:: Article

Electric Earth

By Massoud Hayoun.

The shapes on maps shifted. Optical illusions or mental tectonics. I had been trying to pinpoint exactly where she had lived so as to find my way back, but I knew she wouldn’t be there.

To locate the place we’re from, I needed to match a plot on an old map to the same space on newer maps. The object was to find the rightful street names, to be able arrive at the small airport in Carthage and give the taxi driver an intersection or a landmark.

My mother Nadia and I were going back to a place we’d never been. Perhaps it was sorrow or the fact that we had purchased last-minute plane tickets and had to consult these maps in haste, but the eyes played tricks. Street names had changed after independence. Our family had left Tunisia under occupation and had become accustomed to that state. Liberation confused me. In reality, the map movements I observed had taken decades and cost many lives. Prisons rang with gunshots and our anthem. But thumbing through paper and digital maps—old maps, re-creations from memory, Google Maps—the avenues appeared to crack and shift in seconds.

I’m not certain there had been municipal maps of the same nature before. Maps are Arab, but I am not sure that’s true of order, in the constrictive Western sense, down to the minutia of city grids, precisely marked streets and plots of land. Maybe these were a prison we’d come to accept. It’s hard to know what came before, since before only exists theoretically. The past had been thoroughly decimated. When my grandmother Daida  died, she took with her an entire civilization, containing time immemorial, and all I could do now was to match maps to know where we were, and that we were, once.

Under occupation, the streets on municipal maps used to form perfect, little rectangles. Des plaaaaaaces, they used to call them in French. And my family learned to open their mouths in a slight and indifferent A, not too loud or intent or musical. S’s so indifferent, they’re often totally silent. Des places. Squares, in English, but also, literally, places, as though places were naturally so finite and constrained. That was how it was, in those times. People were told that the outdoor prisons the colonists made had been formed on their shores like sand roses, so many perfect lines, a trick of nature. The legal and assailant colonialism that drives itself into the soil like the flags the first colonist plants, and that sheds blood, would be impossible without a more subtle conquest of the mind. A bad education.

After independence, the dead-ends penned by the colonists became broad thoroughfares. The landscape was re-written. And that’s all that will matter to our children. But I lost my way in the tectonic shifts.

I found myself in a Google Maps street view, turning round and round in circles, looking at people frozen mid-step, searching for my grandmother Daida, the dead Tunisian. Google obscures the faces of the people it catches in its street views, as though it would have preferred—for legal purposes—that those streets had been empty of the people that inhabit them. I keep clicking until I am running through the streets in every direction, time frozen in an unfamiliar modern-day, zooming in on faces as if to recognise a relative or a character in one of Daida’s stories.

*

Daida the Tunisian couldn’t go back, so neither could I, at least, not for decades, because I found it impossible to write her life until she’d died. We were very superstitious, Daida and I. We made little amulets against loss. To write her life too soon would have been to indicate to the universe that it should come to a close. It would have meant losing the power source with which I write or do anything at all.

On the wall of the home where I was raised, there was a photo of the young Daida sitting with her mother and aunt in a horse-drawn chariot, behind them a stately building with wrought iron Moresque flourishes, next to a white building with trim she had told me was blue. Beside that stood another building with rounded balconies, that looked like a sand castle. What came after this corner building was over-exposed, whited out by the light.

By the time we realised we should never have left our homeland, Daida had suffered a fall. In her final days, with Trump barking on the TV in the background—white noise—she drew many pictures of her street and other cities where she’d visited relatives, towns of white houses with turquoise trim. Mahdia. Soussa. Nabel. Sfax. Repetitions, for lack of anything better to do. A map. An Egyptian book of the dead. A series of twists and turns and obstacles to arrive at a destination. Things would be the same when we returned someday, after she was gone, she suggested. Our relatives in the countryside had built their homes around dirt floors. The Tunisian way is to sweep the soil so painstakingly that it resembles marble. Such is the poetic modesty and noble work ethic that ties the Tunisian to many other peoples around the world.

Then, one day, Daida told me she craved our traditional Tunisian brik fritters. How could I have said no?

One must take great care not to break the warka dough, sort of like an egg roll wrap, work fast and fill in light spots in the batter with a brush. When filling them and folding them into little parcels, one must not allow the brik to burst with the flavourful filling—the potatoes and egg and hot pepper paste. The best sort of hands for this are strong and dexterous with fingers shaped like little triangles. My mother Nadia’s fingers are long and gentle, like my grandfather’s, but mine are like Daida’s.

The taste is brik, but the brik should be dark gold, she declared, inspecting it as she chewed. More oil next time, brik isn’t a health food. Revolution isn’t a dinner party.

So that’s how I killed Daida. Several days later, she had a rupture in her stomach. No more fried foods, the doctor said. But after her surgery, none of his counsel mattered; she wouldn’t survive the anaesthesia. She simply could no longer breathe on her own. A very complex life, a very simple end—like a long, involved story without a commensurate moral or a joke with a whimsically simple punchline.

Her death left me feeling as if I was suspended in time, standing on the corner of a street in Panorama City, in the darkness, waiting for my Lyft. In my arms, I still hugged the plastic bag with her shawl and her glasses and the change of clothes my mother and I brought to the hospital to bring her home, where she had always anticipated she’d die.

Daida had long suffered, pushing herself to survive and do for herself, as limited as her mobility eventually became. At night, she complained that her hands and feet burned. No amount of air conditioning, no in-home manicure or pedicure could take from her the flames that engulfed her extremities. Among the possessions I flip through, frantically at times, is a journal into which she used to empty her sorrows so as not to bring anyone else down. Oh well, she wrote in misspelled French, all things must end.

*

Economists often write of brain drain. It is a shame when a nation loses its intellect to richer places, since it takes eons for those talents to form, like diamonds in the dirt. Some emerging countries introduce tax incentives for their entrepreneurial spirits to return home and help build the economy, and yet Tunisian law mandates that the government assist—with no apparent benefit to the state’s material wealth—Tunisian families abroad to transport their loved ones’ remains back home for a proper burial. The Constitution forbids denaturalization or the implementation of any barrier between the Tunisian and her land. This is why, in a country beset by struggles for economic sustenance, there is little question that tax money should be used to ensure that non-resident Tunisians have a proper burial. It is commonly accepted that the Tunisian is made of her soil and, ultimately, belongs to it.

*

Daida’s death felt more final than other deaths, perhaps due to decimated possibilities. Her life, by the time she arrived in Los Angeles, was behind her. We were born into her recollections of an interrupted life. How could we ever go back to a place we’d so esteemed in our imaginations? How could we ever awaken from our slumbering in those myths?

In those days when I was stuck, waiting for my impossible Lyft, I often hated my mother Nadia. She acted so new while I had become a very old woman. Frigid and unyielding and judgmental. Pleasureless. A mortification of the senses, nuns call it. I went to bed each night, totally dry except for my face. And as soon as the lights went out, I’d awaken with a gasp.

Daida had, in a way, been much younger than me, always marching adroitly into the future like an early Chinese Communist passion play. Cropped hair, angular and indignant face, a pitchfork clenched in a fist. Songs and food and sex and travel and writings were all meant to push us toward the purpose of liberation. Yet she praised me for not partying. Intoxication deadens the senses. If Trump can manage to calculate soberly, so must we—and better. Months before she died, I swore I would never have another drop of liquor or a joint. A favourite pastime of Daida’s and mine had been to identify those in our family who had forgotten the old ways and scoff at them. We could not suffer to see the tools we had sharpened over millennia become dull.

Every night, after writing in the quiet of our kitchen, trying to retell the stories from those places I’d never been, I would close the door, and the clicking of the latch would awaken Daida as I passed her bedroom. She would lift her hand to her mouth and kiss it and raise it to my face, as seen from her bed, from a distance. A blessing. Now, in her room, there was only darkness and the absence of blessings. If I try very hard, I can see her fading image in my mind’s eye when that latch clicks. Tisbah alakheir – our goodnight, which in reality means: To a better tomorrow.

Memories began to fade from my mind. I suppose Pennsylvanians can go back to Pennsylvania and find their grandparents there, in the silly regional things people say, in pretzels, in the hopelessly sexual names of Amish Country like Bird in Hand and Intercourse. They can watch Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door series. But there are no direct flights to Tunis. Not where I’m from.

I am not her, my mother insisted in one of our then-weekly disputes. Maybe we’d stop hating each other if you stopped expecting me to be her.

One day, I took refuge from Nadia in a circular canyon that I imagined was Daida. The soil was electric. Like Daida, it took what was terrible about me and generated beauty. For the canyon was alive with the colours of the fairest of the seasons—autumn—the one which, like Daida, burst into all sorts of colours. But I could see and taste and hear none of it.

*

We have to go back, I repeatedly told my mother, insisting against her tidings of bad faith.

How can we go back somewhere we’ve never been? she observed. This was the kind of observation Daida would have made, as Simone de Beauvoir, but an indigene.

I didn’t know how. But I knew we had to go back.

On the faint hope that I would see Daida there, waiting, I booked two tickets, with many stops on this and that side of the ocean. But in my urgency, I kept clicking, bought too many tickets, and spent weeks on the phone with a call centre in Eastern Europe to ensure that the charges would be dropped from my debit account. I almost had enough tickets for Daida and Daida’s man and the spirits of several of our ancestors, who were all sitting with me alone in that house, in the perfect quiet.

And then I began to worry that circumstance would never let us back, or that our part of the world, the poorer parts at least, would become subsumed by America in the act of making itself great again.

*

A speeding truck sputtered down a side street in Fiumicino, Italy. A stranger and I stopped what we’d been doing and ducked down reflexively behind the car that had stabilized us. A low squat, breathless, as though the trucker could hear us past his symphonic carcacha. My ear pressed against the upper back, warm and wet, cotton clinging to flesh. The flush, as I’d learned it in Health. I felt my own chest. For the first time in a long time it was warm. For the first time in a long time, I was certain I was alive. Relieved and a little tired, my hands fell down at my sides, propping me up on the wetted soil below, vibrating with my pulse.

A moment passed. There were organisms in the soil, I thought. I could almost feel them dancing below my fingertips, a movement. A Josephine Baker sort of song and dance. I’m feeling like a million. There are all sorts of living things that breathe, even underground, somehow. There is an underground universe. There is a universe in all our minds, Sister Helen says, that dies when we execute convicts for revenge. The sum of those things—that multiverse—was especially alive now, more than it had been in months. In the field behind me was a harvest unknown to me in the darkness of the night. Running between stalks of grain were field mice and whatever else frolics in the rural areas here, I mused. The moment had passed. We got up. It’s the journey, I said. 我给面子了。I gave face.

Oratoire St. Joseph, Montreal

My mother and I had arrived in Italy on an overnight layover, too late to see the Vatican. We aren’t Catholics. We just always loved the poetry of the names of Catholic things. Our Lady of Perpetual Compassion, Mother of the Seven Sorrows. When I was young, I used to draw the Heavenly Mother, because I was her. I made myself in her image. For as long as I could hold it. When my grandfather—who was like a father to me—died, she was there in the hospice unit. When my grandmother died, I saw her all over Los Angeles.

My mother and I had arrived in Fiumicino earlier and thought it too late to go into town. Anyway, His Holiness isn’t likely to wander the streets of Rome after dark, waiting to pour into a non-believer, unworthy of such love, the sort of stuff he tweets. That, for instance, Love keeps a tiny flame alight even in the darkest night. Fifty-seven characters. I’d get none of that in this place; so, instead, I checked my phone and I went out.

It was an immaculate quiet on that roadside, just muffled breaths. I love you, I said toward the end, because I wanted to say it once. And then, so as not to sound insane, I added, In the way that I love all humans who share a moment. What I had meant to say was along the last lines of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels.

I got out of the car and went back into the airport hotel where my mother and I were staying as we waited for our flight to the home we’d never seen. Quietly, I slipped into the bathroom, showered the earth off me and slipped into bed. An hour later, she asked, How was the gym? knowing, in the darkness, that I was wide awake. Even in the tenebrous night, your hand seized me, because for you, the night as the day illuminates.

There was no gym.

I know, she said, a pause as air gathered in our chests, and then we exhaled a laugh. Free enough, but nervous, and not about the awkwardness of the revelations.

The following day had been coming for six months, since the day my grandmother died. And it had been more than half a century since a member of our family—save the ones who stayed behind—had seen our country. More than half a century since we stopped looking eastward to the promised land, just within view. Maybe we’d been blocked by mektoub, as we call it in Arabic, by the destiny that, literally, is written. I was born into this life to feel untethered. Maybe, if I got any sleep that night, I’d wake up out of order, far away from the place we believed we were returning to, and it would have all been for naught. Perhaps it had never really been, for any of us, in any generation, more than a memory.

*

A picture from Tunisia, what’s better? the old song by Ahmed Hamza goes. A picture of a free Tunisia, it continues. I played it as the flight, stalled by some unknowable Italian thing, moved forward and back.

The land appeared to rush toward me, on approach. It wasn’t green, as Daida and others had told me. Tounis el-khaderaTunisia, the green—was quite beige, on approach. My heart sank. I worried for the millionth time whether or not I’d recognize Daida’s face in it. But the land, in its unfamiliar colour, ran toward us, regardless.

On arrival and until our departure, we walked about town, all of us. It was Ramadan, so we hardly ate. We just kept moving. Nadia saw a billboard advertising a brand of couscous, and moments passed as she stared in amazement. This Martian rice that only her family ate, while all the other families had Sunday roasts and Christmas tamales, was so common here that couscous companies jockeyed for influence! We were in an abundant and an auspicious place!

When we left, of course, that great march forward—half in a daze from our incidental fasting and travel wariness—stopped.

*

There was a sale at the craft superstore Michael’s, two picture frames for the price of one. Before our trip, I had become as the women who appear to live there without a specific goal other than to collect discounted cardstock on the off chance that someone will need to make a school project or a wedding centrepiece. Occasionally the women I see there become lonely enough to suggest which discount items I should buy, as I found myself increasingly possessed by their forlorn, listless, and pitifully hopeful spirits. But, when we came back, I had enough blindingly bright light in me from the white buildings of Tunis to go to Michael’s only when needed. For weeks!

In one frame, I put the old photo of Daida in the chariot with her mothers; in the other, an image of my mother and I, recreating history like a North African Civil War re-enactment, the Moresque wrought iron detail behind us. The white building with trim she had told me was blue gone, and the building with rounded balconies, the colour of a black and white photograph. There is another photo that I carry with me, one we took at the Place de l’Indépendance—the older names of that space no longer mattered when I was there. They had only mattered when I was eagerly retracing my way back. I haven’t bothered to search for them on Google or my older maps since.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Massoud Hayoun is a writer and reporter in Los Angeles. The book he had been writing with his grandmother, When We Were Arabs, is forthcoming from The New Press in Spring 2019. Follow him on Twitter @mhayoun, or better still, live IRL. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 6th, 2018.