Country of Origin: Algeria
The morning of the first Tuesday of December, I was staying at my uncle’s house because, until the night before, we had had a very unstable week.
Otherwise, I’m not someone who spends the night anywhere outside.
There was something about that morning that did not add up.
I swear, the little ten-year-old me felt something was off about it but could not really make sense of it. Everything about that morning seemed yellow.
My uncle, his wife, my two cousins, and I were having breakfast at 7 am. Everyone was looking at me with a look of pity. I was sure everyone could sense that feeling. I’m not saying that there should be a reason for people to be nice to each other, but being “over-nice” is pretty recognizable, even for a ten-year-old kid.
My cousin and I took off for school at 7:30 am. (They were trying to make it a “normal day”). Nonetheless, I chose not to pay extra attention, as I had a French class that morning with Miss Nacera.
“Allez tout le monde prend sa place pour commencer la leçon!” (Come on, everyone take their place to start the lesson!)
Let me tell you something. Miss Nacera wasn’t to be messed with. She had firm features and made it clear her purpose in life was to teach French.
An hour later, I was back to being smart, nosy, and chaoting. I yelled answers without permission, talked to my classmates, and laughed. I was as wild as they get.
Miss Nacera said, “Hichem! Viens ici! Tu fais beaucoup de bruit, t’es malade où quoi!” (Hichem! Come here! You’re making a lot of noise, you’re sick or what!) and slapped me in the face.
Given the fact that I admired Miss Nacera, I did not take it personally. Indeed, I knew I was making too much noise. I went back to my seat with shy red cheeks and an embarrassed face.
Not a minute later, my cousin got off of her chair, headed to the teacher, and whispered something in her ear. I saw that, but couldn’t guess what she told her. Miss Nacera’s face turned from furious to teary.
What is going on?! I thought.
She came to me, took me to the back of the classroom, and hugged me so tight while sobbing and said: “Oh Mon Dieu, Hichem! J’suis vraiment désolée, je ne savais pas . . . . J’suis très désolée mon fils!” (oh my god, Hichem! I’m really sorry, I didn’t know . . . . I’m very sorry, my son!)
All I could think of at that moment was, “Why is she hugging me? It was not the 1st nor the 20th slap.” For the next three minutes, she held me tight while repeating the same words and crying, and I was still wondering what was up with all this drama. It was just a slap, and it was my fault!
She continued the class with a heavy heart and kept looking at me out of pity while I still could not make sense of the whole situation.
We took off again when the bell rang at 10:30 am and headed home for a lunch break to come back for afternoon classes.
On the way home, we did not speak a single word till we got to our neighborhood. We parted ways like we already knew we were not heading back to her house again. “See you at 12:45 pm,” I said, and she nodded her head without any response and left.
I was six minutes away from my house. In those six minutes, I reflected on how weird today was.
I remember it being a clear day in December.
The last minute of getting to my doorstep involved taking a left turn and walking straight ahead for twenty meters. Then, taking another left, I could see my house, the one before the last one. So I did, I took the first left and walked those twenty meters, and then took a second left where I could see my house. And a green-painted box lying right next to it.
A green box, eight feet in length and three feet in width.
In our culture, a box of that type and paint color lying outside has only one explanation. It was pretty clear, even for a ten-year-old kid, regardless of having seen it before or not.
As I took that last left and saw the box, a thousand thoughts drowned my mind simultaneously. Everything suddenly made perfect sense in the weird day I was having so far.
At that very moment, I was experiencing two very complex sentiments at the same time: the joy of things adding up after being as blurry as they were and the pain of realizing what they actually meant.
As I got to my doorstep, I stared at the box all the way, even as I opened the door and walked inside. I took a turn and walked up seven stairs towards the final wooden door that led inside. I heard recognizable crying voices.
I knocked on the door, and someone opened it. I saw some thirty women inside our home, wiping away their tears with tissue paper. Each of them hugged me as I walked towards the big guest room, not knowing whether I should head there or not but following the path they were drawing for me by moving left and right. I headed towards the room that happens to be the one you see right when you open the main wooden door that I had just walked into, the one that I couldn’t see because of the crowd on the way.
On my left was the main room where I saw my mom and my sister sitting on the floor in the middle of a circle of women surrounding them and petting their shoulders while they were crying their hearts out.
As I kept walking forward, I finally reached the big guest room, and there he was, lying on another open wooden box with a white sheet covering his entire body except for his face.
I bent down on my knees to kiss him goodbye, as told by many of the women there, “Kiss him goodbye before they come to take him, Hichem, be careful not to tear on him, honey…” Not a single tear fell before, during, or after these scenes penetrated my mind. All I did was stare in every direction in shock.
“My father is dead? How? They said he’s getting better! I just saw him at the hospital last weekend! He gave me money to buy the pair of shoes that I kept talking about and told me to return the change when he came back this weekend. My mom lied? My brothers, too? My closest sister! He was dead this morning before school? My cousin knew before I did!”
This was the beginning of what came to be a lifetime struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Just like a craftsman creates a piece of art, these questions running through my mind were crafting a new unprecedented version of me, that was going to dictate different rules compared to the ones I knew so far. While the ten-year-old me had yet to discover it at that time, he knew that something different and very complex had just happened to him. However, he was still not able to make any sense of it yet…
Thank you to Apurva Makashir and Tanvi Sethi for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Mental health team.
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