“What a misfortune is the one of a man without a city.” “Oh make it so that I will not be without a city,” the choir said [in Medea]. I am without a city.
—Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1951–1959
One Christmas when I was in my early twenties, my mother, my sister, and I returned home from midnight services to find my deeply private and resolutely lapsed father watching John Paul II’s mass at St. Peter’s on television, his face wet with tears. Distressed to see him thus, we asked why he was crying. “Because when I last heard the mass in Latin,” he replied, “I thought I had a religion, and I thought I had a country.” My father, like Albert Camus, was a pied-noir, a French Algerian. Eighteen years Camus’s junior, he grew up in Bab el-Oued, a working-class neighborhood of Algiers not unlike Camus’s Belcourt. There was no money, but my grandfather was an officer in the navy. Camus’s father was killed early in World War I when his son was a year old, and he and his brother were raised by their mother, who was illiterate and almost deaf, their fierce grandmother, and their largely mute barrel-maker uncle.
My father, like Camus, attended the Lycée Bugeaud, where Jacques Derrida was his classmate (“I always did better than him in philosophy,” my father said), and the Faculté, where he studied law. In 1952, he departed for the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship—the list of French recipients that year shows him to be the lone student from Algeria—and thereafter he would always live in exile, in France, Australia, or North America. But surely he left home without appreciating that it would prove impossible to return.
My grandfather, just eight years older than Camus, hailed from still more modest origins in Blida, southwest of Algiers. His mother, an elementary school teacher and the daughter of an illiterate garçon de café, raised four children alone. The youngest, my grandfather, was, like Camus, a beneficiary of the meritocratic French education system of the period, and made his way from remote poverty to the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris, after which he entered the navy as a career officer. A devout Catholic and passionate French patriot, he also adored his native Algeria: letters between my grandparents wax as lyrical about their beloved landscapes as they do about each other.
Nobody in my family ever spoke about the Algerian War. They told many stories about the 1930s and 1940s, when my father and aunt were children; but of what happened later, they were silent. In 1955, my grandfather took a position in Rabat, Morocco, and my grandparents did not live in Algeria again. In the late 1950s, when the war in Algeria was at its most fevered and vicious,…
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