My parents ran a sweet shop, and as a child I worked with them after school, rolling and shaping the dough, blanching and grinding the almonds, placing tiny silver balls of sugar in the center of heart-shaped mkhabez. They came to Algiers from a village in the Kabyle when I was only a year old. My childhood coincided with the war: I was four when it began, seven during the Battle of Algiers. There were many days I missed school, many days I worked with my mother in the kitchen behind our storefront. But even during the worst of it, when customers came to our store they set their worries aside, they smiled, they complimented the sweets. We were in the business of pleasure, of happy occasions. My schoolmates envied me. They thought I did nothing all day but gorge on sweets, and I did not correct them.
Once a man who could not speak came into the store. He pointed first at the baklawa and then at the makrout behind the glass. I was with my father at the register. My father asked him if those were what he wanted, but all the man did was point to his mouth and kneel at the counter to examine the sweets. My father asked how many he would like but the man did not answer. He began to shake. His eyes were wild and the whites were yellow. Then he opened his mouth wide. All that lay inside were a few teeth. No tongue. Just a scarred stump. I bit my own tongue hard, hard enough to taste blood. My father laid a dozen baklawa and a dozen makrout into a white box, on top of a white doily, and handed it to the man. Neither said a word. My father did not ask for money. I had never seen him give sweets away to an adult, only on occasion to Bassam or another of the poor children that ran ragged through our streets. The man took the box and nodded stiffly, approvingly. Then he sat down on the floor beside the door. He opened the box and considered the sweets laid out in neat rows, like tablets in a graveyard. He picked up a piece of baklawa and broke off a tiny bit. I was forbidden from eating sweets in the store, but watching him I could not help myself. I picked up a piece of baklawa and took a tiny, honeyed bite. My father looked away, but I watched the man as I chewed, and he did not seem to mind, or even notice. He placed the bit of baklawa in his mouth and closed his eyes and the shudders melted from his body. His legs slumped out and he was quiet. My father tapped me on the head, motioned me through the narrow hallway into the kitchen behind us. Why, among the varied horrors of war, did he decide this was too much?
When the bell hanging from the storefront door tinkled, signaling the man had left, my father came into the kitchen and sat beside me at the table. He brought his hands up to his face, cupped them tightly around his mouth. How did a person taste without a tongue, I wondered. Could it be bitten off in sleep, during a terrible nightmare? But I did not know what to say, how to cross the vast sea to the island upon which my father sat, so I said nothing.
He laid his head on his arms with his face turned away from me, toward the red curtains over the sink. “They say he’s a harki,” he murmured, as if to himself.
Harki, the worst possible accusation in the Casbah: a pro-French Muslim. The exact dimensions of the word were blurred to me, but I did know it meant traitor, traitor to our people, to our country. Most of our neighbors would spit on such a man before giving him food.
My father’s voice cracked when he spoke next. “Allah forgive us,” he said.
My father was a devout man. Five times a day he answered the muezzin’s call, climbed the stairs to our small living room, knelt on his prayer mat. It faced east, away from the coffee table and the velvet-upholstered chairs of which my mother was so proud. Five times a day he touched his forehead to the floor and prayed. My mother put aside the baking or washing and watched the store, in case any non-believers came by. My father was a quiet man, and usually a gentle man, but when I asked him questions he did not want to answer he would become brusque, tell me to concentrate on living a holy life. It is the will of Allah, he would say. Do not question the will of Allah.
I laid my head down on my arms. I did not want to ask questions. But I did want to understand what had happened to the man without a tongue. And I wanted to comfort my father. It scared me almost more than the man without a tongue, to see my father this way, this informal, this beaten. “Beba,” I said, and I brought my face close to the back of his head, as close as I dared, close enough to see the tiny hairs that grew from the nape of his neck, colorless before they darkened into the black stubble of his hairline. “Beba,” I said, “It is the will of Allah.”
My father lifted his head and turned to face me. I sat up straight. His brow was drawn and there were tears on his cheeks. He said nothing, just raised his hand and brought it down hard across my face, once, twice. My cries brought my mother downstairs, but my father was back at the storefront, and did not respond to her entreaties.
I suspect that is when my father decided we would leave.
It is a strange thing to live a divided life. A strange thing to have an exiled childhood, one that belongs neither here nor there. The world I grew up in no longer exists, of that I am sure; I have no interest in visiting Algiers in order to confirm it. The war ended, lives resumed. And so my childhood exists only in dreams.
It was Paris that severed it — brutally, absolutely. Our new homeland, after the first shock of excitement, was a place of dulled tastes, of colors bereft of brilliance and odors numbed to pungency. We were refugees, yet France proved anything but a refuge. We arrived two months before the Paris Massacre, when the central boulevards were festooned with Algerian corpses, when the Seine spewed the bloated bodies of my people like silt. In Paris, we were ratons. The French loathed us. The Algerians, rancorously split into separatists and loyalists, wanted to know on whose side we stood. We belonged nowhere.
The land of my adolescence and adulthood is too close for dreams and myths, too barbed for the silvered sheen of memory. It is like a film, my childhood, a film that magically brightens with age. Alone in a vast theater I watch it, salvaging what I can. I invented this ritual weeks after we arrived in Paris, as I lay on a pallet and listened to the bedlam beyond our thin walls, the baying sirens and drunken brawling, my stomach pummeled with longing for home. I was still a child when I understood my childhood was lost, when I transmuted it into a dream that never ripened, a myth that did not exhale.
There is nothing that remains. Nothing but the taste of blood and honey on my tongue.
Many of my earliest memories are of war. I saw things no child should see. I saw people blackened and moaning on the street after a bomb exploded. One of them had lost a foot, and from his ruined flesh jutted a yellow-white stub of bone. I saw a French soldier doubled over a car, clutching his neck with both hands, blood leaping from between his fingers. I saw a woman shot with her two children, shot in broad daylight in front of a bicycle shop. I can still see fragments of a bicycle wheel spinning in the shop’s window after a bullet webbed the glass. The smaller child did not die, or not right away, and I will never forget his screams. My mother pulled my arm and we ran, and despite the explanations she later gave, despite all the sense it made to run, I never understood why we left that boy, how anyone could flee such a sound.