Letter to a Neighbor

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136

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I used to pass you every morning in my street, the one that runs alongside the cemetery. I would be hurrying off to do my shopping. You walked with small steps, your back stooped, leaning on your stick.
At the beginning, I paid you scant attention. A little old man, slight in build. Then, as the days went by, I took the time to observe you.
You wore a thick coat, even when the street was warmed by the rays of sun. Only at the height of a heatwave would you abandon it in favor of a suit jacket. You were never without a white skullcap in crocheted cotton on your head. I had deduced from that skullcap and from certain features of your face that you came from North Africa. Your shape was lost in clothes that were too big for you. Sometimes, socks that were a bit too slack would sag round your ankles, making you look like an distracted little boy. Your eyes, I can’t comment the look in them because my eyes never met yours, were a soft brown, and your skin was smooth and fresh.
I often felt like I was getting to know you, one step at a time. Gently.
Then, one sunny day, I would have suggested that we went to sit in the little square by the cultural center, where we would have a lovely view of Paris. I would have held your arm to go up Rue Bernard, which is so steep.
At first we would have said little so that you could get your breath back. We would have sat on a bench in front of the steel mobile that moves so prettily in harmony with the wind. I would have listened to your life story, in snippets.
But none of that happened; I haven’t seen you again for such a long time.
Now I feel rather like an orphan. So allow me to begin the story, while I wait.
You would be called Brahim, Brahim Mokkedem, from Kabylia.
You would tell me about your village, Azzefoum, the jewel of the mountains, but also about the hot wind that scorches the earth, and dries the mouths of women and children. Little to eat, a sun that burns everything and makes you so thirsty.
You would tell me about the man who came to the village in search of strong, young arms to go and work in France.
You would tell me about setting off for that country where one could earn one’s living, on the far side of the sea.
You would tell me…

Translated by Wendy Cross

136

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