by Julien Suaudeau
Aulnay, Assan thinks as he enters the small bedroom – Aulnay is as gloomy under clear skies as on
any rainy day.
“What day is it, son?” Al-Mansour asks, lying stiff on the mattress spread across the worn carpet, his
bony legs tangled up inside the blanket.
“Monday” Assan says, pulling the curtains open.
“The date, son. I need you to tell me the date.”
“Monday, the 23rd.”
“Maybe he will come today, inch’ Allah.”
“Inch’” Assan repeats, freeing his father’s legs from the blanket.
“Lay your head further up on the pillow, please. There. It’s nice outside. We could go out for a stroll
before I leave. I’ll unfold the wheelchair.”
“I don’t want you to. I have to stay here in case he comes over. I will stay here and wait.”
“Wait, wait! Can you do anything but wait?”
The old man’s face, dry as parchment paper, makes him lower his voice.
“Dad, please. It would do you good.”
“Assan, my son, won’t you leave me alone? There is no greater sin than wasting a man’s time when
he doesn’t have much left.”
On the way to the railroad station, Assan passes by dozens of single-family ranchers, all similar to
his. This morning, under the bright sun, their resemblance looks uglier and more humiliating than
usual. All those villages, he thinks, all those tight-knit communities ripped away from the homeland
back in the Sixties, all those patches of Algeria glued back together randomly, first in the Zone, and
before you knew it all around Paris – all those families who came to build suburbia, only to be
wrecked by suburbia a couple of decades later.
Fifty years down the road, what’s left of the first generation? Is there anything still standing beyond
the cracked, moldy stucco of those walls, anything left of their hopes and dreams? 700 square-feet of
cheap-framed pictures that you pull out as if they were sacred relics, and the back home nostalgia
that will never be compelling enough for them to muster the courage to return. Everybody babbles
about it, back home this, back home that, the young ones who were born here just as much as the
old-timers with their cancer lungs. They can’t stop ranting about it as soon as the dinner table is set,
or in the TV room, sitting pretty in front of Al-Jazeera’s Sunday evening show. They can’t, but they
will never act on it, because they have no clue who they are, whether they are from here or from
down there, or maybe a little bit of both. The truth, no single one of them has the guts to cope with
the truth that they are just shadows.
His father will die here like the rest of those who settled down in a bedroom community when they
retired. They will spend whatever days they have left in that den at the end of the hallway, staring at a
blank window with a view on the backyard that they must have been so proud of when they first
moved in: it meant they were officially part of the lower middle class. Now, it is filled with junk and
nobody ever bothers to walk out.
Does it make any difference, at the end of the day, that Assan’s father never wanted this life for
himself? That he spent his fighting neocolonial windmills, at the pathetic scale of a country-less
Raging illusions, countless deaths and a blind eye – all that to end up in the body of a cripple on
Welfare, his mind seeping out of his brain, day after day, his phantom Algeria and his Arab
nationalism buried deep somewhere between his guilt and his regrets, and the vague conscience that
he made things worse.