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I love i hate i miss my.., p.9

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, page 9

 

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister
 


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  She seems to be elsewhere.

  She goes to bed early. When I come in, she pretends to be asleep.

  Monday morning, she leaves for school without even saying goodbye, and when she comes home, she dives into her homework.

  The phone rings and Mom calls her. I’ll bet anything it’s Alice. Djelila stays on the phone a long while without talking much. Eventually I walk out to the corridor as if I’m going to the bathroom. Djelila quickly turns to face the wall.

  She hangs up and tells Mom that the next day’s basketball practice is canceled. “Abdellatif is sick,” she says.

  Tuesday, she leaves without talking to me.

  I keep thinking about her all day—which explains why I don’t finish the outline of my economics essay on the euro.

  It’s a nice day. The sun shines on the square, almost giving it an air of cheerfulness in spite of the dog poop and dirty papers littering it. I look at the books that are open on my desk. Suddenly I’m tired of constantly studying. I need some fresh air. I look at my watch. Djelila should be back soon. I put my head scarf on, adjust it with pins, and slip my jacket on.

  “Mom, I’m going out for a walk,” I say. “Do you need anything?”

  “No, dear,” Mom answers from the kitchen, where she’s giving Taïeb and Idriss their afternoon snack.

  I open the front door and shut it behind me.

  I hear a dog barking. A dog howling.

  But it is not a dog.

  I run down the stairs. All the way down.

  The howling is coming from the basement. I push open the door and rush in. All I can see are flames—flames and your body twisting. I hear your screams and see your body collapse. I see Majid and your burnt body. Everything else I register without really seeing—the matches, the dirty green can. I am on top of Majid and I hit him. I hit him with all my might. My fists clenched, I hit his face, his eyes, his mouth, and I howl. I howl too.

  Howling. This need to howl is still in the pit of my stomach. To howl with fury and pain.

  I’m glancing at an article about my sister’s death. I couldn’t bring myself to read any of them, but I bought all the newspapers. I kept them without ever looking at them. I’ve taken this one out of the drawer almost involuntarily. On one side is a picture of Djelila, the familiar school ID picture; on the other side is a picture of Majid at the time of his arrest. I do not remember any of it. The picture is blurry, the frame small. His hoodie covers his head, so it’s difficult to make out his face. He is handcuffed. A man, a police officer probably, is holding his arm.

  The article mentions a phrase that the police—without any doubt—fed to the journalists following the murderer’s first questioning: “I swear on my mother’s head, I wanted to teach her a lesson, so I had to do something big.”

  My eyes scan the first lines of the article.

  A sixteen-year-old girl died yesterday, burnt alive in the basement of the Lilac housing projects.

  The alleged murderer, a minor who knew the victim and lived a few buildings away from her, offered no resistance and has been arrested. Paramedics and emergency room doctors could do nothing to save the victim.

  Everyone in the Lilac projects demands justice.…

  “Dead.” “Burnt alive.” “The victim.”

  All these words are about my sister, Djelila.

  For nearly a year now, I have retreated to my room. I come out only to eat and run some errands at hours when the projects are empty. For nearly a year I have created this jail to punish myself for not saving you. I have created this refuge so I won’t have to think that you are no longer here—and that you will never be coming back. Never. I thought about running away. I wanted to forget you, to stop the pain. But it isn’t that easy. Wherever I go, whatever I do, your memory haunts me. Djelila.

  Today a ray of sunshine comes through my bedroom window, our bedroom window, and floods your comforter. Just like on the day you died. Yes, there was a day when you died. That day exists. You are dead. I close my eyes, trying to forget, but I cannot.

  This morning a letter came for me in the mail. I put it on my desk without paying attention to it. Now I push the newspaper back and open the envelope. It is a letter to all seniors enrolled in correspondence courses, reminding us to register for the final-year exam. The exam I was unable to face after your death and put off for a year.

  No use trying to work any more today. I am in no mood to understand what I’m reading; my mind is simmering with fears, doubts, and anger. I grab my head scarf from the back of my chair and adjust it on my head with motions that have become familiar to me. I put my jacket on, take my bag, and go out without a glance at my work.

  At the foot of our tower, I stop for the first time in front of the stone slab embedded in the ground. My sister’s name is engraved on it. I’ve always refused to stop and look at it. I know that it had to be cleaned two or three times, when red spray paint was used to sully it with slurs like BITCH and WHORE. I don’t know who took care of the cleanup. Djelila’s friends, maybe. That’s definitely possible.

  This slab is only a slab. Djelila’s body is at the cemetery. Buried with an unmarked headstone. And Dad pretends your soul is in Algeria. You, who were so French. Maybe he’s right.

  The tags that drip down the facade of Tower 38 have not been painted over, but since Majid’s arrest, neither Brahim nor Youssef, nor anyone else, hangs out there.

  Today is Wednesday. Children are playing in the square. I can hear their shouts and their laughter. I imagine mothers seated on the benches, watching them. Taïeb and Idriss are at an after-school program.

  I walk across the projects. I have not boarded a bus for ages.

  I walk slowly, letting the sun warm my cheeks. It’s a pleasant feeling. Do I have the right to enjoy this warmth knowing you are dead and will never feel anything again? I inhale deeply. The air smells of dust and exhaust fumes. Just like always.

  What I see first is your name. It’s written in bold letters on a small poster taped to a streetlamp pole. DJELILA. I stop without thinking and read:

  FOR YOU, DJELILA

  Wednesday, November 15, at 2.30 p.m.,

  at the Community Center, 25, rue du Portugal

  Discussion about the death of Djelila Chebli

  Victim of violence in projects

  Numerous people will talk

  My watch says it’s ten past three. The community center is two steps away, at the end of the blacktop alley. I can see the building, its metallic structure adorned with glass. Modern and sleek. There is no hurry for me to register for exams. I can do that tomorrow or even next week.

  I don’t know if it’s curiosity, the desire to hear people talk about my sister, or an unhealthy motivation that pushes me in the direction of the center, but I am soon in front of its main door.

  I open it. In the hall, a woman behind a desk is writing in a large notebook. I go up to her.

  “Excuse me.”

  The woman raises her head.

  “I’m looking for the room where the discussion about Djelila Chebli is taking place,” I tell her.

  “In the corridor. The first one. The blue door on your right.”

  “Thank you.”

  “But it started a while ago.”

  I do not reply. I make my way to the room and knock on the door. No answer. I can hear a woman’s voice.

  I walk in noiselessly. Fortunately, the door opens at the rear of the room, so I’m not too conspicuous. A few faces turn to observe me. Some twenty people are seated in rows of chairs. There are only two men—no, three. I sit down. A woman turns toward me, then leans to her neighbor and whispers a few words in her ear. The other woman looks at me too. I try not to pay attention. Behind a large table, a short-haired woman speaks into a microphone. I don’t understand what she’s saying. It’s not that she doesn’t speak clearly, but I have a hard time concentrating. I distinguish words like “sociologist,” “uneasiness in the suburbs,” and “rise of Islam.” I need to scratc
h my neck. I feel like I’m sweating and yet it’s pretty cold in the room.

  I breathe slowly and try to focus on the words of the speaker.

  People in the first row become agitated. There are whispers. Up at the microphone, the sociologist stops speaking.

  A tall woman gets up and comes toward me.

  Does she recognize me? Is she going to ask me to talk and give my opinion on the tragedy? No, it’s not possible that anyone knows who I am. How could they recognize me? Was there ever a picture of me in the newspaper at the time of the funeral?

  Panic takes hold of me. I can’t. I don’t want to. And then …

  The woman leans toward me.

  “Young lady?”

  “Yes.”

  “We would like you to leave.”

  I look straight at her. My panic is gone. Why is she asking me to leave?

  “You don’t belong here. Our group fights for the liberty of women, for the defense of their free will, and for the abolition of a chauvinist society. You disavow these values by accepting to wear the veil.”

  I feel like shouting, not out of pain this time, but out of amusement at the irony. Of course, how did I forget? I can’t participate in a debate that uses my sister as a symbol! I probably can’t even be Djelila Chebli’s sister, not the Djelila Chebli these women have chosen as the mascot for their own convictions!

  It doesn’t matter. I get up, and without saying a word, I leave. I cross the hallway, almost running. I need fresh air.

  A crushing fatigue invades me. I feel more exhausted than if I had run a marathon.

  “Sohane, Sohane.”

  I wake up with a start. My tangled hair falls on my face. Idriss’s eyes are fixed on mine. I need a few seconds to find my bearings. The community center, the meeting … yes, that’s right, and I came back home. Right away. I did not register for the exam. I will do it tomorrow. I was so tired. I lay down on Djelila’s bed and must have fallen asleep like a log. The clock reads 7:30.

  “It’s almost dinnertime, Sohane,” Idriss says.

  I smile at him. He seems to have forgotten the Do Not Enter rule. He has round and rosy cheeks, dusky skin, curly hair that falls to his neck, and large dark eyes in which you can read his concern.

  I sit up.

  I haven’t looked at my little brother for a long time.

  He hesitates a moment and puts his hand over mine. I shiver.

  “You know,” he whispers, “I miss her too.”

  I nod. My throat is so tight that I cannot speak.

  “I know you’re sad,” my brother goes on. “I’m sad too.”

  “Yes, Idriss, I know you’re sad.”

  “Do you know what else makes me sad?”

  I shake my head.

  “Ever since Djelila died, you’re never here either.”

  Died. He can say it, this word, my little brother.

  “I’m not gone, Idriss. I’m always home.”

  “It’s like you are gone.”

  How could I forget? How could I forget them—Idriss, Taïeb, Dad, and Mom?

  Idriss holds my hand tight.

  “I get the message, Idriss. I’ll be back.”

  “You know, I can write pretty well now.”

  After dinner, I take the telephone directory. I remember Karine’s family name, Bilassovitch. A name so uncommon it’s easy to find.

  I call her. She doesn’t seem surprised when I introduce myself. I tell her that I’ve thought about the suggestion that she, Estelle, Sylvan, and the others have for the memorial of Djelila’s death. My voice hardly chokes when I pronounce this last word.

  “Thank you, Sohane,” Karine says. “Thank you from all of us. Should we meet to talk about it?”

  “OK.”

  “At the Green Handkerchief, after school tomorrow?”

  At the Green Hanky.

  “Sure. At the Green Handkerchief tomorrow around five.”

  “See you then, Sohane.”

  The following day, for the first time in a long while, I go to pick up Taïeb and Idriss at school. I prepare them lunch—chicken cutlets and mashed potatoes. Nothing gourmet, but I think they like it. They talk nonstop about the teachers, their friends.… If I understand correctly, Taïeb had a problem over marbles during recess and Idriss came to his rescue. When I take them back to school, Idriss runs toward his friends, but Taïeb sticks his cheek against mine, kisses me, and whispers in my ear, “See you later, Sohane.”

  I spend the afternoon watching my clock. At four, I’m ready to go, feeling equally impatient and anxious.

  I sit at the back of the Green Handkerchief, at a table where I can see the door, and I wait.

  It’s only when I see them come in together that I manage to acknowledge what has taken so long to evolve in my mind, the knowledge that I had so much trouble accepting: I was wrong, Djelila. Your jeans were not too tight, and your jacket was not too short. You had the right to be yourself. But others decided otherwise. I forgot the principles of the Koran. I should not have judged you, Djelila. I should have been more understanding. In any case, I should have defended you. I did not relate to your rebellion, but it was a mistake, Djelila. You were right. Freedom is everything.

  Karine is the first to sit next to me.

  “Thank you, Sohane,” she says, looking at me. “Thank you for coming.”

  We walk slowly, heads down. We hold the banner that stretches across the whole street: WE HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN YOU, DJELILA!

  These are the words we chose.

  Dad and Mom follow the procession with Taïeb, Idriss, and Hana Leïla. Many of Djelila’s school friends are here too, along with Coach Abdellatif and all of Djelila’s teammates. Alice is crying when I see her. Little by little, many others join the march. Men, women—some of them veiled, some not—young girls, pretty and wearing makeup, their hair falling down their backs, many different ethnicities.

  No one wants to forget Djelila.

  We stop in front of the tower, the one where I still live today. Behind us, Estelle carries a huge bouquet of flowers. She kneels down to lay it on top of the slab.

  It was a year ago. One year exactly.

  My eyes fill with tears. Finally I give myself permission to say goodbye to you, Djelila. I will try to keep my fears at bay; I will try to think that you will always be with me.

  I did not cover my head this morning. It was useless. My head scarf is not a pronouncement. I do not want it to be used as justification for any kind of violence.

  Karine lets go of the banner to join Estelle in front of the slab. She holds a piece of paper in her hand. A short text that we wrote together.

  Her voice is shaking.

  “We are gathered here to remember the victim of a terrible crime—Djelila Chebli. It is for Djelila that we cry today. She is not a symbol of a broken youth and even less the symbol of a divide between two cultures. Djelila was none of that. All Djelila wanted was to live, that is all. We are here for our sister, the sister we will not forget, our sister, Djelila.”

  My cheeks are covered with tears. I cry at last.

  AUTHOR’S NOTE

  Up until 1989, in France, the right of Muslim girls to wear head scarves in public schools was not often considered. But as principals and education boards began to complain that broadcasting one’s religion in a secular establishment was at odds with a public institution of learning, girls who chose to cover their heads began to be suspended, even expelled. A prominent 1989 case—known as L’Affaire du Foulard (“The Headscarf Affair”)—involving three Muslim girls, all banned from the same school for wearing head coverings, spotlighted the controversy. Similar cases followed. Many educators began pushing for a legal ruling. Soon the debate grew heated, feeding the headlines.

  On March 15, 2004, the French government passed a law prohibiting public school students from wearing any conspicuous religious symbols or religious attire. This includes head scarves.

  In writing I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, I have not intended to
tackle the question of whether head scarves should be permitted in schools, but I very much want to raise questions regarding the freedom of women and their right to choose how to live their lives. The novel was inspired by a true and horrifying event that galvanized the attention of all of France in 2002—the death of Sohane Benziane, a seventeen-year-old French girl of Algerian descent, who was murdered. Sohane Benziane was doused with gasoline and burnt alive by Jamal Derrar, a boy who was said to be settling a score with Sohane’s boyfriend. Derrar and his accomplice, Tony Rocca, were sentenced to twenty-five and eight years of prison time, respectively.

  I hope I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister sparks conversations about civil liberties for girls and women—and the ways we can fight to prevent violence against women globally.

  GLOSSARY

  Algeria: A country in North Africa, located between Morocco and Tunisia, on the Mediterranean coast. Its capital is Algiers, and the official language is Arabic. From 1830 to 1962, Algeria was a French colony, which is why there are many Algerian immigrants in France and why many French are of Algerian descent.

  Allah: Arabic for “God.”

  babouche: A heelless slipper that comes in a wide variety of colors, usually made of leather with embroidery and/or other decorative flourishes.

  burka: A full-body cloak worn by Muslim women.

  darbuka: A single-membrane drum with a goblet-shaped body, larger at the top and tapered toward the bottom. The instrument is used mostly in the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe.

  djellaba: A loose-fitting robe with a pointy hood that is worn by men and women, especially in Morocco, but also in all North African countries where Arabic is spoken. The garment is made of cotton for summer and wool for winter.

  hamdullah: Arabic for “praise to Allah,” this expression is often said after finishing a meal.

 
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