My father wrote in beautiful, elegant strokes with care and patience. His Parker ink pen was a treasure he stored like nothing else he owned. When he opened that case and swapped the empty ink cartridge for a full one, it was a ritual to behold. He handled that pen with a collector’s grace. Once it touched his small notebook, he wrote and wrote in Arabic and French with a wondrous movement as if each letter had to be delicately composed, each word strummed like a musical chord. His writing had the finesse of calligraphy with strokes drawn in intimate harmonious lines. As a child, I was mesmerised by the sound of his pen as it landed on the page and by the sight of his hand as it moved in a peaceful chorus with his thoughts.
My father was not a writer. He just loved writing with his ink pen. I never asked what he was writing or why he was so intent on writing. I vaguely glimpsed once at his notebooks and realised his words were notes on readings, casual reflections, maybe attempts at journaling a life marked by aborted dreams and interrupted by the long and dreadful pain of disease. I will never know. My father died more than 30 years ago and my family lost his notebooks. All I remember is his handwriting and the mystery of words I didn’t care enough about at the time to read.
I was 10 when my father was diagnosed with mouth cancer. Doctors in Morocco and France didn’t think he could live beyond a few months, but he defied a monstrous disease for 10 years. A brutal treatment never cured him. It barely eased his suffering as his energy waned and half of his face froze and hardened, leaving him horribly and visibly scarred for years. It was hard not to notice how this merciless disease had ravaged his body. Frequent hospitalisation, tremendous fatigue, and gradual loss of sight wore him out. Heads turned in the streets and looks of dread and pity must have weighed painfully on him. I remember him frail but with an unrelenting resolve to live. He read and wrote through long stretches of pain and even when one of his eyes gave out, his will never dimmed.
I know he would have told me more about his writing and what it meant to him had it not been for the overwhelming interference of his disease. Maybe, he wrote to escape the bitter existence after his diagnosis. I wonder if he wanted to impart some wisdom to his children he was too ineloquent to deliver in person. Perhaps, he reached for words to break the dullness of his life as a government employee. Or maybe, drawing letters on a page provided a soothing meditation he couldn’t find anywhere else. I will never know.
My memory of my father is loaded with vivid hints, though. Hints of a man of letters who studied philosophy in college before he, the elder son, was forced to drop out after his father’s death to provide for his family. His own account of that period was often marked with a tinge of remorse, a passion unfulfilled and lost to filial duty. His home library bore witness to a dream called off too soon. Beautiful blue tomes of Islamic exegesis in Arabic were carefully arranged alongside books in French by Descartes, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Zola, Hugo, Maupassant.
I didn’t ask why these authors, why this lineup of books, whether there was a harmony in this collection, but I understood later that, other than his lessons at Quranic school, my father’s education in 1930s and 1940s Morocco was at the hands of French tutors during colonisation. He often talked about a stern tutor who insisted on making everyone repeat the deceptive colonial slogan, “La France est ma nouvelle patrie” (France is my new homeland) at the beginning of each lesson and the tutor who called them “petits indigènes” (little natives) and gave them French names. As a child, my father’s education was at the service of empire, a force of indoctrination disguised as benevolent endowment. “When the French colonise you,” he would tell us, “they colonise your mind.” That is it. A heavy load of meaning in the briefest of statements. I had to read up for myself much later to grasp the dissonance my father must have felt between the corporeal punishment of the Quranic school and the deceptive cordiality of modern colonial education. Learning was either an imposition or a duplicitous proposition.
But despite the sinister calculus of empire, my father kept a genuine infatuation with French philosophy and literature. He spoke perfect French with an elegant accent, a deliberate sign perhaps of a reverse appropriation of the colonial language. As the Algerian writer Kateb Yacine would say, we kept French as the “spoils of war” even if it contained words of our own subjugation. Maybe, that was the reason my father sought to beautify French words with the gentle strokes of calligraphy. His memory of dehumanising schooling had to be pacified via the soft quill of his ink pen. This was how he regained, in the humblest of ways, a voice tamed at an early age by the violent transactions of colonial schooling.
Whether stunted by his illness or intimidated by the darkness of colonial memory, my father didn’t talk much about himself, his past, or his dreams. At times, his silence felt resigned because he was simply exhausted, but in hindsight, his speech was restrained because like most people of his time, he didn’t want his children to be burdened with a history loaded with pain and humiliation. Not everyone is blessed with the talent and serenity to resound the past and make sense of it for themselves and others. My father was not one of those people. His stories didn’t have life-changing wisdom, nor did they contain clues to how I should “know myself”. Maybe, his writings hid a talent or regrets at not having the facility of language or the physical strength to be that guiding voice for his children. I will never know.
As I look back, I wanted to be able to say like Jorge Luis Borges that I was educated more by my father’s library, that the books on his shelves and his cherished writings planted a seed in me. I do not know why my father wanted to be a philosopher, why he read Descartes and Hegel, why he kept reading the Quran and its interpretation. I was too young and distracted to ask him these heavy questions, but something profound was perhaps tormenting him. Maybe an obsession with finding harmony between his deep faith and the intrigue of philosophical doubt. I wanted to be able to say that I am fulfilling my father’s dream of becoming an educator and a scholar, that his discreet love of reading and writing was the source of my early awakening, or that I’m giving voice today to his quiet existence. And maybe it is all true. I am an extension of my father’s fractured destiny and it is beautiful to feel, even if momentarily, that his life’s dream was not muted after all.
But I have no way of certifying this connection. If there ever were a thwarted aspiration of a writer or a scholar in my father, he was able to hide it well. I searched frantically in his scant belongings, traces of him that live now in a dull garage, for his notebooks in the hope of locating a clue or finding a hidden note in one of his books, but my insistence turned up only frustration and anger. The things I value the most about my father’s memory are gone forever and only my imagination can rescue this side of him from oblivion. His handwriting hangs over me like a whisper, a hollow memory that drips in subtle but painful strokes.
Maybe that is why writing as an Arab, as a Muslim does not come easily nor peacefully to me. My words land on the page as a confrontation, a devastation, an elegy, a spectacle confronting another spectacle of my identity, my history, and my culture. Unlike the serenity I imagine in my father’s writing, mine feels incited, assigned, a summoning of sorts fabricated by the anguish of letting too many insults go unanswered, too much bigotry unexposed. “I build my language with rocks,” said the Martinican poet Édouard Glissant. I build mine as rocks are thrown at me, and I wonder why some can write unprovoked while others see their writing condemned to a perpetual response, a painful call to perform the pain and assess the damage. I want to reclaim the forbidden tranquillity of my writing from the ugliness of the task always awaiting the subaltern writer. I do not wish for my pen to become a sword, for its ink to serve a vulgar aim. My language was not supposed to feel like a haemorrhage destined to be stopped, lest it caused damage too big to repair. My words were not meant to be thrown as darts in a world of instant enmity. I do not shy away from a righteous fight and I believe in the gift of a wild tongue and a mighty pen, but I do not want my writing to always be a clamour, an armour, a lament in the face of distress and injury. I long for my pen to join the poise of my father’s quill.
I must believe it is the inaudible beauty of my father’s handwriting that I am clinging to, a poem without words I strain to remember in order to liberate my own writing and rescue me from the injunction to plead, to defend, and from the violence of the imposed answer. On the day he died, my father’s eyesight came back for a few minutes just to see us one more time. It was a marvellous moment of fleeting joy before the unspeakable grief, but I remember it now in the same way I can still picture those tender strokes of his handwriting. My father’s notebooks were full, and perhaps that is a memory good enough to live with. His words were not for a reader, an editor, but for himself. He wrote and wrote, as Gloria Anzaldúa urged us to do, not to let the ink coagulate in our pens. “Write with your eyes like painters,” she would say, “with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers, You are the truthsayer with quill and torch.” I may never know what my father wrote or if he meant for his writing to be a torch for anyone, but he left me with the greatest lesson of them all. Never surrender your pen to write for someone else.