From Algeria, I remember the heat. The unbearable, insufferable heat that seemed to melt every part of my skin with deliberately. I remember the smells, the delicious smells of constant cooking coming from the downstairs kitchen. I remember the colours as well, the colours of the dresses worn by the women from the kitchen, so many women who seemed to know who I was perfectly but who were complete strangers to me.
I remember their playful smiles as they handed me food that was supposedly reserved for the evening dinner, whispering something that I couldn’t quite understand. Soft words pronounced with care, words that sounded so familiar yet that were completely out of reach.
I remember playing outside with my cousins, feeling so desperately out of place despite their constant questions about France. And I remember the house, a house full of women that we barely left, a house that offered me its only ventilated room as a solace when I was sick from the food and sick from the heat.
Or perhaps I don’t remember anything at all.
Perhaps my brain constructed these memories from my mum’s storytelling and the pictures I’ve seen as I way to sustain the very little sense of Algerian identity I have.
Yes, I have been to Algeria, so it must be true: I am Algerian, after all.
I stopped going to Algeria when I was about ten or eleven. After living abroad, my parents decided to move back to France. I wanted to blend in as much as possible so spending my summers in Algeria wasn’t exactly part of my game plan towards becoming the perfect little French girl.
After a few years, it was too late for me. My parents’ family lived in a very small and traditional village, so going there as a female teenager would have meant wearing the veil and being constantly accompanied by my males' relatives, both things that my family completely opposed.* So, I stopped going.
Now, the future is even more blurry than the past. Having ‘origins’ has become trendy in Europe. Although they don’t state it, I can see in my friends’ eyes that they’re dying to visit the country “with a local”. I’m wondering if the next time I’ll step foot in Algeria, it will be with them, bathing in Algiers and partying in Oran.
Will I take the plane straight from Paris to Algiers, or will I cross France by car and take the boat from Marseille, like my ancestors used to? Perhaps I’ll visit again with my family, hugging for the first time in years my aunts and uncles and meeting all the cousins that were born since I’ve been away. Perhaps I will see my family’s village again and rediscover my mum’s childhood through her eyes. Will I feel at home there, or I will feel completely and utterly alien? Will this trip be yet another tourist excursion, or will it finally bring me a sense of purpose and identity?
All these questions are difficult to answer, especially now, in the middle of a pandemic that has closed off most of the world's borders. But between the blurs of past memories and an uncertain future, I find comfort in travelling through the words of others.
I love reading books after books from daughters of Algerian immigrants. Some have gone back to Algeria to reconnect with their home country and others mourn the disappearance of their origins. It is between the space of their pages that I find my home because going home is so much more than reaching a physical space. I travel home when I read their books, and I travel home when I step out of my dad French car to reach my grandmother’s house in the North of France. I travel home when she switches from French to Algerian TV, and I travel home when small words of French permeate her Arabic.
Home for me is in that in-betweenness, in the small place between my French and Algerian passports and my French and Algerian experiences.
So, when people ask me I’ve ever been to Algeria, or if I would ever go back, the answer is ‘Yes. ‘Yes’ not because I have photos to prove it or because I’m organising a trip for next year, but ‘yes’ because there are so many other ways to travel back and forth. You don’t need a plane ticket to start the journey.
*This is based on the author’s own experience and does not specify all of Algerian society.
Guest written by Sofia Bouguerra