For French Algerian families, virus disrupts cherished summer ritual
By Constant Méheut
Sitting around a table strewed with steaming cups of mint tea, a dozen women were sharing memories of their summer holidays in their homeland, Algeria.
Malika Haï recalled sweltering days spent with her cousins near the beaches. Samia Tran described the cheerful family dinners around traditional dishes.
And Zohra Benkebane, almost an hour into the conversation, was the first to burst into tears.
“We all have a lump in our throats,” Tran said as she hugged her sobbing friend. “It’s too hard. We need to go home.”
For many French citizens of Algerian descent whose families migrated across the Mediterranean in the second half of the 20th century, summer holidays in Algeria are a deep-rooted tradition. Every year thousands of people venture off toward what they commonly call the “bled” — a word derived from Arabic that refers to the countryside.
“Leaving for the bled is a form of holiday routine,” said Jennifer Bidet, a sociologist at the Paris Descartes University who estimated, based on official statistics, that 82% of French people of Algerian origin had spent at least one holiday in Algeria during childhood, while 34% returned every year.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, Algeria is keeping its borders tightly closed until further notice. That effectively forbids vacations that had become a cornerstone of the cross-cultural identity of many French Algerian families, much to their dismay.
“Holidays in the bled are a cultural bridge,” said Mustapha Benzitouni, a 45-year-old French Algerian. “It allows people to rediscover an identity through their parents, through their belonging to a people, through their belonging to a culture.”
Perhaps nowhere has the Algerian travel ban been felt more acutely than in Toulouse, a city of about 500,000 people in southwestern France that was shaped by waves of immigration.
Hundreds of Toulouse families of Algerian descent are now stranded at home, unable to afford or simply unwilling to spend summer vacations anywhere but Algeria.
“It’s sacred for us to leave,” said Haï, 58, who, like many Algerians of her generation, mixed Arabic and French when speaking. “During a normal summer, in July and August, the neighborhood goes completely empty.”
The neighborhood to which Haï referred is Le Mirail, an impoverished area outside the city center that is plagued by drug trafficking and where about 30,000 people live in dreary apartment blocks. A large majority of the residents come from Algeria, with other families from Morocco and Tunisia, who also often visit their homelands in France’s former North African colonies in July and August.
Unlike Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have recently reopened their borders to tourists and their citizens living abroad, meaning some of Le Mirail’s residents can go ahead with their summer plans.
For Algerians, though, the travel ban means parents need to come up with alternative plans for idle children.
Worried that bored teenagers could lead to trouble, local community groups and authorities have tried to alleviate the doldrums by organizing activities in Le Mirail.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of families, mostly of Algerian heritage, gathered on large plots of grass bordering a small lake in the neighborhood to take part in painting workshops, water games and dance classes.
But Soraya Amalou, a volunteer, had no illusions that these activities could make up for the loss of a genuine summer escape.
“Spending holidays here means no holidays. In this neighborhood, you suffer from tiny apartments, from insecurity. You suffer from everything,” she said.
By contrast, summer vacations in Algeria, which Haï likened to a “breath of fresh air,” are much anticipated all year long, and the rituals leading up to the trip — from the tickets booked well in advance to the suitcases filled with presents for the cousins — have shaped several migrant generations.
The French colonization of Algeria, which lasted from 1830 to 1962, forged lasting yet complex ties between the two nations, which Benjamin Stora, a historian of Algeria, described as a “very special relationship of both hatred and fascination.”
Stora said that “returning to the bled” was a way for French Algerians to “reconnect with a national filiation.”
But while French Algerians can be made to feel like they don’t fully fit in with France, they also “are badly regarded in Algeria,” Stora said, where they are seen as French citizens whose Algerian heritage is but a detail.
“They treat us like French bourgeois and raise prices as soon as we arrive,” said Ahmed Adjelout, 72, who was waiting in a travel agency in downtown Toulouse in the hope of rescheduling his July 22 flight to Oran, which had just been canceled.
Adjelout, a retiree with a beret thrust upon his head, recalled how he would be called “an emigrant, a stranger” by Algerians whenever he returned to the country he left in 1967.
“The paradox,” Adjelout added, “is that in Algeria, we’re seen as French, and in France, we’re seen as Algerians.”
This ambiguous situation — straddling two cultures and belonging to neither — can make building an identity a challenge for the estimated 2.5 million people of Algerian descent in France, especially for second- and third-generation immigrants for whom Algeria is merely a summer getaway.
“It’s tricky to deal with both sides, the French and the Algerian. No culture really welcomes us,” said Fatiha Zelmat, whose mother, Naouel Matti, has taken her to the ancient stone alleys of Algiers, the Algerian capital, every summer since she was born — except this year.