Algiers, Algeria in the novel “Our Riches”

14 December, 2020


Algerian-French writer Kaouther Adimi

Alger­ian-French writer Kaouther Adimi

Our Rich­es, a nov­el by Kaouther Adi­mi
Trans­lat­ed from the French by Chris Andrews
New Direc­tions 2020
ISBN


Our Rich­es
cel­e­brates quixot­ic devo­tion and the love of books in the per­son of Edmond Char­lot, who at the age of twen­ty found­ed Les Vraies Richess­es (Our True Wealth), the famous Alger­ian bookstore/publishing house/lending library. He more than ful­filled its mot­to “by the young, for the young,” dis­cov­er­ing the twen­ty-four-year-old Albert Camus in 1937. His entire archive was twice destroyed by the French colo­nial forces, but despite finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties (he was hope­less­ly gen­er­ous) and the vicis­si­tudes of wars and rev­o­lu­tions, Char­lot (often com­pared to the leg­endary book­seller Sylvia Beach) car­ried for­ward Les Vraies Richess­es as a cul­tur­al hub of Algiers.…

Born in 1986 in Algiers, Kaouther Adi­mi lives in Paris. Our Rich­es, her third nov­el, though her first in Eng­lish, was short­list­ed for the Goncourt and won the Prix Renau­dot, the Prix du Style, the Prix Beur FM Méditer­ranée, and the Choix Goncourt de l’I­tal­ie. Adi­mi ded­i­cates her nov­el to “To the peo­ple of Rue Hamani” in Algiers.

Algiers, 2017

An excerpt from Our Rich­es

By Kaouther Adimi

AS SOON as you arrive in Algiers, you will have to tack­le the steep streets, climb and then descend. You will come out onto Didouche Mourad — so many alley­ways off to each side, like hun­dreds of inter­sect­ing sto­ries — a few steps away from a bridge that is favored by sui­cides and lovers alike.


A 2020 novel published by  New Directions  by Kaouther Adimi .

A 2020 nov­el pub­lished by New Direc­tions by Kaouther Adimi .

Keep going down, away from the cafés and the bistros, the cloth­ing stores, the pro­duce mar­kets, quick, keep going, don’t stop, turn left, smile at the old florist, lean for a few moments against a hun­dred- year-old palm tree, ignore the police­man who will tell you it’s pro­hib­it­ed, run after a goldfinch along with some kids, and come out onto Place Emir-Abdelka­d­er. You might miss the Milk Bar: in full day­light the let­ters on the recent­ly ren­o­vat­ed façade are hard to make out. Their con­tours are blurred by the blind­ing sun and the almost white blue of the sky. You will see chil­dren climb­ing onto the plinth of the stat­ue of Emir Abdelka­d­er, smil­ing broad­ly, pos­ing for their par­ents, who will waste no time in post­ing the pho­tos on social media. A man will be smok­ing and read­ing a news­pa­per in a door­way. You will have to greet him and exchange a few pleas­antries before turn­ing back, but not before glanc­ing off to the side: the sil­ver sea sparkling, the cries of the gulls, and always that blue, almost white. 

1

You will have to fol­low the chan­nel of sky, for­get the Hauss­mann-style build­ings, and go past the Aéro-habi­tat, that block of cement loom­ing over the city.

You will be alone; you have to be alone to get lost and see every­thing. There are some cities, and this is one, where any kind of com­pa­ny is a bur­den. You wan­der here as if among thoughts, hands in your pock­ets, a twinge in your heart. 

You will climb the streets, push open heavy wood­en doors that are nev­er locked, touch the marks left on the walls by bul­lets that cut down union­ists, artists, sol­diers, teach­ers, anony­mous passers-by, and chil­dren. For cen­turies the sun has been ris­ing over the ter­races of Algiers, and for cen­turies, on those ter­races, we have been killing each other.

Take the time in the Cas­bah to sit down on a step. Lis­ten to the young ban­jo play­ers, imag­ine the old women behind closed shut­ters, watch the chil­dren hav­ing fun with a cat that’s lost its tail. And the blue over­head, and the blue at your feet: sky blue plung­ing into sea blue, a drop of oil dilat­ing to infin­i­ty. The sea and sky that we no longer notice, in spite of the poets, try­ing to con­vince us that they are palettes of col­or, wait­ing to be adorned with pink or yel­low or black.

For­get that the roads are drenched with red, a red that has not been washed away, and every day our steps sink into it a lit­tle deep­er. At dawn, before cars have invad­ed all the city’s thor­ough­fares, we can hear bombs explod­ing in the distance.

But you will fol­low the alleys that lie open to the sun, won’t you? You’ll come at last to Rue Hamani, for­mer­ly known as Rue Char­ras. You’ll look for 2b: it won’t be easy, because some of the num­bers have dis­ap­peared. You’ll stand there fac­ing a sign in a win­dow: One who reads is worth two who don’t. Fac­ing His­to­ry, with a cap­i­tal H, which changed this world utter­ly, but also the small-h his­to­ry of a man, Edmond Char­lot, who, in 1936, at the age of twen­ty-one, opened a lend­ing library called Les Vraies Richesses. 

1

THE MORNING of the last day. The night has with­drawn, uneasi­ly. The air is thick­er, the sun­light gray­er, the city ugli­er. The sky is crowd­ed with heavy clouds. The stray cats are on the look­out, ears pricked. The morn­ing of a last day, like a day of shame. The fainter-heart­ed among us hur­ry past, pre­tend­ing not to know what’s going on. Chil­dren lin­ger­ing curi­ous­ly are tugged away by their parents.

At first, there was a deep silence in Rue Hamani, for­mer­ly Rue Char­ras. It’s rare, that sort of calm in a city like Algiers, always rest­less and noisy, per­pet­u­al­ly buzzing, com­plain­ing, moan­ing. In the end, the silence was bro­ken by men pulling the met­al grille down over the win­dow of Les Vraies Richess­es, the book­store. Well, it has­n’t been a book­store since the 1990s when the Alger­ian gov­ern­ment bought it from Madame Char­lot, the orig­i­nal own­er’s sis­terin-law: it’s just been an annex of the Nation­al Library of Algiers, a name­less place that passers-by rarely even stop to look at. Still, we go on call­ing it Les Vraies Richess­es, the way we went on say­ing Rue Char­ras for years, instead of Rue Hamani. We are the peo­ple of this city and our mem­o­ry is the sum of all our stories. 

Les Vraies Richesses bookshop, 2 bis, Rue Hamani, Algiers.

Les Vraies Richess­es book­shop, 2 bis, Rue Hamani, Algiers.

An eager young jour­nal­ist on assign­ment writes in a note­book with a black cov­er: It held out for eighty years! Eyes like a weasel, we think sus­pi­cious­ly. Lit­tle careerist, we can smell you a mile off: the store deserves bet­ter. Not many peo­ple, sad sky, sad city, sad iron cur­tain in front of the books, he adds, before chang­ing his mind and cross­ing out sad city. The effort of think­ing creas­es his face almost painful­ly. He is just start­ing out in the pro­fes­sion. His father, who owns a big plas­tics firm, made a deal with the edi­tor in chief: he’d take out ads if they took on his son. From our win­dows, we observe this awk­ward rook­ie. Wedged between a pizze­ria and a gro­cery, the old book­store Les Vraies Richess­es, once the haunt of famous writ­ers. He chews on his pen and scrib­bles in the mar­gin. (There was Camus, but who are the oth­ers in the pho­tos pinned up inside the store? Edmond Char­lot, Jean Sénac, Jules Roy, Jean Amrouche, Himoud Brahi­mi, Max-Pol Fouchet, Sauveur Gal­liéro, Emmanuel Rob­lès … No idea. Look them up.) A plant has been left out­side, on the lit­tle step where the young Albert Camus used to sit and edit man­u­scripts. No one is going to take it away. Last sur­vivor (or last wit­ness?). This bookstore/library was kept in per­fect order: its hand­some store­front win­dow shines like a sky full of stars (is that a cliché? Check.) He adds a peri­od and starts a new para­graph. The Min­istry of Cul­ture declined to answer our ques­tions. Why sell off a branch library to a pri­vate buy­er? Does no one care that we are los­ing a chance to read, a chance to learn? One who reads is worth two who don’t. That is what is writ­ten in French and Ara­bic on the win­dow, but those who don’t read are worth noth­ing. He cross­es out the last sen­tence and con­tin­ues: In these times of eco­nom­ic cri­sis, the gov­ern­ment has seen fit to sell such places to the high­est bid­der. For years it has wast­ed oil rev­enue and now the min­is­ters cry: “It’s a cri­sis,” “there is no alter­na­tive,” “it’s not a pri­or­i­ty; peo­ple need bread, not books; sell the libraries, sell the book­stores.” The gov­ern­ment is sac­ri­fic­ing cul­ture to build mosques on every street cor­ner! There was a time when books were so pre­cious that we treat­ed them with respect, we promised them to chil­dren, we gave them as gifts to our loved ones! 

Hap­py with this draft of his arti­cle, the jour­nal­ist walks away, pen in pock­et, grip­ping his black note­book, with­out even a glance at Abdal­lah, who used to check out books at Les Vraies Richess­es, the book­seller, as we call him. There he is, alone on the side­walk in Rue Char­ras. He’s over six feet tall, and still an impos­ing fig­ure although he now has to use a wood­en walk­ing stick. He is wear­ing a blue shirt and gray trousers. On his shoul­ders he is car­ry­ing a white sheet of coarse Egypt­ian cot­ton, clean if a lit­tle yel­lowed. His face is wrin­kled, his skin pale, the line of his mouth firm and clear. He says noth­ing. He only stares at the store­front win­dow with his large, black, pen­e­trat­ing eyes. Abdal­lah is proud, a man of few words; he grew up in Kabylia at a time when peo­ple did not speak of their feel­ings. And yet, if the jour­nal­ist had tak­en the time to inter­view him, the old man might have explained, in his deep and sooth­ing voice, what the store means to him and why his heart is bro­ken today. Of course he would­n’t speak of a bro­ken heart; he would find oth­er words. He would stress oth­er feel­ings, tinged with anger, while keep­ing the white sheet, as always, firm­ly wrapped around his shoul­ders. But the jour­nal­ist is already far away, whistling in his office, ham­mer­ing at his key­board. He is unaware of how his whistling irri­tates his col­leagues, who exchange know­ing looks.

The gray glow of the win­ter sun strug­gles to illu­mi­nate Rue Hamani, for­mer­ly Rue Char­ras. The store­keep­ers take their time to open up; there’s no rush. An under­wear store, a gro­cery, a restau­rant, a butcher’s, a hair­dress­er, a pizze­ria, a café … We greet Abdal­lah with a nod or a gen­tle squeeze of the arm. We know what he’s feel­ing. Here, we all know what a last day is like. Chil­dren cross the street, ignor­ing the recent­ly repaint­ed pedes­tri­an cross­ings and the dri­vers honk­ing at them from their cars made in France, Ger­many or Japan: an inter­na­tion­al parade. The high school stu­dents, car­ry­ing back­packs tagged by their friends, smoke and flirt. The ele­men­tary school boys are dressed in blue shirts but­toned up to the neck, the girls in pink smocks. They shout, laugh, and whis­per, call out to each oth­er. A school­boy bumps Abdal­lah, mum­bles an apol­o­gy, and tilts his head back to meet the eyes of the great big man, before run­ning off to join his old­er sis­ter, who threat­ens him with a slap if he does­n’t hur­ry up. “Filthy lit­tle brats,” yells a woman with a big head and her hair tied back untidi­ly. Equipped with a broom and a buck­et of gray water giv­ing off a chem­i­cal smell, she scrubs the side­walk. One of the chil­dren gives her the fin­ger. “You asked for it,” she says and whoosh, she throws the buck­et of dirty water at him. He tries to dodge, but the water splash­es onto the legs of his beige cot­ton trousers. “I’m telling my moth­er!” he yells, and runs off toward the school. Then the street is calm again and odd­ly dim. Anx­ious­ly, the store­keep­ers exam­ine the sky. We are not used to this absence of sun­light. “It’s a hard win­ter com­ing, and many of the home­less won’t make it through,” says Mous­sa, who runs the pizze­ria next door to Les Vraies Richess­es. He is known through­out the neigh­bor­hood for his gen­eros­i­ty and the birth­mark on his face, in the shape of Africa.

This morn­ing, for the first time in twen­ty years, thinks Abdal­lah, lean­ing on his stick, Mous­sa won’t be com­ing over with his cup of black cof­fee. Abdal­lah nev­er allowed him to bring it into Les Vraies Richess­es, for fear he might stain the books. At the end of the day, he knows, a lit­tle girl will come with her moth­er to choose books for the week. Pink skirt, white cardi­gan, shiny shoes, hair in a bunch on one side. She will find the door closed.

We used to see Abdal­lah through the immac­u­late store­front win­dow, busi­ly wag­ing his war on red ants. Some­times, local teenagers would wait until his back was turned and pinch some books, mess­ing up his shelves. He’d let it go, shrug his shoul­ders and say to Mous­sa: “Well, if it gets them read­ing …” His friend knew that the books would be resold at a near­by mar­ket, but could­n’t bring him­self to tell Abdallah. 

In the neigh­bor­hood, we like this soli­tary old man. What can we tell you about him? We don’t know his age. Nor does he. It can only be esti­mat­ed. When Abdal­lah came into the world, his father was in France, work­ing in a fac­to­ry in the north. Nobody went to reg­is­ter the birth. Which is why, on the book­seller’s papers, next to “date of birth,” it says: “Unknown, between …” His age can be guessed from his walk­ing stick, and his hands, which have grown shaki­er, from the way he strains to hear and speaks more loud­ly now. 

Abdal­lah’s wife died in the dark decade, just before he came to Rue Hamani. When? Where? None of us could say. It isn’t cus­tom­ary here to ask a man about his wife, whether she’s alive or dead, beau­ti­ful or ugly, loved or hat­ed, veiled or not. As far as we know, he has only one child, a mar­ried daugh­ter liv­ing in Kabylia. 

When Abdal­lah start­ed work­ing at Les Vraies Richess­es, we mea­sured the book­store for him: sev­en yards wide by four deep. He would stretch out his arms and joke that he could almost touch both walls. On the sec­ond floor, up a steep set of stairs, he made him­self a rough-and-ready bed with a mat­tress and two good thick blan­kets. There has nev­er been any heat­ing. He also acquired an elec­tric hot plate, a tiny refrig­er­a­tor, and an extra lamp. He per­formed his ablu­tions and washed his clothes in the book­store’s lit­tle bathroom.

Before, he had worked in an office at the city hall, where he was in charge of stamp­ing papers. He applied his stamp to all man­ner of doc­u­ments day in, day out. Luck­i­ly, his col­leagues liked him and took the time to chat. In 1997, after the death of his wife, he was trans­ferred, at his own request, to the book­store and giv­en a doc­u­ment stat­ing that he would remain there until he reached retir­ing age. Which he even­tu­al­ly did. But he had been for­got­ten. No one came to replace him. Unable to aban­don the premis­es and hav­ing no plans or place to go, he stayed on with­out ever com­plain­ing or say­ing a word to anyone.

That is all we know about this man.

One day the first offi­cial let­ters came, inform­ing him that 2b Rue Hamani had been sold to a devel­op­er and that Les Vraies Richess­es would soon be closed. Naive­ly, he thought he could per­suade the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the state that it was impor­tant to keep the place open. He called the Min­istry of Cul­ture but he could nev­er get through. The line was always busy and there was no way to leave a mes­sage because the answer­ing machine was full. When he went there, the secu­ri­ty guard laughed in his face. At the Nation­al Library, they heard him out patient­ly, then led him to the door with­out a word, with­out a promise. When the new own­er came to vis­it Les Vraies Richess­es, Abdal­lah asked him what he was plan­ning to do with the book­store. “Gut it, get rid of those old shelves, and repaint the walls so my nephew can set up a beignet shop. Every kind of beignet you can think of: with sug­ar, apple, choco­late. We’re near the uni­ver­si­ty; the poten­tial’s huge. I hope you’ll be one of our first customers.” 

Star­tled by the cries, we came run­ning to find the own­er get­ting to his feet and dust­ing off his suit. Abdal­lah was bran­dish­ing his fist and shout­ing. He was­n’t going to let any­one destroy Char­lot’s book­store. The own­er sneered: “Don’t be a clown.” He did­n’t come back but the let­ters kept arriv­ing, remind­ing Abdal­lah that he would soon have to go. He showed them to the young lawyers who came to Mous­sa’s place at lunchtime for piz­za squares. They shook their heads and tapped him on the shoul­der. “You can’t fight the State, El Hadj, you know that, and any­way, it’s not a book­store, it’s just a branch of the Nation­al Library. You admit your­self that no one uses it. How many bor­row­ers do you have? Two or three, right? Is it real­ly worth fight­ing for? You’re old, give it up. The place is tiny, let them have it, there’s noth­ing you can do,” they said. 

“So they can sell off what­ev­er they like? A book­store today, a hos­pi­tal tomor­row? And I just have to shut up?” 

Ill at ease, with noth­ing left to say, the young lawyers ordered more piz­za and lemonade.

The day before the clo­sure, Abdal­lah had an attack. His heart was ham­mer­ing; it real­ly felt as if it were about to jump out of his chest. He man­aged to open the door of the book­store before col­laps­ing on the thresh­old. His vision dimmed. He could hear the sound of run­ning steps. Run­ning away. Then oth­ers approach­ing. He thought of the pan of water that would soon begin to boil upstairs. He looked up at the big pho­to on the ceil­ing of the man who had cre­at­ed that place: Edmond Char­lot. Abdal­lah thought he was dying. And to judge from the trem­bling glim­mer in the eyes of the chil­dren gath­er­ing around him, so did they. 

Mous­sa did­n’t have a tele­phone; he had always been wary of tech­nol­o­gy. When he heard the cries, he put the hot cof­fee pot down on the table with­out a thought for the mark it would leave on the waxed cloth. He took his stick and went out to find a small crowd gath­ered. The ambu­lance would­n’t arrive in time. Some young guys from the neigh­bor­hood car­ried Abdal­lah to the gro­cer’s van and drove him to the hos­pi­tal. They did what they could to help him hold on, the old guardian of the books, call­ing on God, who is our first and last resort here. Abdal­lah was strug­gling to breathe. Con­vul­sions seized his body and his eyes bulged. The rat­tling van drove at top speed through the streets of Algiers, swerv­ing to avoid pot­holes, speed humps, and stray dogs. Treat­ing the old man as if he were an ani­mal soon to be put down, the doc­tor at the hos­pi­tal told him to leave Algiers. “This city has its own rules, you can’t go against them, it’ll kill you in the end. Leave, there’s noth­ing more for you to do here.”

Abdal­lah went back to the book­store. Wrapped in his white sheet, he lay down on the mez­za­nine at Les Vraies Richess­es. Just before falling asleep, he remem­bered his first night there, and how he could­n’t believe that he was in a place like that, a man like him, who had­n’t been able to go to school before the coun­try’s inde­pen­dence, who had learned to read Ara­bic at the mosque, and French, oh but that was much lat­er on, and with great difficulty. 

Since the clo­sure, Abdal­lah has slept in a tiny room attached to the pizze­ria next door. It’s where they keep the flour, the yeast, the crates of toma­toes, the drums of oil, and the jars of olives. Now there’s a sponge-rub­ber mat­tress too, and a few cush­ions. Mous­sa has­n’t told the own­er that he is giv­ing shel­ter to a friend. The book­seller spends all his wak­ing hours stand­ing on the pave­ment with the white sheet around his shoul­ders, propped on his walk­ing stick. His eyes are moist, and the ruin of this man’s final years is a shame on all the city.

We take turns to make sure that he has what he needs. The lawyers have start­ed going to anoth­er neigh­bor­hood for lunch, so they won’t have to face Abdal­lah and his end­less questions.

And one night, while the young are down in the street, in front of their apart­ment build­ings, solv­ing the world’s prob­lems, twen­ty-year-old Ryad arrives, with the key to Les Vraies Richess­es in his pocket.

AlgeriaAlgiersParis

Born in 1986 in Algiers, Kaouther Adimi lives in Paris. Our Riches, her third novel, though her first published in English, was shortlisted for the Goncourt and won the Prix Renaudot, the Prix du Style, the Prix Beur FM Méditerranée, and the Choix Goncourt de l’Italie. She moved to Paris in 2009. Her other books include L'Envers des autres, Des pierres dans ma poche, Le Sixième Œuf and Les petits de Décembre.