Mama is so old that she looks like her own grandmother. She’s living in “a kind of institution”—in other words, her own tiny house, where she’s hunkered down like a piece of luggage. When Harun sees her, he imagines that she embodies “an assembly of ancestors” judging him or wanting to know if she’s found a wife. Neither Harun nor his mother know how old they are—before Independence, people relied on landmark events rather than calendars to tell time.
Saying that Mama lives in an “institution,” Harun compares her to Meursault’s mother, who dies in a nursing home at the beginning of The Stranger. Harun’s uneasy relationship with Mama is one of his closest links to Meursault, who is unable to feel sincere love for his own mother.
Harun rarely visits Mama. She spends all her time sweeping every corner of her house in Hadjout in order to erase “the secret” through which Harun made “the definitive leap into manhood.” Harun spent the second half of his childhood in Hadjout before he went to Algiers to learn land administration. Both he and Mama wanted to be far away from the ocean.
Harun’s reference to “the secret” is his first allusion to the murder he has committed to avenge his brother’s death. He views this murder both as the event leading him to grow up and something that keeps him bound closely to Mama, just as he was in childhood.
When they leave Algiers after Musa’s death, Harun and Mama stay with an uncle who treats them badly, consigning them to a shack and then eventually kicking them out. From there they move to a commercial French farm where Mama works as a maid and Harun is a chore boy.
The terrible behavior of Mama’s uncle contextualizes her own despair and breakdown within her own loneliness and vulnerability. When criticizing his mother’s parenting, Harun rarely acknowledges the many problems Mama grapples with.
It is a troubled time, but their problems are from “hunger,” not “injustice.” Epidemics and famines are frequent, and if one of Harun’s playmates doesn’t appear in the morning, Harun knows that he is dead. Harun is often afraid, especially of the men who come around the house at night, knowing Mama has no man to take care of her. He tries to watch over her.
Under French rule, poor Algerians are literally starving, especially on farms like this one, where they are subject to French bosses. Harun’s bleak childhood in Hadjout puts the ravages of colonialism in stark relief.
After years of strategizing, Mama finds a way to improve their life in Hadjout. She finds a job as a housekeeper and “waited, with me perched on her back, for Independence.” Her employers are a French family, Monsieur and Madame Larquais, who flee quickly after the war, and Mama and Harun are able to appropriate the house for themselves. The house has three rooms, some sheds, and a courtyard.
Harun treats the advent of Independence not with enthusiasm but fatalism—he often says that he knew it would come, but never seems to have looked forward to it. While Independence gives the family a house to live in, it can’t bring Musa back or improve Harun’s relationship with his mother.
However, in the years while Mama works for the settlers, things are very hard. Harun has to walk miles each day to find work as a farm laborer, competing with other workers to get there first—one day he’s so hungry he punctures another worker’s bicycle tires so that he can show up first.
Eventually, Harun escapes a life of hard labor through education—for him, the languages he learns at school are not just an means of intellectual empowerment, but of economic mobility.
Now, Mama keeps the house very dark. Harun visits every few months, drinks some coffee, and leaves without saying much to his mother. Almost nothing has changed in Hadjout except for the construction of a few new buildings, and the fact that everyone seems completely idle.
Although the government claims that Independence has transformed the country, it hasn’t brought much prosperity or improvement to the impoverished places where Harun spent his childhood.
In response to an unheard question, Harun says fiercely that he’s not nostalgic for French Algeria. However, before Independence, “we Arabs gave the impression that we were waiting, not going around in circles like today.” The village has grown larger but has become less orderly.
Harun doesn’t like Hadjout, and he dreads returning there to bury Mama. It’s also puzzling for another reason—Meursault’s mother is also supposedly buried in Hadjout, but no one knows where, and no one has been able to find the gravestone or the old people’s home he mentions in his book. It’s possible that her grave was uprooted in the chaos after Independence, but it’s also possible that Meursault lied about his origins in order to make himself more sympathetic to his readers.
This coincidence forms yet another link between Harun and Meursault. At the same time, Harun’s almost childish obsession with the facts of Meursault’s mother’s whereabouts reflects a futile belief that he can move past Musa’s death through logical detective work, rather than the more difficult labor of personal reflection.
Harun says that he could reveal the “secret” he and Mama have—the fact that one night in Hadjout, “the moon obliged me to finish the job your hero began in the sun.” However, he decides to leave the revelation for another day; he’s not sure if the interlocutor is trustworthy.
In this oblique description of his murder of Joseph, Harun describes himself as “obliged” to kill rather than doing so of his own accord. Although he claims not to feel guilty, his language suggests a desire to evade responsibility.
While Harun and Mama are still living in Algiers, Mama “convert[s] her anger” into a prolonged period of mourning that wins her sympathy and respect in the neighborhood. Because of her grief, she is allowed to go out and work without arousing suspicious of immodesty. Harun rarely sees her, since she spends most of her time wandering the city trying to investigate Musa’s death.
Harun sees Mama’s mourning as essentially false, something she uses in order to improve her own circumstances. His feelings seem somewhat harsh, especially in light of the fact that he’s still obsessed with the murder, decades after its occurrence.
Musa’s funeral doesn’t take place for forty days, because the police refuse to return his body or even admit to possessing it. Not only is Musa dead, he has “vanished.” Mama sees the picture of his murderer, Meursault, in the paper, but she doesn’t understand anything about him personally—he’s just “the spitting image of all the colonists who’d grown fat on so many stolen harvests.”
Just as Meursault is unable to perceive Musa except as an “Arab” with no individual character, when Mama looks at Meursault’s picture she sees the French settlers as a feared and despised entity, rather than the actual man who has killed her son. Colonialism prevents the recognition of shared humanity between different groups.
As she questions the neighbors, the police, and Musa’s friends, Mama’s mourning becomes “a surprising comedy, a marvelous act she put on and refined until it became a masterpiece.” She wants the neighbors to sympathize with Harun, but she herself is rarely affectionate towards him. Harun feels that he is “the dead brother,” while Mama is always ready for Musa to come home and claim his daily coffee. Harun feels “guilty for being alive” but also responsible for watching over his mother.
Although Harun often longs for closeness with Musa, he resents Mama’s weird desire for him to actively become his brother. Mama’s behavior creates an uneasy blurring between Harun and Musa’s characters which, in part, prevents Harun from moving past his brother’s death fully.
After forty days, the imam declares Musa drowned and carries out the proper rituals for a funeral when nobody is present. Afterwards, Harun huddles in bed while the neighbor women comfort Mama. Eventually, Mama wraps her arms around Harun, but he knows “it’s Musa she wants to find there, not me.”
Even in Mama’s rare moments of affection, Harun is conscious of something essentially contrived in her behavior—this makes him feel lonely and worthless compared to his brother.
Mama develops strange rituals, like visiting the hammam (public bath) and the mosque as often as possible. In fact, Mama has had a hard life—she grew up outside of Algiers but had to leave her tribe to marry a man who abandoned her. Now she’s “twice widowed” and reduced to working for foreigners. Harun loves her, but he’s “never forgiven her” for the way she behaved towards him in his youth. At the time, he felt like she was punishing him for refusing to die like Musa.
Harun’s brief explanation of Mama’s difficult life—unusual for him—contrasts with his sweeping assertion that he will never forgive her. Throughout his life, Harun is torn between the desire to understand his mother and his resentment of the way she’s behaved towards him.
Periodically, Mama becomes convinced that she’s found Musa’s body or heard his footsteps outside. Harun hates Mama’s fantasies, and it’s this that pushes him to learn French, a language that “could serve as a barrier” between them. Mama expresses her grief in “rich” and volatile language, but as soon as Harun is able to obtain some books and education, he learns to speak in a different way. French allows him to “organize the world with my own words.”
It might seem that Harun takes to French in order to succeed within the colonial paradigm, but he actually sees it as something that gives him personal independence. Although French rule disenfranchises Harun and his family, the French language empowers him.
Harun orders the interlocutor to get another round of drinks. Returning to his tale, he explains that he eventually gained admission to a school in Hadjout, which helped him distance himself from Mama’s overbearing grief. He feels fine at school or on the farms where he works, but when he returns home he feels like he’s “stepping into a grave.” It seems that Mama and Musa are both waiting for him and wondering why he hasn’t spent the day “sharpening the knife of our family’s vengeance.”
This is one of Harun’s first references to Mama’s obsession with retribution. Harun prefers to think that this preoccupation is hers alone; however, by longing for recognition of Musa’s story, Harun is also looking for a kind of justice. While retribution becomes Mama’s reason for living, it makes Harun feel like he is dead.
Now, Harun is “indifferent” to the fact that his mother is still alive. She rarely speaks anymore, perhaps because there’s nothing left of Musa to mourn. All Harun can remember is “the way she would crawl inside my skin” and her frequent bursts of angry passion. He offers to take the interlocutor to her funeral.
Harun’s creepy offer demonstrates the dysfunction of his relationship with Mama but also his contempt of the rituals with which society attempts to cope with tragedies—especially when those rituals have religious underpinnings.
Harun remarks that it’s getting dark. He hates the silence of night, because it awakens his memory. He encourages the interlocutor to have another drink, and points out the “bottle ghost,” who is here again. He always sits at the other end of the bar. Harun warns the interlocutor not to turn around, lest the bottle ghost “vanish.”
Again, the bottle ghost appears as an ephemeral presence at the edge of the narrative. At this point, the reasons for Harun’s preoccupation with him are unclear, but the novel builds anticipation about what a possible encounter between the two might reveal.