The apartment house in which I was born and raised--it was in Sfax, not far from Sahel--now strikes me as a symbol of the way Tunisia used to be.
The colonial building where we lived, close to the railroad station, had a double-spiral staircase that filled the space; it was on these white marble stairs that we, a band of kids, were living and playing and running together, from morning to night.
On the ground floor, there were three apartments. In one, a rabbi lived with his family--discreet, quiet people, they seemed to harbor a secret--and their solitude, their strangeness, sometimes troubled me. Opposite them lived a young couple, she French, he Maltese. They ran a fitness center, from which we heard continually a booming voice, counting: "and one, and two, and three, and four, and one...." These splendid athletes taught us kids that our body was a field that would whither if not taken care of and strengthened every day. Thank you Georges, thank you Rosette.
At the end of the entrance hall, a Corsican family lurked. He was a policeman, and we were afraid of him because their door was always closed. I know nothing about them. They had no children.
On the light-infused first floor, everything was different. Starting at dawn, the four families who lived there, of which mine was one, would fling open their doors and windows, noise constantly resounded--shouts, laughs, tears--radios broadcasting the news, and especially the popular songs of the day: those of Charles Trénet we knew by heart. This was the Jewish floor, inhabited by comfortably middle-class people, large families who lived as if part of a community. Each one of us truly knew the other.
The second and less well-off "Christian" floor housed two families. The mothers were Italian. We adored one, Madame Bartholo, in whose arms we sought refuge after every heartbreak. We feared, and avoided the other one, the violent and nasty Madame Durand. The Maltese Monsieur Bartholo was a barrel maker; Monsieur Durand worked for the railroad.
Friday night, all the kids from the building would go up to the top floor, carrying in both hands a plate of couscous with meat, whose perfume would awaken even the most dormant taste buds. We all ate together on the vast terrace, just as nightfall was descending on a star-studded sky. Our Catholic friends, Alice, Marcel, Roger, Sauveur, Momo would of course share our feast, and we would share their black pudding, garlic-flavored sausage, rabbit in red wine, runny camembert, that we eventually learned to love. It was the most beautiful day of the week. And our parents, relieved of our presence, could savor, at last, a moment of peace.
My mother (five children!) had the services of Halima, Carmensita, and Maria, who did the ironing. I loved them. Thanks to them, I learned many words in Arabic, Spanish, and Italian. My piano teacher, M. Kodjevnikof, as you may have guessed, was Russian.
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
The Muslim population lived either in “the Arab city,” surrounded by a wall, or in the countryside, in closed gardens. High walls protected the wives and their daughters from the eyes of strangers. I will never stop missing the lost perfume of the roses of those gardens. It made me swoon.
During our carefree and joyous Tunisian youth, nearly all the Mediterranean languages rustled in our ears. I was raised in this polyphony, where we each of us recognized ourselves in the language of the other—it was a perpetual play of mirrors. We rejoiced, without knowing it, in the richness of the reflections that they sent back and forth to us. And the different languages that we spoke answered each other, like the echo of one to the other, just as a piano or violins respond to the orchestra.
But this Tunisian symphony, sounds and colors and intermingled hearts, exists no more. History has erased it, without leaving a trace. But it seems to me that we are among the thousands, maybe millions, if we consider all colonized countries, to have had the luck—yes, the good luck, to rub shoulders with the Other, in all his or her distinctive features and uniqueness. This good fortune has saved us forever from the worst of sicknesses—racism. We have suffered from racism, and we suffer from it even more today, but this rich shared past continues to infuse our blood and our memory.
Yes, I feel sorry for the people who live in a vacuum, as if in a lead coffin.
“Who am I?” I asked myself before calling forth these memories.
I know only the Latin alphabet, and it’s thanks to the Tales of Andersen, or Grimm, and Perrault that I discovered European Literature, and then the literature of a wider world. I have, therefore, been European since the day of my birth, in a Punic and Greek and Roman and Vandal and Turkish and Arab and French land.
I was a European but I didn’t know it.
Translated from French by Diane Joy Charney.