As We Exist Buy from other retailers

Publication Date: Mar 14, 2023

176 pp


List Price US: $9.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-285-6


List Price US: $15.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-284-9

Trim Size: 5.32 x 7.98 x 0.51 in.

As We Exist

A Postcolonial Autobiography

by Kaoutar Harchi Translated by Emma Ramadan

An Arrow

And that day, I’m not sure which, but that day that once was.

I was six, maybe seven years old.

I remember the black canvas pencil case, the notebooks, the textbooks scattered on the kitchen table where I usually did my homework after school, at night. Through the crack in the door, I could see the living room and, inside the living room, the pale wooden chest of drawers with the television set and the VCR on top.

My parents, Hania and Mohamed, were in that room. Sitting side by side on the checkered sofa, they were watching their wedding video. They laughed seeing themselves with those hairstyles, those outfits. They enjoyed seeing their friends’ faces, Mohamed’s father’s house, the bustling street, and the two white horses hitched to the carriage a little ways away in which the young newlyweds, for an entire afternoon, had taken a ride along the corniche overlooking the ocean.

And that day, even though the recording was low quality, staticky, the sound of their voices, their young voices, reached me. A love arrow struck my heart, pierced right through its center. A lightning bolt. I was moved to recognize them. It was their voices—it was them.

That lightness, that beauty, seemed from a bygone era. It all belonged to another age, another place, another life. This was before me, I said to myself, it preceded me. My parents had once been young, carefree, and I was unaware. Hania and Mohamed had felt elation, I thought, and I hadn’t been there.

That’s what I understood that night.

And after hearing their voices, I looked at the television screen, at their faces. To find myself. A part of me sought to find myself in that image of them from the past. That’s what I wanted, hoped: to lose myself in my parents’ joy, to be joyous along with them, for joy, just this once, to bind us together.

In their hearts, my mother’s heart, my father’s heart, at that time, in that country, without a doubt: joy accumulated. Then later, joy dispersed, departed.
Wherever the joy disappeared to, they disappeared with it.

I sat in that kitchen for a long time. Hania and Mohamed thought I was studying, obedient, focused, what they expected me to be. In truth, I was watching their wedding video, full of wonder.

How straight they stood—she especially—surrounded by their brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts. The beloved tribe. Those families, on the verge of becoming one big family, were soon to be disseminated by the diaspora—the need for money, the need for work— across various European countries: France, Belgium, Spain, Italy.

And look, held up by a crown of brilliant stones, the white lace veil that falls elegantly over my mother’s black hair, the chiffon wedding dress, the bouquet of red roses she holds in her clasped hands. Look at my father’s black suit, the cream-colored shirt, the polka-dotted bow tie. Pure elegance. And clearly visible in the background, their prized possessions: the red Mercedes 240D covered in satin ribbons and, in the distance, wicker baskets filled with gifts, lined up along the sidewalk.

Illuminated by the lights of neighboring streets, the children and teenagers run around, approaching the carriage and then receding. With their arms outstretched, trembling, they want to pet the horses, and the horses, seemingly well trained, let them do it. Each time their fingers graze the horses’ coats, all those gathered around emit shrieks of pleasure that are stifled just as quickly.

And the guests, how many were there? Surely many who were not invited. But, I imagined, hearing the echoes of festive music nearby, they had joined the ceremony anyway.

The guests passed again and again in front of the camera. They created a kind of confusion in the image. At certain moments, the image was blurry, scrambled. Men and women danced on the sidewalks, on the doorsteps of houses, in front of stores with lowered shutters, but I couldn’t make out their faces. Hania and Mohamed were still standing, shoulder to shoulder, in the clumsiness of intimacy when it is not yet tamed.
Though the camera wandered, trying to immortalize every detail of the happy scene, it always returned to my parents. In a fraction of a second, the camera focused, widened. Hania’s two black eyes were captured through this zoomed-in moment. Whoever saw those eyes, the eyes of that woman, would have immediately claimed that they had just glimpsed what was most sincere, most profound in this world. Then Hania’s face suddenly took up the entirety of the screen. I liked the impression it gave, that Hania’s face was near mine, right near mine, despite the television screen, the distance, the years.

In eastern France, in S., at my parents’ home, we did unusual things at the end of the week. We thoroughly scrubbed the floors, the walls, the doors, the windows. We aired out the cupboards, the closets, and did several loads of laundry in a row. And Hania, I can still picture her: sitting on the ground in the middle of the living room, cross-legged, she would empty her black leather handbag of all the various scraps of paper that had amassed during the week. Carefully, she would set aside the administrative documents and bills, and she would throw the receipts, empty envelopes, and various discount coupons she didn’t need anymore in a designated plastic bag. At night, after Mohamed’s final prayer, when Hania and I finished watching Frou-Frou or an episode of Arabesque, one of us would always get up, turn on the VCR, and slide in the wedding video.

Then everything would begin again.

Hania and Mohamed remembered—and I tried to remember with them—how good things were, how simple things were before.

With each viewing, new details would be revealed to me. I noticed the guests applauding vigorously, the children asleep in their mothers’ arms, Mohamed’s hand surreptitiously squeezing Hania’s.

Hania and Mohamed stared at the images on the screen as though looking at themselves nostalgically in a mirror of time. They rediscovered those years, relived that event. How great it was, they said. It was simple, the wedding, it was wonderful. Sometimes they expressed their surprise aloud: Is that us? As if they didn’t recognize themselves. They were flooded with a profound joy that soon invaded the entire apartment. Joy replaced the air, joy was inhaled, joy animated Hania’s body, Mohamed’s body.

I have this memory of them. They suddenly stood up, pushed the armchair and the coffee table against the walls, and drew the curtains. Mohamed was the first to dance, if it could be called dancing, his way of leaning forward, bobbing his head, and extending his arms like an airplane. Then Hania in her turn swayed, elegant, light, lifting her shoulders to the rhythm.
Her movements were delicate, supple. The emotion emanating from her hypnotized me.

Hania and Mohamed laughed softly, then louder, then so loudly. It was great.

A few nights per week, my parents went out. They cleaned large office buildings and didn’t come home until late. The apartment would be steeped in silence. I would abandon the notebooks, textbooks, everything; I would leave the kitchen and return to the living room. I would rifle through the wooden chest of drawers from top to bottom. And there, hidden under the sheets, the videocassette—on which was written in black marker, in Mohamed’s erratic handwriting, wedding 1984–Casa—would appear.

Between the living room walls, lying on the couch, again and again—I could even say without respite—I would watch that video whose every detail, every scene, I knew. Gleams of light from the camera flashes would be projected onto the walls. It was like being at the movies. Hania and Mohamed, real, unreal.

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