Tourists and Chips
In The Fragrant City, where I was born, 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.
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 a long and chequered history. But while I sit in the window of this cafe with my chips and ketchup and buttered bun and watch the people walk past with their bags of vegetables from the market, I am not reminded of my birthplace. These are not my people. And although in The Fragrant City I’m nothing, 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 come into this cafe 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, ‘Right,’ and hand over my money and she counts the change back into my hand.
In the market a man has a stall rich with silk and wool materials for covering furniture or cushions. He had one roll of pure, figured silk, which he called Damask. When he had no customers I tried to explain to him that the word was stolen from my own language, and he listened and nodded, pretending interest, but he didn’t understand.