My life breaks again and again into sharp sections like a pane of glass. Each piece seems to have no connection with others, but a similar pattern repeats.
I was born in Johannesburg and grew up in apartheid South Africa. That is to say, I had black nannies and white parents. My home languages were Zulu and Yiddish and a few phrases of the Russian my parents sometimes spoke with each other. Outside home, people spoke English, my parents twisting the tongue with immigrant accents. Speaking to black servants, they spoke pidgin funagalo.
One of my earliest memories brings back a night when I heard a baby crying loud, sustained, wails. I heard them coming from my nanny’s room in the servants’ quarters behind the house and I felt the infant’s distress as my own. My mother tried to soothe me, and said, “It’s a cat,” but I could not separate myself from those cries and remained troubled.
A white child, I learned to ignore intimacies with nannies who dressed me and reprimanded me, gave me food and drink and soothed me when I cried, and brought me into their servants’ rooms that smelled different from whites’ rooms. I recall little of that but I believe we marked each other in ways I cannot name. Some shaped my feelings about apartheid as I was growing up and did not learn, as I was supposed to, to keep aloof from the lives of the servants who lived in rooms in my back yard and the yards of neighbors all round me. I was supposed to not notice black people in the street, women carrying fat shopping bags, men singing, sometimes plucking a guitar. I heard black men chanting as they swung pickaxes over their shoulders to dig streets open, then laid down pungent tar and gravel and tamped all down with flat bottom staves. I was supposed to not hear their white supervisors who watched and shouted out commands. We were apart and no words connected their lives with mine.
Pascal writes that in this life we are like prisoners chained to each other in a gang condemned to death. One misty early morning when I was a graduate student walking through a park in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, I found myself suddenly close to a chain gang shackled like that. All black, all men. White policemen were leading those clanking prisoners and followed them close. None met my eyes. But there we were, near enough to hear each other breathe and their low clanking, human and portentous in a heavy mist that enclosed us together and then separated us in solitudes as enclosing as the system that forbade us to look at each other. But I knew that my life was implicated in theirs and theirs in mine.
To me, the inarticulate sight seemed to half-reveal the nature of things. It touched a chord that reverberated to the sufferings of other people and made me simultaneously aware of our closeness and our separateness.
More than thirty years after that morning, I started to teach creative writing at the Nieman Foundation, a Fellowship program at Harvard for mid-career journalists, about half from the United States, about half from the rest of the world. I taught there almost twenty years and many Fellows became my friends. One of these friends is Stefanie.
Tall and erect, with the bearing of an officer and the lean body of a runner, speaking with a slight German accent, Stefanie came to the Foundation in 2001. She grew up on a farm and was interested in science reporting. On a class expedition to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston we rode together on a bus and talked and followed that conversation with more. I learned that Stefanie was feeling chafed by the strangeness of a foreign country. I knew that feeling and believed I understood Stefanie’s ache. I guessed then and found out later that her family might include Nazis, but I, after all a white South African, had grown up willy-nilly complicit in apartheid. More consciously complicit, I had become an American citizen while Nixon was president and waging a war in Vietnam I believed unjust.
One day when Stefanie and I were discussing our feelings about belonging, she told me about an organization that brings the children of Nazi perpetrators and children of survivors together. The founding psychologists of One By One had noticed that both suffered similar nightmares. Like both of us.
The spring semester of her Nieman year, I needed emergency surgery and called Stefanie from the hospital to cancel a meeting we had scheduled. She came to visit me in hospital and, a science reporter, she investigated everything she could about what she saw – my room and other patient rooms, the nurses’ station, how the doctors came and went, the aides and cleaners, everything seeable. She stayed so long, the nurses asked, “Are you her daughter?” and she answered, “Yes.” After I was discharged, Stefanie told me the story and said, “Let’s make it true.”
She married a German-born man studying engineering at MIT and they moved to Lansing, Michigan. They had a daughter there, and, when they came back to the Boston area, a son. And I became their American grandmother.
I sometimes feel our friendship improbable but in Cambridge it seems unremarkable. People from camps opposed in the past are always meeting each other in our great universities and international institutions. The rarer circumstance in Cambridge may be to live apparently untouched by encounters with people from other cultures.
My friendship with Stefanie showed me that my life’s disjunctions can open up to reconciliations. So did a friendship with Suleiman, another Nieman Fellow in her year. Like me, Suleiman knew extreme disjunctions and conjunctions. Born in a poor eastern province of Saudi Arabia, a shepherd who slept under the stars while an adolescent, Suleiman compensated for his small stature with energy and determination and often wore vests that filled out his meager frame. I imagine him constantly aware of his physical presence like an actor on stage.
His reporting on drug smuggling had brought him to the attention of the king. At that time, the penalty for bringing drugs into the kingdom was death. Suleiman pointed out that many peasants carrying drugs had no idea what they were delivering in packages they brought across the border as favors. He asked the king to show mercy, as a devout Muslim should. Soon after writing that, he met the king. He prevailed, and the penalty for bringing drugs across the border was made less absolute.
Once, he told me that many of the 9/11 hijackers came from his part of Saudi Arabia. I noticed later that one, imprisoned in Guantanamo, had the same surname differently transliterated into English. I suspect that the climate of America after 9/11 made Suleiman even more wary and conscious of himself among other people.
One evening, while we were sharing humus in a Cambridge restaurant, he told me about a time he flew from New York to Riyadh to attend a meeting with the king and his councilors. The meeting lasted all night. When he came out at dawn, he saw the moon in a pink sky reflected in a palace pool. Then he left to visit his mother and centuries of human change evaporated into the desert air as though they had never happened.
In the village, events like the date of Suleiman’s birth remained unrecorded. His mother had never left her village and used the same word for Arabs and all other people. She did not know there were any non-Arabs in the world.
That visit crushed centuries into a sliver in Suleiman’s life, from twenty-first century New York to a preliterate pre-history of timeless village life. He told me that, as a child, he and some friends tricked elders in the village into believing that ghosts haunted the road they took home after meetings. The ghosts were Suleiman and his friends hiding behind rocks and making ghost noises. Now, new elders warned Suleiman against taking that haunted road.
Suleiman’s day condensed disparate and contradictory histories into a few hours. A day like that could have happened in Johannesburg, where I could drive in one hour from skyscrapers and garden swimming pools to hovels in a slum with rutted dirt roads.
Suleiman’s mother seemed to know no distinct history, but in South Africa, each ethnic group learned its own different and dividing history. Mine, for English speakers, culminated in the British empire and connected with England and America, another, for Afrikaans speakers, culminated in the Great Trek and Vryheidsoorloe, Freedom wars, known in English as the Boer Wars. I learned another history in Hebrew School, about patriarchs and prophets, and that history culminated in Zionism and the state of Israel. Blacks were assumed to have no history of their own, but I learned an oral history from a nanny whose history was peopled by heroes like the Zulu chiefs Chaka and Dingaan and the great Moshesh who united refugees from the Zulu wars into one tribe, the Basuto.
Suleiman told me another story. Before his Nieman Fellowship as a student in Washington he used to study with another student from the Middle East. One evening, they broke from their books to eat at a nearby café and ordered hummus, and when the other student dipped his pita in the hummus and tasted it, he said, “This hummus reminds me of home.” Suleiman asked, “Where is home?” “Tel Aviv.” Suleiman almost fell off his chair. He had never met a Jew. How could a Jew could be so like himself? He had not even suspected. No horns. No evident villainy or malice. Could a Jew be so like an Arab homesick for hummus.
“I’m Jewish,” I said.
“I know,” Suleiman answered. He was a reporter, interested in finding things out, and I made no secret of my Jewish identity.
We did not feel like opponents.
Another Fellow in Stefanie’s Nieman class showed me something else I had not guessed. People from anywhere can tap open memories I used to believe depended on remaining in the same place and knowing the same people for many years.
Nacho, bony, tough, bespectacled and smiling, deliberately gave us gringos, tongue-tied by “Ignacio,” a nickname that evoked a snack we could pronounce. He often met difficulties with wry comments.
When he received his Nieman Fellowship, he had reason to fear for his life. Reporting in Colombia, he had told stories about narco-traffickers, politicians, American military, Communists and assorted criminals. During his year in Cambridge, he received awards for courage. One morning, his voice hoarse with grief, he told me he had just learned that someone had poisoned his dog in Colombia. A warning, of course. He did not admit fear or joke about his dog.
Like Stefanie, Nacho seemed to feel the tug and twist of living in a loved but unjust society. In my writing class, he wrote a piece about a massacre he had reported. He did not mention the politics, ideologies, economic interests or anything else that might tame the killing. He described what he saw – shoes scattered over the square where it had happened, sandals, high heels, sneakers, children’s shoes, men’s shoes, down at heel and new, lying random and separated from the feet they had shod.
Nieman Fellows take classes all over Harvard. When I asked Nacho what he was taking, he mentioned a class in medieval humor. Of course. Humor is strong armor against fear and horror. But medieval humor? We exchanged a few sentences about the topic and I told a medieval joke.
A poor man standing outside a bakery, breathing in the smell of fresh bread with visible longing, annoyed the baker. “If you’re going to stand there sniffing my bread, I want you to pay me.”
The poor man clasped his hands together, rested a foot on the bakery step, knit his hands, and hit his thigh just above the knee to make a jingling sound. “I will pay you for the smell of bread with the sound of money.”
Nacho and I smiled at the joke and its survival. And, I think, at the persistence of poor people, their wit, and people they irritate. We had cut through chit-chat to friendship.
And I had reached back to that time in Pietermaritzburg when I was reading Pascal and studying fourteenth century narrative. One day that year, I read a collection of medieval sermons and came on that joke. I recognized it. It was one of my father’s. I was amazed, at the time, to find it in a book so remote from his life.
Every year, students and Fellows I care for leave Harvard, many for remote countries. Friends and colleagues move away. Modernity and mobility provoke nostalgia for the known and familiar. I recall hearing a lecture years ago on the opening words of the Odyssey. The professor commenting on them explained the etymology of “nostalgia”, the ache of knowing. Ulysses, he said, felt pain from knowing too many places, too many encounters in too many places.
As time passed, I did not have the heart for more friendships with people who would move hundreds and thousands of miles away. I felt stretched thin. Where was I in all the stories I had helped other people tell?
I recalled one of my father’s evocative and ambiguous stories, set in Chelm, the famous village of fools. It tells of a man who, on his way to the communal bath, sees a piece of string in the road and picks it up. What a lucky thing, to find this piece of string, he thought. In the bath, I’ll be naked and everyone else will be naked too, How will I know who I am? But if I tie this piece of string round my finger, I’ll be able to know immediately.
He went to the bath a happy man, tied the piece of string round his finger and immersed himself in the water. But the piece of string got loose and floated about until another fool in the water saw it. That fool thought, what a fortunate thing. If I tie this piece of string round my finger, I will know who I am even though I’m not wearing any clothes.
Soon, the first fool met the second fool and saw the string round his finger, “All right,” he said, “You are me. But who am I?”