The other day, we were talking about our upcoming American summer with a Mauritanian friend. “Will you go back to your old house?” he asked. We shrugged. We sold it when we moved here—figured it would be WAY too much hassle to have to worry about renters, leaky roofs, backed-up toilets, etc from half a world away.
“We have that idea,” he told us. “We call it atlal and it’s very important in our culture. There’s a lot of poetry written about it.” He went on to describe a nomad passing by an oasis where he spent time several years previously. Maybe a bit of his old fence is left, uneaten by animals, and he sifts through the sand to find the 3 stones on which he balanced his cooking pots over the flames and the ashes of an old fire. This is good. He sits there in the sand, enjoying the evening breeze on his face, thinking of the past. Maybe he makes a pot of tea, balancing his pot on those same stones, remembering. Bouka atlal—tears on the place where you had a good time.
It is actually painful for me to visit our old house. I lived there the longest I have lived in any single house—6 years. It is where my children were babies. It is an older house for America, and it had issues, but also ancient, fragrant roses, original hardwood floors, the biggest camilla bush I have ever seen—it was more like a tree. The morning light through the windows was beautiful. Leaving it was difficult. But now others live there, have filled the garden with new plants, built a different fence, made new memories.
Unlike the Mauritanians, we say, “You can’t go home again.” “You can’t step in the same river twice.” We don’t even try. We, as a people, tend to look forward. We glorify youth, and want always the latest things. We move on. Seek closure. It’s over now.
Going back to a familiar place after several years away is strange. Memory has shifted, solidified, and the layers are no longer discernible, so that I may remember things—not as they were when I left them—but as they were several years before that. Does it have more to do with building those layers, with seeing a particular building on a particular corner over and over again until it is fixed in the mind? So that if a building was changed only a few months before I left, I won’t remember that. Chronology can also be abstract.
I have started packing. We leave tomorrow night; our flight takes off (insha’allah) at 3 a.m. After traveling about 31+ hours, we’ll arrive at my in-laws in Southern Calif. We’ll go to bed around midnight their time; 7 a.m. for our body clocks. A few hours later we’ll get up, dazed and groggy, and have to speak for 30 min to a small group that my in-laws arranged. Happy Father’s Day Donn! I’m planning on giving him a nap, and maybe some Thai food later on.