I set foot in Paris on a rainy Summer afternoon to meet the photographer and activist Alexia Fiasco. She has recently been talked about because of her project ADN (DNA in French), in which she photographed immigrant families in France. Among the people who posed for her, one photograph immediately catches the eye: it features Mouss Ould Kaci and his family. On the photograph, Mouss is surrounded by his six children: his three biological daughters Sofia, Inès and Célia, whom he’s been raising by himself since his wife passed away in 2014; and Dourane, Jackie and Lalla who arrived in his life by way of his daughters’ friendships and found a second home in his Parisian apartment.
I am beyond curious and excited to meet the atypical family, although a little bit intimidated to meet such a tightly bound group of people who all sound so charismatic. “Don’t worry, they’re really amazing people, you’ll love them,” Alexia reassures me as we make our way to their apartment in Paris’ 10th arrondissement. The area, concentrated around two of the French capital’s main train stations and the famous Canal Saint-Martin, has gained new hip hotels, bars and eateries in recent years, without losing its diversity.
Mouss opens the door for us with a big smile. He hugs Alexia, then me. “I’m Moustapha, you can call me Mouss. Can I get you anything to drink?” I don’t even know why I was feeling anxious. Mouss is happy to see me, happy to chat, happy to share. He walks me to the living room and its view on the metro airrails, behind which a rainbow emerges. The family duplex is simply furnished, a circle of sofas and comfortable armchairs taking up most of the space, as if the whole house revolves around the deep conversations that take place here. The kids aren’t home yet, which means I get to spend some one-on-one time with Mouss first. He takes a seat in his usual spot on their big orange sectional and lights a cigarette. I sit across from him and start recording.
Mouss was born in France in 1960 to Kabylian Algerian parents. “Even though we were born and brought up in France, me and my siblings were officially Algerian”. Mouss lives with his parents, five sisters and two brothers, in a small pavilion in La Courneuve, one of the biggest ‘cités’ in the suburbs of Paris, where a lot of other low-income immigrant families are housed in standardised rental flats. A relatively quiet child, he starts studying law and socio-cultural work until his ambitions get derailed: “Long story short, I fell into drug addiction. I ended up having to sell drugs to make ends meet. I got caught and ended up in prison”. In 1987, after doing his time, Mouss was deported to Algeria under France’s controversial ‘double peine’ (double sentence) without even speaking to a lawyer. Often criticised by human rights activists, the ‘double peine’ allows the French state to send immigrants back to their country of origin and forbid them access to French territory, even though they have already paid their dues. Because he doesn’t have French nationality, Mouss has no choice but to comply and was sent to Algiers.
“Suddenly, I had to find a job, an apartment and root myself in a country I didn’t know. I could barely speak Arabic”. But Mouss is resilient: he manages to start a new life and even ends up meeting the love of his life, Wahiba. They marry and in 1993, she gives birth to their first daughter, Sofia - who is just about to join us in the living room. “Then we had a second daughter, Melissa, but very quickly, she fell sick. We couldn't figure out what was going on. Soon after, I started getting sick as well. After many tests and examinations, we found out I had HIV”.
"Mouss was deported to Algeria under France’s controversial ‘double peine’ (double sentence) without even speaking to a lawyer."
By some kind of miracle, Sofia hadn’t been contaminated by the virus but Melissa’s symptoms were unequivocal. As a young baby, she couldn’t be saved and passed away shortly after. “Still today, I feel so much guilt. I most likely caught HIV because of my drug use and I contaminated my wife and my child; I cannot forgive myself”. It’s heartbreaking to hear this from the mouth of such a loving, warm human being. HIV might be a very manageable condition nowadays, but back then, it was a death sentence. The virus was highly contagious and the treatments weren’t as efficient and accessible as they are now. “We needed to get access to tri-therapy, and that wasn’t an option in Algeria. We knew we had to make it back to France, one way or another”. Mouss and his wife moved heaven and earth and eventually managed to obtain a French visa thanks to the help of an Algerian diplomat. In 1997, they move back to La Courneuve and start from scratch - once again.
Sofia, a social worker and musician is the eldest of Mouss’ daughters. She joins us on the sofa carrying a tea kettle. Now 30 years old, she was only four when she arrived in France. Even though Mouss’ parents and siblings still lived in the area, the family of three struggled to adapt. “All I had ever known up to this point was the sun, our big apartment in Algiers…and suddenly we were surrounded by concrete”. Sofia remembers having trouble fitting in her dad’s family, although at school, things went well. “I spoke French with my parents already, so it wasn’t too much of a linguistic shock. And children have a great capacity to adapt…I was feeling at ease at school, I was getting good grades. By the time I finished kindergarten, you couldn’t tell I was any different from the children in my class who had been there their whole life”. Still, she considers her biculturality a crucial element of her identity, not least as many friends are second or third generation, “so their experience and relationship to their origins is very different to mine”.
Soon after moving back to Paris, Mouss gets involved with AIDES, a major French non profit organisation against AIDS, while Wahiba, a psychologist by trade, works as an educator and activist. “She had important jobs and even founded a non-profit of her own, ‘Le Comité des Familles’, to help migrant families that were impacted by HIV.” Now both receiving treatment and working locally, Mouss and his wife start the French naturalisation process. They write letters to ministers and mobilise their whole network, and finally obtain the holy grail. “Once we had our papers, we were finally able to live more peacefully”, he sighs. In 1999, Wahiba gives birth to Inès and in 2000, to Célia, the couple’s youngest daughters - who will be here any minute now. Sofia remembers her sisters’ births as the start of a new era: “I really associate this period with stability - even though it came with its own traumas”. During a family vacation in Algeria, Inès, who is a very curious and active toddler, accidentally swallows a stripping product that burns her oesophagus, inflicting irreversible damage.
With her sister in the hospital, a mother who’s pregnant and a father working full time, Sofia learns to be autonomous. From her childhood, she has vivid memories of being surrounded by activism: “My parents were always going to some protest against the “double peine” or going to committees and activities with other militants against AIDS”. Organisations like the ‘Soeurs de la Perpétuelle Indulgence’ (Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence), a collective of queer activists whose members would dress up as drag nuns, were part of Sofia’s daily life.
“I don’t think I realised, back then, what it really was–and it was probably better that way. It would have been very scary for 7-year-old-me to know my parents could die from this, especially after already losing my younger sister when she was a baby”. Throughout her teenage years, Sofia continued to get involved with her parents’ activism, even speaking on the radio about how to talk about AIDS with children. While Sofia reminisces about her childhood, Inès, a 24-year old nail designer, and Célia (or Lili, as everyone calls the 22-year-old student) join us on the sofa. These two seem to always be by each other’s side, close as twins. “It’s true, we’re a bit like twins”, chuckles Lili. “We’re only two years apart and we shared a room for over ten years, so we have a very special bond”. They smile at each other, and Inès adds: “I’ve been operated several times following complications due to my accident, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals; she’s been by my side her whole life to help me whenever I couldn’t do something by myself. I mean - she’s wiped my butt. We’re really close”.
“Our parents never had any taboos, we could ask any questions we had”
Due to the age difference and the contrasting stability, it’s obvious that Inès and Lili’s experience is very distinct from Sofia’s, who went through some very challenging times with her parents before the two youngest were even born. “I’d say despite my accident, we had a pretty happy childhood,” says Inès. “Our parents did protect us from a lot - which isn’t to say we weren’t observing everything and talking about it all, just between us. Our parents never had any taboos, we could ask any questions we had - about our sister who had died in Algeria, about our parents’ illness, about mental health”. Lili takes over: “Our mom even talked to us about sexuality. She used to encourage me to be more social, to dress more freely–she was very progressive”. Sofia remembers her mother’s overflowing love and her warmth: “Mom really enjoyed having people over and caring for them. When we were growing up, our friends were always welcome here. She loved having deep conversations, feeling close to them”. She turns to Mouss. “When mom was still here, you were more in the background, always working a lot. Then when she passed, you took over”.
Nowadays, Mouss still works at AIDES, although he’s had to take a step back due to his declining health. “I need to work. By conviction, but also because it’s really important for me to be able to afford the rent of our apartment. We moved here in 2014, shortly before my wife passed away from heart failure. This is our home, we need our space”. Now all grown up, his three daughters still live with him. Over the course of the last few years, they have been joined on and off by family friends who needed to crash for a few days or sometimes, a little longer. “I never really asked myself or anyone any questions, really. I was always happy to share my home and my resources–even if sometimes, that was just a big plate of pasta–with anyone who needed it, no matter who they were or where they came from. I consider them as family and treat them as such”. But more than a roof or food, what Mouss provided these marginalised people with was a safe place, where they were able to be themselves and be loved for that. “After my wife’s death, I wanted to honour her and keep her generous spirit alive”, Mouss tells me with a nostalgic smile. “I thought: I want to be present for these kids, I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they’re alone, especially when they’re going through something difficult”.
"Queerness has never been a strange concept in Mouss’ family."
It all starts with Dourane, a 29-year old casting director and musician, who Sofia meets in her early teenage years. “We were hanging out all the time”, says Dourane to me on the phone. At the time of the interview, she was taking some time off in Normandie. “I was the only child of a single mother, so I was spending most of my time alone or with adults; when I met Sofia and her family, I found something I had only ever seen on TV”. Throughout the years, Dourane forms a strong bond with all family members and ends up introducing her queer and trans friends to Mouss and his daughters - more specifically, Jackie and Lalla, who will join us soon in the living room.
Queerness has never been a strange concept in Mouss’ family: from his best friend, who was gay and militant, to the omnipresence of queer activists against HIV, to Mouss’ colleagues at AIDES. But taking transgender kids in your home, offering them a safe haven while they’re going through personal changes–how do you just improvise that? Yet, Mouss seems to have done it with ease. While still today, Trans Identities remain quite an abstract theme for many people in France, something they only hear about in debates about pronouns and conspirationist videos about hormone blockers, in Mouss’ recomposed family they are an integral part of daily life. Better yet: it’s a conversation so present and open that it’s not even really ‘a thing’. “Dourane, Jackie and Lalla taught me so much about their experience”, says Mouss. “I saw first hand how they felt, what they went through. I learned so much about what transitioning entails, the whole fluidity around gender…but really, all I did was listen and talk, and try to be there for them”.
Inès remembers going through a phase where she rejected her family and started hanging out with a totally different group of friends. “I wasn’t always okay with everything that was going on in this house. At some point, I had a point of view that was pretty much queer phobic. In retrospect, I think a lot of it was just me being an angry teenager, getting mad at Sofia because she’d invite thirty people to party in our home and they would leave the place trashed”. At the end of 2019, Inès’ health suddenly declines and she has to get back on the operating table; the doctors end up removing her oesophagus, stomach and gallbladder. After this big health scare, she recenters: “I had a lot of conversations with queer people, and I started realising how much we had in common. We could relate to each other’s experiences with hardship, we had the same resilience. I was so angry back then, I think I was lost. Nowadays, most of my friends are queer–and that’s a label I’d identify with as well”, she says. “My friendships are very deep now, I can be myself completely, on the good and the bad days”. During our phone call, Dourane tells me something similar: “When I look at all the family members, I think we all have societal markers that reject us from the norm, whether it’s queerness, HIV, North African roots or disability. And in these positions, we are all interconnected. Our family is a safe space - we get each other, we validate each other, we stick together”.
Mouss and his six kids are as close as it gets, yet it’s rare to catch everyone here at the same time. Just like today, they all usually come and go, do their own thing. But on birthdays, Christmases and Eid, everybody gathers in Mouss’ living room to celebrate. And while religious celebrations are the origins of these traditions, Islam has never been central in Mouss and Wahiba’s education. Surprisingly though, religion ended up becoming a major part of Mouss’ youngest daughters’ lives. “We kind of had to learn it all by ourselves”, explains Inès: “we read the Quran, looked up what meant what, etc. It’s not something that our parents actively tried to transmit to us or that we necessarily view as part of our heritage - but it’s really present in our daily lives”. Mouss himself identifies as non-practicing muslim: “I think there must be a reason why I’ve gone through all these things, and who else than God could be responsible?”.
“Our ‘chosen’ siblings are people who invest their time and energy in our family."
It’s almost 8 o’clock when Jackie joins our circle, fresh off his work. The room fills with laughter and conversations as everyone catches up on his life, Lili’s new haircut, which gym they’ve been going to. Suddenly, I get a glimpse at a regular family gathering; I’m not an interviewer anymore, I’m just another young woman drinking tea and laughing at Lili’s fitness tales.
Just like Dourane, Jackie was brought into the family by Sofia. It was around the time Inès was hospitalised after her last operation. “I wanted to support Sofia in a difficult time. We were very close, so it just seemed natural to me to go visit her sister with her”, he recalls. As he was getting to know Mouss and his daughters, Jackie also helped mediate a falling out between Inès and Sofia. For Inès, this was a defining moment: “When someone’s seen you so real and vulnerable, you can’t be your ‘outside self’ to them anymore. They become part of the inner circle”. Jackie’s will to get involved is what bonded him to the family: “To me, family is about showing up consistently. It’s a conscious decision and once that decision is made, it’s set in stone”. Of course, Mouss and his daughters were there for Jackie, too: “the same way I showed up for them, they showed up for me when no one else did. I arrived here at the beginning of my transition, I wasn’t even sure who I was; in these moments of doubt, they were in my corner and allowed me to just be. In this house, I wasn’t ‘the trans guy’, I was just ‘Jackie the jerk’”, he chuckles. “Nobody here ever misgendered me, questioned me or pried, they always let me come to them if there was anything I wanted to share”.
Alexia’s phone chimes; Lalla has just left work and this news sparks excitement throughout the room. I ask Lili and Inès why they consider her a sister, rather than just a good friend. “It’s a different kind of love”, says Inès. Lili acquiesces: “I feel like the love I have for Lalla is close to what I feel for Inès, even though in the beginning, I wasn’t really into the idea of having her stay with us. Inès and I had built a solid routine during our teens, and suddenly, Lalla came and disrupted that”. Nowadays, Lili and Lalla are inseparable: “I’d say I’m actually closer to Lalla than I am to Sofia”.
It’s hard to put into words what it means to consider someone family, but Mouss and his children seem to agree on one thing: it’s about mutual, unconditional love. “Our ‘chosen’ siblings are people who invest their time and energy in our family: they involve themselves in our conflicts, they mediate and give their honest opinion”, explains Inès. “We can be very hard on each other, all of us, because we’re very real. But we know we’ll always be here for each other, even when we’re fighting”.
When Lalla finally enters the apartment, her joyous energy fills up the entire room. “I don’t know if you know this, but Ould Kaci means ‘son of sharing’ in amazigh; this family’s name is no coincidence!”, she tells me. Back in Morocco, Lalla left a family that wouldn’t accept who she was; in Paris, among her chosen family, she found a new start, a space where she was free to be herself completely. “For a really long time, I had to perform an ‘acceptable’ version of myself. Here, nobody had expectations of who I should be, nor did I have expectations of what Mouss and his children should mean to me”, she explains.
“Mouss’ daughters grew up with a secure, healthy sense of attachment, that they know their worth and are filled with kindness and patience.”
Taking my attention back to Jackie, I wonder what it means for Mouss’ youngest daughters to have a big brother, all of a sudden: “I guess it was complementary to the relationship we had with Sofia”, says Lili, to which Inès adds: “There’s a protective aspect to it, but Jackie never played the annoying big brother”. Jackie agrees: “Mouss always created this mentality of caring without patronising. He was a great male representation for me, a father figure that wasn’t paternalistic, who could sit down and listen. His advice was always more about encouraging, gaining perspective than ‘this is what you should do, because I know better’”. This attitude wasn’t reserved to his chosen children: Mouss and his wife raised their daughters the same way, creating high standards for every human interaction afterwards. “Our parents never punished us, hit us, they never talked down to us”, says Inès. “Every mistake I made–and God knows I’ve made many, really bad ones–we just talked about it, and they made me understand why what I had done was bad”. Lili reminisces: “We could do whatever we want, be whoever we were; they would trust us and understand - but we could not miss a dentist appointment: that was inconceivable”. Mouss acquiesces: “The only thing I was really strict about was their health”. Given the family’s history, this seems like a reasonable request.
Mouss and Wahiba treated their children like people, recognising their autonomy and their individuality. For Lalla, who grew up in a restrictive environment, this is a crucial point: “My parents wouldn’t let me wear what I wanted, play with the toys I wanted…this really hurt me. I think we often see children as these naïve, innocent creatures who should be protected from the real world at any cost–but the truth is, they’re part of the real world and the real world is in them, too. Whether you like it or not, they’ll have heavy feelings, uncomfortable questions - and you can either pretend they’re not there, or acknowledge that your children are people and treat them as such”.
“I ask him if he thinks he’s made mistakes in his parenting; confidently, he answers: “No”.“
Lili sighs: “I could never have kids with someone who doesn’t think and act the same as you, dad”. Talking to them, it’s really obvious Mouss’ daughters grew up with a secure, healthy sense of attachment, that they know their worth and are filled with kindness and patience. Not only does this family look out for each other, these girls also know what love looks and feels like, which makes them more apt to navigate their own romantic lives. “When I see how you interact with dates and men in general, it strikes me how confident you are, and that’s really inspiring”, says Jackie.
Mouss chokes up. “Hearing my kids acknowledging all this, it makes me feel really good”. I ask him whether there’s anything he’s learned from them. “I think most of all, they’ve taught me to keep evolving, to stay relevant. And that’s more than being comfortable with technology, wearing the right clothes or knowing about rap music–it’s being able to relate to anyone, no matter their age or background. Thanks to them, I didn’t become a grumpy old man, complaining about the youth and how they don’t know shit and that everything used to be better”.
Nobody gets a manual on how to raise kids; surely, even Mouss must have regrets. I ask him if he thinks he’s made mistakes in his parenting; confidently, he answers: “No”. I turn to his kids and ask them if that’s true; without flinching, they confirm. “Everything he’s done since I was born has been absolutely perfect. I have nothing to blame him for”, says Lili. “He’s really involved and genuinely interested in what we do”, adds Inès. “He shares my work and sends me nail related stuff on Instagram, he’s always there when Sofia or Lalla performs…We don’t know how we could ever thank him for everything he’s given us. The time, the attention–we never lacked anything. Our parents were always in our corner”.
So much unconditional love and appreciation gives me chills. Lalla, too: “I can’t relate to that. My dad never defended me. I grew up learning that no matter what, I’d always be alone. Thanks to Mouss and his daughters, I can see that there’s another way. I feel like their love is healing me”. Everybody will go through hardship; virtually everyone will one day have to experience trauma. What the Ould Kacis are teaching us is that as long as you don’t have to go through it alone, as long as you’re surrounded by love and support, you’ll be okay–and even come out of it stronger.
We’ve now been chatting for 5 hours straight. Talking about their life, telling them about mine, I feel like I’ve been taken in by their ever-growing family. But it’s time for me to leave; Mouss walks me to the hallway. “Come back and see us next time you’re in Paris, okay?” I know I will.