Photo: Kelly Bedeian
In and out
Just back from Tangier, on metro line 7, Paris. On a loudspeaker, a mechanical voice says: “Beware of pickpockets. Make sure your bags are properly closed. Keep an eye on your belongings.” Really, can my belongings be stolen? For five days in Tangier, everyone who talked to me in the medina would say “hello,” “bonjour,” “hola,” “guten Tag.” I would even hear greetings in languages that I don’t know, but no “salam,” no “azul”.
I’m French. Both my parents are Algerian, from the Amazigh region called Kabylia. The Imazighen (plural of Amazigh) are also called “Berbers.” This is a word I never use, as it comes from the Greek barbaroi and the Latin barbarus, meaning “barbarian.” Imazighen have a common culture, a common language, a common flag… There are many communities of Imazighen in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, the Sahara. People from the Rif in Morocco are Imazighen. Tangier is a city at the western edge of the Rif. As a matter of fact, my blood would say that I’m a cousin of the people in Tangier. Yet even in Algeria, I’m often seen as French. When I reveal my Algerian origins, I’m frequently asked which of my parents is Algerian. What has vanished from my original belonging?
My parents migrated to France after the Algerian War, in 1962. They came with a French dream: raising a family in better living conditions than theirs had been. They dreamt big: they had eleven children in France (the twelfth, oldest, died at the age of three in Algeria during the war) who were going to fulfill their wish. Though illiterate, they understood that the achievement they envisioned for us would have to come through good education. The great Algerian writer Kateb Yacine has referred to the French language as “the spoils of war”: French became my legacy without fighting.
At the same time, I did not go to the Arabic “school.” Teaching Arabic is still an issue in France; it was bigger in the 1980s. The so-called school was led by the (more or less) literate fathers in my neighborhood who taught informally, in a basement, which also served as a kind of mosque—this shows something about how Muslims were treated then. The reason I didn’t want to go there had nothing to do with denying the Arab part of my identity, however. Rather, the teachers were well known for hitting their pupils. They reproduced the violent teaching methods of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, whether in France or Algeria, and reinforced by the toughness of the neighborhood stemming from poor social conditions. Year after year, I cried so long and so hard that I succeeded in delaying my schooling to the point that it never began.
During my childhood, the language in our home was mixed: Arabic or Tamazight words could be folded into a French sentence. Conversation with my parents was a creolization, only intelligible to ourselves. They understood our broken Arabic; we understood their broken French. They made an effort to speak an understandable Arabic to us; we made an effort to speak an understandable French to them. None of this was conscious. Only at school did I realize that I used some Arabic words thinking they were French, and that I deformed some French words by reproducing the accent of my parents. Our “creole” was an island to us and, seen by the outside world, a ghetto.
My siblings and I became the good students my parents dreamt of—partly due to their relentless surveillance. While they couldn’t read, write, or help us with our homework, they could threaten us if our grades didn’t meet the mark. The only question they would ask us was not whether we’d had a good a good day at school but rather what grade we got. Nothing other than an A was an option. Though we sometimes cheated, trying to present a B or a C as an A, collectively we realized that we’d better become what they wanted us to be.
But part of our “success” (I’m always uncomfortable with this word) at school was also due to luck. In France, children are routed to schools according to their district. Better schools are located in wealthy districts. Mine was an exception. My street was split into two sections, and we happened to live on the good side. Although the kids I played with were from the same social circumstances, the school I attended was socially and racially mixed. A ten-meter distance drastically improved my chances of a decent education.
School taught me that my ancestors were Gallic. Republican universalism was fueled by a myth of a unique common history, embodied in “le roman national” (literally “the national novel”). I am a product of that myth, the perfect image of integration. At that point in time, I would have been able to quote any classic French author, though not one Arab or African. I had nothing to complain about: I was the good student my parents wanted me to be. Still, the social mix in my school kept confronting me with the fact that I was poorer than most of my friends. This was the difference that, quite early, opened my mind to social issues. When I was a kid—I can’t say exactly how old—our teacher read my class a fairy tale. While prince charming was once again saving a beautiful princess, my first question was why I should admire a privileged guy in a castle built by people who were never mentioned, a guy able to fight dragons for love but who seemed to have no love for his wretched people. The kinds of questions I was asking my teachers made no sense to them, nor to my classmates.
When my parents encouraged us to be good students, they said we had to be “better than the French.” Their command mixed integration and differentiation. Being better than the French while being French assumed that one was at the same time in and out. And the outside part of my identity, the Algerian one, was in turn divided into two: Amazigh and Arab. My parents told us that if we were asked whether we were Kabyle or Arab, we should answer Algerian. They never told me to say that I was French.
French at school, Algerian at home, I chose—to borrow Eleni Sikelianos’ expression—radical non-belonging. My identity would be not to choose any of these. Fulfilling my parents’ dream of social ascent didn’t require answering any existential problem. I was gifted at mathematics, so I had to become an engineer. Ever since I was a child, when someone asked what profession I intended to take up, I always answered engineer, even while my classmates said firefighter, soccer player, doctor, magician, burglar…
I evolved into a teenager destined to become an engineer when two things happened concurrently. First, a teacher asked me what an engineer was. Silence. I realized I didn’t even know what that was. My goal was an empty shell full of others’ dreams. While seen as clever in the context of school, I was probably the dumbest in the class. Second, at about the same time, I began reading. My questioning grew. Then one day, I discovered Balzac’s Le père Goriot, the story of Rastignac and his thwarted ambition—much like mine was. I was impressed by the wonderful writing. Looking back, I can’t tell whether that was what made this book special, or whether it was the novel itself. Was it all about style, or did the story give beauty to the form? Anyway, something more meaningful than simply becoming an engineer made an appearance in my life. It was no longer about what my social function would be. Something like a quest for sense emerged.
I started to write for the pleasure of it. As it turned out, pure form was not enough to make me a new Balzac. My oversized and ridiculous teenage ambition had to confront the practical question all writers face: write about what? The answer came unconsciously, and naturally. I was going to write about the living conditions in a banlieue, the inner cities, of sorts, on the outskirts of Paris. My very first attempt at storytelling was the first novel I would eventually publish. In my writing, I was overly conscious of social issues; meanwhile, the student in me was all about material concerns. In and out again.
Materialism won the battle against romanticism. I became a financial analyst, fully integrated in this new life. I sometimes joke about the influence Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Brian De Palma’s Scarface had on my destiny. One is about a trader, the other about a drug dealer. To get to a position of power, I chose the legal way. I didn’t become handsome and rich overnight: still, after all these years, it was new to go to a club on the Champs-Elysées or to be invited to Monte Carlo by colleagues, to visit cities and stay at fancy hotels. I’d been rejected from far less prestigious places as a younger person.
I had nothing to write about because I had nothing to fight against. Then came 2001. My father died in April. On the morning of 9/11, I was booking a flight to Algeria to attend a religious ceremony in his memory. When I came home later that day, I saw the Twin Towers collapsing on TV. The world was falling apart, just as my own world had a few months ago. I started to question my parents’ dream of social achievement—was it really mine?
9/11 also raised an unexpected issue: from that day, I was seen as a Muslim. Whether I was observant or not, a believer or not, willing to endorse Muslim culture or not, I was labeled Muslim. This change didn’t come from me but to me, in questions, remarks… Some friends and colleagues introduced a plural “you” into the conversation that was more than me. The illusion of my French republican universalism was swept aside. The social issue turned into an issue of culture, and race.
So it was the conflicting commands of republican universalism against assigned identity that fueled me as a would-be writer. I had to write, and I had to write now. This was a way of defining myself so as not to be defined by others. It was time for me to tell my stories instead of complaining about fairy tales of rich princes seducing princesses instead of helping their people. My first manuscript dealt, in addition to other topics, with riots in the banlieues. I began collecting notes for it in the early 1990s and started the real writing in the early 2000s. In 2005, I showed it to my future publisher: she said she liked it but was not convinced about the possibility of nationwide riots in France. This was just two or three weeks before they erupted—at which point she called me back and apologized for that unfortunate remark.
At that time, there weren’t many books on that topic; I had been consciously writing about the banlieue as a way of pointing to this blind spot in French society. My main character was stuck in a series of unfortunate events, which turned him into an ideal culprit. This fiction was a kind of metaphor for what I’d felt in my youth. I’ve never considered myself a voice of anything else than my own self, but there was a little more than an “I” in that story—a feeling of fate shared with this neighborhood, where it is so hard to be heard.
Taking up what soon became a hot topic exposed me to some interest: I had written a book, so for better or worse, I had to face the consequences. Better meant that I had to develop my opinions, dig deeper into my point of view, respond to the curiosity of journalists, readers, writers… At formal events or in informal talks with these people, I sharpened my knowledge, and questioned more deeply where I belonged. The others challenged me to define myself. Was I still a product of French universalism? Was I the Muslim that society saw in me? Was I a man from a banlieue? Was I a French novelist? A multicultural intellectual? As for the worse, there was a whole new set of labels to deal with. My novel, released in 2006, was among several others with the banlieue theme. Journalists, then academics, called us “writers from the banlieue,” “urban writers”… Again, it was my social condition that was determining me: financial analyst or writer, I couldn’t escape labeling by origin. Yet what specifically does this mean in terms of social representation? The last example, a very recent one, is a movie scenario I was co-writing at the time. I had been asked if I could add some spelling mistakes to reinforce my “street credibility” with the film producers. “Banlieue,” “Arab,” “Muslim”: I cannot escape my social representation.
I therefore decided to become what Hannah Arendt has called a “conscious pariah”: I take all the labels I’m given in the name of social solidarity with people who suffer the condition of a “pariah,” then turn that condition into an act of rebellion. For me, this means writing. An African proverb says, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” Giving the opportunity to tell their own stories to the invisible and unheard is the reason I teach workshops in banlieues.
The necessity of being a writing lion has grown even stronger for me after the January 2015 Paris attacks. Since then, to be or not to be Charlie is not a question. #JeSuisCharlie is an order, one that tolerates no nuance. Little by little, France has introduced the idea of a new category of blasphemy: the desecration of Charlie Hebdo as a new religion, one without God but with its own untouchable martyrs-turned-prophets, whose images cannot be represented other than through compassion and praise. French Muslims, in turn, are told to express themselves in a single, unified voice. But is there such a thing as a group within the French population at large that is able to express itself in a single voice? Even on the occasion of a unifying event like the march at Place de la République, the Front National asked its supporters to refrain from participating. So how then can French Muslims be expected to achieve something that the French in their entirety can’t do either? And, given that this can be said for any social topic (since such an order, or wish, is not limited to the subject at hand), wouldn’t it be worrying if a section of the population expressed itself only as a function of its membership in a specific religion or community? What we call democracy, the Republic, the very essence of the freedom of expression, depends on a plurality of opinions. We must therefore hope that French Muslims—just like all French people—will continue to express a variety of opinions.
French Muslims in particular were prompted to participate in the “not in my name” campaign—as if it weren’t already obvious that it was not in my name murderers kill. If ever I felt the need to distance myself from a murderer, it would be in the name of the collective responsibility of each human being when face-to-face with all of humanity, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas so eloquently put it. Then I would be just as likely to dissociate myself from any of the killers, except that, weirdly, I have only been asked to give my opinion on attacks committed in the name of an insane interpretation of Islam. While ordered to dissociate from these horrors, no French Muslim was, however, invited to participate in the collection of short stories Nous sommes tous Charlie (“We Are All Charlie”) honoring the victims of the attacks. Sixty writers contributed. Some French Muslim writers are very well known, much more so than me. Is being Muslim only sharing in a feeling of guilt, without participating in any kind of intellectual, positive, contribution?
I saw my country, which for so many years mocked George W. Bush, vote in exactly the same laws (a sort of Patriot Act), using exactly the same vocabulary of war (bombing foreign countries) as his administration. France’s “noble” principles were no more than words, and didn’t survive the circumstances. To George W. Bush’s credit, he had many more victims to deal with, and an event that was unprecedented. We laughed at him but learnt nothing from his mistakes. That is why today, I think, we may still have your Donald Trump emerging in France. Ever since the January and November 2015 attacks in France, it’s been hard to express these opinions without eliciting suspicion—particularly when your name is Mabrouck Rachedi.
Recently my interest as a writer and as an intellectual has shifted to the question of memory, a question related directly to the matter of belonging—that which makes us who we are. It is part of my quest for identity. An Arabic proverb says, “In order to know where you are going, you must know who you are.” This is a personal path, and one that resonates among populations with immigrant heritage but also beyond—among people sensitive to individual trajectories capable of connecting human beings to each other. More and more, I tend to tell my story rather than stories. I believe that in “my,” there is “self.” That is also why, in this essay about belonging, there is a lot of me.
My father used to say that we belong to the ground in which we will be buried He chose Algeria. My mother, still alive, wants to be interred in France. She wants her children to be able to visit her when they wish to. I like this pragmatic point of view. For me, it makes no sense to belong to soil. I relate myself to other people. I understand now that when my parents wanted me to be better than the French at school, the integration/differentiation issue was not a dead end. It was human complexity.
While in Iowa City to participate in the IWP, I had to fill out a form in which I was to define myself as a Caucasian, or African, or Asian… I didn’t know what to answer, as there was no Arab and, of course, no Amazigh box to check. I asked a member of the IWP staff what to do. She or he—I can’t remember who it was—gave me the best definition of belonging I’ve heard so far: choose. There is only one me, but there is not only one in me. I strongly agree with the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf who, in his widely read essay “Les identités meurtrières,”says: “Identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.”
In the group of writers in Tangier, I was the one with the latest departure. I spent the final morning shopping alone in the medina. Oddly, now there was no “bonjour” and no “hello” from the merchants; instead, some “salams” and an “azul.” It was as if, away from the gaze of the others, something had changed in me. I could even negotiate the prices in Arabic; at the same time, my accent betrayed my French side—proof that noone has stolen any of my belongings. I choose the one I want to be at any given moment. I am literally Amazigh, meaning “a free man.”
Mabrouck RACHEDI is a French-Algerian novelist, essayist, columnist and former equity analyst. He is the author of the novels Tous les hommes sont des causes perdues (2015), La petite Malika (co-written with his sister Hahiba Mahany; 2010), Le petit Malik (2008) and Le Poids d’une âme (2006), and the book-length essay Éloge du miséreux (2007). His short stories have appeared in the Japanese literary magazine Bungakukai, in the collections Algéries 50 and Chroniques d’une société annoncée, and in the Moroccan magazines OCP and Le Courrier de l’Atlas, where he contributes a monthly column. He wrote scenarios for animated short against discriminations for the association Remem’Beur, and for the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, and regularly teaches workshops and visits schools, particularly in the French banlieues.