Samir Kacimi’s The Stairs of Trollar is on the longlist for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction along with fifteen other novels, four of them (including Kacimi’s) by Algerian authors:

Tomorrow, our Algeria editor Nadia Ghanem talks with Kacimi about this chapter — “The Letter” — and how he wrote it while working with his French translator; about what makes the Algerian novel different; which Algerian women novelists he reads; and more.

The Letter

By Samir Kacimi, from The Stairs of Trollar

Translated from the Arabic by Mustafa Hafid

Darling, as promised, this is the first letter about the first day.

The day hasn’t finished yet, but the journey has tired me. I didn’t sleep last night as I used to each night before traveling anywhere. It was due to the fear of missing my trip. Maybe, deep inside, I feared it would be my last one. I preferred staying awake watching you in your sleep, you and the kids.

It was my way of saying goodbye to you, or maybe just a terrible bout of insomnia. I left without waking you up. You know that I hate saying goodbye, and that silly sentence with which we stamp our farewell kiss: “take care of yourself,” as if we don’t do that every day.

I hate that, and I hate airports. I hate queues, damned checkpoints, scanners and customs questions:

– Do you have anything to declare?

– I only have a backpack, one thousand dinars in my pocket, twenty euros, and a bank card for an empty account.

Isn’t it strange that the same things happen to me on each trip? The plane lands. I turn on my phone. I check the time. I stay sitting in my place. I wait. No queue. I go out when it is my turn.

Every trip, the policeman turns my passport upside down, asks me the same questions.

– So many stamps?

– Yes.

– Do you work in a field that forces you to travel?

I don’t answer. I smile. He stares at me. I wonder foolishly: Is he trying to identify me?

– Put your finger here.

He looks at his computer screen. He checks the visa. He stares at me once again. I’m still me. I haven’t changed. My head is circular. My hair is short. My smile is like a kid’s grin.

– Welcome to Marseille.

I smile. He finally smiles.

My luggage is there behind the counter. A cheap brown bag. It’s the same one you offered me ten years ago. I pull it as I used to do with my life. I pull it, fumbling with the cigarette packet in my pocket. Unusually, I look at people’s faces. Nobody looks at me. No one holds a name placard with my name.

I turn on the airport’s Wi-Fi. A message breaks into my phone:

“Hi, my friend Fannie will welcome you. She may arrive a bit late. I’m happy you are here in Marseille. Geraldine.”

I go out of the airport. I light a cigarette. I puff its smoke into the air. Oh, how sweet is the taste of death.

You don’t like this taste. You hate the smell of my cigarettes, my smell. I’m sorry, but it’s me. You’ve never learnt it was my way to hide the smell of the cadaver I use as a body. It’s the silly way of a dead person who wants you to believe he is alive.

I apologize because I like what you don’t like. I always insisted, in my previous life, before you were born in my heart, and before our two kids came down from the sky; two angels with no wings.

Ugh! You see? I also complain about your complaints about me. Both of us complain about a previous life.

I feel someone at my throat, darling. Only throttling makes me feel life, like the cat when we throttle it. Sometimes, life appears only when we hit death with our fists. We see it without masks as it gives jealousy another form; we often think it is life.

Each of us complains, insisting on his last destiny. Perhaps this is all that happens between us, and it makes us, you and me, be together in this life that throttles us, and turns us into a gift for a lover we love, although we inspect everything that makes him or her.

I read Geraldine’s message again. Ah, a phone number!

– Hi Fannie? I…

My French is bad. My tongue fossilizes.

-Where are you?

– I’m here, just in front of you.

I rise my head: a wide smile, a waving hand, cheeks and two kisses.

– I apologize. We love kissing in Marseille.

– That’s an apology I’ll never accept in my life.

Fannie laughs. I laugh, too.

Marseille is like Algiers, says Fannie.

I answer: It’s like Oran, too, but they’re different.

Inside my head, I add that I came from a place that has lost its geography. It is in nowhere. There is only a sea that we go across, on boats unsuitable for sailing.

I’m from there, where people dream only of here. I cry inside of me, outwardly smiling. I also laugh. My laugh is like a bark of a rogue dog.

I laugh, without looking intentionally at a specific thing. I don’t like to be attached to something that doesn’t want me. Here, nothing wants us, though we want it… There, also, nothing desires us but death.

I ask Fannie again. I’m good only at questions. I hide behind them, because my French is bad, and I hate silence.

– Do you live in town?

– Yes, in Noailles, Fannie answers. Do you know it?

The face of the handsome man from the news appears in my head. A shaved chin. A new haircut. A blue tie, a snow-white shirt. Teeth like God’s teeth.

– Yes, I answer Fannie. I think one or two buildings collapsed there two days ago. Did anyone die?

I go back to my questions. I pretend I’m interested. My eyes are like a burnt-out lamp; they reflect nothing.

– A tragedy…

– A tragedy?

– It’s tragic.

– Tragic?

– We are demonstrating today to denounce the municipality’s inaction, Fannie adds.

– You demonstrate. … Denounce? Oh, God! Do you keep such words in your dictionaries here? There, we have no voices in our throats. We may scream. We may bark, as well, but with no voice.

Silence reigns for a moment. We stop talking. We keep smiling at each other, as a primitive sign of being together. The car stops too.

Geraldine is there on the pavement. She smiles, too. What’s this country where all smile?

I smile at her. Two kisses and a quick lesson on how to use the keys: with one we open the building’s door, the small one is for the mailbox, and the third, the serrated one, is for the door’s room.

Do you know, darling, that the flat has a desk and a printer? Do you believe that, unlike me, they believe I’m a writer? Even you, when I was writing to you, you didn’t believe it. Despite my seven books, we both know I didn’t write anything. What happened is that I’m a man who stumbled someday across words. I’m not a writer. I’m but an unspecified text; an anonymous voice who defies genius. Makes the mind slips to reprogram many. I’m like wine, but I’m tasteless. Odorless.

Fannie leaves.

Leaving is a temporary and a permanent matter. Like life, like death, like women, like writing, and love.

Geraldine introduces me to the flat: a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen.

– I don’t feel alien here, I tell Geraldine.

She smiles. I think she doesn’t believe me. Naturally, alienation is an addiction. The more we drown in it, the less it appears to us. Does the color white show on a white picture?

Suddenly, and before the confusion engulfs me, I suggest to Geraldine I’ll make her coffee.

– Do you smoke?

– Yes.

– Let me offer you my cigarettes.

– Algerian?

– Yes.

It was another lie. We produce nothing there. We don’t even make an enjoyable death.

Geraldine takes a deep drag. She smiles while puffing the smoke in the air.

– It tastes good.

I don’t believe her. Disgust was looking out of her eyes and waving at me.

– Marseille is like Oran, like Algiers, like Annaba, like…

I say anything that fills the emptiness. I think I’m becoming unable to form more sentences. My tongue scrambles. My mind fossilizes. I think in Arabic to pronounce in French. Deformed sentences with no identity come out of my mouth. In truth, I love my weakness and my lame sentences. They resemble me. They resemble everything there. I don’t lie. I don’t say the truth, that’s all. Then Rocsana appears out of nowhere. A beautiful name, an even more beautiful face.

Months ago, all those I met were just names in my email. Fannie is a name, Geraldine is a name, Rocsana is a name. Just names. Only Pascal had a voice.

Today, while we were having lunch at “the big tables,” they’ve become real people. I felt sad about that. In my mind at least, they had more than one image. Just as you had, and just as every dream I had there.

We seem to become more connected. I write to you. I enjoy doing that. How long is it since we’ve had fun together? How long is it since I talked to you?

I know exactly that I talk to you everyday. We talk. We sleep in the same bed. We make love day after day. Sometimes we dine out. I know that. Yet, I never feel I talk to you, or enjoy being with you. Now I’m impatient in writing to you.

I feel we’ve become closer than before, and no sea is between us.

A taste of old wine in my mouth. I remember nothing that can justify the presence of this taste. All that comes to mind is that it is dark. A sky without stars. Then, a bar in the second avenue on the right side of my block toward the Canebière.

You don’t know the Canebière? It’s all right. I didn’t know it before either.

A friend suggested a rendezvous there. You know him. The name that’s on the cover of my novel. I prefer to say “the man with my name,” but I feel sorry for him for being so.

– Let’s meet in the Canebière.

– Okay, let’s meet there.

– Just five hundred meters from the flat on the way to the Réformés.

– All right, let’s meet there.

– You won’t get lost. There is an old church, a metro station, and statues in the square. There’s a water fountain, and a Parisian-style café.

– Ok, I won’t get lost.

Yet I stray half an hour before I find the place.

The bar is in the second alley, as I told you; the second alley on the right. The first alley is similar to the second one, but the bar is in the second.

– Good evening.

I look at the waitress, a woman in her forties. Looks like an ambiguous story by Garcia Marquez. Flabby like an Arabic novel by a great writer. I remember her thick nose, her chubby hands, and her disdainful small chest; white like a believer’s heart who learned of God just two days ago.

I don’t remember the first glass of wine. I don’t remember the second. And… not the fourth either… My head is heavy. My smell is bad. A wonderful mixture of wine and tobacco. Maybe… I am not sure. Maybe the perfume of a woman too.

I laugh seeing myself still dressed. I feel my jacket’s inner pocket. My passport. My phone. No money. I lost nothing important, except some hours gone from memory; and fifty euros I borrowed yesterday. You know very well that no one is in my heart but you. Perhaps I cheated on you yesterday. I’m not sure. Maybe I also loved who I cheated on you with, just for a quarter of an hour. But I will love nobody forever except you.

I don’t want to leave the flat today. I don’t need to go out. I’ve thirty packets of cigarettes. Two packs of coffee. Cheese and barley bread. I bought nothing except the cigarettes I brought with me from home. I don’t need anything else. It’s enough for me just to open my computer and start writing.

I have a strange feeling now. I feel a strong sense of freedom. Don’t get me wrong. I love you. I love our two sons. But I’m happy you are at the distance of a visa and a ticket. I wouldn’t be so happy if only the sea was between us. I’m sure you won’t surprise me by coming over. You won’t break into my nook. You won’t prevent me from writing at any time. To deprive me of my happiness, you need more than a ticket paid from my account. Your green passport won’t help you to get here. It didn’t help me, either.

It is true that, in the years of my innocence, I believed everything that the handsome man from the news was saying. You remember him: a man with combed hair and a shaved chin. A large tie with white teeth. He wasn’t one person. They were all similar. The same haircut. The same teeth. The same tie. He appeared every time to fill our large heads with many things. We would make fun of him. We laughed at his tidy formal suit, but we believed him eventually. An anaesthetic in his voice makes us hallucinate from his words and we believe them in the end: we are a great people… a great history…a great revolution… a million and a half martyrs… At least I believed his nonsense for a long time, to the extent that I imagined myself as a superman and as an extraordinary citizen. I think it was collective addiction. I wasn’t alone. The handsome man from the news was the only one who knew the truth.

Two months ago, in the queue to apply for a visa, I wondered what I was doing in the queue. Why do I stand waiting, hoping they are satisfied, so that I can travel. I asked myself the same question at the airport check-in. Yet I waited there to be here, with my rejected passport.

You see, darling? You need more than a ticket to prevent me from writing, from being me. I love you. Yet I love myself more. Maybe I also love the whole world, to the extent that I pity it for the fact that I’m in it.

The man with my name took me on a tour. We walked for four hours. We didn’t stop until he noticed I’d started to limp. No one is able to prevent me from walking to reach my destination. You too couldn’t stop me when I started walking. Only varicose veins managed to do that.

It’s another lie. They could prevent me, too.

He introduced me to a man whose name I no longer remember. Maybe I didn’t care to know him. We met him at the old port by chance. Skinny with a light fair beard. White with blue eyes. He was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Cigarettes are very expensive here. I feel I’m very rich with my thirty packets.

The man with my name told him I’m a novelist, and that I’m the author of the novel he wrote. The guy seems happy with this coincidence. I smile at him without opening my mouth. I only stretch out my tongue, as a sign of a satisfaction that I haven’t really felt. Something prevents me from full contentment. In a moment of honesty, I want to tell him, as I always used to tell him, that I am not a writer. Just a man who stumbled upon words. I really wanted to, but as he asks me where I live, I say Trolard.

– Trolard?

– A popular district in Algiers.

– Good.

I smile, wondering inside of me what he means by saying good.

Polite people make me feel weary. I tend to be wild, to be dirty.

Here, everyone I meet greets me. Good morning. Sir. Welcome. At your service. Everyone here is polite to the point of disgust.

I start to feel alienated. It’s not because I’m in a country that isn’t mine. It’s because my face starts to disappear. I tell the man with my name about that, and my need to find a place in Marseille that reminds me of my motherland. I need dirty buildings. Frowning tired faces. Packed garbage bags. Unclean streets. I need pavements where cars park. Frightening police. A ruling authority that lies like we eat bread. Queues. Vagrants. Beggars. Filthiness. Corrupt government. A silly parliament. Streets without bookshops. Cities without cinemas, without theatres. Men who don’t dream, who don’t live, who only survive. I need anything like the big trick that I call home.

I know, darling, that I’m not telling you something important. Sometimes, I get excited to write you a speech that contains more anger. I’m very angry, my love, just because I’m me. You also should get angry because you are you. All who are there must get angry just because they are from there.

But you have missed a thing. Nothing happens to me that I may enjoy telling it to you.

I go back to the flat after my trip. I didn’t need to check the GPS to know its location. I’ve become familiar with Marseille. Its architecture is logical, and one needs no map in it. What puzzles me here is the enormous number of ethnicities. A million languages. A million nationalities. A mixture of peoples.

Do you remember our first date when you asked me if I were Mozabite? You rejoiced so when I answered you no. I also felt happy when I learnt you weren’t Chaoui.

Your question was racist, and my question to you about your “race” was more racist. We didn’t describe it like that at that time. It seemed normal for both of us. Even when I asked you not to teach Tamizigh to our children, or when you agreed to marry me provided I pray.

Both of us were swallowed by each other’s racism as if it were nothing. Maybe because we grew up like that. We became metropolitan at last. We were born and grew up in the capital. In the city where the deities live. We are smarter and the others are cavés… kaab.

I know you are laughing now. It was me who first explained to you what it means to be a cavé, and a kaaba. The cavé is the singular of cavés and the kaaba is the singular of kaab.

I remember how my knowledge of words astonished you. You didn’t realize it at that time, and I reckon you don’t realize now that I’m a paper person. I don’t exist without words. I was born to be a writer. And because I’m so, I learnt to live. To survive, I learnt to love. Maybe for this reason I continue writing, seeking a state of love that lasts forever. Away from people, from things. I seek a love that is like eternity. A love that has no start nor end. A love that has no logic, and that cannot be shaped.
You were naïve as any metropolitan proud of his or her capital. Just like me before deciding to leave to the countryside, where no buildings remind me of my childhood and where there are people with whom I grew up to despise only because they were born outside the capital.

Being among them, I discover that I don’t like them or hate them. I don’t respect them or despise them. The truth is that I hate the fact that I wasn’t born out of the capital like them. At least I could dream as they do.

– It means that he’s a silly man.

– Who do you mean?

– The cavé.

I laugh. My laughter provokes you. Your eyes narrow. Their color changes. Your white face reddens like a flame.

– Don’t get angry.

I was whispering it to you, holding you in my arms, trying to calm you down.

Even me, I thought so one day. The problem is not in what we know, but in what we think we know. The “cavé” is a French word… no, no, it’s French slang. You know. Slang is the language of the streets that doesn’t exist in dictionaries. It means the opposite of what we usually understand. The “cavé” describes every honest and kind man. But for a reason that has nothing to do with language, it has changed to mean the silly and naïve man.

I apologize, darling. At least you’re not naïve. You’ve never been so. In a world without nobility, the words kindness, dignity and honesty mean nothing but dullness. Doesn’t light hurt the eyes that were born in darkness?

It’s funny telling you about memories that the mind records. About details like that. I only remember details. I don’t recall when we first met, or when we got married. I don’t remember when our kids were born, or how we chose their names. Yet I remember in detail, the color of your nail polish on our first date. Your wet fair hair. I remember the first diaper you changed for both of our sons, the first fever; the first smile.

Only details make me a better person. Just as they make me shy. I notice things that nobody cares about. Like that time when I decided, for no specific reason, to stop at a chariot that sells memories.

Anyway, I am not doing something important here, yet it’s more important than what I used to do there. At least I have time for reading here. I’ve finished a book in two days. I read And Their Children After Them by Nicolas Mathieu… a really good book. I think I finally found a French writer who doesn’t talk a lot. It’s a novel about life, about daily things. I really loved that.
Once I come back to the flat, I smoke five cigarettes with a cup of coffee. Soon, I feel a bit hungry, but I postpone eating. The grant they promised me hasn’t arrived yet. I just have seven euros. I save them for tomorrow, and to have a cup of coffee at any café.

The man with my name told me about a place like home. I carve its name in my mind. Noailles. Fannie told me before that she lives there. A popular district as she described it. A place for the marginalized as I read on the internet.

I plan to explore it today, but not before taking a tour of the city.

Before leaving, I had made a perfect plan to visit Marseille, its museums, castles, parks and all its auditoriums. I listed every place I was supposed to visit. It was a good plan, unfortunately aborted by the delay of the grant. Yet, as you know me, a single plan doesn’t content me. I have other ways to spend and enjoy my time without wasting a single penny.

I have another plan for Marseille. I make it myself.

In my teenage years, we used to call it the city of prostitution and of Arabs. Perhaps it was, generally, an unfair description. Yet somehow it is true. I know no people who think with what’s between their legs as the Arabs do. I also do it sometimes. The proof is the curiosity that pushed me to stroll around those streets of prostitutes.

Fourteen red-light districts on my map offer love at a price. Arabs have less luck there, except in the Canebière. The rest of these places are shared between Africans, Spaniards, prostitutes from central Europe, and homosexuals of both sexes.

Do you know, darling, that the cheapest whores in Marseille are from the Arab world? It’s strange that our values remain the same even in prostitution.

I contented myself with the Canebière, Poids De La Farine Street, Liberté Avenue and Saint-Bazile Street, and Allée Léon Gambetta. I had a prior rendez-vous with a friend at the Place de Charité. We ate together, and drank a delicious Italian wine whose name I no longer remember. People here show enthusiasm everytime you tell them that you’re a writer. Contrary to people there, who make you feel you’re wasting your time. For me, it makes no difference.

When my friend left, I chose to stay in La Charité Street. It’s a wonderful place with church buildings. No buildings. Fresh air. There are restaurants and cafés everywhere. I think it’s a place for tourism, or it is meant to be thus.

I really liked the place. A part of the countryside neglected by the city. I can live here without feeling like an immigrant. You know that I love the countryside, sweetie. I wouldn’t have left it if you hadn’t insisted so strongly to be in the capital; in a flat with two rooms.

On my morning tour, I bargain with one or two whores. It was somehow fun to play the role of the client.

Did it tempt me? I don’t know. Maybe it was with that skinny African bitch; small with child size breasts. I did nothing with her. I’m penniless as I told you. I got her phone number. Twenty euros for half an hour, 30 for one hour, and 300 for a night. I told her that I can sleep with six whores all night in Algeria with that price. She scoffed at me, and commented that we have the cheapest sluts in the world.

I don’t know, darling, how I got angry and insulted her?!

You see, my love! I still can’t get rid of the better man’s complex: chivalrous even with our whores.

Then I went to sit in a good café named “Pierre Le Grand.” I don’t know who he is, and I don’t think I will search. Here, the cafés, the streets, and the places are named after their symbols. Many places take the names of saints, poets, and writers. Sometimes, names of painters and actors. I think it is their way of clinging on to their identity, even to the ones they don’t like.

There is a huge fenced statue in the Réformés square with a signboard on which it is written: “In memory of the civilians and military victims killed in the war of Algeria. To the 60,000 missing Europeans and the 150,000 Harkis who lost their lives for France.” I don’t know the reason why I hated this statue once I saw that signboard, nor why I liked looking at it later, and reading the signboard dully.

We don’t look at our symbols like that. We neither love those who lost their lives for the country, nor those who survived. The names of our streets have no identity. We don’t have cafés. All what we have are places where to drink coffee. I always wonder when will we open yesterday’s book, without fear that death may come out of the pages of our past? When will we do this without being the censors of what can be read and what cannot?

The day our son told me he’s going to study history this year, I felt sorry for him. I didn’t tell you. I didn’t tell him, either. I felt sorry he’ll lose his childhood studying history. Later, he’ll realize that it is all fake. Only stories about legendary heroism.

Primitive brainwashing without intelligence.

Do you think it was destiny that made us poor in this rich country, darling? Do you think that God is a sadist to the extent that he made us a people considered minors all this time? I’ve never thought of that. I’m certain, it was our choice to stay poor and minors. This happened when we made our history holy. We created our new gods by ourselves, when we imagined that our revolution made but saints and prophets, to whom we offered this country with its wealth, its resources, and its people.
Isn’t it strange, darling, that after all this time since the independence, we still waste our time in seeking who’s the warrior, who’s the harkis, and who’s the martyr? …

I think I’m in a mood too foul to write anything. But truth appears only when one is drunk or in a foul mood. I know I’m in both states: drunk and irritated…

First remark: Nourdine hasn’t called me for two days. Tell him his father can know what he is doing, even if he is in Marseille.

Just tell him that. He’s still a child, and he’ll believe every word you say.

Second remark: By the way, since we also believe everything the government says to us… Does this mean that we are kids?

From Léon Bourgeois Street, Marseille.