Rislène Namani stepped off the bus in front of the parc du Peyrou at the highest point of Montpellier’s centre ville. She glanced to her left, where dozens of people mingled leisurely in the wide square that was flanked on either side by two rows of naked plane trees with their dappled bark. The air was brisk but the sun high on this bright Sunday afternoon in late November. She took in a deep breath and let a smile erase the frown she’d been wearing.
She glanced around her, then crossed the wide avenue, walking away from the park and through the thick Roman arches that had earned this monument the name of le petit Arc de Triomphe. She thought it as beautiful as the one in Paris.
She turned down a side street that meandered around and opened into a small square. It too was crowded with students sitting on benches and children playing in the dirt around an ancient fountain that sprayed water from little mermaids’ mouths. Again Rislène looked behind her, heart thumping in her chest.
Practically jogging now, she pushed her thick black hair off her neck, feeling a pulsing in her head, a tingling in every part of her body. Almost there!
She glanced once more over her shoulder as she stepped into the little Café de la Paix, around the corner from the bustling little place.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” the barkeeper crooned.
Rislène kept her head down, her multicolored scarf twirled carelessly around her neck, and hurried to the back of the café.
He was there!
“Eric,” she whispered and let the tall boy with the coarsely cropped red hair draw her into an embrace.
“Rislène! You made it!” Then his freckled face wrinkled at the brow. “No problems? No one following you?”
“No. Nazira went out with her friends for the afternoon. She glared at me the whole morning as if she knew a big secret, but she didn’t try to follow me.”
Now they were sitting at a little round table, holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes. Eric’s were a bright green. How she loved his eyes! How she loved him! She was out of breath with the thought.
They ordered two cups of coffee, and when the waiter set them on the table, the couple held each other’s gaze with the steam from the coffee rising between them.
“Don’t worry, Eric. We’re safe. No one knows.”
A faint smile spread across his thin face, and he breathed a sigh of relief. “So many months of hiding our love.… But soon, Rislène. Someday soon, I’ll tell my sister. Ophélie will surely understand—why, she writes plays that are filled with impossible love stories. She’ll be thrilled, and she’ll help us.”
“Yes, I hope she will. I know she likes me—as a student in her class, that is. I don’t think she looks at me and thinks, She’d make a good girlfriend for my little brother!” Rislène’s smile vanished, and her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m scared about Father. He grows more fanatical each day. And Nazira is even worse. It’s not the peaceful Islam I grew up with.” She fumbled with a paper napkin, turning it over in her hands.
“Shh. Please. Let’s just enjoy this time together.” Eric grabbed both of her hands tightly.
She looked at his pale, thin fingers entwined with her dark olive-skinned ones. She loved this young man with a head filled with dreams and a heart of courage and conviction. But how complicated he made her life. Why, she wondered for the thousandth time, had she allowed herself to fall in love with a Christian, the son of two American-born French citizens?
She hadn’t meant to. It had happened gradually, over the course of the past year … when she had become a Christian too.
Eric Hoffmann watched as Rislène left the café, then he followed her out, putting a distance between them. How hard it was to hide his love for her from the rest of the world!
The Algerian beauty had stolen his heart the first night they’d met, over a year ago now. He thought of the young people gathered on the beach, the end of the summer’s heat warm on their shoulders as the sun set and the lazy Mediterranean lapped at their feet.
“Meet my friend Rislène,” Oumel had said, smiling broadly. “She wanted to tag along tonight and see what in the world I’ve been talking about.” He had hardly taken his eyes off her the whole evening, while he strummed his guitar and the young people munched on chipolata and merguez sausages cooked over a makeshift grill. He’d felt his face turn red each time she glanced his way. She was so delicate, her café au lait skin so smooth, her eyes dark ovals that flashed pleasure and maybe even mischief, her black hair, soft and thick and full, tumbling past her shoulders …
Eric watched her board the bus near the Arc de Triomphe. She turned and looked his way, eyes full of love. The doors closed behind her, and as the bus pulled away from the curb, he let out a sigh of relief.
Rislène felt the tension the moment she stepped back into her family’s apartment. Her mother regarded her suspiciously as Rislène hurried back to the bedroom she shared with her sister. Nazira was standing there, a wicked gleam in her eyes, holding up a small leather book.
“You’re a traitor, Rislène.”
Rislène’s legs buckled under her, and she collapsed on her bed. “Nazira, let me explain.”
“Explain!” her sister shrilled. “Yes, explain it to me, Rislène! Why are you hiding a Bible under your mattress? Explain that!”
This wasn’t the way Rislène had imagined sharing her newfound faith with her sister, but it seemed the moment had been decided for her. Nazira didn’t want to listen, though, and her face grew red with rage.
“We’ll see what Father has to say about such beliefs!”
“Please, Nazira, don’t tell him!”
Nazira gave a cold laugh. “I would never keep news like this from Father!”
With a groan, Rislène watched Nazira leave their bedroom, calling out, “Father! Father! Come quick!”
When he stepped into the room, Rislène shrank from her father’s harsh gaze. Usually his deep brown eyes held a fierce pride in them for his oldest daughter. But not today.
“What is this, Rislène? What have you done?”
Rislène stood and reached for him. “It’s nothing against the family, Father. Please let me try to explain what I’ve discovered … in this book.”
His hand was swift and strong across her face, sending her reeling backward so that she fell across her bed with a sharp cry. She hid her face in her hands and whimpered, “Please, try to understand.”
But she knew he would never understand. As he left the room, with Nazira behind, Rislène knew that she had just lost the innocence of her youth to the angry hand of her father.
At seven forty-five Monday morning, traffic was moving slowly along the broad avenue on the east side of Montpellier. Ophélie Duchemin frowned as the light turned red, and she pulled to a stop.
A man tapped on her window, a cardboard sign in his hand. She read the sign and shook her head, not meeting the man’s eyes. These homeless people! They were forever begging for handouts at every major intersection in Montpellier. She felt a stab of guilt. Sometimes she handed them a few francs, but today she didn’t have time to rummage through her purse. Anyway, how could she be sure this man would take the francs and buy bread instead of a cheap bottle of red wine? She couldn’t help everyone on a high school teacher’s salary.
Still, she wished she could offer the man something. She stared straight ahead, willing the light to turn green so she could get past this pitiful man and get to school. If she looked at him, if she met his eyes, she knew that feelings of sorrow would overtake her. The light changed. Ophélie sighed and inched the car forward as the homeless man stepped back onto the curb and waited for the next group of victims trapped by a traffic light.
Ophélie smiled at the young people who hurried into the classroom, talking among themselves. She stood and welcomed the teenagers to her French class as she did every day, challenging their intellects with an obscure quote from a favorite French author.
“Je te frapperai sans colère. Et sans haine, comme un boucher …”
The students contemplated the quote, some leafing quickly through their literature book from which, Ophélie promised them, all the quotes came.
Finally a girl on the front row called out, “Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal.”
Ophélie nodded her approval, gave the class a half grin, and started her lecture. She was tall for a French woman, five foot seven, and slim, with long shining hair that fell past her shoulders, brown and thick. For years she had been kidded that she looked like one of the students, with her jeans and T-shirts. Even now, at thirty-eight, she could pass for a university student.
She had already begun her lecture when the door opened and a young woman of Algerian descent slipped into the classroom, her face turned down, her notebooks gathered tightly to her chest. Rislène Namani—the girl who had converted to Christianity last year, was attending Oasis meetings for teenage Muslim converts and had even started coming to church services. As she found her seat, Ophélie followed her with her eyes.
After class, Rislène waited until the other students had left before approaching Ophélie’s desk. “Mlle Duchemin, could I … could I talk with you?”
Ophélie gasped slightly, seeing the girl’s bruised face. “Rislène, what happened?”
Normally Rislène’s smile was infectious. But today the girl was obviously terrified.
“My father found out I’ve been reading the Bible.”
“Oh, Rislène!” Ophélie stood and took the shaking young woman into her arms. “I’m so sorry.”
“My sister betrayed me,” Rislène continued. “She found my Bible hidden under my mattress.” She wiped a tear and covered her mouth. “I’m afraid to go back tonight. I don’t know what he might do.”
Ophélie closed her eyes to think. It was a very shaky time for Algerians. The civil war in their country was threatening to spread to France. Fear could be tasted. And Rislène’s story resembled that of so many others. As a young North African woman who had grown up in France, she was French in every way. Yet in the past few years, a sudden reemphasis on Islam was encouraging North African fathers to demand that their daughters wear the hijab and attend the newly built mosques popping up throughout France.
Rislène’s danger was greater, however. She had converted to Christianity, and her father saw that as an unpardonable sin. A black eye might be just the beginning.
Ophélie held Rislène’s hands and looked her in the eye. “You’ll come to my apartment, then, until we can think of what to do.” She touched the girl’s face. The ugly bruise covered her left eye and cheek. “Come back after classes, at five. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”
Rislène was cuddled up on Ophélie’s floral-print sofa, snuggled under a bright-blue afghan. In the waning light, the bruise was less visible on her dark skin. Ophélie offered her a mug of tea, and she took it gratefully, holding her face over the mug and letting the steam warm her.
“It’s worse than you think, Mlle Duchemin,” she stated, sipping the tea.
“Please, Rislène, call me Ophélie.”
“Ophélie then.” She smiled shyly. “I’ve done the worst possible thing. I’ve not only become a Christian and been baptized, but …” She hesitated. “I’m in love with a Christian man. My parents will kill me if they find out. I know they will.”
“Is there anyone who could talk to your parents? Have they ever met anyone from the church? Perhaps my father, M. Hoffmann, could go see them?”
“My father would not let M. Hoffmann in the apartment. I know it. Your father has already tried to speak to him once.” The dark of late November came upon them suddenly as the clock showed five thirty. “But maybe Mme Hoffmann.”
“My stepmother? Does your mother know Gabriella?”
“Yes, they’ve met before. One time Mme Hoffmann invited my mother and me over to her house for a goûter with other Arab women.”
“Your mother was aware that you’d become a Christian?”
“Not at that time. Mme Hoffmann was simply trying to get to know some of the mothers of the Algerian girls who go to Oasis. We didn’t talk religion. But my mother was very impressed with Mme Hoffmann’s knowledge of Algerian customs.”
“She and my father lived in Algeria for almost twenty years. They love Algeria and the Algerian people.”
Rislène nodded. “Yes, yes, I know. Anyway, Mother liked Mme Hoffmann. Perhaps she could meet with her when my father is out. It would be risky, but perhaps.”
“I’ll speak to her then.”
They dined on endive salad with avocados and bits of bacon and hard-boiled eggs. Ophélie tossed the salad gently with her own special vinaigrette dressing made with hot Dijon mustard, red-wine vinegar, and the pure virgin olive oil that was so renowned in the region, seasoning it with garlic and parsley.
They avoided the fearful subject of Rislène’s father, talking instead of words from the Gospels and then reading aloud some of Paul Verlaine’s poems.
Almost shyly Rislène asked, “Can you tell me what it’s like to be a playwright?”
Ophélie cocked her head, surprised.
“Some kids at the church have talked about it. They say your second play is being performed right now in one of Montpellier’s theaters.”
Ophélie acquiesced. “A very small theater.” Then she winked at Rislène. “I like the writing,” she admitted, “but I also like teaching my students and chatting with them after class. I want you all to continue your studies.”
Rislène smiled. “Yes, Mlle Duch— Ophélie. We’ve all heard you say that many times. You don’t want us to ‘become another statistic in France’s alarming unemployment rate. Twelve percent and rising.’”
Ophélie grinned. “Quoting your professeur! Well, that will certainly get you on her good side.” But it was true; Ophélie hoped to inspire her students to continue their studies, to succeed.
Rislène slept peacefully in Ophélie’s bed. Ophélie had given her a long T-shirt and left the girl to snuggle beneath her covers. Now Ophélie sat on the couch, her legs pulled under her, papers scattered around her in every direction, the faint smell of garlic still permeating the salon. From a pine-finished étagère crammed with every type of book as well as her small hi-fi stereo, strands from The Golden Flute played softly in the background, punctuated occasionally by a high arpeggio from the woodwind.
This was the way she liked to grade papers, surrounded by a type of ordered clutter, with a cup of tisane in her hands. And tonight, curled up and all but purring like a cat, Ophélie could practically taste contentment. Her satisfaction was full, like the moon outside her window.
Tonight the terrible loneliness that at times engulfed her, especially in the quiet after an evening of entertaining dinner guests, had not rushed upon her. Someone else was in the apartment. Ophélie had never been afraid to live alone. She liked the silence and needed time to herself. She had not tolerated roommates very well in past years. But she missed a human presence.
In her heart she knew she was waiting for a man to fill the need. It had almost worked once. Almost.
Her mind drifted momentarily to the shores of Algeria, where she had lived for a time as a child. Now the country seemed bent upon another war—a civil war. And even those Algerians who lived in France were being sucked into the iron hold of Islam that was sweeping over the once socialist state.
The flute trilled brightly a high F, the orchestra faded into silence. She marked her last paper, turned off the light, and sat in darkness for a long time, looking at the moon.
Gabriella Hoffmann hesitated only a moment before ringing the doorbell of the sixth-floor apartment. When the door opened slightly, she smiled at the middle-aged Arab woman, bowed her head, and said softly in Arabic, “Hello, Mme Namani.”
“Hello, Mme Hoffmann.”
Altaf Namani’s smile was cold, her black eyes suspicious. She looked behind her, stepped into the hallway, and pulled the door closed. Her voice was barely a whisper. “You have news of Rislène? That is why you have come?”
“I cannot speak with you now. My other daughter is here. Whatever she hears, she will repeat to Rislène’s father.”
“When can we meet?”
The Arab woman looked around furtively. “Friday afternoon. I’ll come to your house. It is where we met before?”
“Yes. Take bus number 9, the last stop.”
“Very well. Friday then.” Gabriella turned to leave, but Altaf grabbed her arm.
“She is well, Rislène?”
“Yes, very well.”
“Take care of her, please. She has been very foolish.”
From inside the apartment a girl’s voice called, “Mother! Who’s there, Mother?”
“I must go,” Altaf mouthed. “No one, dear,” she called out in Arabic, opening the door. “Just a salesman. You know how they are. Pushy.”
Gabriella walked to the elevator. Once inside, she wiped the perspiration from her brow. That had gone relatively well.
It was ironic, she thought, that she and David had gone to Algeria to live not long after so many of the people she loved had fled Algeria for France. It was just a few years after Algeria’s war for independence had concluded. Anne-Marie and Moustafa, Ophélie, Eliane and Rémi Cebrian—these pied-noirs and harkis were building a new life in France, but she and David had felt the call to Algeria. They had witnessed the country’s struggling independence, had grown to love the people, and had mastered the Arabic language.
And twenty years later, they were forced to leave.
How they had wept before their Algerian friends when the word came from the government in the spring of 1985. All missionaries out. Leave immediately.
But their work was far from over. France now housed close to four million North Africans. The hatred and prejudice had only ripened over the years. And now those who were devout Muslims were demanding that their religion be honored in France. That their daughters be allowed to wear the hijab to school. That mosques be built. Not only the culture and language, but now also the religion, once practiced privately, was becoming public, and this displeased many of the French.
Gabriella walked out into the chilly November midday with its gusty mistral. She loved living in Montpellier, just as she had loved living in Algeria and Senegal and America. So many different adventures in her life. She thought of her three sons, William, Roger, and Eric, all now grown. She and David had one grandbaby and two more on the way.
Then she thought of Ophélie, who had always been like a daughter to her. Ophélie had never married. It was a heartache that her mother, Anne-Marie, carried silently. But the world was no longer a place just for couples. There were many options for a smart, gifted teacher and playwright who loved her work. Ophélie vibrated compassion, confidence, and faith. It was a pleasure to watch her life unfold.
Still, Gabriella thought, I too would like to see a man come into her life.
A scene flashed in her mind and she added, A man who would stay.
Nazira knew that her mother was lying. The other voice in the hall had been that of a woman, not a salesman. She ran to the window in time to see a woman with long red hair leave the apartment building. Someone had come to talk to Mama about Rislène, she was sure.
She laughed to herself. Mother couldn’t hide the truth from her. If Nazira waited and watched, followed her mother to the market, she was sure she would learn her sister’s whereabouts.
Foolish Rislène! Converting to Christianity. It made Nazira feel sick with rage. She, who so proudly wore the hijab and attended the mosque, could not tolerate the fact that her sister had betrayed her family, betrayed her heritage and her religion. Rislène deserved to be punished.
She recalled Rislène’s tearful plea when Nazira had confronted her. She had been too angry to hear her sister’s explanation of why Christianity worked for her. Something about grace and salvation, and the prophet Jesus being God’s son. How could Rislène believe that? All through their childhood they had faithfully learned from the Koran: Jesus was a prophet.
Muhammad was the greatest of the prophets. And Allah was the one true God. Christians were heretics, worshipping three gods.
Her mother came over to where Nazira was standing. “What are you doing, dear?” Her voice was tinged with fear.
Nazira shrugged and turned from the window. “I’ve got some work to finish, Mother. Call me when you need help with lunch.”
She closed the door to her room and repeated to herself, “Rislène is a traitor. Rislène will pay!”