The JRB presents an excerpt from Sand Roses, the debut novel by Hamza Koudri.
Holland House Books, 2023
The outer door shut with a loud bang. Someone was violently beating at it. Something was wrong. Fahima sat up in the darkness of her room and listened.
She had cried herself to sleep, and she didn’t know how late it was. Her eyes still swollen from all the weeping.
This was the first time she had cried in weeks. She had finally succumbed to her hollowness and admitted to herself that she missed him. She loved him, René. She loved his tenderness and his care. His smile and soft skin. The way he touched her. Kissed her. She missed all of that, and it was too late now. He was gone; he left her alone, drowning in her pathetic sorrow, trying to find traces of him, of his scent, in the sand rose and the Eiffel Tower postcard he had given her.
She didn’t know why it had taken her this long to let it out. To cry rivers. She probably didn’t want her sister to judge her. To make fun of her, and to scold her the way she had earlier that evening.
Had he really loved you he wouldn’t have done what he did. That had done it for Fahima. The way Salima talked, as if she didn’t know she was the reason behind all of this. Fahima had exploded, hurling pots at her sister in a frenzy of rage. She couldn’t say she regretted it.
The door downstairs rang with more banging. There was talking, too. A male voice speaking in French. A drunk client? As she got up, she had to close her eyes to stop the walls from swirling. She tip-toed out onto the balcony, careful not to reveal herself. Standing away from the wooden railing, she peered at the courtyard below.
To Fahima’s surprise, Salima had let the man in. He emerged from the passage and strolled into the courtyard with the casual air of someone who owned the place. The same casual air most French soldiers had when dealing with locals. He inspected the place in silence, taking stock of the animal shed, the kitchen, and then peering up at the balcony. Exactly where Fahima was standing.
Fahima didn’t move. It was dark, and she knew the shadows of the walls would cloak her like a magical burnous. She could see him clearly, though. His skin was tanned, his eyes green, and a pair of matching moles under his eyes looked like they were peering at you too. Fahima realised where she had seen this four-eyed man before.
It had been at Mouloud’s café a few weeks ago. Fahima had spent the entire evening avoiding him and his friend for she had suspected they were those secret officers who arrested Nailiya dancers for tax evasion.
Not seeming to notice Fahima upstairs, the man’s eyes continued to sweep the place until they fell on the broken section of the wooden railing. The part from which his countryman had fallen to his death a few weeks ago. Fahima and Salima had never gotten around to fixing it, so they had placed large flowerpots there instead. To Fahima’s relief, his gaze didn’t linger there for long. He turned to the well while Salima fidgeted with her bracelets.
Was she planning to hurt this man? Had he found out about the body in their well? This man looked stronger and soberer than the one they had murdered the other night. The bracelet would not be enough.
‘Nice place,’ the Frenchman remarked politely as if he was a dinner guest. Salima made no response. ‘Is this where you did it?’
She tilted her head and frowned—feigned puzzlement, Fahima knew.
‘My friend,’ the man explained. ‘Cambron.’ Despite the darkness, Fahima thought she saw the colour leave her sister’s face. She seemed to recognise the name. It had to be the man they had killed. An unnaturally cold shiver swept up Fahima’s back, and she fought back bile. This was it. They knew.
‘I know he left Mouloud’s café with you that night,’ the man continued.
He had resumed his casual stroll, this time towards the door.
He looked down with mild curiosity as pottery debris cracked under his boots. He said, ‘The last night … seen. I remember … saw you …’
Fahima strained her ears but could only make out a few words. She snuck down the balcony and stood outside Salima’s bedroom, near the large flowerpots.
‘Don’t play games with me, Ammariya,’ the man was saying. He knew their name. ‘I know you’re involved in my friend’s disappearance.’
‘If you’re that certain,’ Salima said in broken French, ‘why didn’t you say anything earlier?’
How her sister had the courage to defy this officer right when he was about to arrest them, or maybe kill them, she would never know.
A patronising smile graced his face. ‘Good question,’ he said. ‘I’m giving you one last chance to tell me what happened to him before I bring the full force of the French army down on you.’
He squashed a pot shard under his boot until it became tiny red grains of sand.
‘You’re mistaken,’ Salima said. ‘Maybe he did come home with me that night. I don’t remember. But I had nothing to do with his disappearance.’
Salima was careful not to say death or murder. Smart. But the man didn’t seem convinced. He gave Salima another condescending snicker and stepped closer.
‘You know I can just shoot you dead right here and now, and no one will know about it until worms are eating your flesh, right?’
‘I know,’ Salima said. They were now standing under the balcony where Fahima was hiding. Fahima noticed something else on Salima’s face. Not fear. She looked angry.
‘It wouldn’t be the first time you did that, would it?’ she asked.
He ignored her, ‘But you know what? I think I’d enjoy watching you rot in prison. To see you humiliated and dragged across town. Then shot or hung in public. Wouldn’t that be satisfying?’
Fahima and Salima swallowed a lump in their throats.
‘So, one more time. This is your last chance,’ he said.
Fahima moved closer to the edge of the balcony. Her toes accidentally knocked into one of the flowerpots, nearly sending it over the edge.
‘Tell me what happened to my friend, or next time I’m back here, I won’t be alone.’
Fahima’s blood rushed to her head as she kneeled down and placed her small hands on the heavy pot.
‘Wait,’ Salima said. Fahima paused. ‘Your friend back in the café. Monsieur Turrene? Why didn’t he say anything? Why did you let him waste his time with all those girls? Or were you afraid he would know that you and your friends have been playing with Nailiya girls outside of authorised places?’
‘I wasn’t sure until I saw you at the café,’ he said, almost defensively. ‘Now that I know for sure, I’ll have to report it to my supervisors.’
Fahima’s hands were back on the pot. She started pressing just enough for it to tilt ever so slightly. But the man had walked towards Salima, too far for the pot to fall on him. Salima, moved closer to him, locking eyes with his.
‘Oh, but that’s not all,’ Salima said, forcing the man to retreat backwards until he was back beneath Fahima. ‘I know what you do in your free time. When you need an extra franc.’ Fahima couldn’t see his face, but she assumed he was just as confused as she was. ‘You kill dancers,’ Salima was saying. ‘You kill Nailiya girls and steal their jewellery.’
Fahima pushed hard. A voice spoke in her head, was it her mother’s? It tried to warn her, to stop her from killing the man, but she wouldn’t allow it, she couldn’t make out the words. Didn’t want to. She had to do this. This was the only way. If she let him go, it would be the end. The pot was weightless under her touch.
It didn’t turn in the air or roll like the small pots did. It fell sideways, the top side diving first, the leaves of the plant flapping like wings. Fahima saw the Frenchman look up as dirt drizzled on his face, his eyes wide open, his moles staring upwards. It fell right on his head and they, man and pot, dropped to the floor with a crash.
When she stood up to get a better look, he was lying on his back exactly where his friend had lain not very long ago. He was covered in dirt and mud shards. There wasn’t any blood this time. Had she pushed the pot hard enough? She stared at his feet, his fingers.
Salima stood so close to him she could have easily been hit by the pot herself.
She looked up at Fahima. ‘He killed Naima.’
- Hamza Koudri has an MA in English Literature and Civilisation and has been working in education and international development since 2008. Currently serving as the Country Director with the British Council in Algeria, he oversees a portfolio of English, STEM, higher education and cultural programmes, working closely with public sector teachers and institutions. In 2022, his novel Sand Roses was shortlisted for the Island Prize.
Runner-up for the 2022 Island Prize for a Debut Novel from Africa
Tourists know it as the City of Joy. For Ouled Nail dancers, Bousaada is a city of horrors.
It is 1931 when two sisters arrive in Bousaada bursting with dreams of becoming successful dancers. But the city, occupied by the ruthless French colonial army, changes their lives forever.
When they kill a soldier in self-defence, Fahima and Salima must outsmart the French Colonel who will stop at nothing to uncover the truth. The sisters are driven further into a cycle of violence with every attempt to hide their crime. Risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones, the dancers find themselves at the heart of a civilisational clash.
Sand Roses is a tale of resistance, sisterhood and the shameful past of two colliding nations. This extraordinarily immersive narrative thrusts its reader into the Algerian city of Bousaada during the nineteen-thirties and the story of the Nailiya dancers.