I am often puzzled when I read autobiographies, and authors describe in abundant and minute detail the scenes of their childhood, the names of playmates, the neighbours’ dog, the kind of trees lining their street, the colour of their favourite dress… I marvel momentarily, then I am sceptical. What, do they keep neat little drawers in their minds with defining moments and adorable anecdotes specially kept, all ready for them to rifle through when the time comes produce tasty non-fiction? I think it’s fiction.
I don’t remember much about my childhood. I am impressed and incredulous when a family member or friend whips out a school picture and names every second-year primary school classmate grinning toothlessly at the camera. I don’t remember anyone! There was a girl from our neighbourhood that my sister and I played with for a few years. It was only when my older sister pointed her out in a picture that I realised that she had been in my class at school for three years too. And a blurry memory springs to mind, of walking to school with my twin Soum, closely pursued the girl’s father, who was taunting and bullying us, trying to exact punishment for something Soum had done. I was afraid that day, and that memory ties in with the one of the girl’s mother crying in our living room, begging forgiveness for her husband’s behaviour. That’s how my memory works, producing short, incoherent snippets, images, sounds and smells that I struggle to tie together. They are bound by thin, wispy strands of emotion that are their only source of meaning.
A picture of me sitting on our balcony, using the handles of two brooms to squash a bee that had fallen to the floor. I am now terrified of bees, and I don’t know how mini-me managed such a feat of bravery and cruelty.
A picture of me playing on the stairs of our block of flats with the next-door neighbour. The picture is tinged with discomfort, but I don’t recall why.
A picture of me sharing a table with intimidating classmates on a school trip, aged ten, tinged with embarrassment. I think they were laughing at the way I ate my banana, but I can’t be sure…
I remember well the neighbourhood I spent my first nine years in. I have been to visit it a few times; we still have old neighbours we’re in touch with. The first time I returned, the area looked as if someone had taken a rubber band to the place I knew in my mind and squeezed it into one compact package. Apparently there was more room for it in my mind than there was in Algiers. The flats were cubicles, led to by stifling staircases, surrounded by streets the width of a belt, and I crossed in a hundred strides a space that took up nearly my whole nine-year-old world. The staircase that led down from the car-park was especially laughable. I remember lunging down what seemed like giant steps, taking a last leap off the last and highest step to land with a thud on the ground. I think it was a game we played with the other girls on the block, trying to see who would land the furthest away. The game brought us together for a momentary truce with the ‘garage girls’. As the name indicates, their homes were in fact converted garages. They were scrawny and dirty and fierce, and they liked to pick on us because we were comparatively clean and well-fed, and we never swore and we brushed our hair. Another picture-memory comes to mind, tinged with a mix of smugness and revulsion; one of the garage girls leaping off the last step, and a gust of wind blowing her flimsy dress nearly clear off, and a discovery. The garage girls couldn’t afford underwear!
My whole experience with those fearsome females that must have been the bane of my childhood is summed up in three, measly picture-memories. The one with the stair-leap, another one of crying over my hair band, which one of them had ripped off my head, played with, then thrown on the mucky street, and a third one of my older sister marching up to a group of them, tailed by a teary-eyed me, to teach them a lesson. I don’t remember what lesson, how it was taught, or for what reason. I don’t remember their names, their faces, their voices. One of them could have later been my classmate at university, my student at a school, and I would never have known. The same goes for every anonymous smiling face in my school photos. How Bizarre.
I hardly remember the names of my teachers at school, even the ones who taught me during my early teens. I think guiltily of the series of faces in mind, John and Jane Does alike, who must have spent hours teaching me about the world, feeding my mind. Thankfully though , the picture-memories morph into moving ones as a step into my teens, I remember a voice, a perfume, snippets of conversation. I clearly recall one Ms. Smith and one Ms. John because they were mean, or because I was a sneaky, fibbing little tween and they didn’t like my attitude. I want to forget, but I remember pretending I had had kidney surgery to get out of P.E! Ms John saw right through that.
The trouble with memory is, that it provides you with a smorgasbord colours and faces, jagged impressions, and it is up to present-day you to give them significance. Perfectly possible then, that half of our childhood, that fragile, all-defining part of our selves, could just be one elaborate fib.
I think I will stick with the neutral picture-images, ones unhampered by strands of emotion, not tinged with trauma.
Me and my swarm of siblings in the back of our car, headed to the beach in summer. I must have been around five, and Soumi was sat by the window with her head sticking out, her hair fluttering, and she was repeating the word ‘qahwa’, Arabic for coffee. Mum later told me that Soumi had struggled with the ‘k’ sound, and its Arabic equivalent ‘q’ for a long time. I think that day in the car was probably the first time she managed to say ‘qahwa’ right.
Then again, maybe the whole scene is something I fabricated after learning of Soumi’s phonetic struggles and that then wormed its way into my memory drawer, camouflaged among the real stuff like an insect among leaves. Who can say for sure? All I know is, if my own memory is anything to judge by, autobiographies should be moved off the non-fiction shelves in libraries and bookshops, pronto.