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.
Alone and adrift, I took a full-time job for a remodeling contractor. Long, sweaty days of finish carpentry, putting up drywall, and setting kitchen tile filled my days with enough exertion to distract me from missing Claudine. Most jobs ended by 3:30 p.m. I used the afternoons and evenings to hang out in North Beach cafes scribbling sheaves of mediocre poetry, thinking myself part of San Francisco’s edgy literary scene. As soon as new acquaintances heard my accent, typical conversations went like this:
“Are you French?”
“No, Berber, from Algeria.”
“Berber? Isn’t that some kind of rug?”
This association with carpeting, something people walk on, began to wear at my nerves. Why didn’t I just say I’m French Canadian and be done with it? No one I met had any idea what or who Berbers were and though I had little notion either, I stubbornly clung to it as my identity. It was the only way I could define myself ethnically, as something I was rather than what I was not. Now, in addition to being not Canadian, French, Arab, Muslim, or Christian, I was not American. While San Francisco is full of non-Americans of all sorts, most of them are from places the natives have heard of, like Mexico, China, Russia, or the Philippines.
Having overstayed my visa by several years, I also became increasingly uneasy about my “illegal alien” status and was considering a return to Canada when the 1986 amnesty program gave me the chance to apply for a green card. Legal once more, I returned to San Francisco State and took history and English classes at night. I wanted to know more about the Berbers and learn to write better. Eventually, I accumulated enough credits for a BA and entered a master’s program at UC Berkeley.
By this time, I had come to believe that unearthing the details of my origins, and perhaps finding some artifacts connecting me to my real home, would change me, would somehow lead to purpose, meaning, wisdom, enlightenment, inner peace. This became the true mission of my graduate studies – to equip me for this private quest, to discover and perfect my real self and then create a public persona that was congruent with that self, whoever he turned out to be. I got a grant to spend a semester in Algeria researching my thesis about Berber influences on the dominant cultures of North Africa; of course, the real purpose of the journey was to see if I could find any remnants of my family.
On my thirtieth birthday, I fly to Paris, take a train to Marseilles and then a small passenger ship south along the Spanish Mediterranean coast, stopping briefly at Barcelona, then Oran, debarking finally at Algiers.
My timing is wretched, but ironically apt. I left in utero amid a chaotic revolution and return to a nation on the brink of civil war. The Berber rebels whose resistance succeeded in expelling the French in 1961 and setting up a new government are themselves being challenged now by Arab interests. I wonder if my father rests in peace, and if I will ever see his grave. Algiers assaults all my senses at once, a pungent, swirling cacophony 100 times more vivid than my little ex-pat community in Montreal. I hear that a car bomb exploded last week just three blocks from my hotel, a politician assassinated in front of his children. I understand viscerally now why my Montreal neighbors left this city. Here I don’t feel Algerian, but Canadian. The morning after I arrive, my contact at the University is unaccountably absent and no one knows where he is. Taking this excuse to postpone my academic mission in favor of my personal one, I prevail on a secretary to tell me how to get to the village in the Atlas Mountains where my Grand-mère grew up.
A jolting train trip followed by a harrowing bus ride winding over mountain passes, hairpin curves and switchbacks perched on sheer drop-offs brings me at last to the state of Kabylia. Miraculously, it seems, after the urban fray and tension of Algiers, my should-have-been home is just as I’d seen it in my daydreams. Dry, rock-strewn peaks jutting some 8,000 feet into a cloudless sky, massive hills dotted with grazing sheep and goats, fields of beans and buckwheat, orchards swelling with olives and figs.
A few low adobe block buildings with tiled roofs huddle against a late afternoon sun. Is this my ancestral home? In a bean field beyond, two men stoop between rows, maybe weeding. An older woman in a loose tan dress with red and blue embroidery at the top tosses some sort of grain on the ground, and a dozen squawking chickens scurry round and start pecking. She does not raise her head, but I’m sure she’s aware of me standing at her fence. She murmurs something to the chickens then limps slowly into the small house. Could she be my aunt? A moment later, a man saunters out and squints in my direction. He’s about my height, sturdy build, weathered face, older than I. My cousin? I nod deferentially and muster my best Tamazight.
“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.
Was the graphic story of shipboard birth and death just an invention? Why would Grand-mère tell me such a horrific tale if it weren’t true? The thought of my young mother fearing for her baby as she lay bleeding to death on a filthy boat has always hung over me like a shroud of guilt, an obligation to make something of the life she sacrificed everything to give me. Assuming such a vivid story must be true, maybe the mother was just a stranger Grand-mère befriended, a fellow refugee whose orphaned baby she took as an impulsive act of pity. Maybe she always wanted a child and I was her chance. But what was she doing on the boat, anyway? How did she manage to care for an infant in such dire circumstances? If the aunt died and Algiers was dangerous, why didn’t she return to Kabylia? Why would she go to Spain? Nothing makes any sense.
After three days of moping in my hotel room and wandering the suqs of Algiers, mulling this crisis of identity, I decide that the most plausible answer is the one involving the fewest lies and inconsistencies: Grand-mère had a secret daughter who grew up in Algiers and gave birth to me on a boat. Grand-mère couldn’t go home with me and admit the long-passed pregnancy, so she went to Canada to start a new life. Once I realize this must be the truth, I rally enthusiasm for my project and throw myself into library research and interviews. Four months fly by; I find no trace of Grand-mère’s aunt.
Back in Berkeley, my thesis advisor is excited about my research and urges me to apply to the doctoral program, bypassing the master’s. “As far as I know, you’d be the first Berber scholar in the English-speaking academic world,” he says. “With a foot in both cultures, you’d bring authenticity to Berber studies and attention to a neglected ethnic group. There’s a guy here doing original research on the Okinawan diaspora. He’s third generation Okinawan from Hawaii. I think he’s the first ethnic Okinawan Ph.D. in sociology to specialize in Okinawan studies. You know, Okinawans consider themselves a separate nationality, culturally and linguistically distinct from Japan, where they’re an oppressed minority. But most people in the West don’t realize that. You could do for Berbers what he’s doing for Okinawans!”
Then one dank November day I get a call from Claudine, the girl who dumped me for a realtor. “I saw your picture in the paper – you’ve really come up in the world!” she gushes. “Look, I know we lost touch years ago, but I have something that you might want. I found a letter addressed to you from your Grand-mère in a book that got mixed in with mine when I moved out of our place in San Francisco.” Claudine doesn’t want to trust the U.S. Postal Service or even FedEx, so I agree to meet her in the city for afternoon drinks.
“Krim, you look fantastic! I don’t think I ever saw you in a suit before. I looked you up on the internet – your book, the UN, wow! If I’d known you’d be famous I might have stuck around.”
“I’m not famous, Claudine. But I like my work and it’s nice to get a little recognition for it, that’s all.”
We order Canadian beer for old time’s sake and she rattles on for 20 minutes about her life since we parted. I gather she’s become some sort of interior decorating consultant who “stages” homes for sale to make them appealing to prospective buyers. She married and divorced the realtor, her second marriage is rocky but they’re trying to work things out, for their daughter’s sake. She asks if I’m married and I murmur I’ve been too busy, never found the right girl. She presses, and I admit I’m seeing a very nice journalist, could become serious, we’ll just see where it goes.
“So Claudine, what’s this about a letter from my Grand-mère?” We’re on our second beers and I want to wrap this up and get on the freeway back to San Jose before rush hour traffic.
“Oh yeah! I almost forgot.” She reaches into her enormous tote bag and pulls out a thick book bound in worn, dark green leather. I recognize the French-English dictionary Grand-mère gave me when I started high school. She probably had not gone past the equivalent of fourth grade herself, but she incited me to study hard and always keep the dictionary to remind me of the importance of education. Apparently I internalized the message but lost track of the book.
“Inside front cover,” Claudine prompts as I stare at the mildewed tome.
A blank envelope slides out onto my lap. Folded inside are three sheets of the lined notebook paper I used in high school, covered with Grand-mère’s labored, child-like printing, a mixture of French and Tamazight in Latin lettering. I start reading and halfway through the first page, the room is swirling and my head throbs. I think maybe I’m coming down with the flu and not understanding the words right. I don’t want to finish it here in this bar, with Claudine, so I look at my watch and mumble about needing to get back for a faculty meeting. Cheek kisses, a perfunctory hug, “great to see you, thanks for tracking me down, all the best of luck” and I lurch out the door in a daze.
Outside, the first drizzle of the winter has started. The roads will be slick with accumulated oil. Californians always forget how to drive in rain over the long dry season and it takes all my concentration to get myself home without being rear-ended or slamming into the median fence. I don’t bother to return to work but head straight for my apartment and crawl into bed. After I sleep off the beer, I should be able to translate the archaic dialect and grammar of the letter correctly.
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