My mother-in-law is staying with us this week, which sounds like I’m setting up a rather stale joke. I’m not coming on all Henny Youngman, though—I very much enjoy her visits. First of all, they make my wife happy, and second, my mother-in-law is no mean chef. If you haven’t tried her couscous or her lapin à la bière et aux pruneaux, you’re missing out, let me tell you. More than that, listening to her talk about her life is better than watching whatever premium cable TV show currently has you on the edge of your seat.
She grew up in Blida, Algeria, part of a nuclear family that we’d all recognize, though her own mother was born into a polygamous household with sixteen siblings. My mother-in-law thus has more cousins and other relations than I can count, maybe more than a hundred. She describes what sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood, playing at the foot of the fruit trees her father planted in their courtyard and outrunning the boys down the street in her bare feet. She had pets, too, of the usual kind. You know, like a baby gazelle and a fennec fox. She also kept a lamb at one point, although I don’t think it followed her to school.
She did go to school, which wasn’t a universal practice for girls in that place at that time. Her father was by all accounts a thoughtful, gentle man, and if he wasn’t completely immune to the sexism around him, he must have had only the mildest case, because he treated his daughter with respect and afforded her as much opportunity as he did her brothers. Not all were so lucky, as the Francophone writer Assia Djebar has spent her career illustrating. She’s a near-exact contemporary of my mother-in-law, born in a neighboring community, who in novels such as Fantasia (trans. by Dorothy S. Blair) and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (trans. by Marjolijn de Jager) has created a panorama of the female experience in North Africa from the nineteenth century to the present day. Djebar is unhesitatingly frank about the constraints religion imposes on women, but her characters manage to live fully despite them.
Islam was the predominant influence on Algeria in my mother-in-law’s youth, but not the only one. The country was in those years a fascinating cultural mélange. Expatriates fondly remember conveniences unavailable anywhere else: “Muslim shops closed on Fridays, Jewish ones on Saturdays, and Christian ones on Sundays, so you could always shop for what you needed any day of the week.” This blend, of course, was in large part an artificial construct. France had controlled Algeria since the 1830s and officially declared it an integral part of the French nation. In theory this meant that Algerian residents could become French citizens, but in practice most were considered insufficiently Europeanized and treated as colonial subjects. Simmering tensions boiled over into open war by 1954.
The government in Paris struggled to maintain the status quo as Algerians fought against the French army and among each other for different kinds of independence. Those of French descent (often called pieds-noirs, or “black feet”) battled against Muslim traditionalists in what was effectively a simultaneous revolution and civil war. As a teenager, my mother-in-law rode along with ill-equipped French soldiers into dangerous territory, providing basic medical care to indigent villagers, particularly women. You might know that modern hospitals administer antibiotic eyedrops to babies immediately after birth, but did you know that in the field the juice from a sliced lemon can serve as a substitute? It did in the late 1950s in Algeria, anyway.
Terrorism and torture characterized the conflict throughout the decade that it lasted, as can be seen in The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo, a harrowing fictional film that achieves a documentary-like reality. The unsavory manner in which the war was prosecuted contributed to its deep unpopularity on the other side of the Mediterranean. The half a million French soldiers dispatched to what were euphemistically called “operations in North Africa” felt ignored and unsupported, much as American troops in Vietnam did. Even afterwards, few wanted to discuss the war, but in the thick of the fight, one novel appeared that addressed it directly. In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, about three soldiers who return briefly to a home that doesn’t want them. It sank like a stone and wasn’t rediscovered until it was translated in 2014 by David Bellos. His introduction to the new edition expertly contextualizes the story and establishes Anselme’s brilliance. It’s doubtful that any novel has more closely examined the experience of men unmoored by war. To think that he wrote it before history made its judgment and before the battle’s end was even in sight is remarkable.
The war did end when the new President of France, Charles de Gaulle, unexpectedly agreed to grant Algeria its independence. Over one million pieds-noirs fled to the motherland that many of them had never seen, and so did my mother-in-law. When she emigrated in 1961, officials tried to convince her to change her Arabic-sounding first name to something more conventionally French, but she refused. For a while she cleaned offices at night, and later she found work in the office of Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture, where she and the other admins met Jackie Kennedy at the height of her fame. “Feet the size of boats” was the catty consensus.
Around this time she met the man she married, a Catholic Italian-American kid from Brooklyn who had helped Uncle Sam with his police action in Korea and then used the G.I. Bill to become a teacher. His family thought he was crazy to leave New York and move overseas, but he’s glad he did and so am I. If he hadn’t, not only would he never have met his wife, but neither would I have met mine. So we both have a great deal to be thankful for.
How to express that gratitude? A bouquet of flowers may be a more typical token, but that’s not really me. I’m a man of books and words, so these few paragraphs will have to suffice. Merci, ma belle-mère. I’m glad you’re here.