It’s dawn. I get up.

For days, my mother has been sick. Her heart. I go to her bed.

I lie down close to her body.

“My daughter.”

And she closes her eyes.

My head against her shoulder, my hand holding hers, I curl up, I’m frightened. Suddenly, I’m tearing down walls. I fall into childhood.

I run up to an iron door. I enter. They close it. I’m out of breath. Someone tells me I deserve this, it serves me right. This happens in Algeria, I’m maybe four years old. Outside, children bang and throw rocks. I tell them, “My father will come back, he’ll come back and beat you all.” My left eye is bleeding.

We are woken up. It’s the Red Cross. Quickly, my mother grabs us. We drive to Algiers.

A man is sitting on the floor, in a corner. The room is dark. He is silent and gaunt. I am told, “It’s your father.”

I don’t move. Men in suits come and go. We are many. More and more. Everyone waits.

One night I am put in a truck. In the morning I gaze at the ocean from the deck of a boat. That night I leave the port in a truck. I walk, and I sleep in a hangar. The next day I leave again. We drive. The vehicle stops. A soldier lifts the tarp, the sky is blue, the sun warms us, nature is beautiful. It’s wonderful.

There are plenty of children, plenty of people around us. My father talks to many of them. I climb into the back of a Renault Dauphine. We leave the camp at Saint-Maurice-l’Ardoise.

I’m sitting on the lawn of the building where we live in the Oise region. I’m little. All the children are laughing. Making fun of me. It takes me a while to understand. I’m not wearing underwear.

I’m holding hands with my teacher. I always hold her hand.

I open the window, the shutters, and I climb over the balcony. We live on the ground floor. My father doesn’t want us to go out. He took the key.

I go to the super. I ask him to open our door. He refuses, he fears my father.

I insist. Tell him, he doesn’t have the right to lock us up. Tell him, it’s forbidden.

He gives me the spare key.

I go see Isabelle. I show her the black patent leather shoes and the navy blue velvet dress with its bow tie of sky colored ribbon that she gave me. I’m very pretty. It’s the first time. I hug her with all my strength.

I’m coloring in a children’s book. I use lots of brown. I’m in the basement of a church. There’s a light on. It’s Thursday afternoon. The nuns are very kind. Sometimes they leave me all by myself. I want to learn how to pray. They don’t want me to. I know he’s called Jesus.

A lady comes looking for me at school. She’s ugly. She scares me. She’s a witch. I run away until nightfall. I can’t go back home anymore. I’ll be beaten. I make myself a bed in the basement.

I’m on the oceanfront. It’s cold. My father is sitting, wearing a swimsuit. He’s kept his shirt on. My mother is dressed. She takes a hard-boiled egg from her bag and gives it to him. I asked for ice cream. My father’s legs are very white. I wait.

I go to cross the street, there’s a loud noise, I find myself on the ground under an engine. I’m no longer moving. I hear people. Someone arrives, someone comes closer. Someone speaks to me. A fireman is carrying me. Someone brings me into a house. I go pee, someone gives me a cookie. “I saw the bus hit the 18-wheeler,” says one man, “and the vehicle spun out towards the girl.” They watch me. I still wonder how I got away.

I’m singing with Frédéric. It’s a contest of French songs. We imitate pop duos Stone and Charden, Sheila and Ringo. We sing holding hands, l’Avventura c’est la vie que je mène avec toi and Laisse les gondoles à Venise. The tar that separates the lawns is a river. All the children in the building are here and we’re very happy. I love Frédéric.

We break the windowpanes of the tennis clubhouse. We steal all the racquets and balls. We hate everyone who plays this sport.

I run to Madame Film’s house to watch television. They walked on the moon.

I climb up trees and I say, “My name is Pippi Longstocking.”

Monsieur Tanguy’s son can’t speak anymore. He watches us from the window. His neck is as fat as his bulldog’s. He swallowed a wasp.

I get home from school and give a piece of paper to my mother. My big brother gets home from work. My mother hands him the paper. He reads it, takes the scissors, and cuts off my two braids. I don’t go to school anymore. I hide in the basement. I mourn for my hair. I’m afraid they’ll say I have lice.

It’s eight o’clock, we’re sitting at the dinner table. It’s time for the TV news broadcast. Only my father is allowed to watch it. We’re eating lentils, my brother tries his luck, he glances at the screen. My father takes his plate away from him. “Don’t move,” he tells him. At the end of the meal, he closes the TV cabinet with a key. “You want to watch television? Well then watch it.” My brother is punished. He remains alone in the dining room.

The police are at school. They ask us to give back all the presents that Philippe gave us. We return the notebooks and pens. It’s too late for the candy. We ate it. Philippe stole the money from the cash drawer of his bus driver father.

A large box comes into our house. My mother screams, she screams while clinging to the door. I rise on the tips of my toes to look inside. It’s my oldest brother with bandages around his head. People are arriving at the house. More and more of them. As for me, I cling to the wood, I press myself against it and look at my dead brother.

I’m standing in a bus, it’s night, my dead brother takes my hand. He’s bringing me to see my other big brother at practice. I love him, I’ve always loved him. He’s my father, the only one. He squeezes my hand.

My father is screaming at my mother. He forbids her to speak to Madame Larbi, the woman who came to see her. She’s an immigrant. An Arab woman, thin and dark, very gentle.

My mother is sick. Everyone says she’s going to die. There are lots of people around her bed and I ask her, “Where’s my sponsorship card, where’s my sponsorship card?” I climb on the bed and I yell at her in French, “Where’s my sponsorship card, where’s my card…” Someone takes me out of the room.

My brother broke the large glass windowpane of the building door. My father hits him and locks him up in the pantry. He says he’s a delinquent and that because of him we’re going to leave. Behind the door, my brother’s crying, my mother’s talking to him.

Tomorrow is Christmas. I place a branch next to my bed. Maman gives me what I need to buy some decorations. I run. I buy three of them. I decorate my Christmas tree. My father enters my room. He crushes my tree with his foot. I cry. He insults me.

I won the big marble competition. I aimed from sixty feet and the shooter went into the hole. I don’t know how I did it but it happened. I won. I know I’m not the best but I am the champion. I accept it.

Ghislaine, Michelle, and I are making dresses for the dolls. We settled in on the top stairs of the building. I cut a piece of fabric, I sew a skirt for Ghislaine’s doll. We’re happy.

Everything is over. The apartment is empty. I’m hiding. They’re calling me, they’re looking for me. All the residents come down. They find me. I struggle, I say that I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave. The children are crying. We’re crying. I take Isabelle’s hand, I run away. My father catches up with me. I yell, “Isabelle, Isabelle!” She’s my friend, I love them all. “Isabelle, I don’t want to leave!” They push me into the car. I call her, I call her. We leave town for good.

I get up from my mother’s bed, the nurse has just arrived. She gives her a shot and leaves. I prepare her tea for her, I lightly butter her toast. I take her to the bathroom, I hold her, she washes herself. In the living room, she says her prayers. Seated, for a long time, pressed against the radiator. Standing back, I listen to her. From her lips only love. With one movement, she signals to me that she’s done. I help her walk to the table, she eats and takes her medicine. She lies down again. On the couch, I cover her, holding her tightly in my arms. I don’t want to lose her. I can’t.




I just made a few francs. My first wages. I’m barely thirteen years old, and I buy a book. Upstairs, in the small attic room, I can hear your footsteps. You’ve been looking for me, inside the house, for the last few minutes.

Now you’re standing in front of me. I’m holding the book. A hardcover. A volume from the collection All Painted Works. I can sense your mood. Calmly, you provoke me.

I don’t see paintings anywhere but on lids of candy boxes. They are true objects of beauty. In 1973, we bring a picture with us, from our apartment to the house in the Oise. A move of ten miles to a small village, and we sink into the solitude of a century going on without us. At this time, on our bedroom wall, above the fireplace, a young girl surrounded by flowers turns her warm and radiant face towards my sister and me. That’s how Auguste Renoir painted love. Love for his daughter. Beautiful and happy, with wavy hair, she breathes a tenderness towards him that our father’s gaze on us cannot arouse.

You smile, as if relieved to have found me, and ask me not to remain so solitary. Your brother used to love reading, and would isolate himself in this way. Legend has it he died without a sound, a book in his hand. Do you fear such a fate for your daughter?

“I’m reading a book.”

I say this sentence to you in your language. As for the word painting, your culture doesn’t know it. I say in Berber, “Arghigh thakthab fla painting.”

You come closer to me and I show you some of the pictures.

Helghenth,” you say.

You don’t see that they’re all one person. All sick, you tell me. Yet it’s the same face painted in each portrait. The face of Jeanne Hébuterne, the painter’s lover. You find her pale. When her beloved died, she killed herself. Jumped from the window, a child in her belly. On the Rue Amyot, according to the book.


She’s dead. Again in your language.

I show you another woman. The only foreign face. A brunette in a black hat, The Jewess.

You tell me her face is soaked with soot.

Akathoumiss eoudheegh.”

Which also means, a hard surface marked by time.

From the shadows, thick layers of paint unearth her barely parted red lips, skin covered by a gray dust, mysterious eyes drawn in charcoal, and brown hair under a black hat made for the outdoors. She’s not a passerby, she was posed in an empty space. To provoke you, I say: “Thskar.”

She’s drunk. Hearing this word, you tell me it’s not good for me to look at such women.

Nequente bnadem.”

Before leaving, you tell me they destroy people. They take away their courage.

Your distrust of things foreign to your culture permeates me less and less. I don’t want to hear about your worries, your taboos. I can’t. The things deprived me are exactly what I seek. I look in every corner. And it’s only by accident that you led me down the first road to freedom.

I love Jeanne Hébuterne’s face, her sky blue eyes, her sadness, her fading will to live, for what remains on the surface—a world extinguished despite its light. Whether or not the editor consciously selected these images, unaware of the painter’s consistent choice of model, Jeanne Hébuterne reminds me of the foreigner’s face. The Jewess. And if the painting adds a semblance of life to this woman, it’s because her own life is over. She committed suicide.

By this time, I understand the resonance of the word “Jew.” I grasped it on my own. The knowledge of how Europe shaped its meaning marks my first disillusionment.

A picture, this word I can’t translate for you, and whose meanings your language ignores entirely, preoccupies my life. You’re worried. You raise my guard against it. Your fears arouse a morbid curiosity, whose source and reasons elude you, within me. For a picture, I would defy my father. I want, like he does, to watch television. One day, I want more than just the TV news broadcast finally permitted. To witness, in his presence, the stream of advertisements and, why not, a television movie. Once the news broadcast is over, I take my sister’s hand, I hold onto it, we stay. What is bound to happen, happens. The naked woman. The Cadum soap one. The Dove of the era. We can only see her stomach, water dripping, soap bubbles forming, maybe a breast, she’s holding a child, also naked. I blush, I’m still holding my sister’s hand, I don’t move. My stunned father stares at me. I walk right into the fury. I don’t yield, I don’t lower my eyes.

Afriyi ssiagui. Afriyi ssiagui, athakahbith.”

Get out of here. Get out of here, you’re nothing but a whore, he says.

I refuse. “Effagh, fagh!” Get out, get out! I tense up, I stop talking, I’m silent, I muster my courage, I keep my eyes on the screen. And you, you’re in shock. Your daughter has just tarnished the honor of a man.

“Del felam.”

Dishonor befalls you, you say.

I understand from these words that you reproach me for baring myself, for expressing a desire. I don’t feel exposed and I tell you, “I’m staying! I’m staying in this room like him!”

I’m barely twelve years old and I tell you, so he can hear it, that the one who’s embarrassed should go. “He should go, he should leave the room!” I hold my sister’s hand with all my might and I ask her to not give in, to hold on, to stay seated like me, inflicting an affront on my father that paralyzes her. She’s twenty years old. Forgotten. A time bomb. A child of war, anxious and fearful, suffocated by desires. She flaunts her good behavior, a symptom of her denial, and unleashes vengeful blows upon me, the one who insists she be braver. These blows will shatter my life more than once. This time, I shake her resolve. She freezes. My father is powerless. He leaves the living room.

I am a girl. I have two obedient sisters, six brothers, and a father who blames me for being born. 1962, in Algeria. He stayed, he says, for me. It’s only when he escaped from prison to come to France that I would meet him, in 1967.

A depraved world, he says. And yet he carried me into its heart.

“You brought me to this country. Here I am, here I’ll stay!”