Alger, le cri

Samir Toumi
Alice Kaplan
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

I was born in silence at the Saint-Eugène clinic, at 8 p.m. on the day of Mouloud. I didn’t cry. The midwife shook my legs vigorously until the cry came. Fireworks in honor of the Prophet’s birthday crackled in the night.

Ever since, I’ve searched for the cry.

Terrace in April
This city assaults me, it climbs up and back down. Its chaos exhausts me, its pulsating disorders are my own, mirror of my own instability, my own chaos. Algiers, exploding city, made from the hundreds of mortar shells in the mountains that gave birth to these metastasized buildings standing like the quills of a hedgehog, like a mass of sea urchins stuck to their rock. Algiers, city bursting in the sun, sticky in its shades of gray, living at the mercy of its moods–no, her moods, which echo mine. Violent, they say this city is violent. I think I’m violent, like my city. Can she be held responsible?

Irresponsible, nothing is ever her fault, same with me. When she happens to be guilty, she smothers you in her bay, deprives you of oxygen. In the night the city comes for you, she spreads her lights nonchalantly; when the boats appear to float weightlessly, when the waxing moon outlines its rump, when the noises are subdued, like a groan, only then does the city exhale her sensuality.

I am watching Algiers from my terrace, there she is, crouching at my feet, gathered up and ready to leap. I light a cigarette, the smoke pollutes my lungs, this city pollutes me; insidious, it makes me dependent. The lights from the Moutonnière freeway highlight the bay like an eyebrow. And this never-ending groan. Moutonnière, the sheep’s hold–where is the shepherd? Algiers is a city without a shepherd, who mistreats her flock of residents, starting with me.

Algiers laughs. Like a play on words. Alger rit. Algiers chokes by day, breathes by night, a long breath that makes her lights flash a hypnotic message. I talk about my city so I don’t have to talk about myself–Algerian modesty, like lowering one’s gaze and walking silently in the city, closed off in the midst of noisy agitation, and joining the others, equally silent, who are slaloming between the crying children and the racket of horns.

Algiers strings out her young people like prayer beads along the walls, alone or in groups. What are they talking about? Curses. Curses on the city so as not to think about where you come from, Algiers shares the modesty of her inhabitants. Difficult for me to breathe amid the disorderly heap of buildings tumbling toward the sea, the unfinished houses like so many blisters. Algiers is never done dying of an endless asphyxiation, of a living death, so alive. Is the Algérois cursed? Is he a ghost?

I would like to talk about myself without talking about my city, really I would, but in my city no one talks, no one looks. In Algiers, you survive: How are you doing–Okay, sort of? That’s how the people of Algiers greet one another, content with not much, with chouiya–a chouiya of hope, a chouiya of love, a chouiya of pleasure, or, as the song goes–a hymn to the Algérois–chouiya bark, nothing is already a lot. I would really like to speak, to exhale just a little, chouiya, in unison with my city.

Exhale to atone, by talking about myself, made by my city. In my city I am veiled like the bay in fog, and between the fog and my modesty I dream about uninhibited writing the way Algiers dreams about the Mediterranean, but Algiers is as frightened of the sea as I am of words. I must exhale with words, I must atone for Algiers, languid Algiers, lining up her lights on filaments in my night.

From my terrace I see my reflection in Algiers, complex, unreadable, impenetrable, shattered, shocked by the culture, shocked by the terrain. Algiers is beautiful and noxious all at once. With that thought, my pen becomes a jackhammer, like the one that just destroyed the old Parisienne building. The words fall violently on my paper, I’m witnessing their collapse. Everything in Algiers is in danger of collapsing, from the Hôtel de France, the edifice once nestled in a corner of Port-Saïd Square, to the crumbling buildings of Belcourt and the gaping remains exposing their void along the winding alleyways of the Casbah. I must write so as not to collapse; I’m waiting for words like the eighteenth-century tsunami that destroyed Algiers, words to swallow up the seawalls of incomprehension keeping me from writing.

I dread words. Algiers dreads the wave that will put an end to her perpetual suicide. I was born with this dread, this curse, daawassou. I am the Berber child who grew up with the saying If you aren’t nice to your parents the daawassou will get you! Daawassou is the seal of guilt already stamped on your forehead in childhood, Algiers has the daawassou, ugly city, mean city, always good for taking last place in the international rankings, dammed city, daawassou!

From the shade of my terrace, I can make out the narrow and winding streets, the rings of a boa constrictor who strangles its inhabitants daily. The people of Algiers who drive these streets go up and down, then down and up, then turn, and at the turn risk a crash, an accident. At the bend, an opening will reveal the spectacle of the bay with its violent beauty, like getting a slap in silence and almost resenting it. Bitch of a city, perverse city, hiding her bay to reveal it for a few precious seconds, the way women’s bodies are hidden here. Too much beauty, too much sensuality, not allowed, daawassou! On the streets of Algiers, beauty and death collide, separated by hairpin turns, turns of hatred. Better to lower one’s eyes, climb up, come down, turn, and above all, say nothing!

My head is spinning, words go up and back down, thoughts clash. I touch the outlines of my body, a simple reflex; my hands draw its contours in the blackness of night; no one sees me except her, my city. I’ve built a shell of flesh around this body, better to stay quiet in my city; I have smoked, smoked too much, to mimic my city’s slow death. I have suffered in silence, in unison with Algiers, accompanying her in her eternal suicide, in her slow fall that never ends. I am destroying my body as the city is destroying her buildings. Then night comes, and with it hope, when the sewers recede and the lights wink at one another, when the snake is sleeping and relaxes its rings. Then I breathe with my city while I listen for the noise that accompanies its monotone groan. I breathe to hear Algiers, not to hear myself.

I love the night; the city sleeps at my feet. Algiers is sitting on a seismic fault: her entrails can awaken at any moment, the snake rings can explode and destroy everything. I was born in a city that sleeps on a destructive fault, where at any moment she can spurt out the creative lava that will one day liberate my writing and make the rings of my history explode. Where is my fault line? Writing is a war, a war against the self. Algiers has always known war. Her history, like mine, is founded by war, wars. I am the fruit of a history of fault lines and wars. I must write, confront my war, explore my fault.

I leave my terrace and lose my way in the streets of Algiers, as in the streets of memory. There I find my past and abandon my present. Like the city, I’ve forgotten my future. Algiers transports me into my past, with the streets as her stage set. She freezes me in the present, like the people in those sepia postcards the Algérois are so fond of. They scrutinize and comment on the tiniest details of the images the street vendors display. A photo of the trees in Bresson Square shares the space with the stern, enigmatic face of Houari Boumedienne, paper witness to their past. My past is also made of images: the rue des Pirates at Pointe-Pescade, the street of my childhood, or the procession of freighters entering the port of Algiers that I used to count daily, leaning over the terrace of the Lafarge apartment, doing my childish arithmetic. On the street vendors’ racks, a row of postcards from the past invariably ends with a photo of the young Bouteflika, with his imposing mustache and prematurely bald head, posing next to President Boumedienne, with his emaciated face and high cheekbones. It’s the ultimate image, the most recent one, that seems to mark an implicit and brutal suspension of time, at the exact border of nostalgia and pain, a line of demarcation between the past and the present, a temporal fault.

December 1978: Boumedienne is dead! I was doing my homework that evening under the neon light of a second kitchen in our apartment that had been turned into a study hall. I greeted the news with the falsely indifferent silence of childhood, vaguely aware of the gravity of the moment. Time telescopes again: I see myself shortly after his death in 1980, the day the fault line cracked at El Asnam. I was on the terrace, as I was every day, carefully counting the freighters. Then the ground gave way, and Tapiche, the dog, lay flat, terrorized, as though she were listening to the entrails of the earth. Just before, a bird in flight brutally tore through the sky like an explosion, it’s an earthquake! My first internal quake occurred the same year; I was alone, sitting in my father’s desk chair. Cursed pen, cursed modesty, cursed sex, cursed images, the city trembled but it didn’t speak, so I, too, trembled in pleasure and stayed silent. With this racket inside me I was convinced: above all, stay silent, nothing will ever be the same as before, Daawassou!

Memories surface in the shadows, threatening the quiet of my terrace, while I contemplate the bay, which is showing itself off like a postcard. I am angry. Algiers has taught me anger: her streets, the lay of the land, her sun, her sky, her fog, everything in this city provokes anger. Anger about the traffic jams, anger about the bureaucracy, the angry press, history in anger, the present in anger, anger is everywhere, anger glides through the air. Recalling my own memories makes me angry. Even when the snake of light curls up against the bay, brightening the night, her anger remains palpable, almost sticky. In the end, the people of Algiers are born angry, raised angry, and die angry. As for me, I was born the day of Mouloud, the Prophet’s birthday, and I didn’t cry. The nurse had to shake you violently to get you to cry. When you finally did, your cry sounded angry!

Anger dwells in Algeria; you can read it on people’s faces, you can hear it in the nervous way they honk their horns, it threatens us in the fog of the sky–anger is everywhere, penetrating with a cry, an argument, with shouting from the balconies. There is anger in ululating chants, in the Rai music that screams from car speakers, in the exhaust spewing from accelerating motorcycles, it emanates from the children screaming at one another during their games of street soccer, it electrifies the mobs of people pushing to get on the bus, it spurts from tense exchanges between two passersby. Algiers exhausts me, and on the streets of Algiers I take my anger for a walk. With every victory by the soccer team, the people of Algiers replay their independence day, 5 July 1962, and on those nights, anger becomes joy, or joy becomes anger, what does it matter, everything is telescoped in the omnipresent past of a people without a present, whose future has been erased by the endless parade of sepia postcards. How to write anger? Where is my present? Am I a man without a future, imprisoned on a terrace with anger as my only companion? Am I doomed to feed on the past?

When I visit him, my brother proudly shows me his thick binders filled with vintage postcards, the Ruisseau des singes, 1947, the University of Algiers, 1932, the Place d’Armes in Oran, Blida, 1953. Protected inside cellophane pouches, an Algiers in black and white or sometimes colorized, fastidiously classified and filed, parades before my eyes. This is my brother’s response to the chaos of daily life. Where are the present and the future? He is always talking to me about just before the war, or just after the war, after that it’s a black hole, time is suspended, there are no more postcards, the binder is shut. Are we still at war? Is nostalgia our final prison, our final terrace? Is that the price we pay to avoid confronting our anger? I don’t want to end up on a postcard, my anger under cellophane.

The air is sticky, it’s stifling on my terrace, writing is as stifling as Algiers beneath its fog. The city bows under the weight of its tormented history like the stooped backs of the venerable old women, the hadjate, who climb the endless stairways of the city center. Algiers suffers, a city without a present and without a future, city on the fault, smothered by the hatred of its inhabitants and also by their love. From love to hate, then from hate to love, the city inspires an exhausting seesaw of feelings. My writing seesaws; it oscillates between fountains of words, often inept, and awkward, guilty silences impossible to explain. Love of writing, hatred of writing, the eternal pendulum; I must breathe, I inhale my cigarette, I inhale death, I am going to suffocate like my city, I must leave Algiers, leave the country, leave my terrace, on a rowboat or by jumping into a car to cross the border, to go east for example, toward sweet, calm Tunisia with its promises of jasmine and mint tea with roasted pine nuts, so gentle, so sugary sweet, a dream of ecstasy.

I want to flee so as to breathe, to find a place where there is a present and a future, to empty the shelves of the Tunisian supermarkets in a frenzy. I want to dream, better to die after, better to love or hate my city, my life. In Algiers we talk about el harga, the burn, the fire, the people who burn the boats so they can annihilate the past and forget Algeria, the rings of its bay, the furrows of pain dug by its streets full of people with emaciated faces, whose wrinkles repeat the city’s tortured topography. Kho, kech visa, Brother do you have a visa? Or else burn everything, as on the fifth day of October in 1988, or like so many weeks in numerous villages in the interior of the country. Burn the bodies with napalm in the maquis, burn my lungs, burn in silence, internal combustion, self-immolate so as to leave nothing but ashes in the funeral marches, too many to count. The words burn me from inside, they don’t want to come out, so I hang on to my city, like those teenagers on rollerblades who hang on to the back of the bus to get a pull up the avenue Mohammed V. I’m going to keep talking about Algiers, my city, to try to talk about myself, I’m going to hang on to her to grasp myself, El Djazair–the islands–made of seven million island souls lulled by the groan of the snake. Algiers, a battlefield where everyone struggles with the city the way they struggle with themselves, an absurd, endless battle with no winners or losers, with no tomorrow.

As usual my thoughts are confused; they reverberate in the night as the smoke rings escape from my cigarette and fly off the terrace, taking the shape of thousands of satellite dishes attached to the balconies of apartment buildings. Algiers, a city torn between Orient and Occident, where a virtual present and future are captured by antennae pointed over there, l’hih. The word sounds like a gentle breeze full of promise, far away, l’hih, we distance ourselves from the city, from ourselves, hope is outside, over there, far away, l’hih. Our inner lives are just like our lives in the city–caged. The people of Algiers close their windows, shut off the bay, put steel bars on the doors, hang curtains on their balconies; they hide, they close themselves in. Only the satellite receiver sticks out, avid for the l’hih, for the over there, while the Algérois, huddled in their city as I am on my terrace, watch l’hih, dreaming of a present, perhaps a future. Open the window and you might get slapped: violent beauty of the city, it hurts your eyes, hurts inside, too much beauty, too much present, the possibility of a future, that’s forbidden, haram, la yadjouz! For the people of Algiers, happiness is captured by a satellite dish, it is virtual by definition. For the people of Algiers, being shut in is a condition. To leave is to dream of exiting the city, of exiting oneself. Must I leave to write? Is my writing l’hih, out there?

From the terrace, I enjoy looking up and down along my beloved Chemin Laperlier. This street is absurd, dangerous, and gnarled, beautiful and utterly lacking in logic, threatened and threatening. I love the palm tree in the middle just before the consulate, with its promise of far-away places, its little colonial houses lost among a few deteriorating apartment complexes, its bit of countryside at the top of the street, Tifariti Park–what are the Sahrawi rebels doing there? In the car I love to tremble before every turn, anticipating a crash. At the top of the winding street comes the payoff, a view of the bay that takes your breath away, just before the final turn, the busiest and most dangerous curve that frees you for the descent down boulevard Bougara. And that persistent rumor about the street, The houses are falling down, there’s been a landslide–I’ve heard it said since childhood. So the Chemin Laperlier lives perpetually under the threat of its final downfall, its inevitable collapse, its fatal outcome, daawassou. Every day I take this sliding, disappearing street; I love to go up it when I know it will slide, I love to risk death at every turn, a really slow death, a death to slide into. Meanwhile, children are playing in Tifariti Park, a park that never stops sliding. Cries of joy and pushing to get onto the merry-go-round conjures death cowering below. The park and the children slide, and when I enter into myself, I slide too, without being able to hold on with my words. Laperlier, my street, rises when everything within me falls. To rise, in spite of sliding, such is everyday life in Algiers, in this city descending toward the sea, toward death. Is that why in Algiers the air always tastes like ashes?

The moment has come, I’m slipping little by little into myself, looking for the fault line. As for Algiers, she has not finished sliding toward a hypothetical void, toward that death which never stops coming. Algiers welcomes death, the seriousness of the people of Algiers, my seriousness, is certainly the price we pay.

Here I am, slipping once again behind my city, talking about it and not about me. Algiers is the tree that hides my forest, Algiers helps me release my words, and when, as on this night, I feel the bay deserting its rings, I sneak off to find them. I hear the words, they flow from the slow chants of chaabi music, from the gritty voices of the Rai singers, from the raging cries of Berber songs, words expressing melancholy, announcing the imminence of death, paying their respects to time past, to beauty that has died, to the alcohol that calms sorrow, the sorrow of exile, of existence, and of love, the sorrow of life without a present and without a future. As in the song about the bird trapped in a cage, Yel meknine ezzine. One never leaves Algiers, one never leaves oneself, one never leaves one’s sorrow. Cry in the city, cry in exile, but above all, never stop saying your sorrow.

The noise from a T.V. fills the night; it’s the national anthem coming from a neighbor’s balcony, fachhadou, fachhadou, fachhadou–Testify! I was born under the seal of the war, rocked to sleep by the exploits of the Moudjahidine in the country of a million and a half martyrs. The war was my mother’s milk; I am the child who didn’t cry, rescued by a midwife. I am the child who was never supposed to be conceived, who shouldn’t have survived. I was born without the possibility of the cry, in Saint-Eugène, at the foot of its decaying cliff, in one of those houses that has kept a vestige of its old towers, not far from the “haunted house” that became a kindergarten, a vague ghost story–death once again. On the windows of the veranda that looks over the road someone has painted Mickey Mouse with Mona Lisa’s smile, It’s the haunted house, the children say that a nurse takes care of them at night. This nurse doesn’t really exist, she’s a ghost! Mickey stares at me fixedly, he seems to be making a sign, I turn away from him toward the sea. The tiled roofs of the beach cabanas cling to the rocks and look out toward the deep; they turn their backs to me, house-urchins braving the sea, fighting against death. Algiers is peopled with ghosts, ghosts are everywhere, even in my mother’s childhood memories. In Mostaganem, we lived in a house we had to abandon, I was only a child. We heard strange noises, the furniture moved, your grandfather decided to move, the house was haunted. Am I a ghost, living in a city transfixed by the past? Is that why present and future dilute, why the people of Algiers always hide from the light behind their blue-and-white-striped curtains? Am I a Mickey stuck in place, looking toward the sea, a Mickey without a cry? Baby ghosts don’t cry, not unless you shake their legs; a ghost doesn’t write, he wanders, looking for his past. Huddling on a terrace, a ghost inhabits the sepia postcards, his precious cry smothered beneath a sky of cellophane.

Samir Toumi was born in 1968 in the Bologhine district of Algiers. After completing a graduate degree in engineering, he returned to Algiers, where he founded a consulting firm specializing in human resources. His literary début, Alger, le cri, was published in 2013 to critical acclaim. His second novel, L’Effacement, won the Prix de l’Association France-Algérie and the Prix de la Littérature Arabe in 2017. He is the founder and sponsor of the alternative art space “La Baignoire.”
Alice Kaplan is an American literary critic, translator, historian, and educator. She is the John M. Musser Professor of French and chair of the Department of French at Yale University.
Originally published:
January 1, 2019


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