I am not convinced that we live at the same time as the people we love. I cannot be the only child who felt like their grandparents came from a different planet. Growing up, the entirety of the human past appeared to fit in one person: my grandmother. A combination of family estrangements and premature deaths meant that she was the only person of that generation around to raise me. My father’s mother was evidence of a world before me and my parents, a world contained to her apartment.
This space, in the western suburbs of Paris, had its own rules. The walls were covered with a 70s velvet wallpaper, and its colour was exactly the same as the clay courts of the tennis matches she would fervently watch on TV. My parents would drop me off, she would fix me lunch, and at the end of the afternoon, she would bribe me with money to come back more often.
On holidays, my whole family would congregate within those same orange walls, where we would eat couscous with silver cutlery around her large table. She was a terrible cook – having worked her whole life (on top of doing all the housework), she had never had time for the kitchen. But given the ones I was raised on, their taste is always the one I judge other dishes against.
While I sat there sipping flat, caffeine-free Coke, which she insisted was the only correct form of Coke, she would tell me many stories about her life. Most of them did not make any sense. She told me, for instance, that she had been born in Morocco. As far back as we knew our family had lived in North Africa. She would also say that at some point the family ‘came back’ to France. I could not understand how you could return to a place you had never lived in before. She would show me pictures of palaces and say, look, this is where I was born, we were rich then, then we were poor, then we were rich again, then we had to leave.
I thought of her as an alien. At the time, I thought I could not understand these stories because I was too young. Maybe, like taxes, they would make sense later. At school, what I was taught about the past was not much help in understanding my grandmother. Teachers rarely mentioned North Africa, even though many of the kids at my school came from there in some way or another.
At some point, it became clear that if I wanted to understand her, I would have to do this work myself. It is because of her that I became a historian, not because her stories were exciting or inspiring, but because they were confusing. Over the years, I developed the most precise and luxurious telescope with which to gaze at her distant planet of origin. I read books on superstition in Reformation England and peasants in the French Revolution, and gingerly untied rusty nails from archival documents.
In classrooms and archives I was taught a particular way to go into the past. I was told, above all, that this world was distant from ours. The rules of historians are clear: put things in context, be dispassionate, and most of all, never say ‘we’ when you talk about the past. We do not live alongside the people of the past; we are different. It is this rupture, after all, that makes the very discipline of history possible.
And yet, my teachers said, it is possible for the mind, through great work and knowledge, to feel this past. They called this, after Collingwood, the ‘historical imagination’ – a sense that allows you to slip into the head of a Carthaginian general or to smell a street in eighteenth century Edo. You could, to a certain extent, transport yourself into the past through the sheer power of your brain.
I certainly tried. Through books and research, I explored the world of colonial North Africa well beyond the confines of my grandmother’s apartment. From this distance, she was one small speck in a lunar sea of settlers, sex workers, saints, colonels, and amirs.
Put into context, her words finally made sense.
My grandmother was born in 1921 in Oujda, on the border between Morocco and Algeria, to a Jewish family. Her family had roamed that land as far back as we can tell. And when the French came, they opened their mouths for colonialism, ate it, digested it, and made their own. When she told me she ‘returned’ to France when she left her native Morocco in 1956, this was not a lie: in her mind she had lived in an imaginary France her whole life. It is possible to be both native and a colonizer.
I can explain this in the voice I take on with my students, the voice that has the weight of authority. It goes like this: Jews were crucial intermediaries of French colonialism in North Africa, and Algerian Jews in particular were granted French citizenship in 1870. They became French by staying in North Africa – one of the many effects of a century-long project to make Algeria part of France. My grandmother went to French schools, carried a French passport, and as a teacher worked as a civil servant for the French state.
My grandmother was consistently racist towards the people whom she grew up with. She spoke French at home; Arabic, she would often say with distaste, ‘is for servants or going to the market’. Her stories of Morocco almost exclusively featured other Jews. Every now and then, a Catholic character, a ‘real French person’, would enter the stage, and this was a grand occasion that meant that they were really moving up in the world. Muslims, the vast majority of people surrounding her, were invisible. Even when I asked her repeatedly for details about them, she could not remember. She always saw herself at the vanguard of modernity, the embodiment of a rational world of numbers and republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity. Behind her, she would leave what she saw as a backwards world of superstition, poverty, and perhaps worst of all, Arabs.
I wanted no part of that world of hers. I analysed it from afar. Stood before lecterns at conferences, I got to tell people her past better than she could. I felt like I had gained power over her. I grew more distant from my grandmother. She disapproved of my choice of career. She kept trying to convince me to become a lawyer or a banker, to make money and ‘become somebody’. Why bother staring at the past? Her whole existence had been an unrestrained bullet racing towards the future. I could never tell her that my entire professional life was an homage to the mystery of her past.
Over the years, this distance became untenable as my grandmother became ill. She was affected by something known as Lewy bodies that accumulated inside her brain cells. Unlike the better-known Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia does not primarily affect memory, but it does often affect one’s ability to locate things in space or time. So when I was talking to my grandmother, it wasn’t always clear when we were. I started visiting the world of colonial North Africa not through the distant gaze of research, but through her dementia.
As her sense of time became more confused, she was both with us and in some other place. I began to time-travel with her. She started using words that had long since disappeared from everyday vocabulary. Once, she told me that the bananas she had bought were too expensive because the marchand indigène, the ‘native merchant’, had tried to swindle her. I was confused. In the plush western suburb of Paris where she lived, who was exactly was a ‘native’? A white person? What she meant is that he was an Arab, an indigène in the colonial sense, a word so derogatory it is never used anymore.
She was, in essence, returning to the world of her birth. I kept this a secret. In my shiny new professional life, I never told my colleagues the truth: that I knew colonialism not only through reading books, but also because its representative served me fish fingers after school.
Eventually, she moved out of her orange apartment to a care home. One day, my sister and I went to visit her. We sat outside in the courtyard in the sun and she seemed quite happy and relaxed for a while, savouring her grandchildren’s visit. Then, quite suddenly, her tone grew alarming. ‘You have to leave’, she told us. ‘You have to leave now before it’s too late’. We were confused, but she was adamant that we go. ‘If they find you out in the corridors after six they will come get you, and then they will take you away and you will never come back.’ Take you away. Never come back. My sister and I stared each other. We both knew when we were. She issued a final warning: ‘Don’t talk to the Poles, or they’ll know, and then they’ll take you to the basement’.
My grandmother was around eighteen when the Second World War started. Family legend would claim that she was among the first women to graduate in mathematics from the University of Algiers. Deprived of the possibility of teaching legally by the Vichy government’s racial laws against Jews, her first job was running an underground school out of her parents’ apartment for Jewish children who had been expelled. Like most Jews in North Africa, her experience of the Holocaust was one of discrimination, hardship and fear, but also included an awareness that the worse, extermination, was happening elsewhere. In 1942, Anglo-American troops invaded Casablanca before the Final Solution could ever be implemented in Morocco.
Before her dementia, my grandmother had never articulated this fear. But in that moment, though the details were fuzzy (who were ‘they’? where would they take us? why 6 p.m.?) the general intent was extremely clear: ‘I am scared for you. You have to live because we all could have died.’
As I walked back to the metro a bit later, I started crying. I did not cry because of what my grandmother had been through when she was young. I had always known about this. I cried because she made me live through it with her in 2013. I cried because her fear for me was real. What is it like, not to study the past, but to feel it? To have its remains grab your wrist, tears in eyes, and yell at you that you must leave? What does it feel like to be haunted by the living?
Those who care for people with dementia are familiar with this experience of time-travel. Research, in fact, encourages us to go along with it, in something called ‘validation therapy’. Rather than argue with a patient and remind them that it is, in fact, 2022, best practice suggests to go along and affirm their feelings. This reassures patients, and is better for their health. I have not, however, found much research on what this process does to carers.
The first sign that something was wrong with my Dad was the phone calls. I would wake up with missed calls from him at 3 a.m. He would wake up, put his coat on and try to get the bus, only to realize it was the middle of the night. He started showing up to appointments five hours or five days early.
We took him for a neurological exam. The doctor asked him to draw a clock. He produced a jumble of lines on one half of the page. He was, it seemed, increasingly confused by the passage of time.
We tried to fight this. We bought giant display screens that said DAY or NIGHT. I would ask him WHAT DAY IS IT on the phone and he would go silent, embarrassed. We made him write his weekly schedule in minute detail to tether him to the rhythm of the world. But eventually, my brother, my sister and I had to let him float.
Lewy body dementia, we were told, is not genetic. When our father was diagnosed with the same condition a few years after his mother, the doctors told us this was just some kind of grim coincidence. My siblings and I found this unconvincing. At least, the second time around we had a better sense of what worked.
In dementia care, one step further from ‘validation therapy’ is something called ‘reminiscence therapy’. Here patients are actively encouraged to return to the past through thestimulation of senses. Doctors will recommend playing music from their childhood, or finding a particular brand of chocolate they used to love. This will soothe the patient, they say. It will make you feel closer to the patient.
My sister and I took our father on a trip to Morocco, back to the Casablanca where he was born. As he rarely talked about his childhood, we thought it might jog some memories. I researched his school, his apartment, his synagogue, placing them all painstakingly on a map. As I led us from one to the other, he enjoyed himself, but not much came up for him.
The power balance had shifted. I was the one who could get by in Arabic, who had done my research, who was acting as a guide. I had always thought of my father’s Casablanca as an enchanted place I could never enter. It turns out that this place had largely existed in my head, as my imagination filled in the gaps from his limited recollections.
How do we imagine the past of those we love? When you start reading about dementia care, you will often stumble upon an extreme experiment that took place in the Netherlands in the village called De Hogeweyk. The articles describing it are usually breathlessly excited – an entire village built as a time bubble for dementia patients. Cordoned off from the rest of the world, the streets are meant to look like the 1950s, complete with a grocery store and a hairdresser. The idea is not just to make the care facility look like a home, but to make it look like the past.
As I learned more about De Hogeweyk, I noticed that most of the ethical concerns seemed to be about the underlying deception. But my mind went somewhere else entirely. What version of 1950s Dutch life was being imagined by the medical staff? The patients are sorted into different houses with different styles. These are meant to match their former lifestyles to feel more familiar. In the aristocratic house, the staff cosplay servants, in the working-class one, they pose as friendly caring neighbours. I noted that the facility featured an Indisch house for people who had grown up in the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. No article mentioned what role the staff were meant to play here. Would racial relations also be reproduced within this household? Would brown women be hired to serve rice dishes to make the residents feel more at home? Would they be subject to sexual predation in the ways they were in the past? I wondered what a French version of De Hogeweyk would look like. Would the house for repatriates from North Africa have allowed my grandmother to shout at the nurses like she used to shout at her servants?
My Dad’s condition has become worse recently. I sit with him in hospital and when I ask, ‘Do you know where we are?’ His answer is always different: Switzerland, Taipei, Spain. What an amazing ability, to be able to travel through time, to inhabit the different moments of one life simultaneously, to be both then and now. We often marvel when we watch the minds of children develop, but the degenerating brain tosses out fireworks of the soul.
At first I kept telling him, no, you’re in hospital, you’re in Paris, look out the window. But now I just listen to the answer, and try to roll with it. On holiday, in Spain? I ask. What are we doing here? Are we going to the beach? Are we eating something delicious? With every answer, I try to get as close as possible to the world he’s in. I look for clues – is it 2005? Or 1973? From glimpses in his words, I try fill in the blanks to paint a full scene.
As historians we are told that serious study of the past involves removing ourselves from the present. Like all forms of isolation from the world, from monasticism to forced confinement, this can bring comfort or pain. But as my father slowly dies, I have found it more difficult to follow this principle. I do not want to live in a different time from him.
There is more than one way to enter the past from the present. You can open an old envelope and feel the words inside rush over; you can try to resurrect the exact recipe of your grandmother’s tagine to feel it in your mouth. I would like to think that watching the people I love most in this world lose their minds has made me a better historian than my diplomas and books. Perhaps the skills I have spent so long learning at school do not need to be used, like scalpel knives, to dissect the stories my family tells. Perhaps they can help me get closer to them. Perhaps it is the same pliability in the brain that leads us towards studying history and dementia. A family predisposition for time-travel.
Reminiscence therapy involves the carer actively imagining what the patient’s childhood might have been like. I do not always like this past, but in this version, I get to change the rules. When I went back to my dad’s apartment a few weeks ago to collect some of his things, the neighbour asked me: ‘Are you the historian? He’s very proud of you.’ I know my dad will never again be able to read what I write. But it’s okay, Papa. Hold my hand. I’ll meet you whenever you are.
Image © zalgon