Departure (3), 7 September, 2009
Before we meet, John’s last email also asks me to ponder an expression in French that I shared with him when we met to exchange the case. When discussing my current joint research project, I talk about our interest in how the population known as pieds-noirs (colonial settlers of European origin in French Algeria) have been represented since almost one million of them fled from North Africa at the end of the Algerian War in 1962. I mention that the choice for pieds-noirs at the time – or at least the choice that clearly many metropolitan French and pieds-noirs themselves felt they had – was summarised pithily as ‘la valise ou le cercueil’ (‘the suitcase or the coffin’).
When you study the iconography of this particular historical moment, one of the key images is a June 1962 cover of the news weekly Paris-Match, showing a pied-noir couple and their young child onboard a ship looking back as they leave Algeria behind with the emotive headline: ‘La France nous aime-t-elle toujours?’ (‘Does France still love us?’). I place a copy of this in the case for John to keep and it strikes me that I have managed to spend most of my time with the case and my reflections on it as an academic; using research and work as a convenient smoke screen. I now realise – or perhaps admit to myself – that this has enabled me to avoid discussing more personal details of my own life and family’s migration in greater detail. But is the division between academic research and one’s personal life ever neat or complete? A wise woman once said to me that, no matter how esoteric or abstract your research might seem, you are effectively writing your own autobiography through it. How could one’s research not be overdetermined by the life experiences your identities might bring you?
So I also place within the case a smooth dappled stone plucked from a beach in Donegal that must have rolled miles along the seabed. As a dual symbol of both land and the sea, it seems strangely appropriate. Perhaps it wasn’t, after all, such a coincidence that I was drawn to an object from an in-between space.
Finally, I place within the case the Polaroids that had accompanied me on my travels and two postcards. Before departing the UK, I had noticed that John’s father’s Canadian passport was issued at Bône (now known as Annaba) in Algeria, and so whilst in Algiers I returned to visit a stamp and postcard seller whose stock of both is unsurpassed. I choose two colonial postcards of Bône for John, both of which in some ways seem to chime with the project. With that I close both the locks on the case: it’s time for it to return to its owner.
Text © Joseph McGonagle, 2009