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from the September 2016 issue

Cous Cous Klan

Algerian–born Tahar Lamri blends strands from Italian, Arabic, German, and other Mediterranean cultures in his story of “an immobile traveler, eternally traveling” in present-day Italy.

My name is simply Samir. I am the fortieth direct descendant of Shams al-Din Abu 'Abdallah Muhammad ibn 'Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yusuf al-Lawati al-Tanji Ibn Battûta Ibn Hamid Al Ghazi, known simply as Ibn Battuta, born in Tangier in 1304 and died in Marrakesh in 1369. Ibn Battuta was an ancestor of mine who, in his sixty-five years of life and twenty-nine years of travels, journeyed seventy-five thousand miles—from Tangier to Timbuktu to the banks of the Volga, from Mogadishu to Zanzibar and from Muscat to Mecca—and all with the modes of transport of the era. Now we say seventy-five thousand miles; then, they measured journeys in years, months, and days.

“Safir fa fi assafaru sabaatu fauaidu”—“Journey forth, because travel has seven benefits”—the Arabs used to say. I have yet to know what these seven benefits are. I like the word “safar,” which has the same root as “book”—“sifr.” Every journey is a reading. A writing. If we think hard about it, the story of the world is no other than the story of one or two journeys.

It was not I who traveled. I followed in the wake of my parents’ journey and found myself here. An immobile traveler, eternally traveling. I have a language that is not that of my parents, nor that of my distant ancestor, Ibn Battuta. I know just one urban landscape and it is this one here before my eyes, or rather, here inside me, in the depths of myself. It is my landscape. The label I bear—second generation—carries within it a journey not made by me. I have inherited a movement without ever having moved. I’m an immigrant but I’m curing myself.

I leave to my parents their portable country, so magnificent in their memory and in the stories they tell; a country whose ground my feet have never trodden and whose language I don’t speak but understand perfectly. A country I find again in my house, in the distant gaze of my mother and in the food she meticulously prepares. Rechta, dolma, cous cous, bourek, kalantita: this is what we eat in this country that is my home, without getting too obsessed about things like geography. On the other side of my front gate there is Italy. I travel a great deal. Every time I leave the house, I’m in Italy. Whenever I’m at home I’m in the country of my parents.

My friends are called Suleymane, Nicola, Aymen, Tommaso, Nikita, Simon, Modou, and Giulio. Every now and again we stop off for a kebab when we don’t feel like pizza. These are our borders, the germinal points of arrival in our daily comings and goings in and out of the house. This year at school we learned From Threshold to Threshold. We also read:

You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes

descending and ascending others’ stairs

Some of us, me included, took this as referring to our parents.

Each one of us has said to ourselves, intimately: I, too, am Italy.

The others, joking, call us the “Cous Cous Klan.”

I love my city the way you love somebody with an unsatiated love. I love wandering around town with other Italians with Nigerian, Tunisian, Somalian, Romanian, and Albanian surnames.

Another of my passions is Aferdita. Upright stance and direct gaze at all times. Green eyes. Fayrouz, her best friend, has a gaze as blue as the Nile—that breaks to pieces the heart and Numidian soul of Djilani, from Sudan—and short black hair; slender as a Sienese cypress, roaming the city in jeans and sneakers. She walks often, under the heavy rain and also when a gentle breeze blows.

Djilani is from Omdurman. He got here ten years ago. Now he’s a real romagnolo. He came to study physical education and perfect his sporting techniques. When not talking about his love for Fayrouz—who, in his deliria, is attributed the traits of Nefertiti, then Kahina, then Balkis, then Antinea, then Cleopatra—he entertains us with his sporting exploits in the company of Korean athletes.

When I entered Aferdita’s circle, followed by my shadow, the world turned around on itself. I stared in embarrassment at my babouches, inherited from my ancestor Ibn Battuta, and couldn’t think of anything sensible to say to her. I told her about my thirst and about having the patience of a palm tree at an oasis. She laughed. I laughed too. My laughter was lost in the abyss of her laughter.

Today I bumped into my friend Tidjane Ahmadou Tall, known as Paolo, son of Awa and Muslim by habit. He came to Rome to study film, an idea of his unpredictable father, Ahmadou Tall, always as straight as the letter alif and now a Jehovah’s Witness convert. The idea of Rome was his, too, of course. He said the neorealism of May ’68, when Rome was brimming with euphoria, overflowing with energy and instilling a spreading sense of well-being into Europe, had left a lasting impression on him. Ahmadou Tall, self-taught like Borges, wanted to be an artist, a creator of utopian visions. He wanted to put the history of the Senegalese into images, to show the world the effects of the Thiaroyé market massacres, as a response to De Sica’s film La Ciociara.

Aferdita has a voice that bubbles and gurgles like the fountains of Rome. She gets angry about SUVs mounting the sidewalks, about the vulgarity of it. She’s as scornful as an Albanian pop song. Aferdita always has her iPod in her handbag, and on her iPod she always has a song by Sherif Merdani, sentenced to fifteen years in prison in communist Albania for singing “Let it be.” Now he sings it with another name, “Se kenduam,” with a lit cigarette and a few derisory comments about stupidity and environmental degradation.

Sometimes she says to me, in German: Ich. Du. Wir. The rest is secret. It concerns only the two of us.


© Tahar Lamri. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Robert Elliot. All rights reserved.

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