A CERTAIN RECORD
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
A CERTAIN RECORD
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
“Eh bien, je m’appelle Nadine.”
She introduced herself in carefree, fluent French. Two of the light bulbs on the ceiling were out, and the penumbra hung like a dim curtain between her and me. But her greenish-gray eyes shone, reflecting the light coming from somewhere.
She was Nadine Debbas, a seven-year-old girl of Lebanese origin. She had come to France only four years earlier, but because her father was a French Lebanese, she was able to obtain French nationality without much hassle. Her family consisted of four members: father, mother, one brother, and her. They lived in the seventeenth arrondissement of Paris. Just like any girl of her age, Nadine was in the first year of cours élémentaire. As her father was a university professor, they had been relatively well-to-do, certainly better off than most Muslim immigrant families in Paris.
Nadine fumbled with her pen and talked about her life in Lebanon and the house she’d lived in there. However, she’d left her home country when she was three. Perhaps she retold what her parents and brother had told her, filtering their stories through her imaginative mind.
“C’est ma maman.”
On a piece of paper Nadine drew two ovals and added eyeballs. Soon bushy lashes appeared around the eyes. Then she drew a square around the ovals, covered the square with a large oval, and filled it with black.
It was a niqab.
Worn by Sunni women who practiced the strictest form of Islam, the black cloth covered them from head to toe, except for their eyes. Nowadays it took considerable courage for a Muslima to wear a niqab in public, as France had recently enacted a ban on women wearing even hijabs. The mother and daughter came to my attention because the mother was among those holding a vigil for the victims of the November 2015 Paris attacks. Quite a few victims were Muslims, and many Muslims came out to mourn them, but she was one of the few Muslim women who dared come to offer flowers in their niqabs. She gently placed red roses on the memorial plate, and images of her praying in silence appeared in several magazines. Here was a mysterious black figure a U.S. president referred to as an enemy of humanity.
“My maman has worn her niqab since we were in Lebanon. She takes it off at home, but she feels too ashamed to go out without wearing it.”
Not many people would think of Nadine as a Muslim girl unless someone told them so. She spoke fluent French and had pale skin because she was one-quarter French. She wore her wavy dark-brown hair down, which she didn’t even try to hide. She was dressed in slender wine-red pants, and a pastel-colored backpack lay between her feet. She wore a slightly oversized gray sweatshirt over a white, high-necked, long-sleeved T-shirt. But even in summer she’d probably wear a shirt in a similar fashion. When she wore a skirt, she’d have thick tights underneath. A closer look would reveal that she wore clothes that covered much of her skin. Her parents made her do that.
“Will you wear a niqab when you’re grown up? What does your maman say?”
“My maman... She doesn’t mind either way. She’ll be happy if I wear it, but it may be difficult in France, so she says I should decide for myself.” Nadine spoke, choosing her words carefully, and licked her lower lip.
“What were you doing that day?”
“Bien.” Nadine licked her lower lip again and made the contour of her mother’s likeness thicker with her pen. “The Toussaints holidays were almost over, so I was doing my homework. I forgot about it because I was busy at my supplementary school. If I get bad grades, my maman will be mad at me. Zain wasn’t around. He lives with his friends. Uh, I forgot what it’s called. I know it, but I don’t remember. Once you enter the lycée, that’s what you usually do. But he usually spends his holidays with us at home. Yeah, he was home for the Toussaints holidays, but he went out with his friends that day.”
Nadine answered while she carefully filled the inside of the contour. Every time she finished her sentence, she licked her lower lip and glanced at me. She cast her pleading eyes toward me, as if to ask, “Can I stop this now?” But I pretended not to notice.
“After I was done with my homework, I went to bed. Then I got up because I had to go to the hospital. Papa said he’d received a phone call from the hospital, telling him that Zain was there. Papa said he’d go alone, but Maman insisted on going with him. But if Maman and Papa hadn’t taken me with them, I’d have been home alone. Outside? I think it was noisy outside. I don’t remember well because I was so sleepy, but Papa talked to the police a couple of times. The hospital seemed so far away. If you go there during the day, you’ll see it’s not that far. Strange, isn’t it?”
Nadine pouted and threw away her pen. She bit her index finger and stared at me.
“Why was Zain hospitalized?” I asked.
“Because he was hurt.” Nadine rested her chin on the desk and made herself appear smaller.
“Where was he hurt?”
“How did he get hurt?”
Nadine pouted and averted her gaze. She lifted her chin a little bit and started to trace around her drawing of her mother with her finger.
“You know it, don’t you? Why are you asking me?”
“I know, Nadine. But I want you to tell me.”
“I don’t know.”
I wouldn’t get any more out of her. “Is Zain fine?” I asked.
“Yeah. He’s already back at the lycée. But his friend died, so he’s at home now.”
“Did he tell you what happened?”
“He said he didn’t understand well.”
I should change the subject. “Haven’t you felt scared to go out since that day?”
“I’m fine as long as I’m with Papa.”
“What about your maman?”
“Maman doesn’t go out alone. She doesn’t go out unless Papa or Zain accompanies her. When Zain lived at home, we used to go shopping quite often. She’d let me try all kinds of pudding, so I love going out with Maman.” Nadine sat up straight and raised her voice. Her face lit up and she became chatty. “But some people run away from her. And they call the police. Isn’t it odd? Maman isn’t dangerous at all. I know. She’s kind, loves tasty food, and loves Paris. She hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“Is she angry? Or is she sad?”
“Maman...” Nadine pouted and let out a sigh.
I’d already interviewed Nadine’s mother, but I wasn’t able to see any expression on her face. I had no idea at all what she was thinking beneath the black cloth, which literally covered the whole of her body except for her eyes. Her husband spoke for her because she wasn’t eager to talk to me. Her voice maintained the same tone as she whispered to her husband, and I couldn’t tell how accurately her husband was interpreting her.
She was born during the Lebanese civil war, but she remembered only the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. By the time she was old enough to remember, Pax Syriana had begun, so it was only natural that she remembered more clearly the reconstruction. She had shown talents for mathematics at an early age, and after she got married, she went to university at her husband’s urging, but she never thought of getting a job after graduation. After the Arab Spring in 2011, her husband became concerned the situation might get worse again. He found a job in France and moved there with his family. However, she planned to apply for French nationality the following year. She was concerned her application wouldn’t be successful because of her religion.
She’d stared at me through a thin slit in the black cloth while her husband answered my questions for her. She’d blinked at regular intervals as if to read my facial expression.
“Maman says she wants to go out more often. She wants to go to different places. Well, at a restaurant, we’re told there were no seats. There are a lot of empty seats, but they say they’re all reserved. But we’ve been to the same restaurant many times, and Papa wouldn’t take us there on the wrong day. Odd, isn’t it? Well, but after we arrive home, Maman laughs. Yeah, she laughs. The last time we went there, there was no problem. This is supposed to be a country of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but it’s like we were in Saudi Arabia.”
“Why does she want to go to different places? Any idea?”
“Hmm, I don’t know. Just because she wants to, maybe? Maman doesn’t go out alone, but Papa doesn’t tell her not to, so she can go anywhere she wants.”
“You went to a memorial at the Bataclan Theater with your maman, didn’t you?” I changed the subject.
Nadine, who had become so engrossed in her talk, took a breath and fell silent.
“Did your maman say she wanted to go there, too?”
“Yeah. She says she had to go.”
“Why did she go out wearing her niqab? It could’ve been dangerous. Weren’t you scared to go?”
People from all over Paris had flocked to lay flowers, but I imagined it hadn’t been easy for the mother and daughter to be there. Some might have cursed at them. Others might have glared at them from a distance as if they were Grim Reapers who had brought them new tragedies. What appeared in the newspapers was a female figure in her niqab bending forward to offer red roses, which later pulled at the heartstrings of people around the world.
Nadine thought for a little and then said she didn’t know.
When I’d thrown the same questions at her mother, she glared at me, her amber eyes peeking through the thin slit in the black cloth. Or at least I thought she did. Only then did she use her own voice to answer me directly.
“Because only I can do it.”
She didn’t answer the rest of my questions.
Born in Chiba in 1983, Sayo Onoda is a programmer, writer, and photographer. Since she graduated from the University of Tokyo in 2009, she has worked as a software engineer. In 2016, her novel was shortlisted for the Hayakawa SF Contest. In 2019, her short story was runner-up in the Sogen SF Short Story Prize.