“Good afternoon, sir. I am Krim Mokrani and I am looking for my relatives, who I believe live in this area. My mother and grandmother left the country about 30 years ago. My grandmother was Lalla Mokrani. Do you know anyone with that name?”
The uncle startles with recognition at the mention of her name. “She was my neighbor, my childhood friend! But you could not be her grandson. She never had any children.”
“Maybe she had a daughter after moving to Algiers?” I suggest.
“No, impossible. She lived next door to my family until she was past 50 years old. She never married. I saw her nearly every day – she could not have had a child. We would have known. She was a spinster who took care of her parents until they died and then she went to Algiers to care for an aunt. We never heard from her after that.”
I don’t know what to say. Perhaps he is thinking of a different person. “Is anyone from her family still here whom I could talk to?”
“Yes, one brother is still alive and there are nieces and nephews.” The younger man offers to take me to these neighbors in his battered pick-up truck. About 20 minutes later we arrive at the home of Grand-mère’s alleged brother.
After more introductions, I take from my backpack a plastic folder containing the oldest photo I have of my grandmother, a snapshot of her with me as a toddler taken by a neighbor in Montreal. The old brother squints at it for a long minute, then tears drizzle down his craggy cheeks.
“Lalla,” he croaks. “We never knew what happened to her…We thought she might have been killed in the revolution.”
This man also insists that it would not be possible for his sister to have had a grown daughter 30 years ago.
“But she raised me. She said my mother died in childbirth and my father died in the war…”
“Well, she must have loved you, to take you in like that. But you are not her blood relation.” Everyone nods solemnly in agreement and looks down at the floor.
So, just like that, in the space of an hour, I found and lost the only family I have on this earth.
“Do you know anyone in Algiers who knew the aunt she went there to care for?” I grasp at one last straw.
“Oh, no. The aunt was a spinster, too. No children. She worked as a domestic, I think. That’s why Sister went – Auntie had no one else when she got sick.”
I ask for the aunt’s name and last known area of residence for follow-up when I get back to Algiers, but I know it’s bound to be a dead end.
The brother (my great uncle?) and his daughter’s family feed me a hearty dinner, which I’m sure is delicious but to me it tastes like dust from the road. I am so dazed by the revelation of my utter orphan-hood that I forget to take advantage of the situation to conduct a little field work for my thesis. I could be asking them about family lore, folk customs, idioms, what they believe about Imazighen history, what makes them different from Arabs and other Algerians. But I am too stunned to be a grad student. I have become a wandering cipher, a lock with no key, a puzzle with a crucial piece missing and no clues in sight. The fist pressing against my throat closes tighter around its secrets and twists its knuckles into my larynx.
Back in Algiers, I lose steam for my project. I realize that the whole purpose of my Berber studies has been to find my roots. Now I could be anyone, anything. I might be Arab or French or Canadian, Muslim, Catholic, a Spanish foundling. Short of DNA-testing everyone on three continents who vaguely resembles me, there seems no way of knowing. I wrack my memory for any clues Grand-mère might have inadvertently left about my origins, but find no crack in her veneer. Nothing she ever said or did hinted that I might be anything other than her grandson. I will have to wait till I get back to Berkeley to rummage through the few possessions in storage that I brought from Montreal.
I imagine scenarios to explain my existence. Perhaps Grand-mère managed to hide a pregnancy and gave birth to my mother on a “visit” to the aunt, who adopted and raised the child. This was my favorite version because it meant Grand-mère had not lied to me, just to her parents and siblings. I was who she said I was. Also, it seemed more likely that an older woman would take on the burdens of raising a child alone if there were a blood bond. But perhaps I was the baby of someone unrelated, an acquaintance of Grand-mère or the aunt. Since I have no clear memories before about age four, Grand-mère could have “acquired” me at any time in my first three years. Maybe in Spain, or maybe she never even went to Spain. Maybe she found me in France or Morocco or Holland. Maybe I am Canadian-born, after all.