(Translated from French
by Edward Gauvin)
Everyone around him was screaming. Terrified, he wondered
what the uproar was about. The expression on his face must
have been so alarmed that someone was moved to pat his arm
out of pity.
“Hey Bashir, don’t worry, it’s just a goal! You fall
asleep or something? We’ve been waiting forty-five minutes
for that damn goal. I don’t know what’s going through the
The dazed man eyed his neighbor, who responded by
bursting into laughter. A growing confusion filled his mind:
why had the laughing man called him Bashir, and why had the
man’s merry face darkened when he’d first glanced over?
“But I . . . my name is . . . my name is . . . ,” he
mumbled softly, with a hint of annoyed protest.
Then his confusion turned suddenly to worry. Lowering his
gaze, he examined the sleeve of his coat a bit too closely.
He couldn’t remember his own first name. He frowned, flexed
his brain. In vain. It was as if he were scraping the inside
of an empty jar.
“What is this thing?” Since when did you forget the name
that had been your second skin since birth? He licked his
lips. They were dry, as if he’d left his mouth open too
long. “In the name of Allah, what is happening to me?”
Bashir? So my name’s Bashir? Why am I wearing this
The sound “coat” had an altogether ordinary, even affable
consistency, while the “Bashir” his intrusive neighbor had
garbed him in rang foreign to his ears and so therefore
could not possibly describe him, not him! No, he wasn’t a “Bashir,”
he was...he was...
He fought back the tears that had suddenly sprung to the
corners of his eyes. His hand felt about absentmindedly in
one of the coat pockets, perhaps hoping for a tissue. “What
His hand hit a metal surface through the pocket lining.
Almost despite himself, his hand began to explore the
curious topography. He sensed immediately that he should
show no surprise: he swallowed, with difficulty, for he
realized it wasn’t his brain, but something at the center of
his body (Perhaps there exists a muscle for fear and
memory intermingled, a thingamabob likely lodged near the
stomach and as long as the intestines, he had, oddly,
the time to posit) that had ordered him to keep quiet:
something terrible was stuck to his body, capable of causing
To him, and to those around him.
Don’t you remember, moron?
A gust of memory buffeted his brain like a knife sliding
right into his mushy gray matter. No, it couldn’t be,
he couldn’t have planned to...! He gave a disgusted sniff:
it was as if his nose reared back from the reek
escaping from the inside of his skull, so like
an uncovered trash can’s. So that was him,
a pile of trash? “Ya Allah . . . I . .
A corner kick had just been awarded. The
linesman made the player step back. The
ball took off like a rocket and bounced off a
goalpost before being kicked back by a
defender toward midfield.
Word after word, as if a band of rotten brats had lit a
string of firecrackers in his skull, bits and pieces of
reality came tumbling down disordered: he was at a game,
Noureddine, the big shy guy beside him, was his best
friend, and yes, his own name really was
Bashir. They’d fired him from work...when?
The question went unanswered... for he was very
A disease of the memory: that much he remembered
perfectly. Don’t forget you forget, he snickered to
And there had been, that morning, the meeting with the
Not a real emir, just an old ex-con who’d switched to
being an imam, who now officiated in the unfinished mosque
and claimed to know everything about Allah’s intentions.
But he, Bashir (he gave himself over, insider,
to Bashir as though the name had become a noble’s
title), loved soccer, and the game pitted...
Panicking, he fumbled for the little reminder notebook
held shut with a rubber band. The doctor had told him to
write down right away the thoughts that came into his head,
so he could re-read them after a memory lapse. On the cover
was something written in red marker and underlined several
times: For my eyes only! Personal! His eyes shone
when he realized he could read...and understand!...the
mysterious injunction that served as a title. He opened the
notebook and began skimming the first page. His face tensed:
Remember you love Yasmina.
His heart leapt.
But of course, he loved Yasmina, his Yasmina, more than
life itself, I swear! So how had this hellish thing ever
landed on his chest? From the corner of his eye, he peeked
at the group of five gendarmes who were supposed to be
surveying safety at the local stadium, but who were shouting
their heads off with as little restraint as the hometown
fans. The fattest of them had even been in his class in
Tell me, you stupid brain, tell me what’s going on!
he protested silently. How dare you refuse to do
the job you were created to do?
Then, suddenly [. . .]
[. . . He felt about the walls of the closet that
enclosed him. His hands sought the doorknob. He barked:
I am me, I am me, how could I be anything else but me?
His nails slid across the walls...too soft to be anything
but terrifying, for they seemed to repeat phlegmatically:
who you? who are you? if all you have are
flakes of now at your disposition, which melt away
as soon as they’re lived? Water has greater consistency than
you do, numbskull.
The door gave way at last. But the nightmare continued,
for the closet was inside another closet, barely bigger than
the first. The man without a name moaned in shock. His
fingers began their assault once more...useless, he realized
(then forgot it almost immediately)...new walls, now. He
felt like a sardine stuck in a can. But the sardine, at
least, was dead.
Help! Allah have mercy, give my back my miserable
life . . .]
[. . . He was swimming in some sort of fog, and getting
nowhere. It seemed he swam effortlessly, and yet it was
extraordinarily exhausting. He knew he was alive, because he
was in pain. He wanted not to feel it anymore, but then
would he still be alive? He was not, he felt. He
also felt it was an abominable shame for a human being to be
reduced to this feeling of being at the edge of a cliff on
all sides, this shitty present that had neither past nor
future, more sterile than a woman without a vagina . . .]
[. . . A desire for violence, for revenge . . . He’d
strangle himself if he could. He thought: if I forget
all the time, then time will wind up forgetting me . .
[. . . What did that damned imam say to me? .
Bashir’s smile froze on his lips: he’d forgotten the
imam! And now Noureddine was saying he spent the better part
of his days with the man . . . A sudden, violent chill came
over his heart.
Once more, he stuck his hand in his pocket. The same fear
gnawed at his insides: the impossible device was still there,
its purpose monstrously predictable.
But I’m not a... I can’t be a... I’m me . . . I’m not
a... I can’t have wanted this. When did this...?
With tears in his eyes, he flipped feverishly through his
notebook, finding lists of words (apraxia, aphasia, agnosia,
episodic memory . . . ), his blood type, his address, his
doctor’s, several instances of Yasmina...somewhat silly
little poems like: I will love you forever, you’re the air I
breathe, my water in the desert...religious verses, notes
like “Went to the market this morning, January 22, at 8 AM .
. . Had beans Tuesday, March 17, at 1 PM,” bits of
incomprehensible phrases and, on the last page, a strange
exhortation: Your despair is a hope, so do your duty as
a Muslim and paradise will welcome you with the benevolent
and infinite memory of Allah. His throat tightened: the
writing wasn’t his, it almost amounted to calligraphy, while
his own veered toward shapeless mush.
Someone had allowed himself not only to rummage around in
Bashir’s spare brain, but to leave a shitty turd of a
religious maxim: so what if Allah had a memory encompassing
millions of universes if Bashir couldn’t even remember the
minute that had just gone by?
This someone...that asshole of an imam, no doubt...had
taken advantage of one of Bashir’s lapses to fuck his brain,up
the ass no less! A violent wrath left him gasping for breath.
I have to go see the imam. Now. So he’ll tell me what
happened, he decided, terrified, before I go blank
again. Hurry . . .
As Bashir passed through the rows toward the bathroom,
the spectators grumbled about the clown who had nothing
better to do than get up and block their view at the most
crucial moment of the game. He recognized a few of them: the
baker’s oldest son, other people from the neighborhood, a
He had a vision of the entire crowd transformed into
piles of meat scattered over the bleachers. He tried not to
“He did it!” the crowd suddenly roared. “Tie game!”
When Bashir came back to his senses, the imam was shaking
his arm vigorously, a hint of fear and anger in his voice.
They were upstairs, in a small dark room like a garret.
Bashir noted with anxiety that he had no memory of taking
“Are you crazy? Why did you come back?”
“Come back? Did you do this to me?”
Bashir had opened his coat. His lips were so cracked it
seemed they were crusted with salt. The man facing him
squinted with incomprehension.
“Don’t play games with me, Bashir. I helped you put on
the belt of the faithful this morning, and then we spoke the
prayer of farewell together. Anyway, you weren’t supposed to
come back to the mosque.”
“What are you talking about, imam? I never would have...”
“Your mission was to get close to the gendarmes at the
end of the game.” The former convict, now imam, spat with
fury. Twenty-five years old at most, he’d let his beard grow
out and carefully dyed it with henna to make himself look
older. But the self-importance of his bearing sometimes
clashed with certain youthful tics, like biting the insides
of his cheeks or vigorously scratching the tip of his nose.
The familiar migraine began conscientiously boring its
hole in Bashir’s cerebellum. He brought a hand to his
temple, muttering fearfully to himself that he’d have to
persuade this young hoodlum before a lapse unmoored him from
himself once more.
“Sheikh, I tell you no lies. If I truly spoke that cursed
yes, then it wasn’t me at all. It was the sick part of me
that consented, not the other me, the still healthy one. I
swear it, in the name of everything I hold most dear. I have
a father and a mother; they’d be sick with grief. I...” A
sob interrupted his explanation.
With an air more “pedagogical” than ever, the imam
clucked: “But who could prove it wasn’t the opposite instead?”
Bashir’s breath stopped, his eyes wide. Silkily, as
though faced with a recalcitrant student, the imam went on:
“That the virtuous part of you wasn’t called to martyrdom in
the name of Allah, and the diabolical part of you isn’t
simply toying with us both right now? Breaking a vow to the
Almighty is doing Satan’s work yourself, and knowingly
refusing the eternal bliss of paradise.”
“So what are we going to do now?”
Bashir was stunned at how evenly he questioned the priest,
even as his stomach iced over in terror. He might as well
have been asking him about the specials on that night’s
“Why nothing, akhoya, nothing.”
“What do you mean, nothing? I can’t breathe in this piece
of shit belt. Take it off or I’ll start screaming!”
“First of all, we don’t use crude language in the house
of Allah. And second of all, you won’t scream, because the
gendarmes will take you for a terrorist, and shoot you down
on sight. They won’t wear themselves out untangling truth
from falsehood in your so-called memory lapses. No, you and
I shall simply wait.”
“For you to forget everything you just said again. With
the help of the All-Merciful, you’ll recover what you call
your former self, or your former memory, it doesn’t matter
what you call it. Then I’ll drive you peacefully over to the
stadium, and, as planned, you’ll fulfill your martyr’s duty.
But only when the crowd has begun to leave, I repeat...”
“Why only at the end of the game?”
And Bashir regretted falling so easily into a game of
urbane conversation with the young man who took himself for
The preacher shot him a smile that was all teeth, and
showed his true age. “I don’t like soccer any less for being
an imam, akhoya, and I’m dying to see our poor village’s
“Because you know the score?”
“It’s 1-1. I’ve been listening to the radio like everyone.
All we need is a tie to qualify. If the bomb exploded before
the final whistle, the game would be forfeited and who knows
what would happen if we had a rematch.”
Bashir checked his watch. His migraine was getting worse,
and he knew he wouldn’t stay in command of his own brain for
long. Soon, his memory of the present moment would dart off
with the scot-free speed of a mouse coming across a hole in
He pinched the tip of his ear. He’d spent himself
exploring the abyss meant to hold the sum of his memories.
In the end, the infinite regression led to a largely
deserted place with a handful of pitiful memories here and
there like trifling leftovers from moving trailing on the
floorboards. One of these memories went all the way back to
childhood...he’d soiled himself and his father had hit him;
another, even vaguer, revolved around a meat dish his mother
had specially made to celebrate his return from military
service. Two images, both sensual, lingered for a moment: a
friend from grade school who’d touched his penis, a
coworker’s white panties as she stood at the top of a flight
of stairs. One final reminiscence...of himself, swimming in
the lukewarm Mediterranean water...mingled with the ones
before, like a crossfade in a movie. That was all. And not
one had the least connection with the inconceivable device
attached to his chest. He tried to remember the first name
of the woman who’d caused him so much suffering, and
He fought the groan that filled his lungs to bursting.
The imam gave him an ironic nod, devoid of all hostility.
Subha in hand, he rolled the plastic beads
patiently, gazing greedily at his visitor all the while. In
Bashir’s mouth, a sour burp tasted of morning coffee with
milk, which he could not remember having. His stomach
growled with hunger and his fingers instinctively sought the
sandwich he’d lost on the way to the mosque.
How could the end of the world be so banal? Bashir’s
right hand was trembling now, like a trapped animal. Gently,
he placed his other hand palm down upon it to calm it. Then
he gave a slight cough.
“Sheikh, my friend assured me God wins all his games.”
“Funny way of praising the greatness of the Lord of
Heaven and Earth, but yes, I can confirm what he said, He
wins every time, with a score of infinity to zero.”
“Even when there’s a penalty?”
“Where do you see a penalty?”
“I’ve never done anything bad to anyone, and look at the
situation I’m in. Isn’t that a foul worthy of a penalty?”
The imam burst out with an open laugh. “You’ve got a
sense of humor, but you’re nothing in the eyes of the
Heavenly Plan. You, cause a penalty? Listen, akhoya, a human
being is less than a speck of flyshit on an elephant’s ass!”
The pain at his temples had become unbearable. The
“mouse” had stuck its nose through the crack. It was but a
matter of seconds before he plunged into blank nothingness.
He felt a strange tingling in his testicles. He sensed that
any moment now he’d no longer know how to talk.
Suddenly a joyful wrinkle spread across his forehead. He
was afraid he’d mumble, of course, but the words came one
after another without coaxing: “I’m still going to try and
score one goal against infinity . . .”
And he pushed the button. The imam didn’t even have the
time to spit out the shocked scream from his brain: “Not in
the mosque! Not in the...”
From "Le Penalty." In Nouvelles d'Afrique,
nouvelles de foot: Enfants de la Balle. © 2010, Éditions
Jean-Claude Lattès. By arrangement with the publisher.
Translation © 2010 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.