Morning, Mr. Director, Sir. Well, here I am, it’s me, Ninette. Which one, you ask?
I guess there are quite a few of us in this town, aren’t there!
Well, since you asked, I’m the Ninette who lives over that way, as you walk up toward the city walls, and you land right in the middle of the . . . well, you know . . . the “ladies’ quarter,” Sin Street, with all due respect.
A room in town? Heavens no, I could never afford that, not in this life, anyway. Money’s what you need for that. And with the chump change I earn working for the rich—thirty, forty, all right let’s say fifty centimes in good times—I can just about keep bread on the table for my little boy. So, you see, I can’t be too choosy. I take what lodgings I can get, a little hole in the wall over by the . . . “ladies,” who aren’t worse than anyone else, mind you, since they do help us through bad times. A small room to clean here, a little laundry there, some errands, I can always earn a few coins off them, too.
Trouble is, my little boy here isn’t so little anymore and is starting to figure things out. You see, all day long, we get Senegalese infantrymen, Algerian cavalrymen, Arabs, Bedouins, Maltese, Jews, Greeks, or Sicilians, who come and go, look over the merchandise before picking one out to take into a back room and have a go.
Everyone said: take your son to the Jewish school! So here I am. You’ll take him, of course, won’t you? They wouldn’t have him anywhere else since he doesn’t have the papers, you see. You know, birth certificates, that sort of thing. Where do you think I can get them? The kid’s got no father: I was dumped as soon as I confessed there was a little one on the way. No offense meant, Sir, but it’s the honest truth. No sense hiding it, everybody knows. So, you understand the tricky situation I’m in at present. But I do know that he’s mine, isn’t that right, my little Israel? Look at him, will you? All nice and clean. So you’ll take him, right? You can’t go and turn me out like the others have, can you? You’ll sign him up, right? What’s that bit of paper everyone’s asking for anyway? Something that important, wouldn’t the Creator have tacked that on when he made us?
My son’s name, you ask? I just said it, didn’t I? Israel. Israel what? How am I supposed to know? You’re cleverer than me: what do you call a kid who’s missing a father?
As for me, I’m Ninette, the one and only. You haven’t heard of me, really? Well, how can that be? Maybe it’s because you’re not from these parts. Or you look the other way when your nasty little charges are pelting me with stones when school lets out. You’ve never seen the way they corner me, then grope and pinch until I’m black and blue? Just for laughs, they say, just for jollies. Come on, I know what men are all about. Pigs, the lot of them, save one or two. They get all excited seeing me on my back like that, arms and legs flailing. Very sorry, Sir, I don’t mean to annoy you. Oh, come on, do a girl a favor and take my son in. Don’t go and send him away for something so silly. Sign him up and teach him how to put ink on paper. Make a man of him: he doesn’t have to be a genius—I’m not that ambitious—but a man who’ll get me out of this mess I’m in.
Look at me, I’m only twenty-six, but I’ve been working for the last fifteen of those years, doing this and that. And underpaid, and scolded, and beaten, oh yes, kicked in the behind; and fed in the kitchen where the lady of the house has me eat along with her cats!
Who wouldn’t be this spiteful and hateful, when year in and year out, day and night, you’re doing nothing but washing, scrubbing, rinsing, polishing, ironing, mending, cooking special little dishes for Madame—she’s got a delicate stomach, poor thing—and for Monsieur, who stuffs himself . . . ?
All right, all right, I’ll hold my tongue. That’s what happens when I get angry. They’re right to slap me around. They have to beat some sense into me somehow, don’t they? I’m like fresh octopus: the harder you hit them, the tenderer they get.
So, it’s done then, you’ll sign him up, my son. And I’ll be off, happier than when I came, that’s for sure. And I’ll be thinking to myself on the way: Ninette, old girl, you’re a fool—always been one, in fact—that much is clear. But that doesn’t mean your son has to be one. You’ll wear yourself out for years to put your son through school, to dress and feed him. And if that means taking hard-earned bread out of your own mouth, then so be it. You’ll be doing it for him. And you’ll show the world that Ninette can do things right when she sets her mind to it.
Ah, my son! When he’s all grown up and earning a living, there won’t be a mother on earth prouder than me. We’ll stroll arm-in-arm around the bandstand, when the fine ladies strut by in their feathered hats with their la-di-da airs, with their busts and bustles all rustling in silk. And my son will pat me on the hand and say: don’t worry, Mama, I’m rich, let’s go to the shops and buy whatever we want.
So off we’ll go window-shopping, and pick out a few things, though he says nothing there is good enough for me, dear boy.
And fine bed linens, and gowns, and draperies, we’ll buy them all by the dozen, by the bolt. And jewelry for me, pearls and diamonds. And a thousand francs, and then another thousand he puts into my purse, saying: here Mama, take this and give it out to the poor. And when it’s all gone, there’ll always be more, don’t forget.
That’s what my son’s going to be, that’s what he’ll be saying some day.
Oh, but don’t look at me now, with my torn skirt, my faded scarf, my bare feet in secondhand slippers from the robba vecchia!*1 Money’s round; it rolls. One day to you, another day to me, and on it goes. What makes you think it wouldn’t make a stop at my door one day and brighten up my life a bit? Don’t you think old Ninette has earned herself a little attention from the Almighty? Hasn’t she? Never hurt anyone in my life, have I, not even a fly, folks will tell you as much. Always wanted good, never evil. It’s just that the good wanted nothing to do with me, so it was evil that came along instead.
So there he is, Sir. I’m putting him in your hands, my little one.
He’s the apple of my eye, he is. He’s not a bad boy, you’ll see. He’s just too scared, that’s all. He’s been beaten about so much by me and everyone else that he raises an elbow for cover as soon as anyone comes close. And he shakes, good Lord how he shakes! After giving him a good walloping, I’m always on my knees begging for forgiveness, hugging and kissing him and crying my eyes out. I roll on the ground like a kitten to let him stomp all over me.
That’s my boy, my little man, the love of my heart. But he’s the enemy, too, living proof of my shame and the wickedness of some man.
You’ve the patience of Job, to hear me out like this. Send me away! Come on, send me away already! We’ll be here all night, otherwise, all year even, until the end of the world . . .
I’m a chatterbox, don’t mind me. Once I open my mouth, there’s no shutting me up!
So good day to you, Sir. I’m back to my pots and pans now. Have to keep living, whether your heart’s full of cares and woe, or singing like a bird.
Get a move on, Ninette. Keep on going till you get to the other side, where there’s no more shame or grief, no more birth certificates or bastards, or anything. We’re all the same, my lovely ladies, all a feast for worms, with a clump of earth for a pillow and a nice-sized stone on the belly. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s just like I say, like what the rabbi reads at the synagogue. You haven’t heard him? You might go have a listen some day. My oh my, what you’ll learn about what’s waiting for you over there! It’ll make you think twice before messing around, since we’re all going to end up kif-kif,*2 big and small, nasty and kindhearted, the do-nothings and the have-nothings, even the fellow tooling around in his automobile. That’s a consolation, old girl, and not the least.
See you next time, Sir, alive and well. If it’s all right with you, Ninette will be stopping by from time to time after class, to see how the little one is doing.
And especially, if you please Sir, don’t ask me any questions, all right? There have been such unspeakable things in my life! I don’t really care so much, I’m just plain old me. I don’t hold anything back. But you, Sir, I wonder how you can listen to an unwed mother who lives on Sin Street?
1. Ninette of Sin Street belongs to an inaugural wave of Tunisian literature in French. A subset of Francophone literature (a category used to describe works by authors hailing from areas formerly colonized by France), the Tunisian-French literary tradition includes Jews (among them Chochana Boukobza, Claude Kayat, Albert Memmi, Georges Memmi, Nine Moatti, Serge Moatti, and Gilbert Naccache); Muslims (including Tahar Bekri, Abdelwahab Meddeb, and Mustapha Tlili); and authors of Sicilian and Maltese descent (such as Cesare Luccio and Mario Scalési).
2. H. Z. Hirschberg, History of the Jews in North Africa, vol. 2, From the Ottoman Conquests to the Present Time (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 82–83, 97–100, 137–139; Lionel Lévy, La nation juive portugaise: Livourne, Amsterdam, Tunis, 1591–1951 (Paris: Harmattan, 1999); Minna Rozen, “The Livornese Jewish Merchants in Tunis and the Commerce with Marseilles at the End of the Seventeenth Century,” Michael 9 (1985): 87–129; Haim Saadoun, “Tunisia,” in The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, ed. Reeva Spector Simon, Michael Menachem Laskier, and Sara Reguer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 444–457; Paul Sebag, Histoire des Juifs de Tunisie: des origines à nos jours (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1991); Jacques Taieb, “Les Juifs Livournais de 1600 à 1881,” in Histoire communautaire, histoire plurielle: La communauté juive de Tunisie (Tunis: Centre de Publications Universitaire, 1999), 153–164; Keith Walters, “Education for Jewish Girls in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Tunis and the Spread of French in Tunisia,” in Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, ed. Emily Gottreich and Daniel Schroeter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 257–281.