Couscous Threads

Excerpt from “Couscous Threads” © Cynthia Rowe, 2008

Couscous Threads1997


Rosine leapt back from the bed, almond eyes narrow, heart jerking and leaping. “Phhffff. Oh merde, he just dropped a piece of wood. Get a grip on yourself!”

The noise of the workman’s hammer thrummed in her head. A sub-machine gun. Rat-a-tat-tat. The iced-water tap in the nightmarish headboard dripped in unison with the staccato strike of distant tools. The clock blinked golden numbers, was silent, and then began to burp in time.

Determined to remain stoic, she smoothed out the creases in the blanket thrown over the vast pneumatic bed. The gold cross at her neck danced as she scooped up the mucky bowl left by Omar, the desiccated couscous reminding her of the lacy grains of sand at Vieux Port. But the Algiers beach she remembered was very different from the bulbous rocks of Nice—the second phase of her journey.

The rapping continued.

Bowl in one hand, she snatched the phone from the headboard with the other, tapping the telephone number of the only friend she could confide in with her thumb. The phone rang and rang.

Frissons of fear ran up her legs until, finally, Samia picked up.

“I can’t stand the hammering!” said Rosine, relieved to be able to speak in her mother tongue.

“Ça va aller.” Samia sounded calm, almost distracted.

“It’ll be all right? It’s driving me mad!” A pause and Rosine went on. “The sound reminds me of the siege of Bab El-Oued. You remember, in Algiers, when entry to the quarter was banned without warning by the military?”

“I remember. I try to forget—but I remember.”

“I can still hear the gunshots warning people to stay away unless they, unless they—I can hardly get the words out—wished to be slaughtered! And the army”—Rosine swallowed a breath—“together with the police, encircled that area, drove in tanks and crushed anything, anything, standing in its way. Even cats, you know—cars, people—and cats, did I say cats?”

“You said cats. Look, I’ve got an appointment…”

“Yes, and dogs too. And shop windows! Animate, in-inanimate”—placing the bowl back on the headboard shelf, she began to stutter—“it d-d-didn’t matter. Those soldiers fired on balconies, footpaths, through the walls of the houses! I had a friend, a child, playing in the safety of her family home. She was killed. And she wasn’t the only one!”

“I know, I know.”

“So how many died believing their walls would protect them, that restricting children to play in the courtyard was the prudent thing to do? Tell me that! The authorities knew, oh how they knew. But they weren’t telling! Truth was the first casualty in this sale, sale guerre.”

“It was a dirty war. But nothing much has changed, even now.”

“Yes, but helicopters rained bullets—bullets—from the sky. Apartments were ransacked; police searches were carried out and the killings went on and on and on.”

“They’re still going on, uprisings…”

“I was only young but I remember Papa telling me how the sick and wounded were not cared for, the dead left unburied, bodies allowed to rot! Supplies of food were banned to the area! Bab El-Oued became a ghetto, cut off from the rest of the city! But—the military did not count on the solidarity of the people! A peaceful demonstration was organised. Carrying the tricolour, people marched, hope in their hearts, towards the Bab El-Oued quarter, along Rue d’Isly!”

“I’m older than you are”—Samia seemed to take a sudden interest in Rosine’s edgy rambling—“and I was in that march. The roadblocks, those barricades, placed to stop us from entering, fell suspiciously easily before the throng as we advanced. A trap had been set, did you know that? The whole thing was worked out down to the last detail! What fools we were! Our march was met with combat equipment, bullet-proof vests, MACHINE GUNS. Trained soldiers were waiting to kill us, together with the innocent, Pieds-Noirs, like you—children of the colonisers. Bullets rained on our parade. People were mown down!”

“Mmmn.” Moistening her index finger with her tongue, Rosine pressed it on a couscous grain. A crash in the distance! She had to keep talking. “Those soldiers were there to drum home that we were no longer welcome in the land of our birth, the place we’d called home for one hundred and thirty years!”

Silence from Samia.

Licking her finger, Rosine recalled how the official version of events claimed snipers resisted from the rooftops, suggesting the forces of law and order had been fired upon. But there’d been no snipers, no resistance; guns had been used on people without arms. A grain of cold couscous descended her gullet.

Her voice controlled anger, Samia continued, “We, the marchers, threw ourselves to the ground in a desperate attempt to avoid the fire. Some of us huddled in the doorways of buildings—but those butchers were relentless. Bitter, entrenched hatred, drove the perpetrators. They shot fleeing people in the back! People around me lay dying as soldiers finished them off with a final bullet.” Outrage filtered through her words. “Troops ran inside the buildings, climbed stairs and kept up the rampage to complete their gruesome task! It was horrible!”

“Papa said even the blue, white and red French flag was no use. He told me the manifestation of our solidarity became a target.”

“Few were spared,” agreed Samia, “and not even the doctors and ambulance drivers who were there to help the sick and the wounded.” A pause. “I remember the stench of gunpowder, the fear, the blood sealing like sticky wax to the macadamised surfaces.” A heavy pause. “There was one soldier, though, stricken with remorse at the sight of what his troops were doing. He cried out, ‘Cease your fire!’ but they ignored him. The shooting simply intensified. We lay on the road, huddled against the footpath like scared rabbits, waiting for the insanity to stop. We prayed to the Lord, to Allah, to any god who might listen! But our prayers were left unanswered.”

“Mmmn.” Rosine swallowed. “I heard the police joined in the fray. They fired wildly, laughed, moved on to the next victim—was that true?—and by nightfall, hundreds of bodies lay spread, scattered across the area.”

“Quite true. And the official military report would state: one hundred people dead, less than two hundred wounded. There were many more than that, though, heaps more.”

Rosine knew the most awful atrocities had been committed by order of the authorities. Some were fortunate, the bodies of their loved ones returned to them. But they were few. By morning, most of the slain had been removed, taken away in army trucks, and buried in mass graves without rites, without the briefest prayer. “I heard the commander of the operation—can you believe it?—announced how cool the enforcers of law and order had been! How efficient—”

“—and compassionate! ‘It was a wonder not more people were killed,’ he announced to the world. ‘The army was to be congratulated for its calm and purpose.’ What horrendous times they were! You know, no tear gas was used, no warning given. It was slaughter, a notice inscribed in blood to the colonists—like you!—that you were no longer welcome in the land of your birth.” Silence, and then: “How did the Zemour family escape?”

“Oh, we threw clothes into suitcases.” Rosine remembered being so terrified she’d thrown up on her new dress. “We fled the only country we’d ever known. We took whatever we could carry and sailed across the pond—that limpid Mediterranean I still miss!—to France. But,” she sighed, pressing her finger once more on the uneaten food, “it was a one-way ticket to nowhere. We could never return, not even for a visit. Our family hasn’t been back since.”

“Some families I knew were fortunate,” said Samia. “There was—no I don’t believe you ever met them—anyway, the coffins of their dead were sent to the countries which took them in. Died under fire from a terrorist attack, said the official form. But there were no terrorists, not from outside, just the Armée de Libération Nationale. Liberation Army? Pfft. I try not to get angry. No, nothing has changed, nothing ever will change!”

“You’re right. My godfather—you know, the Pied-Noir writer who dared to remain, still living by his wits in Algiers?—sent me a letter saying …” Feeling the tears well up, Rosine brushed them away with a grungy finger.

For those who died it had been a clean death, unlike the fate experienced by her husband’s people—the Harkis. The Harkis were tortured by the French, and also by their own people. Omar was a Harki. Refusing to discuss the terrible events, he shook his head, remained mute and poured another eau de vie. One day, maybe, he would tell his wife of the horrors he’d seen. Sometimes Rosine thought she would rather not know the detail, not know the seething in his mind: the rancour, the rage, the impotence—the trash one carries on the inside. If she did know, she would go mad with the guilt, never sleep a wink again.

Samia’s voice intruded on her thoughts. “I must go. I have a realtor to meet.”

“Why are you buying real estate?’

“Not for me.” Pause. “I help people—people like us, from our country.”

“Help them in what way?”

“I can’t tell you, not yet.”

The crash of more wood falling.

“Please don’t go!” She needed to keep Samia on the line. “The noise doesn’t worry me as much when I’m talking.” Rosine gulped back mucous, knowing her world was shrinking, becoming smaller, sharper, more defined. Would she soon be completely enclosed? Like a guinea pig in a school experiment? Or a rabbit in a cage? She didn’t care as much as she should. At times, she was almost glad. Liberty as a concept was unknown to her, unwanted, a reality she feared. She allowed herself to stay cocooned in the culture she had left behind in the Maghreb, clung to it, clutched the ethos as if it were a lifeline. And now a workman was hammering the final nails into the walkway leading to her sewing room: a tin shed, hot in summer, icy in winter.

“Are you still there, Rosine?”

“I wish we could afford to own our own home.”

“You have a mortgage, which signifies freedom—of a sort. Look, I must go.”

“Freedom, Samia? I’m not too sure about the covered path the men are installing. Will it shut me in?”

“I can’t answer that.”

“It’s got wooden sides and leads through the kitchen to my shed in the corner of the garden—you know, the green one?—where I sew. It’s hard, Samia. I’ve been slaving into the early hours of the morning while Omar snores and Jamal sleeps. Omar says I’ll be able to work in comfort now, not have to carry my cut garments in the rain. Will it be like this forever? Will he have total control over me? Will I be in a prison so there’s nowhere left to go?”

“Your husband carries a lot of baggage—you knew that when you married him.” Pause. “Didn’t Omar have a brother?”

“No, a sister, Leïla.”

“What happened to her? The FLN—”

“—they killed her.”

“How old?”

“He never talks about it, I think twelve months.” She took a breath. “But, but will I be able to go into the garden, walk under the trees on fine spring days?” Rosine gathered up the dish again. She knew in her heart she would be condemned to sew the T-shirts and tops for eighteen hours at a time, while her husband played cards and backgammon at the Al-Djaza’ir Club. She never told Samia he humped hussies, picked up at night in Chapel Street. She never admitted he hit her, the thin edge…

Her grasp of English was so poor that her contact with the outside world had dried up like the desert which spawned her. She hated it, for her knowledge of what went on in her adopted land was fragmented, percolated through the eyes of her son. And his was a jaundiced, monosyllabic, pre-teen view. Her friends were confined to the Algerian community—and even they had seeped away, apart from Samia. Good, brave Samia. When Rosine shopped she was never alone; Jamal or Omar would accompany her. She spoke her native tongue most of the time: Pied-Noir French. Omar Ziden was a Muslim, from a fighting Harki family, courageous soldiers on horseback who sided with the French. In Algeria, they would have never been allowed to mix. Here, in Australia, unusual relationships like theirs seemed to be the norm.

There was a positive about the sewing, if you ignored the sore hands, the cuts, and the ugly redness: it kept her occupied, giving her contact with the outside world through the contractor. Otherwise, she would have gone crazy with loneliness.

Omar had announced one day: “I have a solution to our money problems.”

The wife of a friend of a friend, from the club, had heard on the grapevine of a man who manufactured clothing. Monsieur Bull would drop off bundles of cut pieces to be sewn into garments. He would return in a day or so, paying cash for the completed work. The hours were punishing, the pay poor, but no tax was to be paid to the government.

“Wouldn’t it be better to learn English?” she had asked her husband. “Get a legal job, be paid more money? Hand over the due tax? I could go to TAFE, learn to speak English.”

Omar scowled at the idea, and then enthused that she would never be obliged to leave the house. “It won’t matter if your English is poor,” he said. “The contractor is used to people like you.” He explained that Frank Lister Bull was empathetic, said he would make signs, show her what to do with his hands. “He’s never angry when his outworkers make a mistake! He’s a good guy.”

And that was how it started.

At first, Rosine was happy. She recalled handling fine cloth. Ben Zemour, her father, had been a small trader in Algiers before the war of independence.  A chubby child, she would play in the shop among the tantalising tissues: from Holland, les Wax, elegant and serene; from Java, the Savana fabrics, hot orange and golden; from Thailand, the silks, purple and shot; from Ireland, linen, white, delicate, colleen. The pièce de résistance came from Ghana, made by the Nanas Benz: rich, bold, hard wearing, an investment for life.

Monsieur Zemour displayed in the Lebanese tradition, simple and aesthetic. He would run his dimpled fingers across the weave and spin his tales. Then toss her in the air. “Ma puce, my pet, you must choose the material of your dreams, spread it, take the ride of your life on a magic carpet of silk, or linen; whatever tugs at your heart.” Women came from Oran and Kabylie, all the way to Algiers, to hear him tell his stories: how to voyage across his fine cloth, how to enter a fantastical world by wearing his exotic fabrics.

Rosine’s lips formed a pout. The tops she sewed now were in every type of synthetic: sizzling spandex, pulsating polyester, rampaging ramie. Gaudy, stretchy, gender-bender ready-to-wear. Had her father known, he would have wept and wailed and wrung his hands. But he was too far gone with depression in his dingy HLM public housing apartment in Nice to care. There had been plans to sell wedding dresses, copied from the bridal shop at Galeries Lafayette—come to nothing. The Zemour’s life of plenty had ground to a halt in 1962. The war of independence won against France, Évian Accords signed, there was no real victory for the family; simply Pyrrhic. The shop at the end of Rue de la Lyre was bombed, the perpetrators making it clear they should leave the country. Rosine still woke sweating between the sheets at night, an unshakable fear threatening to engulf her. At those times, even the daylight did not help.

Realising Samia was no longer at the end of the line, she replaced the handset. She turned to leave the sunless room, the ocean of crimson and black which seemed to give her husband solace on the surreal bed she shared with him.

Harshness swirled about her as she went to check if the walkway to her sewing room was completed. Monsieur Bull would be picking up the consignment of Truffle Ts soon. He would be annoyed if they were not done, find someone else. How would they eat then? The contractor had a living to make, a business to run. And they had food to buy, bills to pay: electricity, water, gas, the never-ending mortgage.

Rosine’s life was becoming more and more controlled by Omar. She didn’t like it, but she knew she was safe. Not free, but safe. No more cowering from a sniper’s bullet, only from her husband’s blows. She knew why he hit her. She understood the torture which groped at his heart, the post-traumatic stress from the war that dared not speak its name. In the end, though, her beautiful boy Jamal was the only thing that mattered.

She stopped in her tracks. If they had stayed in France instead of taking the next step to Australia, would Omar have returned to the country of his birth, taken a second wife, left her foundering in an HLM housing estate, indigent and aging? She shook her head. No, he would never have been so stupid. He knew he would be shot as soon as his shoe leather touched Algerian soil.

Second wife? Another wife might not be so bad; she could share the sewing?

Running water over the uneaten couscous, Rosine left the bowl to soak. Passing along the walkway, she entered the work area to find the man in the putty-stained overalls sweeping curls of wood through the open door of her sewing shed. Securing the lock, he removed the key, pushed it into his back pocket.

“You ’ave for m-eee…?” She held out her hand.

Ignoring the gesture, the tradesman leaned the broom against the wall. He crouched down and began to slot tools in his open metal box, wiping away the sawdust with his weathered thumb as he did so.

Had he heard her, she wondered. Or was her English so bad, she was well-nigh incomprehensible?

Refusing to make eye contact, he said, “Sorry, lady, Omar gave strict instructions to hand the key to his son—Jamal, is that the kid’s name?”

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