Excerpt: 'To Algeria, with Love' by Suzanne Ruta
To Algeria, with Love sketches the portrait of an Algerian everyman through the eyes of his ditsy American girlfriend (who hears his hopes and dreams) and his grieving daughter (who knows his bitter disappointments). The novel is set in France 1961, in Algeria, 1988 and in New York, 2003.
From Part I, Chapter 1:
Half an hour early and forty years too late, the story of my life. Three-thirty by the clock in that midtown luncheonette. We were not due to meet till four. How would I recognize him? They didn’t put his picture on his book jacket. Tariq said he was tall and scrawny and ascetic looking, with round wire-rimmed glasses, like Gandhi or John Lennon. Either one would do.
Tariq set the time and place for this encounter. My sidewalk savior used to drive an ambulance in Paris. Now he drives a limo in New York but he hasn’t lost the instincts of a rescuer.
‘I’m accident prone,’ he said the day we met in the Bellevue emergency room, ‘prone to other people’s accidents.’ He just happened to be driving by, that afternoon, when poor old Friedrich keeled over on the sidewalk. His forehead struck the pavement, drawing blood. Tariq spotted him, leapt from his car, raised the wounded gently from the gutter and bore him to the hospital where he found my name and number in Friedrich’s wallet.
Half an hour later I walked in and saw Friedrich looking like the SS finally caught up with him. Was he still in his right mind? Blinking back my tears, I tested him.
‘Did you hear that, Friedrich? This kind gentleman once lived in Paris, just like you.’ Friedrich’s mind was unimpaired. When he heard me say Paris, he staggered to his feet and sang the ‘Marseillaise’. He remembered all the words.
‘A rare display of chauvinism,’ Tariq commented, as a nurse came running to shush Friedrich and lead him away behind the swinging doors.
‘Oh Friedrich isn’t French, he’s a Francophile refugee from Nazi Germany. One of many. Look, this was very kind of you, I don’t know how to thank you, but don’t you have to get back to work about now?’
Tariq told me not to worry, his hours were flexible. He was employed by the French consulate as chauffeur and guide for visiting celebrities from over there.
‘Celebrities?’ I asked. Jean Gabin? Catherine Deneuve? Bernard-Henri Lévy?
Tariq said it was mostly celebrities no one in New York had ever heard of, which made his work much easier. Right now, for example, he was in charge of an exiled Algerian who’d written a bestseller. He shrugged, ‘The kind of thing the French go crazy over for a season anyway, you know how it is with them, it’s cyclical and short lived, like May flies. I doubt three people in New York have read this Algerian’s book.’
And then he named the man, and I said, ‘Really? You’re talking to one of the three. I would love to meet Aissa Abderrahmane. Do you think you could wangle me an interview?’
Tariq said that would be easy. ‘What paper are you with?’ I lied and said, ‘Oh, several.’
‘I’m sure he’ll be delighted. Just leave everything to me.’
I once knew Algeria by heart. I had it from a direct source, temporarily relocated to France but honest, voluble, and passionate.
‘I swear to you, Louise,’ my source would say.
‘Don’t swear,’ I’d say to Wally, that was his name, the name we gave him. ‘I believe you without that.’ But it was a verbal tic he couldn’t lose. A rhythmic pacing, spacing of everything he had to say.
Then I lost him, we lost each other. His fault, my fault, nobody’s fault? I got tired of trying to assign blame. I tried to put him out of mind, with all his kin. I lived my life without them and forced myself into a willful ignorance about Algeria. I left France, returned home to New York, and married a kindly European émigré, fluent in five languages. I loved my husband, raised my children, and taught Spanish in the city high schools. But my mind was never clear of old distractions, buzz saws, and bark- ing dogs that made it hard to think about the here and now.
‘Un jour tu verras, on se recontrera’ (One day you’ll see, we’ll meet again), Wally and I used to listen to that song. I don’t think we owned the record. But when they played it on the radio, we stopped whatever we were doing and paid attention. It was not our song, we had a whole list of those besides, but its modest optimism flattered our circumstances.
The promise was betrayed, and badly. I wanted to tell this wandering polysyllabic Algerian, Aissa Abderrahmane, what had happened. Reading him had been almost like listening to Wally. Except that Wally when I knew him had a whole world to look forward to, while Aissa’s world – a generation later – turned against him, threw him out, and left him stranded on a foreign shore
Wally talked so much I called him my pet parrot. A parrot does the talking in Aissa’s book. When the old bird goes missing from a shabby beach hotel east of Algiers, the owner accuses his young male employees of theft and has them arrested and tortured. The parrot meanwhile flies away to France and finds a comfy niche in a public garden but when he learns about the mess he’s left behind, he almost dies of grief.
‘Don’t dwell on your losses,’ I would tell Aissa. ‘Listen to me instead. Wally and I have a lot to tell you.’
About the Author:
Suzanne Ruta is a native New Yorker who has lived for long periods in France, Switzerland, Chiapas and northern New Mexico where in the mid nineties she co-founded a thriving immigrants’ rights group. Her short story collection Stalin in the Bronx (Grove Press) was a New York Times notable book of the year. Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Grand Street, Bookforum and manyother publications. She lives in New York City.
About the Photographers:
Omar D was born in Annaba, Algeria in 1951 and is a photographer living and working in France and Algeria. He was recently commissioned to document the lives and traces of the disappeared during the Algerian civil war. Images from the resulting book Devoir de mémoire / A Biography of Disappearance, Algeria 1992 – (2007) will be shown in his upcoming exhibition, New Cartographies: Algeria-France-UK
John Perivolaris is a documentary and fine art photographer, curator and writer. His work focuses on migration, diaspora and identity. For this exhibition, Perivolaris was commissioned to undertake a month-long photographic and multimedia journey from the UK to Algeria. His resulting project, is North to North: A Journey from Manchester to the Maghreb in Postcards. Images made by Perivolaris during his journey throughout June and July 2010 can be viewed on his accompanying blog.