I am Saadiq. Everybody calls me Saad.
Between despair and cruelty the line is thin.
Eve is my fate, but she claims not to know it. When she bumps into me, her gaze passes through me without stopping. I disappear.
I’m in a gray place. Or rather, yellowish brown, which better suits its name: Troumaron. Troumaron, a sort of funnel; where all the island’s wastewaters ultimately flow. Here is where the cyclone refugees are rehomed, those rendered homeless by tropical storms and who, two or five or ten or twenty years later, still have their toes in the water and their eyes pale as rain.
I’ve always lived there. I was born a refugee. Like everyone else who’s grown up in the yellow shadows of these buildings, I’ve never understood their monstrous edges. I never saw the gaps born beneath our feet, separating us from the world. I played with Eve. We called her the skeleton because she was so thin, but also to mask an unspoken affection. We played at war until we found ourselves at war.
We are at the bottom of Signal Mountain. Port Louis grabs our feet but we are stuck here. The city turns its back on us. Its muted magma stops at our borders. The mountain blocks our view of other things. Between the city and the stone are our buildings, our rubble, our trash. The eczema of paint and the tar beneath our feet. A children’s playground has become a battleground teeming with needles, shards of broken glass, hopes snaking into nothing. Here, boys clenched their fists for the first time, and girls cried for the first time. Here, everyone has faced up to their realities.
One day we wake up and the future has disappeared. The sky hides the windows. Night makes its way into our bodies and refuses to leave.
Night and our hormones gone wild. We boys are bundles of frustration. We start following girls to the shuttered factory that devoured our mothers’ dreams. Maybe that’s also what’s waiting for them. There’s nothing left of the factory but an empty metal shell and hundreds of sewing machines which carved into their shoulders that curve of despair and into their hands those nicks and cuts like tattoos. The remnants of every woman who worked here linger. We see that they tried to bestow some humanity on this desolation. Beside each machine, there’s a mauve plastic flower, yellowing family photos, postcards from Europe, and even a forgotten red barrette, a strand of hair still caught in it. And religious symbols—crucifixes, Koranic verses, Buddha statues, Krishna figures—that would allow us to guess which community they belonged to, if we wanted to play such guessing games. When the factory closed down, they weren’t even allowed to retrieve their things. It was that abrupt, that unexpected, but I realized, later, that they hadn’t wanted to see any of it. I wonder what use all this piety was to them. In any case, all of it was left to rust and to our perverse games behind the moldy curtains. These are our traces, in these stale, dingy rooms. Stains of so many virginities lost here.
Sometimes, when the neighborhood is quiet, the island’s sounds seem different. Other kinds of music, less funereal tones, the clang of cash registers, the dazzle of development. The tourists scorn us without realizing it. Money has made them naïve. We cheat them out of a few rupees until they begin to mistrust our pleasant, false faces. The country puts on its sky-blue dress, the better to seduce them. A marine perfume wafts from its crotch. From here we can’t see the island all dolled up, and their eyes, dazzled by the sun, can’t see us. As things should be.
Mothers disappear in a resigned haze. Fathers find in alcohol the virtue of authority. But they don’t have that anymore, authority. Authority, that’s us, the boys. We’ve recruited our troops like military leaders. We’ve carved out our portions of the neighborhood. Once our parents stopped working, we became the masters. Everybody knows we can’t be ordered around. And now nobody can look us in the eyes without shivering. From that moment, each of us began to live as he wanted to, free from everything, free from rules. We make the rules.
But something else has slipped into my dreams lately. I mark the walls of my room with my questions; I bloody them with the juice of words. I learn to be quiet. I learn to talk to myself. I learn to put myself together and to take myself apart. I suppose we’re all like that; we go with the flow, like the others, but inside, each of us withdraws into himself and harbors his secrets. I follow in their steps and I act like I belong, as a matter of form, as a matter of survival. Eve doesn’t understand that.
Eve walks by, her hair like foamy night, in her skin-tight jeans, and the others snigger and suck their teeth in lust, but I—I want to kneel down. She doesn’t look at us. She isn’t afraid of us. She has her solitude for armor.
At night, my hormones seize on her face and describe it in long arcs of desire. When I can’t bear it anymore, I go out with the gang, our noisy mopeds tormenting the sleepy old folk. In the morning, the others sink into the stupor of drugs and rage. But I go take a shower, I shave, and I go to class. This double life sucks me dry, yet nothing in the world could keep me from seeing Eve’s profile in the morning at the bus stop, a sliver of sunlight playing on her ear.
And then, I swear, I love words.
I slip a poetry book into her bag.
Later, she bumps into me and her eyes bore through me. It drives me insane.
To her I dedicate all the sentences that have been darkening my walls. To her I dedicate all my bitter suns.
Our cité is our kingdom. Our city in the city, our town in the town. Port Louis has changed shape; it has grown long teeth and buildings taller than its mountains. But our neighborhood hasn’t changed. It’s the last bastion. Here, we let our identities happen: we are those who do not belong. We call ourselves bann Troumaron—the Troumaronis—as if we were yet another kind of people on this island filled with so many kinds already. Maybe we actually are.
Our lair, our playground, our battleground, our cemetery. Everything is there. We don’t need anything else. One day we’ll be invincible and the world will tremble. That’s our ambition.
♦ ♦ ♦
When you go back out, you walk in the city slowly, as if you’ve been knocked off-center. You walk to rid yourself of memories. You open your mouth and let in a hot wind that burns away the danger of remembering. You go back in to sleep, believing you’ve forgotten it all. You can do it again, without knowing why.
The hand around your ankle doesn’t let you go. Its grip tightens. You have no choice now. You can only scrub your burdened flesh again and again, without realizing that you’re also erasing your own self.
Forgetfulness is the common link between day and night, the smooth wall that protects you from yourself. You go deaf. You no longer hear the roaring that once tormented your ears. You no longer hear the music in total contradiction to what you see.
Ève de ses décombres © Editions Gallimard 2006