« À tous les enfants qu’on a séparés de la langue des père et mère »
Leila Sebbar – L’Arabe comme un chant secret
Partout français. la langue les livres et puis surtout les gens. des profs français.es venus de France. parfois installé.es là depuis longtemps. des expats quand moi je serai toujours immigré.e en France. beaucoup étaient des patient.es de ma mère. me demandaient de ses nouvelles à la bibliothèque. ça m’aidait à me sentir à ma place. j’y repensais quand on remettait en cause ma légitimité.
Quand la mère d’une amie me demandait si j’étais sûre de ne pas avoir vécu en France ou d’avoir de la famille française car je n’avais vraiment aucun accent, et qu’elle me regardait les yeux ébobille en insistant quand je lui disais non. Je me rappelle de la vexation que mini-moi trouvait intolérable. Mais iel avait gardé le silence face à la franco-tu. Peut-être sentait-iel sa supériorité sur l’échiquier du monde. En même temps ça n’a aucun sens de ne pas avoir d’accent en Français quand on a grandi dans un pays arabophone. On me dit parfois que mes « Oui » sont des « ui ». Je ne crois pas que ce soit important. Mais je dis plutôt « ouais » maintenant, au cas où. Je ne crois plus que l’accent importe. Je l’ai appris en arrivant à Paris quand on admirait les gens qui parlaient autre chose que leur langue maternelle. En Tunisie, mes parents et toustes les gens bien éduqué.es de leur génération m’ont appris à juger silencieusement les gens qui parlent mal le français. Iels ne disaient pas qu’il fallait le faire mais ça se voyait que ça n’allait pas. Iels s’en moquaient un peu parfois. Échangeaient des regards entendus. Les élites voyaient l’accent et les erreurs de français comme un signe d’infériorité. En retour, trop bien parler français est maintenant vu comme une volonté de rabaisser l’autre, assoir sur lui votre supériorité. Lutte des classes dans ma bouche perdue. Ma bouche qui ne sait parler que la France.
Alors dans mon ailleurs qui n’en était pas un je n’avais pas le choix. Aucun autre choix que la réussite. Aucun autre choix que l’assimilation. Depuis toujours.
Non pas parfaite. Si le français demeurait la langue du savoir, mes parents ont tout fait pour qu’on apprenne l’arabe. On était musulman.es quand même. Il ne fallait pas qu’iels fassent des enfants incapables de lire le coran. Mais à part ça pas grand-chose. Je n’ai jamais entendu ma mère parler d’Abou El Qacem El Chebbi comme elle parlait de Flaubert. Elle a eu 4 en arabe avant d’être major de promo durant toutes ses années universitaires. L’arabe me barbe dit-elle en haussant les épaules. Ce n’est pas la littérature arabe que mon père regrette mal connaitre mais la littérature classique, gréco-latine, française, occidentale, à laquelle il ne s’est jamais suffisamment intéressé à son goût. A laquelle il n’a jamais eu les moyens de s’intéresser car ses parents arabophones n’auraient pas pu lui en ouvrir les portes. Il a appris le français dans les dictionnaires qu’il lisait inlassablement avant de s’endormir. L’a perfectionné dans le scrabble qui l’obsède depuis l’adolescence. Son vocabulaire est d’une précision inouïe. Il balbutie toujours un peu quand il parle à un.e Français.e.
The first hard word I remember learning as a kid was Cucurbitacée. I was 6, at a Pizza Hut in Paris with my dad, my very first trip abroad. I was coloring the little table sets they give children to keep them quiet. It was Halloween and everything was covered with pumpkins – which is strange because, how gross would a pumpkin pizza be, it feels even worse than pineapple pizza which my sister loves and I judge her for it. I don’t know why my dad told me pumpkins belonged to the family of Cucurbitaceae, but I found it fascinating, even more when he said that cucumbers, my favorite veggie in the whole wild world, was their cousin. My dad always brought up his knowledge of plants casually. I think it’s the only part of studying Pharmacy that he liked, or at least didn’t despise. He can cite the French, English and Latin name of any plant in the world. He helped me make an herbarium for a class once. The teacher was so impressed she wanted to keep it as an example for future students. I refused; it’s rotting in a cupboard in my bedroom in Tunisia.
My parents have kept my room almost untouched even though I’ve stopped living there over nine years ago. I still go often, but less and less frequently; it always makes me feel like the most important human being on the planet.
My dad is always the one who picks me up at the airport. He’s older now, in his early sixties, his hair still brown except for the greying temples. He still looks like a middle-aged man, but you already feel the old person creeping up underneath his slowly crouching frame. It’s more obvious each time I see him standing behind the airport barriers and realize I am slowly getting taller than he is.
He was never tall, nor so big and strong. When I learnt that men’s voices break at puberty, I remember asking my mum when his voice would, because it was so soft and kind, it did not feel manly. He only ever smoked to seduce my mom, never drank either. I always thought it was for religious reasons but turns out he never understood the appeal, and doesn’t care if I drink a bottle of wine while he’s sipping his sempiternal coke without ice. His most virile traits have always been his love for soccer and his Cro-Magnon-like refusal to put on lotion, even when his hands or feet are so chaffed they could bleed
He was born in 1960 to parents who were also second-degree cousins. It’s not taboo to marry between cousins in Islam but my grandma was five years older than my grandpa and that was very unusual for the late-fifties Tunisia. My grandma had him at thirty-six. She’d had a miscarriage before and decided she wouldn’t risk going through that pain again. One child was enough. He came from a very large, very educated family. I only learnt to distinguish between my grandma’s eleven siblings when I was sixteen, at her funeral. My parents organized a family reunion for them, their spouses and their kids – my dad’s more than eighty cousins – once, we had a hundred and fifty people over. His cousins meant the world to him, they were like the brothers and sisters he wished for but never had. He told me once that he dreamt of marrying someone with a big family, so he’d finally experience that kinship with people. Sadly for him, he married my mum who has two siblings and such a fucked-up family there’s not a single chance of creating any kind of relationship with them. He was my uncle’s wedding witness for his second marriage last year though, it must’ve made him very happy.
His parents were educated, but they weren’t rich. My grandpa was a school teacher, sometimes a principal. When my dad was a kid, they kept moving from a shitty town to another, always in the middle of nowhere. When they were in Ain Jammela for two years, they had neither running water, nor electricity. I imagine him, tiny, alone – probably a bit awkward, since he still is now – but the kindest person you’ll ever meet, always ready to give you a hand, to go out of his way for an unrequested favor. He was bullied in middle school. His dad had gotten back to university to become an Islamic studies professor and could finally settle as a high school teacher in Tunis. My dad spent two years at one middle school. He describes them as the worst in his life. He always said it was because the school was dark, with windows like slots high up the walls and he had a bad schedule that got him hanging around the building in-between classes. But I only discovered last year that he hated those hours because it gave his bullies a chance to get a hold of him.
His cousins had siblings unlike him, but they also had more educated parents. My grandma was the second eldest of her numerous family. Her dad was a famous poet, the favorite of Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president and independence hero. He taught his daughters to read and write at home because girls weren’t allowed in schools in the 1930s, in the small city of Kairouan where both my grandparents grew up. Her younger sisters were disguised as boys so they could go to school. The law soon changed, and all of her sisters went on to have successful careers as physics professors or bank executives; her brothers were even more successful, they were doctors and CEOs; traveling, living abroad and marrying foreign women. All of them spoke French, drank wine and smoked a lot.
My dad learnt French in books. His parents didn’t have a lot of money – he didn’t have a gift for his tenth birthday because they had just bought their first TV – but they made sure he’d always have books in French, hoping he’d learn what they didn’t. He was born four years after Tunisia’s Independence, but everything was still in French, the studies, the signs, the names of the streets. He spent his teen years with a dictionary by his bed, reading pages before he’d fall asleep and when he picked up Scrabble at fifteen, he never stopped. He went on to become President of Tunisia’s Scrabble Association. We always made fun of him for it, jokingly calling him Mr President when he made a statement or disagreed with people. His passion got him free trips around the world to go to World Championships. He was never among the best, but he travelled to France, Spain, Canada or the US in his twenties to no expense. He’s still president of that association to this day and is currently organizing a world cup in Tunisia. His French is impeccable. He knows words nobody has ever heard of. He wrote beautiful poetry when he was in college, that’s how he convinced my mum to start dating him after seven years of friendship. And yet, when he’s speaking to someone who had French as their mother tongue, he gets flustered and starts stammering, still sure he’s not good enough. He never really got to read the Classics, because he never knew where to start. It always felt too big, inaccessible to him. I think that’s why he put me in the French School system, so I would never feel like I didn’t belong.
Quand je me préparais à passer le concours d’entrée à l’école française, ce concours qui allait déterminer ma vie alors que je n’avais que cinq ans, ce concours qui me décevrait finalement par sa simplicité, car pour qui me prenait-on pour que je ne sache pas mettre les carrés dans les carrés et les ronds dans les ronds. Pour tenir une conversation dont la langue dont j’ai dit pendant longtemps que je l’ai apprise parallèlement au Tunisien alors même que je sais que j’ai appris le Tunisien avant. Que je me rappelle ma grand-mère maternelle me disant à trois ans Comment on va faire pour parler entre nous si tu comprends le français maintenant ?
When I was five, my grandpa started giving me Arabic lessons. He’d come up to our house – which was on top of his – and I’d hide behind the TV as soon as I heard his steps. He’d be decent enough to pretend looking for me for a moment, then get me out of my hideout and we’d finally sit at the table. He’d take a white sheet of paper and tear it into smaller pieces. I would admire the way he made perfect squares without scissors when my clumsy hands barely managed to hold a pen. That hasn’t really changed and I still end up with smudged hands and fingers whenever I write by hand.
He’d take the perfect little squares and write letters on them to try and quiz me, but I’d keep distracting him, asking about dinner and lunch, and when the season of fresh almonds would be back. Baba Azizi didn’t eat any fruit. He hated them all. Except for fresh almonds and chestnuts. The latter weren’t easy to come by in Tunisia, so the only fruits he really ate were fresh almonds. He spent his summer afternoons cracking open their green velvety shells, and he even built a system to send our share up: he installed a bucket attached to a long rope on our window, and when it was full, he’d cry out, and my sister and I would come running to lift it up and devour the tiny watery seeds. But the subject at hand wasn’t el louz lakhdhar. It was me learning to read and write Arabic, and that really didn’t work out so well.
I was far from his first student; he had been an elementary school teacher most of his life but his training didn’t work on me. The classes were quickly given up.
Him and my grandma didn’t speak a word of French. They were the only people I had no choice but to speak Arabic with. And since they babysat a lot, I had to learn to speak it well enough to be able to communicate my needs. If it weren’t for them, I’d probably be barely able to say salem, even though I lived in Tunisia for the first eighteen years of my life.
We only moved to the house my dad built on top of theirs when I was three but they had lived a few miles away from all the places we’d been before. They’d always come together because my grandpa couldn’t drive but my grandma couldn’t find any route. Since my parents were at work a lot they came often. My dad owned a night pharmacy that he tended to on his own back then so my mum used to spend her day at her dentist practice, and go to the pharmacy at night after dinner to help out. To get me to quiet down before they left, these two medically trained individuals found no better plan than to give me a bottle of Coke to drink and leave my grandparents to deal with a sugar-crazed baby.
To this day, I can never sleep before the crack of dawn.
No one was more patient than my grandma. Habiba could spend hours telling us stories, helping us build and destroy Lego buildings, marrying our dolls, or helping us make colorful tapestries with the little plastic nails we were obsessed with. She would never get bored of our child play and taught us all the card games of the world. My grown-up sister still refers to the day Habiba stopped letting her win at Shkoba as the worst feeling of defeat she’s experienced in her life.
They were loving and caring and we were their only grandchildren since my dad’s an only child so they had a lot of time to give. They were well into their seventies when we were growing up but my grandma was a thin, energetic woman. You would always find her zooming up and down the stairs, having forgotten her knitting needles or her glasses in one house or the other, needing to add cumin and harissa to the borghol she was making for lunch in her little outside kitchen, running down to sew back the knees of the jeans we’d torn while running around.
One day my parents were at work.
We were alone with Habiba, my sister still a baby, and me barely more than a toddler.
I was obsessed with Dumbo and wanted to watch it over and over again. But we had dozens of cassettes to choose from and none were put back in their boxes; one had to read to identify them. I started yelling and crying at my grandma, who was trying to decipher a language she didn’t know, unsuccessfully attempting to spell out each letter.
I didn’t watch Dumbo that day, and part of me never recovered from that moment. It took me years to understand what happened but the child I was felt the weight of things left unsaid in my grandma’s panic.
The loss of a sameness that had never been and would never be.
I was enrolled at L’Ecole Française Robert Desnos – a French school in Tunisia where all the upper-class brats like me studied, before going to the Lycée Français Pierre Mendès France where they’d get their Baccalauréat and move to a fancy university abroad to study medicine, finance or engineering – ever since kindergarten. I felt, or rather was conditioned to feel, that anything that wasn’t French wasn’t worth my attention.
My grandparents’ inability to speak it became a shame I tried to hide.
I was ashamed my grandparents only spoke the words of their land.
That shame grew bigger and bigger over the years and almost extended to their whole person. We couldn’t really talk. Our conversation would stall at chitchat because neither of us could express themselves well enough in the language of the other. We shared a tainted, silent love whose hugs, borghol and louz akhdher became the real language. Being a self-obsessed teenager definitely didn’t help and their quirks became annoying, their demonstrations of love smothering.
A few months before their death, I was supposed to make a cow sculpture for an art class and was speaking about it non-stop. My grandma overheard me and being the magician seamstress she was, she made me a beautiful, stuffed white cow. I thanked her but deep down I smirked. This was not art, just uneducated, uninteresting craft.
Their lives obeyed a perfect routine. My grandpa rose early and went to the mosque to pray. My grandma loved to sleep in, or at least for someone born in the 1920s; she’d never wake up before 9 but would make her bed so tightly you’d think it was never used. They ate at noon sharp, often leftovers: no food ever got thrown away. After lunch, grandpa would do some reading, take a nap and rise to make himself a strong Turkish coffee. I loved its smell, fresh and roasty with a hint of flower extract. He’d tend to his garden and his jasmine plants, do some more reading, go back to the mosque, come home to watch the 8pm news while eating dinner with his wife, always undisturbed by any food you’d offer him after that moment. My grandma knitted a lot, did crochet. She cooked and tended to the household, but he helped her always.
He wasn’t a misogynistic asshole like most men of his time. I don’t know where he learnt to take care of his wife, to help her and be kind, but he was, a beautifully devoted man.
It was the end of May, the school year almost over and me obsessed with the summer coming up. I was sixteen, and expected it to be the best one of my short life since we were taking a family road trip to Spain in little more than a month.
My parents went on a trip to Saudi Arabia and Habiba wanted to come up with us for the two weeks they were away. I refused, the maid would suffice; my sister didn’t care enough to argue – and me being her older sister, she always ended up agreeing with me anyway. My grandpa told me it made Habiba cry but I didn’t care. They asked us to come down to visit them, because Baba Azizi had aged and his knees couldn’t take the stairs anymore. We didn’t. So they came up every day for a little while. I always kept waiting for them to leave.
My parents came back on a Friday.
There was a car crash Sunday.
Three people in the car.
Three dead bodies.
Habiba, Babaazizi, and my dad’s uncle.
They were over eighty
but still very healthy
I never really feared for them so never thought they were that important in my life.
That summer, we didn’t go to Spain, we didn’t have louz akhdher and nobody zoomed up and down the stairs anymore.
The chance to meet them for real is long gone.
My parents’ uncalculated choices
the cultural hegemony that doomed over our still colonized minds
shaped us into strangers.
I carry them with me now
in the depths of silence
guardians of a memory I couldn’t ask them to share,
a memory I seek