The land that I forgot: From Algeria to the US, a story of family

An Algerian-American remembers her grandfather and the war that shaped her family.

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
Nora Belblidia with her grandparents at Sidi Fredj, the point at which the French invaded Algeria in 1830 [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

My grandfather was arrested by the French in 1956. Or was it ’57?

He was at home for lunch one day, as he was every day at noon. My grandmother would have cooked couscous or chorba or khalota, the smell of semolina and cinnamon hanging in steamed air. A baguette would have sat at the centre of the table, with its soft belly and hard shell.

It was the Algerian War of Independence, and my grandfather, aged 30, was a member of the Front de Liberation Nationale, the FLN, the political party fighting against French colonialism. Everyone was in those days. That is how the story goes at least.

The police knocked on the door, and they took my grandfather away. Four months later, he came home with a head full of lice. C’est tout. “He never wanted to talk about it,” my dad says.

My dad likes to talk about things, to pass down stories as if they were family heirlooms. There is the family dog, a German Shepherd mutt, shot by French paratroopers. The former student who warned my great-grandfather he was on the French hit list and that my great-grandfather could no longer be protected. The wife who did not know her husband was also in the FLN and, fearing he might rat her out, threatened him with a knife. What colour was the knife, I wonder? Was it serrated or dull? Was it used to chop onions when it was not clenched in a woman’s fist?

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
Nora’s grandfather with his children – including Nora’s father on the far right – in Miliana, Algeria in the late 1950s [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

On the way to kindergarten every morning, my dad passed the bodies of people the French had killed the night before. They were lined up at a main intersection, half-naked and pierced with bullet holes. He recounts this information in the same tone he might use to describe a work meeting. “I wasn’t scared,” he shrugs. He recalls a demonstration where “people got shot, a far-off relative”, he says, trailing off mid-yawn, “That was part of it.”

These stories are interspersed with lighter ones of community and shared effort; a country fighting for its identity and autonomy. My dad was nine when Algeria achieved independence in 1962 after eight years of revolution, and he packages these stories like he is handing off supplies for a trip. “Here, you’ll need this,” he seems to imply, ensuring I have the historical knowledge to affirm my blood.

My dad immigrated to the United States in 1975. An infant Algerian government sponsored his graduate-school studies, eager to create the independent country of its dreams. After 132 years of French colonisation, Algerians were largely uneducated; their schooling had been squelched along with their language and their civil rights. Since you could get a better education abroad, the idea was that my dad would become an engineer in Atlanta then return home to help build a visionary sovereign nation. He met my mom in 1976 and never moved back permanently.

Beba Nouni

One day my dad sends me a video from 1946. Or was it ’47?

Shots pan over downtown Algiers, the black-and-white film skipping with age. The film profiles my grandfather’s professor, Monsieur ben Cheneb. We see him standing outside the school with his students, and my grandfather appears for half a second, shy and half-hidden behind a fellow classmate. His brow is furrowed, and he stares directly at the camera.

In the years when cameras and film were not yet widely accessible, photographers snapped portraits of people passing in the street, then charged for the print. I have come across eight or 10 such portraits of my grandfather while digging through loose photos tossed in a forgotten drawer.

In every one of them, he wears a crisp suit and walks with a long stride. His hair appears a light grey that I know to be red, long, coarse and curly. Sometimes he wears it uncovered, but many times he wears his fez. He stares directly at the camera, brow still furrowed but no longer hiding.

I wonder about the man who liked his portrait taken. In those years he was known as Ahmed. As I knew him, he was Beba Nouni, short for “hanouni”, or sweetheart.

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
Nora’s grandfather walking through downtown Algiers in the 1940s [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

Double vision

From appearance, no stranger would ever guess my North African background. I look like a typical white American woman, with fair skin and auburn hair – passed down from my grandfather – dyed blonde. Algeria sits on the Mediterranean and is in large part defined by its history of cultural and genetic exchange. Most Algerians comprise a mix of indigenous Berber blood with the country’s various Arab, Roman and Ottoman conquerors. But when someone learns my identity, their reaction ranges from mild surprise to confusion to disbelief. “I would never have guessed that,” they say. Or, “Where is that again? Did you say Albania?” Or, “So, you mean you’re French?”

At some point, I found myself saying “My dad is Algerian” rather than “I’m half-Algerian”, to avoid the questions and create distance from my own identity. No one can question my dad’s identity, but I look like an American and talk like an American. I benefit from all the privileges and safety of being a white American. My cousins get searched at airport security while I sail by without a second glance. Yet my family’s history is rendered invisible, and my imposter syndrome braces for my worst fear – that I am not really from there. That language and cultural mores weigh more than blood. 

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
Nora’s father and grandfather at the neighbourhood fruit stand in Algiers [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

In college, I minored in Arabic to feel more connected to my roots. Beba Nouni was an Arabic teacher, and so, on a trip to Algiers one summer, I requested his help. He sat with me at the kitchen table and patiently walked through conjugations. “Ana atathakr. Anta tatathakr. Huwa yatathakr.”

I could tell he was proud I had learned to read the script, but I struggled to reconcile the Algerian dialect with my university-taught Modern Standard Arabic. When I spoke the phrases I had learned in class, my cousins laughed at their formality.

Beba Nouni did not know English, so our conversations were limited. A mix of basic French, some Arabic, and gestures, nods and smiles. Having lost a shared language and culture through time and immigration, I could not help but see him in double vision, like looking through a pair of lenses in which one eye was nearsighted and one eye was far. Despite the linguistic ocean between us, he was my blood, and I felt as connected to him as two DNA strands, wrapped in a double helix.

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
Nora as a child with her grandfather [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

A Jenga game

When my grandfather was 91, my aunt taped a red arrow onto the floor so that he would know how to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. His mind had started to go. He would ask for his youngest daughter and, reminded that she now lived 4,000 miles away, he would ask for her again five minutes later. He regressed to childhood. He had nightmares and could not leave the house without my uncle or aunt accompanying him.

A man losing his memories becomes a Jenga game. Little slices slide in and out. Occasionally, they topple in a tantrum of anxiety and confusion. Beba Nouni would get anxious at dusk and fear men might take him away or threaten his family. His children would calm him, take him for a drive, assure him it is ok, you are here, everything is fine. “Ca va, Beba”.

The four months that Beba Nouni was imprisoned were not the defining feature of his life. He was a teacher, a father, and a respected man in his community. It happened, and he never spoke of it. He went on to have a calm, routine life, with lunch served every day at noon.

When I speak to my sister about it, she says my dad stopped going to school in protest during those four months. I tell her I had never heard such a thing and she hesitates, responding, I thought hed said that.

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
Nora’s grandfather in his back yard in Algiers [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

What materials might those four months contain? I suspect my curiosity has less to do with that specific window, and more to do with the remainder of my grandfather’s 91 years. He never shared much about himself in a generation and culture that never shared much about themselves. Algerians are notoriously private.

Sometime around the Bush years, my dad finally acquiesced to my mom’s political lawn signs and temporary bumper stickers around Election Day, mortified at any public display of opinion even if it was one he shared. He told me that, growing up, it was considered rude to ask for someone’s name, and that you just had to wait until you overheard it from someone else. The one exception was formal occasions, when it was acceptable to ask: “Kif semak Allah?” – How did God name you?

Even with his children, Beba could be an enigmatic presence, living by example rather than any prescribed set of rules. “You learn your father is a straight shooter, so you know that lying and cheating is bad. He doesn’t have to tell you that,” my dad says, adding that those values were simpler to uphold back when families were large and lived nearby. “Some of it is unfortunately lost because families are less tight-knit because families move away … it’s just the way things go.”

‘Yetnahaw gaa’

Post-independence, Algeria was optimistic. The future was bright and unknown and all theirs. In the 1980s, that sentiment started to give way. By the 1990s, a civil war raged.

Lately, Algeria has been in the midst of another political uprising, this one promising. Since February 2019 until March of this year, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, young people gathered in the streets downtown each Friday, demanding government reform and an end to corruption. Protesters chanted “Yetnahaw gaa” – “They all need to leave.” President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down last April after 20 years in office, just two months after the protests began. Because these demonstrations were peaceful, they did not garner much coverage in the West.

My dad had been encouraged by the peacefulness and determination of the protesters. He was hopeful. He emailed me Powerpoint presentations and interviews with academics explaining the intricacies of politics I have not experienced and do not fully understand. I feel as though I am studying for a class. I have watched his tempered optimism with second-hand excitement and asked about the one time he joined protests while visiting in the spring. He went to downtown Algiers with my cousins. “At that time what struck me was the joy, the respect, the mix of people,” he says. “Now it is not joyful. There is a lot of anger of not being listened to, still peaceful, but more tense.” He continued to send political cartoons and clever protest signs, but when I suggest a trip, he warns, “We have to wait and see how it turns out.”

I ask him about his own protest in the four months when my grandfather was imprisoned. Had my sister’s memory been correct?

He responds in an email: “My ‘strike’ lasted only a couple of times, not as a protest but probably more to cope after seeing my father arrested. Yema set me straight. A couple of spankings put me back on the right path. She was afraid that she would lose control of her kids now that her husband was gone. At that time, she had no clue when he would be back or if he would be back at all.”

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
A traditional afternoon coffee break in Algiers [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

In the Algerian dialect, “Yema” means “Mom” so that is what, fittingly, my dad calls his mother. It is also what I, unfittingly, call my grandmother. A mistranslation that stuck.

Yema, who raised four children and has spent her life caring for, and worrying about, other people. Yema, whose warmth is so palpable it radiates. Yema, who cooked Beba Nouni lunch and served it every day at noon. Yema, who, when my grandfather died, said: “Il n’y avait pas de meilleur homme.”

“There was no better man.”

Yema is now in her 90s and has shrunk so much that when I stand next to her, at 5 foot 5 inches, I appear giant. When we go to the hammam, I am afraid she might slip on the hot, wet tile. “Fais attention, Yema.” The woman next to us asks: “C’est ta mere?” – “That’s your mother?”

She offers to find Yema a sturdier stool, in a gesture of tenderness. While Algerians can be private about their political opinions, they have an ease of interaction with strangers, as if everyone was an extended cousin. I savour these moments of intimacy like I savour biting into a date.

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
Nora with her cousins and grandfather [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

‘Is she one of us?’

On a visit to Algiers in 2011 or 2012, we took a day trip to Miliana, our ancestral hometown in the mountains. It used to be known for its cherry trees, but years ago, an earthquake caused nearby springs to change routes and, without a water source, there now are not as many cherry trees as there once was. The land looks like southern California in a drought, a patchwork of tawny browns and emerald greens. My grandmother went to her sister’s for coffee and cookies, and my dad and I went for a walk with Beba Nouni.

When Algeria was first invaded by the French in the 19th century, Miliana served as a military stronghold for resistance leader Emir Abdelkader. Rather than allow the French to overtake it, the citizens evacuated and burned their own city down. The French, of course, eventually overtook the country, and Miliana is now built in a French colonial style. The main boulevard is wide and lined with plane trees. The downtown is small, but, on that morning, the market was bustling. My grandfather and dad each strolled in the crowd with their hands clasped behind their backs. As we walked, several men approached us, one after the other.

“Monsieur Belblidia! Vous vous souvenez de moi?” – Do you remember me?

He looked confused but nodded and smiled politely. He did not remember that they were former students saying hello to their former Arabic teacher, wishing well to the family.

I had my film camera with me and was taking photographs, hoping to document my history. I wondered about the men who stared back at me and what they thought of the American girl with Monsieur Belblidia.

I often wondered – and still wonder – what my grandfather thought of me. I imagine he would be perplexed by my oversharing, by my writing, by my Americanness. I wonder what memories I have lost of my family, whether due to time or distance, like a Jenga game.

Memories of Algeria/Nora Belblidia
Nora’s grandfather walking through downtown Algiers in the 1940s [Photo courtesy of Nora Belblidia]

While I have inherited the Algerian value of offering condolences and taking death seriously, I have to text my dad to remember the exact phrasing of “Allah yrahmou”, may God give him rest. I have resisted the American penchant for an “Irish exit”, but I always forget if, when saying goodbye to Algerians, you say “bkalakhir” first and then “besalama” or if it is “besalama” and then “bkalakhir”.

I can have a simple conversation saying “kif halek”, how are you, “la bas la bas”, I’m fine. I know the up-and-down intonation, the ridge of mountains to match, but the small rituals of everyday interaction have somehow slipped through the cracks. In America, I am someone who values communication. I write and construct and dissect words in a language with which I can play, a language in which I feel like myself. In Algeria, I fall mute, terrified my stumbles will betray my losses.

On my last trip to Algeria before my grandfather’s death, my grandparents, dad and I drove to the tomb of Cleopatra Selene, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Tipaza built when Algeria was part of the Roman Empire. It was December, warm and sunny, and families were out. Children climbed over the stone ruins shaped like a half honeycomb, and my dad commented, “That would never happen in America.”

My dad liked to get my grandparents out of the house to change up their routine, but Beba Nouni could never stay out for too long. He would get restless and scared and ask questions and want to leave. He was impatient. We had a coffee at the restaurant nearby, and before we left, I went to use the restroom. My grandfather turned around, eyes darting, asking where I had gone and when I would be back. At that point in his life, he could not always recall my name or that I was his granddaughter, but it made him nervous that I was not there.

As I returned to them, my dad pointed at me and asked “Beba Nouni, Shkoun hadhi? Hadhi taana?” – “Who is she? Is she one of us?” He nodded and smiled, and we got in the car to drive home.

Source: Al Jazeera