eyes land on me.

  “Ms. Chebli.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Please take off your head covering.”

  Everyone turns to look at me. The silence is dense. My face is on fire. I do not budge.

  “Ms. Chebli, I asked you to remove your veil.”

  “You mean my scarf,” I say.

  How could I have been so naive as to imagine for one second that my decision would be without consequences? I guess I didn’t want to think about it. I thought my good faith would speak for me. Also, they know me at school: they know I’m not here to proselytize. I believed that after a few whispers, my head scarf would go unnoticed.

  Was I fooling myself?

  “I don’t understand, Ms. Chebli. What are you trying to prove?”

  “Nothing, ma’am.”

  My cheeks are still red-hot, but I look straight into the teacher’s eyes.

  “We’ve already discussed this very topic in class. Have you forgotten the Afghan women who are prisoners in their burkas? Don’t you feel a responsibility toward them and all the women of the world?”

  Ms. Lombard has raised her voice. She’s getting carried away. She’s not really expecting an answer from me. All she wants is a sign, a gesture of agreement. But what kind of answer can I possibly give to such a closed-minded and intellectually dishonest question?

  “I really don’t understand you, Sohane!” Ms. Lombard goes on. “You’re a brilliant student. You’ve never tried to make yourself conspicuous. You’re a hardworking girl. You can’t jeopardize your future because of such a stupid decision!”

  I do not flinch. I do not respond.

  “Ms. Chebli, I’m asking you for the last time to remove your veil. In the name of freedom, I cannot tolerate this in my class!”

  If I weren’t so nauseated, I would snigger at this last declaration.

  Never mind. I haven’t taken my books out of my bag yet. All I have to do is put my jacket back on and leave.

  The teacher bites her lip.

  “Sofia, please accompany your friend to Mrs. Desbeaux.”

  I am almost at the door when Sofia catches up with me. I open the door and go out. Sofia shuts the door behind us.

  Our footsteps echo loudly in the deserted corridor. We hear the voices of teachers, a cough, a laugh. The chief educational advisor’s office is in the other building.

  “You should think about what you’re doing, Sohane,” Sofia says.

  Sofia has accelerated her steps to keep pace with mine. She puts her hand on my arm.

  “Sohane …”

  I stop and look at her.

  “Yes, Sofia, I’m listening.”


  “So, I’ve already thought about it. I’m Muslim.”

  As I say these words, I realize how sudden and stubborn my decision has been. But I do not want to justify myself.

  Sofia does not reply. Her hand is still on my arm. I wish I could thank her.

  Mrs. Desbeaux’s office is only a few feet away.

  “You don’t have to come with me, Sofia. Don’t worry, I’m not going to flee or go home without permission.”

  “I trust you.”


  Sofia turns around while I hold my breath. It will surely be easier for me to face the advisor without a chaperone.

  I knock on the door.

  “Come in.”

  I enter. Mrs. Desbeaux is sitting behind her desk, filling out papers. She does not look up right away. I wait.

  “Ms. Chebli?” she finally says. “What brings you here?”

  “I’ve been expelled from French class, ma’am.”

  Mrs. Desbeaux immediately sizes up the situation.

  “Don’t tell me you’re surprised, Sohane,” she chides me. “You are aware of the law, aren’t you?”

  Her tone is patronizing and humiliating. It’s barely eight-twenty, less than an hour since I got to school, and no one has really taken an interest in me. I’m merely a head scarf. Where is Sohane Chebli? She has disappeared; she no longer exists. Instead, everyone sees only a teenager seeking attention and scandal. Overnight I have become the symbol of a population born of immigrants. I’m suddenly adrift—the victim of the rise of fundamentalism. It’s possible that some girls started to wear head scarves just to attract attent
ion, or because they were manipulated. But why is it that no one bothers to talk to me without assuming that my choice is stupid or that I just want to antagonize everyone? “I am Sohane Chebli!” I feel like shouting. “Look at me! Look at Sohane Chebli.”

  But it is useless.

  “I suppose Ms. Lombard asked you to uncover your head and you refused?” Mrs. Desbeaux asks, seemingly resigned. It’s as if she’s been expecting to deal with this kind of problem for a while. And she has a strategy at the ready.

  “Yes, that’s correct.”

  She takes a pen and scribbles a few words on a piece of paper.

  “Go to study hall until nine o’clock. What’s your next class?”

  “Econ with Mr. Roussin.”

  She nods. “I’ll take advantage of the next thirty minutes to talk to Mr. Roussin. I’ll let you know what we decide. For now, a meeting with the principal seems a must. Do you have anything to say to justify your attitude?”

  I shrug. My attitude seems obvious, but to explain it in words …

  “I just want to be me. I don’t want to be ashamed of being Muslim and of practicing my religion. I’d like people to accept that. I don’t intend to harm anyone.”

  I blurt all this out without taking a breath and try to keep my eyes fixed on hers.

  She sighs.

  “I’ve made note of it, Sohane. You can go.”

  Study hall is almost empty. The supervisor puts Mrs. Desbeaux’s note on her desk without even reading it and tells me to sit down.

  Everything feels unreal—and yet so real at the same time.

  I can’t believe this is happening. They can’t do this to me. They’re bluffing—just trying to scare me. But deep down I know that’s not true. I’m going to be expelled. They’re going to get rid of me as if I have a contagious disease.

  Strangely enough, time goes by quickly.

  At nine, Mrs. Desbeaux walks in and comes straight to me. She looks somber.

  “I spoke to Mr. Roussin,” she says. “He insists on abiding by the law and backs Ms. Lombard’s decision. He will not admit you in his class as long as you wear the head scarf. Have you given it more thought?”

  I hold my breath before answering. “I want to keep my head covered.”

  Mrs. Desbeaux rolls her eyes. “I didn’t think you were so stubborn, Sohane. I can understand your desire to cover your hair—after all, it’s your business—but you cannot do so at school. The law is the law. Wouldn’t it be enough to wear your head scarf outside?”

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