Thursday 2 July 2015

Josie Fanon - Remembered by Assia Djebar

"At the beginning of autumn 1961 Frantz Fanon, a West Indian psychiatrist who has recently acquired, the same year, an international reputation with the publication of The Wretched of the Earth, returns to Tunis to see the G.P.R.A. He's been the representative of the 'Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic' in Ghana and Guinea. That is where he felt the first onset of his illness. His wife, Josie, was to tell me at length about those days of waiting and uncertainty in Tunis. The verdict seems worrying: lukemia has made its presence known. They quickly decide that Fanon should get the best care possible: he agrees to go for treatment to the United States. In New York the Algerian delegation to the United Nations includes among its members some of Fanon's personal friends.

The explain, over the phone, that they've been able to get him admitted to the Bethesda Hospital, three hours by train from New York: its center for the treatment of leukemia has the highest success rate in the country. American Democrats--friends of the Algerian struggle--will be there watching over him.

Josie, thirty-two years old, and mother of a young boy, hopes to be able to go with him. She doesn't express her desire out loud to Frantz ('It'll be a month, perhaps two at the most,' he tells her, undoubtedly to reassure her, to reassure himself as well.)

She was to admit to me, years later: 'Up to the end, I hoped: they, his friends, those who liked Frantz and admired him, it seemed to me that they would understand: that you couldn't send him such a long way to be treated alone, that if I were looking after him.... Clearly they saw him as a man of iron, indestructible! And he...'

She stiffened, then added, hardly bitter: 'I understood his point of view; he thought that all the expenses he was incurring were already quite enough for the Algerian Revolution!'

She remained silent, then: 'He died alone, in New York, two months later. Alone!' she repeated harshly.

We spent a summer's month together in a village by the sea, half an hour from Algiers. She would get up early; she would pour out can after can of water to wash the veranda floor. we would stay there, all morning long, contemplating the sea. It was August 1988, we felt good: the rest of the day we would be surrounded by our friends, our children.

Josie would recall the past; then become silent. I would work each night, as I heard the fisherman setting out to sea in their boats.

The first days of October 1988, Algiers reached a fevered pitch; under Josie's balcony in El-Biar, adolescents in revolt were the first to set fire to police cars.

The next day and the following days, this time in the heart of Algiers, the army swarmed the capital, and, confronted with peaceful demonstrations, opened fire: six hundred young people were shot down.

From one end of the rioting town to the other, not being able to meet, we would speak on the phone: I still hear today Josie's enraged voice commenting endlessly on the scenes that she'd observed or that people had told her about.

Once more, O Frantz, the 'wretched of the earth!'" (92)

"Josie and her big gypsy eyes.... And above all her voice, that happy contralto. For she would laugh--she loved to laugh!... How will I ever learn to grow old, now that Josie Fanon, my elder, cannot show me the way with her laughter and her brazen humor?

And my daughter--during the years she was a student in Algiers, Josie was a second mother to her--as soon as my daughter heard the news in Paris (it was the voice of the author of Deserteur on the pone with me one morning) she took the plane. Was there at the funeral.

Stayed two or three days in Algiers; with Olivier, now an orphan, and a young adolescent boy, Karim, the neighbor's son, whom Josie had taken care of since he was a child.

My daughter then returned to Paris. Was silent for a long time. And then finally todl me, one evening, about Josie's last weeks and days.

In June, she had made the trip to the Tunisian border to visit Frantz's grave. (I am sure that it was then she made her decision: to join him.)

In Tunis, she returned to every place they had lived. Back in El-Biar, she took several days to put all her things in order: photographs, poems she was writing, Frantz's letters which she had compiled and arranged much earlier, letters of her son, her friends.

She gave her young neighbor, Karim, various presents, 'to remember me by' she told him gently when he'd protest or try to refuse, his heart fearful.

She made sure the cleaning woman was even more meticulous. She would linger, I feel it, every morning to listen to the sounds of neighboring families rising from the courtyard: I see her low bedroom, filled with multi-colored rugs where we would stay, the window open as if above a well, to catch the rising noises, women's laughter, whining children.

I hear Josie letting herself be wrapped in these sounds of Algerian life, by this everyday profusion.

But she has decided: since her visit to Frantz's grave; she is determined.

She phones her son in Paris to reassure him: yes, she will start therapy again with the family psychologist. Yes, he wants to hospitalize her for a week or two, no more. Her son should put his mind at rest, she will do it. No, she does not feel alone: he should not be worried; there's no need whatsoever for him to come.

And so she willingly went to the hospital. On the condition, she told the doctor, that they let her go home to her apartment on the weekend: be with her flowers, the sound of the neighbors, the concern of Karim and his mother.

She rested in the hospital for six days. She brought books, music. She read; even more she daydreamed, looking at the summer light from her bed. Hardly spoke.

'She was smiling at us when she left,' a nurse recalled, unable to forget the gentleness in Josie's large eyes, her voice so near.

Josie went home to El-Biar on Thursday evening.

'I'll be there Friday!' she declared.

The nurse waited for her on Sunday. Very early on the previous day, by the light of dawn, Josie opened the window of her living room that looked out onto the street. pulled a chair over. Took off her shoes. In one or two seconds, glanced around the rooms in which everything was in its place. At last glance at the geraniums on the neighboring balcony.

With her back finally turned on her home and her life, Josie Fanon threw herself out of her fifth-story window.

The 13th of July, 1989; El-Biar, above Algiers. A Friday.

In her fall, Josie hurt no one: only she exploded." (174-176)

From Assia Djebar's Algerian White (trans David Kelley and Marjolijn de Jager) (Seven Stories, 2003). [Originally published in French in 1995.]