Finally, I know.

I was captivated by her eyes. What a strange feeling to recognize oneself in the eyes of another person. I had a feeling of plenitude. We were two strangers but deeply so close. I will remember forever those seconds when we were immersed in each other’s eyes. Then spontaneously I asked her: “What happened in your life so that February 13, 1981 you give birth to me? “

Nassima was born in Algiers in 1960, in a family of shopkeepers in the center of the city. She described a happy childhood with her brothers and sisters; her parents were neither rich nor poor. They were Muslims but celebrated Christmas at home, and embraced a certain modernity after the end of the french colonization. Following the Algerian war (1954-1962), a sentiment of liberty has spread in the Algerian population, particularly among those living in the capital. But tensions persisted and a certain insecurity was threatening. Her father was shot in the back in front of the family shop. It was an immense trauma for her and her siblings. They never knew who killed him or why. Her mother took over the shop but things were never the same again.

Nassima has always walked to school, as it was only a few blocks away from the family house. One day at the age of 14, she noticed a boy a little older than her, who was sweeping the doorstep of a barbershop in front of which she walked by every morning and evening. For a long time, they exchanged only glances. Then one day the young man approached her. His name was Mohamed, he was 17 years old and was an apprentice hairdresser. They became friends, getting closer over the months, and after a while, fell in love with each other. A teenage love, passionate and innocent. Mohamed was not from the city of Algiers. He came from a village near Medea, a small provincial town 60 km from Algiers, infamous for being one of the strongholds of Algerian jihadist groups and which has been, in its recent history,  the scene of extreme violence against innocent citizens.

Once graduated, Mohamed quickly opened his own barbershop when he was only 19 years old. The success was immediate. I do not know the details, but Nassima spoke with wonder of this young entrepreneur who started from nothing, came from his small village and who succeeded in the big city. He opened other outlets for his barber business, and also invested in jewelry stores. Together, they discovered the high life, the parties with Algiers gotha. Mohamed was doing very well for himself and was very generous with Nassima. She describes these years with sparkles in the eyes, evoking the beautiful cars of Mohamed and how their young couple was popular among the rich youth of Algiers in the late 70s. He, the villager from a modest and very conservative family built from scratches a wealthy business and totally embraced the urban lifestyle. And naturally after a few years they wanted to get married. Mohamed went to ask Nassima’s hand to her mother, who accepted with enthusiasm; she was too happy to marry her daughter with a young man who succeeded so well. Alas, Mohamed’s family strongly opposed this union. Especially his mother, who could not accept that his eldest son married a girl from the city, who does not wear the hijab and does not respect – according to her – the traditions. It was a huge disappointment for both of them and they realized that it would be impossible for them to get married without Mohamed turning his back on his own family; which he did not consider at all. He was very respectful of his parents. Although he had adapted to the city lifestyle, he was very close to his family and shared a part of his growing wealth with them. As the eldest son he felt responsible for the entire family.

They continued their relationship despite this deadlock for their couple. One fine day in the summer of 1980, Nassima announced her pregnancy to Mohamed.  His cold reply changed her life forever: “You can’t keep the baby. I have not told you yet, but I am going to marry a girl from my village whom my parents have chosen “. She was not yet 20 years old and Nassima’s world was turned upside down. Impulsive and in love, she refused this heartbreaking outcome and tried to convince Mohamed not to abandon her. But for him, it seemed like things were all decided.

When Nassima told me about this turning point in her life, which conditioned the rest of mine, I couldn’t help it but think about Mohamed too. Should I judge him? Resent him?  It must have been an impossible situation for him, torn between his family and his love. He could not turn his back on his parents. In 1980, being a young Algerian who was modern but respectful and deeply attached to his traditions, was for sure a very difficult situation to manage. I have never judged him since I know this story. There are few moments in life when we have to make a choice that is decisive for the rest of our existence. Inevitably, we sacrifice something which in some cases leads us to cause pain to people who love us. Mohamed chose his family and it destroyed Nassima.

For a few weeks, she tried to figure out what to do … Keeping this child was obvious to her. Abortion never crossed her mind. But being a 20-year-old unmarried and pregnant woman in Algiers, how was it going to happen? As open as her older brothers and her mother were, she knew that they wouldn’t support her in this situation. The reputation of the family in the community would have been greatly affected. Nassima did not want to be a source of trouble for her family. This is how the idea of going abroad came to her… It was easier for her to invoke a false reason so her family would let her travel. Paris had always made her dream, and she had often shared with her mother her willingness to go there to see the big city, the Eiffel Tower etc … This is how she decided she’ll leave everything to save her pregnancy. Determined to go through with that idea she asked money from Mohamed to pay for her plane ticket and to have enough to go by when in France. He gave her some money, probably to get rid of her and find peace. And this is how Nassima disappeared in Paris at the end of summer 1980.

It took her little time to spend her entire budget. Luckily she was able to find a job as a cleaner in a small, run-down hotel. She cleaned the rooms, the toilets and did about everything the couple of managers asked her to do. In exchange she was lodged, fed and very poorly paid. Nassima was young and naive and knew nothing of her rights in France. She did not know she could have free medical follow-up in any hospital. That’s why she was easy to persuade when her employers advised her to go to an association a few blocks away that cares for young women like her … It was the Nids de Paris. She did not intend to abandon me (according to what she told me) and approached the association only because it gave her a certain security and access to a free medical follow-up. She remembers being very well guided by the Nids de Paris staff.

The weeks went by at the hotel; At first the managers were kind with Nassima, but slowly the relationship deteriorated as they were not considerate with her and forced her to work very long hours without caring about her pregnancy; she was fired and thrown out without notice as winter began. With very little money in her pocket, she had to spend several days in the streets, without shelter. She was alone, lost, pregnant and vulnerable. She didn’t ask any help to the Nids de Paris… I asked her why, she didn’t really reply to that question.

Probably very weak, one day she fell strong dizziness and eventually passed out in the middle of the street. Luckily it was at a busy time of the day and immediately a man came to help her. Living a few steps away, he took her home so she could recover and warm up. This man and his wife became Nassima’s guardian angels. Deeply touched by her story and her situation, they offered her hospitality for the rest of her pregnancy.

February 13, 1981. 

The memories of Nassima are totally confused. For her, that day she went to the hospital alone for a scheduled follow-up consultation of her pregnancy. Everything is vague: the notion of time, people, the course of the day. As she tries to remember I scrutinize her, trying to detect if she tells me everything or not. She has flashes. She remembers the stirrups. A room with medical equipment, the doctors and nurses…She does not know anymore. No precise recollection of those moments preceding the delivery. And of course no recollection of a newborn. The next thing she clearly remembers is waking up in a hospital room. She cries, she screams, she is afraid… Nurses arrive… Nassima wants to see her child. “Miss, you have signed the papers of abandonment … your child has already left.” According to the nurses, she even refused to see me when it was offered to her, according to the procedure in case of abandonment at birth. She does not remember anything of that. Total blackout. But the pain that came over her when she realized that she had lost me forever was still in her when she told me this story.

Her memory was affected by an obvious post-traumatic amnesia. I never resented her that she couldn’t remember precisely. I already knew a lot. Much more than I would have imagined. Now I finally know how and why I came to the world; I felt tremendously relieved. There were still other mysteries but having this story was worth all the gold in the world for me. I savored this privilege and was humbled by the thought of all those who never had my luck in the search for their origin.

We then talked for many hours about me. She had so many questions! But she refused to see pictures of me as a kids (I had prepared a small photo album). Was certainly too early for that.

Towards the end of the evening I accompanied Nassima to the metro. Before we  said good-bye, a question suddenly came to my mind: “By the way, did you choose a name for me back then?” She smiled and said, “Elyes. I really like this name for a boy. Would have been a great fit for you”.

A few years later, I started a ritual, tattooing several parts of my body to mark my skin with my story.

One of these tattoos says in Arabic writing “I am Elyes”. (Photo below)

IMG_2867

2 thoughts on “Finally, I know.

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