Abdellah Taïa tells the true story of an adolescent from Algeria who becomes her true self in France.
Translated from the French by Jordan Elgrably
I miss you, Baba! I miss you! I’ll be there. Wait for me. I’m coming. I’m sick of this place, this world, the cold, the wind, the grayness! I’m coming. I’m coming, Baba. You’ve been there, alone, for so long. Since I left Algeria in 1990. I’ve been talking to you. I’m talking to you. I call you. I see you whenever I want. And we remake the world as before, when I was still close to you in Tlemcen. The house. Ed-Dar. Darni. Your little boy, Baba… Baba…
The others… We left them aside, the others, we forgot them, the others, the mother, the brothers, the sisters, the neighbors’ stares and we played you and me… They’re napping…? They’re napping… I’m coming…? Come, my son… You say: Don’t go with people in the streets, don’t accept their sweets, little gifts, love apples, karantika, nouba. It’s not for you. You attract them in spite of yourself, my son, but they’re too mean out there, on the streets, on the roads, in this life. They’ll hurt you. Make you dirty and throw you away. Keep your head down in the streets, in the neighborhood. My son, my light, my Samir. You’re so beautiful, so white, so Kabyle and your hair so long, so soft. Hide it under the cap. Hide everything about yourself and come here with me when you want to be you. In our home. In our home. Our world. I’m the father. I give you what they’ll never give you. I am the father. I allow you to be a little girl here, within our walls. With me. On my lap. Be you the way you feel. Be you even if I don’t understand everything. I see you, you’re mine, you’re mine and I want to follow you, to see what comes out of you…
Take this bag. Take it. Open it. Do you see what it is? It’s for you… Put on these young girl’s clothes whenever you want, when I’m here and when I’m not… Samir, my son, I bless you and protect you… Samir, my daughter, I love you and I’m fond of you… I’ve spoken to your mom. She won’t bother you anymore. And if she does, I trust you: you’re 11 now, you know, you understand, you’ll know what to say to the mother, you’ll know how to play the bad guy too. Changing words, words to prevent others from hurting you. Words to drive a wedge between you and them. Harsh words. Harsh. I’ve seen you do it, say it, those words. I’ve seen you with a different face too. Being mean, meaner than all the others. Smarter than them. You are what you are. I am the law here. And I give you again and again all my love. All my blessings.
I don’t know the future. What awaits you later and where. But I know that with you, I melt, I can never be the one to kill you. You’re alive. You’ll be more alive. Put these clothes on. Put them on and show me. Come on, Samir! Come on, Samir! Be free in front of your father!
At Orly airport, I wasn’t afraid. France! I took bus number 65 to the Place des Invalides. That’s when I panicked. I had to take the metro to Pigalle. Just when I had to go down the stairs into the underground, I couldn’t. I’d never done that before. I couldn’t do it. To go underground, into a gigantic tomb. I didn’t understand the meaning of it. Burying yourself alive. I had just arrived in Paris. I was barely 17. And dying was out of the question. Not now. Not now. So, instead of taking the damned subway, I looked for a cab. I had 500 francs. I could afford it. Kamal, my favorite customer in Tlemcen, had given them to me. A farewell present! I could pay for more than a cab.
In Pigalle. At the address of Sabriya, the girlfriend of an Algerian girlfriend, nobody (Sabriya had moved). In front of her door, I sat on the stairs and waited and waited. Then Hayat arrived. She lived next door, next to the other one who’d disappeared, Sabriya. Hayat looked like a real Arab man, and looking at him I could never have imagined that he was like me too. He was like me. Like us. Hayat was called Badr-Eddine by day and, by night, she became the terror of the neighborhood, the policeman, the protector, the mother, the father, the big sister, the big brother, the biggest whore of us all, the bravest, the most suicidal… All at once…
He let me into his house, gave me a drink: cold milk and cheap madeleines, I still remember. He went into his bedroom. He came out in Hayat. I can’t believe it! Incredible! Incredible! Incredible! A beautiful woman. Strange and beautiful. Tall. So tall. Another face. Her real face. Very sad. I threw myself into his arms and cried. It didn’t last long. Hayat never wanted us to let ourselves go. No pampering. No weakness. Enjoy. Enjoy. Fuck. Steal. Take everything they’ve got, yes. But without getting weak. “Never weak. Stronger than the whole world.” That was her motto. Her mask. Her song. And I quickly adopted it too. Bigger and stronger than life itself.
Hayat took me to the hotel des copines, the girlfriends’ hotel, in the Algerian quarter. Not far from the Place de Clichy metro station. A whole hotel. All boys, boys and girls from Algeria. A whole world. Hayat sought out Sabriya, introduced me to her and summoned the others to celebrate my arrival in Paris. Six hours later, close to midnight, I was with the girls working at Porte de Clichy. Sabriya had dressed me. With nothing at all, she made me a woman. She gave me a red one-piece swimsuit, an extra-large black leather jacket and gold pumps. I put them all on. It’s perfect, for starters, Sabriya said. She made me up, not much. She said I was lucky: my hair was long and beautiful: no need for a wig. She said I already had the essentials to transform this body into a woman. But, as of tomorrow, you’ll start taking hormones. I know a chemist who sells them over the counter.
Do you agree, Samir?
Samir… No… We’ll call you Samira…
No, no… I’ve already got my woman’s name… My father gave it to me… Nadira.
The first evening, the first night, I was already working. Hayat used to say that the Bois de Boulogne was for those who weren’t afraid. It was too dark. No lights. Only tough guys and drug dealers. You should stay at Porte de Clichy. I took his advice and every time someone wanted to hurt me, I said: I’m Hayat’s girlfriend. That was enough. Everyone knew her and everyone was afraid of her.
I lived at night. Only at night. From 1990 to 2011. From time to time I dared to go to the Bois. But not too much. Anyway, there was no shortage of customers back then. The whole of Paris came. I knew it all and did it all, with the powerful and the working class. Stars and drug dealers. Arabs, blacks, Asians, rich people from the Gulf States, unfaithful husbands from Chartres and Orléans. Professors from Paris’ grandes écoles. Those from the 5th arrondissement, the 6th, the 7th and even those not far from the Élysée. They came too, of course. They needed it. They paid well. I was one of the best. I played the game perfectly. And I raised my rates as I went.
The golden age. From 1990 to 2011. A shower of money. A shower of adventures. A shower of transformations. Lives. Of tragedies. From Pigalle to Clichy. Paris, under my feet, in my hands. And Algeria, in the fire, further and further away. Far away… I went through a film, writing about it every day. An Egyptian film, of course, not a French one. A tragic and flamboyant melodrama, in which I knew so well how to play the heroine who rises, who falls, who flees, who sleeps, who cries, who cries again, who sacrifices herself but never gives up… Never… In this Paris by night, I was like Nadia Lotfi, like Hind Roustoum, like Magda… Like Isabelle Adjani, the first Algerian. Like Isabelle Adjani, the first Arab, the first Kabyle… Our star… The pure face of what we are here on this earth, between the borders of this country… The tormented, haunted soul of what the world and France have made of us.
From the second day, I went to the police and cried, so hard, so sincere, so well. I lost my passport. I have nothing left. I’ve lost everything. Everything has been taken from me. Everything taken… Help me, please…Please… I was lying so well… But I had no other options… I had to find a way to stay in this country. They gave me a lost ID card. When the police arrested me and did what they wanted with me, I gave them this paper. When they made me wait several days in the police depot near the Châtelet metro station, I gave them this paper… In this paper, I had told them anything so they wouldn’t know which country to deport me to… Just in case… My real passport, I had sent it by registered mail to Algeria.
I walked in Paris, I prospered in Paris, I built a family, I sold myself in Paris, I became what I am in Paris, without papers. For years without papers. For years eaten, exploited, gradually destroyed. And, in the end, never free. Never free.
I knew that one day I’d have to put my affairs in order. Take stock. That day came six years ago.
I had to relearn everything. All at once. Live in another country. The day. Living in the daytime after having lived most of my life at night… Walking like everyone else. During the day. Doing the same things as everyone else at the same time as everyone else. Endure the yellow or gray light of day. Running after I don’t know what goal like everyone else… I pretended for a year… I discovered another France for a year… But it’s not for me, the day. It’s not for my soul and even less for my body.
The silicone in my butt exploded. Then in my breasts. And my thighs. By the time I realized it, it was too late. The doctors removed what they could. The silicone had mixed with my skin itself. They’re so mixed, so blended, that the doctors can’t do anything. Today, when I go before the management of the Altaïr association, I make an effort. I came without a wheelchair. But the people in charge know. I’m une personne vulnerable and they know.
They’re waiting for me to die.
They won’t be able to expel me from this association. They already feel guilty, too much so.
They gave me a small studio set up like a hospital room, like giving alms to the beggar who’s been cold for years at the entrance to the Blanche metro station.
With nothing, I rebuilt the night, my night, in this studio. My other country.
I’m far from everything. I’m leaving. I’m leaving. I leave. I disappear. I’m fading. Tomorrow. At dawn. Not in France. Not in Algeria.
I’ll be joining my father soon.
Baba… Baba… Baba…