Harun opens his story by saying that “Mama’s still alive today.” She could tell many stories, but she chose not to. On the other hand, Harun has “rehashed this story” so much that sometimes he can’t remember it.
Harun begins his narrative by meditating on the concept of storytelling. Although he will spend the rest of the book trying to construct his own narrative, his assertion that Mama chooses not to talk suggests the ultimate futility of storytelling.
Harun says that the story in question is more than fifty years old. People still talk about it, but they only care about one of the men involved, although there were two. The second man is left out because first is such a good writer he managed to make everyone like him and forget his flaws, “whereas the other one was a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust.”
Here, Harun articulates one of his central grievances: the fact that Meursault’s novel valorizes his own philosophical crisis while demonstrating complete indifference to the man he murders. Harun is especially angry that this narrative has gained so much traction with the reading public—he’s not just criticizing Meursault but everyone who has consumed his work.
The forgotten man was Harun’s brother (Musa). Nothing is left of him except Harun, who speaks in his place and waits in this bar for “condolences no one’s ever going to offer.” He’s even learned to speak French in order to speak in place of his brother.
Here, Harun evinces a sense of strong connection to his brother. At the same time, he implicitly hints at the power he holds over Musa, in that as the surviving brother he is the only one who can speak for them both.
Harun knows that he can’t “imitate” the murderer because Meursault is a brilliant writer with a masterful command of his own language. Instead, Harun will do “what was done in this country after Independence”: he will recycle the stones from the colonists’ houses to build “my own house” and his own language. Since the murderer has left Algeria behind, Harun can claim his words for himself. In any case, Algeria is filled with “words that don’t belong to anyone anymore,” on old store signs and books.
As the novel progresses, Harun’s grudging admiration for, and even personal similarity to, Meursault will become increasingly evident. However, he insists that Algerians like him must develop their own narrative abilities to combat the ideas that Meursault has brilliantly put forth, just as they have changed the country’s infrastructure and language since Independence.
Harun says he knows his interlocutor has questions, but asks him to pay attention to his story first. This is not an ordinary story but one that begins at the end and eventually arrives at the beginning. Harun knows the interlocutor has already read Meursault’s novel, whose words are like “precious stones.” The novel’s world is “clean, clear, exact,” marked by precise language. The only incongruous element is the Arabs who occasionally appear, seeming like “blurred incongruous objects.”
Here, Harun reveals for the first time that he’s addressing a specific person. The presence of the interlocutor, combined with his vague and undefined character, makes it seem as if Harun is addressing the reader directly, drawing the reader more closely into the narrative and making Harun’s narrative seem immediate and spontaneous, rather than a previously concocted speech.
It seems to Harun that the murderer, Meursault, must have been tired of living in “a country that wanted nothing to do with him.” In this context, his murder is more like “the act of a disappointed lover.”
In this aside, Harun ties Meursault’s act directly to the colonial rule in place over Algeria at the time.
Harun has also read the novel and absorbed its meaning. The protagonist has “a man’s name,” while Harun’s brother (Musa) had “the name of an incident.” The author could have named him “Two P.M.” or any other meaningless phrase. In Arabic, the word for two is Zujj. Actually, this seems like a good name for Harun, since it suggests a pair of brothers, “him and me.”
Names are of paramount importance throughout the novel—Harun argues that giving or denying names is a way to valorize or devalue different people, places, and concepts. In this way, abstract language helps the French effect tangible domination over colonial territories like Algeria and dehumanize its people.
Harun’s brother, Musa, is “a brief Arab,” who lived only for two hours one afternoon and “has died incessantly for seventy years.” In a way, the existence of the novel means that he’s “kept under glass,” replaying his death again and again many decades later.
Although Harun will later discuss Musa’s life in detail, here he renders his brother as he appears in Meursault’s narrative—only important during his brief appearance prior to his murder, and lacking any concrete character.
Whenever Harun thinks about the novel, he gets angry. Its author, Meursault, gets to discuss everything he lost, from his mother to his body to his girlfriend’s body to his belief in God. He’s been able to write about Musa’s murder without paying any attention to him as a person.
One of Harun’s primary concerns is that Meursault treats Musa’s murder as one more milestone in his own existential crisis. Instead, Harun will reveal Musa’s relationship with his own mother, brother, and even girlfriend, arguing that his death should be discussed on those terms, rather than in relation to Meursault.
Harun finds it stunning that even after Independence, no one tried to figure out the story behind Meursault’s victim or locate his family. Everyone was too busy admiring Meursault’s brilliant writing and sympathizing with his existential crisis. In fact, no one knows anything about Musa.
The fact that Harun has been unable to achieve justice for Musa’s death even after Independence reflects Harun’s point that ending colonial rule isn’t a cure-all for all the problems the French settlers have created in Algeria.
Harun wants to tell the story of his brother, Musa. He tells his interlocutor that by coming into the bar, he has “opened a bag.” He asks the interlocutor to take out his copy of Meursault’s book and read the first page out loud.
Meursault’s book is analogous to the French author Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, in which the protagonist, Meursault, murders an unnamed Algerian man. Making Meursault into a character in his own story, Daoud examines this classic novel through a postcolonial lens.
After the interlocutor has finished reading, Harun explains the passage. After Meursault’s mother died, he “falls into idleness and absurdity,” which he thinks he can cure by killing someone at random. From the beginning, Meursault is “looking” for Musa; he seeks him out “not so much as to meet him as to never have to.” Harun thinks that Meursault has killed Musa not as much by shooting him but by writing about his death in such a dismissive manner and eliminating his name from the story.
In Harun’s opinion, Meursault has “used” Musa twice—he kills him as part of his philosophical crisis, and he later writes about him in order to achieve literary success and fame. It’s important that Meursault’s linguistic erasure of Musa’s name coincides with his actual act of murder—this shows that language is not just an abstract concept but has tangible effects on human life.
Harun sketches out Meursault’s story for the interlocutor. Meursault kills an Arab who, in his novel, apparently lacks a name. Then he explains that his murder is “the fault of a God who doesn’t exist,” and he committed it as part of an existential crisis, and also because he had gotten sunstroke on the hot beach. Through these reasons, he’s able to escape the crime unpunished; the entire world has conspired with him to hush up the crime and forget about the victim. Meanwhile, Musa had no say in his death or its subsequent portrayal.
Even though Meursault openly murdered Musa, he’s able to get away with it due to the colonial government, which protects French settlers while exploiting the Algerian population. Here, Harun indicts not only Meursault but the entire system of colonial rule which, in Harun’s eyes, the murderer has come to represent.
For Harun, “the absurd” isn’t a philosophy developed by Meursault but the burden that “my brother and I carry on our backs or in the bowels of our land.” Harun wants justice, even though he knows that such a desire is absurd at his old age, so long after the crime occurred. He’s not referring to the justice provided by courts, but the justice that happens when “the scales are balanced.” Moreover, he wants to die without feeling haunted by Musa’s ghost.
Harun’s phrase “the absurd” refers to Camus’s philosophy of Absurdism, in which he explains that all human actions (including Meursault’s murder) are ultimately meaninglessness. For Harun, the true absurdity lies not in Meursault’s act of murder but the entire colonial system, which allows him to evade punishment for his crimes.
Harun exhorts the interlocutor to finish his drink. He’s been waiting for someone to listen to him for years. If he can’t write a book himself, at least someone else might be capable of telling his story.
Harun sees the interlocutor as a last chance to publicize his version of Musa’s narrative. However, the interlocutor’s motives, or the extent to which he’s willing to help Harun, are unclear—this uncertainly ultimately undermines Harun’s faith in the efficacy of storytelling.
Harun believes the story should be written “from right to left,” starting from when “the Arab” (Musa) was still alive and continuing until his death. Harun’s only reason for learning this language was to tell the story. He had to find a response to Meursault’s narrative that no one else could give him.
Harun is telling his story in French, a language he has learned in order to combat the colonial government that has permitted Musa’s death. At the same time, in saying the story should be written “right to left,” Harun refers to Arabic script, suggesting that some aspects of his life cannot be translated out of his native language.
For Harun, learning another language eventually means letting it “own” him. Sometimes he feels that the French language thinks for him and even speaks for him. Once, Harun knew a man whose father received a French telegram no one could understand. When someone finally translated it, weeks later, he found that his mother had died and he missed the funeral. The son later learned French so that such a thing would never happen to him, and Harun acted from similar motives. Every night, it seems that Musa has risen from the grave to ask Harun why he “let this happen” to him.
Due to colonial rule, Harun grows up in a country whose official language he doesn’t understand. This isn’t just a matter of inconvenience but of serious disempowerment, as the anecdote of the French telegram demonstrates. It’s important to understand that Harun doesn’t learn French in order to advance or prosper within the colonial framework, but to defend himself and Mama from its power.
Harun tells the interlocutor that he only had one brother and no sister. Musa was older than him, and although he was thin from hunger, he was also very strong. He had “hard eyes because our ancestors lost their land.” Harun has few memories of Musa, because Harun was so young when his brother died.
Harun’s description of Musa suggests that he sees his brother as a metaphor for the effects of colonial rule on Algeria. However, as Musa never seemed preoccupied with colonialism during his life, this description seems more indicative of Harun’s preoccupations than his brother’s actual character.
Two memories are as follows: One day, Musa comes home from the port where he works as a porter and puts young Harun on his shoulders, making sounds like a motor and letting the boy pull on his ears to “steer.” Another time, Musa beats Harun for some small misdeed. The next day is Eid, a day of forgiveness, so Musa is supposed to apologize to Harun, but Harun is embarrassed because he doesn’t want Musa to “lower himself” by doing so, even to please God.
From these reflections, it’s clear that as a child—and even now—Harun feels both affection and respect for Musa. His tenderness towards his brother contrasts with his resentment and sharp criticism of Mama. For Harun, one of the largest consequences of Musa’s death is the degradation of his family life that follows.
Harun’s father abandoned the family years before. Rumors often circulate as to where their father is, and when Musa hears news, he has long, furtive conversations with Mama from which Harun is excluded. He gathers that, for some reason, Musa has “a grudge” against Mama. When Musa and Mama fight, Harun worries that his older brother will disappear as well. Sometimes Musa even leaves the house at night to go drinking, but he always returns sleepy at dawn, “and so my mother would get him under her control again.”
Harun believes that during his life, Musa had a strained relationship with Mama, just as Harun does now. In part, this may reflect a desire to think of his brother as similar to him; however, it also reflects Mama’s desire to control her sons, which has frustrated Harun ever since his adolescence, and which he blames (perhaps unfairly) for his fraught relationship with her.
Harun’s family life is centered around Musa, and Musa “revolved around our father,” whom Harun has never even seen. The only thing Harun has left of his father is his surname, Uled el-assas or “sons of the guardian”—this is derived from their father’s profession as a factory watchman.
It’s clear that Musa as taken on a paternal role for both Harun and Mama, as he is the family’s economic and emotional support. In this sense, his death is especially devastating because it recalls the original trauma of the father’s abandonment.
To young Harun, Musa is a “simple god.” When Harun first hears of his brother’s death, he feels not angry but offended. It seems impossible that his all-powerful brother could die in such an ignominious way and be gone forever.
During childhood, Harun is comforted by the idea of Musa as all-powerful. However, as an adult dominated by his brother’s memory, Harun will desire to extricate himself from what he perceives as his brother’s posthumous power over him—even if this means complying with Mama’s drastic plans for revenge.
Harun never weeps for Musa, but he stops looking up at the sky. Years later, he declines to fight in the War of Liberation, even though he’s sure the Algerians will win. As soon as he learned to read and write, he realizes that while Meursault killed, his deed was “really a way of committing suicide.” However, Harun came to those conclusions “before the scenery got shifted” and he “realized how alike” he is to Meursault.
Musa’s death robs Harun of an essential sense of optimism and hope—he can’t even become enthusiastic at the idea of liberation from the colonial system that enabled Musa’s murder. Harun’s reference here to the “shifting” of scenery foreshadows the murder he will eventually commit, which forms a link between him and his nemesis, Meursault.
In Harun’s view, the story of the murder doesn’t begin with Meursault’s famous opening lines but by Musa’s last comment to Mama that he’ll be home earlier than usual. Harun remembers it was a calm day, without any rumors. He realizes now that just as Musa replaced their father as head of the family, Harun replaced Musa as a child requiring sustenance.
Here, Harun recalibrates Meursault’s narrative, imagining it as centered around Musa. By prioritizing his own family life, he provides a powerful refutation to Meursault’s dismissal of the “Arab” he kills as nameless and characterless.
In the next moment, Harun retracts this comment, saying it’s a lie. In fact, “Independence only pushed people on both sides to switch roles.” Before, Arabs were “ghosts” in their own country, which was occupied by the French. Now, the French only return as anxious or nostalgic tourists.
Again, Harun evinces his disillusionment with Algerian independence from colonial rule. In his mind, this transition hasn’t provided a meaningful solution to the broken system of governance but just changed who is in charge.
Harun warns the interlocutor to make a note of Musa’s name, otherwise he will stop telling the story. He says his genealogy is “pretty pathetic”: he’s the son of the watchman, and the brother of the Arab. In Oran, origins are very important: everyone wants to prove that their family is one of the oldest in the city, and that in comparison others are “foreigners.”
Even though he says that his ancestry is unimpressive in any conventional sense, Harun still insists on his family’s value by making sure Musa’s name is noted down.
Oran is a city “with its legs spread open toward the sea.” Harun tells the interlocutor to walk through the old neighborhoods and look at the port, which is “like an old whore, nostalgic and chatty.” He says that the city was “conceived” by one of the generals who invaded during the French conquest. People want to have famous ancestors in order to “escape from the evidence.”
Harun insists on dwelling—even through these grotesque metaphors—on the ways in which Algeria was shaped by French governance. In this way, he subtly emphasizes the lasting effects of colonialism, rather than pretending that they have been eradicated by the advent of Independence.
Harun’s brother is named Musa, but he will always be known as “the Arab.” For centuries, the settler has achieved his conquest by “giving names to whatever he appropriates and taking them away from whatever makes him feel uncomfortable.” Once Meursault named Musa “the Arab,” he could kill him without even thinking about it.
After Independence, Mama tried for years to have Musa classified as a martyr, in order to be awarded a small pension by the new government. She never succeeded, because it was impossible to prove the barest facts about Musa, even his existence, despite the fact that he died in a public place. It’s impossible for Mama to tell the world her son’s story when she can’t read or write a book.
After Musa dies, Mama suffers an emotional breakdown, in part due to the police’s unwillingness to provide any information or even acknowledge Musa’s death. Here, it’s clear that the government that succeeds the French is similarly callous and impersonal when it comes to providing closure for this trauma.
Harun often repeats Musa’s name so it doesn’t vanish. He wants the interlocutor to write in down in large letters. As they prepare to leave, Harun insists on paying the bill, and asks to know the interlocutor’s name.
Harun’s desire to know the interlocutor’s name demonstrates that he values him as a person, not just as a listener. However, given that the name is never revealed, it seems the interlocutor doesn’t play a very individualized role in Harun’s narrative.