Zabor, or the Psalms

Kamel Daoud, trans., Emma Ramadan

April 1, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Kamel Daoud's sophomore novel, Zabor, or the Psalms, about a young boy who grows up in the company of books, which teach him a new language. Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for the Quotidien d'Oran, the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper. He contributes a weekly column to Le Point, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, Libération, Le Monde, and Courrier International, among others.

In the summer, I like to sleep almost the entire day, relishing the excess like a drug. Ditch the sun, the village, its customs, and the potential visitors  who might show up at our house down below. Spared from earning my keep like everyone else, with no wife or children, I sleep at odds with the darkness: the whole day inert on my bed, at night watching over other people breathing, inventorying vines, faces, and synonyms. At dusk, I often get up with a sort of vertigo, a distance between me and the objects that perturb the ritual of time. I savor that sensation of weightlessness that comes from the disorientation (decomposing time is the first step toward ecstasy, according to shamans, necessary before you can break out of the enclosure). When everyone else is already dozing, tired, I study the night at its flared birth, attentive to its rituals that restore the infinite to the hollow of the sky. And I can keep vigil for a long time, reading or rereading my books, as the night advances and everyone is asleep on the back of a slow, universal whale. My aunt knows my routines since I no longer go to school or to the reciters to memorize the Holy Book. This is also the time when I feed my notebooks, arranged like slates, opened onto the white of their broad throats, pulsing like headaches or organs. I wash my face, I have my afternoon coffee, I talk to my aunt about my family, my half brothers, and my dreams. (This time, she keeps quiet. She wasn’t at the neighbors’ house to speak to Djemila’s parents. I ask for an update on the old man’s health. She responds that his sons will kill me, that they eagerly await his death but they’ll be disappointed. I translate: he’s still breathing. A blank spreads in the middle of the conversation and both of us know what I’m waiting for. “It’s not the right time,” she answers my silent question, then adds, “She has two children. What will you do with them?” I don’t answer, because I don’t know. Fatherhood gives me as much anxiety as the sight of blood. The responsibility I have to keep my people alive condemns me to virginity and self-sacrifice. I’m lying to myself, too, because the truth is that I want to save that woman, restore her body, and I’ve never thought about her children. But there are other obstacles: her status as a divorced woman, my father, and my intimate secret, which is to say my naked flesh, different from others. My aunt knows it, but we haven’t spoken about it since my childhood. I’m not circumcised, distinct from others in body and mind. By accident or out of fear, I refused the pact of flesh, in a way. Hadjer fears scandal, disgrace, dishonor, and the hallali of the malicious if word were to get out, which could happen if a woman were in my virginal bed. Do I feel humiliated? No, only undecided about my future: something awakens in me when I think of that woman’s face, but perhaps it’s nothing but temptation on my sanctified path.

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I leave Hadjer to watch television. The black-and-white world that has nothing to do with me. An animal documentary plays after the reading of verses from the Holy Book. Today, according to my personal calendar, the world is a wrinkled page. Better not to read it. In the kitchen, Hadjer is speaking to someone, probably a relative asking for news of the death in our family.) I was still ashamed of what had happened the night before. I should have been more courageous. Because of the thousands of stories running through my head, I kept any real emotion at bay. I live as though off-center, outside of the village, in its black heart. I almost went into the courtyard, under the shed, to watch the stars appear in the sky, but I had more urgent things to do, faced with the ceiling. I had to understand why my gift had proven incapable of reviving Hadj Brahim, even though I had a clear view of his agony, even though I knew thousands of details capable of resuscitating him, of reconstructing his story. Was it hatred? Perhaps. Vengeance? Perhaps that too. If I’m honest, certainly. Then I went back to my room.

In the summer, I like to sleep almost the entire day, relishing the excess like a drug.

When she watched over me during my former illness, Hadjer had, through her long soliloquies, embedded an entire imaginary map in my head: the village of Aboukir, indistinct in the rurality of my native country, had its own geography, according to her. Interwoven with my story, mixing names and trees, legends and the three marabouts. The navel of the world was nestled between hills masquerading as the beginnings of mountains to the east, the Bounouila cemetery to the west, where all the eucalyptus trees came from, crossing our paths before continuing on their own. To the north, the city was enclosed by the hill. The hill of my ancestors who had witnessed the arrival of the first colonizers in 1848 and had erected their exiled communard tents. The elevation separated us from the big city and the sea, which I had never seen except on television, gray and exiled. As for the south, that’s where my great-grandmother was from, a rug weaver and the owner of her tribe’s last horses, before the first wave of famine at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Depending on the geography, the south was strewn with other villages like ours, up to the high plateaus. then to the Sahara with its assaults of sandstorms at the end of every summer. But, so the story goes, the voyage came to a sudden end when they took a wrong turn that brought all the travelers back home, unbeknownst to them. According to Hadjer, when the night was long and my fear atrocious (my hair anointed with oil and my temples compressed by a coarse scarf), the cartography of the beyond was simple: a contemptuous city, to the north, that watched over the sea (“Your grandfather Hbib would go there barefoot, put on new espadrilles when he arrived, go about his business, and then take off his shoes when he started back on the road to Aboukir,” she said. “That’s how he kept the same pair for a decade,” she added, proud to teach me frugality), the hill (“They don’t even come up to your ankle, your half brothers, they envy your beauty and your gift of interpreting dreams in books; and you never pushed Abdel into the ravine to kill him. Never”), and the big thorny circle of a forest of Barbary fig trees that surrounded us infinitely, protecting us but keeping us from leaving, from abandoning our mothers or from traveling. (“Your uncle Chaabane managed to cross it at twenty years old, but once in France, his mind turned slow, stupid. It was a way of protecting himself from sadness. When he returned, for the summers, he would bring us bananas, apples, and francs.”)

And where was my mother’s village? We reached it leaving her skin among the thorns. “That’s what killed her.” How did I get back to the village? “An uncle brought you back and left you at the doorstep of the house up top, then he disappeared, leaving a bit of money and a red wool balaclava, the cosmonaut cap.” But how had he survived the journey? “He knew how to gather the Barbary figs, as our people do”: by using a long pole made from a reed, split at the tip. He knew how to grab the fruit with the beak, turn it downward delicately (“it’s all in the wrist, I’m telling you!” Hadjer says) to pick it, collect it in a pail, and hold it tight between the thumb and index finger to skin it. You can’t eat a lot of them because it’ll fill your stomach with a tombstone and you’ll die of constipation trying to give birth to a mountain. And the Sarah full of sand? That would be like trying to grasp the infinite, and Hadjer didn’t know how. So the desert became a sort of stranger whose footsteps we heard when we pressed our ears to the tiles. A wind-borne monster that liked to drink all the water and eat all the roots and lost travelers. A sandstorm in the inflamed red sky, where the world loses the trace of itself, asking where it comes from. I imagined it like a handmade rug, chaotic and changing according to the gusts of wind. I felt afraid when I looked to the south, because the Sahara had ninety-nine names, too, and it was also invisible and enraged. Perhaps because of the only memory I had of my mother (a scream and a sound of falling), tied to the wind in the house where Hadj Brahim had abandoned us, it represented the void, death, or the accomplice erasing the traces of my fleeing father. Now you know the geography.

But, so the story goes, the voyage came to a sudden end when they took a wrong turn that brought all the travelers back home, unbeknownst to them.

I’ve been telling this story for hours already. That day, opposite the bakery, in the scramble of the shortages of the time, I cried. Out of compassion for my people: my other aunt and her endless migraines; my grandfather and his silent life; our neighbors, one by one; Taibia the old woman; the one-legged Aadjal, who collapsed one morning and was found in the fields at noon; Hakim, my cousin, who was born without a mind and waited for it for thirty years until he died foolishly; my uncle, who crossed the sea and left half of his body there. I cried over the lack of food, the greed it brought to their eyes, the scarcity of flour and the sadness of the television, which we could only turn on at dusk to watch black-andwhite series. Everything was futile and hopeless like the life of a slave unaware of his fate.

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There’s nothing else to say: the real meaning of the world was in books, and that language (this very one, before my eyes and fingers, still able to save a life at the top of the hill, the tool of my talent and the fruit of my autodidactic learning, filling my umpteenth notebook) offered me the essential. Everyone had to be included. Everything had to be indexed, inventoried, classified, designated, named to keep from sinking into the weeds of the island my village symbolized. Poll, the enigmatic parrot in Robinson Crusoe, this third character to whom no one pays any attention, possessed the colors of a beautiful secret language that I enriched patiently, like a miniaturist. A little voice was already saying to me: Who remembers the ancestors today? And who must save this world from oblivion? Surely not the person who recites the Holy Book without understanding it, but rather the one who writes without stopping except to take care of his needs, eat, or gather his strength with rest. I was the only one capable.


Excerpted from Zabor, or the Psalms by Kamel Daoud, translated by Emma Ramadan. Excerpted with the permission of Other Press.

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