Global stories, local voices

|| Epidemics

Ep. 3/3 – El Hadj Hadji

By Marc Cheb Sun

Lire en français (FR) - version originale

Soon the first assessment is extended to 45 contaminated and two dead. In the days that follow, the theme becomes a little bit ingrained, but nobody really believes in it. China is far away. And yet... a doubt creeps into the atmosphere. An interrogation.


1 January 2020. Paris.

Between two deliveries, Hadji tries to reach his buddy Yaya, the Berliner. The courier, of course, again and again.
Hey buddy was machst du denn ? (what are you doing ?) You see, I'm making progress, huh. That's because I'm getting ready to visit you ! I'm just waiting for spring, so I don't freeze on the spot. So you had a good New Year's Eve? 2020, we're here! I'm telling you, this one is definitely our year.

El Hadj Hadji arrived in Paname six months ago, after multiple and terrible adventures he tells the stories in his raps declaimed at nightfall on the steps of the Sacred Heart.

I've travelled the lands, and the deserts and the mountains and the shores and the forests and the countryside...
When I arrived everything hit me
Around my furnished room between Barbès and Rochechouart
I'm not wood I'm not stone
I'm made of blood flesh of blood muscles of prayer desires...

Since then, he has been walking the streets of the city, eyes wide open so as not to lose an iota of these urban visions. While waiting for something better, he found the job that allows him to discover unknown streets and neighborhoods. And he loves it, despite the stress of one delivery after another: he's now a delivery boy at Deliveroo. The guy carries burgers, sushi, pizzas, risottos, mafés, salads, poké bowls, whatever. He rides, he rides.

11:00 p.m., exhausted, he goes home. Shower, sandwich, he sprawls onto his sofa bed. Eyes half open, he catches the remote control, presses a random button, the ad, and then another button.

Yesterday, 31 December 2019, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, alerted his colleagues to the discovery of a mysterious illness. Resurgence of the SRAS? Doubt persists. As of today, the World Health Organization is informed of several cases of pneumonia like disease in Wuhan.

Midnight. Hajji El Hajj is going into sleep.

January 7, France Info. Chinese authorities link the symptoms of the mysterious cases of pneumonia-like symptoms that are increasing in the Wuhan region to the discovery of a seventh type of coronavirus. The possible link back to SRAS is now closed.

- What's up, man? Do you ever call back?

January 18th. The first assessment is extended to 45 contaminated and two deaths. Symptoms suggest acute respiratory infections but also more severe forms that can lead to death in frail or elderly patients.

— Hadji, brother, sorry, I had a problem with my SIM card... So, tell me, how's life?
— Life rolls on. I'm the one running after it.
— You got a problem?
— No, but you know, it's not easy. I love Paris, yes, it's a real whirlwind. But you just have to make a place for yourself. Wherever you go, nobody's waiting around for you.
— Hey, brother, after all we've been through, you're gonna make your place. Don't forget, we're survivors.
— Survivors, yeah, for sure. Now, personally... I just want to be a living one.

Soon the first assessment is extended to 45 contaminated and two dead. In the days that follow, the theme becomes a little bit ingrained, but nobody really believes in it. China is far away. And yet... a doubt creeps into the atmosphere. An interrogation.

The same evening, Hadji El Hadj starts writing a new text. Paper, pencils, the old-fashioned way. It takes place in the notebook. I just want to be a living one. 
The next day, he gets back on his bike. And El Hadj rides, rides, rides.
He zips from one street to the other.

 March 17th BFM. Contaminations in France progress inexorably, with 175 deaths. 2,579 patients are hospitalized, 699 of whom are in intensive care. France, after Spain and Italy, entered general confinement on Tuesday lunchtime. The French can no longer leave their homes, and if they do so, they risk being fined.

And El Hadj rides, rides, rides.


April 12th.
— Hello, it’s Deliveroo.
— Let me open for you, it's on the third floor, door 35. I left a tip in front of the door, you can drop the package off, thank you.

The door to the hall opens. Deserted, of course, it's like everywhere else. Hajji El Hadj takes the elevator. He has no mask, no gloves, so he improvises: he places a small piece of paper between his finger and the floor button. He holds his breath, he doesn't know if it's of any use, but when in doubt, he doesn't breathe. When he reaches the third floor, he walks towards apartment 35, drops the package, takes the two euros left for him. Gets ready to turn around.

But then he hears a voice, almost a breath, on the other side of the door. A woman's voice. The wall is thick, or the voice is too weak, he doesn't know. Hajji has a little trouble understanding his words. So he listens.
— What's your name?
— El Hadj.
— That's nice. And where's that from?
— I'm from Guinea.

He brings his face even closer to the door, until he brushes against the material. Breathe in that presence.

— I'm Sandra.
— Are you all right, ma'am?
— I don't know, I guess. What day is it?
— It's Thursday, April 12th.
— April 12th... So that's it, yes, that's it. It's my birthday. I'm sixty today.
— Is that right? Happy birthday, then.
— Thank you. Thank you. You have a nice voice. It's been good talking to you.
— Me too, ma'am, it felt good.
— Sandra, call me Sandra.
— Happy birthday, Sandra.
— Thank you. Thank you. And above all, take care of yourself. Be, be alive.

Once out of the building, El Hadj Hadji gets back on his bike, crosses this deserted Paris. So he rides, rides, rides.

Goes up the Champs Elysées, arrives at Place de l'Étoile. Just in the centre, facing the Arc de Triomphe, stop, he stops. He keeps the moment frozen, contemplates the apocalypse.

And he makes a promise to himself, first whispered, then declared as loud as he can, right there at the crossroads of those famous avenues. Two sentences, like an echo, they cross the city.

"April 12, 2020, it's 8:00 p.m., this year will be ours.
And I'll just be alive."

You were born. And so you’re free. So happy Birthday.

Don't miss the next episodes... !

About the author

Marc Cheb Sun
More stories

Marc Cheb Sun is self-taught. Founder of the media Dailleursetdici.news, creator of theatrical performances, he lives in Paris where he leads writing workshops with young people. His first novel Et je veux le monde ("And I Want the World") was published by JC Lattès in March 2020.

Photo credit : homardpayette

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