The Heart and the Choke by Michelle Hamadache
Michelle Hamadache has had publications in Australian and international publications such as Southerly, Island, Cordite, Parallax and Antipodes. She is a lecturer at Macquarie University and managing editor for Mascara Literary Review.
‘Les Kabyles, ils faisent les bombes.’
These were the words spoken by a small tourist from Avignon to my mother-in-law, Fatima, while she and I were standing in a queue for crepes at our local markets, one wet Sunday morning in August. Were it not for my hubris and my love of artichokes, Fatima and I would never have been at those damned markets in the first place.
I’m not really territorial, but when ymar suggested that I should do my shopping over in Greenacre, where my brother-in-law lives, I was offended. It’s true, Sydney’s northern beaches are expensive. What with the beaches and headlands, we like to call the peninsula God’s Country. There’s no doubt you pay more to live here. $3 dollars an artichoke in Woolworths. Sometimes more.
‘Wesh tercul, Michelle? Karnoun?’
Though it wasn’t quite seven in the morning, the decision about what to cook for dinner is made early when ymar is staying. Karnoun, cooked with grated onion and cinnamon, is one of my favourites dishes, but in what was either a dig at the prices in Dee Why or a genuine act of forgetting, ymar shook her head and said, but no. Not karnoun. Artichokes cost too much over here. Bizef. You can get a bunch for $5 in Greenacre. Still too much, but what can you do? Hagdah.
‘We have Sunday markets. We do—let’s go. We’ll take the girls.’
Les Kabyles, ils faisent les bombes. A foreign language can be off-putting.
I was nineteen the first time I saw an artichoke. I was handed a list torn from the small black spiral notebook Signora Crivelli-Visconti carried with her for such occasions when she felt sure that I would be unequal to the task of committing to memory her shopping list, or when I was just so seriously ignorant of even the nature of the items requested, she despaired not just for my fate, but for the fate of Australians in general. Una razza incredibile, if I were anything to go by.
- 1) 3 carciofi
- 2) gli odori di brodo
- 3) un’ etto di parmigiano grattugiato
Later that evening—after I had mutely handed over La Signora’s list to Clara at the fruttivendolo on the corner of Via Pinturicchio and Corso Garibaldi, and Clara had handed me back a plastic bag with three thorny looking things and a carrot, onion, a piece of celery and a sprig of parsley, and I had then walked to the alimentari, cleared my throat and asked for un etto di grana padana . . . grattugiato, per favore, then dawdled home, lighting a cigarette and stopping along the way for a café corretto alla sambucca—Signora Crivelli-Visconti disarmed me of my paring knife and set to work on the artichoke-things herself. You are no more useful than a drowned baby.
‘Les Kabyles, ils faisent les bombes.’
I really can’t explain why, when my French is pretty good, and I’m married to a Kabyle Algerian, have three half-Kabyle-Algerian, half-Australian children, I couldn’t work out what the short tourist from Avignon, with his silver sideburns and tired-looking wife, was saying to Fatima. I understood when he asked Fatima where she was from when he overheard us speaking in French—the language, mixed with Algerian, that Fatima and I share. I understood when Fatima replied that she was Algerian. Even a dimwit would understand when Avignon queried if she were Kabyle, to which Fatima assented. So why I couldn’t understand Avignon when he stated that Les Kabyles, ils faisent les bombes, I can’t explain. Especially considering the fact he repeated the accusation three times.
I can’t imagine anyone, even someone who didn’t speak a word of French, not figuring out that ‘bombes’ = bombs.
‘Les Kabyles, ils faisent les bombes.’
‘Il y a des mauvaises partout,’ replied my mother-in-law.
Now a family of eight needs approximately 120 kilos of wheat for just one month’s worth of bread. I was told that the indigents (italics mine) I saw had to make their 10 kilos last the entire month, supplementing their meagre grain supply with roots and the stems of thistle, which the Kabyles, with bitter irony, call the ‘artichoke of the ass.’
Albert Camus, Algerian Chronicles
I really have a lot to thank Signora Crivelli-Visconti for:
- 1) Mastering the fine art of manifesting polite disinterest when hand-washing dirty undies under the supervision of the owner of said dirty undies
- 2) Not firing me when I broke an 18th Century family heirloom when dusting on my second day at the job
- 3) Gaining competency in the highly versatile and sought-after skill of artichoke preparation.
‘Les Kabyles, ils faisent les bombes.’
‘Il y a des mauvaises partout,’ replied my mother-in-law. At the time that seemed like a strange, rather serious, observation to make in passing to a stranger, though, of course, it is true that there are bad people the whole world over. I nodded amicably, firstly to my mother-in-law, then to Avignon. Besides, ymar looked so regal, so wise and imperturbable, in the carmine marl of her headscarf that I would have agreed with her no matter what she said.
Ymar = mum ≠ mother-in-law.
I turned and smiled at Avignon, which oddly, I thought, made him repeat for the third time, Les Kabyles, ils faisent les bombes, with a rather lingering gaze at me.
I’m friendly by nature, disingenuous even, so I broadened my smile to include his tired-looking wife in our exchange. The inclusiveness of my smile was rewarded by the wife, who informed me—in a French I understood aucune problème— she was enjoying her holiday in Sydney, though she’d wished they’d been able to travel over Christmas, when they’d have missed out on a northern winter and would have had the opportunity to swim at Australian beaches. Winter in Sydney can be miserable, I commiserated. She was a high-school teacher, and the rather drab casual wear and the worn backpack that looked as though it travelled with her through the school term as well as over the seas gave the impression they were budget travellers. I’d gamble that this was the furthest they’d been, maybe even a trip of a lifetime, but they looked to me like they weren’t enjoying their holiday.
To be fair to them both, it was very cold too—in fact, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say the rain had turned to sleet, and the markets, never good in the wet, had transformed into a slush pile.
You’d think the rain would put people off, but the need for soda bread, organic vegetables and cheeses fermented in someone’s garage was far more pressing than the opportunity to sleep in on a Sunday. Market-goers pressing in, irritated that you were blocking the thoroughfare, though all you were doing was standing in line for crepes. In one way or the other, the markets that day were a strong contender for a modern day fourth, or maybe seventh, circle of hell and our own quest for artichokes took on diluvial dimensions.
I am looking right now at the time cards of farmworkers on the Sabaté-Tracol estates in the region of Bordj-Menaïel.
On one card I see the figure 8 francs, on another 7, and on a third 6.
The official estimate of the value of a day’s labor service is 17 francs.
The sirens at Tracol Farms sound during the high season (which is now) at 4 A.M., 11., A.M., 12 noon, and 7 P.M. That adds up to 14 hours of work.
I want to mention that the unjustifiable length of the working day is aggravated by the fact that the typical Kabyle worker lives a long way from where he works. Some must travel more than 10 kilometers round trip. After returning home at 10 at night, they must set out again for work at 3 in the morning after only a few hours of heavy sleep. You may be wondering why they bother to go home at all. My answer is simply that they cling to the inconceivable ambition of spending a few quiet moments in a home that is their only joy in life as well as the object of all their concerns.
Albert Camus, ‘Wages’ The Algeria Chronicles
Just one artichoke, but Signora Crivelli-Visconti’s kitchen table is such a mess of sharp little petals, some shorn off with the serrated knife La Signora left out, some torn away by anxious fingers afraid of getting in trouble for being too slow, for not having followed the very simple instructions La Signora meted out on her way out the door. Remember, I’ve shown you once already.
Anxious fingers. A hand that briefly held the artichoke aloft in the empty kitchen as though it were a sceptre, jousted with it once, before the owner of the hand felt so silly because after all she was nineteen, not nine, that she got to work, but not before the macabre thought crossed her mind that the owner of the hands was also something of a butcher.
There’s so little of the artichoke you can eat, but when you stare into the pale denuded heart of the thing, with its coronet tinged with violet, what you see is a tiny bowl. When you look even more closely, you see that the bowl is marked like skin, or like a geometric pattern repeating over and over again, until it feels as though you’re falling and you want to reach your finger into that tiny vaulted surface, as though your finger were the finger of god and the world were turned upside down, inverted, so the ceiling of heaven, of the Sofia mosque, was right there beneath your poised fingertip waiting for you to reach into it, but then you don’t because you are snapped to attention by the turn of a key in a twice-locked door and the flick of switch in a dusk-darkened room so that a cruel light explodes and all is lost.
When Algeria was a colony of France, Algerians ended up with roughly a seventh of the 588 million acres that make up Algeria. There’s just no point putting the effort into empire unless the profit margins are good—but Algeria is tough going. 80% desert. A lot of really steep mountains that are like a great wall that run the breadth of the country. No major river systems. Just a few small tracts of fertile land that are as perfectly suited to viniculture as to the growing of wheat.
I saw some Arabs lounging against the tobacconist’s window. They were staring at us silently, in the special way these people have—as if we were blocks of stone or trees (54).
Camus, Albert, The Outsider, Penguin Books: Great Britain (1966).
3 for $10
Without the three years working for Signora Crivelli-Visconti, I would never have gotten the job of aged-carer at Wesley Gardens: Italian Division. $11:45 an hour. A whole $1 more than my monolingual fellow carers because I could speak Italian and prepare both il brodo and artichokes: lessati and al forno.
Signora Falvo, from Giuzzeria, Calabria, wasn’t a ‘Signora’ with a ‘La’ and a capital ‘S’, though she was over ninety. Most days Signora Falvo worked in her garden, where she primarily grew tomatoes and beans. Her son worked at the family fruit market and would bring home a clothes basket full of artichokes, mostly with drooping stems and sagging crowns because they’d sat so long on the shelves and were really ready for composting. I’d sit at the table with Signora Falvo, who’d lost her sight, but could still reduce an artichoke to its heart without drawing blood, and together we’d boil them up and bottle them.
Signora Falvo lived through famine. The famine in Southern Italy at the turn of the twentieth century that sent waves of Italian migrants rippling across the oceans. You don’t throw away anything when you’ve lived through famine. Not even a rotting thistle.
Karnoun isn’t a favourite dish of the Hamadache family. It’s right down the list, beside la pate (pasta) and le riz (rice), and divides the family down the middle: those who’d prefer to eat karnoun than go hungry, and those who’d prefer to go hungry than eat artichoke. Either way it’s an economic dinner. My husband learnt first to accept karnoun from his mother. Then he learnt to accept the dish served up by his wife.
It’s just so excellent to have a territory that is both yours and not yours. Yours enough to set-off a bomb legitimately, but not yours enough for it to matter what happens after the bomb.
Gerboise Bleue: detonated 13th February 1960. Reggane, Algeria. 70 kilotons
The Algerian summer of 2001 was the summer of war. I was young enough to still feel that I needed to shuffle my mother-in-law down in the order of my husband’s heart, and every encounter between the two of us was either a triumph or a defeat. No married man should adore his mother the way Amine does. My mother had told me a son was a son until he found a wife. The real estate of my husband’s heart was mine. It’s a primal thing, and so it was a war of the artichokes, though only I was fighting. Fatima’s fingers are short, better suited to speed, but then I’d been a kitchen hand for years.
Fatima gave me the sink—she took the bench. In hindsight, I think she knew. We were back to back, Fatima and I. Each of us a catafalque of artichokes at our side. The kitchen was hot. 47° Celsius. August heat is infernal, and it completely makes sense to cook lunch at seven in the morning, but don’t you think a cold lunch—salad, a sandwich—would do? Do you know how many artichokes it takes to feed a family of 10?
After the bomb. Après la bombe. Dopo la bomba. بعد القنبلة. I want to make a concrete poem with all the words for bomb in all the languages of the world shaped into a giant mushroom cloud.
Artichokes are cheap in Algiers, which makes sense. Aren’t thistles more of a weed than a plant? Are they sown and then reaped, or reaped without sowing? Or is it that all plants are weeds? All weeds plants? Or are thistles a family all of their own? Does a plant need to be grown in a row, as part of a larger field, fenced in and belonging to someone in order to be civilised? How should I know? Let’s ask Avignon. Anyway. You’re looking at about 1 cent per choke, and at a pinch a meal of thistles will keep starvation for another day.
The loneliest photo I’ve ever seen is in the Museum of the Martyrs, Algiers. On the small brass plaque of my memory the date below the photo is November 1, 1954. The photo is equal parts sky and ground and the only way you know the terrain is steep is because there is a single figure halfway between earth and sky positioned in a way that only happens when the rise is almost vertical. He is walking away from the photographer. There are no clouds, no trees. Just bitten-back grass, rocks and clods of dirt.
The figure in the photo is a peasant-man. Thin. His burnoose and headdress have the coarseness of textiles not produced by machine. Threads woven as fine as fingers can. The drift of continents beneath his feet, degraded soil, and the settling of his will and destiny in a camera lens and soft tissue of a photographer. I think of a man whose days are about to be done by what he carries on his back. I think of a man who came into this world a bloody newborn. All the days of his life that escaped this photo. I think of waking up in a world where I can’t lie down when I’m tired, can’t eat when I’m hungry. The small cruelties of words and looks.
Abbreviated Chronology of the Events of the Algerian War for Independence from France (1954-62)
November 1, 1954: Toussaint Rouge. All the bloody saints. All the bloody bombs.
Avignon didn’t order a chocolate crepe—he had one with smoked salmon and crème cheese that arrived before his wife’s crepe, or ours. I wondered at the way he ate: a livid sliver of salmon remaining on his lips a second too long, the spittle a thin white-coat until his tongue flicked it off. Not a ‘don’t mind me starting’ to his wife, not so much as a nod to us. Later, as ymar, the girls and I were driving back home from the markets, I turned to ymar and asked what was that French man saying. Schmait. Il a dis que les Kabyles faisent les bombes, and of course because it was ymar, I understood immediately. The story Avignon shared with us was the story of himself. The one he held to, recited, brought with him across the seas, would return with, whispering in the ear of his wife when she was near enough to hear. The story he read in his morning paper, watched on the evening news while sipping the head from his evening beer. The story repeated, no doubt to anyone who would listen, including those, like me, who just couldn’t hear what he was saying. I can’t imagine a story like his, so I’ve held onto that story differently. Returned to it and pondered it like it were a strange beast guarding the gates of hell.
A SMALL FRENCH MAN FROM AVIGNON WHILE HOLIDAYING IN SYDNEY SAYS TO A HEJAB-WEARING ALGERIAN THAT KABYLES MAKE BOMBS.
Although the older woman, who didn’t want her name released, replied that there are bad people everywhere, the tourist repeated the racially-motivated attack three times. Witnesses, who didn’t speak French and admitted to speaking only English, had no idea what had just occurred. More disappointing was that the woman’s daughter-in-law, who speaks both French and English and also asked to remain anonymous, didn’t do a thing, so that the Sunday Fresh Produce Markets, usually a mecca for shoppers looking for an alternative to leviathan conglomerates, was transformed into a site of racial vilification. The French man repeated his attack not once, not twice, but three times. Kabyles make bombs. Kabyles make bombs. Kabyles make bombs. As though only Kabyles make bombs. As though the bombs of the Kabyles made were somehow worse than the bombs made by good Christians. As though the bombs of the Kabyles were somehow more reprehensible than the mushroom clouds above and the tumorous debris below of the nuclear bombs dropped in Hiroshoma, the Sahara and the Pacific Atolls. Maralinga. The ally bombs that drop today, right now, this minute, in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan.
Transcribed from an interview with Kateb Yacine, Algerian Kabyle writer.
Camus? Camus? You think about Faulkner. That man was racist. But you know what? At least Faulkner wrote African Americans characters. At least there are black characters in his books. Camus. He doesn’t even know us.
After my third choke, despondency. I couldn’t see Fatima’s progress, but I could feel her little tomato knife sawing away at outer leaves, the twitch of tough petals tearing from their centriole with a sound like second-hands ticking. Fatima’s sure fingers holding the little goblet-hearts aloft briefly before sousing them in lemon. The satisfaction. The satisfaction.
The cut along my palm wasn’t big. More of a jab than a slice, which meant it wasn’t so impressive a wound once we’d washed it clean and stopped the bleeding, but it was deep, I assured her.
‘Mais, c’est profound,’ I repeated, knowing with that groping part of my mind that profonde was the word I was looking for.
We left the markets with:
- 2 kg potatoes
- 1 kg onions
- 1 cabbage
- 1 Irish soda bread
- 12 artichokes
We also bought 2 litres of first-press extra-virgin olive oil; mulberry jam; organic juniper hand cream and a potted red geranium for the balcony.
The choke is white. Fibrous in a way that makes you think it would turn your throat hot, swallowing the thistledown. Spokes, a thousand-thread of strokes, the heat of asphyxiation turning vessels tight, walls thinned, translucid before bursting. A kitchen after the slaughter, before the meal: carnage of dismembered limbs lying all around—all artichokes are monopedes, did you know? Occasionally you’ll find a two-headed choke, a little like a Janus-head. One more head and you’d have a Cerberus. And afterwards, always, everywhere, pyres of littered petals, the heart nowhere, already gone.
I blame the architect for the bomb. I blame the wall for designing the projectile. I blame Avignon for not knowing that the first bomb in the Battle of Algiers was planted in the Kasbah by a French man. I blame the newspapers for dedicating a single column to the death of x sleeping Algerians in 1956. I blame the papers for dedicating page after page, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, all the time, all the right-now, to the bombs set by Kabyles. I think you’ll find it’s called implicit bias.
Things I wished I’d said to Avignon:
- 1) It is your fault/how dare you?
- 2) It is your fault/how dare you?
- 3) It is your fault/how dare you?
Who ever thought an artichoke might be edible—there’s an individual with imagination. A very, very hungry human. What you have to do to get to the heart.
That morning of hellish heat so many years ago, Fatima took my bleeding hand to her lips. I sank my cheek to her shoulder. She gave me back the knife, and I took up the last artichoke. Beneath her steady gaze, without haste, I cut through violet petals and whittled away the toughest layer of the stem. Without embarrassment, the ghost of Signora Crivelli-Visconti banished, as though I held the palm of a child in mine, knowing ymar watched, I drew circles with my finger in the hollow of my final choke. I understood. There is no order in my husband’s heart. There are no walls around the garden of his love.