I dreamed of Atika and her sisters, woke with the tang of harira in my nose. They were all there in the pages of this book. In the words and the gestures, the hopes, the longings and desires – the fears. They bickered, in the way of loving sisters – earnestly but without real intent. They found each other, reclaimed themselves with fingers and smiles, a hand on the sleeve, a finger-waggled warning. They bickered because they cared. To be walked past, to go unnoticed, I thought, would be the harshest of rebuffs in that house.
Atika, kind and gentle in her ways, a little shy. Of the four we knew her first. She worked at the hotel and quickly became a friend. Her English leaned towards German, where she was more comfortable, so her voice carried a harshness that evaporated under the strength of her smile. And she knew where to find the best bakhlawa in town.
The four of them in that little kitchen, and Mrs Van too, accepted without question, laughing along, watching the preparations, tasting when asked. I watched from the safety of the sofa – that long seat formed along the wall, hard as a church pew without the copious cushions. But not rebuffed, not ignored, no. I knew better than to interfere, though I knew I too would have been tolerated if I did, before being herded gently back to this refuge. The little enamel pot of gunpowder tea was my domain and I did it justice.
Noura was the serene eye at the centre of that storm, watching Touria like a hawk, intercepting her each time she tried to pepper the soup a little more. She spoke no English – and little use it would have been to try and summon any French – but there was clear understanding between her and Mrs Van. For all the other sisters’ attempts to interfere, they knew enough to give Noura her way in the kitchen. Instead they fed me tea, offered morsels for Mrs Van and I to nibble, though we resolved to wait for sunset and break fast with them. It was Touria who made the obvious joke, the connection between breaking fast and breakfast, offering cornflakes instead.
Touria was the eldest and took her role as house mother almost as seriously as she took her role as Independent Modern Woman. Was there anything that could faze her? I doubt it. Even when the bonnet of her trusty Peugeot flipped open on the outside lane of the Airport road, she was shaken, but in control. Just stopped and bent back the buckled metal sheet, jammed it closed with her lean and wiry strength. She wouldn’t even let us get out and help. The local football team were trooping through the airport when we arrived – and of course she knew one of the trainers (she seemed to know everybody). The sight of this Modern Independent Woman making footballers blush with her jokes, it was worth the hair-raising car journey just for that.
Bustle gravitated from the kitchen to the dining area as the spicy harira soup was served. Though there was a goodbye to be said before we started. The youngest, whose name began with N. Such a beautiful smile in that moon face of hers, and the N suspended on a chain round her neck. After much checking of watches and debating of how late you can arrive before you’re really late, she decided she couldn’t stay to break her fast with us. Alas, she had to work so it’s the absence that’s remained in my memory with these few scants fragments. She was there, then she was gone.
This was communal eating. Tajine on a truly grand scale. After the harira, a large dish was placed in the centre of the table. I was warned – Mrs Van being eastern needed no such reminder – fight your corner, or go hungry! Though I doubt they would have allowed it. But there was no place for English reserve. What is a meal with Eastern sisters without such flair and flavour? The spice and the story and the gestures and the noise.
It was only afterwards that Mrs Van told me the great dish had been placed specifically so that the choicest pieces of chicken had been facing me.
It was a strange dream, closer to remembrance than invention, a mashing together of then and now, of here and there, but they were so intently the same people, the same dear sisters that their absence when I woke was palpable, a sudden loss that brought a lump to the throat. They were all harragas in their own way, making a place for themselves in their changing society, seizing opportunities when they came, and always – always – looking for more. It was sheer possibility, constrained as it was only by probability, that vibrated within each of them. I wonder where they are now, what paths they found to burn? Inshallah, the paths they’ve walked are the ones they chose to follow.
It’s the measure of any good story that it can transport you to another place. This book is I think among the best of stories, for it brought that other place and the people who inhabit it so vividly to me. It is funny and sad and so achingly human that you’ll be all the poorer for letting it pass you by.
I must express my thanks to Isabel Costello of isabelcostelloliterarysofa.com for making a gift of this book to us. Shukran bezzef!
Harraga was published by Bloomsbury in 2014, ISBN:9781408843987