Letter to Zohra D.

Danielle Michel-Chich

Translated by Lara Vergnaud

 

Madame,

            One late afternoon, on September 30, 1956, you headed towards downtown Algiers dressed like a young, elegant European woman. In your beach bag, you were carrying a bomb that your comrades had prepared and charged you with placing at the Milk Bar, a popular ice cream shop on rue d’Isly, which was of course packed on the eve of a new school year.

            That same September 30, 1956, my grandmother brought me to the Milk Bar to enjoy the last ice cream of summer vacation.

            That’s the day you went through with it, a decision with inevitably deadly consequences. You were twenty-two years old. I was about to turn five.

            By your actions, I was robbed of my grandmother, whom I adored, and my left leg, which I very quickly learned to live without.

            By your actions, you became an undeniably important figure in the Algerian War, and the little girl eating an ice cream cone was sent down a path completely different from the one originally destined her.

            You began your career as a woman in politics.

            And I, surviving, began a new life.

            Our lives changed at the same moment. That’s how, without ever meeting, we know each another.

            My road was long, sometimes tortuous, and in any case always intense and opaque. The only way to run without falling, or bumping your head, is to avoid looking behind. Which is what I’ve always done.

            Today, I’ve decided to write down what I’ve done with what you did to me.

            Madame, this letter is addressed to you.

 

            “They shouldn’t set off bombs in places with children.” According to my mother, who watched over me at the hospital that first night, I repeated this phrase over and over. Through these grown-up words, spoken at the age of five, I instantly reversed roles with her.

            Fifty-five years later, my recollection of what happened at the Milk Bar appears to be intact. But memories are complex; we are easily tricked. How can I distinguish between the images etched into my brain and the eyewitness accounts repeated by my family hundreds of times? I remember hardly anything from the exact moments that followed the bombing other than my repeated and desperate attempts to call my grandmother—the blast had undoubtedly propelled me far away from her—, the inability to make sounds come out of my mouth, and my fearful panic that she couldn’t hear me. Now I assume that my own voice was inaudible to me because the explosion had damaged my eardrums.

            Then, amid the chaotic emergency response—this was the first bomb to go off in downtown Algiers and nothing was in place to deal with it—a French soldier took me in his arms and stopped a car going past, in the direction of Mustapha Hospital. “Be careful not to get any blood on the seat,” warned the driver in a stern voice. The soldier looked at me affectionately.

            Next, a blur of images from the large hospital entryway jumble together: bodies piled on stretchers, people moaning, the scramble of medical staff running in every direction. No memory of pain, just that same terror of no longer being able to see my grandmother. A doctor approached, lifted the sheet above me and placed it back with a sickened grimace before silently walking away. I felt abandoned.

            I can still see my mother crying, seated on a chair next to me all night long, the coming and going of nurses in my room, and the feeling—already—that they had all come out of curiosity about “little Dany.”

            I don’t remember physically suffering during those first few days. Was I drugged? Probably not. (At the time, it was widely believed that children didn’t feel pain…) I was undoubtedly just in a state of shock.

            In the days and weeks that followed, I received visit upon visit: aunts and uncles, neighbors, officials. Governor-General Lacoste’s wife paid bedside visits to all the “little Milk Bar victims.” She gave me a doll. The nurses told me how lucky I was to have received such a nice present from someone like her.

            One of my aunts came to see me with her husband and their three-week-old baby. They began an odd merry-go-around, whose purpose I had trouble understanding: one of them would hold the child in the doorway while the other came to my bed to hug me. But I wanted nothing more than to hold that baby, a living, breathing doll, in my arms. They wouldn’t allow the one thing that would have given me the most pleasure. And yet I knew quite well that I wasn’t contagious. Three months earlier, when I had had measles, I learned the meaning of that word and I knew that there was no danger to the baby. I didn’t dare ask any questions but it was at that moment that I began to think that adults sometimes behave in very peculiar ways and that they certainly don’t know everything.

            For several months, I led an almost peaceful existence at the hospital. Children find routine, so integral to hospital life, reassuring.

            One particularly beautiful day, the nurses took all the children out to the hospital garden. I was the only one lying on a stretcher during this improvised recess. The others were in wheelchairs or standing in a circle around me. Because the bed cradle protecting my legs from any contact with the sheet also separated me from the others, all I could see were branches of palm trees against a blue sky.

            As the days went by, the more mobile children came to play in my room. Nicole, a ten-year-old girl who had lost an arm at the Milk Bar, spent her time drawing. I would make up stories to go along with her pictures.  

             I never made a fuss when the fearful moment came to change my dressings and administer my treatments, several times a day, thereby establishing my reputation as the good little girl. Careful not to further upset my mother, who, in my memory, was always in tears next to me, I never cried. And yet, there were plenty of dressings to change, countless stitches to take out, and all those shards of wood, glass, and metal, embedded throughout my body after the explosion, to remove. The nurses used me as an example for the other children who would scream, as children do, whenever it hurt. I dreaded these moments but never said a word, or rather I did: I invented my own special word, “chamboulla,” which I chanted during painful treatments and which for years served as an incantation to ward off pain. “Chamboulla” allowed me to be the little girl who didn’t cry. A certain standing in the eyes of the nurses. A state of mind for always. 

            My only suffering during those months came from no longer seeing my grandmother. I was told once and for all that she had gone to “Paris on vacation.” But deep down I was convinced that she never would have abandoned me at such a time, or done so without leaving me some kind of sign. How could I believe that the jovial and affectionate woman who had taken care of me day after day, who had humored her only granddaughter’s every whim, had gone on vacation when I needed her most? I quickly understood that it was better not to talk about her. When you’re a child, it’s not hard to discern what shouldn’t be said. I knew to keep quiet and pretend to no longer think about her, even as I cemented my own opinion about what had really happened. One day, several months after the bombing, my grief outweighed my fear. I defied our family taboo as my mother was setting the table for Passover, finally daring to ask, “Is Nana dead?” “Yes.” I had officially lost my grandmother who had been gone for months.

            Understand that after the attack that left me gravely injured, my only true torment was my grandmother’s death. The grand-daughter became a grand-orphan. All grown up. In one stroke. Or rather one act—yours, Madame.

            When I returned home, in the spring of 1957, a new life had begun. The day of my return, I visited our apartment carried by one of my uncles. He identified every room for me, reminding me of once familiar details. Of course I knew where I was, but I had forgotten everything that made it home. I can be thankful for that charitable amnesia now—it also made me forget what it was like to run and have two legs. Which helped me to avoid succumbing to the laments of regret.

            In this new life, it was above all essential to act like nothing had changed, to square the circle. This attitude still reigns. There’s tragedy in every family, deaths that are premature, unjust, against nature. Accidents, illnesses, violations of the tacit rule of banal happiness. What was so terrible in my own was that my parents experienced this cataclysm with an every-man-for-himself attitude that isolates them to this day, in their old age, from each another. Their sixty troubled years of married life have been punctuated by arguments over the grief that’s always divided them—an orphaned father and a mother tormented by her daughter’s injury. Two tragedies from a single bomb. Neither the shock nor the pain brought them closer, and neither one could ever console the other.

            After the attack, my father, a young man distraught with grief over the sudden loss of his mother, retreated. For that matter, he is absent from the majority of my memories of this time. He went back to work quickly, using the need to go to the office to escape our new daily, medical, routine and the reality of the void left by his mother’s death. By nature not very talkative, my father was surely fighting the only way that he could, in isolation, to survive his loss.

            My mother, a young woman broken by what had happened to her child—by what had “happened to her” as she always said—, stopped working immediately in order to stay by my side. She used to cry endlessly. But quickly enough, she was forced to become a nurse as well as a mother. At the hospital, she learned the techniques she needed to reproduce in our home. She selflessly carried out this new mission, however much it hurt her to do so. After my long hospitalization, my mother also had to take on the role of teacher. “Heel-toe… heel-toe…” For months, she voiced this mantra during our short walks, following my prosthetist’s recommendations to the letter so that I would regain a natural gait. As soon as we stepped into the street, our exchanges were limited to that “heel-toe.” I obediently followed her instructions, in silence. 

            My nights weren’t as peaceful as my days. Inevitably, ghosts began to prowl, preferring the nocturnal calm and silence. Every evening, as soon as I closed my eyes, a single, menacing leg would perform macabre dances in the hallway. But, warily or benevolently, it was content to stay at the entrance to my bedroom. This allowed me to more easily control my fear. The leg, like a character from a silent cartoon, would rhythmically writhe in the hallway without coming near me. It would supply contort itself in a mocking, morbid version of the prosthetic that I placed under my bed each night. It came to taunt me, arouse both my fear and my curiosity, and prevent me from peacefully drifting into my new life as a little one-legged girl. It alone merited a cell in a psychiatric ward! But when it comes to mental survival, we have to make do with what we have—an ounce of common sense, two of willpower, lots of affection and the whole of it in silence. Each night the macabre dance brought my painful phantom limb to life. I would give the mad appendage secret ultimatums, count the seconds in my head—that’s how much the tempo controlled these alarming apparitions—and eventually fall asleep from exhaustion.

            The nocturnal visits ended abruptly. For nights afterward, I fearfully listened for the sound of the macabre dance in the hallway before confining the memory to a corner of my mind under lock and key. No one ever knew anything about it. For the first time, I’m bringing these deranged dances back to life, for you, Madame.         

            In the spring of 1957, my doctors recommended a prosthetist to my parents, William Houradou. Ours was a charmed match. He was himself the father of a little five-year-old girl named Nicole, who was also missing a limb, though from birth. This priceless mirror image immediately created the conditions for a familial trust. If the prosthetist had his own amputated child, then he would make me a prosthesis the way he had for her. Mr. Houradou and I developed a close relationship, which, I can now say, had an undoubtedly Oedipal flavor, given that my father was completely occupied by his own grief. This taciturn man, who was always kneeling at my feet to try on the wooden prosthesis that he made into a leg suited just for me, would say, in a few rare words, all that I was feeling but didn’t know how to express. An efficient therapist working in kind silence, Mr. Houradou enabled me to take my first steps without fear. For that matter, I never trusted any other prosthetist until his death (at which point I was over forty years old). These fittings also gave me the opportunity to play with his daughter Nicole, who could always be found in the garden next to the prosthetics workshop. Her reconfigured swing set transformed my orthopedic appointments into moments of joy. In those circumstances, learning to walk again was, well, child’s play.              

            I immediately adopted my family’s new rules though they were never explicitly stated. The law of unsaid things was in effect, and incidentally has never been lifted. The notion that children should be spoken to, and heard, was still far off in the future. In that era, we remained quiet, didn’t ask questions, and followed the rules, in fear of a punishment that could arrive at any moment. Nothing was explained to us, both because we weren’t judged capable of understanding, and also to protect us.

            At first, my parents were rendered mute by shock and grief. Their life had not just gone through an upheaval, it had very simply stopped being a life, and they were incapable of putting that suffering into words. In an effort to respect my child’s vocabulary, my mother spoke of my “leg” when referring to my prosthesis and my “little leg” for my stump—words that provided modesty, protection, and camouflage in place of others considered to be too raw, too sharp, and too painful.

            No one spoke to me about what had happened, or the circumstances surrounding it, or my injuries, or even my state of mind. My parents didn’t seem surprised that I never asked any questions. Day after day they were content to gently flip through storybooks with me. Neither the wolf nor the evil witch frightened me and, because it appeared to suit my parents, I adapted easily to the silence. I didn’t want to see how much pain they were in.

            I told myself that if I was very good, if I didn’t talk about what was making them sad, and if I didn’t ask any forbidden questions, they would eventually get better. I respected their silence to protect them, and myself. They never allowed themselves to express their emotions and only ever, even now at their advanced age, hinted at what must have been an enormous burden. Without fail, my parents have followed the credo of saying the least amount possible. They don’t know any other way.

            Sometimes—rarely—in those first few weeks after I left the hospital, my father dared a few timid jokes: “At least, you’ll never put your foot in your mouth!” Other times, he would initiate surprising conversations with me in a language that he referred to as “Javanese,” but that he had really invented, which was made up of silly gibberish and onomatopoeias. I was happy to play our nightly game, happy to help my father distract himself and to make my mother, our only spectator, smile. I viewed these attempts at humor kindly, indulgently. Today, as an adult, I understand that this paternal “newspeak,” an Esperanto born of despair, was another ruse to avoid describing what hurt in actual words. But by playing along, by maintaining a careful silence, I was protected from seeing their suffering.

            Silence was the order of the day for the rest of the family as well. My uncles, aunts, and cousins were all complicit in an unspoken denial driven by their protectiveness fondness for me. We were one of those rare Jewish tribes in North Africa, linked through strong bonds, deep affection for one another, and joyful and frequent family reunions. Nobody dared break the code of silence to naturally mention the “event.” Everything was communicated through an understanding, compassionate, and encouraging look. I was well loved and spoiled. Yet, today, with nearly all of my relatives dead, I regret never reaching out to encourage them to talk. If I had, they might have shed their silence, and answered the questions I undoubtedly didn’t even realize I needed to ask. My girl cousins, who were all younger, grew up in silent admiration of me. This still colors the tightknit relationships we developed as children. My male cousins, a bit older than me, shared a tacit devotion to me, behaving like servant knights to the “Jewish princess” who, in their eyes, had been transformed by circumstance into “Wonder Girl”! Everyone played with me as if nothing had happened, acting far too nice, which I found deeply suspicious. (They let me win at every game…) But it was thanks to them that I experienced my only true moments of carefree childhood, within the family ramparts that had been constructed around me.         

            In a family burdened by silence, the taboo against asking questions and expressing emotion paradoxically allowed me to believe everything was normal. Denial is not necessarily the merciless curse we are led to believe. I wasn’t tormented by my physical condition or my future. If everyone was acting as if nothing had happened, it was because nothing serious had happened. And if no one talked about it, then that’s the way it was because that’s the way it was. End of story.

            Madame, it’s only now that I’m breaking my silence, boldly disobeying my family’s unspoken rule, by writing to you.