The Penalty

Anouar Benmalek

(Translated from French by Edward Gauvin)




5:13 PM

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 ref’s head...”

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 coat?

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 the...?”

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 unnameable woe.

Unnameable, indeed.

To him, and to those around him.

But why?

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 sick.

A disease of the memory: that much he remembered perfectly. Don’t forget you forget, he snickered to himself.

And there had been, that morning, the meeting with the emir.

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 elementary school.

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 [. . .]


5:29 PM

[. . .  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) 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 . . .]


5:42 PM

[. . .  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?  . . .]


5:47 PM

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 former coworker.

He had a vision of the entire crowd transformed into piles of meat scattered over the bleachers. He tried not to vomit.

“He did it!” the crowd suddenly roared. “Tie game!”


6:15 PM

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 the stairs.

“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 menu.

“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 what?”

“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 Allah’s factotum.

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 team qualify.”

“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.”


6:24 PM

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 the wall.

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 couldn’t.

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.