This short story, by Algerian author Zakia Allal, is part of our new “In Focus: Algeria” section.
By Zakia Allal
Translated by Leonie Rau
It was creeping toward 8:15 pm, according to the meridian of pain that separated my blood from the passages of my heart and divided me into two incompatible, uneven sides: One of them filled with the wish to live and persevere, the other filled with resignation, frustration settling into its hollows. Two sides that fought for dominance over exhausted breaths, conspiring against the man holding up the certificate he no longer proudly hung on the wall. Instead, he buried it among his old things, evading the questions of his children, and spending years—years!—standing upright in the spaces of day, a salesman in a women’s clothing shop.
When I proposed to Salma, I didn’t bring her flowers, as respectable people do, or knock on her door with an expensive necklace, as the rich do. Instead, I tugged at her heartstrings with an extremely corny joke.
I told her: “I have an advanced degree in political science, and I work as a salesman in a women’s clothing store.”
She was silent. Silence is just a facade for acceptance, but her mother smiled at the absurdity of the joke and, surveying my shattered state, replied: “Things will get better, inshallah.”
So we got married. How scared I was of marrying her! It was not that I doubted her good nature, because this white dove spread nothing but purity, but because I feared that the marriage would become the forgotten grave of a once-blazing love.
After all, all legendary love stories end in failure—at least according to the wills of their writers, who want to protect the flame of their protagonists’ love from fading and dying out. All the first lovers were able to marry those they loved, whether willingly or by force, but they didn’t, so as to make their love last longer, and their anguish and longing continued to feed on people’s heartbreak over their separation. If a marriage had in fact materialized, their love would have died in their times.
I married Salma. Thirteen years later, I discovered a part of the flawed equation: marriage wasn’t a neglected graveyard for love. Salma would continuously blossom anew with her smiles, with her scandalous good nature, with her wondrous ability to breathe life into tiny details that seemed ordinary to other people, making them a reason for unexpected joy. I would return from work exhausted from waiting on a client who came and scrutinized every dress, before requesting all the prices as well as assistance, only to then leave the store with an apologetic smile, since she didn’t have enough money in her purse. I would return home wrapped in frustration and find Salma removing my coat of resentment, enveloping me in a warm welcome.
She would stop in the salon or the kitchen and whisper to the kids: “Let your father get some rest,” and when I’d wake from my exhaustion, I’d tell her like a child, always resting against its mother’s chest: “What could be more wonderful than to have a place to rest from the tyranny of the streets and the cold sidewalks, even if it’s only the size of a heart… but how vast is this heart!”
I wasn’t Si al-Sayyid, the despotic master of the household, whose shouts of anger she would fear—I was Mr Tenderness, but tenderness also carries its own power and authority…
That evening, I opened the door and fell into a frightful void at the threshold. Her smiles were gone—what had happened? I headed for the salon to find her and the children fixated on TV images of mass destruction.
With great sorrow, she told me, “A powerful earthquake struck the capital a few minutes ago. It left hundreds dead and thousands more wounded.”
She made space for me beside her. My weariness had left me, this time not through happiness or a smile, but through grief, for grief is like fire—if it doesn’t find more material to consume, it devours itself.
“We have to help our brothers and sisters in the capital,” she said in a commanding voice I wasn’t used to hearing from her, a voice of imperious goodness and motherliness.
As if divulging a secret, I said: “But we don’t have anything to give away!”
Quickly, as though she’d already prepared her answer, she replied: “We have the blood that flows in our veins. We can donate it to the wounded!”
In the morning—as soon as dawn drew breath and the sun yawned in preparation for a new journey, announcing a day that carried in its center the keys to hearts inhabited by rust, with decrepitude clinging to their ancient walls—I hurriedly dressed. I didn’t concern myself with anything else, even foregoing the breakfast I usually couldn’t do without.
As I crossed the main street to head toward the University Hospital, the sound of the loudspeakers followed me: “The Red Crescent calls on all citizens to donate for the benefit of their afflicted brothers and sisters.”
Poverty was arrogantly perched on the chest of my family, and I had nothing to donate but my blood… A drop of it could bring a spark to the face of a child on the brink of death… A drop could restore order to life when it entered the veins of an old man who had been bleeding for a long time… My blood could put a broken smile on the face of a mother holding her child, afraid of the collapsing walls… My blood, and nothing else—I could dispose of it freely without feeling as though I were cheating my family of something or ripping a morsel of food from their mouths.
I won’t deny that fear reached the hospital entrance before I did. For the first time, I’d be seeing my blood being emptied into a syringe or a vial or… I didn’t know the name of the container in which they would collect it.
I asked myself: Would it be hot because of the anger that was consuming me, unnoticed by anyone, or would the frustration that was fixed on my face turn it cold? Would it gush forth quickly, fleeing from me, or leave my veins sluggishly, clinging to me?
Despite this, I was happy—like an innocent child who for the first time ever is in possession of a handful of candy and wants to share it with his friends at school, reveling in his power and generosity.
The number of blood donors was small. Most of them probably found something else to donate apart from their blood, I thought. Bitterness chewed at my heart, and I realized that I had nothing but blood and more blood. What if this blood I was so proud of carried an illness that would hold me back and kill the euphoria of generosity in my throat? Without a doubt, all the sparrows that had delighted me in the spring of my youth would fall, killed on the walls of my failure.
I skidded into the hospital’s entrance, wavering between joy and bitterness. The nurse welcomed me with a broad smile: “The first glad tidings of generosity!”
She politely asked me to lie down on the bench across from her, which I did. I extended my right arm with the excitement of someone presenting a rose to a lover when returning after a long absence. I turned my head to the left, since it made me queasy to look at the medical devices, basic though they were. I could hear the rustling of papers and the clanging of hard objects being picked up and put down again. Then I felt the fingers of the nurse pressing my hand, followed by the sensation of a needle pricking one of my veins. This was the access point that would make my blood flow out in abundance.
The nurse’s sudden scream extinguished the glow of blessed happiness and made me turn in search of an explanation: “What happened? Why did you scream?”
I saw her shaking with horror in her seat, her once-beaming face collapsing in on itself. I repeated the question as fear was thoroughly shaking what calm I had left, certain that she had discovered a dreadful illness: “What’s the matter?”
In a faltering voice, as devastating as a suddenly erupting volcano, she replied: “Get up… There’s no blood in your veins!”
I stood up hastily and rushed out into the street, wearing neither shoes nor any calm, just confusion and panic… I was expecting to drop dead at the feet of any man, woman, child, or animal roaming the earth, or even to collapse by the shelter of a beggar sleeping in the street.
But I made it home without incident. I peeled away all the layers of myself and pushed open the door to a space inside of me… I stood in front of the mirror, inspecting the details of a face that welcomed and loved people, all without blood, and asked myself, bereaved: “For what exile did you forsake me, my blood?”
After struggling with a vicious circle of questions, I realized that all the failures and catastrophes tearing apart the body of this nation, which I had observed on satellite TV, had fed on my blood until nothing remained of it to waste or drain, or even to be donated. I realized that my veins had been left bare, even naked, over the course of my life, fleeing from one ludicrous failure to the next, from one defeat to another.
Zakia Allal is an Algerian writer and radio presenter for literary programs who started writing in the mid-80s. She has published four short story collections, including the most recent Naked Veins (2014) and a novel, Returning to My Grave (2015), as well as articles and short stories in many Algerian and international newspapers and magazines. Zakia Allal has won several literary prizes, including more recently the 2020 Ammar Belahssen Prize.
Leonie Rau is a Master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and hopes to pursue a PhD after her graduation. She is an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.
That first paragraph is just way over the top! I checked the original and I don’t envy you having to translate it. What worries me, though, is that I can’t believe any human being ever had the feeling described, with pain preventing the blood from passing through the heart, the heart in two halves etc etc.
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