Wednesday, 13 April 2011
The Guillotine Choice - Prologue
Bashir Saoudi is the son of the man I write about in The Guillotine Choice. The Prologue introduces the concept of the book - as the son determines to find out the truth of his father's life.
This is Bashir's story ...
The Guillotine Choice - Prologue
I can’t remember when I first learned that my father was convicted of complicity in murder and had served his sentence in Devil’s Island. It seems as if I’ve always known, in much the same way as I know how to breathe. In much the same way as I knew that he was an innocent in French Algeria. Nothing more than a convenient scapegoat while the Colon: the French turned an entire nation into beggars and worked on a system that another country further south on the African continent would adopt and name apartheid.
This was a different time, another era where a world recovered from one war and held its breath in fear of the next. A world far removed from the one I inhabit now as I fly first class with Air France from Boston to Algiers via Paris. Paid for and arranged by my American employer.
The cabin is quiet. The stewardess has read my reserve and has only intruded on my thoughts in order to offer me some food and alcohol. I shook my head at both offers.
‘Some water, perhaps?’ she asked, her face long with concern and for the first time I realised I had been crying.
I nodded, approximated a smile and wiped a tear from my cheek.
Water might do me good. My mouth was as parched as my thoughts. They kept going back to that last time before the news came through. The last time I saw my father alive.
He stood at the door of his house while my cousin drove me back to the airport. In the wing mirror I could see that he stayed to watch until my car shrank into the distance.
We hugged before I left.
We gathered a lifetime of hugs in that month.
His skin lined, his body shrunk, his eyes were framed in an expression of loss. From a distance of time I can read that expression.
He knew his time was drawing near.
As the stewardess placed the glass on the small table before me I wondered about fathers and sons. Was it every man’s experience to go back home, take part in the funeral service for his father and question what his father was really like and wonder what might have been?
I closed my eyes tight against the feelings that threatened to swamp me. I had to keep control, until the ceremony at least.
Snapshots of my father’s face played in my mind like a digital display.
The first time I remember seeing him. I was six. He was like a giant from a fairytale as he leaned forward, picked me up and held me close to his chest. I can still remember the combination of coffee and cigarettes hot on his breath and the rasp of the bristle on his chin as he pressed his lips against my cheek.
Then there was the angry man who threatened to beat me unless I worked hard at school. And the subsequent pride that shone from his eyes when I won the award that took me away from home for the first time, aged 14. I’m sure that the irony wasn’t lost on him that the education he was so desperate for me to gain, kept me away from him for most of my life.
After the boarding school near Algiers, I left the country wide-eyed and 17 to undertake a university degree in England and from there a job with a computer company that took me from Europe to the Middle East to North America.
I was part of a diaspora where the young and talented of Algeria were driven abroad in search of work fearing the seemingly endless conflict at home. To make matters worse, this was a time when a young newly-reformed country imposed the draft on all her young men. As soon as I stepped off a plane onto Algerian soil I would have been whisked away to the nearest army barracks and forced to complete two years service. A situation that I couldn’t allow because by now I had responsibilities of my own; my wife was with child.
Again, circumstances kept me away from home. I was desperate to go home and see my father. I even considered asking a doctor to give me a certificate to say that I was mentally unstable and therefore couldn’t serve in the army, but in the end I was too frightened that the Algerian army would see through this ruse.
When word came through in June 1991 that national service had been abolished I was on the first plane to Algiers.
We had a month together. A month where he waited each morning for me to wake up, a strong coffee on the table in front of him and a smile on his weathered face. He was an early riser and when he tired of waiting for me he walked up and down the main corridor of the house, knocking his stick off the walls and coughing.
‘What are we doing today, son?’ he would ask when I stumbled through to the kitchen, swabbing sleep from my eyes.
I sat beside him, my hand ready for the coffee that I knew my mum was bringing to me and shrugged, ‘How about we go for a drive?’
‘A drive would be good,’ he nodded and smiled. ‘I must go and pay a visit to...’ A different name formed on his lips each day. We had a large, extended family and as an important man in the region he had many, many friends. He also had many people calling on his time and wisdom.
The Berber way is to seek counsel and guidance from someone respected by all parties to a disagreement and as one such individual my father’s considered words were sought for miles around.
We also spent many hours visiting his parcels of land just outside the town. Here we wandered through his olive groves and lines of orange trees and as we walked he paused here and there to stroke a leaf or squeeze low-hanging fruit. As he walked and touched nature his low voice filled my ears with words heavy with wisdom much as the trees were bursting with fruit.
We both knew that the visit to the friends was the excuse. Even if no-one asked for his time we would have gone to the car and driven, we simply wanted to spend as much time in each other’s company as we could before the demands on my time forced me to leave. We had many years to make up for and although I didn’t know it, we had little time remaining to us.
In the car, he spoke nonstop as if trying to tip his brain into mine. I questioned and listened and marvelled that one man could have such a life. I always knew that my father was sent to Devil’s Island in French Guiana for murder. However, knowledge and understanding are distant cousins. The journey from one to the other as wide as the ocean that separated my father from his family in Algeria for the long years of his incarceration.
During those conversations in the car I sought to understand even a little of what he went through and as he spoke I would tear my eyes from the road and examine the skin, muscle and bones that had borne such troubles and with only the power of his will endured.
This book is my attempt to bring understanding to that knowledge; a son’s effort to get under the skin and into the soul of his father so that he might learn of and pass on his legacy to the world.