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I love i hate i miss my.., p.7

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, page 7


I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

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  When we got home that evening after our visit to Hana Leïla’s, Mrs. Desbeaux had already called. Dad wasn’t back yet. Mom was biting her nails.

  “What’s all this about, Sohane?” she asked. “They’re talking about having to expel you from school. Do you know that?”

  Taïeb and Idriss were sitting on the floor, drawing at the coffee table. The TV was off. Djelila, Mom, and I were leaning our elbows on the dining table.

  “Is this all because of your head scarf?” Mom asked.

  “Yes, Mom.”

  “Then you have to remove it, Sohane. You have to remove this scarf. You’ll have all the time you want to wear it later on. Lots of women wait until they get married. You know that.”

  “I’m not sure I want to get married, Mom,” I answered, rolling my eyes, trying to lighten the mood. Djelila laughed.

  “This is not funny!” Mom scolded us. “It’s very serious. What will you do if they expel you, tell me?”

  I sighed. “There are other ways, Mom. Correspondence courses, for instance.”

  I had thought about it all afternoon, in the library.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Long-distance teaching. You receive your courses by mail and you work from home—”

  “Is it as good as real school?”

  Mom stopped going to school when she finished tenth grade, after she had repeated it twice, if not three times. She’s never talked much about that period of her life, only to tell us not to follow in her footsteps. “Education is your best friend, girls. Don’t forget it,” she always said.

  “It’s exactly the same,” Djelila answered for me. “The only difference is that you don’t see the teachers. You receive the courses by mail, you send them your homework, they grade it, and they send it back to you marked up.”

  “And you can get your diploma this way?”

  I smiled. “Yes, Mom. I can get my diploma.”

  “Well, I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be simpler to continue at Racine?”

  “They don’t want me there anymore, Mom.”

  Dad came home at that moment. Right away he noticed that something was wrong: Djelila, Mom, and I were talking around the dining table, which seldom happened.

  “What is going on?” he asked as he took off his jacket.

  Mom shot me a look, which said it all: You tell him. I don’t have the courage.

  “I went to school with a head scarf this morning, and the teachers don’t want me in their classes anymore,” I explained. “They’re talking about having me expelled.”

  Dad didn’t seem to understand. “Your scarf?”

  “Yes, I decided to cover my head,” I told him.

  Dad frowned. “So they want to expel you for that? You? One of their best students?”

  Dad is unwavering in his beliefs that Djelila is the most beautiful girl on earth and that I’m the most intelligent one.

  I sighed. “I’m not the best student at school, Dad.”

  “Are you telling me that they have a lot of students with grades as good as yours?”

  “That’s not the issue, Dad. They’re talking about expelling me.”

  “Because you wore a scarf on your head? They can’t kick you out because you cover your head, Sohane, it’s impossible! Not because of a head scarf! What’s wrong with your scarf, anyway?”

  “They don’t want any religious symbols in school. There’s a law—and it includes head scarves.”

  “What business is it of theirs? You’re not trying to convert your classmates to Islam, are you?”

  I shook my head.

  “So do they have a problem because you’re Arab?”

  “I’m not Arab, Dad. I’m French. And so are you!”

  I had no idea how he would react to the situation, but his temper surprised me. Dad had never seemed compelled to follow the teachings of the Koran. He prayed, like Mom, like me, like Djelila. And until last year, he observed Ramadan, talked sometimes about making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and went to the mosque as often as possible, but he had never asked Mom to cover her head.

  “Your uncle Ahmed is right,” Dad muttered. “The French don’t want us anymore. They were very happy to have us in the past to fill the ranks of their armies and to do cheap labor, but now they don’t want our children.”

  Mom disappeared into the kitchen.

  “They called a while ago to ask you and Mom to come to school tomorrow and meet with the school advisor and the principal.”

  “What for?”

  “They want to explain why I’m not allowed to wear a head scarf in class, and they want you to convince me to take it off.”

  “Do you want to take it off?”

  “No, Dad. I told them I don’t intend to remove it.”

  “Then don’t.”

  His support surprised me, but I tried not to show it.

  “Is this what you want us to tell them tomorrow?” he asks me.



  Dad sat down. “Is dinner ready? I’m hungry.”

  That night, Djelila and I could hear our parents talking from our room. We could make out only snippets of conversation, but it was clear that Mom was trying to sway Dad. “If you tell her … you, she’ll obey … the school … important … don’t want to know … old enough to decide … they’re not going to impose … if she wants to wear the head scarf, what right …”

  We laughed and fell asleep.

  The next morning, I got up at the same time as you, Djelila. I got dressed and you asked me why. “I’m going to study,” I answered.

  “If I were you I’d take a break.”

  I shook my head. “No, I’m going to register for correspondence classes today.”

  And that’s what I did.

  Dad came home earlier than usual to pick up Mom and they headed to Racine. He even changed into a suit, which made him look dapper and serious. When I told him what correspondence courses would cost, he took out his checkbook, filled in a check, and handed it to me.

  Djelila came home shortly after that, looking flushed, her hair all tangled. She threw her schoolbag down in the hall.

  “What happened to you?” I asked.


  Seeing my astonishment, she filled me in.

  “Majid and his lovely pals.”

  With everything going on, I had almost forgotten them.

  “They hassled me again,” Djelila said. “I’m fed up with those stupid punks. I’d like to slap their faces and send them crying to their mothers.”

  “I hope you didn’t talk back to them,” I said, suddenly worried by Djelila’s anger.

  “You bet I did! They called me a dirty slut and I don’t know what else. I told them they were a bunch of impotent losers and they chased me until I reached our tower.”

  I must have looked pale as a ghost, because Djelila started laughing madly.

  “Don’t make such a face, Sohane. It’s not true. I’m too scared of those guys to do that!”


  “You got scared for me, So. Is that it?”

  “Idiot. No, I got scared for them!”

  “You know what’s so stupid? Those guys bother me because I don’t cover my hair and you’re expelled from school because you want to cover yours. Isn’t it ironic? By the way, I’ve got the latest gossip.”

  “What is it?”

  “You have a support committee!”


  “Karine had the idea. We hatched a plan in the cafeteria during lunch. Everything is ready.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “We wrote a petition demanding your unconditional readmission to school. We photocopied it and passed it around during recess.”


  “Yes, and Estelle, Sylvan, Jerome, Basil, and some others. Here it is.”

  Djelila opened her bag and took out a sheet of paper with a paragraph scribbled in pen, complete with cuts, corrections, and additions in
the margin. I was touched that they would do this for me even though I hardly knew them. They were Djelila’s friends, not mine. We had never talked. Obviously, they knew I was Djelila’s sister.

  And they hadn’t stopped at that.

  Mom and Dad came back late from school. Djelila and I were feeding Taïeb and Idriss, who had become unruly. When I heard the key turn in the lock, my heart jumped hard and fast. Why? I wasn’t expecting anything. No news they brought was going to change the decision I had made.

  I had already decided that I would not go back to school, in spite of the petition and what followed later. I wasn’t trying to draw attention to myself. I wasn’t trying to provoke anyone. I simply was trying to find out who I was, not start a fight.

  Actually, Dad and Mom didn’t make any extraordinary announcement. Dad sat and sighed while Mom took over with the little ones.

  “So?” I asked. “What happened?”

  “They want you to remove your head scarf,” Dad said. “What do you think?”

  “I think you should do what you think is fair, Sohane.” Dad’s voice sounded harsh and tired at the same time. “Nobody has the right to ask you to deny your religion!”

  I nodded. “Then I’ll send my registration form for the correspondence classes tomorrow morning.”

  At school, Djelila and her friends’ petition created some waves. I was the talk of Racine, along with my expulsion. The principal, the chief educational advisor, and some teachers organized a meeting with the students so that everyone could vent their feelings. Allowing people to be heard is a way to clean open wounds. Everyone expressed their opinions. Everyone but me, since I wasn’t invited to the gathering. I was already banned from school.

  In any case, nothing came of the meeting. Those who wanted to speak did, and it was acknowledged that head scarves could create a problem when worn in a public establishment. The teachers and principal gave speeches about safeguarding the country’s democratic and secular principles. According to Djelila, Mrs. Desbeaux was very restrained. She spoke of freedom of religion and expression.… My sister also spoke. She tried to explain the paradox that shocked her: how I was required to remove my head scarf at school, while others in our housing projects wanted girls to be more traditional and conservative in their attire. But she only got limited responses, like “If you really agreed with your sister, you would wear the veil too” and “You support her because she’s your sister.”

  Djelila kept me posted on the latest news. As for me, I kept studying. The truth is that the uproar didn’t last long. The meeting took place two or three days after my departure. And then, slowly, everybody calmed down. Life went on: classes, homework, grades, parties. One week later, no one was talking about me.

  News of Djelila took over.

  News of Djelila’s death.

  I don’t have any trouble adjusting to coursework through correspondence. I like it more than regular school. I like working alone and organizing my day the way I want. I can’t say that I miss school. Sofia called me last night to offer her help. I told her I didn’t need anything. Djelila asked if I was using my sudden freedom to take walks, watch TV, read.… No, not even that. It takes me a while to sort through the courses and write the essays. I’ve already gotten three of them back, graded: one in economics, one in English, and one in philosophy. The economics teacher congratulated me on my work. I got a good grade in English. And an A in French. I have some catching up to do, but I’m going to show everyone at Racine what’s what. I don’t need them to succeed. I’m going to graduate from high school no question!

  Djelila has gone to basketball practice. She has a game tonight. She’s not coming home first. Coach Abdellatif organized a pregame picnic in the gym. Each player is supposed to bring something to eat. Mom prepared a leek pie and a mushroom salad. Djelila was jumping like a flea with excitement when she left at two o’clock. “It’s a very important game,” she said. “The Montilan team has won all their games so far. If we can beat them, we’ll end up leading in the tournament.”

  Of course, having permission to have dinner away from home adds to Djelila’s fervor.

  For some reason, though, I have an uneasy feeling about it.

  Djelila told me that these past few days Majid and the others have been waiting for her every afternoon at school. Dressed in hoodies, they follow her to the projects, making sure to stay some ten steps behind her. They don’t bother insulting her anymore. All they do is spit regularly in her direction. She’s had it. She comes home in a worse state of nerves every evening. She’s tried to focus on the upcoming game to avoid thinking about the constant stress of Majid. “When I play, I don’t think about anything else. It’s just the ball, our team, and the other team. I run, I pass, I push. The most important thing becomes the basket.”

  Djelila’s eyes shine when she talks basketball.

  They dim when she thinks about Majid and his gang of losers.

  “What do they want?” she demands. “Why are they always on my back? What have I done to them?”

  I don’t answer. But I think her jeans are too tight—I gave her mine, finally—and her jacket is too short.

  Djelila, my sweet Djelila, has become different lately, tougher, more aggressive, more of a soul in torment. My expulsion from school has rocked her. “How can outsiders give themselves the right to run our lives!” she rants.

  I don’t answer this either. I know that when she talks this way, she’s thinking about Majid and his pals. Not about me.

  I go back to the novel I’m reading, which I’ll use for my next French essay. I love the book—it makes me think, and, normally, I wouldn’t be able to put it down. But I can’t concentrate on the story tonight. I can’t stop thinking about Djelila.

  The phone rings. Mom picks it up.

  I come out of my room.

  “OK, but not too late,” Mom says. “I can trust you, right? You know that your father won’t sleep until you get home. Yes, yes, dear. OK.”

  Mom hangs up.

  “Was it Djelila?”

  “Yes, the whole team wants to spend time together after the game. To celebrate if they win, commiserate if they lose.”

  “Is their coach going with them?” I ask.

  Mom gives me a worried look. “I don’t know.”

  “I’m sure he is,” I reassure her. “He’ll want to celebrate too.”

  “Probably,” Mom agrees.

  Unless he doesn’t know about the outing. Unless the girls “forgot” to invite him. In which case, there will likely be alcohol involved. And I suspect no one will have to beg Djelila to drink with them.

  Djelila runs. Jumps. She is all arms and legs. She is everywhere on the court. Racine’s opponents lead by two points. On the side, standing with his fists clenched, Coach Abdellatif shouts words of encouragement.

  “Stay focused, Alice! Mark number five! Mark her!” he yells.

  Djelila dribbles past one of her opponents. She has the ball. She is cornered; her thighs tense up, and, ultrafocused, she looks for an opening.

  “Alice!” she shouts.

  Alice dashes over just in time to catch the ball. Djelila is free. She runs to the basket. Alice understands and makes a long throw that Djelila catches. She makes a quarter turn, bends her knees, springs up on her legs, and jumps like a ballet dancer. The ball falls into the basket with a whoosh.

  Alice and Djelila high-five quickly, and the game goes on. The girls from Montilan, in their orange jerseys, try to create an opening but don’t succeed. Energized by Djelila’s basket, her teammates don’t give Montilan any room. Marine gets the ball, and with one pass, two passes, three passes, it’s up to Djelila to throw again. The whole Montilan team is on her like bees on a honeypot. Djelila is hampered but traces an almost perfect curve, and the ball lands in the hoop.

  The whistle blows. The game is over.

  Djelila’s teammates swarm around her, hug her, tousle her hair, and give her high fives.

  I am cold. I snuggle
as best I can in my jacket and keep my hands in my pockets. I’ve been here for ten minutes, but I didn’t sit in the bleachers. I knew the game would end soon, so I decided to stand in the corridor, near the double doors.

  After dinner, I watched TV with my parents at the same time that I played with Taïeb and Idriss. I couldn’t keep still. I got up during a commercial and told my parents I was going to go root for Djelila and I would come back with her. Dad was all too happy to see me go. Mom gave me a grateful smile. They didn’t want to say it, but they were clearly worried about Djelila as well.

  My sister hasn’t seen me.

  Coach Abdellatif comes up to the girls and congratulates them. His smile shows off his pearly white teeth. His ponytail is undone. When the whistle signaled the end of the game, he removed the rubber band that tied his hair back and put it in his pocket. It was a gesture of victory, his victory gesture.

  “Great job, girls! You played really well. Outstanding!” he tells them.

  The girls from Montilan are already in the locker room. Their coach, a woman with short hair who’s wearing an Adidas tracksuit, walks toward the Racine players.

  “Brava, young ladies,” she says with a smile. “It has been a real pleasure to play against you.”

  “Thank you,” everyone says.

  “Yeah, thank you. Your team played well too,” Coach says.

  Djelila, Alice, and the others try to look modest, but they don’t quite succeed. Triumph is written all over their faces.

  “Well, we have to catch our bus,” the Montilan coach goes on. “I hope we’ll have occasion to meet again. And next time we’ll do what it takes to beat you. Believe me.”

  She shakes hands with Abdellatif, nods to the group, and leaves.

  Abdellatif smiles from ear to ear. He waits until the woman has disappeared through the locker room door.

  “We got them!” he shouts.

  He beams like a kid. His eyes shine the way Taïeb’s and Idriss’s sparkle when Mom tells them a story.

  Alice glances at Djelila, who nods imperceptibly. Alice clears her throat.

  “Hey, Abdel, can we ask you something?” she says.

  “Anything you want, Alice, anything!”

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