Nowhere in my Father’s House

Translated by: Mildred Mortimer

Assia Djebar

Cherchell, Algeria
1936-2015

‘THE RIPPED UP LETTER’

A ripped up letter: we are still in the village, during the first days of July 1952.

It is my sixteenth summer, I believe. My father’s angry face hovers over the letter written to me by a person I do not know, a letter my father has just ripped up. I don’t yet know what it is all about. He tore the letter into a thousand pieces, violently. He asks one question: What had I done the last day of classes, a week earlier?

I answer:

–You were there the morning the school prizes were awarded! In the afternoon, I accompanied Mounira to the same prize ceremony at the boys’ high school.

He threw the tiny pieces of the letter in the wastepaper basket, and stalked out in silence.

I stood there stupefied by the violent display of paternal anger. I thought it was a question of an anonymous letter, perhaps some note that seemed to be vulgar. I, in turn, leave the living room, telling myself that I should feel ashamed or offended. Rather chilled, it seems to me.

At siesta time, an hour or two later, I notice the wastepaper basket in a corner: at the bottom, the debris of the letter. Surreptitiously, with the crafty slowness of a Sioux squaw, my impatient fingers put the pieces of the letter back together.

It is a banal letter that clearly proves my innocence: a young man in the city where I am a boarding student introduces himself as a student who asks to correspond with me. There was nothing more to it than that.

My first sin is curiosity, the desire to read the missive that unleashed my father’s rage. I find no better word than “rage.” The correspondence request was written in a conventional form. If it hadn’t been for the strong paternal reaction, I undoubtedly would have spoken ironically of the unknown writer’s style.

I nevertheless committed his name to memory. I even noted somewhere the address he had given. I noted that he said he was a student in the capital. I decided that upon my return to school in September, I would answer him to let him know that I accepted the offer to correspond with him.

My second sin was premeditated disobedience: reflecting upon this incident with no long-term consequences, I told myself, a propos of my father: “his lack of confidence in me is revolting!”

I wanted to be offended; I was only tempted to be so.

During this new school year – the last of my high school years – I remember my eagerness to study the philosophy texts that were part of the curriculum. In the first week of the new school year, I sent my letter to “the student in Algiers”: the tone of my letter had to even more conventional that the tone of his letter which I hadn’t been able to keep.

In addition, I asked my correspondent in a p.s. to write the name of a female schoolmate studying in Algiers on the envelope. At school, the boarding students’ mail was tightly controlled. My third sin was to appear to use subterfuge, like an experienced schemer.

My father had been present at the awards ceremony the year before, happy no doubt to hear my name often called. Mounira, who reappeared, had introduced herself to my father: she had asked him to let me spend the afternoon at her house. Our fathers knew each other, and I imagine they were both proud of our success in completing the first part of the baccalaureate. My father, who I think had business to take care of in Algiers, accepted Mounira’s invitation; I was to take the evening bus back to the village.

Here I was arriving at her home; it was not my first visit to her family. I knew her mother and her sister, who still very young. When we got to her room, she disclosed a plan she seemed to have already prepared in great detail.

–I am asking you to attend the prize ceremony at the boys’ high school with me!

I accept, telling myself that without my presence her family would probably not allow her to go out in the city that afternoon.

–I warn her that when we leave the school I will take the bus back to my village!

I see us now, both of us, Mounira, delighted, thanks to me, to appear without the traditional veil which she takes off and folds in four as soon as she leaves home. In this way, she treats herself to an afternoon of exciting freedom.

I didn’t even think to ask her: “Why the boys’ high school?”

The previous year, during the recitals for the operetta, I didn’t feel manipulated by her. That day, I understood that by being in my company, once she left home wearing the white veil worn by urban women, she could dare to remove it before entering the boys’ high school: so she would appear unveiled like me. She would undoubtedly make a sudden royal entrance – she, whose father kept her hidden because she was his favorite daughter, the one who felt and was told that she was so beautiful.

An hour later, entering the courtyard of the Lycée Duveyrier, we encountered a group of three or four Muslim students. As we passed them, Mounira excitedly whispered one name to me:

–Three cousins in the same family…!

What do I care? I quickly forgot her commentary. Several days later, at home in my village, when I put back together the pieces of the letter torn to shreds, I tell myself that this letter was undoubtedly the result of our escapade that afternoon.

 

Source:

This extract is a translation of Assia Djebar’s Nulle part dans la maison de mon père [Nowhere in my father’s house] (Fayard, 2007), pp. 251-254. Permission to reproduce these extracts in translation has been sought from the author’s agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates Ltd.