During Harun’s childhood, Mama only told him one type of story—that of Musa. Depending on Mama’s mood, the stories took a different course each time. She only tells stories when the night is cold or they are short on food. In fact, she’s a very good storyteller, and she can conjure up fantastic tales of combat between Musa and the foreigner, “the obese thief of sweat and land.” Each time, Musa defeats him to avenge a different insult or crime.
Mama’s facility as a storyteller is one thing that links him to Harun—preserving Musa’s death as an embellished oral history, she’s basically doing the same thing as Harun is now. Perhaps attempting to distance himself from Mama, Harun differentiates his own effort as trying to find truth, while Mama is just trying to comfort himself.
However, most of Mama’s stories are devoted to remembering Musa’s last day on earth. She remembers almost every detail of that day, and her storytelling transforms “a simple young man from the poorer quarters of Algiers into an invincible, long-awaited hero.” Sometimes she describes prophetic dreams foretelling Musa’s death, sometimes a fight with other men in the neighborhood. Harun has no idea which story is true, and at his young age he doesn’t care; the only thing that matters is his “almost sensual closeness to Mama.” By the next morning, each one has returned to their own separate world.
Harun’s relationship with Mama is quickly breaking down after Musa’s death, but language—in the process of storytelling—is the one thing that holds them together, even if Harun describes their bond as uneasily “sensual.” However, Harun is also eager to characterize Mama’s storytelling as essentially false and based on fantasies, while his is a clear-minded search for truth—a claim in which his frequent digressions and vacillations sometimes belie.
In fact, Harun knows nothing of what happened between Musa’s departure from home in the morning and his death in the afternoon. There was no police investigation, and Harun can’t even remember what he did that day.
The quotidian nature of this important day in Harun’s memory contrasts with its elaborate description in Meursault’s book—hinting that language doesn’t always mimic or accurately reflect reality.
Harun remembers this much: in the morning, everyone in the neighborhood is going about their business. Down the street, one neighbor urinates on a wall, as is his custom. On the corner lives a Moroccan café-owner whose sons are thieves. There’s also childless woman, who looks at the local boys in a “voracious” manner. The city is like a “huge geological animal,” and its inhabitants are “a little collection of lice on its back.” Even Mama, who is superstitious, feels nothing out of the ordinary that day. The women call to each other from their windows and do laundry. The murder happens far away, at the beach downtown.
While the daily rituals of Harun’s neighbors are petty and sometimes unpleasant, they provide a realistic and concrete context for Musa’s death—the thing that is missing from scanty police records and Meursault’s own narrative. In a sense, Harun is attempting to rationalize Musa’s death through this storytelling technique.
Thinking back on the event later, Harun believes that he detected “the smell of female rivalry” in the air, an unspoken comment between Mama and the secret girlfriend she believes that Musa has. Most of the women in the neighborhood are “sisters,” who “offered the prospect of practically incestuous and not particularly passionate marriages” to men like Musa. There are a few women who dress like Europeans and move between Arab and foreign spheres; boys like Harun harass them and call them whores, but they are also intrigued by the prospect of women who can “promise the pleasures of love without the inevitability of marriage.”
Given that Harun was a small child and remembers almost nothing about that day, his belief that Mama was jealous may reflect his resentment with her for interfering with his own romantic affairs as a young man. The Western-influenced women he describes here are similar to Meriem, Harun’s later love interest. He sometimes blames the collapse of their affair on Mama’s jealousy, even though it seems pretty clear that Meriem ended it on her own accord.
Women of this sort often cause “violent passions and hateful rivalries” such as the one Meursault describes in his book. However, his version is necessarily false; Musa could not have been fighting over his sister’s honor, because he didn’t even have a sister. Harun thinks that perhaps Musa had a girlfriend and wanted to save her honor by “teaching your hero a lesson,” and thus started the altercation that led to his death. It’s certainly true that working-class men had “an exaggerated, grotesque sense of honor”; after losing their land and dignity to colonization, women were the last thing left to protect.
Harun is obliquely referring to Meursault’s claim (in The Stranger) that the man he kills had started an altercation over the honor of his sister, a prostitute who was involved with Meursault’s friend. While firmly asserting that this claim is false, Harun is also defending Musa from the accusation, contextualizing and explaining Algerian concepts of honor rather than exoticizing them, as Meursault does in his own novel.
Mama never discussed the possibility of a girlfriend, but after Musa’s murder, Harun was often treated in the neighborhood as “the heir of some recovered honor,” even though he had no idea why. Moreover, Harun remembers that Musa often went out with friends and smiled proudly for no reason. He liked to show Harun his three tattoos, which read, “God is my support,” “March or die,” and “Be quiet.” His tattoos were “the only book Musa wrote.” Harun remembers them clearly, as other children remember picture books.
Harun dwells on the way each of his family members interacts with language, from Mama’s storytelling as a coping mechanism to Musa’s use of tattoos to express his feelings, even as their text reveals his belief that men should be tough, silent, and unwavering. In doing this, Harun gives value not just to language as used by the elite, like Meursault, but by ordinary and uneducated people like Mama and Musa.
Harun knows nothing about the woman Musa was involved with, but Harun heard Musa whisper “Zubida” in his sleep the night before his death, so Harun assumes that’s her name. After Musa’s death, when Mama finally decides to depart Algiers, Harun remembers a woman in a short skirt staring at them from a distance as they leave the apartment. Harun desperately wants this to be Musa’s girlfriend—he can’t yet read but he has already “rejected the absurdity of his death” and he needs “a story to give him a shroud.” Noticing the woman, Mama makes a face and shouts a profane insult.
Even as a child, Harun is already starting to look for reasons for Musa’s death—he’s willing to accept the idea that his brother was fighting over a girlfriend if it spares him the thought that Meursault killed him for no reason. Coming to terms with the meaninglessness of Musa’s death is something Harun will be unable to accomplish until he commits a murder himself.
After this, Harun and Mama leave Algiers for good, heading towards the agricultural town of Hadjout. The bus makes Harun nauseous, but he also feels comforted by the noise of the engine, as if it’s a “father” who is leading him and Mama away from the danger and confusion of Algiers. For him and Mama, the city will always be a reminder of Musa’s murder and “a place where something pure and ancient was lost.”
Harun’s desire to see the bus as a father is a reminder that he has lost not just a brother but a paternal figure. The thing that he has “lost” in Algiers is the relatively untroubled and secure family life he enjoyed during Musa’s lifetime.
Harun wonders aloud why he has ended up in Oran, another large city. People treat the city as if “they’ve come here to trash and plunder it, like a foreign country”; however, no one wants to leave it because it’s close to the sea and far away from the desert. He’s lived here for many decades, but he always stays far away from the sea.
Harun describes Algerians in Oran as if they themselves are colonial settlers. His unspoken assertion that people always have bad intentions towards places they consider “foreign” signifies a deep cynicism about the possibility of different ethnic and national groups to interact peacefully.
In Algiers, there’s a custom of calling all unknown men “Mohammed”; Harun does the same thing but substitutes his brother’s name, Musa. It’s also the name of the bartender in this bar.
Harun’s desire to see Musa’s name everywhere reflects his desire to see his brother alive again—in his mind, possessing a name is almost synonymous to being alive. In this sense, Meursault killed Musa even before he shot him, by taking away his name.
Harun cannot remember the street he lived on in Algiers; he is frightened of the city, which “remembers neither me nor my family.” Shortly after Independence, he returned to Algiers alone, wanting to conduct his own investigation of Musa’s death. As soon as he leaves the train station, he feels hot and “ridiculous,” a villager lost in the large city. He immediately turns back, feeling that if he ever locates his old house, death will catch up to him and Mama again.
This extremely superstitious moment is out of character for Harun—usually he lambasts Mama and even religious people for succumbing to irrational beliefs. His feeling of waiting for punishment reflects a sense of guilt and responsibility for Musa’s death, although he couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.
Harun doesn’t even remember the exact moment he learned of Musa’s death. He only remembers grown-ups yelling and gesturing, and a long period of uncertainty before Mama herself realizes what happened. When she finally knows her son has died, she gives a loud moan that swells into “a huge mass of sound that destroyed our furniture and blew our walls apart […] and left me all alone.”
The fact that news of Musa’s death reaches Mama through the neighborhood rumor mill rather than the police reflects the colonial government’s indifference to the fate of Algerian citizens, and foreshadows its unwillingness to prosecute Meursault, the obvious murderer.
After he realizes what has happened, Harun starts crying, but no one pays attention to him. Mama is nowhere to be found, and the apartment is full of strangers trying to comfort her. People call him “the hero’s brother,” but he’s hungry and confused.
The neighbors’ acknowledgment of Musa’s martyrdom doesn’t compensate for his presence or Mama’s affection—which makes Harun’s current campaign for public recognition of the tragedy seem somewhat futile.
Harun has named not only the barman but another patron Musa as well. He says that the second Musa, an old man, was once an inspector of French education. Harun doesn’t like to look at him because he’s likely to come over and start telling his life story. Harun doesn’t like to be around “sad people,” but the bar is filled with people who are depressed and want to escape the rest of their lives. In any case, the new regime is gradually closing down all the bars in Algeria—Harun imagines jostling among other desperate customers when they’re down to the last bar. He calls it “the Last Judgment.”
In complaining about the “sad” people at the bar, Harun is basically describing himself—depressed older men who drink to escape their sorrows and are eager to share their woes. His diatribe here reflects a deeper self-criticism that he’s unwilling to express openly. In joking about the “Last Judgment,” Harun reveals his irreverence towards religion, a characteristic that will come to the foreground later in the novel.
Harun loves the city of Oran, even though he always insults it. Everyone comes here looking for something—“money, or the sea, or a heart.” He’s amazed that the young interlocutor has come here looking for him. He sees another customer he knows and warns the interlocutor not to turn around. This man is the “bottle ghost,” and he and Harun always nod to each other but never speak.
Although the “bottle ghost” only appears at the periphery of the narrative, he’s still important. Like Harun, he’s another regular and solitary patron. Harun feels both contempt and pity for him—similar to the way he conceives of himself.