Arms brighter than the light of a long summer day,
breasts and hair to the taste of Hannibal,
ginger, hale, and supple.
“Has she no part in you, your mother?” I used to wonder aloud.
“Only where you cannot see it,” she would reply dryly while adding: “I do not wear her on the outside.”*
We would then kiss. Or rather Kaouther would kiss me. I, turning deftly, would offer the other cheek to suffer osculation.
Then she would sit and wait in silence. “O, Fool, enough! She is waiting. But what for?” I used to ask myself.
Until one day, Kaouther decided to love me while whispering in my left ear: “You must honor my offer, otherwise. . . .” A gesture, intimate and unthinking, that sealed our fate for the summer. I savored her offer then and there, but only for a brief moment, for I desperately wanted to prolong the pleasure of her visits to my house. Then, on a breezy summer afternoon when everyone was having a siesta, I sensed her arriving. Sweet and wholesome as a carrot, Kaouther bloomed out of a crowd, her nearness, like a miner’s light, going before her. Precocious mistress of the idiom of the Berber language. Virgil thought love a native of the rocks. Or did he? I, however, speak of love, not Eros, born in innocence among the tiny pearls of couscous Kaouther’s mother and the other women made for my family each summer in the High Atlas, while Kaouther and I, even we, shared events, confidences, and embraces, half-undoing months of absence. And from that day we grew up.
Later, I would often run, following her trail in the grass. When she stopped and spoke to me, I had to look at her mouth, because of the challenge her red hair and thick lips offered. In the middle of our escapades, the day of making couscous lasted all day and our four hands were everywhere at once. Unencumbered by private or public gaze, Kaouther, who told me that she could whistle, but she could not lace her shoes, and I, grown stealthy, marauding among the bushes, nibbled our way like a pair of foxes through shrubs and leaves. We played the game we loved most nimbly, without, however, exhausting ourselves. And it was made all the more exquisite by her lisp, for she had one, and it used to make me fall for her all the time–even when I had no intention or desire to do so. And I did fall for her not once, not twice. I simply could not imagine the temptation of escaping chastisement by avoiding even the merest hint of not being with her at that time and in that place, especially when she poured over classic Berber tales, narrated in a way that was unfamiliar to me, in a language that she could hardly speak, and yet I found her words intimate and full of assurance. Today, Berber retains a certain exteriority–the Berber that was spoken by Kaouther, translated into English and recorded on the page helps me trace the sequence of this kind of musing, namely, that I led a life no one else knew about, except perhaps my mother. For the first time in my life I was out of the sight of adults. For the first time in my life I was alone with Kaouther in a world whose behavior I could neither predict nor fathom, but somehow enjoyed: a world of whispers of intimacy, of birds that sung their hearts out, of scents of rosemary, lavender, thyme, jasmin, gardenia, and other plants that filled the air with aromas, of insects that sprang about without warning. I was lost and I did not mind. But then, I put back my head and howled, and the sun hit me smartly on the face, like a bully. Through the long summer ages of those days I enlarged my world and mapped it in my mind, its secure heavens, its dust-deserts and puddles, its peaks of dirt and flag-flying bushes. It was an existence remarkably open to breeze, birds and rainfall, to the arrival of daylight and evening, and it was also strangely, unselfconsciously, enclosed.
Still, my preoccupation was with betrayal: whether it is possible to betray oneself, and whether it is possible not to betray other people; and how, if at all, these things are connected. My sense of my self is that I was involved but never included; I was always part of someone else’s project and grew up–turning a predicament into a wish–craving the desire of those women around me. I wanted to be indispensable, and my father’s high-maintenance egotism left me with a virtual passion for passivity. Growing up as someone who stammered as a child and was therefore out of place, someone who still gropes for words and has always been guilty of malapropisms in English, strangely, despite his mother’s clamorous love for him, may be reason for having these kinds of thought, but that only makes them more pertinent. How, I used to ask myself, could one be proud of one’s disloyalty? And the answer might be, one could be proud of it if it was part of one’s project to find the impersonal rather than the personal in intimacy. Loyalty may be the traditional bond, but it may not be the only one; trust may be cherished, but what if it is something of a fake candor or fake seriousness?
“The artist is, oddly, inspired by being part of someone else’s project,” Kaouther would intone. “He or she can take a hint and do something with it. He or she is the person who enjoys being outdone, who relishes the opportunity not to be inhibited, and doesn’t mind that he or she has been cast.”
It is as though Kaouther believed that the artist is the person who, by accepting his or her fate, can make something of it.
“We are all actors in other people’s plays,” she would add. “But some people are less grudging about their performances than others. Your wish to be a writer, to be an artist must be every bit as strong as your wish to be loved and sexually punished, and mocked by women. Proust says ‘love is good training for writing because it makes us jealous, which in turn makes us more attentive and analytic and observant. He also says it leads to submit the beloved to a circular analysis that later we can apply to any literary subject.’”
I told Kaouther I was never jealous, or very seldom, and I hatched no stratagems for winning someone back, except perhaps, my mother. By now, I understood that one essential connection never quite makes sense. Always funny and perilously trusting, she knew that such remarks are likely to make the reader suspicious; anyone who writes about their childhood experience with so much play-acting in it must realize that painful honesty is going to sound like a deliberate false note.
Kaouther, who had her hair tied in braids, a distinctive Berber characteristic for a young woman, always reminded me that the stories we told each other, the songs we sang, and the dances we danced together while holding hands were stories and songs and dances of freedom. It took me a long time to understand what she meant–that our contingencies could not be commanded, only observed. This is partly a matter of temperament, but it was also a product of my cultural position, as a child whose Berberness placed me at a remove from finding the center, and whose French-language Algiers schooling placed me at an almost equal remove from the Algiers that remains for me and my family the place most easily thought of as home. Interspersed through my life are tiny, seemingly inconsequential notes of a carefree childhood. All experience is drenched in memory, and one often muses on the pattern that one’s life has made. Impelled by the impossible dream that a narrative such as this one might somehow articulate the experience of sharing in the making of couscous, the world Kaouther and I lived in was one of complicity. It was also a world where I could lose myself to an underworld of secrets only I knew about, a time when I dumbly gaped at her flesh, beauty, legs, breasts, shoulders, the eloquent half of Venus herself. I loved Kaouther, but no more than I loved her mind, tenacious, stubborn, and so full of doubt, it doubted each of us and all of us together. Today, if the passions deepen to concern and such things as sheltering from the sudden downpour of rain, hugging close more often, waking to each other in the dark, or quarreling ardently more than we should have done, it is because I look to the page which nourishes my content, and word by word, this narrative clings to my good fortune like a sauce. Time makes yellow secrets of my letters, until the past is unalloyed with circumstance, and becomes pure moments of unearned deserving.
* – This section was inspired by the poetry of Sheldon P. Zitner, dear friend, great critic, and teacher. For more on the subject, see his The Asparagus Feast (Montréal: McGill UP, 2002): 45-6.