Fifth Movement: the Tunic of Nessus. (Part I)
My father, a tall erect figure in a fez, walks down the village street; he pulls me by the hand and I, who for so long was so proud of myself - the first girl in the family to have French dolls bought for her, the one who had permanently escaped cloistering and never had to stamp and protest at being forced to wear the shroud-veil, or else yield meekly like any of my cousins, I who did deliberately drape myself in a veil for a summer wedding as if it were a fancy dress, thinking it most becoming - I walk down the street, holding my father's hand. Suddenly, I begin to have qualms: isn't it my 'duty' to stay behind with my peers in the gynaeceum? Later, as an adolescent, well nigh intoxicated with the sensation of sunlight on my skin, on my mobile body, a doubt arises in my mind: 'Why me? Why do I alone, of all my tribe, have this opportunity?'
I cohabit with the French language. I may quarrel with it, I may have bursts of affection, I may subside into sudden or angry silences - these are the normal occurrences in the life of any couple. If I deliberately provoke an outburst, it is less to break the unbearable monotony, than because I am vaguely aware of having been forced into a 'marriage' too young, rather like the other little girls of my town who are 'bespoke' in their earliest childhood.
Thus, my father, the schoolteacher, for whom a French education provided a means of escape from his family's poverty, had probably 'given ' me before I was 'nubile' - did not certain fathers abandon their daughters to an unknown suitor, or, as in my case, deliver them into the enemy camp? The failure to realize the implications of this traditional behaviour took on for me a different significance: when I was ten or eleven, it was understood among my female cousins that I was privileged to be my father's 'favourite' since he had unhesitatingly preserved me from cloistering.
But marriageable royal princesses also cross the border, often against their will, in terms of treaties which end wars.
French is my 'stepmother' tongue. Which is my long-lost mother-tongue, that left me standing and disappeared? ... Mother tongue, either idealized or unloved, left to fairground barkers and jailers!...Burdened by my inherited taboos, I discover I have no memory of Arabic love-songs. Is it because I was cut off from this impassioned speech that I find the French I use so flat and unprofitable?
The Arab poet describes the body of his beloved; the Andalusian exquisite composes treatise after treatise, listing a multiplicity of erotic postures; the Muslim mystic, dressed in woolen rags and satisfied with a handful of dates, expresses his thirst for God and his longing for the hereafter with a surfeit of extravagant epithets... The prodigality of this language seems to me somewhat suspect, consoling with empty words... Wealth squandered while they are being dispossessed of their Arab heritage.
Words of love heard in a wilderness. After several centuries of cloistering, the bodies of my sisters have begun to come out of hiding here and there over the last fifty years; they grope around, blinded by the light, before they dare advance. Silence surrounds the first written words, and a few scattered laughs are heard above the groans.
'L'amour, ses cris (s 'ècrit): my hand as I write in French makes the pun on love affairs that are aired; all my body does is to move forward, stripped naked, and when it discovers the ululations of my ancestresses on the battlefields of old, it finds that it is itself at stake: it is no longer a question of writing only to survive.
Long before the French landed in 1830, the Spanish established their presidios (garrison posts) as strategic points along the Maghribin coast - Oran, Bougie, Tangiers, Ceuta; the indigenous rulers in the interior continued to resist and the occupying forces frequently found their food supplies cut off; thus they adopted the tactics of the rebato: an isolated spot could be chosen from which to launch an attack, and to which they could retreat and use in the intervals between hostilities for farming or for replenishing supplies.
This type of warfare, rapid offensives alternating with as swift retreats, allowed each side to continue fighting indefinitely.
After more than a century of French occupation - which ended not so long ago in such butchery - a similar no-man's land still exists between the French and the indigenous languages, between two national memories: the French tongue, with its body and voice, has established a proud presidio within me, while the mother tongue, all oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two breathing spaces. In time to the rhythm of the rebato, I am alternately the besieged foreigner and the native swaggering off to die, so there is seemingly endless strife between the spoken and written word.