The extract comes from Chapter 1 of my new novel Why Do You Dance When You Walk where I excavate deep-seated feelings and emotions from my childhood. It is fiction, though it is a tree rooted in my personal terrain.
It is the story of a man who recounts his life to his daughter after she asks about his disability. Mohammed Aïssaoui, a writer for Le Figaro Magazine, remarks that “the novel is the moving confession of a father who explains his handicap to his 10-year-old daughter. This beautiful dance lesson between a father and his daughter shows that literature is also an art of transmission”.
It is true that the whole novel is engendered by one question. A seemingly innocent question from my daughter. A profoundly disturbing one from my point of view. One morning in Paris on the way to kindergarten, my little girl said: “Papa, why do you dance when you walk?” That benevolent question brings back half a century back and it instantly opens a Pandora box full of secrets and silences.
Why does her father – or is it me, limp, why can’t he, or again I, ride a bicycle or a scooter? Why does nobody ever dare to tell a thing about all of this? Her father – or the writer who just looks like me sometimes and other times sound a stranger to me-, feels compelled to answer, to bring back the memories of his childhood in Djibouti and tell her what happened to his leg.
He – or is it me? – tells of the moment when his life changed forever and the ensuing struggle that made him a man, a man who knows the value of poetry, silence and freedom, a man who is still dancing.
Excerpt from Why Do You Dance When You Walk
It all came back to me.
I am that child, swimming between the past and the present. All I have to do is close my eyes and it all comes back to me. I remember the smell of the wet earth after the first rain and the dust dancing in the rays of light. I remember the first time I got sick. I must have been six at the time. Fever lashed out at me for a whole week. Heat, sweat and shivers. Shivers, sweat and heat. My first torments date from that period.
The small hours of a morning, in Djibouti, at the beginning of the 70s. My memory always takes me back to that starting point. Today, my memories are less foggy, as I was able to make strenuous efforts to go back in time and put some order into the jumble of my childhood.
Day and night, from the tip of my toes to the tip of my hair, fever attacked me. One day it would make me throw up. The next day I was delirious. I misunderstood the words and the care my parents were giving me. I misjudged what they were doing. Blame it on pain and my tender age. Fever played with my body the way the little girls in the neighbourhood played with their only rag doll.
For six whole days and nights, I shook. I poured out all the water in my body, stretched out on my mat during the day, and then on my little mattress set directly on the floor in the evening. My temperature rose at nightfall. I cried even louder. I called Mama to the rescue. I was impatient, boiling with rage. I hated it when she left me all alone. Under the veranda, my eyes staring at the aluminium roof. I would cry to the point of exhaustion. Finally Mama would come, but I no longer found the slightest comfort in the arms of my mother, Zahra. She didn’t know what to do with me. “Do something, quick!” said the little demanding voice that took hold of her during those moments of panic.
Then what? Then she would entrust the little bag of bones and pains I was to whomever would appear before her.
Quick, quick, implored the little voice.
So she threw me like a vulgar package into my grandmother’s arms,
or into the arms of my paternal aunt Dayibo who was my mother’s age.
or into the lap of a passing maid.
Then into the lap of another woman,
or a maid,
or even a neighbour, or some matron who had come to say
hello to Grandma.
I was passed like this from arm to arm,
from breast to breast.
But I kept on crying,
out of habit, too.
Dawn would arrive, most often without my knowing it.
I would be dropping from exhaustion. I’d sleep a little, sniffling and thrashing about in my sleep. I woke up when the first rays of the sun heated up the aluminium roof. Shivering, I would scream with pain and rage and wake everybody up.
My mother would jump out of bed and blow her nose at length. Maybe she didn’t want me to catch her crying, but I could see the flash of panic in her eyes that I had already surprised onto her face.
Outside, the city was already full of life. I could hear the children of Château-d’Eau, my neighbourhood, leaving for school. They sounded joyful, noisy, naughty. Whereas me, I was lying on my mattress. Feverish. I would start sobbing again.
I was waving my fleshless arms around, in vain. Mama was sniffling silently, a flash of panic in her eyes again. She found a way out by throwing me into the arms of the first woman who happened to come by.
or my paternal aunt’s arms,
or the neighbour’s arms.
Then to another one,
And the circus would begin all over again.
The little sniffle, the panic, for the flash of an instant. And I would be passed from arm to arm,
like a bundle of sticks.
Why did Mama hate me so much?
I never dared ask myself that question. Only later did it crawl
into my thoughts.
It would lodge in my heart. And hollow out a black hole in it.
‘Why Do You Dance When You Walk?’ is published by Cassava Republic Press. You can order here.
Abdourahman A. Waberi was born in 1965 in Djibouti. He teaches French literature at the University of Washington. He has written pieces for Slate Afrique, Le Monde as well as other newspapers and is the author of numerous books, which include: Le Pays sans ombre (1994), Cahier nomade (1996), Balbala (1998), Aux Etats-Unis d’Afrique (2006) and La divine chanson (2015).