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An Algerian named Karim


This is a piece I’d promised a long while ago, to myself and to P. In return for the lovely Europe vacation.

So I was asleep, comfortable, a little part of me freezing (my toes that were outside the sheet), a little part of me very warm (my left side that was too close to the radiator). It wasn’t a radiator, actually, for it didn’t radiate. It just heated, and very ferociously, but the heat didn’t spread itself too far away into the room. I wasn’t able to figure out whether I could legitimately blame the radiator for that, or the heat, or the lazy air molecules that, even with the extra heat energy, didn’t bother themselves to move too much. They wouldn’t’ve discovered America. Hell, they wouldn’t’ve discovered the 10e arrondissement.

Yes, for I was in Paris, sleeping, dreaming, in a 16th century building with cardboard walls.

And suddenly there were noises in the room. P had returned. High time it was, too. I scratched ‘down there’ for a bit, trying to get various parts of me warmed up, to get enough energy to admonish him (not yell, that is always Stage III). And opened my eyes to a very long face. No, not a sad P. But a white, long face. With hair on it. And very curious eyes that were staring at me quite openly. Moi, j’ai sauté vers le haut. Who was this?

Long face: Bonjour, moi obewe wefjwefh sjbwd jsdguwgdw….

Me: WHAT? Who are you?

Long face (with a lovely sing-song accent): O, sorrwe, you aire Einglis! I am cleaning your chambre, if you don’t mind (head bowed down, continues as if nothing’s really odd).

Me (suddenly stopping the scratching as I realize I’m embarrassing him): But how did you get the keys?

Long-face: Where are you from?

He’s about 22, 23. Turns out he’s Algerian, called Karim. He has a big burn bruise on his hand, but it’s a perfectly shaped circle, like it was branded (just an accident with a round thing would be more likely to burn his skin asymmetrically, wouldn’t it?). He’s fascinated to see me, look at me, and I can see the misty-eyes already spinning fantasies in his heed about this exotic Indian girl (“oi, but you aire so a long far from youir ‘ome!”). Wish he could at least wait until I couldn’t see the ‘cleaner with hotel guest’ fantasy so plainly in his face! But that’s the Europeans for you, and Simone de Beauvoir dares to talk about the ‘abysmal state of women in the East’ – I’ve been more recognized solely by my sex in France than in India (barring Delhi, of course).

P’s gone out to call his mum, and hasn’t returned in an aeon. I can’t see him in the phone booth downstairs across the road, even when I dare to stand in the cold, windy balcony long enough. Karim’s eyes mist over; full of pity when I answer that the door is locked from the outside by my husband, who has the keys (I didn’t want to be woken up). His fantasy now is even richer as he thinks of himself as the cleaning slave who will rescue the pretty, dark Eastern princess (not ‘pretty dark’, but ‘pretty, dark’) from her cruel husband who locks her up by day. He even dares to openly show shock at the fact that my husband has the keys (Poor P!! I could laugh out loud at his consternation if he heard of this).

Of course, P returns some fifteen minutes later and we do have the hearty laugh about this. The downstairs phone booth wasn’t working and he’d had to trudge a long way to find a working telephone (but it’d worked last night when I’d called Pune!). Of course, I realize the true story only much later (he was buying me a ring).

The whole story made a lot more sense when I’d finished Andalus – Jason Webster’s story of Moors and Algerians in Europe (Spain, actually). There was good reason for Karim to think of himself as a slave. And maybe the burn was a brand, after all.

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Categories: diary, humor, P, race, travel
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