THE FIRST THING PEOPLE noticed about Hamida Djandoubi was his looks. He was dead handsome: dark eyes, thick hair, and a smile that danced between playfulness and seduction. Women would actually turn and stare after him when he passed on the street. One writer even compared him to Harry Belafonte.
Hamida was Tunisian by birth, the eldest of seven children. The family was raised in Carthage, the city so famously razed by the Romans, which by the mid-twentieth century had become just another poor suburb of Tunis. His father, Hédi, worked odd construction jobs and ran a black market veterinary clinic. He didn't have a license, but he did have a knack for healing cattle.
As a teenager, Hamida dreamed of Europe. The adventure, the money, and, yes, the women with such liberal reputations. When he finished high school, he took a job selling advertisements for a local business magazine. It took him almost a year, but he saved enough to make the voyage.
France was the obvious destination. Like Algeria and Morocco, Tunisia was a former French colony. Although it had gained its official independence in 1956, the two countries maintained close diplomatic ties, including a guest worker program. Hamida qualified for a visa and received his passport shortly before his nineteenth birthday. In September 1968 he booked his passage from Tunis to Marseille, the major port on the Mediterranean Sea and main entry point to France for North Africans.
MARSEILLE IS THE anti-Paris. Lodged among the rocky cliffs on France's southern coast, it is a brash and sun-scoured city. Instead ofthe refined culture and polished façades of the capital, this sweaty port exudes a raw humanity difficult to find in the north. There is little of the wealth of Paris and none of the rush; in Marseille, it is still custom to take a siesta in the afternoon and to spend the early evening sipping apéros under the cooling sky.
For centuries, Marseille was the most important port on the Mediterranean and, at one point in the nineteenth century, the fourth-largest port in the world after London, Liverpool, and New York. At the height of the French Empire it was also one of the most prosperous cities in Europe as colonial riches poured in from Indochina, the Caribbean, and Africa. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas describes the city's main street, La Canebière, as so luxurious that even Parisians were jealous.1 And when Mark Twain visited Marseille in 1867, he too was awed and recounted the event in his travel diaries: "On every hand were bright colors, flashing constellations of gas burners, gaily dressed men and women thronging the sidewalks--hurry, life, activity, cheerfulness, conversation, and laughter everywhere!"
But by the second half of twentieth century, most of this glory had faded. France had renounced or lost most of her colonies, and instead of ships laden with spices and fabric, it was boatloads of colonial refugees that were docking in Marseille. When the main port was moved to an autonomous tax-free zone outside the city, the local economy faltered. Unemployment crept higher and the crime families became entrenched. With the release of the Gene Hackman movie The French Connection in 1971, Marseille became synonymous with heroin and corruption.
But if Marseille had lost its European luster, it remained the destination of choice for North Africans. For a young man growing up in Oranor Rabat or Tunis, the easiest route to Europe was a ferry ride across the Mediterranean to Marseille. In the decade after the Second World War, with so much labor needed to rebuild the country, the influx of immigrants from the Maghreb was so great the city became a peculiar hybrid of French café and Arab souk. In the rest of France, Marseille started to be called, often with a hint of derision, "the most northern city in Africa."
THIS WAS THE MARSEILLE that greeted Hamida Djandoubi when he descended from the ferry on September 10, 1968. Thanks to an Italian contractor he met in Tunis, he had the address of a Marseille couple who had once lived in Tunisia. Vincent and Katherine Comandé owned a grocery store in the city's sixth arrondissement, an affluent residential neighborhood just a few miles south of the Old Port. As four of their five children had already left home to study or start their own families, the Comandés took in guests for the companionship and for help with their business. There was a bedroom in the back of the grocery store, and Hamida was invited to live there and eat with the family in return for stocking the shelves and minding the till a few hours every day.
The grocery store was on rue Christophe Colomb. Christopher Columbus street. A new world for Hamida to explore.
So his life in France began. He studied law for a term at the local university. He courted women in the discos. He played soccer on weekends. He took holidays across Western Europe.
By that fated fall of 1971, Hamida had left the grocery store and was living in a men's residence close to the Pointe-Rouge beach. He was twenty-two years old and worked full-time for a landscaper named Désiré Boyer. But this was only a temporary position. His plan was to move to Paris, get his license for heavy trucks, and then drive rigs around Europe. He'd already given his notice, and his last day on thejob was scheduled for October 15, 1971. He'd bought a ticket on the train that left for Paris the very next day.
As it happened, it was a good time for a young Tunisian man to be leaving the south of France. Two weeks earlier, one of the most atrocious crimes of the decade had been committed outside Nice by a group of four Tunisian laborers. The men broke into a farmhouse in search of money and ended up slitting the throat of a seven-year-old girl and stabbing a pregnant woman in the womb. The depravity of the crime left the region stunned. Suddenly young Arab men, already accustomed to a certain discrimination, were treated with a little more scorn, greeted with a little more fear.
The day in question, October 9, 1971, was a Saturday. The weather was typical of the south of France in early fall, that is, nearly ideal. It was sunny and warm enough for the beach, the air scented with sea and pine. But, this being Marseille, there was the wind.
The mistral is a violent wind that swoops southward from the center of France and along the Rhône valley. It torments the Mediterranean coast, particularly the stretch between Toulon and Marseille. It shakes windows, it steals laundry from clotheslines, it tears clay tiles from roofs. The people of Marseille like to say the mistral even causes temporary insanity.
That morning, Hamida was driving a tractor with an industrial tiller hooked to the back. The company was installing an irrigation canal and landscaping the adjoining banks. An iron plate had been left on the construction road, and the wind quickly covered it with a thin layer of dust and dirt. Hamida never saw it. The tractor's wheels skidded and slipped when they hit the metal. In an instant, the tractor overturned and Hamida was pinned underneath. His leg was sucked into the tiller's churning blades. He blacked out.
When he came to, everything was numb. Blood dripped into a pool beneath the tiller. He could see a piece of his foot. It made him think of hamburger meat. He blacked out again.
Firefighters spent more than two hours trying to extract the shreds of his leg from the rototiller.2 It couldn't be done. They were going to have to cut.
Hamida woke up at the Hôpital de la Conception that evening. His right leg had been amputated at the knee.
WHEN THE GUILLOTINE FELL. Copyright © 2008 by Jeremy Mercer. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.