Thursday January 26, 2017
The weather was bright when I woke up and opened the curtains. I got ready as soon as possible to enjoy the sunny terrace of the hotel for my breakfast, with a breathtaking view on the Hamma Botanic Garden. I was trying to project myself into this day of visit of Algiers with Nassima and her children. My mindset was positive and I started this day with a certain eagerness.
Our appointment was in front of the Grand Post office of Algiers; I took a cab relatively early because wanted to “feel” the city and simply sit at the terrace of a cafe waiting for Nassima Hana and Wahib. And while the waiter was chatting with me about football, I was admiring the majestic architecture of the “Grande Poste”.
Finally Nassima arrives; She is visibly moved to see me here in the heart of Algiers. We left on foot towards the Beirut Park, up Pasteur Avenue which is already very busy. I look attentively to the people around me. There is a very rich mix that captures my attention: blond and red kabyles’ hair, Sub-Saharan slender silhouettes, from matte and fair skins and lots of blue eyes. This diversity gives me a picture of what Algiers is today: cosmopolitan. Obviously I was expecting a nice mix of Arabic and Kabyle in the Algerian population but what I see goes beyond the borders of the country, and I like it. Algiers attracts people from elsewhere.
Ladies are beautiful. Very few wear a headscarf, most are elegantly dressed and groomed; they walk down the street with confidence and a little attitude. Which makes them even more beautiful.
We take small steep streets to climb to the park of Beirut. The architecture is as much familiar to me as it is exotic; the French influence dating from the colonization is obvious but there are always some Moorish elements that remind me that I am in the Maghreb. It’s been less than an hour since we walk and I’m already seduced by the city. Algiers you are beautiful!
After a short walk in the park, Nassima makes a phone call … She speaks Arabic and has a smile on her face; She hangs up and tells me: “all good, we can go visit my brother.” Obviously he hesitated until the last moment to see me. I didn’t know the details and I was just happy to be able to meet him. As we leave the park, Nassima tells me, “My brother lives in the family house where I grew up. I’m so happy to bring you there.” Right next to the park was Telemly, Nassima’s neighborhood, where she always lived before leaving Algeria 36 years ago, pregnant.
We walk down a street and Nassima shows me an old shop. The metal curtain seems to have been closed for decades. It’s impossible to say what business was there before, as the facade is run-down. “This is the barber shop where Mohammed worked when we met.” I tried to imagine this shop open and lively, in front of which was the young Mohammed distracted by this young girl who passed by every day. I was in front of the place where my story started, the origin of my life. Everything played out on this sidewalk, in this mundane street. Today it’s abandoned, sad, with its old and decrepit facades.
A bit further, Nassima shows me another abandoned shop and with a trembling voice tells me: “This is where my father was murdered”. She describes the scene of her older brothers running towards their father lying on the ground while the shooter escaped on a motorcycle. Wild grass are growing out of the pavement, showing that this shop is long abandoned. Yet, more than 50 years ago a man died there for no reason, and his family never knew why. This man and I are related and I stood here, paying my respect for a little while.
We continued our walk to the family house; it is a small town house at the corner of a street. There’s a very small and well maintained courtyard. Nassima’s brother was waiting for us there. He is a small, puny man with gray hair and a face marked by time. He shakes my hand without looking at me or telling me anything. Nassima whispers to me: “don’t worry he’s very shy my brother.”
He made us coffee and we all gathered in the small living room. While chain smoking, he spoke only to Nassima and in Arabic. I wondered if he was intimidated to see me or if he regretted having me over. I was speaking with Hana and Wahib but was intrigued by this man. After all, he’s my uncle. His elusive glance made me feel more and more uncomfortable. Suddenly he got up and left the room. Nassima turned to me with a smile: “My brother is an artist, you will see”. He immediately returned with a guitar and began to play. The oriental melody was beautiful and melancholic. He was playing really well; then he began to sing with a hoarse and velvet voice that reminded me of Rachid Taha‘s. And, the magic of music suddenly made him look at me. He was singing for me. I didn’t understand the Arabic lyrics, but I understood his message and I received it with joy. He accepted me in his house. Nassima and Hana were crying. It was a unique moment that I will never forget. When we left, Nassima asked me if I wanted to know what the song was saying. I thought for a few seconds and said “No, I want to keep this moment as I lived it.”
After a quick lunch in the neighborhood, we headed to Nassima’s mother’s in the distant suburbs of Algiers. Even if the sea is nearby, it is a sad district made of high rise housing developments without soul.
It was a shock for her. At least that’s what I saw in her eyes. Did she feel like seeing Mohammed after so many years? Was it my height that impressed her? Or just the emotion of seeing the first child of her daughter? Whatever triggered that reaction, Nassima’s mother took a step back when she saw me and looked at me with frightened eyes. She is so small and fragile … After all she is over 80 years old … Nora, the sister of Nassima was extremely warmhearted: she took me in her arms, kissed me a thousand times and repeated that here, it is my home and they are my one and only family. We moved to the living room for coffee (coffee is an institution in Algeria). Nassima’s mother was just as elusive as her son a few hours ago. But she doesn’t play the guitar to my knowledge … How to break the ice? Nora’s children are there too. I am the attraction. While I am surrounded by these new “cousins”, Nassima asks me to come closer to her and her mother. She grabs my right arm and pulls up the sleeve of my sweater to reveal my tattoo “I Am Elyes” on my wrist. “Chouf chouf” (look, look!) she said to her mother who takes my arm, read the short sentence, brings my wrist closer to her lips to softly kiss my tattoo, then raises her head with a sweet smile on her face and take me in her arms to hug and kiss me. Her the Kabyle, is familiar with the ancestral Berber tattoo tradition (beautiful, by the way). So this tattoo touched her heart and connected us. She cried and told me this was my home and that she was happy to meet me at last. She clung to me, never let go of my arm, touched my face, my hair, while whispering things in Arabic. We spent a long time talking all together. Nora had plans for me: It was absolutely necessary that I buy a house in Algiers and that I find myself an Algerian woman. I laughed but she wasn’t joking at all … It was a really funny scene. Time passed and it was getting late when suddenly Yacine arrived. He was restless and did not bother to sit down. With a broad smile he gently pinched my chin between his index and his thumb and kissed them. That’s how he said hello to me. “How are you son? We have no time to waste, you and I have an appointment with a friend “. The rest of the group was protesting that Yacine took me away for the evening … But he was determined.
And here we are driving in the night to our meeting with this mysterious friend. After a long drive during which Yacine revealed little, we arrived in front of an isolated building in the middle of a wasteland. A big black door protected by two bouncers seemed to be the entrance. As soon as Yacine approached the door, everyone greeted him and the door opened. A waiter in an impeccable suit was waiting to guide us to our table. The place was out of a Tarantino movie i thought: it was a maze of thick red curtains that delimited the private rooms, the light was dimmed, some oriental music was playing in the background and the atmosphere was very smoky, with that recognizable shisha smell. As soon as we were settled in, the staff brought us shisha and food. Yacine told me to put myself at ease and enjoy, as his friend will be with us soon. As I was smoking enthusiastically on my shisha, the red curtains of our corner opened and a rather tall man with a mischievous face made his appearance. Yacine stood up and hugged him. “Thomas, let me introduce to you my great friend Fateh; we have known each other for a very long time. Fateh recently retired from the police force.” He crushed my hand and my shoulder to greet me. “I’m going to help you find your father,” he said.” But before that, I have to tell you. You must learn Arabic and you have to buy a house in Algiers “… again! I will really end up doing it …. Behind his serious ways and his sinister style, Fateh had this unintentional funny side. Exactly like a Tarantino movie character. Even when serious, he made me smile. I immediately loved him.
Once Fateh sat down to smoke his shisha, Yacine spoke to me almost solemnly: “We spent the afternoon together with Fateh. I told him your story and the situation with Mohammed, because I know that Fateh can help us.” He stared at me while nodding to each word Yacine was pronouncing. Then he spoke: “Tomorrow is Friday, day of prayer. Our idea is to go to Cheraga together and hide near the mosque. At the end of the midday prayer I would go to talk to the Imam to explain the situation and tell him that you need his help to be reunited with your father. He will accept, that’s for sure. Imams reunite families.” I thought the idea was good. After all, approaching Muhammad on a familiar ground for him and seeking help from the Imam, someone Mohammed trusts, seemed to be a good choice. All in tact; Not so sinister Fateh, after all.
I had a great evening with these two guys. Fateh shared his cop stories, and made me laugh out loud. Also, both shared with me their memories of the civil war that occurred in the 1990s (50,000 dead in 5 years). Many painful things have been said from both. They’ve lost friends, family. Algerians who killed other Algerians .
The recent attacks in France hurt them a lot too. That brought them back to those dark days when the Armed Islamic Group was reigning by terror. They both had a deep hatred for those terrorists from before and today who soil their religion, their faith and their identity.
Back in my hotel room I was thinking about this evening, what we talked about. I perceived in them a strange feeling vis-à-vis Mohammed. They talked about “people like that, these people” when mentioning him. As if they were somehow linking him with the extremists we talked about at length.
I also thought about this beautiful day and these beautiful encounters. It was powerful. And I feel good and fulfilled to have experienced this. With the impeccable plan from Yacine and Fateh, the next day will be just as successful: i’ll meet with Mohammed thanks to the imam. I was expecting to live another great moment so I fell asleep peacefully.
Everything was going well and nothing was clouding my mind. What a great trip so far.