I think everyone wants to revisit where they spent their early years, and where so much took place that they will always carry it with them. For me that was Algiers. I had memories of it that would flash like the sun on the whitewashed walls of their origin. I yearned to see the home where I had grown up, and I wanted to confront someone, anyone, whomever I could blame for taking away so much from my parents. Because as much as I grew in Paris, they shrank, and my withered legs had to carry the weight for all of us. Of course I never expected compensation. What compensation can there be for lives not lived? For stolen memories? But I wanted to know if it had been worth it. Had someone gained so much that the expense to my family was warranted?
Our house was in the old souk, its entrance only a simple door in the market’s passage. You would never suspect that it was the entrance to a house, nor how much was hidden behind it. I hesitated to knock. It was chilly in the shadow of the wall and I was shivering when I finally did. A moment later a man answered. He wore a simple cotton robe, frayed and patched but clean. He looked at me strangely, and I suppose I did look strange to him, a crippled, shivering European standing in his doorway.
When I explained that I had grown up in the house, the man opened the door wide and invited me into the small courtyard. The floor was covered with blue tiles—the same blue tiles from when I was a boy. I had played games there, solitary games because I couldn’t play with the other children, not with my feet. My mother had hung birdcages in the courtyard—white cages filled with finches and canaries—and all day I would listen to their songs; or when I grew tired of my games, I would open the door to the souk and watch the people go by. The birdcages, of course, were gone, and the courtyard was filled with laundry hanging in the sun.
The man shouted an order for coffee into an open door, before we sat at a small table. He told me that his father had been a leader in Algeria’s independence movement. He had been captured and tortured by the French, until he escaped, only to be injured later in a battle. His reward had been our house. That’s what the man called it, a reward. His father had died many years earlier from complications caused by his injuries, but the sons still lived in the house. Three sons, each married, and each with four or five children. My family had been prosperous but our house had not been especially large, and certainly not big enough for three families. I looked around for the signs of so many people, and then I saw them everywhere: in the variety of clothes hanging on the lines, the shoes in a row at every door, the movements of curtains as the women—or I guessed them to be the women—stole glances at us.
A boy whom the man introduced as his youngest son brought us coffee. His father scolded him for taking so long, but it was clear that the boy had taken time to wash quickly. His hair was wet and slicked down, and his face looked freshly scrubbed. His robe was also patched but clean, smelling like soap and sun, and he carried our coffees on a brass tray. The cups were delicate, not the usual thick ceramic cups, and on each saucer he had placed sweets. The family was poor, and they probably had few visitors—certainly few European visitors—and I was being treated with great respect.
Who did I expect to find in my family’s home? What had I planned to say to them? I had gone there filled with my parents’ bitterness ready to insult them because that was easy enough. At the right moment I’d have the choice phrase that forever would haunt them, nag them when they wondered if their lives had meant anything, let them know that whatever they had gained they had stolen from someone else. I wanted to take away from the sum of their lives what they had subtracted from my parents.
I was totally unprepared for the man’s response. He expressed sorrow at the loss that my family had suffered. He took my hands in his and kissed them, and begged me to be his guest as the only meager recompense he could offer.
Of course I did not, it was an impossible proposal. I felt awkward, and could not imagine the great clumsiness of my crippled body in that crowded household. Suddenly I felt suffocated in the courtyard with its lines of laundry and the furtive eyes at the windows. The blue tiles of my childhood lapped at my feet like water, and I thought I might slip on them and fall, or drown. A great sadness came over me, and oddly, a great relief as well. It had been many years since I had cried, but I did cry, and the man looked confused. By coming home I had crossed another threshold, though I could not articulate it—not then, and not to a stranger. I wanted to run away, but at that moment, with the tears in my eyes, it was difficult enough for me to stand. When I did, the man held out a restraining hand and said, ‘Un moment.’
He returned in a minute holding a birdcage, one of my mother’s white birdcages. ‘Nothing else was left,’ he said, ‘only this. It was hanging there.’ He pointed to a corner. ‘I always knew someone would return. I know it is a small memory, but it’s all that I have to give.’ ‘Une petite memoire,’ he had called it. I left the man’s house holding my mother’s birdcage. I had come to think of it as that, as the man’s house, no longer my family’s.