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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Tourists and Chips II

New Title: English and Chips

In The Fragrant City, the city of my birth, 3500 kilometres away, I’m nothing until I can speak English. This wasn’t the case for my father or his father, or for any of my ancestors going back more than 12,000 years. They were who they were. But for me and my brothers we are what we do.

Although they are different, they are similar, these places. The Fragrant City is watered by the Barada; while this place is penetrated by the river Ouse. Both cities have long and bloody histories. But while I sit in the café window with my chips and ketchup and buttered bun and watch the people hurrying home with their bags of vegetables from the market, I am not reminded of my birthplace. These are not my people, my rivers, my memories, my vegetables. And although in The Fragrant City I am invisible, a statistic, here I have no existence at all.

I am here to collect existence. My teacher spells it out to me in verbs and vowels and nouns and capital letters. I make the strange signs on the paper, the letter A like a tent, the I like a man, the S snaking away at the head and tail of words.

And this existence of language which will ensure I can support a family when I return home, comes to me quickly. After two weeks already when I enter this café the young woman recognizes me. Although I know the words to order my chips and ketchup and buttered bun, I no longer need them.

Before I say a word she says, ‘Chips, ketchup and a buttered bun. Hold the tea till later. Right?’

And I say, ‘Yes, thank you, please, missus,’ and hand over my money and she counts the change back into my hand. She gives me the ketchup in small plastic sachets and when the chips arrive I tear the sachets open with my teeth and spread them like clotted blood. The young woman is amused by my accent, and I by hers. We both smile and have a pleasant meal, so aiding the digestion.

In the market a man has a stall rich with silk and wool for covering furniture or cushions. He has one roll of pure, figured silk, which he calls Damask. When he has a break between customers I explain to him that the word was stolen from my own language, and he listens and nods, pretending interest, but he doesn’t understand.

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