Translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone.
We say of a threat that it hovers above our heads. Well, this threat hovers, like a plane in a holding pattern.
The ceaseless roar of the engines haunts us.
It’s a roar my beloved has become familiar with, after 25 days in the detention centre – so familiar he could almost recognise the airline carrier, or tell you the exact number of passengers inside.
This roar has become the soundtrack to our despair. Nine years on French soil. Nine years which count for nothing. This is what he keeps saying. Nine years up in the air: just like the planes.
For me, there’s no contest – I prefer birds to planes, and the repetition of their fascinating choreographies. I could watch their thick clouds twirling modestly for hours. In clear and stormy skies, they dance on tirelessly and they never deprive us of those we love.
The roar of the planes haunts me when I’m on the telephone, when he’s trying to talk to me, if his voice isn’t choked up, if there’s enough signal, if he’s in the mood to make me believe, to make himself believe, that soon he will be free, that he will walk outside, by my side, the way he did before.
All it takes is a friendly word, the news that a fellow detainee is being released, an announcement about France taking in new migrants, or the lawyer saying there’s another chance, however slim. That’s all it takes to start believing a little again.
The administrative detention centre of Mesnil Amelot is situated behind Roissy, next to the airport. When I visit, I can’t help looking skywards for a few seconds to gaze up at the ceaseless dance of take-offs and landings. How vast that sky is.
The terms of France’s high-alert Vigipirate Plan dictate that I park far away, so I flank the walls and wire fencing on foot. Huge hounds, the kind of mean vicious dogs you might imagine, suddenly appear, their only ambition to startle me by barking in my face as I walk past.
Often, I am slowed by the weight of a bag of clean clothes. And as I walk along this tree-lined road, the leaves turning red is a reminder of autumn’s timid arrival. For I forget that the days are passing, now that each day blurs into the next, in much the same way as the visits, frisking, lawyers’ robes… and the disappointments of our appeals being rejected all blur into one. The music of those planes is throbbing now.
It’s not a crime, after all. Not having the correct documents. It’s not as serious as all that. We forgot about him being an undocumented worker. We forgot because he had no shortage of work, because he felt needed, because we were building a happy life together. We forgot that his jobs weren’t declared, that we lived in fear of him being stopped and checked, that any holidays abroad were without him, we forgot that Algeria was a long time ago for him. After all, what he was missing wasn’t paperwork so much as his mother’s eyes, and the pride he knew he would see reflected in them when we finally visited her together, after our wedding. Because we had told ourselves that it would all be resolved. We thought it was just a question of time. We had a date: the 1st October. We had bought our wedding rings, his suit, my dress and the outfit for our young bridesmaid, my daughter, who will soon be six and who doesn’t understand it when I say: he can’t come home because he doesn’t have the correct documents.
She calls him Abi, which means ‘papa’, and this says it all because although he is not her father, he has become one to her. In recent months, when she was thirsty at night, he was the one she woke to bring her water. The first time it happened I was very moved, it meant the world to us.
My daughter is being deprived of a second father for a reason that no grown-up could ever convince her was fair. For there is no justice in breaking up a family that has taken the time to (re)build itself.
“Maman? When is Abi coming back?”
I don’t know, soon, we can’t say, perhaps he won’t come back, perhaps he’ll be deported while you’re at school, and you won’t even be able to say goodbye to him. Perhaps, at the very moment it’s happening, you’ll be gazing up – since you’re a dreamy little girl – at the white line traced across the misty November sky by the plane that is forcibly carrying your ‘abi’ away from you.
He refuses to accept this degrading manner of being escorted back to the place deemed by the French administration to be chez-lui (‘his home’). He knows where his home is, and it’s clear to all three of us: chez-lui means ‘our place’, our apartment, the home where we’ve been happy together for two years.
Our civil wedding was due to take place on the 1st October, but his car was pulled over for a spot check on the 28th September. Two days before. Scarcely two days. Fate. I don’t really see what else I could call it. I could say irony, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate, because the real irony is that, in front of the officers from the Saint Denis police station, and while in police custody, he spoke of his impending happiness, of the date, of our marriage. He told them this because he was convinced it would help.
Of course, all it took was a phone call to the police headquarters, and then another call to the town hall, to confirm this information.
And confirmed it was: he had told the truth, his marriage was indeed due to take place, and in his marriage file were his identity papers, his Algerian national card, everything they needed to identify him officially, to apply to the Algerian Consulate to return him to Algeria, to put him on a plane, to decide on his behalf where his ‘home’ was.
He had mentioned the wedding out of naivety, so that they would understand, so that they would know. Because everybody knows you don’t separate people who love each other.
The crazy thing is, he has never been on a plane in his life. He arrived in France nine years ago, legally, on a ferry from Oran to Marseille. Now, the likelihood is that he’ll be flying to his homeland – not with his bride and the little girl who calls him ‘Abi’ by his side, for the proud reunion with his mother – but handcuffed and under police escort.
Back in the summer, Faïza and I sat together at the opening of the Migrant Stories Strand at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which Faïza was attending both as a talented young writer and as someone with first hand experience of those migrant stories.
Faïza, who is of French-Algerian heritage, has described her (second) generation as ‘schizophrenic’, standing as it does with a foot in Africa and a foot in Europe. Today, her life in France is proving increasingly fractured. Her international literary success means that she has defied the statistics about the troubled youth of the Parisian banlieues. And yet she knows more than she would care to about surviving on the periphery and slipping between the cracks of official recognition.
Still, as the two of us watched the spectacle of Alpha by Barroux and Bessora – the fictional journey of an ‘illegal’ migrant who embarks on a devastating journey to reach France, only to be deported back – we were far from imagining that deportation might be the fate awaiting her fiancé, Faycal.
Nine years ago Faycal left behind crippling unemployment in Algeria to join his brother in France, where he hoped to find a better life. As an ‘unskilled’ worker, the chances of obtaining a work permit were slim. And yet employers of manual workers in France find the labour laws so punitive that they actively seek workers on the black economy: workers like Faycal, who become scapegoats of this hypocrisy. As Faïza describes in this piece, once men like Faycal have built themselves a life, it can sometimes be easy to forget that they don’t officially exist. Until, that is, they come up against judges with quotas of deportations to fulfil. The judge before whom Faycal appeared has a 100% deportation rate.
My work as a translator takes me across borders. It gives me the freedom to get to know people like Faïza. And it reminds me that the right to choose where I live, and with whom, is a privilege I take for granted. After the English-language performance of Alpha, Faïza turned to me and said: “I’m so proud – I think I understood nearly everything!” Today, neither of us can comprehend what is happening to the beloved man my author was due to marry on 1st October.