Real Men Don’t Cry

by Faiza Guene

translated by Sandra Smith

 

1

 

It might turn out to be useful

 

In all my memories there is food on the table. A lot of food.

 

            My mother complained that it was too hot. Or too cold. Whatever happened, she complained.

 

            Pop, he was determined to put up the stupid satellite dish.

 

            He smiled with satisfaction when the first Arab channel appeared. A man with a moustache was reading out the soccer scores. He was fat and his belt looked like it was cutting his potbelly in half.

 

From now on, it was possible to enter a new world. We watched as dozens and dozens of channels streamed past our eyes: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Dubai, Yemen, Jordan, Qatar… My mother looked emotional: Pop was finally offering her the honeymoon she had always dreamed of.

 

 

 

As for me, I no longer had to be afraid that the sexy[1] commercials for Tahiti Shower Gel might come on. “Has anyone seen the remote?!”

 

My mother was blushing, her hands firmly held against her cheeks: “Yééé hchouma![2]

 

“That’s all that feminism’s gotten for you,” said my sister Mina.

 

“Damn the feminists,” said my mother, disgusted.

 

“You ain’t putting that back on, are you?!” said my sister Dounia.

 

Before, after such an animated discussion like this one, we would end up turning off the television and falling back into a leaden silence. However, ever since our lives were tuned into a different satellite dish, my mother was only interested in cooking programs on Abu Dhabi TV, or the history series from Turkey dubbed in a Moroccan dialect on channel 2. The atmosphere in the house had become a little more bizarre.

 

Pop, delighted to have proved himself useful, put away his screwdrivers in his tool box, whistled and said: “Now that’s one job done!”

 

He loved doing little jobs around the house, repairing things, salvaging things.

 

Especially salvaging things.

 

Our garden had become a kind of graveyard for scrap iron. It was piled high and tipping over everywhere. Old, corroded washing machines, sheet metal, park benches, road signs, an umpire’s chair from a tennis court, about a dozen typewriters, the sign from a Crêpe restaurant, headlights from a Citroën ZX, an enormous freezer and even two wooden horses, shabby from having gone round and round on the carousel so often.

 

 “But how does he manage to transport all this junk?” everyone wondered. It’s simple; he always found a way!

 

Every time he brought home some new toy, my mother’s blood pressure shot up for several days. “Good Lord! What on earth are you going to do with that?!”

 

He had the same ridiculous answer every time: “It might turn out to be useful!”

 

To him, nothing should be thrown away. Normal for a former shoemaker.

 

“No, it won’t be useful! If someone threw it out, it’s precisely because it isn’t useful any more! My God? Why does he do this to me? Bring me a glass of water! Quickly! My heart! I’m having palpitations!  Glass of water!”

 

My mother winced, clutched her chest and drank her glass of water in one gulp. A real drama queen.

 

As the years passed by, she watched her dream of a French garden with symmetrical hedges and a little vegetable plot disappear under piles of rusty objects. She ended up sitting on a chair, her arms hanging down and, with a faraway look, staring for a long time at the fruit design printed on the plastic tablecloth.

 

 

 

When I was a little kid, Pop used to say: “Thirty-five years nailing new soles on shoes! Tap, tap, tap! All my life, I’ve used my hands so my children could work using their heads!”

 

Doing well at school was very important to him.

 

When the report card came, he would always say: “Sit down here next to me and tell me what it says before I sign it.”

 

I would read out the grades one by one and the teacher’s remarks, and I would proudly point out that there were no red marks in the column for behavior.

 

“That’s good, my boy. That’s good.”

 

 

 

Slowly, he would then take a ballpoint pen and write his name – an illiterate, shaky, faint signature that did not betray the slightest hint of his steely character.

 

Then he would put the cap back on the pen and hang it on the pocket of his short-sleeved shirt with the others, just like a doctor, even though he didn’t know how to read or write.

 

 

For many years, we were good kids.

 

Pop calmly kept his little troop on the right road, as if he were driving his 1983 Renault 11 turbo.

 

And then came the first sharp turns. Dounia, my older sister, started to grow up.

 

I remember certain scenes. Pop, his hands behind his back, circling around her like a detective on the crime squad during a full-fledged interrogation: “Where were you? D’you know what time it is? I’ll teach you to show me some respect, I will! Do you think your name is Christine?!”

 

I think that my sister always wanted to be called Christine.

 

Today, she is more or less a Christine.

 


 

2

 

Dounia

 

 

When she was a teenager, Dounia had a best friend: Julie Guérin. This was when all the problems began. It was Julie who started the psychological process of “Christine-izing” my sister.

 

All the boys at the lycée liked Julie; she was slim, wore designer clothes and kept a secret diary. In the summer, her parents sent her to a holiday camp in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. Her mother allowed her to go to concerts in the evening and hang up posters of an American pop group in her room. I can’t remember their names, but they were black and naked to the waist.

 

Julie also had platform heels, a boyfriend, a cat and a room she didn’t have to share with anyone; she was even allowed to organize parties in her father’s garage on her birthday.

 

To Dounia, this was the ultimate dream!  She was bewitched. So much so that she was happy to be the friend in the background, the one you tell: “Here! Keep an eye on my bag!”

 

It must be said that my sister’s life was the complete opposite of Julie Guérin’s.

 

Dounia had braces all through her three years at lycée; she also wore glasses. She had very curly long brown hair that she didn’t know what to do with, so she braided it and wore it rolled tightly in a bun. It ended up with thousands of uneven loops. Overweight, she hid her body under baggy polo shirts and jogging pants. She wasn’t allowed to go out and had to share a room with my other sister; it was out of the question for Dounia to have posters, a boyfriend, vacations in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France and even more unheard of to have parties in the garage. All she had left was the secret diary, yes, obviously, because there was no risk my father might read it.

 

 

Because she was spending so much time with Julie, Dounia felt she was starting to grow wings:

 

“Now Julie, she’s allowed to….” and “Julie, she’s super lucky”…

 

And then, one day: “Mom, why don’t you ever say ‘I love you’ to us? Julie’s mother says it to her all the time!”

 

My mother, stunned, said nothing. She stared with her large brown eyes that had dark eyeliner on them.

 

“Why are you saying that? You think we don’t love you all?”

 

Dounia looked up and shrugged her shoulders. Then she had a drink of lemonade straight from the bottle, something my mother hated more than anything.

 

“And the glasses in the kitchen, they’re just for decoration?”

 

“Don’t worry, it’s OK, I don’t have AIDS.”

 

“To hell with you!”

 

 

Dounia was starting to talk back. And my mother, as always, pulled out her personal weapon of mass destruction: guilt.

 

Ready, aim, fire!

 

“Your grandfather was a revolutionary who fought in the war to free his country! A brave man! A courageous man! There were ten children in our family who only had dry bread to eat and we all walked barefoot without complaining! You just have to open your eyes to see what he did to raise us all! Do you think we ever wondered if he loved us?!”

 

“All right, Mom, all right. I know your story by heart! You weren’t even allowed to play outside! And he took you out of school when you were 13! What kind of a life is that? A horror movie?”

 

“That has nothing to do with it! It was a different time! And if he took me out of school, it was because he needed me to take care of my brothers and sisters. He made us into respectable people!”

 

“You think that by locking your children up you make them into respectable people?”

 

“No one locks you up!”

 

“Yes you do! You never let me do anything! I’m not even allowed to wear jeans!”

 

“And that’s what’s making you miserable? Because we don’t want you to dress like a cowboy?”

 

“It’s all the rage! You don’t understand anything! Look at Julie’s mother, she feels young, and she and her daughter seem like friends…”

 

“Frieeennnds?”

 

 

My mother loved dragging out the last syllable to emphasize her astonishment, it’s the dramatic side of her.

 

“Do you think I had children to make friends with them? Damn you! That’s not what being a mother’s about! That’s about being afraid!”

 

“I just mean that Julie’s mother, she’s modern! She works in an office and drives a car!”

 

“Are you talking about Julie’s father or her mother? Well? Do you think I want to follow the example of a woman who buys cigarettes for her daughter? A mother who is killing her own child! And who borrows her pants!”

 

“That’s normal, they wear the same size…”

 

“So? I’m fat! What’s the problem? I’m not a model! When we were refugees in Morocco during the war, you know, we used to dream about eating meat, dream about it! We were starving! Now, thank God, I’m healthy!”

 

“Julie’s mother never asks her to cook or do the dishes! You’d think that was the only thing that mattered in life!”

 

“Your sister Mina loves helping me in the kitchen, and you…”

 

“Here we go again! There you go comparing us…”

 

“And what about when you get married!? Well? Do you want me to send you to your husband’s house without having learned anything?”

 

“I couldn’t care less! Because I’m never going to get married!”

 

 

A butcher’s knife plunged deep into my mother’s solar plexus would have had less effect on her. Their arguments became more and more frequent. Before that, no one had ever heard a door slam in our house.

 

 

And then there came the time when the door slammed so often that my father, in a rage, took down the door in the girls’ room and hung a curtain up in its place.

 

“Now you can try to slam the curtain!”

 

My mother even thought about having Dounia exorcized. In the end, she forbid her to hang around with that Julie who was such a bad influence and caused so many problems.

 

“She’s cursed, that girl! Cursed!”

 

 

 

After Julie’s parents got divorced, Julie tried to kill herself, which upset everyone in the neighborhood. With one exception.

 

My mother put on her sarcastic little smile for Dounia’s benefit.

 

“You see! If your friend Julie’s life was as good as you said, she wouldn’t have wanted to die!”

 

A heavy silence, a look full of hatred, a flick of her hair and, finally, rushing off to her room.

 

“You’re heartless, Mom! Heartless!!”

 

If there had been a door, it surely would have slammed. It was a scene worthy of the Mexican serials dubbed in Arabic that my mother was crazy about. To tell the truth, the soap opera on TV called “Drama Queens” had nothing on Dounia and Mom.

© Sandra Smith 2014

[1] I added “sexy” so this scene would make sense - Translator

[2] Algerian dialect for “How shameful!”