By Elinor Davis
For my first thirty years, I never saw the place I think of as my true home, where I should have been born. Maybe its sounds reached me in my mother’s womb, muffled conversation, muted flutes, sheep bleating. Sometimes I wondered – if I hear them again, will I recognize them? If I ever tromp the rugged hills of Kabylia, if I smell and taste its particular dust, will it all seem familiar?
Instead of the scent of lamb stew simmering on a cedar fire, the air I first drew into my lungs stank of rotting fish, moldy bread, and the vomit of seasick refugees. Their moans and sobs drowned out my own first cry. Mine was merely uncomprehending outrage at being expelled from a warm, dark bath into stinging air and light. But their cries expressed the grief and fear of losing home, possessions, family, dignity, hope – everything but life itself. My shipmates knew then what they had lost. I would only learn slowly and disjointedly as I grew older what had been stolen from me, a posthumous son.
My grandmother struggled to provide what she thought a child needs: meat, schooling, decent manners. She did her best, but she couldn’t give me what I seemed to crave most – a calm mother’s comforting arms and information about my father. She told me my mother died giving birth to me on that ship before it reached shore, leaving my distraught Grand-mère to make her way with me to a foreign refuge. We wound up in an Algerian émigré enclave in Montreal, surrounded by other ex-pats, but even there we were alien. Not Canadian, not French, not Arab, not Muslim, not Christian, not Jewish. We are called “berbers,” from the Roman invaders’ word meaning “barbarian”. The first inhabitants of northern Africa, we were there for untold thousands of years before Jesus’ or Mohammed’s time. We called ourselves Imazighen, “free men”. I am an Amazigh and the language of my foremothers was Tamazight. I regret now that I only learned snatches of this tongue from Grand-mère. The French and English spoken all around me prevailed as I grew older and I forgot most of the Berber words she used with decreasing frequency. Immigrant children try to fit into the place they’ve been brought, which seems more real than some far-off country they don’t remember.
A few months short of my eighteenth birthday, her old heart gave out altogether. One morning she just didn’t wake up. Though I was thankful she didn’t suffer a protracted or painful death, this sudden loss left me with many unanswered questions. I found myself wishing I had asked her more specifically about my parents and what they were like. I gathered that Mother and Grand-mère had left Algiers abruptly, taking no mementos and few personal effects, just hastily gathered hand-luggage. Perhaps they thought they would eventually return; maybe everything they had was destroyed by bombs or fire. I never saw a photo of any family members and had no objects linking me to them. I read more in an encyclopedia at the library about the Imazighen people and culture than I ever learned from Grand-mère. And this told me nothing about my own family in the mountainous Kabylia region. The blank spaces in my biography, all the things I did not know about myself, came to feel like a closed fist lodged under my chin, pressed against my windpipe, threatening to render me unconscious. I became obsessed with grabbing that fist and prying it open to get at the secrets clutched inside. In the absence of facts, I imagined my Kabylian family as migratory sheep herders who strummed ancient songs on hand-made mandols, or maybe folk-dancing, finger-cymbaling buckwheat farmers who kept chickens and goats.
I managed to go to college, supporting myself with handyman jobs for Grand-mère’s former employers, but left before graduation to follow a girlfriend, Claudine, to California on a student visa. We attended San Francisco State University and lived together for a few years, until she left me for a realtor she met at a dog-obedience class where she had taken her manic Irish setter to learn manners. Their puppies hit it off right away and so, apparently, did they. She traded life in a dingy downtown flat with a floundering would-be poet for a fast-talking wheeler-dealer who owned a Victorian fixer-upper in Parnassus Heights. Surely a step up by conventional standards, a strategic move for her, yet I couldn’t imagine what she saw in him, other than a meal-ticket and a better address.