By Alexandra Baff
I still don’t understand why we had to leave. Why would anyone want to leave the sunny, beautiful, majestic south of France?
As we arrive in Algeria, into a city called Oran, I recall my tedious journey by boat. My mother and father constantly reassured me that this would be an exhilarating experience, that Algeria was where everyone wanted to go, and that people were risking their lives, stowing away in the ships, to get there. I had no idea why; France is so much nicer. The entire journey was awful. Obviously, my family and I were booked in as first-class, but we still had to mingle with the third-class passengers. Their scruffy children would run around the deck and bombard my sensitive ears with their cries and disturb me from my reading.
Mother says that the poor are the most desperate to get to Algeria: plenty of farming work and cheaper land. When she said this my Father laughed and said, “Those third-class passengers will be working for us! Along with some of the natives of course, but they will be more hassle and complain constantly.” Apparently, they weren’t too enamoured when the French came in and took over the land, really, they should be thanking us. Perhaps over time they will adjust and realise how much we have helped them.
“Why would they complain?” I asked, but my mother and father waved away my question and returned to their newspapers and cigarettes. It seemed like once again I was being treated as a child or some disposable thing that could easily be scrunched up and tarnished, ruined forever by some slight unwanted movement. Always protecting their only child to ensure I was not damaged. Thereafter, we talked very little about this new and foreign country that we were going to. According to my Father, it was not a foreign country. “It is our country now,” he would tell me, before leaving us to go and play a game of cards or spend the evening socialising with other men of his standing, while my mother and I pondered and imagined this Algeria that we were destined for.
I only started to discover how barbaric this country was when I was walking along the boat’s promenade with my mother. Two scrawny, dirty and common looking boys were running around, playing at some game that involved make-believe weapons. “Really, it seems that society is prepared to now let their children run wild,” my mother said, averting her eyes from the boys who were disturbing what had been a tranquil walk. I followed her lead until I heard one of the boy’s shout, “Abd al Qadir will be defeated!” I felt my mother tensing next to me. Before I had even asked the question, she spoke with a stern voice, “No-one that you need to be concerned about.”
I repeated that name over and over in my head, lest I forget it. I would find out who this Abd al Qadir was and I would certainly concern myself over him if I felt it due. Ten minutes later we walked past a glass table where a newspaper was sitting, almost as if it was waiting for me. I broke away from my mother and before I had even registered her shout of “Adelaide!” I was holding the paper in my hands. All across the front page was that name. Abd al Qadir. The headlines said that he wanted the French people gone; he was gathering supporters; there was a resistance against us. “Ils ne veulent pas d’un Algérie française.”
My mother was not happy. She wasn’t content with the fact that that she had tried to rule my actions and I had disobeyed and found out the truth for myself. What was she expecting? You can’t keep someone under lock and key forever.
I realised from the moment that we arrived that everything in Algeria was whitewashed. Every single building was white, just like most of the people around me – good and honest Frenchmen. I do notice a couple of Arabs, but not as many as I feared. I could not bear the thought of constantly being surrounded by people of a much lower standing than my own. Even the ones that I did see were wearing clothes from the continent – French parasols and suede shoes – although some look as if they’ve been picked up off the streets. I caught sight of the French flag feebly flying in the weak wind that passes over this dry land. Our presence here is keenly felt.
It takes an age to get from the harbour to our new home. The heat is sweltering and the coach that we travel in is stuffy and humid. Eventually, we arrived at our home which is in the middle of nowhere. It consists of a large luxurious house on a vast plain that is surrounded by livestock and Arabs tending to them. Within moments of arriving, my father called to them to collect our bags and they slowly made their way towards my father and I. “Come on! We have things to do!” My father roared, though it only made a slight difference to the speed with which they came over to us. When they began carrying our bags over towards the house my father murmured in my ear, “They think that because this land used to be theirs that they can do what they like – it is ours now.”
That night I sat with my mother outside as we watched the sunset – not nearly as beautiful as it looks when it sets in Nice. The Arabs were finishing their day’s work and making their way back to their quarters, where we wouldn’t have to see them for the rest of the night. I noticed a chubby black cat slinking around the corner of one of the barns. It had a friendly face but despite my calls and coos it refused to come near us – it was wary of us and I suppose it thought we’d hurt him. He looked happy and healthy enough but that night we left him some tuna, and in the morning found he had gone off with it.
More French people arrived much to my relief – it’s so hard being the only French girl for miles around, dreadfully lonely being left alone with my mother and father who are both always so busy with the house and overseeing the Arabs.
One morning I was sitting outside with my books and I heard an argument. Looking up I could see my father in the fields, looming over one of the Arabs like a tiger looming over his prey – ferocious and terrifying. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the black cat walking away, I noticed it was less chubby now; I kept forgetting to put out some food for him. His face had greyed slightly, and he wasn’t as quick on his feet as he used to be. He rarely came near me, he must have known that one day I would hurt him, not willingly, but hurt him I did. My mind quickly went back to the main attraction that was taking place. I saw the Arab shaking and my father shouting; what has that idiot of a farmhand done now? They always make stupid, silly, outrageous mistakes.
A group of Arabs had gathered around my father, a few of them crying and begging him, for the love of God, to leave the man alone. A few of the farmhands were difficult to teach at first, constantly complaining that this land had been taken from them and that we were being cruel to them. I mean, really, they lived like savages, it’s very fortunate that we came when we did or they might have lived that way forever. As a result of their stubbornness father recruited some Frenchmen that he knew from his university days in Paris, and it was a relief to see how they began to behave under the pressure from more civilised men.
As I considered this a few of these men came running out, just to make sure that father wasn’t in any danger. The Arab certainly was not safe – the sweat was glistening off his forehead in the dazzling sun, he was looking down as if he was preparing himself for what was yet to come. The other men did not interfere but only looked on proudly. My father shouted some more at the Arab, and his voice echoed in the vast, empty desert. “You work and live on this land by my grace and kindness; you are a visitor in my home!”
I felt a presence behind me and looking behind I saw my mother. Her face was stern and she intently watched my father before saying, but to no-one in particular, “Sometimes I wonder who the visitor truly is in this land.” She turned and retreated into the house, leaving me puzzled and confused. What on earth could she mean? But my thoughts were brought back to the present with a slap, and a cry, my father was hitting the Arab. Strong slaps that seemed to reverberate throughout the land and that left the Arab’s face red raw. He tried to cover his face with his hands – a pointless gesture – for my father’s friends only held his arms back, the women and other Arabs were far too scared to do anything to prevent this brutal, although deserved beating. Obviously, they did not see it as deserved – they never understand anything we do, so ignorant.
The following morning, I made my way outside to enjoy my breakfast in the dazzling morning sun, only to find a black mess of fur under the table where I normally dine. It was the cat. His thin, feeble, dead body sent a shockwave down my spine. I had forgotten to leave him out some food, again. I should have made more of an effort to feed him. I should have made more of an effort to remember him. I should have made more of an effort to be kind to him. One of the Arabs walked past me, and she slowly picked up the cat and carried him off, hiding the cruelty that the poor animal suffered because I thought myself too busy and of too much importance to care for him.
In the distance I could make out the shape of an Arab woman sobbing hysterically, she was inconsolable and within a few moments, I understood why. Arabian men appeared and they were carrying a stretcher, a stretcher with a dead body that was covered by a white blanket. My mother was once again beside me. “The same man as yesterday, his beating brought on an epileptic fit…”
“Bernadette! Bernadette!” My sister calls for me, I wave and move over to allow her to stand next to me at the front of the ship that will take us back to the country which we call home, my burly black cat Shadow in my arms. Surely home is a place where you have been before? I certainly have not been to France. It may be where my ancestors came from, but Algeria is all I know. Louise stands beside me, and neither of us says a word. We know we don’t have a choice in this matter; we need to “return” to France.
There had always been a resistance to the French in some form, and I do not know why my ancestors did not take the hint; we were not wanted, and neither were our forms of oppression. We put them down, we bullied them, we scared them, we hurt them, and now we have to accept responsibility for the actions of our ancestors – and the majority who still see Arabs as second class citizens in their own country.
There was violence, there was uproar; there were injuries and there were deaths – from both the pied-noirs and the Arabs. It all came to a head on Victory Day and from that point onward my neighbours and friends began to change their way of thinking: maybe we should not be here, maybe our ancestors were wrong to come here in the first place when they had no right to. The Arabs lost their temper with us, and the imprisonment of Abd al Qadir only made relations between the natives and the French worse. He became a symbol for them, a symbol of defiance. Yet, their frustration remained bottled away until Victory day. The riot was not planned, but its aftermath changed the face of Algeria forever. People died, no-where was safe for the French. But, what else would you expect from the Arabs, who for over 50 years had dreamed of glory in the name of Abd al Qadir.
He had become their God.
A referendum was held for the pied-noirs of Algeria after the bloody disaster that was Victory Day. I didn’t know what to do. To leave or not to leave? Algeria is my home… was my home. I had never left this land and the thought of doing so frightened me more than anything else. In the end, I voted to leave, but only because I felt so scared in my own home. At night, the Arabs would bang the doors and break the windows, no-longer terrified of the consequences their actions would bring. A long time ago the French men would have captured them and tortured them to death. Now it is the other way around. I did not enjoy being discriminated against. It was only because of the fear I felt inside me that I finally realised why the Arabs were so angry – understandable anger. The longer this went on the more frightened I became. The more I realised that I wasn’t welcome in my own home.
Eventually, the anger on both sides became too much for anyone to bear, and now I am part of an exodus, one that is leaving Algeria and “returning” to France in an effort to appease the Arabs. I watch the flock of more pied-noirs make their way onto the ship and I feel my heartbreak for all of those who stand waiting for the ship to leave, unable to get on it for one reason or another, left on this wasted land that is tearing itself apart.
However, it seems that Shadow did not want to go to France, as he jumped out of my arms. Louise and I chased after him but almost instantly he was off the boat and flung himself into the arms of a passing Algerian, one whose gaze is full of malice and anger that is directed towards all the pied-noirs, including my sister and I, who are shocked at Shadow’s sudden change of heart. We let him leave and watch the Arab carry him off into the city, his black fur vanishing amongst the busy crowd of Arabs who have only just begun to live to their full potential.
The boat begins to move away, and the spectators disperse as the rain falls on the Algerian landscape for the first time in months – the world is mourning the end of an era, one that shouldn’t have occurred. Now all I have in the world is my sister and the clothes in my tiny suitcase; I have left nothing behind in this land, it’s almost as if I was never here at all. Soon, I will never return. My people are like a plague of locus to the poor Algerians, destroying their land and their world.
I cannot help but feel guilty for what we have done to this country, even though I am innocent of sin. But this doesn’t seem to matter, I must pay for the sins of my fathers, who were never content with their land and felt the desire to pillage Algeria from right under the Arabs. I am ashamed to come from a dynasty of thieves dressed as princes.
As I take a final glance at the whitewashed landscape, I realise that this land was not ours to keep and that it must be returned to its rightful owners.
One thought on “Je Suis Un Pied Noir”
Dear Alexandra: So far it’s an excellent piece of fiction with deep insights of historical layers of understanding. I love your concentration from the beginning to the end. Well done. Continue d’écrire!