“Suitcase or coffin”: My story of fleeing Algeria as a young child

By Leha Brigitte

My first birthday was on the road. My parents had just escaped from Algiers with me and one suitcase of clothes. There was a roadblock manned by Algerian fellaghas with guns, and a row of men lined up against the wall to be executed. My father showed his identity card and said we were just going to visit my grandparents for the weekend. Apparently I smiled at the man, and he told my dad: “You’ve got a pretty daughter, get out of here!”. And so they drove straight to the ferry and the next day arrived in Marseille, and it was my birthday.

I was born in 1961 in Algiers, which at the time was a French department. Algeria became independent in 1962, which was when my entire family had to leave the country where they were born and had spent their entire life, to be ‘repatriated’ to France, a cold place across the Mediterranean sea which most of them had never seen before.

Both my parents were born in Algeria. On my mother’s side, my grandparents were also born in Algeria. On my father’s side, my grandfather was born in Algeria but my grandmother was born in Spain.

Algeria was opened as a land of opportunity where people could go make a living by farming. Some of my family migrated there from Spain, some from France. I have an ancestor who was trepanised at the battle of Trafalgar while fighting for Napoleon and he ended up in Algeria. I even have a photo of him on his deathbed. But most of them were poor, and went to Algeria in search of a better life.

Both my parents worked for the Railway company in Algeria, so when they fled to France, the Company gave them new jobs, but in two different cities. My grandfather was an electrical engineer, and my grandmother had a shop as a seamstress.

My mother grew up in a rather bourgeois environment, not mixing much with the locals. On the other hand, my father grew up in a poor neighbourhood, where he had Arab and French friends.

I do not remember anything of my year in Algeria. I was born in the middle of a terrorist war, with bombs exploding in crowded places, and to this day I cannot stand loud noises, such as the fireworks or firecrackers that Malaysians enjoy for each celebration. It gives me panic attacks.

My first birthday, on the road in France after crossing the Mediterranean sea from Algiers to Marseilles in a ferry. That was all my parents took: their 2CV car, me, and a suitcase of clothes.

Everything I know about Algeria was told by my parents and grandparents. For my first birthday, we were on the road in France after having fled Algeria. My mother told me although the slogan at the time was “la valise ou le cercueil” (“the suitcase or the coffin”), or in other words, go away or die here, there were roadblocks preventing French people from leaving the country. 

So my parents packed just one suitcase with their valuables, some clothes, and got in their 2CV with me in the back seat. They were stopped at a roadblock, gave their identity papers, which the fellagha held upside-down, and told him that they were going to spend the weekend at my grandparents’ house. Along a wall, a row of men were waiting to be executed. My mother said that I smiled at that toothless man with a machine-gun, and he shooed them away: “Quick, get out of here, your baby girl is beautiful!” And so we reached the ferry to cross the Mediterranean sea.

My parents met with a lot of racism and resentment when they arrived in France. The country had sent many young men to war in lieu of their military service, in an effort to keep Algeria as a French colony. Apart from that, the Pied-Noirs (‘Black feet’, as French people born in Algeria were called) had a different way of living, a different culture, a different accent even, which made them easily recognisable. They were treated like foreigners by the French, and received no help from anyone. I had a normal childhood. But my parents had a lot of difficulties. They were treated as Arabs by the French people, and this just enhanced their racism I think.


Once, my parents’ car was involved in an accident and the contents of our suitcase were all over the road. People just gathered in a circle, blaming them, and nobody helped. Luckily, my mother had a cousin who worked for the police and he came to help. Their car plate was registered in Algeria, so everyone knew they were freshly-arrived Pied-Noirs.

Every weekend, we would have a barbecue in the garden. This is very silly, but some neighbours reported them for nuisance (loud sounds, bad smells, smoke, etc). My mother did not have any friends in the neighbourhood. My father went to the office every day, so I think he was ok, and he made friends at work. 

As they grew older, it became easier. The Pied-Noirs people gathered into associations, so they had activities among themselves.

I grew up loving the sun and the Mediterranean sea. That seems to be in my blood. My parents went to the beach every weekend when they lived in Algeria, and I was told that I always crawled to the water as soon as they put me down, even before I could walk. The last day they spent in Algeria, they went to the beach for the last time. My mother’s last wishes were to be cremated and her ashes poured into the Mediterranean sea, as she considered that she had no other roots except for the sea. Not the ocean, mind you, it had to be the Mediterranean sea. So now she rests between Sète and Algiers, as we had promised her.

I never realised how different my culture was from other French people. We had barbecues outdoors as soon as the weather was nice. In fact, we ate in our garden during the summer. Very often, the neighbours’ kids would be staring at us, as if this was a strange thing to do. We had an inflatable swimming-pool in our garden. When we gathered with relatives, there was a guitar and we sang songs. Everyone drank a lot and spoke loudly. My father used to swear in Arabic. He used to play a game with apricot stones. Every summer, we went on holiday to Spain, and we spent countless hours at the beach.

I grew up in Dijon, a city in Burgundy, but I have never felt any real roots anywhere. I studied in the United States for five years, and never ever felt home-sick. I am now married and living in Malaysia, but I could as easily have settled in the U.S. I have friends that I have known since kindergarten. I develop a strong attachment to people, but not to specific places. However, now that I live in Malaysia, I do miss France in general. Not a specific place in France, but rather the feeling of freedom you have there: freedom of expression, of religion, of being yourself.

The escape did not shape me personally. However, the whole experience of losing everything in Algeria, all your belongings, and running for your life, deeply affected my entire family. They were all very resentful towards the “Arabs” – they were very racist, and hated the people who “took everything from them”, despite them having done nothing to deserve it. My parents were not land-owners, exploiting people. They were just regular people who happened to be born there.

Jumping twenty plus years into the future, I married a Malay man, and I had to convert to Islam in order to marry him. This was a huge slap in the face to my entire family, and most of my relatives refused to have anything more to do with me. My maternal grandparents, who had looked after me while my parents worked, no longer wanted to even talk to me, and when my mother tried to show them pictures of my newborn son, my grandfather said: “This is not my flesh and blood”. Other reactions were: “Couldn’t she find anything else?!” So I now only had relations with my mother, who just passed away, my youngest sister, and my mother’s goddaughter. That’s it.

No, I never think about what if we had not narrowly escaped. We would all be dead anyway. So, the only morale of the story is that life is very fragile. 

My parents did not like to talk about Algeria. It was a very painful episode in their life. I just know that the ‘events’, as they called it, started around 1958. Some French people wanted Algeria to remain French, others like [Albert] Camus for instance wanted Algerians to have the same rights as French people; some local Muslims also wished to remain French, and others wanted to be independent. So it was all a big mess, with the French army called in, bombs exploding in crowded places, and nobody trusting anybody.

From what I understand, it seems that there was no hatred among the locals and Pieds-Noirs, but they lived side by side without really mixing. The richer Pieds-Noirs had maids, who were Arab, of course. 

Personally, I would love to see where I was born, where my family lived, etc. But all the Pieds-Noirs I know, including my mother, never wanted to go back, because for them it was too painful to see their childhood life destroyed. Apparently, the infrastructure has not been maintained properly. Also, all the French names of streets and towns have been replaced by Arabic names. It is heart-breaking for Pieds-Noirs. But since I never knew Algeria before, I don’t have that preconception about it. In fact, I follow an Instagram account which takes people throughout the streets of Algiers, and I love it. 

I feel that I have no roots anywhere. Home is where you hang your hat. I had some personal mementos from my family, but I was burglarised with a machete on my throat and the Indonesian robbers took everything I had: my wedding ring, my birth locket, my grandmother’s ring, so I really have no links to anything. I feel that I am just drifting in this world, just attached to people, not places or things.

My family in France is getting smaller and smaller. My mother just passed away in early April. Her last wish was to be cremated and her ashes thrown into the Mediterranean sea, between France and Algeria. She said she had no roots, and that the Mediterranean sea was her real home. So now that is where she is resting, in the sea, between France and Algeria.

I still have one close cousin, and my youngest sister of course. Apart from that, my marriage to a Muslim has alienated the rest of my relatives, who have cut me off from their life.

My family in Malaysia is my true family. My husband, Professor Dr Muliyadi Mahamood, is a retired lecturer in Art History. He actually holds a PhD in cartoons and caricature studies from the University of Kent, Canterbury, England. He publishes books and essays on art and on cartoons, and I often serve as his translator.

We have three children, all now married. The eldest, Suliono Dimitri, was born in 1989. Kartini Colette was born in 1991. And Seri Amélie was born in 1996.

My children all spoke French when they were toddlers, but moved on to English later on. Only my youngest one still speaks French regularly.

They were brought up in a multicultural home. I try to keep French cultural traditions, and they all seem to enjoy it, even my sons-in-law and daughter-in-law. For example, we celebrate Christmas, but the French way: it is not a religious celebration, but a family celebration, where we exchange gifts and spend the day together as a family. We also celebrate every birthday, although I understand that some of my children’s spouses never did before. For me, family is the most important thing. I do not have strong bonds to any particular land, but I want to retain my culture, and my utmost priority is my family.

I think that my children see themselves as citizens of the world, in a way. They are deeply aware of their French ancestry. They were all very close to my mother, and were able to speak enough French to communicate with her, even on her deathbed. Their favourite auntie is my sister Helene. They speak as much French as they can to me, and there are words from daily life that we use in French at home. My home is a little French enclave in Malaysia, with French lifestyle, French music, French food, a huge French library (yes, my living-room has bookshelves filled with books, and no artificial plastic flowers, unlike Malaysian houses!).

What makes me happy is that my children did not grow up to become racist. In fact, they make friends regardless of race, religion or sexual inclinations, and I think that I succeeded in bringing my children up properly. 

In France, I studied English literature and civilisation, and I also have a degree in translation (French, English and Spanish). When you reach the year before your Master’s degree, you are supposed to spend a year in an English-speaking country, in order to become fluent. Most of my classmates were sent to England, where they taught French in secondary schools. I was lucky to be chosen to go to an Ivy league university in the United States, where I taught French as a graduate teaching assistant. So I spent one year teaching French at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and besides getting a stipend, I was allowed to take classes for free. So I did. I enjoyed it, and got good grades. 

I decided to apply to other universities as a graduate student, with the same system of teaching in order to pay for my tuition fees. I got accepted into several universities, but ended up choosing the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I did my Master’s degree there, and started on my PhD. I passed all the required courses and successfully defended my thesis proposal.

Having no proper roots, my idea at the time was that I would settle down in America. The idea of returning to France was not on my mind at all. I felt a bit guilty towards my French university, but they had given me an opportunity that I knew would never come back if I didn’t seize it.

I love languages, but for me, teaching French and living in America was my first dream. I could live, speak, dream, eat, in English. I didn’t do many translations when I was in the United States.

(When I was in high-school, my friends and I were all fans of English and American bands: Frank Zappa, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. So they often asked me to translate the lyrics to the songs, since at the time the lyrics came with the cassette or vinyl you bought).

Meanwhile, I met my husband. He was one of my students. When I did my Masters, he did his B.A. When I moved on to my PhD, he did his Masters. Unfortunately, his studies were paid for by Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), so at the end of his studies, he knew that he had to return to Malaysia to teach. If I married him, I had no choice but to follow him.

Therefore, came the moment to make a decision: marry him, and move to Malaysia. Or stay in America, but without him. Obviously, you know what I chose, since I am here.

Unfortunately, in Malaysia, I was unable to continue with my PhD. I tried to do another PhD a few years later, in University Kebangsaan Malaysia (the National University of Malaysia, or UKM), but it did not work out. I was burdened by depression and anxiety attacks, and had to give up, once again.

I taught French for about 10 years in UiTM. but since I am a foreigner, I could not be employed full-time. So I only taught a few classes every semester, and at the same time I started doing translations for Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia  (the Malaysian Institute of Translation & Books or ITBM) and Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka (the Council of Language and Literature).

Almost 10 years ago now, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC), a colon disease which prevented me from leaving my house. So I stopped teaching and focused on translations, since I could do that from home, according to my own schedule.

I have translated novels, certificates, and confidential documents. At the same time, since my husband writes a lot about art, I translate all his writings, for example the exhibition catalogues he wrote, and the essays and books he published. I was very proud when Seniman Negara Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal asked  me to translate the texts of his exhibitions.

However, due to my studies, and also to my love for reading, I mostly enjoy translating literary works. I met [Malaysian writer and critic] Faisal Tehrani, and it was a match made in heaven. He wished for his works to be translated into English, in order to reach a wider audience, and I was happy to work on his books, as I sincerely admire him. 

Having travelled to many countries, and having met many different people, I have a high level of sensitivity and empathy. I do not know if that is from my past, or just my own personality. Also, I love books. I love reading about other people’s lives. All this enriches you.

Jérome Bouchaud once wrote an article about me as a literary translator. Basically, I believe that as a translator, I must be invisible. My goal is not to rewrite a book, or interpret it. I try to reproduce the author’s work as faithfully as I can, in another language, that’s all. I do not want to leave my mark on the text. That is my belief.

I know that some translators would like to be recognised as co-authors. But this is not my point of view. I want to be recognised as a translator, an invisible tool to bring the words of an author to a reader in a different language. I do not want to do any rewriting, or editing. Personally, if something bothers me, I’ll ask the author what he meant. I don’t take any liberties with the text I am working on.

On my hope for the future, my dream, is that one day, all Malaysians will be equal. There will be no second-class citizens, or privileges according to race. 

Leha Brigitte has called Malaysia home for more than 30 years. Among the works that she has translated is ‘The Professor’ by Faisal Tehrani, a novel about sexuality in Muslim-conservative Malaysia, and ‘The Race Ladder’, an essay about ethnic relations by Malaysian-Indian author Preeta Samarasan, published in the Mekong Review. Leha Brigitte’s story was exclusively narrated to editor Mohani Niza over three rounds of interviews.