When a dermatologist told 15-year-old Lina Soualem what could be the cause of her skin condition, she refused to believe it as it involved a historical migratory link between her parents’ respective countries: Algeria and Palestine. Years later, she realized that the dermatologist may have been right!
I was born with red, well-defined plaques all over my body and face, in the form of archipelagos or huge continents; a sort of intimate customized world map. They told my mother it was eczema. But she always knew it was something else. When I was eight years old, they finally established a diagnosis: Erythrokeratodermia variabilis. It is a rare syndrome, a female-dominated skin condition, due to what they call “the casual circumstances of human genetics.”
In addition to dry skin, this syndrome causes the appearance of red patches of dryness on the body, constantly shifting in form and position. A disease with a mysterious name, hard to pronounce, which I loved repeating all the time, facing the astonished gaze of my young classmates. On my body lies a world map, which evolves as the seasons go by. In the winter, the continents become immense, thick, bright red, as the cold worsens my condition. In the summer, the continents transform into archipelagos and gradually disappear, as if submerged by the hungry ocean. The sun and the heat make me feel better. I recover in the summer. “You need to move to a warm and humid country” dermatologists would tell me. I have always lived in Paris; far from the safety of heat and humidity.
At the age of 15, I met with a renowned dermatologist, who specialized in rare genetic diseases at a Parisian public hospital. While she examined the world map deeply anchored in my skin, she asked: “Where are your parents from?” I told her that my mother is a Palestinian born in Nazareth, in the region of Galilee and that my father, born in France, is the son of Algerian immigrants from a small mountain village in East-Algeria, near the city of Setif.
The dermatologist then asked me if there had been crossed migrations between my parents’ two countries of origin. I immediately thought to myself that she was drawing absurd and inaccurate parallels, I told her: “No! Palestine and Algeria are far away from each other, they are two different lands, two different countries!” She insisted, explaining how sometimes these diseases can result from a crossing of different genes. Facing what I perceived as a tactless self-assurance on her part, I didn’t respond. Meanwhile, fierce comments popped into my tormented adolescent mind: “What does she know about these countries? Algeria has its own history! Palestine as well!” While these thoughts were running through my head, I stayed silent, smiling politely to the dermatologist. As soon as I left the hospital, I was quick to share the anecdote with all my friends. They all agreed with me. Together, we mocked the dermatologist’s ignorance. This anecdote stayed with me over the years. I told it a lot. It marked the originality of my skin condition.
As I grew up, I learned to master the diverse world maps drawing themselves on my body. Erythrokeratodermia variabilis stopped impressing me. I gave it sun, as much as I could, as well as a lot of shea butter and argan oil.
Since I was a small child, I have travelled every year to Galilee to see my maternal Palestinian family. Now an adult, I continue going every year. On the other hand, I discovered Algeria at the age of 21. I have gone several times since. I was 28 when I visited my paternal grandparent’s village in the mountain of East Algeria for the first time. Laaouamer. This was two years ago.
I never drew parallels between these two countries. I never confused them. I always perceived them as two distinct lands. Algerian citizens have little chance to travel to Palestine, whose frontiers are controlled by the Israeli army. Palestinians have little chance to travel to Algeria, due to the restrictions of movement and travels imposed upon them. Beyond the ideological bond between the Algerian and the Palestinian people, which are symbolically close due to their common history of resistance to colonialism, I don’t see any tangible links between these two lands that unite in me. All I can assure is that there is a concrete geographical, kilometric distance, precise and quantifiable between these two places.
At the age of 29, almost 15 years after my encounter with the dermatologist, history caught up with me and anchored me in its vicissitudes. On one day when I was scrolling through Facebook, I received an invitation to an event. I clicked and read: “Seminar: Algerians in Palestine / Palestinians in Algeria: An Interconnected History”.
An interconnected history…? How could that be possible? I had never heard that in my whole life. Suddenly, I was intrigued, and very eager to attend this seminar. When I got there, I noticed I didn’t know anyone. I sat on a chair, in the first row, and started staring at the speaker seated in front of me, with my eyes wide in anticipation and dubiousness. The speaker was a young master’s student at the Higher School of Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. I scrutinized him, wondering how he would be able to justify this connection that he pretended to have found between the two countries that are intermingled deep in my flesh. I was so impatiently waiting for him to start speaking. When he did start he presented his research work, telling the audience how in the 19th century, thousands of Algerians immigrated to Palestine because they were fleeing the French colonial occupation in their own country. He specified that most of these Algerians came from the region of Kabylie, the Djurdjura mountains, the region of Tizi Ouzou and East Algeria. They all settled in the Palestinian department of Galilee, scattered over a hundred houses and a dozen villages. They lived off fruit and vegetable harvest, olive plantation and animal farming, as they did in the mountains of Kabylie, where they had come from. They carried on their culture and even their language, the Tamazight, which they transmitted to their children. During his research, the speaker had managed to find and contact some of these Algerians who lived in Galilee. He reported their testimony to us: when he asked them about their immigration to Galilee, they all told him that they decided to settle in this particular region in Palestine because the mountains of Galilee reminded them of the mountains of Kabylie.
I was blown away by these discoveries. I was fascinated, captivated, and speechless. Yet, I was just about to make another unpredictable discovery. As I watched the map of Galilee that the speaker had unveiled on his presentation projected onto a small screen in the cramped conference room, I stared, aghast for a few long minutes, unable to react. These Algerians settled mainly in the small Palestinian cities of Safad and Tiberias. In Safad, a quarter of the population was Algerian. Some Algerians became such an integral part of the local life and community that we couldn’t tell them apart from the Palestinian residents.
I was amazed. My maternal Palestinian great-grandmother Aïcha was born in Safad and got married in Tiberias, where she had her nine children with her husband Hosni Tabari. Aïcha and Hosni carried the name of their hometown, Tabaria, in Arabic. My paternal Algerian great-grandmother, Fatima, was from Tizi Ouzou, in Kabylie. Her son Mabrouk (my grandfather) and his wife (my grandmother) also named Aïcha, and they were both born in the little village of Laaouamer in the mountains of East Algeria.
At this precise moment, I thought again of my encounter with the dermatologist. I hadn’t thought about that memory in a while. It seemed like it was not an anecdotic encounter after all. The dermatologist was right! There were actually crossed migrations between my parents’ two countries of origin. I couldn’t believe that she was right! My parents probably carry a common gene, dating back to this crossed migration. This common gene would be the cause of my genetic disease. Suddenly, Erythrokeratodermia variabilis stopped being a mystery to me. The shifting world map sketched on my body was not an enigma anymore. I felt like I had finally unravelled the mystery of what they call “the casual circumstances of human genetics.”
The conference was about to end. I wanted to raise my hand so badly. I wanted to talk loudly about my skin problem. I wanted to tell everyone how much this interlinked history was so much more than just factual, it was engraved in my epidermis. I wanted the speaker to notice me, I wanted him to point at me and tell me: “You, I feel like you have something incredible to tell us.” But of course, as my heart was racing, I stayed silent and anonymous. My story is only one story among the multiple intimate stories that compose our collective history.
“Under each of these faces, a memory. While they want us to believe that a collective memory is being forged, in reality there are thousands of memories of men who carry their personal heartbreak within the massive heartbreak of History.”
Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1983. ■
Text originally published in French as “Une cartographie de mondes parallèles” in the participatory fanzine divine in May 2020.