Semia Harbawi


The judge’s voice was stern and low-keyed: “This court sentences the accused Omar Laârbi Samet to eight months of imprisonment for the physical and moral injuries he inflicted on the plaintiff Sana Samet.” My eyes locked with my brother’s in a staring contest. I refused to flinch and look away. No one had thought I could have had the guts to go to the police and lodge a complaint against my own brother. But I did.

When the judge pronounced the sentence, my mother’s wails rose and she hurled invectives at me. Other Tunisians stood at her side and that of my father, who refused to look my way all through the proceedings. Their insults ricocheted off the walls of the courtroom. Their eyes skewered me in their repulsed anger. They formed a phalanx of self-righteous resentment, closing ranks against the ineffable treachery of a member of their own community. Miguel’s hand closed on mine, his presence the ballast of my flailing spirit. I immediately felt my scalp tightening. Nausea crested and ebbed. I peered down at my feet in their canvas espadrilles on which I had drawn various fluorescent motifs with highlighters. Then, I turned my back on my family. It took all the remaining shreds of my energy to will my feet to fall into their habitual pattern. Just one step in front of another. It was all that mattered right now. Just one step in front of the other.

* * *

The tiled floor of the bathroom was cold under my back, like pinpricks needling my battered flesh. My tears had blurred my vision. Some of the objects in the bathroom acquired fuzzy, bleary contours, while others became limned with a grisly, other-worldly luminescence. It was a few days shy of the Aïd al-Kebir, the occasion when any Muslim worthy of the name celebrated the sacrifice of Abraham, by superseding Ishmael with the fat, juicy flesh of a sheep. I felt like that ritual animal being sacrificed on the altar of my family’s erroneous sense of honor.

I was pinioned down to the floor of the bathroom where I had taken refuge before my brother forced the locked door. The floor was suffused with the bright, acrid whiff of bleach water. My sister Zeyneb leaned on my chest with all her weight, which was in no way inconsequential, squashing in the process my breasts that felt like bruised, overripe peaches. She was heaving and panting with the tremendous effort she was exerting because I resisted her attempts to incapacitate me, to impede my every movement. I was thrashing about, trying to bite into the palm of her meaty hand smelling of garlic and cumin as she had been seasoning fish for dinner. Her hand was gagging me, choking back my cries, reducing them to hapless whines at the back of my throat. Her hand acted as a stopper that kept the essence of my misery intact. I craned my neck until its chords tautened, overstrained strings on a battered violin. I was breathing hard through my nostrils, reduced as I was to an apnoea-like state. They felt as if they were tremulous wings on the sides of my nose, pulsating with the urgency of the compressed air wanting to explode into juddering puffs. There were strands of hair in my eyes as I frantically turned my head from side to side to evade my brother’s Omar’s steel grip on my head. His hands were a vice, striving to squeeze my head into a static posture, reminiscent of the stranglehold my family had on my very life.

My father’s face hovered on the fringes of my zoning-out consciousness, blank and strangely unlined for a man his age. All the while, my mother’s voice wafted to my clogged ears, where my tears pooled like rain water in a shallow well. From my position, I could only make out her ankles, swollen with oedema as she leaned for support on the jamb of the mangled door. Her voice was both strident and wheezy because of her asthma. It was goading and prodding similar to a hot poker, guiding my brother’s hand, urging him to punish his wayward sister whose conduct caused an indelible stain to the family’s honor. Her voice was a disembodied entity, floating over our heads, cluttering the space, riddling the very texture and density of the ambient air. At that moment, I was not aware of all these sensations transuding through the filter of my perceptions. I only could marshal my thoughts retrospectively each time I visited this memory, taking it down from its recessed niche and scrutinizing its every facet. The memory of the day when my brother with the complicity of mother, father, and sister, shore my hair like what people did, after World War II was over, to those French women who hobnobbed with the Nazis. It was clear that, where women were concerned, some modes of retribution cut through the boundaries of culture and religion. I remember that I could almost hear the snarled fury behind Omar’s vacuous, simian eyes as he plied his hairdresser’s clippers to cut off clumps of my hair by the fistful. My hair was left in pathetic mounds like the pelt of a dead animal after I got branded as the slut and traitress that I was believed to be.

They soon filed out of the bathroom, satisfied that they had exacted a fair retribution for the crime I had committed. I was left prostrate on the floor. My cracked lips were swollen and livid welts had already risen on my forearms where my brother had punched me before shaving my head. When I could summon enough strength to stand up, I tripped drunkenly to the sink and beheld my reflection in the bathroom mirror. The wild-eyed, tear-stained face topped by a naked cranium belonged to a woman I could not put a name to. I dry-heaved and slumped down to the floor. My fingers started tracing the bumpy contours of my new-found baldness.

* * *

We were a family of Tunisian immigrants living in Perpignan, a town near the South of France. In 1970, my father, Lâarbi Samet, emigrated from his native Al-Kef, back in Tunisia, to work as a mason. He was later joined by Halima, my mother, and five children were born whom they raised thanks to child benefit granted by the French government. We were a bunch of bougnoules, ‘wogs’ whose presence was regarded by many French people as a threat to both their jobs and women. Cooking odors that emanated from our flat formed a peculiar olfactory tapestry, a sort of cultural spoor. These odors were not simply considered as a nuisance but also as an offense because they were among the concrete indicators of our difference, just like our deep olive skins or the fact that my mother’s French was broken at the best of times, even after more than twenty years spent in this country. This was compounded by her hennaed hair, the heavy gold loops that elongated her earlobes, and the typically Tunisian harkoos sprigs, made out of a vegetal tincture, that snaked up the sides of her feet and the back of her hands. She also flaunted tattoos on her cheeks that were the markers of her regional origins, back in her motherland. To me, they seemed like the cross-hairs on a sniper’s scope.

We were a bunch of “rabbit-like reproducers,” “car thieves” for all that the average Frenchman cared. Our very existence was like a sore tooth that was emitting very bad vibrations so that many called for its extraction. It did not occur to them that we, the children, were born on French soil and were, by force of circumstance, French to all intents and purposes. Our lot was aggravated by the access to power of a dwarfish man of Hungarian origins, who became Minister of the Interior and made it hard for all fellow immigrants, in addition to the ever rising popularity of the notorious one-eyed leader of the Front National, the extreme-right party. I was amply amused by the abounding metaphors that vied to encapsulate the gist of our predicament and soon came to invent some of my own: we were, for instance, ugli fruit mottled with the signs of our irrepressible alien-ness and my favorite was that of the ichneumon-fly, the small insect that vicariously lays its eggs in or on the larva of another insect.

I was a beurette, the back slang for the female form of the word “Arab.” That is how girls from Maghrebi origins were commonly labeled. Is it because our skins had the color of soft, melting (some would say “rancid”) butter? I am not really sure. But I felt French to my very core, despite our parents’ attempts to remind us of our roots back in Tunisia, a two-hour flight away. I had been to Al-Kef twice to visit with my parents’ respective families. I had not felt at home. Their customs were not mine and their language jarred on my ears. I had felt irked and intrigued by their appraising looks and calculating whispers. It came, then, as no surprise when I was informed that I was engaged, at age sixteen, to a cousin who worked in the capital Tunis, a man I had never seen in my life. The prospect of my compulsory husband turned into a sort of Damocles’ sword suspended over my head. It was my father’s obstinate way of preserving the umbilical chord with his country of birth, a place where he had spent the first twenty-six years of his life. He always found a way to cut down on the household daily expenses so as to send money back to Tunisia. He always spoke with longing anticipation about our final return and the house he would, by then, have had built in Al-Kef. Our stay in France was but momentary. Such talks chilled me to the bone. It never occurred to him that I did not have the intention of leaving the country where I was born and raised, where I had friends and bearings, for another foreign country just because it was the place where he had been born and raised. I always refused to contemplate such a perspective and belabored under the pretension it belonged to the realm of a faraway fantasy that could never materialize itself.

My father was dead set against our eating pork, drinking wine or leading our lives in the French style. We were to live as an island in the midst of an ocean of sound and fury; impervious to the powerful undertow of an alien culture. It was incumbent on him to hold the fort and preserve the drawbridge erect, looking from between the battlements of his paranoia at the enemy’s perpetual attempts to take by storm the integrity of his roots and pillage the pristine quality of his delusions. He was fierce with his son but even fiercer with his daughters, whom he perceived with complete mistrust as the crack in his defenses, the ultimate break line. After my two eldest sisters got married to Tunisian immigrants and moved to neighboring towns, only Zeyneb and I remained. He monitored our movements and turned up, sometimes out of the blue, at the gate of our secondary school to escort us home. He had a say regarding even the choice of our clothes. I had overheard him once remonstrating with my mother, in an odd combination of French and his native dialect, which I could understand but not speak, because of an array of trousers and tank tops that she had purchased for us from a special sale in the neighborhood’s boutique owned by a couple of Turks. “What did you have in mind, woman, when you bought these? Do you want your daughters to look like those little white sluts?” he snorted in disgust at her whimpers and panicky, self-recriminations. He entrusted Omar, his only son, with the task of keeping an eye out to make sure that his sisters never swerved from the right path or “took notions into their heads.” And he could not find a better Cerberus than this male scion of his who undertook his mission with the zeal of the fanatic. He demanded that we justify our comings and goings and had a copy of our school timetables. When Zeyneb dropped out of school, he zeroed in onto me with his distrust and continuous suspicion. I did not give in to his pressure but I was somehow afraid of the barely contained simmering violence; a tightly coiled spring inside him and he had counted on this perception to contain me. I knew that he often participated in skirmishes that opposed young Maghrebi men to male gypsies who lived in trailer camps on the outskirts of Perpignan. The hatred that linked both communities was steeped in a baffling mystique that eclipsed their common lot as dwellers of the margins, pariahs dangling over the steep edge of an inexorable quandary.

* * *

I felt very early that I had to play a game of make-believe to evade the surveillance of my father and especially that of my brother. I knew by intuition that I had to have recourse to ruse and wily stratagems, that the image of myself I allowed to filter had to conform with their expectations about what a decent, chaste girl should be like in a hostile territory fraught with devilish temptations that would on the first occasion imperil hers and, by extension, her family’s honor. I became a female Janus. I soon came to develop two tongues, two gaits, and two looks. It was, at first, part of a protocol of survival that devolved into one of systematic reprisals on my part. For their reactionary, oppressive stance called for pro-reactive measures. At home I was bashful and sheepish. I willed my tongue to be tied with the adequate amount of decorum in the presence of male members of the family. I helped my mother in performing the household chores, no matter how much homework had to be done. My gait was unobtrusive; I walked with slightly stooped shoulders so as not to let my breasts jut out when they sprouted unwittingly soon after I turned thirteen. My eyes were never impudent or roving and my hair was never allowed out of its restraining, limp ponytail. I could not apply make-up, not even lips gloss or watch movies on my own. Surfing channels was a male prerogative when no female was in sight. I had managed to anesthetize their misgivings. But at school, it was a different story.

The first thing I did, when arriving, was to go straight to the restroom. I would relish the sensation of uncoiling my hair and let it hang in thick, glossy strands down my back. I would apply some lip gloss that I never failed to lick away when it was time to leave for home. I straightened my shoulders and my gait would become more brisk and self-assured. I rejoiced in talking slang and the cruder the terms, the more exhilarated I felt. I smoked cigarettes with other French and Maghrebi girls in the toilets and avidly absorbed their talk about sex and the pangs of love. We leafed through books and magazines with very clever and detailed illustrations that substituted themselves for a mother’s talk on such matters. Mine never even broached the topic of my periods, let alone how a man and a woman were supposed to perform in intimate moments. In my parents’ culture, it was a taboo they never even contemplated the possibility of breaching. I had no close relationship with my older sister who was obsessed with the preparation of her trousseau while waiting for a Tunisian man to propose to her. She only dwindled into an embittered, overweight bully especially after I was engaged. The fact that I had not been consulted was of no significance to her. I was not really proud of my petty, stealthy affronts to my family but it was a matter of surviving their throttling grasp and their incapacity, whether involuntary or otherwise, to adjust to life in the country where their children were born. I grew as slick as an eel and as ingenious as a monkey. My performance was so credible that they slackened their surveillance. I would often impress on my mother the necessity to go to the library to do some research for one school project or another. And she would relay my request to my father who would grunt his assent. After some time in the library, I would slink out and snuggle with boys in dark corners or enswathed in the benevolent darkness of a cinema quite far away from our neighborhood. I wanted to feel like other girls my age and I did. I soon had to take contraceptive pills or make the boy take the necessary precautions. I was like a tightrope walker who might slide to a precipitous fall at any moment and the sensation was one of frail exultation. I was constantly taken aback by my own temerity.

* * *

After I passed my baccalaureate exam, I decided that I wanted to train as a midwife. I prevailed on my mother to plead my cause. After some initial doubts, my father granted me his permission, having surmised that a supplementary source of money would even the keel of his finances. We only lived on allocations and his retirement stipend. Besides, none of his children was working at the time. I welcomed the prospect of spending a whole day away from our flat as a respite and a rejuvenating breather: away from my father’s pontificating ranting and my brother’s scowling disapproval which etched two vertical incisions between his narrow eyes; away from my mother who took her husband and son’s side over her daughters; away from my sister’s venomous barbs and rankling jealousy. Instead, I would welcome the rancid odors of the Metro each time I went to the hospital where I trained to become a midwife and met Miguel.

His teeth were discolored and disarranged, like people in an overcrowded bus jostling for standing space. His lips were slashes made as an afterthought. His nose was a bulbous, fascinating outgrowth that overhung the almost non-existent mouth. But his eyes, his eyes held a warm promise, crinkling with a mischievous laughter, always in on a private joke, the mischievousness belying the slightly ridiculous effect of his longish lashes that seemed to reach his cheekbones when he lowered his eyes. He was a Spanish nurse working in the hospital where I was training. The hospital was like a Babel where people from different cultures worked. You could hear French spoken and broken in an assortment of accents that ranged from the lilting and musical to the jarring and guttural. Miguel’s French was a staccato cataract, where words, in the same way as his teeth, jostled for space. His presence imparted a spin to the linearity of my existence. The first time we met in the hospital’s cafeteria, we easily slid into the soft folds of a cosy conversation. I told him he looked as if he belonged in one of Pedro Almodovar’s movies I secretly watched whenever I could. He said that my name, Sana Samet, sounded like the sibilant whisper of naughty things to come. I found this remark somehow corny but oddly titillating. We compared the respective culinary delights of paella and couscous. I basked in the soft glow of the unnerving prescience that seemed to emanate from his liquid brown eyes when he allowed himself to become serious. He was born and raised under Franco and I told him that my father had nothing to envy the Spanish tyrant. He made me laugh whenever he mimicked the way his Catholic mother would preach about sin and virtue, hell and paradise and how his father cowered in the shadow of his hen-pecking wife. We would often take advantage of the midday break to go to his flat, which was a few blocks away from the hospital, to indulge in frenetic lovemaking. I was happy for the first time in what felt like ages.

* * *

The phone call from Tunisia came with the abruptness of an event whose actual occurrence was perpetually relegated to the realm of the far, indistinct future. My would-be husband was ready for the wedding and was about to send money to my parents as a dowry to help them cope with the huge expenses they were bound to incur. Mother was beside herself with joy and my father’s usually dyspeptic mien relaxed temporarily with his relief at finally getting rid of one of his remaining daughters. For my part, I felt my viscera melting into liquidized mush. My mind fixed itself on a course of action that left no room for delay. I had to leave for good. I bade my time until a few days later when my mother left to visit with one of her Tunisian friends. Only Zeyneb stayed, still sulking, galled by the prospect of my impending wedding. I sidled into my parents’ room and rummaged in their wardrobe for the shoe box where I knew my mother stashed away cash and jewelry. I was after the money from Tunisia. My plan was to take it to set up house with Miguel in Paris where we could easily find positions in one of its undermanned hospitals. When I came out of the room, I was halted in my tracks at the sight of my sister plucking her chin hairs in front of the mirror in the corridor. To my relief, she did not acknowledge my presence. I was to leave the following day taking with me just a small, inconspicuous bag. They had to think I was just leaving for work.

I was snatched out of my fitful sleep by a hand that viciously entangled itself into my hair and tugged me out of the bed and onto the floor. His breathing labored and raspy, my father dragged me by my hair to the dining room where my mother, brother and sister were waiting. Zeyneb’s gloating smirk was enough for me to understand that she must have seen what I had done and what I planned to do and that she tattled on me. And soon the interrogation began. Instead of floundering for lame excuses and getting myself ensnared in a skein of improbable lies, I spat out truths. All I had ever been used to was a situation like that of the Greek philosopher who would speak through cheeks crammed with small pebbles. My tongue, once untied, seemed to exult in this newborn bluntness and words unspooled in smooth ribbons; words I had mentally rehearsed hundreds of times before. An implacable tattoo that used to crowd my mind; a taunting bass-heavy thrum that punctuated all my conscious thoughts. I told them about Miguel, my decision to move to Paris and my being French. I soon came to see the impact my words had on their expressions, which oscillated between crass incredulity and loathing disbelief at my arrant treachery. It was as if my words were live, repugnant cockroaches I was throwing their ways. In mid-steam, my left jaw-line caught a mean punch that nipped my new-found outspokenness in the bud. The punch was followed by another near my ear, which sent me reeling back. Words imploded in mid-flight, gagging on their own momentum. I was sprawled on the ground. Omar pummeled with his bare hands, his blows churning blades. When he stopped to get his breath back, I skittered on all fours, like a manic bug, to take refuge in the bathroom which was a few steps down the vestibule. I frantically locked the door to his bellows of rage, which were soon followed by his hurtling attempts to break the door open. It soon gave in and what was to happen happened with the ineluctability of clockwork.


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