My mother first set foot in France when she was fourteen, all skinny, curious and scared, hiding in my grandmother’s skirts. They came from Algeria a few years after the liberation, to find work and hope. My grandmother was tall and funny, and all she wanted was to make an honest living to see that her daughter and her son would have better lives than her own.
They settled in Corsica, where the first generation of immigrants from Maghreb were already making an impression. It was the time of the “good Arab” – the one that would settle, work hard, look down and send money to the family back in the homeland.
The homeland they would dream about going back to, one day.
My mother didn’t see it like that. Unlike my grandmother, she could read. She had been to school in Oran, loved books, and if she did have an accent, she spoke French to perfection.
She also had a wild beauty and a fierceness in her eye that burns through the photos of this era. She was beautiful, with the brightest smile you could ever see. She had grown in poverty and had learned to be quick on her feet, to never complain and only rely on herself.
My grandmother’s name was Tahmanent, but we just called her Mina. She was Muslim. Well, Muslim and other things, as it appears that a lot of Berbers from the Moroccan mountains, where she originally came from, had woven an artful mix of their endemic beliefs in spirits and little devils into their worshipping of Allah.
She never cut her hair, colored it with henna, always wore a scarf over her head and would never be caught in pants. She also had traditional Berber tattoos on her face and legs, beautiful crosses and lines that made her look like the heroine of a science fiction movie.
She had pretty clear ambitions for my mother. She was to marry a good Muslim, work hard, have children and make her proud.
A thing my grandmother had never been able to do herself by the way, as one of the family stories I heard was that she killed her abusing husband with a soap (!!!), and then stayed single for the rest of her life, which is another tale for another day.
Confidence and beauty opens a lot of doors. Add brains and style to that and very soon my mother was making her way into the very tight Corsican youth society. She won’t tell me much about the racism she endured at that time but I know it to have been brutal, as I can still see the remains of it in France today, half a century later.
Her name is Kheira, but it probably sounded too Arab, so it got changed, by whom I don’t know. That’s what they used to do in those days. She became Irène.
She was this rebel spirit, one who powered through the insults and the judgements and even made friends outside or her community. And one day, she met my father.
Louis was also the splendid product of immigration, from the other side of the Mediterranean this time. He was of Italian descent. His mother had come from Tuscany, and his father from Sardinia. I thought I’d entertain you by reporting that “Sardace”, which means “from Sardinia”, is still a very well know insult in Corsica. Yes, yes. Hate of the other has no boundaries, rhyme, reason, or tangible roots in race, actually.
He was raised by his grandmother, Nathalie, all round and smily and matronly and the owner of the famous restaurant Da Mamma. You can’t make up how cool this name is. This little place I wish I had known was tucked in a tiny back alley of the old town. You had to walk up a few stairs to get inside and you’d be welcomed by my father, who had left school early to go work with Nathalie.
Ajaccio was a typical Mediterranean town, all gorgeous, elegant and airy, with rows of beautiful classic cafés where people would sit, smoke and people watch.
It is at one of these cafés that my mother and father met.
It was more than love. It was instant and burning passion.
I still hear about it when I talk to the old people of my island. They were so beautiful! The old people say. They were so in love! I was so jealous because I was so infatuated with your father! A lady from my village told me. Ah! Irène and Louis. What a story.
Easy to reminisce about this picturesque love story now, ladies and gentlemen of Ajaccio. Because very soon, they found themselves all alone in the world.
To their families, their encounter was anything but romantic.
It was, actually, an absolute disgrace. A Catholic and a Muslim? An Arab with our prodigal son? A infidel with our beautiful daughter? Wait… She was promised to be married!!!
Shame on us! Shame on them!
But you know how love goes, don’t you. Nothing would stop them. And so my father lost his work and his relationship with the woman that had raised him and whom he adored. My mother got kicked out of her home and shunned by her community. They would spit at her feet when they saw her walking down the street.
My grandmother would never talk to her, ever again.
All that was left for them was to leave.
So they did. My father found a job in a restaurant out of town. They packed and left.
This was not any place. They arrived in Girolata, the secluded Corsican village with no road, no electricity and no telephone. A heaven for wealthy tourists in the summer, but a real daily challenge for anyone trying to live there.
They had always struggled for money.
Now there were living the real hard life.
But they were young and they loved each other, so unless anything out of the ordinary happened, all would be fine.
And that’s when my mother realized she was pregnant with me.
She was nineteen.
I was born on the first of May. It’s a beautiful date and a glorious time of the year in Corsica, except if you’re a chef, like my father. Because where I come from, May is the beginning of the high season. It is when restaurants start going into high gear, and a moment when no excuse would have you leave your little, sweaty corner in the kitchen.
It’s no joke. I’ve seen a chef work with a broken skull once.
Girolata was exactly a two hour hike, followed by a three hour drive through the Corsican mountains from the first hospital. When the weather was good you could take a boat instead of hiking, but if you know the Mediterranean and its surprisingly violent bouts of anger, as a pregnant woman, you wouldn’t take any bet on this.
So with a lot of tears and kisses, one day my mother and her belly hoped on a boat and left the village. She settled in an empty apartment a friend had lent her in the city, right next to the hospital.
And because there was no more family, and because no one was there to tell her she should have known better, she thought she would figure it out on her own.
It was a hard one.
I was a first born, it took hours for her to push me out. She lost a lot of blood and had to get a transfusion. They didn’t have enough blood for her at the hospital. Then they forgot some placenta and she had a septicemia. She had to go under a few days later to get an operation to remove it.
She then left the hospital and it was her, and me.
I was the same at her age. I thought myself invincible. She probably sent a message to my father that everything was fine. Remember, no phone. She probably thought she’d sleep it off and all would be okay. I don’t know what the fuck she thought.
But here she was, weak and alone, with a newborn crying for food and attention.
She would give me her breast and doze back to sleep, barely conscious and losing the sense of time and space. For how long it went on I don’t know. She could barely feed herself.
She didn’t know what it was at the time, but she had a major post partum depression. She couldn’t recuperate from the operation. She was emaciated, her body was letting go.
She was going to die.
And one day, in a blur, my mother opened her eyes. And there she was standing, in front of her.
These are the fathomless mysteries of life. She felt it, she said. My grandmother was never a person of a lot of words, so I’ll leave you with that. Intuition, I think. Or maybe a guardian angel. Something. She felt the death and she felt the life and she knew my mother was in danger.
She asked around and she figured out where she was.
She had sworn to never talk with her daughter again, to never acknowledge this man who had stole her and this child born outside of any religion.
And yet here she was.
She took my exhausted mother in her arms, they both cried for a long time.
She then fed her, put her to sleep, wrapped me on her back like women have done since the dawn of time, and went to work. She mothered me and carried me around everywhere she went so that she could give my mother all the rest she needed.
And just like that, my mother didn’t die.
And just like that, for the love of an infant and for the love of life itself, peace came back slowly in the families. I got to be held and cherished and I got to grow up, happily, between spaghetti and couscous and between God and Allah, between Christmas and Eid – never judged by anyone in my family.
I still don’t claim a religion and I see the beauty in all of them. I even have brought in my life some of the joys of the Jewish traditions through Emily who’s teaching me a little bit everyday.
So I know Hanukkah just ended. Happy Hanukkah my beautiful friends. Happy celebrations to everyone who has a tradition to celebrate, and Merry Christmas.
This year, we might be far from our families, but always we know.
Love is everywhere, love transcends, and love heals.
May love guide us all.