Anywhere But Algiers
By Elizabeth Sowden
Fifteen people in three rooms; you have to sleep in shifts. You can only come in as long as someone else is going out, and if you’re going out, feel free to stay gone as long as possible. Of course, you’re welcome to whatever we have. We don’t have much . Smile. Pause.
Tayri nods, making a mental note of what she’s heard a hundred times before. The weight of her suitcase strains her arms, and the handle is slippery from her sweat.
“Let me take that,” someone says, and the suitcase disappears.
The walls are crumbling. There are unlit candles on the windowsills, because sometimes they shut the power off. There are pails full of water in the bathroom and the kitchen, because sometimes they shut off the water. And sometimes it is so deathly hot outside that fourteen people in three rooms become pieces of clay in a human kiln.
You’d be hard all the way through, too, if you’d grown up here. That’s the look that Tayri gets from her Algiers cousins every time she visits. She hates visiting them. At least this will be a short visit. She’s only staying in Algiers until Sunday, when her plane takes off for Paris.
“Hungry?” asks Malika, Tayri’s cousin. Malika is blonde and tan with jade green eyes. She’s wearing a bright pink shirt that’s snug across her breasts, and in big black letters it says in English “EAT FISH,” with an arrow pointing down to her exposed belly button. Malika doesn’t know what the shirt means. She doesn’t know any English. She speaks Kabyle and street Arabic, but she can barely say three words in French though she’s studied all her life. Just above her belly button, Malika has a small white scar, from where she pierced herself with a sewing needle. She’d seen pictures of American and European girls in French fashion magazines with jewels through their navels, and decided she would do the same. She took an earring with a big blue zirconia and shoved it through the hole she’d made. She wore it proudly until two Islamists in dingy white robes held her against a wall while a third ripped out the ring. She ran home, clutching her hands to her abdomen, pressing her fingers into the wet, bleeding wound.
“Not really,” Tayri says, though actually she’s famished. She’s seen the cold chicken couscous that’s been picked over by fourteen people in a bowl that no one bothered to cover. She’s seen the black flies dancing on the semolina pearls.
“Sure you are,” says Malika, leading Tayri by the elbow. They leave the apartment and walk down the dim stairway. Once outside, the sun bakes their faces with its late-August glare. Tayri follows Malika through the rundown streets into a small café with blue walls and a radio blasting Kabyle pop songs.
The interior of the café is cool, and Tayri immediately feels relief from the heat. They take a seat at one of the tables in the back, under a ceiling fan, next to a framed photo of Takfarinas, star of modern Kabyle music. A young man—23 or so, Tayri guesses—comes to their table. A shock of black hair falls across his forehead between his liquid brown eyes. He flashes a dazzling smile at Malika. Malika orders cold chicken sandwiches with onions and harissa, plus a couple of glasses of ethanol and grenadine.
“This is my cousin,” Malika says, draping her arm around Tayri’s shoulder. “Tayri, this is Rachid.” Rachid leans over to kiss Tayri, and she notices the smell of French cologne, the kind her older brother, Naji, wears.
“Your order will be right up,” Rachid says, beaming another smile in Malika’s direction.
“How do you know him?” Tayri asks.
“Isn’t he great?” Malika says. “He’s so…so magnetic.”
Magnetic, Tayri thinks to herself. Tayri presses her lips together to hide a smile. For some reason this reminds her of the stories her grandmother told her of the wealthy Frenchmen who would pay beautiful North African boys to become their secret consorts.
“What happened to Aziz?” Tayri asks as Malika takes a bit of her sandwich.
“Aziz?” Malika asks. She wipes away a fleck of harissa from her lip. “Oh, Aziz…that was a long time ago. I broke up with Aziz when I met Sofian.”
“Oh,” Tayri says, taking a bit of her sandwich. She savors the crispness of the onions and the fire of the harissa as it burns her tongue. She doesn’t bother to ask what happened to Sofian, whoever he was.
“Hey,” Tayri says to Malika in a low voice, “what are you doing?” But before Malika has a chance to react, Rachid sidles up to the table, turns a chair around backwards and straddles it, crossing his forearms across the back of the chair.
“So, Tayri, how come I haven’t seen you in here before?”
“Oh, that’s because she doesn’t live in Algiers. She lives in Kabylie.”
“Tigzirt,” Tayri answers, taking a sip of her drink.
“Oh yeah? I was born there. I miss Kabylie. I’d give anything to get out of here, you know? Anywhere but Algiers.”
“Tayri’s going to Paris,” says Malika, without taking her eyes off Rachid.
“Really?” Rachid asks, turning to Tayri.
“Yeah, she’s going to study at the Paris Conservatory of Music, isn’t that right, Tayri?”
Tayri nods, but before she can say anything, Malika says, “But don’t ask her to sing anything. She’s always singing these fancy arias in Italian and German, and you won’t be able to understand a word! Anyway,” Malika says, clamping her hand on Rachid’s thigh, “You should come out with us tonight.”
“Where are you going?” He asks, looking at Tayri.
“La Chaleur Blanche,” Malika says, “We’ll probably show up there around nine o’clock.”
“Nine o’clock? Maybe I can make it then. I have to watch my sister’s kids tonight. She has to work.”
“Can’t she leave them with your mother?” Malika asks, swirling her fingertip in her drink. She cocks her head to one side, reminding Tayri of the white birds that sometimes perch in the windowsills of her home in Kabylie. Rachid shrugs.
“My mother is with them all day, plus she has to cook for everyone and do laundry and all that. At night is the only time she has to be with my father.”
“Well,” Malika says, dipping her finger into her mouth, “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind it if you left them with her, just for one night…”
“She wouldn’t mind, but still…it’s a lot of work for her.”
“But it’s a special occasion.”
“Sure it is,” Malika says, and leans over to whisper something into Rachid’s ear. Rachid turns away, but Tayri can tell he’s smiling. Malika laughs.
After they leave the café, Malika and Tayri go to the market to buy bread for Malika’s family. Malika pays 50 dinars for four French baguettes and two round semolina loaves. She argues with the vendor about the price of butter that’s got flies all over it. The vendor is an Islamist. He narrows his eyes at Malika’s stripe of bare belly.
“How can you charge so much for that? You’re giving it to the flies for free,” she says in Arabic.
“Don’t you know that means it’s high quality?”
“It’s as high quality as your cock is long,” she hisses in Kabyle, and Tayri squeezes her lips shut to suppress a smile. Switching back to Arabic, she says, “I’ll pay 10 dinars for that.” Tayri doesn’t understand why Malika insists on buying this fly-infested butter when she can get something better from another vendor. The vendor takes Malika’s money but doesn’t hesitate to tell her that she’s a whore for not wearing the hijab.
“You too,” the vendor says to Tayri, “cover your nakedness, or burn in hell.”
“Fuck your fat mother’s dog,” Tayri spits in Kabyle, and the girls walk away, laughing.
As they walk towards the other end of the market, Malika stops by a rack of clothes. She reaches in between the knockoff leather jackets and finds a short denim skirt trimmed in aqua blue sequins. She pays the vendor 150 dinars. Tayri says nothing, but makes a mental note of Malika’s skimming off the top as they leave the market.
They walk toward the waterfront. Ahead of them, the Grand Mosque of Algiers gleams like a heap of snow, surrounded by a blue nimbus of sky. It reminds her of photos she’s seen of Sacré Coeur in Paris. She remembers the photo of Naji posing, crooked-smiled, in front of it, and another of Naji with his arms around his fiancée, Katie, standing on the stairs leading up to the great, white cathedral. Tayri smiles, knowing soon there will be a third photo. Maybe someone will mistake her for a Parisian, or a Sicilian, or maybe even American. She closes her eyes, and she can almost feel the cool, rain tinted air on her face, can almost smell the crêpes and coffee.
A cluster of girls in pastel hijabs passes, casting castigating glances at Malika’s bare midriff and Tayri’s uncovered, flowing black hair.
“Bitches,” Malika hisses under her breath so that only Tayri can hear.
The club throbs with the voice of Faudel. The lights glimmer. The sequins on Malika’s skirt flare blue neon. Malika and Tayri head to the bar where they each order a glass of red Algerian wine.
An Islamist leaves the bar, passing Tayri and sputtering about how Algiers is overrun with Kabyles.
“Vive la Kabylie!” Malika shouts in response. The girls clink their glasses. Malika glances at her watch. “I hope Rachid gets here soon,” she says. Tayri sips her wine and looks away.
By 2:00 am, Tayri has lost Malika in the club. Tipsy, she feels her way out of the bar, onto the damp, midnight blue streets. When Tayri reaches Malika’s home, she hears ragged breathing and hoarse whispers. She looks behind the stairwell and sees Rachid’s back. His pants are around his ankles and he’s got his hands in the crevices of Malika’s knees. His hips thrust while Malika moans, crimping her hands in Rachid’s hair. Malika’s sequined skirt is bunched up around her waist. Tayri backs away slowly, telling herself that neither of them saw her.
“What time does your plane leave tomorrow?” Malika asks as Tayri steps out of the shower. Malika is sitting at the kitchen table with warm, yellow morning light spilling over her face.
“It leaves at 10:30.”
Malika just nods. Tayri notices that she’s wearing the same clothes as yesterday. There’s a round stain on the sequined skirt that Tayri pretends not to notice.
“Is something wrong?” Tayri asks as she pulls a comb through her hair.
“Oh, it’s just…Rachid. He’s going back to Kabylie. He’s been working here to save money so he can get married to a girl he’s got waiting for him in Bedjaïa.”
Tayri is at a loss for words. Malika goes on: “They’ve been engaged for months.”
“Yeah, well, don’t worry about it. I mean, you get to go to Paris! You get to take long walks by the Seine and hang out in sidewalk cafes and spend hours in the Louvre. You get to bathe in that Parisian light that everyone’s always raving about. I’m really happy for you, you know?” Malika squeezes Tayri’s wrist. “Kiss that sexy brother of yours for me, will you?”
Tayri nods and tucks a loose strand of honey-colored hair behind Malika’s ear.
That night, Tayri sits on the floor next to one of her cousins. He strums a mandola and Tayri rehearses O Patria Mia from Aida. The room is full of Tayri’s cousins, all of who are listening to Tayri’s voice. The entire apartment is lit by candles that give off a warm, orange glow. It’s like being inside an amber bead. The flames are mirrored in her cousins’ eyes, and the smell of the burning wax makes Tayri swoon. Tomorrow, Paris, Tayri thinks to herself. She remembers what Rachid said yesterday: Anywhere but Algiers. She glances over at Malika. The fiery glitter in the corner of her eyes is really teardrops. Tayri watches Malika bat them away.
Elizabeth Sowden is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, she currently lives in Queens, NY, and is looking for a way to pay the rent.
Photo "Flying " courtesy of Fleur Suijten, Zoetermeer, Netherlands.
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