The Night Train to Blida. Monument by Andrew McIntyre… In some weeks, you can read the sequel to “Monument.” Stay tuned!
Mohammed stuffed the empty bag inside his jacket, Malik following, and we started to climb the long cobbled alley towards the steps leading to the Monument. Mohammed forged ahead yelling a tuneless rhythm, his body winding and dancing, his head going back and forth, “Oraaaaaaaaaan . . . allahhallahh . . . aaaaagh . . . Oraaaaaan . . . aaaaaaagh.”
Laughing, free at last from the tracksuit, Mustapha, the police, all the sundry problems, we finally left the market. I looked back. The square almost deserted. The old men had departed taking their chessboards. A few hapless youths still trying to sell unsaleable items, dogged and stalwart to the end. They would be there till dark, until there was no-one else.
The wind hurled dust and paper across the empty expanse. The old man I had seen earlier limped towards the center, his face deep into his burnoose, head down against the breeze. Mohammed paced ahead shouting, hooting crazy versions of popular Arab tunes. Then he started to sprint up the steps expending his frustration in a race against himself. We ran after him, competing against each other, pounding up flight after flight of ancient worn stone stairs till our legs burned with the effort. I slowed briefly to observe the view, breathing hard, the blood pulsing through my head. The market area and the square far below. I could see the whole quarter now, full of low squalid houses, the slums to the right. The wind billowed around me numbing my ears, clearing the smell of drains and stagnation.
Out of breath, we reached the summit. The sky clear, metallic blue, just wisps of cirrus. I breathed as deeply as I could, holding the cool clean air in the depths of my lungs. We stood at the edge of the plaza by a stone wall where we could see the entire city, rosy and white in the amber hues of early evening. The setting sun tingeing the buildings blood red, the buttery light merging into lengthening shadows. Algiers bleeding into the indigo Mediterranean. As far as the eye could see the land golden, glowing round the curve of the earth, green hills in the background, and beyond the distant blue slopes of the western Atlas.
“C’est belle ça, oui?” I said.
Mohammed nodded, “Mais oui, c’est belle. Ça c’est Alger. Allons. Nous allons boire du café. Nous allons manger.”
Briefly, the day made sense. Legs aching, we climbed final steps and trod into the vast concrete arena. Far away, in the center of the memorial, sentries marched around the vast obelisk. The base lit with a permanent flame for the Unknown Soldier. The legacy of countless, nameless fellaheen cursing the infidels through brown leather lips, fighting dusty battles with legionnaires on the plateau, silent and forgotten in the empty Tellian plains, sniping from caves. Villages raised by the low slow-motion strafing of helicopters. The Casbah bombed in the alleys, fighting so close you could smell the other side, see their eyes, hear their breathing. The Battle of Algiers. Bullet holes still scarred the mud walls. The shattered hollows of bombed out hovels, home to ghosts, the rats, stray dogs roaming the area, persecuting the streets with forlorn misery. Thousands of people tortured by Bigeard and Les Paras for microcosmic information about who was where when and with whom and why, when they were trying to catch the bombers who cut the noses off traitors. The Generals’ Revolt, the time of Challe, Jouhaud, Salan, the lunacy of the OAS, the humble executed heroism of Legionnaire Degueldre, the disfigured idealist deserter and ex-maquisard. The sun setting on a glittering culture, an era, Les Pieds Noirs. The Europeans that remained were furtive and alone, blackened by the sun, blending into the fellaheen masses. The burning, sandy winds blew from the desert, scattering dust down the streets, pieces of forgotten garbage rattling in the dirt, drying up memories, the history, drying up the people.
Mohammed gestured, “They could have only built this here, Monument, symbol of the socialist revolution, the people in the Casbah detest it.”
“Of course, take a look around. What is this place other than absurd? Maybe the plastic mannequins imported from France are the only things with life.”
We wandered through the arched arcades, past empty discotheques, bars, and cafes, the boutiques exhibiting leopard skin coats, leather shoes, furs and dresses, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel.
Mohammed stared into the glass, his face fragmenting like a mandala, “Do you think anyone can buy this? These shops are state funded, they do not have to sell. What is the point?”
“It is an exhibition,” I said. “Like the cathedral you showed me, in the time of the French and now. It gives hope to the lost who do not realize they are lost.”
Mohammed waved, “You are a poet, André.”
I laughed, raising my voice like an actor, “How things could be, the perfect philosophy, the perfect religion. A temple offering everything, providing nothing, a paradigm explaining it all, leaving you wondering. Forever you strive, forever denied.”
Malik was crying with laughter, “Only a Belgian . . .”
Mohammed was more serious, “What you say is true, André. Not so long ago this was a slum, the revolution got rid of the shacks, and now what? Concrete blocks, people rotting with their TVs, and you still can’t walk around here without a weapon. There is no work, and we still have to sell clothes. Night is coming, but there will be a dawn calling us to our path once again. The war is a few months away.”
“Thus it is,” I agreed. “We will prepare.”
“Nothing has changed,” said Malik. “It is as if my father and grandfather were wearing jeans, smoking Winstons, with their knives and axes, thinking the muezzin was Beur and Rai.”
Mohammed marched ahead spreading his arms, “This is nothing. Even though we could live for three months on any of those jackets in that window. Who would buy them after all? Wear clothes like that, and someone will kill you for them. But over the border the clothes are better. We will bring them. These people know nothing. Soon we go to Morocco. André will go with us to the border. Maybe next week. You come? Three of us. We will be strong this way.”
“Yes,” said Malik. “The more the better. You ever been to the border?”
“Maroc yes,” I replied. “The border no. Not yet. But we will go.”
“What do you think of Maroc?”
“I prefer Algiers. Less tourists. Tourists fuck places up.”
“Oui. But Maroc is dangerous, eh?”
“Oui, un peu. But beautiful too. Everywhere’s dangerous if you want.”
“Oui. But the border. Very dangerous. Better to go in groups. To go alone is to die. We have to climb across the mountains.”
“I imagine so. We’ll go together. Three of us and we will share the takings.”
Malik laughed, “Oui. Exactement. I have to finish some things. Then we’ll go.”
Mohammed disappeared down the arcade so we wandered after him, our reflections grotesque in the shining glass façades. The fatigue and frustration had begun to tell. He was a speeding robot out of control. He ambled ahead, rambling, stalking wide eyed, crazed by the wealth, the mohair suits, jackets, the black trendy costumes. He passed every shop yelling, “Regards là . . . Voilà . . . Allons y . . .” waving us on, motioning, dashing into the stores, arguing with shopkeepers, eyes rolling, a tall hectic figure with the rigid supple hints of violence, cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Pages: 1 2