The Memory Colony

H. M. Naqvi in The Fabulist:

Essential13_MainI spent the first four years of my life in Algiers, during the dictatorship of Boumédiène. I was, of course, unaware of politics or history, the larger world—I was barely conscious of mine. I do, however, remember my father waking me in the mornings, taking me by the hand to the back yard, and, perched on a step, pointing out ants passing fragments of leaves to one another. I also loitered in the garden after school under the watchful gaze of the old Albanian who rented out to us the ground-floor portion of a modest double-storied house on Rue Blaise Pascal. He smoked cigarillos leaning out of the window above, nodding in approval when I turned cartwheels or chased striped stray cats, twig in hand. Sometimes I hopped over to our neighbors, a large, raucous family with a boy my age, who was known to all and sundry as Abdhanou. One of his older sisters, Hamida, wore frocks and carried me up and down the street in her arms. I picked up Arabic and French from them, and an appreciation of couscous. In the evenings, I would watch dubbed Japanese cartoons on the television, then arrange toy soldiers on the table in the kitchen while my mother fried onions for dinner. It was a simple routine, a good life. I remember clear skies, the turquoise Mediterranean.

Once we drove up to the mountains—the Atlas Range rises up beyond the city—on a cold winter morning. There was a monkey in a cage at the summit. As I fed the monkey popcorn or peanuts, he yanked my red mitten right off. I was devastated. After due consideration, my father hatched an ingenious plan: he told me to throw my other mitten on the ground. The monkey mirrored the gesture, dropping his. Then my father slipped his hand underneath the bars of the cage and retrieved the mitten.

Another time, I stole matches from the nice Nigerian family down the street and lit the local rubbish dump on fire. I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Paper burned fast. Plastic burned in slow motion. Then, I think, I heard sirens. I think I ran—a fugitive at age four. I think, if I remember correctly, I lit the garbage dump again.

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