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Short Stories

Faïza Guène, Sarah Ardizzone

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eBook - ePub


Short Stories

Faïza Guène, Sarah Ardizzone

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Yamina Taleb is approaching her seventieth birthday. These days, she strives for a quiet life, grateful to the country that hosts her and her adored family. The closest she gets to drama is scooping 'revolutionary' bargains in the form of plastic kitchenware gadgets.

But Yamina's children feel differently about life in Paris. They don't always fit in, and it hurts. Omar wonders whether it's too late to change course as he watches the world pass him by from the driver's seat of his Uber. His sisters are tired of having to prove themselves and their allegiance to a place that is at once home, and not. When the Talebs go away together on holiday – not to the motherland, but to a villa-with-pool rental near the Atlantic coast – they come to realise just how strongly family defines our sense of belonging.

Moving between Algeria and Paris, Discretion touchingly evokes the realities of a first- and second-generation family as they carve out a future for themselves in France, finding one another as they go along.

Winner of the Prix Maryse Condé 2020

Best Summer Books of 2022 - Fiction in Translation-- Financial Times

'Wonderful. A vivid, soulful novel. Guène's Paris is a place of grifting and grafting where young rebels rub up against calcified traditions. This is a writer at the height of her powers, addressing issues of migration and belonging with defiance, zest and humour.'-- Bidisha

'Faiza Guene is an important voice in French literature, rebelliously dissecting ideas of home, identity and belonging with a universally accessible intimacy and power.'-- Diana Evans

'One of the hottest literary talents of multicultural Europe.'-- Sunday Telegraph

'Through the lens of an often-tender family portrait, the author delivers a biting portrayal of a France steeped in hypocrisy and false smiles, where equality of opportunity is all smoke and mirrors … A novel that's bang on the money, coursing with a chillingly legitimate sense of grievance.'-- Slate

'Like every accomplished novel, La Discrétion does so much more than tell a story. It asks questions... Faïza Guène's mastery of her subject matter means she doesn't come down on either side but accompanies her characters towards the light.'-- Le Monde Diplomatique

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Saqi Books

PARIS (75006)
FRANCE, 2018

Crossing the rue du Bac, the weariness sets in. His arms are growing numb.
Omar doesn’t much care for this part of the city, but finds himself covering the area tonight.
His drop-off was a little further up, at Hôtel Lutetia, where the renovations are finished at last. To his eyes the new facade looks sumptuous.
Staring at the building as it flaunted its new skin, he reflected that he might like to step inside one day. He could sit at the hotel bar and order something, a Coke perhaps. It wouldn’t cost more than 10 euros, after all no more than a pack of cigarettes, but it isn’t about the money. No matter how much he earns, it still won’t change anything. There’s an indefinable barrier inside his head, and it’s telling him he can’t set foot inside the Lutetia.
Omar has always felt this way, as if it were in his blood, or in his stomach: some things are not for the likes of us. These things were made for others, for those who already have everything. For the people who’ve always had these things, without ever needing to ask for them. Without even having desired them. From the beginning these things were there for them. They are simply following an old and well-established rhythm.
Omar should engrave this on stone: Others don’t need to exclude us. We do a great job of it ourselves.
The idea of stepping inside the fancy hotel briefly crossed his mind. Then Omar sighed and thought about something else.
He’s wearing a midnight-blue suit from Zara, perfectly ironed. He was upbeat the day he bought it, noting his handsome appearance in the changing room mirror. It gave him presence. But, as for so many other Uber drivers, the pay proved poor and his enthusiasm rapidly fizzled out.
Dawn is breaking, the birds are already making a racket. He decides that this job here, at Sèvres-Babylone, will be his last pick-up of the night.
There’s no bottled water inside the Renault Talisman, no mints, no dangling air freshener. It’s been a while since Omar gave up on replenishing his stocks. He earns too little to fork out from his own pocket.
In the backseat, two American tourists gush amazing and awesome on repeat at the spectacle Paris offers them. They wear outsize hoodies stamped with their university, teamed with tiny denim shorts. Could someone explain why American girls feel the cold everywhere except for on their legs?
One of them plays with her ponytail. She’s not pretty, no, there’s something ungainly about her features. Her complexion is a greasy pink, her over-wide nostrils reveal ruddy-coloured nasal passages and her profile is pudgy. Her high-pitched voice doesn’t help.
But as Omar catches a view of this American girl, it occurs to him that his mother would find her pretty. He can picture her inspecting the girl’s pale face, examining her blue eyes and blonde hair, and expressing her approval at this doll: ‘Poupiya!’
For Yamina, being beautiful means being white, blonde and blue-eyed. This is a given, as far as she’s concerned, no questions asked. And yet, having carefully scrutinised this girl’s face, Omar can confirm that no, she’s not beautiful, although he’d put money on her being a hit at the village hammam.
‘Eez okay the music for you girlz? You la-ike Djazz?’ asks Omar in an English that’s clumsy and broken, to the point, almost, of being dirty. American ponytail couldn’t care less. ‘Whatever,’ she shrugs, scarcely glancing in Omar’s direction. She sprawls on the seat, turning to the other blonde: ‘I am soooo hungry!’ She’d kill for a hamburger dripping with cheese and ketchup.
She and her friends have been out drinking white wine – Chablis, ‘Oh gosh! French wine is soooo good!’ – but not to the point of excess. Just as well. Omar loathes the weekend shifts for this reason. He can’t be dealing with zombies, catching their disturbing glassy eyes in the rearview mirror, listening to their senseless blathering, or performing emergency stops in the bus lane so they can throw up. Drunk people disgust him. ‘Fuck’s sake, get a grip,’ he wants to say, but bites his lip.
It’s only short-term, in any case. The steering wheel, the passengers, the stench of nocturnal piss, the Zara suit, the job, it’s all temporary. He repeats this like a mantra. In the beginning, it helped make everything seem more bearable, but, truth be told, he’s no longer convinced.
When does a gig cease to be temporary? How do you gauge the switch from temporary to permanent? You slide without realising it, because this short-term job has already gone on for two years, he’ll soon be thirty, and he’s worried.
He likens it to when he started to lose his hair. He used to think that was short-term, too. Omar had been well-endowed in this respect, killer curls, not so much black as chestnut. He remembers the rigmarole with the shampoo, how he got it to lather, the sensation of damp hair drying naturally. He put his sudden hair loss down to stress, and splashed out on exorbitant scalp treatments from the discount pharmacy at Parinor shopping centre. When the first bouts of hair loss exposed his pate, his big sister Hannah teased him, calling him Pebble Head. He used a pocket mirror to inspect the back, checking on progress, taking clumsy photos on his iPhone 6 with its cracked screen. He even researched cosmetic tourism, looked into trips to Turkey offering capillary implants at unbeatable prices. There were some eye-boggling before and after pics on the websites. But then he felt ashamed and scrubbed his search history from the home computer.
One day, Omar simply stopped looking. He came to terms with his balding destiny. He would be bald, just as his father had been bald before him, and his grandfather before them.
Baldness is another form of inheritance, after all, and it hadn’t detracted from his charm. One lost hair at a time, Omar was turning into a short, balding Arab.A pebble head in a dark suit driving a Renault Talisman, a sympathetic face looking out from his photo in the ‘driver profile’ section of the app, just below the number of completed trips. Omar has already notched up thousands of journeys. Thousands of faces. Thousands of kilometres distancing him from his former ambitions. He won’t let his life be reduced to this tally, to this suit made in some factory in South Asia, by workers even less well paid than he is, to this car, which he has to keep immaculate at all times to avoid negative feedback.
Omar was a good student at school, passing his exams, listening when they said he would have to fight twice as hard as the others. Which is precisely what he did. And then what?
It wasn’t as though he was doing it to please his mother and father. Or to avenge the sacrifices they had made as exiles, or to rescue anybody from abject poverty. Omar’s family has always had enough food on the table.
Yamina is proud of this son who drives a smart car and wears a suit. She reckons he’s doing a lot better than some of her friends’ sons, the ones who’ve done time inside, making their mothers submit to being frisked by prison guards before they can enter the visiting room. She reckons he’s doing a lot better than the alkies and drugheads who beg outside the overground station with their flea-infested dogs.
Mainly she reckons he’s doing a lot better than his father.
Before he retired, the head of the family was a formworker, or concrete carpenter. He was permanently exhausted and on edge, always telling tedious tales from the construction sites, the same tired stories involving pneumatic drills, Portuguese co-workers, back pain and unsympathetic bosses.
Back then, Brahim, Omar’s father, was haunted by a recurring nightmare.
On a construction site, bustling workers. The smoke rising from ground level makes monstrous shapes, and the drains give off a foul smell. A giant tipper arrives to pour reinforced concrete. Brahim is tasked with this operation. At first he’s proud of the responsibility and everything goes to plan, but, just as the pouring procedure begins, he realises that his children are trapped in the formwork. They’re struggling to get out and there’s nothing he can do. He puts his hands to his hard helmet and roars as he watches his kids drowning in the grey substance. Brahim feels powerless and to blame: his children are dying, before his eyes, it’s his fault, he knows this, he’s the one who brought them here in the first place. His children are losing their lives to concrete. It’s a tragedy. One he didn’t see coming. The concrete is an all-devouring monster and Brahim wants to die, he wants to be swallowed up in turn. He tries to join his children in the formwork, to sink with them, but he can’t. His legs won’t respond.
It ends like this.
With his kids, the children he loves so dearly, disappearing before his eyes into the concrete he himself has poured.
Omar’s father used to wake with a jolt, drenched in sweat, grabbing his wife by the shoulder, even though she hated being woken like that in the middle of the night. Heart pounding, he would blurt out his nightmare in jumbled, incoherent snatches. His wife would look on in disbelief. ‘This is crazy! All you think about is work. Recite the Throne verse and go back to sleep. It’s four in the morning, it’ll soon be time to get up.’
Brahim’s work was backbreaking. At midday, he ate potatoes from a metal lunch pail. Every day of the week, without fail, potatoes in his lunch pail.
‘Watch out, my son, work hard at school, or it’ll be your turn to carry a lunch pail!’ was how Omar’s father encouraged him to knuckle down.
In Omar’s childish mind, the lunch pail was a threat: of failure, of a life of hard labour.
The lunch pail meant ending up like his father.
Yamina had cooked enough potatoes in her time, filled enough lunch pails and cleaned enough mud-splattered boiler suits. Her hands were rough from scrubbing the dirty laundry under a cold tap. The grime from a construction site, the stains it leaves, are tough to eradicate. But today, when she looks at her family, she doesn’t begrudge her efforts.
Yamina can feel her heart overflowing with emotion for them, overflowing like the Mediterranean. She has enough love for a hundred sons and daughters to share. The breast of this woman is devoid of any bitterness, which is in the order of a miracle when you think about it. Her children envy her this innocence, but they also chide her, on occasion, for being too forgiving.
Omar’s mind often wanders while he’s driving. He thinks about the past. And God knows, reflecting on the past is no easier than imagining the future. Omar thinks about all the love he’s received, and that his sisters have received. He thinks about his parents, his mother’s sad eyes, everything those eyes have seen, his father’s big hands, everything those hands have lacked the opportunity to communicate. Omar thinks about everyone else, the people in transit, the exiled hearts, the dreams abandoned along the way. Will it be the same for his own dreams?
It’s gone five now. The hour at which his father used to wake for the construction site. Omar decides it’s time to head home. He switches off TSF Jazz after dropping the American girls at place de la Bastille. Then he closes the app and loosens his tie.
With a little luck, he’ll make it back in time for the Fajr prayer at the mosque in Aulnay-Sous-Bois.


Yamina is a skinny child. Her large honey-coloured eyes, fringed by thick black lashes, appear designed solely to see beauty in the world. An old ribbon adorns her curly locks and she wears an apricot-coloured threadbare dress. Yamina is used to walking on thorns, running over the bare earth and rushing down rocky slopes.
Rahma entrusts her daughter with simple household tasks. She considers her gifted and notices how surprisingly well-coordinated she is, for her age. Yamina is resourceful enough to be sent to fetch water by herself. She doesn’t say much, or cry, and goes to sleep without complaining. She never brings shame on her mother.
She’s a great child, this five-year-old, an animal lover who enjoys stroking the goats in the backyard. When the time comes to sell the calf, she clings to the beast’s neck and weeps. She has always struggled when it comes to separations.
What fascinates young Yamina is counting the canopy of stars above the douar. Every night, she points up at the sky as if trying to touch the stars. She does so until everything begins to spin.
During the summer months, sleeping in the yard to enjoy the coolness of the night was sweet compensation after spending the day working under the blazing sun.
But now it is ill-advised. French soldiers might raid the mechtas at any moment. Jeddi Ahmed, Yamina’s grand...

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