- Blood Does Not Dry on the Tongue
Postface from Oran, langue morte, by Assia Djebar; translated from the French by Jeff Humphries; translation copyright 1998 by Jeff Humphries
Blood does not dry up; it is simply extinguished.—Assia Djebar, Vast Is the Prison
This is a story of women of the Algerian darkness, the “new women of contemporary Algiers.”
Bits and pieces of life brought back, related in the goings and comings of female travellers, passengers—-in a relay station, an overnight lodging where they catch their breath, and remember. Stages not of flight, but of mobility; dialogues exchanged between Algerian women from here and there. Abruptly, patches of life are illumined, and collapse: images then of pursuit, flight, death. And sometimes also of hope, in this long night.
A retired teacher finds herself temporarily anonymous in a North Mediterranean port city. She recounts the petty details of her life on the heights of Algiers, an almost middle-class neighborhood, “quieter” than some others. In a deadpan tone, devoid of theater, she evokes the ordinary progress of a life. The life of an Algerian woman.
Mina, one of her colleagues—fifty years old with four children—is a French teacher in a nearby high school. Early in 1995, she receives threatening phone calls: an unknown voice curses her and promises her a funeral shroud! Nonplussed, Mina can make nothing of this: is it a lunatic, does this really have to be considered a threat? And why? What law has she unwittingly broken? She teaches a foreign language; so what? What does religion have to do with it (a hadith, or duly recorded recommendation by the Prophet, widely repeated if not widely observed, goes: “Go and seek knowledge even in China!” This naturally must concern men and women who believe.)?
Mina concludes that it must be the act of an unbalanced person, or someone in the grip of dementia. She, she is just an ordinary person, hardly more learned than her neighbors, and she teaches what she knows; that is all. Then she forgets: she has too much to do—looking after the studies of her children, preparing her classes, running a household.
Several days pass. She walks to her school. Everyone knows the way she takes. A sunny morning, a path lined with bougainvillea; she hurries, thinking she is late. Two unknown men accost her, blocking her way, one on the [End Page 18] right and one on the left. Each takes out a gun. Each takes aim, and from very close range, fires at her temple. Mina’s head is blown off.
The teacher is murdered. Several hours later, crying students, running, distressed: an entire girls’ school traumatized. A petrified silence falls on the days that follow.
Again the storyteller intervenes: Scheherezade of days of ink, of monkeyfaced ill-fortune. Terror wound off into small, round, worn-out words, in a tone that is almost sweet. Her voice is not raised; oh no. She remembers:
My mother died during the last Ramadan. She had been getting weaker: eighty years old, exactly. My younger sister and I never left her side. From my house, I would go down on foot into the city center where the little old house stood—the house where I was born, where I spent a happy childhood, and studied for my tests to become a teacher—me too!—and then a superintendent.
That day, the situation in that modest neighborhood was bad. The army was out in force; terrorists were reported to be hiding in several houses, taking the families hostage or with the cooperation of sympathizers . . . . My mother’s house was in the middle of all this!
On that evening in March, my sister telephoned: “Mother is in very bad shape,” she said. I left my five children, saying “Do not come with me! I will go alone and on foot, before the curfew! . . . If my mother is dying, I must be at her side! She spent her whole life taking care of me.” My husband wanted to come along. “No,” I said, “you stay with the children.”
I don’t know how I got there . . . . There were...