10/15/2013 08:45 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2013

Passport, Please

By Sarah Perle, Israel

When I was 20 I lost my passport.

I was then studying in Paris.

Because of my passport disappearance I had to go back to Amiens, the city where I was born and raised and where my parents still live.

I went to the city hall by myself for what I thought would be a 20-minute annoying but easy administration endeavor.... 30 seconds after I sat in front of the government employee that was working that day, I understood that something different was waiting for me.

"Your parents were born in Algeria; you don't have a French name. I have no proof you are French. I cannot give you a passport."

She hardly looked at me while pronouncing those words.

My dad probably declared my birth in this very same building. I grew up in this city. France was the only country I ever lived in. I loved cheese and I knew all the French jokes about Belgium! How come I couldn't get a new passport?!

The woman on the other side of the desk didn't seem to care about anything I could say or to appreciate my sense of humor.

My parents were supposed to go to an office for French born abroad to get an official document that would confirm that they were French. Only after I had this document with me I could go back to (my?) this city hall and ask for a new passport.

When I entered my parents' home an hour later, I was still shocked. My mother is a Holocaust survivor child. Her grandparents waited for years to obtain French papers they never obtained. They were arrested and deported to Auschwitz very early during the war as they were foreigners. They never returned. My dad and his family ran away from Algeria when he was 13. Jews in French Algeria were officially French citizens, but they really just felt like any other unwelcome immigrant when they arrived in the country.

Decades later, I was standing in front of my parents, telling them I needed to prove I was French.
A couple of months later I went back to the city hall to claim my passport. So apparently I was French... but I didn't know what it meant anymore.

Before this incident I never questioned my identity. I was French, Jewish, with roots in Algeria and Eastern Europe. But apparently, it was much more complicated than that:

My dad is French/Israeli, born in Algeria. My mother is half Ashkenazi-half Sephardic, born in Algeria. My great-grandfather fought and died for France during WWI even though they had never put a toe in France before the war. I am the result of those stories. I am French. I am Jewish. My name is Sarah. I love Mexican painting; Indian movies, French cheese and my best friends live in four different continents... And now I also have an Israeli passport.

I will never let a woman behind a desk tell what I am or what I am not again. Looking back at the passport story I even doubt she had the right to act to me this way.

I decided to be a citizen of the world, and if I could get a passport that said that, I would give up the two others!

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