An hour later, I wake up and microwave a bowl of chicken rice soup, eat it with sourdough bread while watching the PBS News Hour. With growing foreboding, I manage to postpone looking at the letter while I answer e-mail and then Drano the sluggish bathroom sink. Finally, I slump into my leather recliner armed with the French-English dictionary, a Tamazight dictionary/grammar book, tablet and pen for notes. Three read-throughs with the aid of reference books does not change the essential message I had tried to ignore.
My Dear Boy Krim,
Soon you will be a grown man and it is time for me to tell you a secret. I am very proud of you and always love you (that is not the secret). You bring me much happiness. I will tell you this when you are 18, but I am old and in case something happens to me or I lose my nerve, I am writing this so you will know the truth.
I wanted you to be happy and have a family like normal people, at least a Grandmother, so I gave you my family name and taught you to call me Grand-mère. But, really, you are not my blood-related grandson. Your mother was an Arab girl named Fatima I knew in Algiers. She got involved with a Frenchman, the son of a Catholic government official, and her parents disowned her. My kind old Aunt took her in. I was there nursing Auntie in her last illness when Fatima discovered she was pregnant. The Frenchman’s parents immediately sent him back to Paris to separate them. Then my Aunt died, and Fatima said her family would kill her if she returned home. She begged me to help her get to France to marry her man before the baby came. She was so scared and pitiful, and I had no reason to stay in Algiers, so I agreed.
The situation with the French was getting bad, and we had to pay a bribe for false passports as mother and daughter to get out of the country. During a storm, on the boat to France, Fatima became very seasick. Her labor started and you were born, about a month early, I think. There was no doctor and we could not save her life, poor thing. Her papers said she was my daughter, so you were my grandson. I did not know how to find your father and had no wish to go on to France where Algerians were looked down on. But how could I go home to Kabylia with a baby at my age? I could not bear to leave you, so tiny, at the Catholic orphanage in Barcelona, where the boat landed on the way to Marseilles. I decided to start a new life with you, for you. Now I do not recall Fatima’s family name, or the Frenchman’s name, either.
The rest you know. It was hard, but I do not regret keeping you. Caring for you gave me so much courage I didn’t know I had and filled me with joy and a reason to live. I could not give you as much as you deserve, but I did my best. You are a smart boy and you can make a good life for yourself. I hope you can forgive me for not telling you the truth before. You are the grandchild of my heart and that is all that matters, no?
Always cherish your life and remember that I love you,
So. I am not Amazigh at all. I am the son of an Arab Muslim and a French Catholic, the oppressors of “my people”. If the star-crossed lovers had reunited, would I be a bourgeois Frenchman who thinks Berbers are rugs? Is my father alive and well in Paris, no martyr after all? The one thing I knew about myself and upon which I based my entire personal identity and professional career is a fabrication. I wonder if Claudine read and understood the letter. Probably not, but if so, she wouldn’t think it significant, what happened so long ago. “It doesn’t change who you are now,” I can almost hear her say, and I try to believe it. I am the Berber specialist, whose credibility derives, in part, from being authentically Berber. Am I now a fraud? Do the genes in every cell of my body determine who I am? Or is perceptive reality? In my formative years, I knew myself as Amazigh, Berber. Isn’t that what counts?
My head is throbbing, and I must appear in a panel discussion tomorrow representing the indigenous peoples of North Africa. I turn on the shredder I bought to dispose of the daily credit card offers that come in the mail. But just before the gnashing metal teeth grab Grand-mère’s letter, I pull it back and replace it in the dictionary. I lock the book in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet, under a copy of the American Journal of Sociology issue containing my paper on the psychological consequences to children of outlawing the Amazigh language in Algerian schools. I take two ibuprofen tablets and go to bed. As I drift into sleep, the fist against my throat withdraws and opens up. It is empty.
In a dream, I am in Kabylia with Grand-mère. She is telling me in Tamazight about her childhood in the mountains tending the chickens and goats, learning to cook the foods she fed me in Canada. I hear flutes, a mandol, and cymbals, watch ululating relatives perform an ancient dance heralding the Amazigh New Year. I am home, in the place I should have been born.
Born in Iowa, Elinor Davis grew up all over the U.S. and lived in Turkey before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a mom, world traveller, freelance journalist, academic editor, and health care writer. Her fiction has appeared in Big Muddy, Bellowing Ark, Thema, and Anak Sastra, her non-fiction in numerous other publications.
Artwork by Aiez Mirza