Sirocco, by Danielle A. Dahl: Life in the Twilight of French Algeria

siroccoSirocco: A French Girl Comes of Age in War-Torn Algeria (274 pp, $14.95, ISBN: 978-1-60381-194-1), is a memoir by Danielle A. Dahl about her adventures growing up under threat of terrorism.

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Sirocco is a finalist in two categories of the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards: Memoirs (Historical/Legacy/Career) and Historical Nonfiction.

Sirocco is the riveting account of the author’s youth during the Algerian War for Independence (1954-1962), and it is the first English-language novel from the Pied-Noir community. Dahl paints a loving and nostalgic image of Algeria but does not spare the reader from the confusion, chaos, and violence of war. The beauty of the text comes from the gradual shift in perspective from child to young adult as Nana begins to understand the complexity of the conflict in Constantine. Her cohesive story is smattered with French and Pied-Noir expressions, authentic scenes, and vivid descriptions of the characters in her life. She transports us to a traumatic period that has long been silenced in France and that has only begun to be uncovered in the last decade.”

—Amy L. Hubbell, Lecturer in French, The University of Queensland

“With brilliant storytelling, we are drawn into the world of a French-Algerian family during the civil war. Lush language and skillful rendering of this world create a story you won’t be able to put down. Dahl’s memoir Sirocco teaches us about another culture and the history of a time and a place—and most of all, you will meet a family you will never forget.”

—Linda Joy Myers, author of Power of Memoir and Don’t Call Me Mother

“Mesmerizing. Poignant. Bittersweet. Richly evocative writing that places you deep in the world of war-torn Algeria. A stunning debut author to watch.”

—Mary Buckham, USA Today bestselling author

On All Saints Day, 1954, the Algerian War of Independence from France begins, forever changing the lives of ten-year-old Nanna, her family, and a million-and-a-half French settlers.

As Arab rebels carry out terrorist acts against civilians, hatred and bloodshed permeate the fabric of European and Muslim lives. A safe bus ride to town means keeping an eye out for stray shopping baskets containing hidden bombs. A day trip to the beach requires the protection of a military convoy.

But life goes on, and Nanna’s loving mother, mischievous but good-natured siblings, and kind grandfathers provide plenty of adventure and humor. Nanna worships her Papa, who provides for his family and keeps them safe, but, growing up, she begins to understand that he is also a braggart with unyielding views of right and wrong, who believes that attending a supervised party with boys will compromise a girl’s virtue. Nanna defies him and falls in love, thus setting the stage for an ongoing clash of wills.

As Nanna watches her beloved country torn apart by terrorism, she grieves for the French targeted by the fellagha and for the Arabs they slaughter because they are seen as pro-French. Ultimately, Nanna watches in anguish as the French generals, betrayed by De Gaulle, make a last stand for a French Algeria before laying down their arms.

In the end Nanna’s family, like all the other French settlers, must choose between the suitcase and the grave.

Says the author, “Five years ago, I began to write down funny stories from the years my family lived in the North African country of Algeria. Childhood reminiscences, which, in time, unleashed a flow of memories shared, I know, by each and every one of the French colonials who also survived these times—a Pandora’s Box bursting with the brutal events of the war of independence, occasionally brimming with bitterness, but also overflowing with unconditional love for a sensuous land and its unassuming people. An upbringing such as mine is a lesson in emotional survival. Such is the human spirit that it yearns to find a new ‘normal,’ even amid constant danger.”

Danielle A. Dahl hails from a family of fourth generation French settlers in Algeria. Born and raised in Constantine, she came of age during the Algerian War of Independence. A week before Algeria celebrated self-rule and just before Danielle turned eighteen, she and her family fled their home and took refuge in France. Eight years later, she moved to the United States, where she studied commercial art. She and her husband Walter lived in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and Illinois before retiring to South Carolina. Danielle has placed in several writing contests and published two creative nonfiction stories in the Petigru Review Literary Journal. Click here to find Danielle on the Web.

Keep Reading for an excerpt:

During the summer of my thirteenth year, life went on—same as the previous one and the one before—leading us to search for entertainment whenever and wherever we could.

Weekdays, Maman worked downtown, leaving my sisters and me in charge of the house chores. Each day, before preparing lunch, Zizou and I washed and dried the previous evening’s dishes and cleaned the floor. We found it faster to throw buckets of water laced with chlorine across the tiles and sweep it to the perron—the front door landing—and down the stairs. Once the floors dried, we closed the shutters and, in the penumbra, waged war on the perennial flies that, I could swear, spawned out of thin air.

We sprayed Fly-Tox throughout the house to eradicate invading insects. Later, heedless of the insecticide’s acrid smell, we counted the flies lying on top of the bright kitchen table oilcloth.

One day, Zizou observed, “There are more today than yesterday.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but the day before we had a real hecatomb.”

“What is that … etacome?”

“He-ca-tomb—means something like: lots and lots of dead bodies.”

“Even for flies?”

“Why not?”

The flies lay flat on their backs, slender legs knitted in frozen ultimate prayers. Bodies so weightless, the slightest puff of air blown through pursed lips propelled them aloft like black snow flurries battered by crosswinds.

Most interesting were the few still left alive. Frenetic legs batting the air, frenzied wings buzzing against the gay oilcloth, they struggled in tight circles to right themselves. I thought of old men with lumbago striving to get up from their benches, reaching for canes that weren’t there.

To help an insect turn its world right side up, I delicately picked it up by a single iridescent wing. Sadly, it refused to assist in its rescue. It batted its legs and free wing until the one I held detached from its body and remained stuck between my fingernails. The fly fell on its back again, traced taut circles using the lone remaining wing as a pivot point, and simply died.

I’m not sure why I felt guilty about killing the flies. After all, I’d seen them drink from sick eyes and runny noses, frolic among dead things, explore animal and human dung then alight on my marmalade. And there were so many of them—zillions. They drove me nuts.

Just the same, I felt sad that they had to die.

“Feeling sorry for dead flies?” Zizou was incredulous.

“It’s not about dead flies. It’s about killing them.”

“Yeah. People are dying horribly every day and you worry about killing flies ….” Her eyes glistened with tears. “What’s wrong with you?”

At supper that night, Riri asked, “Papa, Nanna says she feels sorry for dead flies. Like it’s wrong to kill them or something. Is it true?”

Papa studied me as if I were a fly drowning in his wine or, even worse, an unknown species from outer space. He shook his head. “What books have you been reading?”

“Just … books ….”

“Books on Ahimsa?”

My face must have shown my puzzlement.

“That’s the Hindu practice of non-violence and respect for life. Its original tenet is, do not injure, do not hurt.”

Non …. I haven’t read about that.”

Zizou asked, “What does that have to do with killing flies?”

Papa explained, “Hindus believe that all beings, and that includes plants and animals, are imbued with divinity. Because of that, all manifestations of life must be respected.”

“I never read about that, Pa.”

“Where, then, did you get that crazy notion of feeling sorry for dead flies?”

“I don’t know, Pa. It’s just that when things or people die, it makes me very sad.”

Papa lit a cigarette, appraising me. As he inhaled, the set of his features and the expression in his green eyes seemed to say, “I understand how you feel, ma fille.” Instead, words sharp as bee stings shot through the exhaled smoke, “You better keep a straight head on your shoulders, asshole, or you’ll never make it in this world—”

At that moment Pépé Honninger entered the kitchen, unshaven, smelling of fish and sea salt. Papa’s focus shifted from me to him. “What’s wrong with you, Pierre? Are you looking for the fellagha to cut your throat?”

As long as I could remember, Pépé had always fished with his friend, Oscar, spending days on end at solitary beaches in Philippeville or Bône. Les Événements hadn’t changed his rituals, which infuriated Pa and worried Ma.

Pépé’s shoulders rolled in frustration. “I like to fish. I will not allow these murderers of women and children to control the way I lead my life.”

I was so proud of him, I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and kiss him. But it was not our family’s habit to hug and we only kissed our adults to say hello, good-bye, good morning and good night. Never to show affection. In addition, no matter how thrilling Pépé’s heroic statement, kissing him on impulse would have led Papa to conclude that I preferred Pépé over him. That I was betraying him.

I often thought Pépé must be tired of sharing his house with our shmala—the crowding, the noise, and the ongoing antagonism between himself and Pa. I could see how fishing would be a good excuse to get away. Before Les Événements, I too looked forward to escaping to summer camp. To getting away from the crowds.

Maman turned from her cooking, lid in hand. “Papa, Riri is right. You might be killed or, worse, abducted. Then you tell the fellagha you won’t allow them to slice you into bloody pieces.” She banged the lid onto the pot. “And one of these days, you’ll catch pneumonia”—she shook her head—“sleeping on damp sand!”

Undaunted by Maman’s reproaches, Pépé kept up his jaunts to the beach with Oscar. Once in a while, to placate my mother, he fished closer to the house, at la Rivière des Chiens. Since the start of the événements, fewer people hung around isolated spots and the Dogs’ River’s population of grenouilles and anguilles—frogs and eels—had exploded.

The very sight of anguilles made my taste buds salivate like a dog’s when it ogles a marrow bone. Pépé hung the slippery eels by the gills, slit the black moiré skin from head to tail, and peeled it off inside out—like a glove—to reveal the firm, pink flesh. Once gutted, the eels were sliced into chunks, rolled into flour, and browned in olive oil till nearly cooked. After throwing in fresh parsley, minced garlic, and a cup of wine vinegar, Pépé covered the pan for the meat to simmer then served it with mashed potatoes or fried polenta. Miam, miam! There never was enough of it.

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