Daughters of Diaspora: two Algerian sisters, one in Texas, one in Paris

Shaped by the decisions their mothers made, two cousins grapple with assimilation in both the U.S. and France

Left: Nada Fridi at her home in Paris; right: Meriem Bekka in Atlanta.
Agnes Dherbeys (left), Bryan Meltz (right) for Al Jazeera America

Algiers, June 1994

Djida waited until just before they left their home in Algiers to tell her 10-year-old daughter, Nada, that they were going to a new life in France.

You can take one thing with you, she told her. A neighbor, a police officer, was waiting in his car to ensure they made it to the airport safely.

It was June 18, 1994, and Algeria was in the third year of what would become known as the Black Decade, a savage civil war that broke out after the government invalidated elections set to be won by the Front of Islamic Salvation. While the government would eventually win the war, the death toll mounted to more than 150,000 civilians. 

Women had become easy prey in a battle of competing visions of what Algeria should be — observant or secular — and some were brutally killed for wearing the veil, while others paid the same price for refusing it.

Djida — an accomplished doctor and a divorced single mother who would never accept the veil for herself — was an obvious target. So were many of the people in her world. Each day Djida saw friends, acquaintances and other professionals murdered, some of them her patients, dying in the days between their last and next appointments at her clinic. Yet people said the worse was still to come.

Were it just Djida alone, she would have assumed the risks and stayed. She loved Algeria. Though she had traveled and even worked abroad, every separation was borne with the intent to return home. Unlike her sister Nora, who left before Algeria’s descent into blackness and who always dreamed of moving to America, Djida wanted to stay.

Her daughter, though, deserved a better life where such violence wasn’t the norm.

Now Djida rushed her to pick something to take to France; their neighbor was waiting.

Nada chose a sweater knitted by her grandmother, a keepsake that showed on its front a squirrel, an apple tree and a little girl — Nada — all rendered in yarn.

Bordj, December 2014

Though Nada Fridi’s grandmother and grandfather passed away years earlier, their house in the Kabylie Mountains still belonged to the family, and Nada returned to spend the 2014 winter holidays in Bordj Bou Arréridj, in eastern Algeria. Her American cousin Meriem Bekka flew in from the U.S. to join her.

Nada, now 30, had become an architect and urban planner in Paris. Meriem, 25, the daughter of Djida’s sister Nora, was born in Texas and was a specialist on Syria at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

As girls and young women, each had sampled the other’s country, and they were fluent in both cultures. When Nada was a teenager, her mother — who worked long hours in France — sent her to sister’s house in Texas for high school, feeling it would be better for her daughter to be part of a happy nuclear family. In turn, when Meriem went to college, she attended Sciences Politiques (known in the French vernacular as Sciences Po) at a specialized campus in the southeast of France with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

A photo of Meriem (center) and Nada (right) with a cousin in Algeria circa 1993.

Over that holiday gathering in the mountains, Nada and Meriem would wait until the rest of the family retired before huddling in the room they shared, catching up on everything from their everyday lives and loves to politics and social movements. They were both North African and, at least culturally, Muslim, and had come of age at a time when these identities were often cast in tension with the two countries they called home.

Both were part of a diaspora, and they had landed in places quite different. France and the U.S. were unalike in many ways — in their attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities, in the public benefits available to those in need, in their histories of immigration and in the paths available to those seeking citizenship.

And Nada’s and Meriem’s journeys into diaspora were also different. Nada’s mother, Djida, refused to unpack one of her suitcases for her first two years in France, with the hope that she would be returning to Algeria as soon as the violence subsided. In contrast, when Meriem’s mother, Nora, first met her husband, an Algerian native who had interrupted his studies in the United States to return and do his compulsory military duty, she teased him, “Put me in a suitcase and send me to America.”

It didn’t quite happen that way or that fast, but Nora and her husband, Wahby, eventually settled in Austin, Texas, where they raised Meriem and her brother. To her relatives in France and Algeria, Nora had adopted “American” characteristics: She was career focused, successful and so optimistic. They teased her that she was perfectly Texan — impeccably groomed, femininely dressed, inoffensive in her conversation, dutifully religious and a corporate riser in her sales job. They joked that she was “high heels and high fives.”

Meriem’s family felt welcome in Texas, partly because most people didn’t know where Algeria was. “South America?” she was often asked, and her classmates usually assumed she was Mexican. But it didn’t much matter, as the U.S. — even in its moments of xenophobia — was a nation of immigrants.

The French, on the other hand knew, exactly where Algeria was, and the relationship between the two countries was quite complicated.

As they talked in their room, Nada quizzed Meriem on the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. Was it, as it seemed from across the Atlantic, a turning point in the United States’ tortured racial history? Were American Arabs and Muslims getting involved and showing solidarity with black people?

As the cousins spent the last days of 2014 together in the land of their mothers, they didn’t know that in the early months of 2015 events back home would make these conversations resonate so strongly. Because of the choices their mothers made, Nada and Meriem would soon be caught in the currents as the United States and France found themselves violently confronting failures of their multicultural societies. A generation later, the question remained, Who belongs to a place?

Paris, January 2015

On Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, Nada’s client showed up for a morning meeting to look at designs for his new bar, clearly startled.

“Have you heard?” he asked.

Barely a mile away, two gunmen had stormed the office of Charlie Hebdo, the leftist magazine known for lampooning religion and the far right. Nada, her business partner and the client gathered around a computer to follow the story. Quickly, the horrific details emerged. Eleven were dead, including a police officer. Paris was on maximum alert. The French President François Hollande was on site, describing the events as a “terrorist attack” of “exceptional barbarity.”

For Nada, barbarity was always there; it was a part of the human condition. It had, after all, consumed Algeria and determined the direction of her life and the lives of many other immigrants worldwide, including in France. But she long ago learned that who the victims were had much to do with setting the tenor of world shock, anger and, most important, empathy.

Quickly, condemnations poured in from around the globe — one world leader after another, including the American president, expressed their horror. Witnesses began reporting that the attackers spoke perfect French and that one yelled, “The prophet was avenged!” while carrying out the assault. They also, it was reported, yelled in Arabic, “God is great!”

Nada knew right away that the attackers must be French of North African origin. She thought of them as a species ultimately born, bred and made in France.

She remembered how it felt after 9/11. She had just returned to France after graduating from a private Christian high school in Texas. After her initial horror and pain over the tragedy, a new realization set in: American Arabs would be “taken hostage,” as she thought of it, for something way beyond them.

Nada in Paris. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, she came to see that she needed to become involved in her country and the questions over how some Muslims find it difficult to assimilate to a country that rejects multiculturalism.
Agnes Dherbeys for Al Jazeera America

And now in France, nearly 14 years later, she feared the same for French Muslims. It was as if she could see it, the whole country being sucked again into the vortex of requestioning French Muslims and their ability to belong in what is their own country.

In many ways, it would be a continuation of a painful public discussion about the headscarf that some Muslim women choose to wear, which France has banned from public schools and public service offices. And then there were the European Muslims who have been radicalized, flocking to Syria to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

For Nada, these inquiries were far from a true defense of laïcité (strict secularism) and much more about demonizing Islam — a religion that was part of the culture of Algeria and therefore a part of her, even though she didn’t practice it. The conversations rarely included a close look at how France might be failing some of its most vulnerable citizens, immigrants and their descendants crammed into the banlieues, the outer suburbs of Paris with crumbling infrastructures, poor schools and lack of jobs.

And because of the French interpretation of égalité (equality), the collection of any data on race, ethnicity or religion was illegal, crippling any real interrogation of the disparate impact of public policies.

As the public mourning continued, Nada became, as she joked later, “everyone’s favorite Muslim,” a token. Well-meaning liberal acquaintances would seek her out and offer platitudes: “We have to love each other to heal together.”

She was annoyed that they automatically linked her with the killers. What about class? What about opportunity? Ignoring the factors that separated her from the hopelessness of the disenfranchised and disempowered youth of the banlieues meant there was no real dialogue about what might have driven them to such horrendous acts.

While it might be true what was said of many of them, that they had “le cul entre deux chaises” — their rears between two chairs, really two cultures, seated comfortably on neither — Nada felt she sat firmly on both and that they were thrones.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

By that evening, Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie) became the catchphrase to express solidarity with France and outrage over what happened.

Nada was hosting her girlfriends for a long-planned dinner at her house. All French women, they were also Mauritanian, Tuareg and Cameroonian. Yet none of them felt they were Charlie.

The phrase, the hashtag — it was all too simplistic. Je suis Charlie posited the magazine as the opposite of fanaticism and violence. All the women and their families had intimate experience with the kind of fanaticism and violence that many in France had only that day been initiated into. Of course they detested these kinds of senseless deaths.

But they didn’t want to be forced to embrace the magazine and what it stood for. For them, Charlie Hebdo was a version of French liberalism that hid behind laïcité to indulge in damaging Islamophobia — the same liberalism that invoked égalité to erase any arguments that perhaps all French were not equal, after all.

One of the women had spent the hours before dinner distraught. As news of the attack spread, she called her eldest son, an 18-year-old, to make sure he went home straight after school. Half Cameroonian, half white, he looked North African, and she feared for his safety. She also called her dark-skinned brothers and cousins and begged them to stay calm in the coming weeks during any encounters with police.

Atlanta, February 2015

Meriem at a Low Country Boil festival in Atlanta.
Bryan Meltz for Al Jazeera America

On the morning of Feb. 11, Meriem arrived at her office in the Carter Center in Atlanta to find her boss, Houda, in tears.

Bad news arrived almost daily, usually from the Middle East, where their work was focused. But that day it was closer to home, just one state over. In North Carolina, three young Arab and Muslim Americans were murdered in their home in Chapel Hill. Houda, a Moroccan-American who had studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, heard about it through friends still there.

Meriem immediately thought, “Hate crime.”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, xenophobic and Islamophobic protests took place in what were supposed to be tolerant European countries. Days after the Paris assault, Duke University in North Carolina canceled plans for Muslim students to sound the traditional call to prayer from the school’s chapel tower after receiving threats and a backlash from anti-Muslim groups, conservatives and Christian leaders. The popular film “American Sniper” made a hero of a soldier who called his Arab and Muslim targets “savages.” While some people saw the movie celebrating American valor, others saw it as a grim dehumanization of their own kind.

A vigil in Washington DC for three young Muslims killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Feb. 12, 2015.
Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Then there were the horrific pictures coming out of Syria — the country Meriem worked on in the Center’s conflict resolution program — where nihilist fighters who branded their violence Islamic received sensationalistic coverage of their killings, even if their tallies were smaller than those the Syrian regime routinely committed.

In such an environment, Meriem thought, a racist killing was entirely probable.

Just a month before, Meriem and Houda watched together the shocking news of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, where Houda also had family. As they had with those attacks, both women went through the now routine phases of horror, shock and sadness, bracing themselves for the inevitable uninformed conversations around Islam.

Meriem had been resentful of this cycle ever since 9/11, which happened when she was still a child. Now nearly 14 years later, she felt, “Enough, already.” The world was still at square one.

Online, Meriem found little news about what happened in North Carolina and much outrage among Arab and Muslim Americans over the lack of coverage. #MuslimLivesMatter began showing up on Twitter.

The victims were newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. They were of Syrian and Palestinian descent. Barakat was a dental student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha had been accepted to the same program. Her sister was a talented art student at North Carolina State University. They volunteered for the homeless in America and for Syrian refugees abroad.

The evening before, their neighbor — a white man who had posted anti-religious messages on Facebook and quarreled with the couple on other occasions — entered their home and killed them with bullets to the head. The local police insisted, as did the suspect’s wife, that the killings were over a mere parking dispute. 

There was a reticence to link his actions to his beliefs about religion, a hesitation usually not seen when the perpetrators of violence were Muslim. As with Ferguson, as with Charlie Hebdo, Meriem saw this as another tragedy indicative of larger, deeply rooted societal issues people didn’t want to discuss.

Meriem’s parents — who had realized the American dream — were always grateful for the opportunities immigration had afforded them and their children. But Meriem, who as a child helped her mother practice the Pledge of Allegiance before her naturalization ceremony, was born American. She felt entitled to ask for more from the place she called home. After all, she was North African in other societies as well. In France, Meriem sometimes lied about her ethnic background. At her university there, she had several counterparts with North African origins, and they swapped stories about their experiences in diaspora. For the French North Africans, those origins meant often having to clarify to their fellow Frenchmen and -women how they identified: It was either as French or as Arab but not both.

Meriem Bekka works on issues surrounding Syria for the Carter Center in Atlanta.
Bryan Meltz for Al Jazeera America

In the U.S., Meriem hadn’t really dealt with that. Here, people didn’t question her on how she wanted to present herself. It didn’t mean there weren’t prejudices built into how Arabs or Muslims might be viewed, but the right to have a hyphenated identity didn’t seem up for debate. Even eighth-generation Swedish-Americans, she noticed, still identified themselves as such.

Since their winter trip to Algeria, Meriem and Nada traded a flurry of emails and Facebook messages related to Charlie Hebdo and the Chapel Hill killings. That weekend, they finally spoke with each other — for four hours. Meriem could hear new passion in Nada’s voice as her cousin explained that she now felt she needed to be part of changing her society.

She reminded Meriem of an incident that nearly ruined Nada’s memories of her idyllic Texan high school life. Before her graduation in 2001, Nada was devastated not to be named class valedictorian, even though she knew she by far had the highest GPA. But no one in the school administration believed her. It was not until that September, when she requested her transcripts to enroll in a university in France, that the secretary of the school told her they had made a mistake and she did have the highest GPA.

Meriem remembered how Nada cried for hours about it and was surprised at how easily Nada was able to tap into that pain and hurt now, all these years later. Nada attributed the slight to her not being Christian. In a school where everything good was attributed to Jesus, she also suspected that what ultimately cost her that prize was the risk that she would give a speech not thanking Jesus for her good grades.

Spring 2015

Months after the Charlie Hebdo killings, signs of support for the victims are still on display at the Place de la République in Paris. Across the Atlantic, conversations about free speech and Islamophobia are making headlines again.

In April, “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau criticized the French magazine’s behavior as an abuse of satire. And in May, six prominent members of the writers’ organization PEN dissented from the group's decision to recognize Charlie Hebdo with an award for freedom of expression and courage. The week PEN gave out the award, two gunmen were killed in Garland, Texas, when they attacked a contest to draw caricatures of Muhammad. The event — billed as a promotion of freedom of expression — was organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

Signs supporting the victims of the Charlie Hedbo killings are still on display at the Place de la République in Paris.
Agnes Dherbeys for Al Jazeera America

In the aftermath of the North Carolina murders, Meriem was comforted by how much of the mainstream media in the U.S. ultimately grasped the significance of the killings. She was thrilled to see Arab and Muslim Americans, especially the victims’ siblings, given airtime to assert both their grief and their belonging in their own voices, which they did with such grace and eloquence that she believed no one could remain unmoved. But racism, of all kinds, she believes is here to stay in the U.S.

For her cousin Nada in France, these months have proved a turning point. People have dropped their polite veneer — one she describes as “I have a Muslim friend, and I love couscous, but I believe in a secular state” — trading it for more open Islamophobia. The ugliness has forced her to rethink how removed she, as a Frenchwoman of North African origin, can be from France’s darker side. Yet, she has wondered, perhaps such brutal honesty is the birth pangs of a more just society, one in which you don’t have to assimilate to the point of invisibility.

“We really need to be part of this society,” she says. “We want to be visible.”

It has been more than 20 years since Nada’s hurried, unforeseen departure from Algeria, one that changed the course of her life.

Then, her mother wept as they drove through Algiers one last time, crying all the way to the airport and even on the plane. Nada never stopped holding her mother’s hand.

Seeking to comfort her, she recited a poem an Algerian poet wrote for his sons; it was among the poetry Djida had made Nada memorize as a child.

They were lines of solace, which she remembers to this day, and are newly relevant: To make tea, the water must boil. And wool lives on, even when separated from its fleece.

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