just before dawn I. It started in the daytime, my sister says, I remember the light. We were watching TV. Mama and Baba were in their room, asleep. We heard noises that sounded like fireworks. It happened at…
It’s an old folk tale: a group of blind men encounter an elephant, and each comes away with a different story of what an elephant is. So it was with my family. In our case, the elephant was a war—a sudden invasion of the country that we had made our home. I was six, my sister was eight, my mother thirty-six, and my father forty-one.
My memories of that time are vivid but impressionistic: flashes of images, scenes, sensations. Last year, I realized I had never asked my family about their experiences of this time, had never tried to piece together a wider picture of what happened, beyond my own child’s-eye view. I set out to interview each of my family members, separately, about these events.
Four quite different accounts emerged. It was fascinating to see the contradictions, the variations in memory and perception. In particular, I found it remarkable how our interpretations of and emotional responses to a shared event can be so individual—even within a single home, even within a single small family. Through this process, I felt that I glimpsed something of the essential being of each member of my family—and something of our essential differences.
I transcribed the interviews, translating them from Arabic to English as I went along. I was curious whether it would be possible to construct a coherent narrative by simply splicing together pieces of these transcripts, without altering the words or adding any explanatory text. I was especially curious because I did not conduct the interviews in a systematic way; I just asked them to tell me about that time, and the conversations flowed freely from there. In the end, in order to move the story along more quickly, I did resort to two short passages of backstory/exposition (the first sections in “nine years” and “still burning”) that were a distillation of the material in the interviews rather than a direct quotation of it. Aside from those passages (and from my own impressionistic memories, woven into the text in italics), the text is entirely composed of direct quotation from the interviews with my mother, my sister, and my father. I was curious whether their distinct characters would come through to the reader, without any description or contextualizing details. I wondered how much of their individual voices might be lost in translation. And I was also curious, very curious, about what it means to “write” a text without actually writing it—by editing, arranging, and making choices with existing material, and adding very few words of my own.
WIAM EL-TAMAMI is an Egyptian writer, translator, editor, and wanderer. She has spent many years in different cultures and communities across the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America. She writes nonfiction, fiction, and microstories that blur the boundaries of both. Her writing and translation work has been published in Granta, Freeman’s, Social Movement Studies, Jadaliyya, Alif, Banipal, and Ploughshares Solos (forthcoming), as well as several anthologies. She won the 2011 Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, was shortlisted for the 2023 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, and was a finalist for the 2023 DISQUIET Prize. She has just finished her first book of narrative nonfiction. She is currently based in Berlin, while exploring life in alternative rural communities around Europe.