Relearning family history (Part I)

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One of the few images I’ve found of the man himself.

Some of the most profound academic moments I’ve experienced have happened when what I learn in the classroom immediately corresponds to things going on outside the classroom. As I begin delving into a history research paper on the latter years of nationalism in Morocco and the early period of state formation, I’ve found myself immersed in research not just for this paper, but on my own family history.

The question of my family history has always been a source of anxiety since my childhood, sparked by that one daunting family tree assignment in elementary school. Unlike my classmates, I could never fill my family tree beyond my paternal grandfather. It did strike me as unusual but I didn’t dwell on it much. As I grew older, the pieces of this family unhistory began coming together through the very absence of information.

Here’s what I know so far: my paternal grandfather left his household at a young age following a dispute with his family. He then made the transition from a rural village to an urban city, where he eventually enlisted with the French army. During the enlistment registration process, he changed his last name. After he married my paternal grandmother, he was deployed to fight for France in the Indo-China War, for which he was awarded the “Legion of Honor.” Upon his return, he settled in Rabat: his final resting place.

In quitting his household and changing his last name, there was absolutely no trace that linked him back to his family. He also made a point about never speaking about them, leaving nothing but blank spaces. My father grew up in a family where the only extended family members he ever knew were from his mother’s side. This absence was passed down to my generation in the family. Throughout the family, even among my siblings and cousins from the same generation, this void has gained a tacit acceptance.

I’ll be heading to Morocco this week for about a month, during which I hope to work on my own academic research. While my research project will be the space where I relearn a period of Moroccan history, my hope is to use this space here to relearn my family history. This will require stepping from outside the archives and going into the places my paternal grandfather has rendered distant, though not entirely inaccessible. I’ll be documenting my progress or lack thereof here.

The idea for doing this emerged from a class discussion on memory and forgetting in the context of colonialist and nationalist histories. For this, it is not just about navigating between the political agendas of memory and forgetting associated with French colonialism and Moroccan nationalism, but also about how memory and forgetting took place on an even more pervasive scale through my family history.

I want to avoid labeling this as a “path to self-discovery.” The absence of a family history is part of my self as much as relearning it is. I say relearning because I know I’ll never be able to put together a full account of my family history and I’m not attempting to start a clean slate of sorts. In the larger scheme of things, I hope this will just be another layer that maybe others in my family (present and future) will build upon.

Here goes nothing…