Zahia Rahmani portrays the mental and physical manifestations of dual exile from both homeland and language.
Franco-Algerian author Zahia Rahmani is the daughter of an alleged Harki, one of the thousands of Algerians who fought alongside or otherwise supported the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). It was the fate of such men to be twice exiled, first in their homeland after the war, and later in France, where fleeing Harki families seeking refuge faced contempt, discrimination, and exclusion. After her father escaped from an Algerian prison in 1967, Rahmani’s Muslim, Kabyle-speaking family came to France on a Red Cross convoy, and eventually resettled in the rural region of Oise, where they encountered widespread ignorance and racism. Muslim is part of a loose trilogy of novels that blend autofiction and an oral tradition of storytelling, each rendered in Rahmani’s unique lyrical style.
One night, I lost my tongue. My native tongue. I was barely five years old and had been living in France for a few weeks. I could no longer speak a language I once knew, a spoken language, a language of fables, ogre tales, and legends. In one night, a night of dreams or nightmares, I began to speak another language, a European language. I came to it that night. The night when, fast asleep, I encountered an army of elephants . . .
My childhood brought me to this place. I have only a single image of those early years. One photo. I’m in Kabylie. I’m old enough to walk, but I’m wrapped in a shawl on my mother’s back, a bulky scarf around my head. She told me that she had placed potato slices under the fabric to cure my headaches. Did I get headaches a lot, as a child? I didn’t have any medicine, answered my mother. And I got the headaches often? Constantly, she said. In that second, the pain comes back. I remember my brother burning his arm when he was only five years old. His furious cries and squirming when they tore his little green acrylic polo from his body after he spilled boiling milk on himself. I saw his skin come off with the shirt. His cries reverberate inside of me, they echo my own when I took my first steps, moved by hunger, because I wanted to sneak something from my cousin’s, my playmate’s, warm meal. She pushed me to the ground, onto a pan filled with oil, from which my mother had just removed a mouthwatering beignet, an accident that would leave me a burned child for several months. I don’t have many memories of what happened, but I still remember crying. I felt an immense rage against my cousin. Then she became deaf and dumb. Later, her illness was compounded by a mental and physical degeneration. I didn’t want to see or hear her. Her misfortune was too great a reminder of our family’s history. I understood that the bad luck I wished upon her was meant to punish her. To punish everyone for all the shit clinging to me. Nothing religious about it. Easy enough to understand. Every encounter I had with her was painful. I couldn’t help but think about our childhood, our poverty, our fathers destroyed by war who ignored our very existence. She was losing her language. She stopped speaking. One day, I went with her to Paris. She was going to visit a center for children like her. Our fathers came with us. We entered a room with tables and headsets. She and I played together with the devices. We were six years old and had only been in this new country a few months. She was losing her language. They took her away. Her disease was accelerating. They ran some tests on her. The center was run by nuns. There was also a doctor. They were all facing us, we were seated behind her, listening to her pronounce, very slowly, the e, e, they were trying to get her to say. Ee, ee, repeated the nuns. Eh, eh, said my cousin. It was 1968. Paris was in revolt. Its youths were once again swarming the streets. Revolution’s hand was outstretched and it had lovely plans for the world. “Sous les pavés la plage,” read our fathers. Under the cobblestones, the beach… That slogan opened up a path, and in the medicine factory where they had just been hired, people were talking about strikes and insurrection. Our fathers once again feared for the life they had. We were children. Little girls shaken by trauma. My cousin didn’t return home with us. We left her alone in that boarding school for the deaf and dumb. Outside, in the yard, there were other girls. Older. All older. And we left her there, my cousin, who was deaf and dumb, and who knew nothing about this country and its language. We left her there alone. Her parents had no other choice.
No more words. No more melody. Just a few brief sounds. And my cousin became The Child Who Does Not Speak.
As an adult, she came back to live with her parents. People said she was a little better. I went to see her. She had a resigned smile on her face. Concentrating, she made a few sounds with her mouth. Broken-up words. She wasn’t mute anymore. But she could barely stammer. I knew where she came from. What had they done to her?
We would never find comfort for what had happened.
At five years old, I abandoned my family so I could learn, on my own, how to escape a community that didn’t want me the way that I was born: excluded. If I hadn’t succeeded, I would have remained nothing but a block of pain encased in silence.
Ten years later I remember going to my mother to ask her, in her language, why I always had the same nightmare.
I’m being chased by old women. She tells me, Those aren’t old women, they’re children. I show her the scar above my eye and ask her who caused it. She says, The children. And I repeat, No. No, there are only old women. Old women running after me with sticks.
The nightmare ended. It ended after I was able to tell my mother in her language: I’m running, I’m running so fast, I turn around, the old women are chasing me, I’m crying, I insult them, I run, I run so fast, I scream, I tell them they won’t get me and, right when they’re about to catch me, I open the door to the house where we used to live, I go inside, I close it. I wake up exhausted. The old women are behind the door.
It was the children running after you, says my mother. Sometimes you would run into the yard, you wanted to go outside, and you would go see them, just to say that your father would be back soon. They’re the ones who threw stones at you. They’re the ones who hurt your eye. So why the old women? Why do I only see old women? No children. No little girls like me. She doesn’t know. She just tells me, Back then it was only the women and children like you. Women, mothers aged by suffering and death. Grieving their lost ones. And you kept demanding that your father, a Harki but still alive, in prison, come back. But they wanted him dead.
I was the daughter of a tainted man. The unwanted offspring of a new world, born in 1962. In Algeria, there had been deaths, martyrs, and combatants. Nobody wanted the rest, the “survivors,” those caught in the middle. So I had been expelled from a community moving forward, and from its future. I finally understood that I wasn’t the only one to suffer in this story.
I had spoken to my mother in her language. I hadn’t breathed a word in Kabyle in ten years and there I was, talking to her in her language. I wasn’t alone or abandoned anymore. Time had done its job. I stood up straight and reconnected with my family. I never saw the old women in my dreams again.
Why, a few months after leaving Algeria, did I stop speaking my language? Only to find it again ten years later?
I was in France. I learned and spoke a new language. At school. I had a new country, a new language, but above all, there was school. A New World. Leaning toward me, begging me to learn. Leaning toward me, index finger pointing at a word. Say, Little. Say, Little. Little. Little Tom. Say, Little Tom Thumb. I weighed barely anything. In my mother’s country, I had stopped eating. Tom Thumb was the youngest, like me, in a family fallen on hard times. Little Tom Thumb. I was him and my father had come home. Thin, sad, but home. At five years old, I stopped eating. I was waiting for him, waiting for him to return. He came back. No, he came. I was born without knowing him. He was in prison at the time. I hadn’t seen him for five years, and then he was there. He had escaped and we ran away. Left Algeria for this country. My father was finally back, but he didn’t see me. I had been waiting for him, and he had nothing to give me. So I held out my hand to the woman, at school, leaning toward me. And she gave me hers. She held my hand every day that I was beside her. Read. Read little one, and Mrs. Boulanger became my angel at the same moment when Tom Thumb, who so loved his poor brothers, encountered the breadcrumb-eating bird that would make him lose his way. I learned the language of Europe in one day. The day when Tom Thumb got lost on his path, the same night I dreamed of the elephants, the night I lost my native tongue, I spoke in his language. I left my people to join him. A companion in misfortune, betrayed by his own, like me. His story became mine. Together, his brothers and I could form a family. I would never want to leave his forest. During the day, I heard birds singing and at night, when the paths sunk into shadow, I happily kept moving. One more night, just one more night with them. Over and over, I climbed trees, tossing and throwing the words of our future into the sky. I didn’t want our life in this place to ever end. For these new brothers, I collected marvels and created shelters out of wood. Stretched out above those makeshift structures, we gazed at the stars and then looked down to watch the nocturnal activity below. It was through Little Tom Thumb and his language that I learned to negotiate my new world.
I waited ten years. Ten years to return to my family. Like Tom Thumb, who had to save his own, I needed to face the ogres and defeat them. The ones from the childhood fables that I had abandoned on the night of the elephants. I had to recognize them and find the words in Kabyle to vanquish them. Ten years to understand that I also had a home. My native tongue. Tom Thumb returned without me. The language of my childhood, my language from elsewhere, my mother’s language, a fading language welcomed me. A language that I had rejected the night of the elephants was still with me. I knew that all along. So how did I lose my voice?
I remember sitting across from the door to my closed bedroom. The mother who finds me in the hallway, asking me what I’m doing on the ground, is no longer my mother. Leaning down, she’s talking to me, I understand her, but I don’t say anything. I won’t say anything. She asks me what I’m doing, I know what she’s asking, because the sun is rising and it’s early, I know that she got up to do her prayers and that she’s wondering what her sweat-drenched child is doing in this hallway, and I don’t answer. Not a sound comes out of my mouth. I can’t talk to her anymore. And yet I hear her. I understand her. I had been living in a world that only her language could access. So I understood her. And if I kept that language with me, it’s because it had been my guide and companion since infancy. But in France, it represented a universe that could never match what was expected of me, here, in this country. I had to get away from that struggle. I only ever had one angel to watch over me. Only one angel who asked me to read. But there was no one, during this whole time, who could teach me to live in this country. My language was my only recourse. I had to find it again.
I know the solitude of the displaced child. You are ripped from your story and, blindly, you have to keep moving ahead anyway. You are told to keep going, in ignorance.
Your language is dead, said my books. And yet the words of my childhood were just walled away. I learned that a language doesn’t die. Languages don’t die. I was born in a cramped space. I was chased. I’m still being chased. I run, I find the door, I slam it shut, I lock it. I’m safe. I’m still behind a closed door. At fifteen, I brusquely asked my mother, in my rediscovered language, Who are the women chasing after me? She says, They’re children. The other children always ran after you. You would go find them and come back running. And that scar on your left eye? It was the children. Just children? I only see old women, chasing me. I want to know why they’re the ones I see. Why do I only see old women? Tell me, why do I only see old women? They’re always there, behind me, like those toothless faces in Spanish paintings! They were children. Only children. No, they were old women. I know, I saw them!
I ran so far.
I always ran when I was afraid. Ran to escape the army, the soldiers. Ran to escape the sticks, rocks, or hands. Ran to escape someone yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand. A soldier yelling at a child in a language she doesn’t understand. Ran until the door. I was always looking for that door. Leave, go, flee. Find a door. Shelter. And every time, I locked it shut.
One day, I swallow an orange seed. My mother isn’t here. I don’t know why, but she isn’t here. Maybe she’s at the hospital. Bringing my brother into the world. My brother who wore her out. She hasn’t been here for days and I don’t go see her. I’m in France, but I’m not allowed to see her. My father refuses. He locks us inside. He says that we can’t trust anybody in this country. But I have an orange seed in my throat. So I run away. I run to my older sister’s house. I run fast. I hold my breath, the seed is stuck deep inside my throat, I have to hold it there otherwise it will start to talk in my stomach. I hold it as I run, I hold it until I get to my sister’s house. Houria, Houria, a seed is going to start talking in my stomach. It’s going to talk, talk and take my place. I’m going to die. I’m suffocating, I can’t breathe. My sister dries my forehead with a washcloth. She tells me, You can swallow. I can swallow the seed? Let it reach my stomach? A tree will grow, I tell her. No, there won’t be a tree. I have a seed in my stomach that won’t talk. And there won’t be a tree?
That’s how I know that I heard and understood my mother’s language. She’s the one who told me the story about the Magic Pit and the Tree of Adversity.
There once was a king’s daughter whose beauty was so rare and gentle that they built a palace around her meant to equal her in every way. They brought her the most beautiful things from all around the world. But you can’t leave this place, said her family, fearful that her purity would be tarnished. Every morning, before they went hunting, her brothers and father brought her to her palace. They left her alone, surrounded by everything that had been given her. Her voice, they say, was as soft as a bird’s breath and she would practice singing their songs. She sang to the animals and they all understood her. Tender and affectionate, they accompanied her wherever she went. Flowers bowed at her passing, some growing even more beautiful. From them, she gathered vibrant colors and poise. The trees and plants weren’t about to be outdone. They shared their power, with complete trust, with their hostess, in a language that only she understood. Nature kept few secrets from her. The zephyr came at night to carry away the ravaged stamens from the flowerbeds, while the rain would arrive a little later, sprinkling this gracious and delicate place with its cool water, as the palace awoke. And thus every morning, men and women came to pay court, in their most becoming clothes, to the princess who had, everything considered, thanks to her grace, beauty, and intelligence, blessed them with virtue and kindness. One day, a man came to her door. She refused to open it. Every day he came back to say, This world you’re living in won’t last. Like every one of us, you will know adversity. The princess didn’t respond. She said nothing to her brothers or father. Never open the door. Never, they had told her. And every night, carried on her silk- and gold-adorned palanquin, the princess was brought back to her parents’ home by those who loved and cherished her. In her absence, the palace was put back in order by bustling servants. They cleaned the mirrors and the aviaries, and then the pathways. They spread scented oils near the benches, chairs, and tables, and, picking up leaves and flower petals, spread gleaming milk over the grass. Perfumed pomades were rubbed over all the furs and hangings, and before leaving, the servants put out small delicacies. The princess was living in an enchanted world. Those around her wanted her to know nothing of suffering or death. But the man came back every day. Would you rather know now or later what you’ll experience? You will know unhappiness. This life you’re living will end one day. Do you want to know? Tell me, do you want to know or not? The man came back every day. Every time, he asked the same question. Do you want to know? The princess gave in. If I have to know unhappiness, then make it so that I’m surrounded by those I love. I wouldn’t be able to stand it as an old woman. The man left. When night fell, none of the princess’s brothers came to get her. She waited all night but didn’t see a single person. At the first hint of daylight, she ran to her family’s palace. What she saw devastated her. Desolation everywhere. She climbed the stairs. She saw her father on his throne, dead, pierced through the heart. She ran to her brothers’ quarters. They were all dead. Her mother, her dear mother, was lying on the ground. The princess began to cry. She couldn’t stop. It’s my fault all those I love are dead, she thought. And yet she had been warned. She wanted to die but her grief was too big. Several days went by. The man reappeared. She couldn’t make out his face. Now that you know, he said, what do you plan to do? She didn’t know how to respond. You must either die or leave this place, he said. Please return to my palace, she told him, and bring me back something. One single thing. Go to the tree of adversity. Pick the most beautiful fruit and bring it to me. She described the tree to the man. He left to carry out her request. In the meantime, she prepared a fire. The man came back. His face covered, he held out his arm and handed her the fruit. Wait for me outside, said the princess. The man quietly stepped out. She took a knife, opened the fruit, and removed the pit. She threw it in the fire and held it over the embers with a stick. Endure what I endure, she said to the pit. But it leaped out of the fire. She started over. Endure what I endure, she said once again. But the pit leaped out of the fire. She started over and put it back in the fire, on the stick. Endure what I endure, she said, but the pit didn’t want to burn. It leaped out of the fire. She repeated her efforts seven times. And the pit leaped out of the fire seven times. Then she picked up the magic pit. She placed it against her heart and made her way to her father’s throne. She saw that he was seated there with his ministers. She climbed the stairs. She heard her brothers and their wives, one of whom was calling for her husband. She kept climbing. Until the last set of rooms, the queen’s. A valet announced her. Her mother was alive. A servant opened the doors and the princess ran towards the window. Far in the distance she saw the ghost of the man who had predicted her loved ones’ deaths. She went to her mother with open arms. What are you doing here? asked her mother. I know that you wanted to raise me in ignorance, replied the princess. The tree of adversity had shared its secret with her: the world that surrounds you as a child is a lie.
An orange seed is nothing, nothing at all. You have to swallow it. Just swallow.
Excerpt from Muslim © Zahia Rahmani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Lara Vergnaud. All rights reserved.