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Adapted from Les Conditions Ideales by Mokhtar Amoudi

Denise suspects the worst: Ska stole the money. He returned home with 50 euro notes in his pockets after meeting his mom. No, they gave it to me! he swears. It was mom’s friends. Tears. 

Ska and his sister Leila live with foster-mom Denise in her small apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement, north-west Paris. She earns a little for her role. Mom is on probation: vice charges. Social Security confiscated the children and sent them to Denise. It provides clothing and other allowances.

Ska does not like the outside: it is full of traffic and people, noisy and busy. He is a bookworm. The history of the Pyramids, the Romans and the Conquistadors fascinate him; he lives in his histories and dictionary. But Denise has a secret: she is dying of cancer. The children do not know.   

When Denise suddenly dies, Leila is mute with shock. Social Security splits up the pair and takes Ska to a judge to decide his future. It is an inquisition. The judge speaks rapid-fire. Ska wants to stay with the Duhamel French family; he wants to be French and there are two fine girls in the family.  Bravo. But the judge sends him to foster-mom Kay, saying we are doing the best for you. An Arab boy should be with an Arab family. And that was the last Ska saw of Leila. Madame Kay assures him that one fine day he will find her again. Pigs might fly.  His beloved dictionary was lost or thrown out too.

On his birthday, her friends give him a surprise, henna over his face and hands. Normal so they say. He rushes to wash it off, but they are upset. Then there is the matter of his zizi, but we best not mention that.  Madame Kay buys him a bike which he does not want or use.  Of course, we are doing the best for you. Mom’s fortnightly visits become infrequent, erratic. He waits on the platform at Gare du Lyon.

Then comes school. He is both well prepared and badly prepared. The bright Arab bookworm shows up the other French pupils and merits bullying. Teachers recognize his talents but cannot save him. School is not meant to be fair: it is survival of the fittest. He decides to go dumb to save his skin. But that yields failing grades and trouble. A good education is key to your future, don’t you realize?

What to do? To run away in Paris will result in the same again. Police, Social Security, Judge and Foster-mom.  There is no Guardian Angel to turn to. No priest or Imam. He is too young to join the army and might be equally unwelcome there. Suicide has not crossed his mind.   

On television, there is his favourite escape, Wheel of Fortune, nightly at six thirty. One can win or lose so much. A car, money or even a trip to Bali.  And everybody loves the compere’s Jack Russell terrier. Bali is so far, the end of the earth.

On mom’s next scheduled visit, he goes to the station but strikes out with the money he was given.  Train down south somewhere it is warm. Doesn’t matter. Who knows, it cannot be any worse.  


A man is a man, wrote Berthold Brecht. That covers it all for Peter Wright, now writer.


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