Chaiba the Algerian


By Ousmane Sembene

There seemed to be no flesh on his body, and the skin was stretched tight over the bones of his face; his thin-lipped mouth had deep lines on either side, and his hair had receded from his narrow forehead. But he had mischievous, laughing eyes, dark grey, with thick lashes and eyebrows. His colour was not the dark tan that racialists usually associate with all North African Arabs, but was more like the subdued shade that the African soil takes on at twilight and at dawn. He walked bent slightly forward, as though his back pained him; and owing to a deformed spine he leaned to the right, which made his right arm seem longer than his left. He wore a red flannel body-belt, as did all the stevedores of his generation.

He worked in the port of Marseilles, which was where I met him. When he first joined the gang I worked in, to replace a man who had been hurt the day before, I was filled with pity for him. He was only half a man, I said to myself. And Chaiba was proud; he had that absurd pride which makes humble men always want to pit themselves against something stronger than themselves.

He told me later that he had been working in the Marseilles docks for nearly twenty-five years. Twenty-five years as a stevedore, and always working down in the hold. He became my mate, and throughout the long shifts, over the weeks and months, he proved to be the best partner I have ever had. He had more experience than I, and knew at a glance just where to put a packing-case, and whether it should be stood upright or on its side. We acted as one, had the same ideas about handling a crate, whether to roll or lift it; without saying a word we knew the right place to put it, and with just a look we fitted it in there neatly. (I don’t know whether you’ve ever worked as a stevedore, but there are some men who fit in well with you, whose ways of doing things match your own, and this is important.) Chaiba was one such; we often laughed about it, saying it was as though we were married.

He came from the Aures, the mountainous region south of Constantine, but he rarely talked about his native village or his homeland. His wife and children had joined him. He liked some aspects of France but had a deep hatred of the caids and the colonists. I never discovered why, however. He liked his snuff; when he took a pinch, his eyes twinkled under their long lashes. A favourite subject of his was the cinema. On Sundays he took his whole family to see a film. He always went to the same cinema, in the rue des Dominicaines. It was the only one where Arab films were shown. Afterwards, they all went back home - to a furnished room.

He worked hard, doing overtime to send some money to help his relatives in Algeria. We were walking home at six o’clock one morning, at the end of a sixteen-hour shift. Another docker, a European, was with us. Just as we reached the Colbert post office, a police patrol on bicycles stopped us. After checking our identity-cards, they took Chaiba away with them. He was detained for three days. Why? From that time, never a week passed without the police questioning him. As if some disease were eating him away, gradually rotting his whole body, Chaiba became increasingly morose and hardly ever spoke a word. He stopped going to the cinema with his family.

A few days ago, while in Dakar, I saw in a newspaper that Chaiba had been deported, had been put in an internment camp, had tried to escape while armed with a weapon, and been shot dead.

The Algerian War of Independence had been on for six years. I never knew what Chaiba’s ideas and feelings were on that subject. He was fully entitled to hate caids and colonists if he wished. He was not an extremist and certainly not a revolutionary. But he had been born in Algeria. His colour was that of the African soil at twilight. He loved his wife and children, went to the cinema once a week to see Arab films, liked his snuff. . . All that did not make a revolutionary of him.

But perhaps he believed that dignity and the respect of his children could only be acquired at the cost of a certain kind of life.

Chaiba was a friend. I am proud to think that he was a friend, with his colour like that of the African soil at dawn - a new dawn for Africa.