Excerpt from Elsa Koester’s Couscous mit Zimt (Couscous with Cinnamon) translated by Jennifer Jenson

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2. Marie
It was my country, my land. I knew every corner of the fields, the hidden paths, the
meadows covered with poppies in the spring. I knew when water flowed through the
oued and when it was just dry sand. I knew every olive tree, oleander shrub, and bird’s
nest. I always knew which cactus had ripe fruit and which cat had just had a litter, and I
took care of the kittens and the baby birds and the jasmine blossoms, because it was all
going to belong to me. That was what your grandfather told me. It was a warm summer
evening after a blistering hot day and the sun was just setting. We stood on the terrace
in front of our house and looked over the wheat-filled hills. I stood with him, matching
his wide stance, wanting to measure up. I can still remember it perfectly: “All of this will
belong to you one day, ma petite chérie,” he told me, stroking my head, “this will all
belong to you.”
Ah, my Lisa, I’m not sure—what do you want to know? It’s a long story, after all. A long
story. I had a wild life in Tunisia, ma petite chérie. I roamed the fields alone, free from
any watchful eye, and I spent most evenings with the Arabs: with Ulima’s family. Ulima
was our nanny, our nounou. She spent the days with us; I was very fond of her. She
would wrap me in a bedsheet and then pull on one end, spinning me quickly so that I
tumbled out onto the bed. I found it very amusing; we played it often before my sister
Solange was born. Most evenings she and her family ate with us, as Mamie insisted on
cooking the most magnificent dishes: poulet au citron, roast veal, lamb cutlets, cassoulet,
and of course her famous couscous. My father would ring the bell and then the workers
would come in from the fields, clean themselves up, and sit down at the table with us.
They enjoyed eating with us, my nounou, her husband Suleiman, and their three
children. I never played with the two boys, but I loved Aisha, their oldest daughter.
Aisha was my own age; we grew up like sisters. By age three we were fighting over
who got to play with the kittens. I admired her glossy, dark black curls. My hair was
also black, but straight and boring, and while Mamie always cut my hair short in Tunis,

Aisha’s hair tumbled down her back, the curls often falling into her face as her almond
eyes glared out at me. On the Fridays my nounou didn’t come to dinner, I would go to
their small house at the end of the chili field (my father grew chilis along with the
wheat). I would run down the hill and then the small path along the wheatfield—not the
boring, wide lane our car always took, but the narrow path that went along the
neighbor’s olive trees—and I’d start to sprint: olives to my right, chili peppers to my left,
and the red earth below me so wonderfully firm that I believed I could feel myself
dancing on the globe as it spun. Sometimes I stopped, picked a ripe pepper, and brought
it to Aisha, knowing full well that she would make me take a bite of it. And of course I
would bite it—I had to prove to her that I was a real Tunisian, like her—and then the
heat would burn my tongue and my throat. I never asked for bread or water to cool it,
though, never. I showed her I was one of them.
We usually ate couscous at Ulima’s. Although I would never say it out loud, it tasted
almost better than Mamie’s, because we ate with our hands and tasted with our fingers.
I would stuff the sauce-drenched couscous in my mouth, take a bite of the merguez
sausage, and then lick the red, greasy sauce from my fingers while smiling at Aisha,
whose mouth was also completely red. Aisha would teach me some Arabic, most of
which I’ve forgotten. Khobz is the word for bread—see, I still know that. I was always
jealous of how Aisha and Ulima would move fluidly between French and Arabic. In the
middle of a sentence they would suddenly switch languages and I would no longer
understand until they—equally suddenly—would speak French again. Aisha felt sorry for
me. You couldn’t go through life only speaking French—that would be sad, she told me,
so we would sit on our two stones under the lemon tree that Mamie had planted in the
courtyard and study. The lemon leaves smelled so good when you rubbed them
between your fingers; some words still carried their sweet scent into my nose long
afterward. I even knew a couple of sentences, you see, but I’ve forgotten it all. My, that
was all so long ago.

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