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Relative Strangers

SAUDADE (saʊˈdɑːdə/) noun. A feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament.

In an ever-globalized world, often it is oceans and seas (and perhaps now Brexit and the arrival of Donald Trump to the world political stage) that separate us from our loved ones. Having a French mother and an Algerian father, family gatherings were never a spontaneous affair: our school holidays were always spent in France, whilst a legal blip (I have my mother’s and not my father’s last name) and the continuing civil war in the country meant that I was only able to meet my Algerian family for the first time at the age of 22. This included my grandmother.

For me, like many young people huddled under the banner of ‘Third Culture Kids’, my Algerian family had been the pixelated faces that I saw over Skype calls. As a teenager I was reticent to speak to these fast-moving images, mainly because I had nothing to say. What relationship can you have with strangers that so happen to be your relatives?

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In November 2016, I was finally able to go to Algerian capital Algiers and see where my father had grown up. I was welcomed into the happy cacophony of a family house where my 9 aunts and uncles and 40 cousins would pass through every week. But more importantly, I was able to experience for myself the family roots whose strength and vitality I hadn’t felt up until this journey. It was as if upon meeting my family that I did not have around me when growing up, that I had discovered a part of myself. I had become aware of a part of me that in fact had always been there.

I was soon initiated into one of the richest parts of Algerian culture, the food. Mhadjeb, a rolled pancake with a spicy tomato filling, is a staple of Algerian cuisine and one that my aunts continue to make by hand. Its preparation and the family’s recipe have been passed down the generations, though Fatiha, pictured below, repeatedly reminds me that each sister has their own way of making them. As a quick snack or part of a wedding banquet, Mhadjeb always feature on the Algerian dinner table.

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However meeting your family for the first time is no walk in the park: I had for a long time carried around the heavy burden of expectation that I thought my family would have of me. Whilst I was welcomed with open arms, feeling the warmth of an unconditional love that only now could be physically expressed, it soon became apparent that I had grown up in a culture very different from that of Algeria. I was asked all the time ‘What are your job prospects?’ and anxiously by my grandmother ‘Have you found a kind Muslim boy to be your husband?’. My cousins mirrored my own unease when I asked them ‘What are you passionate about?’ or ‘Why did you choose to study medicine?’.

But I come away from this trip understanding that such differences are not barriers to shun or to be fearful of, they are to be celebrated for adding richness to my complex family tapestry. On our penultimate day, we had a picnic on the Promenade des Sablettes esplanade in downtown Algiers to celebrate my grandmother’s 88th birthday. Passersby stopped, as we sang Happy Birthday in Arabic, French, and English.

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Written by Connie Leroux

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