Veteran’s Affairs–A Ring’s Tale (Part 4)

“North Africa. Well, I had been in Italy. I landed in Anzio in February, 1944. Not the first wave, but a few weeks after the beachhead was established. I was in a communications unit. We carried big radios and tried to stay out of the fray, which was really impossible because the front lines kept moving around. We got sent here and then there without really knowing what was going on. One day I was called into a command tent to meet with the commander of my division. I sat down in front of his desk, which was covered with maps and charts, and he looked at me with weary eyes. He said, ‘Flint, you speak French.’ ‘Yessir’ I said. ‘How’d that come to be?’ he wants to know. ‘My mother’s family is from Quebec, Sir,’ I tell him. ‘I see. Flint, you are being transferred. You are going to Algeria.’ Now I didn’t know this then, but we were planning the invasion of France and the army was consolidating French speakers in different areas for various forms of logistical support.”

“And just like that they sent you off.”

“Just like that. I took a transport to Algiers and began my new job. I mostly translated and relayed messages to resistance elements within France. I also translated in meetings between officers and members of the resistance in Algiers. It wasn’t bad work and it was safe at least.”

“It sounds exciting.”

“ Oh, it was exciting to be in a new place and all, but with all work, it really was a bit boring day to day. But it was an exciting time for a young man. I wasn’t much younger than you must be. Anyway, a week after arriving, I had a day off and decided to explore the city with a guy from my new unit. He was a nice fellow but I could tell he looked down on my French Canadian accent. His parents were Parisians and he had studied at a French-American school in New York. Ooh La La. Anyway, a nice guy overall. We went to a café and drank a couple glasses of muscatel, and feeling fortified, as they say, we headed for the casbah. Now Algiers already felt pretty exotic, but we had been holed up in a complex of buildings on the outskirts of the city. But now, out here in the real town, it was from a storybook.

The muezzins called from high in minarets, such a hustle-bustle of commerce, the smell of spices and leather, incense, dung. We entered the market itself and it was nothing we could ever have imagined. Tiny little alleys and corridors covered with makeshift ceilings of tarps and blankets against the sun. Children running and laughing. Hills of vegetables and spices and dry goods. Carts of all shapes racing around. Donkeys braying and jingling their bells. We wandered around wondering how we could ever retrace our steps in this labyrinth. The sheer number of things for sale was overwhelming. The whole casbah was laid out by category. There would be ten stalls of oranges in a row, and then five of gadgets and then twenty of spices. We came to an area specializing in live animals: ducks tied to string, goats, chickens in wicker cages and mountains of eggs. Ten stalls in a row had just eggs. It was quite a site, and the women at the stalls, who presumably were in competition, yammered at each other from behind their piles. My friend thought it would be better for business if they spread themselves out.”

“It was a different business model,” I suggested.

“I suppose. Well, I had in the back of my mind to find a place to get my watch fixed and at one point we strolled into an area filled with artisans and tinkerers of all sorts. Cobblers banged on shoes from within cubby-sized kiosks. All around, men were beating on leather, screwing things into metal sheets, and a hundred other little activities. I approached a shriveled man with a goatee and a big apron. His hands were black with something, and I asked him in French if he knew where I could get my watch fixed. He just stared at me. My friend said the problem was my accent and asked him again. Still nothing, hah! A young man approached us and said something in Arabic to the man, then turned to us and said in French, ‘He only speaks Arabic, my friends. A watchmaker exists this way.’ He pointed toward a steep, wide stone stairway. I thanked him and approached the stairs. My friend suddenly said he needed to get back and made his way around the corner.”

“Was he mad that his French didn’t work either?”

“Maybe, or he had just had enough. It was a lot to take in. It was an assault on the senses. So I’m headed, I hope, to the watch mender when I’m stopped short by the sight of a young boy and his cart hurtling toward the stairway. Incredibly, he went straight down under fairly good control. You see, he had tied a tire on the back of the cart with a rope, and stood on the tire to control his speed. I thought it was ingenious.”

“Were you worried about being alone in the market?”

“Well, maybe I should have been, but no. And, of course, I was armed. Anyway, I found a little kiosk with some watches on display and I approached it. A man inside was concentrating on some task and had magnifying loupes on his glasses. I stood there until he looked up. ‘Good afternoon’ he says to me in strongly accented English. I greeted him.
“I am hoping to find someone to fix my watch, I told him. He put out his hand and I fished the watch out of my pocket. He stared at the face and flipped it over. He read the inscription out loud: ‘Montreal 1939.’ Family reunion, I told him. He shook his head as if he were thinking then said, ‘I will mend. You come back tomorrow.’ I thanked him and made my way out of the market carefully taking note of the way.”

“I never would have made it out of there with my sense of direction.”

“It’s funny you say that because mine’s not great either, and I used a compass to help me. Well, the next day I returned and found the man again hunched over some project. He saw me and looked up. He was an older fellow. But then that’s from a twenty-four-year-old’s perspective. He may have been fifty. Anyway, he reached under the counter and produced my watch, which he put down in front of me. ‘A spring’ he said, and named a phenomenally low price. I thanked him, gave him a bill, and as I was about to leave, I noticed a tiny Jewish star on a chain just below his shirt collar. He saw me looking at it and straightened up so it fell again below his collar line. ‘Are you Jewish,’ I asked him? He appeared very uncomfortable and looked around. ‘I’m Jewish,’ I said quietly. ‘I’m Jewish, too.’ He smiled and looked at the name on my patch. ‘Goodness,’ he said. ‘Jewish. You must meet my wife.’ I told him I really had to get back, but he insisted, explaining that he lived only a minute away. He said something to his neighbor in Arabic, and came out from behind his counter. ‘This way,’ he said.”

“We wound our way through the market until the streets became so narrow I could touch the buildings on either side at the same time. We stopped at a door and I noticed a mezuzah on the jamb. He unlocked it and we entered. It was a small living area, but very tidy and colorfully decorated. A nice looking older woman with a thick, dark ponytail entered the room wiping her hands on her apron. She took a gander at me and a stricken look came over her. My host spoke to her softly in Arabic and she looked me over. I could feel her eyes linger on my name patch. They exchanged a few more words and she approached us. He said, ‘I am sorry, but my wife is very wary of soldiers.’ He sat me in a chair and exchanged a few more words with his wife, who pulled a book from a chest by the doorway to the kitchen. She handed it to me and said something in Arabic. ‘I am sorry, she does not speak English,’ my host explained. I turned to her, and in French said, ‘you have a very lovely home ma’am’. She didn’t respond but opened the book in my hands and said in French, ‘please read this’. They had a curt exchange in Arabic. I looked down; it was Hebrew. After a long pause, I began to read. It was a prayer from the morning service, and I rattled it off.

I looked up and saw the woman had a big smile on her face. She said something to her husband and they both began to laugh. My host put his arm around my shoulder and the woman approached me, put both hands on my head and softly kissed my temple. ‘You will stay for lunch,’ she said.

“It must have been an event for them to meet an American Jew,” I said.

“It seemed to be, but it was more than that. Anyhow, the meal was delicious: braised lamb with rice and turnips. It tasted very unfamiliar, smoky, spicy. After lunch we sat in their parlor and drank sweet tea. They told me the story of their son Ibrahim, how he’d joined the French Resistance. They explained how the Vichy government had come to Algeria and stripped Jews of their French citizenships and imposed other restrictions as they had in France. Ibrahim had joined a resistance cell that helped topple the Vichy when the Americans invaded in 1942. Everyone had been ecstatic and their son was a hero, but the Americans proceeded to reinstate a former Vichy official, Francois Darlan, as High Commissioner, and the restrictions on Jews remained.”

“I guess that explained their wariness.”

“Yes. It was a difficult time, and they tried to keep a low profile. So it was hard enough, but when Darlan was then assassinated, there was murmuring of plots and questions of allegiance and the rest. A month later there was a knock on their door. Four young Frenchmen entered asking for Ibrahim, and his parents could tell from his face that he had known the four. They said that Ibrahim was being arrested for conspiring to assassinate Francois Darlan. Ibrahim protested, and he was removed at gunpoint. That was the last they had seen or heard of him.”

“That’s terrible,” I said. “Who were they?”

“The parents thought they were from his resistance unit. They had turned on him, looking for a scapegoat. So the woman looks at me with these big desperate eyes and says, ‘Can you help us? We don’t know where to turn.’ I said I would try, but that I had very limited power. ‘Please try,’ my host says to me. ‘Whatever you can find out.’ I promised to return the next day and to find out what I could in the meantime. I left with a bag full of fruit and returned to my base.

Tomorrow, final part

Published in: on May 25, 2007 at 2:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

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