Everything happened posthaste. He had been standing less than half a meter away from the catastrophe. The city was still looking for survivors. Hospitals were swamped with the injured and would probably need to start rejecting new patients soon. The building residents had just held the so-called inauguration ceremony that took place every time a new cemetery was opened to the public in any city in the Arab World. Every man to his taste, but he held the series of performances to be rather macabre, as if intended to show how belly dancers can teach the bereaved to shake off their grieve. Meanwhile, the only mosque in the neighborhood, sited across the road and hemmed in by little stores of all shapes and colors, had shown a stoic endurance.
Mourad Didouche Street, which is doomed to be remembered by the name les R4—the one the French usurpers gave it—wakes up to life at dawn with the sound of the adhan. With deliberate indolence, it creeps out of the dark blanket that had bundled it up at night. On this particular morning, he had sat down next to the cranky old man who sold cigarettes in the street and was always bellyaching. Pigeons were flocking to where the girls working at the bakery had dropped a loaf of bread. A woman with disheveled hair who must have been nudging fifty leaned out of her window to beat a rug embroidered with Maghribi motifs. Suddenly, she sneezed. On the opposite side of the street he surmised that a different woman must be starting her day in a similar manner. In Skikda, one either found streets enshrouded in gray clouds of dust or streets where one had to stay on the qui vive to avoid the buckets of water the women threw out from their balconies without any warning on an hourly basis to keep the pavements clean.
Anyone visiting the city for the first time would be amazed by the overall symmetry of the arched gallery that it flaunts. A first visit would involve traversing the streets till their very end, and like lovers driven to bid farewell to each other, Johnny-come-latelies will wish they could stay a little longer on them. The high-vaulted passageway will beg them not to leave and they’ll have to turn a blind eye to their hearts’ notions. He was headed to Stora Beach, which had also arisen with the first light upon the return of the fishermen from the sea. They carried boxes to shore brimming with the sardines that had catapulted the city to its fame.
He had worked up a sweat with his saunter through the city and was thus leaning against a squat pillar to catch his breath. Hanging on the rampart was a poster that looked like it had defied elements of all sorts in order to stay glued to the cement wall. The advertisement was probably over a year old. It seemed that none of the passersby had bothered to rip the poster down. It read, “Skikda’s Stora Beach is Heaven on Earth.” This was not the first time he had come across the message. It was actually starting to gain popularity around the region and was slowly becoming a mantra. For a second, he felt like giving credence to it, but he changed his mind as soon as he saw the traffic clogging the street granting access to the beach. Such display of a lack of coordination fell short of paradisal standards on so many levels.
Immediately after stepping out of the alleyway, he was propelled through the air by the force of an almighty bang.
He spent a whole day in the intensive care unit. Printed in the local newspaper, the words of a reporter honor-bound to always being first on the scene described the incident the next morning: “At least twenty individuals were injured by the collapse of a building in Skikda’s old city center.”
Written by Mohamed Bouthran.