An Archipelago of Grief
Khaled was twenty-seven years old at the time. There were not many things known about him, not many truths, just rumours, and always vague ones. That he was one of these men you could never quite get out of your head. That even years later, his face would still haunt you. Actually, no one ever said anything upfront about him. Rumours were just things everyone knew, cloud-like ethereal stomundane conversations and across words. People did not speak about him around us; friends of his we met years later would rarely mention his name, and when they did, they would whisper it to themselves while turning their gazes away as if they had been told to keep his existence a secret, a thing of the past that can never be uttered back to life.
He was attractive, with an angular face, a jawline that seemed to cut through steel, a slender body, nervous, long, and stretching without any disproportions as if it seamlessly came into shape with the world. He had slanted almond eyes that always looked smaller than expected because he laughed very often, and when he did, his eyes lengthened across both sides of his face until they became thin lines with black, brilliant rocks inside them. He laughed at everything, genuinely eating the world with his glee. There were old cassettes of him laughing by the beach, laughing at my father, laughing with children. In all the photographs of him, he laughed, his lips broadened, his entire face stretching from the edges of his mouth. In the videos, when he laughed, his large shoulders shivered, and at those moments, he was suddenly a bit out of place—too long, too lean, too brown— but it was an endearing out of placeness, as if he became more real with the shudders of his body. Yet, it was not his beauty that made him stand out. It was the way he existed around things, carelessly yet so carefully, how everything was present to him, how everything had to be touched, imagined and enjoyed. He was reckless, but it was never a dark desperation but a recklessness for life, a desire to exist without compromises, fully in the moment.
Was it because he was already carrying his death inside him?
He moved to Morocco to study law. He fell in love with a Moroccan girl. Omi refused to wed them since for her, Moroccan women were witches casting spells on attractive middle-class Tunisian men. Omi was our household matriarch, tyrannical and stubborn, although she exhibited the outer skin of a sweet and overweight grandmother of eight children. He fell in love again, with a tall, thin model with huge brown eyes and a laugh that resembled his. She never got over him. She waitwedding day, when she saw my grandmother, her she only ever loved her son. She married a quiet man, maybe to please or maybe to move on, and she found other ways of loving when she had her two children.
Khaled had cancer—for many years. He died at twenty-seven.
Once, I stumbled into his room, a few months before his death. It is my only memory of him. He later, to scare each other, we would pretend that he haunted the place and that our nightmares came from him. None of us truly believed that. Everyone knew that in our world, there were no real ghosts and the dead never stayed around. Yet, some of us had watched foreign horror movies and liked to imagine we had ghosts, too. We knew it was not really possible. Our family homes always changed, our furniture broken down into pieces or sold away on a whim. Sentimental value was not a language we spoke, and even when houses still stood on their grounds, no one kept the documents, photographs, or dusty furniture suitable to Western-like ghosts. When we remembered that, the game quickly became boring, and we resorted again to scaring each other through local means.
dark, with heavy curtains, massive wood furniture, - paedia volumes. These were the books no one read or even knew how they were acquired in the bookcases. Khaled was on a massive red velour baroque bed, the ones we think only exist in Egyptian TV dramas but that have actually been built our earliest memories. Beds tended to move in
the family. It was a strange affair, but family beds always had multiple lives, passing from one house to another, from a sibling to a cousin. All the beds were part of the family economy, from nuptial crème pink beds to nurseries to the wood beds the family carpenter made. The carpenter was a - sible for a large part of the wood furniture in the aunts made the entire tribe change and never use a permanent carpenter again. The bed Khaled was on probably had begun its life as someone else’s bed, most likely one of his sisters’ marital bed, so it did not escape the rule. Beds of the dead - niture and beds completed their lives, at Omi’s house. She liked to hoard things and had a certain knack for changing bed colours, the baroque bed still around today but the red velour now deep, dark blue.
Khaled was almost naked, with only black shorts on. His body, his tall body, seemed too skinny. His pale skin was covered with red dots, small red spots everywhere, around his torso, across his arms, on his hips and throughout his legs. He was lying on the bed, his body shivering as if haunted, moving in motion with the screams coming out of his mouth. He was shaking from pain as a desperate whimper echoed from his lungs to the room, in a single and long, long cry. My grandmother was another, both of them still, almost indifferent to him, as if his cry made their grip stronger and as if he were screaming for the three of them. When he saw me by the door, he suddenly stopped. I stood there, frozen, perhaps scared. There was this tall man in a dark room, this tall man with a body covered with scars of pain, this tall man screaming in his mother and my mother’s arms. He tried to smile, told me to come close, said it was nothing, that the two of them were annoying him. His cries stopped, but there was something even more tragic and violent in this abrupt halt, in the whimpers he hid inside his chest for a few minutes hide his death from those who did not know he held it within him. He did that often, discarded his death, and postponed his body’s resistance as if it were dying independently of him. Did he do it because he never thought death would get him, or was it because he knew he was losing all along? The memory stayed with me though strangely outside of feelings, like an image I carried, a short - enced. I could never recall if I had lived that moment, dreamt it or heard it from someone. That was the thing with old memories: they never quite -
torted, yet they always seem to linger. I kept the scene in my head as my only memory of him and never asked about it, the way none of us children could ever ask about Khaled.
No one talked about Khaled’s death. I never knew how he got his cancer or how long it took before he passed away. No one really talked about Khaled. They talked about Mohamed much more, about Mohamed’s sudden death, about Mohamed’s accomplishments. On Khaled, I only got scraps, a few sentences my mother whispered, a few memories Omi muttered to herself at night when she forgot there was someone next to her. During those monologues, she mentioned him in a stream of long tales as his name made its way - thing to be reburied as soon as it crawled out of her mouth. When they said his name, it was as ‘Khaled Allah yarah’mou’, ‘Khaled may he rest in peace’—never just ‘Khaled’, always ‘Khaled’ as mourned. Never just ‘Khaled’ but a Khaled always and already dead.
We did not keep things in the family. Furniture circulated, and outdated things were thrown out. Keeping was a practice for elsewhere. In one of the old books, before my mother threw them all, I once found a quickly drafted letter in pencil. It was a note that Khaled wrote to her. I do not recall the words, but I remember the writing, quickened and elongated vowels on a ripped page, words written heavily but that still bore a certain speed to them, as if they could be charged, and quickly, as if he needed to say many things but knew he did not have the time to say them. He and my mother had been close ever since she started dating my father. She told me once that she used to steal my father’s new clothes and car keys for Khaled so he could go out. The letter was a thank you note perhaps, the sort you write for people who are always around, discreetly hovering with their softness, the ones you almost surprisingly remember at times and for whom you quickly draft a note.
My brother has his name, and when he was younger, I would catch my father looking at him with a brother in the younger son. Once, at night, my grandmother mentioned their similarities. She talked about my brother’s recklessness, the way he moved so carelessly yet was very aware of everything around him, something that her lost son had, too. My father never talked about it. He never alluded to the similarities between his brother and his son. He never mentioned his dead brother or even his dead brother’s name he gave to his son.
II. The wrong body
It was a procession of white sheets. Death is clean; it takes the shape of large white cloths wrapped around what is left of the dead: a body. He arrived, collapsed into tears, and fell to his knees as if his grief were too heavy to hold. Yet, just as quickly, he stood up and went into the room to wash his father’s body. The ritual made him stronger; he came out of it less pale. He even yelled at the girls for being in the hall, which had become a male space, a corridor that would lead the body out of the house. He arrived barely standing, but his face’s colour returned after he washed his father, as if he had taken the last gasps of strength from the dead body.
There was water everywhere; they took it from the garden through the window and inside the house. The water dripped through every corner. There was water in the room, in the hall. Everyone was barefoot around water. Rugs had to be removed because of water. Living room chairs had their legs in water. Water in every form: packs of ice around the body to keep it cool before my father got here, drops of water from the blasting air conditioner so the body did not rot, and water in bottles circulating through the house but not so much water in tears. What did the water do? Wash the body? Scrub away the grief? Wipe death clean?
They had to keep the corpse cool enough. They did not bury him immediately as they should have. They had two sons already gone, one still here and the fourth one away, so they had to wait. You could not bury a father who had buried his own two sons without the sons left alive to put him below the ground properly.
The body was tiny. It had lost its shape after it happened, as if the soul or whatever else that made him alive was so heavy and took so much space that his entire body folded when he died. His body had begun to grow smaller and smaller diminishing even vertically. It was as if the body knew long before they all did that he would soon be gone, as if death began to eat what it was due before its time.
Omi recounted all of his last moments without wavering, her baritone voice always too loud. She told the story of his death as if she were describing a landscape, something neat and beautiful and where every detail had to be brushed. Death could not be hidden or ornate. It had to be re-enacted over and over again, dissected moment by moment until the last. It had to be seen. They made us all go into the room, asking us to take the sheet down to see the dead face, then to pull the sheet farther down to uncover the dead body and stare at it. It was not for the sake of remembering one last time but as if to acknowledge death; we had to see exactly what happened after a soul left a body. It was to remember everyone’s soul eventually escaped and that what was left was only bare
He got sick two years before he died. They never liked to name the disease. Instead, they called it al naswa, the ‘forgetfulness,’ as if it were a poetic current when it actually became collective suffering. He became softer with the naswa, as if the less he remembered, the more he enjoyed every day. He grew affectionate, he who had never shown a single gesture of that sort. He held people’s hands for a long time. He often came and kissed Omi on her cheeks. He always wanted to go outside. He would wait for people to come out of the house or for others to come in, would take their hands softly and gaze at the door without saying a word. They all discovered him anew with the naswa, as if they had another father in front of them, this soft creature who wanted to be held, wanted to walk and was always silent. It unsettled them. They did not like it. They somehow preferred the image of him as withdrawn, quiet, amid his God, books of God, and far from their daily dullness. The naswa made him lose all his habits—how he would exist in his room—and people would visit him there, acting like it was a sanctuary, entering barefoot, wearing long sleeves and talking of things that were not of this world, or how he would pass by the terrace to go pray. And everyone there would quiet down because whatever they were discussing seemed too crude for him to hear.
You could be sad, but you could not dwell; you could not make death about yourself or about your relation to the dead. It had to be collective, and it had to mark an end. Our deaths were complete breaks. You stared at the body, a few men washed it, and more men buried it. You had the knew him but mainly with people who did not yet still came, poor women who were there to cry for everyone and rich women who were there to complain. You had to put your dead in the funeral section of the press so people knew you had a death even though no one read the press any longer. Yet, because people before you did it, you had to do it, too. The truth was sometimes it was the only thing you kept from the dead, a press clipping with a date, and a piece of paper to keep when you threw all the others. People did not store things, but you could keep a press clipping in your wallet, in a folder or between the pages of a book. The third day was called al farq, ‘the separation,’ and it was already time to let go of death, even if it was only three days afterward and the corpse might still be warm under the soil. It was the separation, and by 3 PM that day, death was gone. Then they gave you a last celebration, forty days later, the arba’in, ‘the forties.’ It was not to cry for your dead but rather to make sure you had long buried it along with the whimpers and the white sheets. The forties were a gracious courtesy for the fragile ones, days for them to hide in their houses without social obligations until the grief passed. Bodies had to be buried in twenty-four hours. The spectacle of a funeral lasted three days, and your grief ended after forty nights. You did not go often to the cemetery afterward; you did not clear graves or have family visits to see all your
dead. Your dead were buried in places that sometimes looked like wastelands, their tombs covered in wild grass, the gravestones broken. Some were buried on top of others, and the graves looked so small you knew all your dead were probably promiscuous beneath the ground. It was not strange, though. They were dead, and all you were told is how much luckier than you they were. You remembered your dead this way, the ones lucky to escape, better where they were than here.
III. The orphan card
Sarra had her way around death. She had her way around many things. Her orphan card gave her a certain allure, like an added feature to her beauty. Relatives spoke of her paleness, her leg problems and her thin body as if they were an orphan curse, as if all she could be without a father was pretty and fragile.
Sarra was smart and knew how to play her stabut it was as if the label was lodged in her genes. She did not show anything. Her greenish eyes remained inexpressive whatever the occasion, death, birth, heartbreak, school grades and all of it. Her voice did the work even better. She had the baritone tones from our side of the family, her faraspy song, out of tune yet endearing. None of neatly in the family soundscape, yet it seemed - tions. She spoke as if every word coming out of her throat, into her mouth, and out into the world meant the same exact thing as the word before and all the words after. Even her laugh did not go into higher octaves; it remained on the ground, lacking expressiveness like her face.
Sarra was in Tunis when the funeral happened. She had already lost a father and then another grandfather years ago, so this seemed routine. She made a point to educate all the other non-orphan cousins on the steps of the process. She especially enjoyed the francophone cousins, the ones who thought you had to wear black at funerals. ‘Just do not show skin and do not wear any makeup .’ She showed up on the day of the burial in with massive dark circles under her eyes, ones she had ever since anyone could remember and which made her look even more like a sleepless girl who had lost her father. She walked through the rooms quick tour of the male section in the garden, wearing her cold face, her bored green eyes barely gazing at the surroundings and her orphan grace on her shoulders. ‘I don’t really remember my father’s funeral.’ Her voice did not betray a single feeling, but she said it with a corner smile, a grin that almost seemed disappointed with how new deaths cannot bring older ones to life.
IV. After the facts
‘I don’t cry. I stopped crying after the second one. I shed all the tears possible then. They’re not unlimited, you know. I cried for every death in the family, the ones that passed, the ones that have yet to come and even the ones I won’t see when I will be dead myself.’
Once you experience one death after another, once someone leaves you, you become scared all the time. No one ever told Omi about accidents, about sickness, about anything. They all whispered news between themselves, on the phone, at the doors of houses. All six of them worried and mumbled their worries—never in full sentences, always amid two conversations. The early deaths, of the two brothers, eight months apart, had rendered them always on the verge of breakdowns, as if they knew how small the steps between sanity and madness were, between joy and despair, as if they had experienced their own collapsing during the death year and knew that they could slip back. All six of them in their own lives had to wear faces, hold their children close, and smile. They disregarded with elusive nods the old acquaintances who wanted to bring back the memories of the two uncles. They pretended to exist as six siblings without erasing their memories as eight. The faces cracked at times. My brother with the same name locked himself in a room at two years old, and my father started screaming, tried to break the door with his shoulders, and he gasped for air as if he were the child locked in, as if he was about to lose someone else across the closed door.
They all coped differently. My father resorted to religious tropes and being always right. He hated movement. He hated when hands moved too much and for too long, when hands swayed to grab things, or the moving hands of people talking too fast. He said it gave him motion sickness and made him dizzy, but mostly, it made him angry. He hated how my brother moved from one plan to something and how he always wanted to live in an unstable present full of motions, noises and people. He hated the recklessness of his nieces, and he hated the apathy of his older sister, born the same day as his drifting son, like yet another famwithout the dead name, lecture the much older father of his nieces and go through uninterrupted monologues that became lengthier and lengthier with age.
The youngest of the four sisters coped by distance. She assumed a certain carelessness, a nonchalance towards everything. She did not have many rules or many ambitions. She enjoyed boredom as a state of being as if there was not much else to dig within herself, not much else to gain from life. She was cynical of the things she did, yet she kept doing them. She existed two steps back from herself, alternating the decor around her as if to avoid settling and keep the existential ques
tions away. She mentioned once how she had panic attacks very often and no one really knew about it. She kept her panic afar, too. She dealt with it by shutting herself in a room when it happened, and she never confronted it. She was nonchalant about everything but mostly about herself.
The older one resorted to performance. She overdid joy when she was joyful, and, most important, she overdid sadness when she felt something remotely close to sadness. She liked staging, and the older she grew, the more complex the stages became, multimedia performances during which she would send crying videos of herself to the family social media group with messages on how sick she was, how angry at her daughters she was, how depressed because of her husband she was and how desperate even the air she was breathing she would get into with everyone around her or by her periods of insane euphoria. She coped by being a theatre-play character, dramatic but terribly funny, inventing words and concepts and sudden excursions followed by long disappearances. She claimed to dislike her peers, her sisters and brothers who bored her. She became the children’s favourite, a clownish character who randomly took them to places, and someone they could never understand or rely on, who brought them to her house and then would disappear on them. The children liked her unpredictable mood, her mimicking of the other adults and her lack of rules.
The sister that came after her coped by fixing everything. She wanted utter perfection, complete seamlessness. She liked order, and for her, there was never enough order, as if even order itself had to be reorganized. Everything around her was neat, her blond hair always perfectly blowdried, her career full of raises and promotions, and her impeccably matched husband. She was the one with the most ordered life, yet she once had the messiest one. There were closed-door beat her, tried to drown her in a bathtub, burned her car, and fought with one of the dead brothers. She talked the least and only talked back to order everyone.
The third sister kept changing herself from within: once religious, once political activist, once withdrawn, once mad, once sad, once sociable, once in Tunis and once back in Paris and back again. Nothing happened to her existence; she was alone for so long and in Paris for even longer, but so much kept changing from within her, as if she were trying on all the faces she had until her insides seemed gradually to lose all shape. And she forgot who she was the previous time, as if she kept abandoning scraps of what she could have been
or wanted to be along the way. She became more frenetic, more erratic, and harder to follow. She mentioned the deaths a bit more than the others but as if she were talking about her own rotting parts. No one ever knew whose death she was hovering around, the memories of older ones or her own collapse. She kept losing herself and enacting new selves, and because no one ever asked whether she was mad or just playing everyone too well, she kept altering herself until she died, too.
The other brother left, the youngest of them all, coped by bottling everything in. He kept emotions and words inside him. He was perhaps the one who coped the best because he was broken long before the deaths. Many years ago, he had been wrongly accused of killing someone, and he saw his ambitions and entire life crumble before him. When he was barely leaving childhood, at seventeen years old, he went to prison for having pushed a neighbour’s child, whose parents blamed him for irreversible brain damage. It was yet another family tale that was buried so deep I only heard about it once. Perhaps that is why he had already tasted grief. He had grieved his own life as he struggled between jobs—butcher, realtor and car seller—struggled with love, and married once, twice, three times. For him, death was just another failed endeavour at recovering one’s life.
They never talked about their grief amongst themselves or with other people. It was as if all of them were having silent conversations together, as if they had alternate spaces where they dwelled, took off their masks and cried in unison.
The anxiety of loss was transmitted through blood. It ran through my generation’s blood like it was something you carried with a last name, including the uncertainty of life and the overwhelmhow to bury your sense of loss. We acted in the world the way we did in funerals, avoiding individual feelings and making it about something larger and far away. We did not perform; we did not pretend. Rather, we strove unceremoniously around our existence. We acted in the world a few steps back from ourselves, never fully at ease with our rage. We passed through the world like it was a series of forced rituals and brought our composite face to it. We knew that fear was there. It made its way back at times, inside our homes on the day of a funeral, when a child locked himself in a room, in teenage rebellions and in the uncertainties of adulthood decisions. Fear found us again and again, and when it did, everything became absurd and senseless. During the times of fear, we waited for it to pass as if it were carved in our skins and we could never cleanse it away. So, we followed our grandmother and our parents and taught ourselves to keep it all afar: feelings, decisions, the past and the names of the dead. We knew the taste and smell of fear like it was engraved in the wrinkled face of Omi, inside her eyes that stopped tearing. Omi held fear in the way she kept her eyes dry. It was lodged in her gaze; it coursed through her body, through the sounds of her words when she was up at night, and in the coarse tones we inherited. Fear passed through the silences that kept her out of worry. It moved inside her massive body, which grew smaller and smaller with the years as if it were getting ready to lodge its own death. Fear lingered inside her, but never again did it become whimpers.