Azim has arrived in Paris, rue Baudelaire. He holds the small cylinder-shaped box between his fingers. It’s a miracle he has not lost it. His fingers are dirty, but the box is pristine, as if the sea waters, the desert winds, and those piss-smelling prison cells had had no impact on the resilient object. They did have an impact on Azim, however, who feels empty and old inside. Eviscerated. Bled out. One of his fingers was broken during his crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. The tilted finger appears to scrutinise something beyond the hand that holds it, just what Azim did when he was trying to catch meagre rays of light from the window of his prison cell in Libya. That cell he occupied with thirty other idiots who believed they would be welcomed elsewhere. How naive. Because who cares about Sudanese? Who does, really? Only those who want something out of the poor sods, only those who use them, torture them, or harvest them, taking the little they have to offer. Their kidneys, perhaps. But no one cares about their dreams.
Now he is in Paris, rue Baudelaire and he thinks about his village, the one he left two years ago. He hears his mother’s husky voice.
— Azim, you have to go.
— No, Ouma. I can’t leave you.
Ouma tells him to go, again and again, she insists but he resists. He won’t leave her. She is everything he has.
— Azim, you must leave. It is the only way you can save us.
She reveals she needs him to complete a mission for her. Ah, a mission now? She speaks in a conspiratorial tone. He must cross the desert and cross the sea all the way to Europe. To France. To Paris. She gives him a box shaped like a pencil. Cold and smooth. Her small hands are dry like the dirt in the village. Her hands are the shrinking village whose mud houses are abandoned daily.
— There is a letter inside, Azim. You must bring this letter to Sharia¹ Baudelaire in Paris, in France. That will save us, my son.
Sharia Baudelaire. She makes him repeat the name, like a poem, a magical formula that will be rooted in his memory, deep.
— When you get there, Azim, open the box and read the letter. In Sharia Baudelaire, only. That will save us.
He asks questions but Ouma pushes him away softly.
— Go, my son, do not look back. And do not lose my letter.
He looks back one last time however and Ouma smiles.
Here he is, repeating the address. Sharia Baudelaire, a rhythm for his rapid steps. He walks bare feet on the dirt. Sharia Baudelaire. Sharia Baudelaire.
Later, he encounters other villagers, also heading up north. They cross Chad, they reach Libya. They cross the desert, about thirty of them, silent and focused on the empty horizon they never seem to reach. One day, a car stops near them. The man who walks next to Azim whispers:
— They are UN, they will help us.
A man wearing green pants gesticulates, he waves his arms energetically:
— Go back, go. It’s too dangerous here. This fucking desert is full of warriors and traffickers, just get the hell out of it!
Azim closes his eyes. He repeats his magical formula: Sharia Baudelaire, Sharia Baudelaire.
The man has gotten close to him, he stops gesticulating and smiles.
— Charles Baudelaire?
— You know?
— Of course, I know Charles Baudelaire. I’m bloody French!
The man thinks, submerged by distant memories, school, and memorised poems. He has not thought about Baudelaire in a long time. He recites:
—There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure.
The man looks around him. The desert is beautiful, orderly and peaceful. But little pleasure is to be found here.
Azim repeats the sentence, the words do not make any sense, but he is good at repeating stuff. He likes the sound of words: There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure.
The UN car leaves them in the desert and as it disappears, the Frenchman’s advice is forgotten. They villagers head up north in silence.
A few days later, more cars appear on the horizon. A man named Bilal grabs Azim’s arm.
— Those are traffickers. Either they help us cross the sea or they bring us to their camps and we die.
— Anyway, they will take us. And they’ll beat the shit out of us.
Hands grab him, hands put him on the roof of a car with his unfortunate companions. The desert slides next to them, the wind beats their eyes. He has no idea where they are going, he has lost control over his life, the only thing he is able to do is to repeat the address his mother gave him and the magical incantation the man in green pants recited.
They arrive in a village and they are locked in a cell that stinks of piss and fear. The guards are adolescent boys holding large rifles and smiling. They are drunk on power. They pretend to shoot their prisoners and burst out laughing. Some of the men piss themselves. Everyone has forgotten about dignity.
Every day, one of the beaming kids comes to the cell and chooses one of the prisoners randomly. No one knows what happens, but the chosen ones never return to the cell. The rest of them just wait. Some pray. Azim recites.
One morning, a clear and fresh morning it is, the smiling kid on duty looks at Azim and makes a sign with his finger. Come you, it’s your turn. Azim recites his magical formula, like a mad man, louder than he usually does:
—There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure. There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure. There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure. There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure. There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure.
The kid’s smile vanishes. He spits on the floor and chooses another man. After that morning, the kids never look at Azim again. They think he is possessed by the djinns. Despite their riffles and their irreverence, they fear the djinns. Who doesn’t?
Another morning, Azim hears screams, shots, screams. A man they have never seen before opens the cell and the air storms in the room—light, oxygen, life—so much of it that they all start to cough. They are taken to another camp, it still stinks, it is still dirty, but they are free of the smiling kids choosing their next victim. This time, they are left alone and given better food. The sick ones are given medicine.
One of the men working in that camp asks Azim what is up with the box he is always holding in his hand.
— My mom gave it to me. I must bring it to Paris, France.
The man looks intrigued.
— Paris? Really? Look kiddo, I’m from Paris. You’ll never get there. You’d better go back to your village in Sudan.
Azim holds his cylinder tight between his fingers. His mother’s words need to make it to Sharia Baudelaire. It is his mission.
— Sharia Baudelaire.
The man is now scratching his head.
— Charles Baudelaire ? Did you really say that, kid? I can’t believe I hear about Baudelaire here! How absurd. You do know of him, then?
Azim is not really sure what the man means but he acquiesces politely.
The man is now back there, lost times, in his childhood, and he too spits out a magical incantation, like the man in green pants. But it is a different one:
— Be quiet and more discreet, O my Grief. You cried out for the Evening; even now it falls…
— What does it mean?
— Ah… it helps when you are not feeling that great, you know…
Timely. Azim has not been feeling that great for quite a while now. He repeats the words, perfectly as always. He is good at it. The words are now rooted in his memory, next to the other formula and the address in Paris.
One day, his friend Bilal tells him he knows a smuggler who can get them on the other side of the sea. Bilal’s family will pay and Azim can pay him back later in Europe.
A few days after, here they are, on a small boat, their bodies aching because the smugglers beat them up before boarding, for no reason. Just because they can.
Bilal and Azim look at the diabolical sea. She plays with their boat like a cat with a mouse, throwing them all over and examining their vulnerability. Azim resorts to reciting his magical formula. The one for times when you do not feel that great, you know.
— Be quiet and more discreet, O my Grief. You cried out for the Evening; even now it falls… Be quiet and more discreet, O my Grief. You cried out for the Evening; even now it falls…
The incantation calms him down. It also calms down the sea. She holds her waves and her tricks and they make it to Italy. Alive, with only a broken finger. There, they meet another man who hurries them to the back of a truck, together with other broken bodies that smell like everything they know so well. Fear, pain, and piss. It is dark, and elbows and skinny knees collide. It gets cold too. Azim recites:
— There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure.
Because there, all is disorder, all is ugly. But perhaps there is pleasure. The pleasure of being alive, after crossing the desert and the sea. The pleasure of feeling the cold cylinder his mother gave him between his fingers.
They have reached Paris, Bilal wants to go to England. They all do.
— Come with me, Azim.
— No, my friend. I can’t. I have to go to Sharia Baudelaire. I promised my mother.
It is raining in Paris, Azim’s clothes stick to his skin. It takes him a while to find the street, but he does. He is there. In a rainy shinny street with pretty buildings. Is he really there? He needs to be sure. He asks a woman passing by.
— Sharia Baudelaire?
She looks at him and pushes her umbrella away a little:
— Charles Baudelaire?
Azim knows he needs to follow up with one of the formulas:
— There all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure.
The woman offers a quick smile.
— L‘invitation au voyage! Here is my favorite part: “Ces trésors, ces meubles, ce luxe, cet ordre, ces parfums, ces fleurs miraculeuses, c’est toi. C’est encore toi, ces grands fleuves et ces canaux tranquilles.”
Azim has arrived then. He opens the pencil-shaped box and takes out a piece of paper. His mother has written:
“If you read this, my son, you have arrived. There is nothing to find in that street. But my words will have helped you to leave and to go through the journey, my words will have brought you to another life. Go, my son, go. I love you.”²
¹ Street in Arabic.
² These treasures, these furniture, this luxury, this order, these perfumes, these miraculous flowers, it is you. It is you too these large rivers et these quiet canals.
Alexandra Parrs is a French author living in Namibia. She has published four books: La Danse Des Fantômes Aux Gros Yeux (Editions des Mots Qui Trottent, 2019); La Putain de Flaubert (Editions Rod, 2017); Gypsies in Contemporary Egypt: On the Periphery of Society (American University in Cairo Press, 2017); and, Construction Identitaire Arabe Américaine (L’Harmattan, 2005). She also holds a PhD in sociology and therefore oscillates between academic and creative writing. Her inspiration for all her writings is the people she has met during her peregrinations around the world.