Negotiating Arab-Muslim Identity, Contested Citizenship, and Gender Ideologies in the Parisian Housing Projects; Faïza Guène’s Kiffe-Kiffe Demain.  

 

Postcolonial literature in France highlights the compelling contributions of immigrant and French writers of color. These writers problematize French engagements with issues of minority citizenship, immigrant rights, cultural assimilation, social displacement, among other issues. In the last two decades, the politicized literature of second-generation North African or beur, writers[1] such as Mehdi Charef, Azouz Begag, Ahmed Zitouni, Farida Belghoul, Soraya Nini, and a younger generation represented by Faïza Guène and Houda Rouane[2] has captivated France’s literary and cultural attention.  Preoccupied with questions of identity, racism, ghettoization within decrepit housing projects, exclusionary French republican ideals, and the social location of France’s postcolonial beur generation, this literature has also focused on the tensions within immigrant North African or Maghrebi communities in terms of cultural adaptation, gender ideologies, and interfamilial relationships. As beur literature engages with the sociological and political reality of Arabs in France, it is impossible to separate literature from the social text. Literature and sociology intersect in these works to provide a complex and creative sociopolitical document of lived experience. This literature thereby poses important questions about the multiethnic identity of France, the positionality of Arab-Muslims[3] and the French Republic’s tenuous negotiations of cultural plurality amid this diversity, while affirming the place of beur literature in the canon of contemporary French writing. As Carrie Tarr asserts: “Beurs have been the most visible, the most stigmatized and the most dynamic ethnic minority in postcolonial France” (2005, 3).

By Brinda Mehta

In his essay, “New Writing for New Times: Faïza Guène, banlieue writing, and the post-Beur generation” (2008), Dominic Thomas distinguishes between the beur and post-beur generation in terms of identity politics and literary preoccupations. While the writings of the older beur generation focused on the anxieties of assimilation and exile, together with the conflicting tensions of negotiating ancestral North African and mainstream French cultural, social linguistic, and religious spaces in an attempt to establish a sense of belonging in France, the struggles of the post-beur or third-generation are rooted exclusively in France, the only home space they know as disadvantaged French youth from the banlieue or projects. Referred to by different labels “ranging from the “banlieue” or “post-Beur” generation (Silverstein; Thomas) to “Génération Scarface” (Blumenfeld) and “young ethnics” (Begag) . . the transition to a third generation of Algerians is part of a wider realignment of social structures and identities in which national markers are of declining significance,” according to Hargreaves (1290, 2010). Establishing transnational bonds of solidarity with other disenfranchised French youth of black African, Caribbean and Asian origin, this generation affirms a de-racialized, denationalized French plurality to contest and subvert the “ethnicization and urban marginalization of the beur community” (Echchaibi 2007, 2).

 

At the same time, beur and post-beur literary and cultural production offers “a touchstone for measuring the extent to which universalist Republican assumptions about Frenchness can be challenged and particular forms of multiculturalism envisaged and valued” (Tarr 3). Similarly, Nora Barsali highlights the continued stigmatizing of this community as “des Français pas comme les autres” ([French with a difference] 2003, 5) or “des enfants issus de l’immigration” ([children born of immigration] 6), wherein the reference to immigrant origins suggests a permanent state of Othering.  As Barsali affirms: “Les Beurs souffrent d’une diabolisation qui au mieux leur interdit de jouir pleinement de leur citoyenneté, au pire les retranche dans une crise identititaire “schizophrénique” dont la revendication à une appartenance ne s’opère que par désespoir” ([Beurs suffer from a demonizing that, at best, prohibits them from fully enjoying their citizenship and, at worst, entrenches them in a schizophrenic identity crisis whose politics of claiming operates through despair only] 5). Caught between mediating tropes of marginal representation and partial identifications, the problematics of beur identity evoke a serious identity crisis resulting from what I call a “citoyenneté non partagée” or a citizenship of disaffiliation on the one hand, while questioning normative standards of French identity on the other.  Within this context, Faïza Guène’s Kiffe Kiffe Demain is a remarkably perceptive novel about the coming-of-age experiences of Doria, a Franco-Maghrebi teenager of Moroccan origin, who resides in an economically and socially disfavored Parisian housing project ironically named Paradise Estate.  Guène’s novel offers valuable youth insights into the creation of a more socially and culturally relevant France to reverse “the real problem with ethnic minority youth in France . . [which}. . . lies indeed in the gap between their successful cultural integration and the lack of their socio-economic integration,” according to Echchaibi (1).

 

In the novel, the protagonist describes her abandonment by her father, “the bearded one,” who abruptly leaves for Morocco to marry a younger woman capable of producing a male heir. In a parallel movement, she offers a simultaneous critique of Maghrebi patriarchy and the socio-economic and political disenfranchisement experienced by the residents of the “other France,” namely the Arab-Muslim working-class immigrants of North African ancestry and their second- and third-generation French born children. The novel exposes the two mutually exclusive realities of France in which these constituencies are objects of racial profiling by the French state represented by a condescending social services network and educational system. In these fractured spaces, beur children must negotiate their bi-culturality as Franco-Maghbrei citizens amid racism, social marginality, and antiquated French and Maghrebi patriarchal ideologies.  At the same time, the novel also “humanizes” stereotypical representations of the housing projects as sites of deviance and violence through a tender mother-daughter relationship and communal affiliations found in female solidarity bonds, popular music, and the sharing of food. The novel reveals the determination of mother and daughter to transcend the status quo reflected in the Arabic word kif-kif, meaning “same old-same old”, by combining the term with the French verb kiffer (to like) to create a more affirming reality for themselves: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow.

 

The protagonist’s negotiation of her bi-cultural identity exposes the hypocrisy of the French secularizing mission of an a priori universality in which all markers of difference, especially in terms of race, social status, gender, and ethnicity are suspect until they are assimilated into a homogenous national ideal of sameness. Accordingly, the politicized rhetoric of safeguarding national unity very often becomes a code word for exclusion and discrimination based on race and religion to confirm Barsali’s claim: “Il serait vain d’aspirer à une cohésion nationale tant que certaines catégories, en l’occurrence les Beurs, ces enfants d’immigrés, se sentent discriminés, non représentés, indésirables” ([It would be pointless to aspire to national unity as long as certain categories, Beurs in particular, these children of immigrants, feel discriminated against, underrepresented, undesirable] 2003, 5). Using an interdisciplinary approach including social critique, postcolonial and feminist theory, I raise the following questions in my analysis: How do immigrant Maghrebi mothers and their beur daughters question French universalism and the assimilating codes of “integration”?  What are the normative standards of French nationality and citizenship, and how are these discriminatory ideals negotiated by Franco-Arab Muslims, especially within socially circumscribed spaces like the housing projects? How are these markers of difference inscribed on the female body through the mother’s labor exploitation in the service industry and the daughter’s marginalization in school?  How do the female characters negotiate these tensions as they seek a resolution of their conflicted status in France through cultural reclaiming, spatial transgressions, and gender affirmations?

 

At the same time, the novel also problematizes the question of multiethnicity in France by revealing the “colonial fractures” that locate Arab-Muslims as permanent outsiders; they remain extraneous to French society as an attempt by France to disengage with its violent colonial past.[4] As Christian Delorme suggests: “La société française dans son ensemble montre des sentiments mitigés à l’égard de cette installation de la “maghrébité” dans la “francité”, c’est-à-dire dans l’être collectif français” ([French society as a whole demonstrates mixed feelings with regard to the setting up of North African-ness within French-ness, that is to say, in the collective French imaginary] Barsali 2003, 134). Accordingly, how are beurs, as ambiguous representatives of French (post)-colonialism, nevertheless commodified within the strictures of coloniality to exemplify partial affiliations with French postcolonial subjectivity in which colonial paradigms mediate and define their identity? What are the strategies used by beur writers to de-colonize identity through the intersecting categories of race, class, gender, culture, and nationality? The novel thereby raises broader philosophical questions about the precariousness of Arab-Muslim identity in France while providing a young Franco-Algerian author’s perspective on day-to-day life in the “other” France.[5]

 

A very early draft of Kiffe-Kiffe demain caught the attention of one of Guène’s film studies teachers, who immediately showed the preliminary outline of the manuscript to his influential sister, an editor at Hachette Littératures, one of France’s leading publishing houses. While one wonders how much (or if) the Hachette editor mediated Guène’s narrative for marketing purposes, the novel’s importance cannot be denied because of the larger social issues it addresses from a subaltern viewpoint.[6] Interestingly, many book reviews have used Guène’s young adult perspective as an excuse to gloss over the more politicized nature of the novel and its vindication of minority rights by focusing instead on its lighthearted and easily digestible aspects: “A confection that is tender, funny, and even wise,” states the New York Times’s glib publicity blurb on the English translation’s back cover. However, the novel’s interest lies in its power of suggestion hinting at what needs to be said within the interstices through social critique, cultural re-evaluations, the linguistic inversions of double entendre, and the creative modalities of back-slang street language or verlan. This postcolonial vernacular signifies the dual axes of marginalization and resistance to be discussed later.

 

A Voice from the Margins

A resident of the Parisian public housing projects in Les Courtillières, Faïza Guène is the daughter of Algerian parents from Oran. Born in Bobigny in 1985, the author’s meteoric rise to fame (before age twenty) with the publication of her first novel Kiffe-Kiffe Demain followed shortly by Du rêve pour les oufs, and Les gens du Balto can be explained by the social and political relevance of her work. Using the intimate style of a personal journal, Guène offers a young insider’s perspective into the daily struggles of the Maghrebi working class as it negotiates gender, racial, and social marginality within confining urban spaces and debilitating economic conditions.  The author combines black humor, wit, sarcasm, irony, ethnographic observation, and youthful optimism to paint a poignant landscape of the dreams, aspirations, frustrations, and humiliations of the dispossessed immigrant parents and their disenfranchised French born and raised beur children; their daily battle for social acceptability and cultural legitimacy in an unwelcoming milieu creates a situation of permanent siege within hegemonic structures of French authority.  Determined to counter dominant stereotypes and cultural misrepresentations of the “wretched of the earth,” Guène uses fiction as a powerful tool of self-claiming to give voice to the underrepresented working class Arab-Muslim minorities of France. These minorities are caught between the mediated extremes of French policies of integration and questionable citizenship on the one hand, and immigrant dystopia on the other, as stated earlier. Literature thereby provides an important counter discourse or “une autre vision de ceux qui dans leur vie quotidienne vivent le stigmate social d’être “origine étrangère,” according to Stéphane Beaud ([another vision of those, who in their everyday lives, experience the social stigma of being of foreign origin] Amrani and Beaud 2004, 231).

 

As the visible Others of French universalism, the intergenerational community of elders, children, and young adults depicted in Guène’s novels both contests and highlights the inherent racism of such normative ideals, while exposing the partial claims to citizenship afforded to France’s native born Arab-Muslim constituencies.  Guène herself describes the predicament of this in-between generation of beurs in an interview with Jason Burke in which she refuses to succumb to the dictates of a contested identity: “People say that people like me should be more integrated . . But what does that mean? I was born in France, I went to a French school, I speak French, I live in France. It is difficult to do the things that are apparently needed to be accepted if that means denying things that are a part of my culture.  It is as if – and this is a bit brutal but is true – we (children of immigrants) are told, “You are children of the republic, but you are bastard children. You are very welcome here but with the following conditions . . The great symbols of France, the cultural richness etc . . . all that is inaccessible . . It has got nothing to do with me or our lives” (4-5, 2006). Guène’s statements reveal the deep fractures and social divisions in mainstream French society. These ruptures are based on antagonistic binaries between French cultural authenticity represented by “the great symbols of France” (wine, cheese, gourmet dining, museums and cultural centers of international repute) and Arab marginality symbolized by this population’s inaccessibility to these ‘universal’ cultural signifiers of sophistication and distinction in the impoverished urban ghettos. At the same time, beur writers also resist “monocultural concepts of national identity . . Averse to national boundaries while inevitably residing within them, they cultivate supra-and sub-national identities; diasporic and global on the one hand, local on the other . . While their cultural hybridity cannot be reduced to any simplistic notion of national identity, there is nevertheless a clear realization among most of these writers that they have to work within, rather than outside, the complex dynamics that are reshaping the cultural contours of France,” according to Alec Hargreaves (Hargreaves and McKinney1997, 230, 234).

 

Consequently, beur contestations of national absolutes reveal the two realities of France created by the racial and social impasses of accessibility/non-accessibility, affiliation/ bastardization. These binaries favor unequal claims to political agency in the form of the contested nationality of French born Maghrebis for whom the m(other)country remains an elusive ideal.  This continual tug-of-war between two separate but unequal historicities (Arab and French) becomes the very source of unparalleled anguish, alienation, and desperation among the urban youth in particular, as revealed in other beur novels such as Mehdi Charef’s Le Thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed. At the same time, France’s colonial ties with North Africa, especially its 132 year long colonization of Algeria,[7] has also occasioned inverted symbiotic ties between these geographical spaces.  The visibility of Arab difference in France nevertheless remains an inassimilable tract in its refusal to conform to an integrated cultural norm; at the same time, this “resistant visibility” found in cultural signifiers such as food, language, and music as well as physical appearance also risks criminalization in the form of racial profiling and harassment.

 

Guène admits that even though cultural rituals provide the security of belonging and resistance to assimilation within the safe space of home, her incursions into public space are a frequent reminder of non-belonging in France through racism and cruel intent. As she admits to Elaine Sciolino: “We speak Arabic and watch Algerian satellite and listen to Algerian music at home . . Even what I have on my plate is Algerian.  You can’t easily just tell yourself one day you’re French.  Your’re betrayed by your face, your hair. It takes time . . [I have been called] “dirty Arab” on the streets of Paris and told to “go home,” she states (2004). The physical visibility of Arab-French difference represented by beurs undermines the mythical legality of dominant French claims to purified national roots and cultural homogeneity, a falsified illusion to first fabricate and then reject Otherness. At the same time, Guène redirects social negativity into creative possibility when she converts this socio-psychic struggle into a humanistic representation of the will to survive amid adversity. In so doing, she transforms abject spaces such as the housing projects into vibrant centers of cultural and social subjectivity. As stated by Beaud: “A la vision stéréotypée des banlieues . . les jeunes des cités “pris en otage” par les médias proposent une “contre-image” qui corresponde mieux à la réalité et qui donne surtout à penser un tant soit peu la complexité de ce monde social des cités” ([In opposition to the stereotypical vision of the suburbs . . . the young people of the projects “held hostage” by the media propose a counter image that corresponds more appropriately with reality and makes one think at least about the complexity of the social world of the projects] 2004, 230). In her novel, Guène gives prominence to the lives of the socially and racially inadmissible, especially the women of the housing projects: “It would be better if people interested themselves in what happens in the banlieues[8] for reasons other than our social conditions.  There is a richness and a creativity there as well as an enormous need to express oneself,” concludes this young social critic and cultural optimist (Burke 2006, 5).

The Parisian Housing Projects

Situated on the Parisian periphery in a disadvantaged no-man’s land separating the tourist capital of light from its suburban dystopia, the housing projects are both a reminder of France’s colonial past and its neo-colonial engagement with the residents of its former colonies and their families.[9]  These imposing multi-leveled constructions called “grands ensembles” or tower blocks were designed in the 1960s to accommodate a new style of modernist architecture destined for immigrants and the urban proletariat, the backbone of France’s labor force.  As Sylvie Durmelat indicates: “These newly built housing projects were intended to provide the working masses and migrant populations with the benefits and comforts of modern life (such as running water and electricity). . . The utopian ideal underlying this massive construction effort assumed that a new society, and a new way of life would emerge from this new functional architecture” (2001, 117).  This system of low income housing called the HLM or Habitations à loyer modéré had the functional purpose of containing France’s post World War Two foreign labor force imported most specifically from North Africa, Algeria in particular,[10] within the limits of the suburban or outer city ghetto “both to meet the pressing demand for lodging left unresolved after World War Two and to eradicate shantytowns,” according to Durmelat (117).  France’s postcolonial architecture was nevertheless based on colonial design in terms of the HLM’s dislocation from metropolitan centers; the use of substandard building material such as asbestos; inhospitable living conditions such as overcrowding, inadequate plumbing and electrical facilities; flimsy construction; light deprivation; and an absence of green spaces. Resembling the industrial prison complex, these suburban concrete jungles were also a testament to the darker side of modernity in the form of a dissimulated social and environmental racism targeting France’s disfavored Others.  Referring to the projects as “dark ghettos,” Kenneth Clark affirms: “The dark ghettos are social, political, educational and – above all – economic colonies. Their inhabitants are subject people, victims of greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt and fear” (1965, 11).

 

In other words, the housing projects in France replicate the distant colony to expose a local colonial polity at home whose racism targets French Muslims: “ces Français en mal de représentativité et de compréhension de la part de leur société d’accueil” ([these French who remain underrepresented and misunderstood by the host country] Barsali et al 2003, 7). The projects also highlight France’s rejection of the economically disadvantaged. As Echchaibi affirms: “Today the banlieue has become, through its sinister image of chaos and poverty, the contemporary colony in which France asserts its identity and reaffirms its difference. Beyond its appeal, all the social and cultural ills have been dumped on this urban abyss as the source of the cultural malaise France is experiencing” (9). In the novel, this aggression assumes a structural form in the projects when dividing walls and barbed wire create conditions of spatial apartheid for the economically and racially besieged.  As the narrator admits: “There’s still such a well-drawn line between the Paradise Estate where I live and the Rousseau housing development.  Massive wire fencing that stinks of rust it’s so old and a stone wall that runs the whole length of the divide.  Worse than the Maginot Line or the Berlin Wall” (81-82). The connections between France’s wartime fortifications along the Maginot line, the Berlin Wall, and the concrete enclosures surrounding the projects create sharp spatial divisions between insider/outsider groups by demarcating those who fall within ‘enemy’ lines as a threat to national security. These internal border zones are a way of restraining and confining ‘suspect’ populations through police surveillance and check point controls in metro stations, cafés, schools, shopping centers, streets, and other public spaces, whenever there is a perceived fear of transgression or trespassing by these groups.

 

In addition, the perverse naming of the projects as Paradise Estate creates an ironic reversal of intent. The residents of the HLM are subjected to a state of living hell for the ‘privilege’ of living in a colonially designed paradise for the unwelcome located in the marginalized banlieues or outer cities.  Paradise, for subalterns in France, represents a liminal state of abjection. This “paradise lost” or embattled war zone inhibits social transcendence and economic elevation for the urban poor and favors their moral dejection at the same time. As Mireille Rosello states: “French banlieues have become a cultural cliché, a metaphor, a shortcut for a vaguely formulated yet deeply seated malaise. Today, “banlieues” is often used in the plural, as if all banlieues were the same, and the word had lost most of its semantic territory . . . “Banlieues” now evokes one single type of urban landscape: dilapidated areas of social housing populated by a fantasized majority of “foreigners” and especially of “Arabes.” Those demonized cites are the symbolic crossroads where anti-Arab feelings crystallize around issues of housing” (1997, 240).

 

Kiffe-Kiffe Demain establishes the parallel between structural and environmental degradation on the one hand, and the social deprivation experienced by the inhabitants of the HLM on the other: “You could say the super of our development doesn’t give a shit about our towers. Luckily Carla, the Portuguese cleaning lady, gives them a quick once-over from time to time. But when she doesn’t come, they stay disgusting for weeks on end, and that’s how they‘ve been lately.  There’s been piss and globs of spit in the elevator. It stank, but we were all just happy it was working. It’s lucky we know which buttons are for which floors, because the display panel’s all scratched and melted” (2004, 29-30).[11] The abject conditions of the projects expose a system of French structural dissonance punctuated by sentiments of disregard, hatred, suspicion, and the negation of the residents who remain subsumed under globs of spit and piss. As Durmelat affirms: “Indeed, the now dominant stereotype of the banlieue-turned-ghetto seems to be another way of erasing the immigrant presence and experience from French urban spaces” (118).  These sites of exclusion and seclusion remain hidden from tourist eyes through spatial demarcations maintained by an inferior/superior, rich/poor, civilized/barbarian colonial binary of imposed deviance in which French civilization upholds its self purported distinction through the criminalization of its Others.  The novel highlights these discrepancies fuelled by biased media coverage: “But our building, and the projects in general, they don’t get so much tourist interest.  There aren’t any Japanese hordes with their cameras standing at the bottom of the towers in the neighborhood. The only ones interested in us are the parasite journalists and their nasty reports on violence in the suburbs” (116-117).

 

The novel demonstrates how the timeless wonder of the touristic Eiffel Tower is deemed worthy of commemoration in postcard immortality; in contrast, the block towers of the projects loom menacingly over a threatening/threatened landscape of socio-economic decay. The Eiffel Tower is celebrated for its unique style and cultural purchase; however, the criminality of difference represented by the forbidding block towers in the suburbs menaces the singularity of the coveted Parisian cultural chic in a non-calibrated differential between urban/suburban, bourgeois/proletarian, national/immigrant spatial liminalities.  These binaries provide a mirror image of the colonizer/colonized dialectic enforced and sustained during France’s colonial history.  The presence of France’s Arab-Muslim proletarian subjects ‘tarnishes’ an otherwise white washed colonial scheme. This agenda either erases France’s Arab-ness through discriminating laws of integration and a denial of the colonial past or confronts ethnic difference through the heavy handedness of the law, police brutality, media bias, and the colonial belief in the inherent moral regression of Arabs. Their very presence poses a ‘fundamental’ threat to the democratizing aspects of French secularism and the revolutionary ideals of the nation.

 

In reality, the development of violence among the disenfranchised youth in the borderline spaces of the projects can be seen as a reaction to continued marginalization, social neglect, economic stagnation, alienation, boredom, academic failure, and a sense of hopelessness about the future: “We worry about the future but there’s no point.  For all we know we might not even have one,” states the protagonist of the novel (13).  Violence speaks the language of despair among the suburban youth condemned to a future without social mobility rather than symbolizing the inherent delinquency of Arab-Muslims as represented by the media. As Christian Delorme states: “C’est le chômage, le fait d’être “inutile” socialement, et, économiquement, qui tue l’intégration” ([It is unemployment, the fact of being socially and economically useless that kills integration] Barsali 2003, 134). Confining architectural designs to control movement within and beyond its borders reflect the social impasses that confront this community of disenfranchised and unemployed youth.

 

Kiffe-Kiffe Demain consequently assumes a personal resonance for Faïza Guène to both de-criminalize the projects and highlight the humanity and complexity of its Arab and other inhabitants:  “Kiffe-Kiffe Demain is a necessary corrective, “ states the author.  “I was sick and tired of hearing only black stories about the suburbs, so I wrote about the trivial, daily things that happen here . . . It’s important to show that the suburbs are not only about cars that are set on fire, or girls who get gang-raped in basements” (Sciolino 2004).  Faïza Guène transforms an ordinary story into a noteworthy demonstration of the human search for exemplarity within disempowering circumstances. In the novel, the women and girls take the lead in redefining and reclaiming their lives as a reaction to their circumscribed social existence in the projects in particular, and France in general.

 

Arab-Muslim Difference in France

 

Muslims are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, where Islam has steadily become the second most influential religion after Christianity. In France itself, Muslims constitute over 12% of the population (Bernard 2004, 18).  Their growing presence has led to insecurities over issues of national belonging and secular identity that reveal “fundamental contradictions between a highly abstracted notion of universalism and the lived reality of ethnic distinction and racialized discrimination against people of non-European origins and of color,” according to Trica Danielle Keaton (x-xi, 2006).  These self-selecting universalisms of cultural normativity reveal their discriminatory intent in terms of the social, economic, religious, and political marginalization of France’s Arab-Muslim constituencies whose claims to francité or Frenchness are ironically measured solely in terms of cultural assimilation, economic deprivation, and social isolation.  As a code word for the suppression of difference in the form of a “racist humanism” (Sartre 1961, 56), French universalism or the desire for sameness implies conformity to a nationally fabricated criterion of affiliation that remains non-Muslim and non-Maghrebi in scope. Maxim Silverman attributes this obsession for an undifferentiated cultural authenticity to “a crisis in the structures of the nation-state” (1992, 33) as France suffers the angst of being absorbed into a wider European Community; the very idea of the European Union delegitimizes unitary claims to national sovereignty. Within these restrictive standards of acceptable national identity, French Muslims are subjected to the politics of disaffiliation in the home country, where they continue to be perceived as outsiders and a potential threat to national security interests through their imposed foreigner status.

 

As Etienne Balibar argues, French national identity is inextricably linked to the history of French colonialism, wherein all the inassimilable cultural differences of formerly colonized groups feed a new form of zenophobia termed “a racism without races” (Balibar and Wallerstein 32-33, 1991).  Positioning racism as another marker of French universalism, Balibar suggests that France’s ambivalence toward its non-European Others becomes a direct offshoot of colonialism creating preferential categories of favored/disfavored integration into postcolonial French society. Balibar states: “The European immigrants of the prewar period and of today are said to be ‘close’ because they came or come from ‘equal’ countries that have never been colonized by France, unlike Maghrebians, Blacks, and Asians” (1991, 58).[12]  In other words, colonialism and its resulting reactive (and exclusionary) nationalist identifications have created fractured political spaces giving Maghrebi Muslims the option of either being crushed under the weight of these colonial fractures or accommodating interstitiality by re-defining the very notion of Frenchness.

 

This “racialization of national identity” (Keaton 7) based on an inverted insider/outsider polemic subjects French Muslims to specular distortions of a non-prescriptive Frenchness.  These manufactured identities are part of a national marketing scheme to create racialized distinctions between good Frenchmen and their less than desirable Others; these manufactured identities sustain a universally ratified construction of an equally ‘imagined’ French identity that subverts transnationality in a reductive and racist French/non-French equation. Universality, as the not-so-disguised search for preserving cultural and religious homogeneity, has led to institutionalized discrimination against Muslims by negating their access to social and economic mobility. At the same time, they are subjected to a certain violence of representation through cultural stereotyping and religious profiling.  This structural violence has targeted the banlieues in particular, as highlighted in Guène’s novel. In these liminal spaces, the Franco-Maghrebi transnationality of beur youth is both demonstrated by their cultural migrations between the imposed secularism of France and the Muslim values of their immigrant parents on the one hand, and negated by criminalizing tropes of non-French social deviance on the other.  As Keaton argues: “While they are made to be seen by the public as living manifestations of every social ill, what they are not perceived as is French” (23).  Within this ambivalence, beur children must first negotiate a dual migration predicated by the alienating consequences of their parent’s immigration from the Maghreb and their own internal migrations between mutually exclusive French and Maghrebi value systems. They must later come to terms with their postcolonial identity as transcultural Franco-Arab-Muslims.[13] These individuals are nevertheless denied their postmodern national wholeness within a racialized framework of inclusion/exclusion through the code word “integration,” even though they speak French and demonstrate a stronger identification with French youth culture than the ancestral heritage of the parents or grandparents.

 

Within these interstitial spaces of indeterminate identity and social exclusion, gender roles are further complicated by a dual national and indigenous patriarchy. Regressive patriarchal politics of control and manipulation are played out on the female body through restrictive cultural dictates, national exclusions, and the immobilizing social constraints of a failing welfare system. The novel explores the interstitial spaces between absolute confinement within these structures, and resistance to marginality through the bicultural displacement of the protagonist and her immigrant mother’s quest for roots in France.  The placeless-ness experienced by mother and daughter provides a common site of struggle for economic and social independence from the colonial mindset of the welfare system, and the disengaging policies of a racist school system.  In other words, the two women politicize their outsider status by creating their own paradigms of belonging in an effort to establish a sense of home in an alienating environment.  At the same time, this effort reveals the underlying tensions involved in the process of self-definition when the colluding determinants of race, class, gender, and national disaffiliation resist Arab subjectivity, economic empowerment, and gender agency.

 

The irony of nomenclature

The novel highlights the ways in which Maghrebi immigrant mothers and their French daughters have to negotiate their multiple alienations in terms of environment, work, social integration, education, and political rights. The father’s departure for Morocco creates a certain liberating space for both women in terms of spatial mobility between the public and private spheres and the possibilities for economic independence through the mother’s employment. At the same time, the novel also exposes the resisting structures that engage women in a tug-of-war struggle for social transcendence within a postcolonial patriarchal hegemony in France and restricting socio-cultural spaces in the projects. The father’s absence is nevertheless predicated by a particular Maghrebi ‘patriarchal permissibility’ to abandon wife and family in the search for a male heir.  This search is inscribed within culturally determined gender expectations and goals. Within these cultural limits, the birth of a daughter directly contests the viability of the patriarch by instating a mother-daughter lineage in the absence of a son. The protagonist sarcastically comments on this feminine assault on the father’s sense of manhood and cultural identity: “Dad, he wanted a son. For his pride, his reputation, the family honor, and I’m sure lots of other stupid reasons. But he only got one kid and it was a girl. Me. You could say I didn’t exactly meet customer specifications. Trouble is, it’s not like at the supermarket. There’s no customer-satisfaction guarantee. So one day the Beard must have realized there was no point trying anymore with my mom and he took off. Just like that, no warning” (2).

 

The patriarchal production of female identity within male-centered paradigms of uniformity exemplified by gender role typecasting mirrors the universal French model of racial standardization in self-replicating patterns of normative hypermasculinity represented by the State and family. As Jane Freedman and Carrie Tarr argue: “And whilst the French Republican model of citizenship has been criticized for the manner in which gender has been used as a category of exclusion, there has been little discussion of the ways in which the interactions of the categories of gender and ‘race’ produce multiple exclusions . . . and have created situations of double oppressions and double dependency on men” (3, 2000). Forced to confront these competing racial, cultural, and national exclusions, the novel indicates how immigrant women and their daughters are caught in the double bind of colluding national and local patriarchies whose legislating codes define and delimit gender roles.  If the women’s successful integration into the Maghrebi household can be measured in terms of their conformity to the prescribed roles of mother (of male sons), wife, and dutiful daughter, their fortuitous integration into French metropolitan culture lies in complete assimilation and subservience to the national father as an ironic ‘liberation’ from an oppressive regime at home.  Faced with these mediated options of ‘freedom’ proposed by home and State, the women must nevertheless arbitrate their own access to subjectivity.

 

In the novel, the father’s abandonment destabilizes the patriarchal stronghold within the narrator’s family by providing the mother with access to public space and income generating potential.  As the novel indicates: “When Dad lived with us, there was no question about her working even though we were seriously broke. Because for Dad women weren’t made for working in the outside world” (107). The quotation demonstrates how spatially determined gender modalities sustain a public/private space dialectic controlled by the Law of the Father. Instead, a loving mother-daughter relationship of mutual care and support in the text redefines the very concept of the Maghrebi family in France even though the protagonist misses her father (3) and the mother remains traumatized by the suddenness of his departure. The mother experiences a dual sense of exile; first, as a disavowed Arab-Muslim woman immigrant in France who has been separated from her homeland involuntarily and second, by a brutal separation from the husband who leaves his wife for another woman.  The double loss complicates the mother’s sense of physical and psychological estrangement demonstrated by her existential disengagement from life. As the narrator explains: “ . . . my mom’s here. Well, she’s here physically. Because in her head, she’s somewhere else. Somewhere even farther away than my father” (3).  Ironically, the absence of the father as the main economic provider places mother and daughter under another form of tutelage – a paternalistic social services system.  As a substitute for the lost father, the system takes charge of the daily life of the family in an attempt to establish the parameters of state control within the privacy of home space. The family’s life is regulated by the frequent visits of social workers; these individuals adopt an attitude of colonial benevolence in relation to the socially and economically colonized subjects of the projects.  The protagonist admits: “Since the old man split we’ve had a whole parade of social workers coming to the apartment . . . Even when it’s clearly not the right time.” (7).

 

The social system’s power to regulate family welfare bases itself on the mandate to socialize France’s Others according to the ‘civilizing’ norms of French respectability and acceptability.  These norms find their social purchase in cultural stereotyping and colonial definitions of Arab alterity. The novel raises the following issues: How do Arab Muslims and, women in particular, become marketable objects of hegemonic representations in which Arab-ness is reduced to an identifiable commodity of ‘imagined’ difference? How is Arab-ness created in the French imaginary to support an exclusionary national ideal and repressive immigration policies in an attempt to both manage and define Arab-Muslim identity? How and why is Islam packaged for media consumption, especially in terms of gender? As Freedman and Tarr affirm: “These stereotyped representations, which portray women of immigrant origin as wives, mothers or daughters, supports for the process of ‘integration’ of immigrant communities into France, or ‘victims’ of patriarchal Muslim cultures, are clearly obstacles to the full understanding of the heterogeneity of identities and representations and the multiple dimensions of problems and difficulties that touch these women’s lives” (2-3). The integration/victimization binary undermines the complexity of Arab women’s lives by reducing the women to readily identifiable signifiers of uncomplicated Arab-ness. This blanket characterization of cultural and gendered homogeneity is further subjected to nationally ratified perceptions of threatening Islamic Otherness or submissive Arab female backwardness – two colonially motivated viewpoints that apparently seem to justify the French political need for assimilation.

 

The Other’s Other

Positioned as the “Other’s Other,” Maghrebi women in France are immobilized within the representational closure of the colonial gaze that subjugates them to three levels of alterity as North African/Arab-Muslim/women. This subaltern positionality is further complicated by the women’s civil status as immigrants or non-normative French citizens.  In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon refers to this form of objectification as a “crushing objecthood” in which the marginalized Other will “experience his being through others” (1967, 109). The colonial right to (mis)represent through mediated perceptions and self-serving fabrications finds its legitimacy both in the history of colonization and the stigmatized visibility of difference in postcolonial France;  Maghrebi immigrant women and their French daughters remain sandwiched between two contradictory and antagonistic State sanctioned binaries –  cultural guardian on the one hand, and medium of assimilation on the other.  Obliged to play a balancing act between these ambivalent strategies of identity politics, Muslim women are nevertheless manipulated by the cultural politics of representation through sensationalism, controversy, media control, and the packaging of fear against Islam, as revealed in the novel. Caitlin Killian argues: “”North-African and sub-Saharan immigrant women and their daughters are generating attention in France, but almost always around controversial and stereotypical issues that are sensationalized such as clitoral excision, polygamy, and veiling, issues that serve to further exoticize them. Rarely are the more mundane and constant issues they face, such as discrimination at work or which language to speak to their children, studied.  The recent interest by government officials and the French public in the integration of the second generation has led to a surge in recent studies looking at girls born in France, but the first generation remains seriously neglected” (2002, 10-11).

 

If the immigrant mothers are silenced by neglect, the daughters remain equally silenced through assimilation into mainstream culture. This integration takes the form the rejection of traditional Maghrebi cultural beliefs by the children as a way of undermining Islam and demonstrating their allegiance/submission to the secular values of the French nation. Mothers and daughters experience the burden of representation through the “debilitating impact of dominant Western representations of the Muslim woman,” (Kahf 1999, 9) that remain fixed, patriarchal in motivation, essentialist, and intransigent to change. These one sided perceptions resist the complicated realities of Muslim women in France as a way of controlling and defining their access to an accommodated Frenchness. At the same time, these stereotypes interrogate their Muslim-ness through the constructed devaluing of an equally monolithic positioning of Islam. The cultural packaging of Islam through stereotypes, fear, and frozen colonial imagery gains purchase over the subjectivity of ordinary Muslims and a “lived” sense of Islam (Geisser 2003, 115).  As Laila Lalami states: “Millions of French citizens with ancestral roots in North Africa are being told . . in order to be French, they must “integrate” by giving up that which makes them different – Islam.  The religion, however, is not regarded as a set of beliefs that adherents can adjust to suit the demands of their everyday lives but rather as an innate and unbridgeable attribute.  It is easy to see how racism can take hold in such a context” (2007). The perceived intractability of Islam further contributes to a virulent anti-Muslim racism whose anxiety generating tensions are played out on the female body.

 

Guène’s novel contests these stereotypes, while revealing the psychology of oppression experienced by immigrant mothers in a racist and capitalist social structure; the mothers occupy a marginal status in terms of their class, religion, and ethnicity.  The text nevertheless shatters the first stereotype about Arab women’s reproductive proclivity in the comments of a surprised social worker that expects to meet a large family when he enters the protagonist’s home.  As the narrator states: “Once, he told my mom that in ten years on this job, this was the first time he’d seen “people like you with only one child.” He was thinking “Arabs,” but he didn’t say so. Coming to our place was like an exotic experience for him” (8). The social worker’s comments betray their tentativeness when he is caught off guard in an unexpected circumstance negating his previously held assumptions about disruptive Maghrebi family patterns within a nuclear family system in France.  While the female body’s capacity to (re)produce an Islamic nation in France through consecutive pregnancies symbolizes the ultimate threat to the social and political order, the one-daughter/absentee father family model described in the novel also negates essentialized constructions of the patriarchal family in national and cultural discourses.  The social worker is unable to typecast the family within a prescribed framework of predictable Arab social behavior, thereby revealing gaps and contradictions in fixed sociological theories of immigrant social adaptability and family groupings.  At the same time, the valorization of female reproductive labor and the expectation to produce multiple male heirs, a potent signifier of the disallowed Maghrebi patriarchal imprint in France, also gets reversed by the family’s non-patriarchal woman-centered configuration in which “I like the times when Mom and me get a chance to have deep and interesting discussions” (73).

 

If the mother escapes the regime of patriarchal expectations within the home through the father’s departure, her working class status inscribes her within a more repressive social system of proletarian labor in a secondary market structure of exploitation and discrimination.  The mother’s employment as a cleaning woman in an outer city motel exposes an underground system of indentured servitude within a capitalist economy.  The novel reveals the mother’s abjection through commodified labor: “Not very long ago Mom started working. She cleans rooms at the Formula 1 Motel in Bagnolet while she’s waiting to find something else, soon I hope.  Sometimes, when she gets home late at night, she cries. She says it’s from feeling so tired” (5). Low pay, unreasonable working hours, a difficult commute, and physical exhaustion do not constitute a source of liberation for the mother; instead, she remains crushed by an oppressive socio-economic structure that continually reminds her of her undetermined positionality in France. She remains an unschooled female immigrant whose life has been reduced to “a kind of squiggly line. She’s not used to holding a pen” (5).  Increasing unemployment rates among Maghrebi communities together with minimal opportunities for social mobility seriously restrict the overall opportunities for work, wherein women are further limited by gender discrimination.  Their only options remain confined to an invisible service industry of domestic labor found in cleaning and care taking (Killian 2006, 61).

 

The workplace projects the limitations of home space (within the confines of the housing projects) through the machinations of extra domestic labor. This work nevertheless remains unrecognized despite its importance to the economy. In other words, the women are constrained by three intersecting axes of marginality represented by a cultural patriarchy within the home, a colonial patriarchy of socio-economic disenfranchisement within the projects, and a capitalist patriarchy at work.  In addition, the invisibility of women’s work leads to a corresponding devaluing of their identity in the form of ‘ambivalent nomenclature’ represented by the mother’s imposed work name Fatma.  The colonial regime in North Africa designated all Arab women as Fatma reducing them to a non-differentiated group; their universal Otherness was to be redefined in explicitly colonial terms irrespective of their subjective particularities.  In the novel, the transformation of the mother’s proper name “Yasmina” or fragrant flower into a utilitarian function “Fatma” reestablishes the power dynamic of the colonial paradigm to irreverently rename the gendered Other through the bonds of commercialization; the mother becomes an object of colonial patriarchal control.  The novel highlights her dual marginalization within these structures:  “Everyone calls her “Fatma” at the Formula 1.  They shout at her all the time, and they keep a close watch on her to make sure she doesn’t steal anything from the rooms. Of course, Mom’s name isn’t Fatma, it’s Yasmina” (5).  The criminality of difference in this case leads to the mother’s dehumanization and surveillance for expected/suspected delinquency. The colonization of her body through hard work and the repressive colonial gaze is also a way to regulate her Muslim difference through the deliberate defaming of a sacred name, Fatma being the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. Consequently, the mother’s social anonymity and religious defiling within the service industry further reflects the disavowed presence of the Maghrebi immigrant mothers in France. The women remain hidden behind the more visible, yet not necessarily affirming exposure given to the men and children.

 

The mother’s marginalization is further compounded by her limited knowledge of French leading to linguistic displacement as well.  The French model of universalism imposes standardized and normative proficiency in French as another basis of inclusion/exclusion based on accent, fluency, and linguistic purity. Linguistic vulnerability provides another source of exploitation when the women are unable to interpret the language of social discrimination in a foreign tongue. At the same time, the novel also demonstrates how the mother’s limited French creates an amusing and ironic reversal when she mispronounces her boss’s name. As the narrator explains: “Mr. Winner is Mom’s supervisor. He’s from Alsace . . One day he insulted her and when she got home she cried like crazy . . . That bastard Winner thought Mom was disrespecting him because, with her accent, she pronounced his name “Weener” (6).  Through her linguistic subversions, the mother creatively transforms her boss from a lofty position of omnipotence as a “winner” to a diminutive sausage or “weener” (wiener).  She unwittingly subjects the supervisor to the same derision and objectification experienced by his workers by reducing him to an easily digestible item of consumption. For a brief moment, employer and employee are placed on an equal footing through ‘immigrant accommodations’ of the French language.

 

In this way, the mother resists conformity to the colonial Fatma stereotype by unwittingly affirming her subjective insurrections against representational essentialism. On the contrary, she exposes the manipulated imagery of a “dear old la belle France” (9) frozen in the timeless ideal of “black-and-white films from the sixties. The ones where the handsome actor’s always telling his woman so many pretty lies, a cigarette dangling from his lips” (11).  The very process of immigration reveals the inherent duplicity of this mediated reality when the protagonist’s parents actually arrive in France: “Back in Morocco, my mom and her cousin Bouchra found a way to pick up French channels with this antenna they rigged up from a stainless-steel couscous maker. So when she and my dad arrived in Livry-Gargan, just north of Paris, in February 1984, she thought they must have taken the wrong boat and ended up in the wrong country.  She told me that when she walked into this tiny two-room apartment the first thing she did was throw up. I’m not sure if it was seasickness or a sixth sense warning her about her future in this bled” (11-12).  The parents’ first impressions of France do not conform to the expansiveness of the movie images in which the male actor seduces his bewitched woman with lies.  As a mirror image of the deceitful male character in the film, the colonial father also delivers a prescribed script of false hopes and promises to the immigrants in search of socio-economic deliverance in France. The beguiled immigrants are then confined to the same spatial closure represented by the immobile movie screen, where images are contained and projected within a confined space, and roles are closely determined by a powerful ‘directing’ authority.’

 

Several years later, the daughter herself gets trapped in a similar network of deception when she becomes addicted to American TV shows such as soap operas (The Young and the Restless) and idyllic family romances like Little House on the Prairie. These programs represent the white American dream of wholesome living.  Mediated images of an enchanting albeit inaccessible ‘elsewhere’ imitate the same mechanisms of seduction as the French programs that lured the parents to France in the first place.  While these highly stylized images of a perfect life filled with ‘perfect’ Hollywood style love and family structures remain out of the reach of the suburban working class and immigrants, they nevertheless create misleading and unrealistic points of identification for subaltern groups through the manipulating illusions of television. These fabricated ‘realities’ are destined to provide a quick fix escape on the one hand: “If they cut off our TV like they did with the phone, it will be too much. It’s all I have,” admits the protagonist (14). At the same time, these images create psychological dependence through a ‘virtual consumerism’ ensuring that subalterns will always be reminded of ‘their place’ in society through the overpowering and controlling potential of TV propaganda.

 

These delimiting borderline spaces define the parameters of social and physical mobility between the two opposing façades of France, wherein imposed spatial controls for Maghrebis and immigrants of color imply a sense of homelessness for the dispossessed: “ever since the first day they made the mistake of setting foot in this crappy country they thought would become theirs” (98).  If the idea of France as an alluring eldorado provides a motivating factor for immigration, this mythical notion continues to play itself out after emigration to France as a doubly elusive ideal both in the country of origin and host country. The novel highlights this inaccessibility when the narrator takes her mother to Paris for the first time: “Since Mom’s still on vacation until next week, we decided to hang around Paris together. It was actually the first time she’d seen the Eiffel Tower even though she’s been living half an hour from it for almost twenty years. Before now, she only saw it on TV, on the one o’clock news on New Year’s Day, when it’s all lit up from top to bottom and people are partying, dancing, kissing, and getting wasted. Anyway, she was seriously impressed. “It must be two or three times our building, yeah?” (116). In other words, the limitations of the ancestral bled or village inspire the trip to France. However, in France itself these limitations are reactivated within the confining projects as postmodern bleds ensuring that immigrants and their children will never lay claim to the idyllic France reserved for the favored few in power.  The thirty-minute gap dividing the glorious metropolitan city and disadvantaged outer city creates an internal border crossing for mother and daughter demarcating insider/outsider groups and legal/illegal movement between the métropole and its deflected postmodern colony.

 

The Colonial Fracture

The presence of a ‘third world’ settlement in the Parisian suburb remains a part of the colonial residue, a gaping wound that “grates against the first and bleeds.  And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again” (Anzaldúa 1999, 25). These lesions reflect a permanent state of crisis experienced by the residents of the projects whose very survival in such debilitating circumstances represents an act of resistance. The reference to the wound highlights both the wounding of the colonial imaginary represented by the crushing French defeat in Algeria as well as the wounds of neo-coloniality borne by diasporic and French Arabs in the projects.[14]  The spatial segregations between city and internal colony are reminiscent of colonial spatial segregations between the French Ville Nouvelle or colonial city and the medina or Arab quarters in the former French colonies. In Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon associates these divisions with a form of spatial apartheid when he affirms: “The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity.  Obedient to the rule of Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible” (Fanon 1963, 39).  These fault lines are in turn sustained by glaring economic disparities in a twisted syllogism of wealth and whiteness. As Fanon argues: “This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species. The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality, and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities . . In the colonies the economic sub-structure is also a super-structure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich” (Fanon 163, 40). In other words, the ‘economization’ or the ‘price’ of colonial whiteness becomes the credo for racism and labor exploitation justified by the transcendental value of whiteness as evidence of “belonging to a given race” (40).

 

These racialized truisms are further inscribed within a historical context of physical conquest and domination embedded within the ruptures of French colonial history in the Maghreb in general, and Algeria in particular. As Alec Hargreaves and Mckinney assert: “Algerians, the largest minority ethnic group in France, are also the most distrusted and disliked by the majority population. This is in no small measure due to the images of racial inferiority and enmity inherited from over a century of colonization and almost eight years of guerilla warfare that brought France itself to the brink of civil war” (1997, 18). This imposing defeat by an African nation preceded by the earlier French debacle in Indochina at the hands of another non-European region undermines France’s implicit claims to white supremacy in the ego-bruising eventuality of colonial history’s deep seated fractures.  The editors of the volume La fracture coloniale associate the colonial fracture with the inherent tensions and symptoms of postcoloniality emerging from France’s persistent negation of its violent colonial past and successive failures in the ‘third world.’ The violence and traumas of history have nevertheless been sublimated by the colonial nostalgia for a forgotten era of imperialist glory (Blanchard, Bancel, and Lemaire 2005, 14) termed “nostalgéria” by Benjamin Stora (2005, 62). Unable to deal with the shock of decolonization especially in terms of Algerian independence, this denial has lead to a serious identity crisis provoked by the amnesic disassociation of the history of colonization from French national history.

 

This schism has been projected onto Algerians and Arab-Muslims in general through the perceived incompatibility between ‘authentic’ Frenchness and North Africanness together with the difficulties involved in claiming both identities as a form of French transculturality. Disjunctions between maghrébité and francité undermine the construction of complex postcolonial identities through a negating either or binary expressed ironically in the very title of Mourad Ghazli’s memoir, Ne leur dites pas que je suis Français ils me croient Arabe ([Do not tell them I am French, they think I am Arab] 2006). In this work, the author demonstrates how he is unable to claim his frenchness and Arab identity simultaneously when he is forced to choose between competing ethnicities: “je perdais ma qualité de Français, je devenais un Arabe,” ([I was losing my Frenchness, I was becoming an Arab] 34) he remarks. Ghazli’s identity remains fractured by a power-inflected binary that denies ontological wholeness.

 

Instead, the tenacious (and simultaneous) adherence to the oblivion-inducing machinations of colonial nostalgia and the latent fear of confronting the ‘truth’ of postcoloniality have fuelled the fires of racism against Arabs in the form of a certain negation of being, also highlighted in Guène’s work. Commenting on the precarious positioning of Arab identity, Didier Lapeyronnie states: “Son identité est construite contre lui par la société à laquelle il appartient, elle lui est à la fois, imposée et interdite. Se revendiquer “arabo-musulman” est en quelque sorte revendiquer sa propre condamnation, sa propre humiliation” (His identity is constructed against him by the society to which he belongs, it is at once imposed and forbidden. Claiming one’s Arab-Muslim identity is, to some extent, claiming one’s own condemnation] 2005, 213). This dialectic of avowal/disavowal mirrors France’s tenuous negotiation of its own historicity, wherein the claiming of Frenchness is predicated by a subsequent erasure of difference. This erasure represents a defensive strategy on the one hand, and a coping mechanism to deal with the ‘return of the repressed’ symbolized by France’s growing Arab populations. Comparable to a gangrenous wound that oozes its toxicity, this past consequently concretizes itself in the present through historical segregations between colonial and contemporary French history, the virulent racism and growing popularity of Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front party and its anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politics, the mediated representations of the banlieues, (Stora 2005, 61-62) and the disengagement with subaltern rights through the growing impasses in the lives of French Arabs. As a result, “ces citoyens partagaient une “blessure,” un ressentiment collectif vis-à-vis de la mère patrie prise en flagrant délit de contradictions, oscillant du paternalism colonialiste à la stigmatisation,” according to Barsali ([these citizens shared a “wound,” a collective resentment against the mother country caught in the flagrant offence of contradictions, swinging from colonial paternalism to stigmatization] 2003, 7). The novel seems to indicate that Arabs in France are being forced to pay the price for Algeria’s independence as a form of psychological reparation even today, thereby absolving the need for French guilt or accountability for its ravaging colonial regimes in North Africa. As Anne Donadey states: “Any analysis of anti-Arab racism and the “immigrant question” in France must take into account the historical and psychological scars the Algerian war has left on the French collective unconscious. Unfortunately, the war is rarely factored into studies of immigration” (1996, 221). Donadey attributes the current anti-Arab racism or “arabicide” in France to “an aftermath of memory,” “a replay of the rift” created by the war of independence (223).

 

Diasporic Solidarity

Afflicted by the wounds of coloniality, the scars borne by French Arabs are temporarily healed by the strong sorority bonds between the novel’s women of the projects – the mother, daughter, Aunt Zohra, and the new friends the mother acquires when she leaves her job to go to school at the insistence of her daughter. These women create an extended family in France: “Mom’s started her new training. She likes it a lot, from what she tells me. She even made friends with two other women: a Moroccan from Tangier and a Norman grandmother Mom calls “Jéquiline.” I guess Jacqueline’s the teacher. It reminds me that my mom’s social” (81). The new program to acquire literacy skills enhances the mother’s self esteem by ‘educating’ her about her ontological value as opposed to the dehumanization she suffers in the previous job, where she was obliged to get up “at five o’clock in the morning to work in some cheapskate motel and wreck her health” (72).  The mother acquires the necessary self-confidence to become more outgoing; she overcomes the anguish of being an easily replaceable commodity in a proletarian economy to finally see herself as a valuable individual.

 

In addition, the solidarity bonds with other women provide an occasion to create new kinship ties in France in the form of an extended diasporic family. The new family provides a coping strategy to deal with the trauma of separation from the homeland and adapt to an alienating individualistic life style in France.  The narrator marvels at the change in her mother: “The way Mom’s changed in a year.  Seeing her getting better every day, fighting for both of us to live, has started me thinking it’ll all work out and maybe I’ll be lucky and be like her” (166).  The mother’s sense of mobility between French and Arabic becomes a tool to mediate her own bi-culturality as an immigrant in France. It also provides her with the necessary knowledge needed to survive in a confounding foreign environment. Through this newly found sense of autonomy, the mother discards the statistical anonymity of her Fatma status to assume her individuality as the blossoming Yasmina.  Yasmina’s cultural migrations between French and Arabic reflect a new imagining of Frenchness that goes beyond reductive exceptionalisms, wherein the consciousness of self parallels the politicization of one’s identity. The mother consequently defies the political ploy of maintaining immigrants in a requited cycle of social subjection; very often, immigrants are forced to internalize oppression through self-negation and cultural isolation as an impediment to their social transcendence.  At the same time, the novel also disrupts totalizing perspectives on French oppression by partially crediting the mother’s transformation to the sensitivity, professional skills, and friendship of the Norman schoolteacher; this character’s ethics of care and female empowerment humanize the otherwise impersonal social services system.

 

The mother’s selfhood is further strengthened by the link between identity and community. Yasmina insists on taking her daughter to an annual street fair organized in the Livry-Gargan project as a sign of communal and diasporic affiliation with Maghrebis in France.  This ‘imagined’ family provides strength in numbers and compensates the disruption of family life within her own home as a result of the husband’s departure. Moreover, the novel subverts the one-dimensional representations of the projects as sites of terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and social regression by focusing on the ordinariness of the residents and their joyful celebration of family events: “Every year people start preparing way in advance for the Livry-Gargan summer fair.  Parents, kids, and especially the neighborhood gossips .  . This year there were plenty of games for the kids, food stands with mint tea and sweet Middle Eastern pastries, Elie’s barbecued merguez sausages and fries (Elie’s like our neighborhood social planner), plus a stage with bands playing one right after the other .  . . Afterward, Mom and me headed over to see Cheb Momo.  He’s been singing at the Livry-Gargan summer fair every year since 1987, with the same musician, same synthesizer, and, of course, same songs.  It’s not too bad because everybody ends up knowing all the words by heart, even the people who don’t speak a word of Arabic” (43-44).  The permanence of an annual ritual is a sign of hope for the community that seeks comfort in the familiarity of food and music.  The security of communal rituals tempers the isolation of contemporary French living by providing cathartic tastes and sounds as enduring lifelines between home and diaspora.

 

Within the safe space of the street fair, Maghrebis transcend the stigma of minority status by establishing their own cultural parameters through a participatory ethic found in Cheb Momo’s sing-along melodies. Meanwhile, Elie’s social planning for the event reconstitutes a microcosmic Maghreb in France enabling parents and children to socialize freely across the Maghreb’s different geographical spatialities, and within the multi-ethnic spaces of the French project.  Arabs can congregate openly and sing loudly in Arabic without fear of police interference for alleged ‘suspicious’ activity, thereby experiencing momentary relief from the tensions of everyday living in France.  The overt demonstration of Arabness in a public space represents a crucial political intervention in matters of cultural identity; France’s working-class Arabs can negate dominant stereotypes by participating in peaceful cultural insurrections against marginality through the regularity of ritual.

 

Beurettes in France

The sense of Maghrebi community has particular bearing on gender ideologies and their regulation by cultural norms, identity, and social adaptability. The continued marginalization of Maghrebi men in the public sphere through racism, discrimination, unemployment, and poverty creates a Fanonian “nervous condition” acted out on the female body. Daily aggressions against Arab-Muslim men find their source in criminalized representations of them as terrorists, fundamentalists, and militants.  These mediated images have been fashioned by the colonial imaginary as a result of the successful guerilla tactics used during the Algerian War of Independence (1958-62); the steady rise of Islam in Europe; the postmodern media vilification of Arabs after 9/11; a male inspired culture of fear unleashed by religious revivalists and the military during the Algerian civil wars of the 1990s; and ‘terror inspiring’ notions of Palestinian suicide bombers and Iraqi insurgents.  In addition, the sense of hopelessness experienced by young Arab men in the projects and their ‘defiant delinquency’ as a response to social marginality and continued police harassment have given rise to a corresponding policing of gender; this is an attempt by the men to reclaim their threatened masculinity in France. A father-son complicity to reinstate authority within the home in the face of an increasing loss of control on the outside manifests itself in punitive domination over daughters “who continually walk a swaying tightrope in being the transcultural teenagers that their social locations have fashioned,” according to Trica Keaton (6). The transculturality of the daughters ironically poses an immediate threat to the cultural and religious integrity of the disfavored immigrant family by providing the scope for assimilation into a non-Muslim, non-Arab social reality in France through schooling, friendships and interactions with children of other ethnicities, and interfaith activities. These extra-familial activities are deemed suspect as they undermine family honor through a violation of cultural codes of respectability and gender imposed norms of propriety. If mothers are deprived of spatial mobility through their confinement to domesticity, the French daughters pose the ultimate threat to Maghrebi patriarchy by their transcultural spatiality beyond the limits of home space.

 

In other words, the social confines of the housing projects delimit gender roles in a social exclusion/gender seclusion parallel.  As Keaton explains: “Certain Muslim girls must navigate an additional layer of gender constraints attached to competing home, neighborhood, and school expectations.  They must also develop strategies to cope and exist within those often incompatible arenas, sometimes to their own peril.  These circumstances make the politics of their existence highly complex and in some ways unique.  Their assertions of being French, at some level in these identity politics, foreground rights that they have yet to actualize fully as French citizens, or even, at times, to comprehend” (194). In the novel, the narrator offers a critique of these complicated gender conventions impacted by immigration, the loss of parental control over French children, the continued negation of Islam, and patriarchal inscriptions of a culturally sanctified domestic power. The novel demonstrates how the structured violence against the disfavored Muslim men of the projects actualizes itself against Muslim girls in particular through the example of Samra who remains victimized by a dual father/brother oppression: “In my building, there’s a girl being held prisoner on the tenth floor.  Her name is Samra and she’s nineteen. Her brother follows her everywhere.  He stops her from going out and when she gets back from school a bit later than normal, he grabs her by the hair, then the dad finishes the job . . . In their family, the men are kings.  They do serious close surveillance on Samra, and her mom can’t say anything, can’t do anything. So it’s truly bad luck to be a girl” (83).  The men establish their authority as kings within the privacy of domestic space; they impose their own sense of victimization in public space on vulnerable mothers and daughters through a cyclical pattern of violence as a form of symptomatic aggression.  It is misleading to associate this violence with an Islamic cultural mandate exclusively instead of examining the underlying causes of violence created by dysfunctional social systems undermining the holistic integrity of disfavored populations.[15]

 

At the same time, the narrator also reveals the attitudinal violence of the community in the form of its tacit complicity and indifference to these injustices against women, thereby demonstrating the compatibility between colluding standards of familial and communal honor: “When Samra was locked up at home in her concrete cage, nobody talked about it, like they found it completely normal. And now that she’s managed to free herself from that dictator of a brother and torturer of a father, people are condemning her. I don’t get it” (85). Within complicit family and group expectations, women bear the sole responsibility of acting as the purveyors of culture; the non-transgressive compliant female body becomes the yardstick for measuring the family/community’s overall viability in terms of its diasporic minority status in France.  In such instances of socio-cultural and political ambivalence, a ‘threatened’ community will close ranks internally by imposing regulatory controls on the movement of the women within and beyond its circumscribed spaces in the projects. As Guène states in her interview with Jim Wolfreys in the Socialist Review: “The main problem these men have more so than the women, is that outside the areas where they live they are devalued. That’s why inside they try to exert their authority over women. Because outside they’re devalued all the time in school, at work, even when they go out in the evening.  All that plays a role, and that shouldn’t be forgotten or camouflaged . .  the mistakes of the past are making themselves felt today” (2006, 5). These cultural restrictions find their legitimization in strict male centered interpretations of religious and cultural codes à la lettre in terms of dress, behavior, socialization, and spatial movement leading to a corresponding sense of female disinheritance. As the protagonist admits to herself: “But if I was a boy, maybe it would be different . . It would definitely be different” (161).

 

However, the narrator also complicates the representation of the young men of the projects by highlighting their complexity.  For example, her dope smoking friend Hamoudi introduces her to the beauty of Rimbaud’s poetry, and a classmate Nabil offers to help with math tutoring. In fact, Nabil inspires the narrator in her quest for an empowering future: “I have to spend less time with Nabil,” she concludes. “It’s giving me serious democratic fever” (179). Both men ultimately become the narrator’s most trustworthy and supportive friends; in fact, Hamoudi acts as a caring father figure who demonstrates so much tenderness and genuine concern for the narrator’s well-being that she admits: “If Hamoudi was a little older, I’d have liked him for my dad” (20).  By resisting the stereotype of Arab-Muslim men as the universal oppressors of women, the novel focuses on the social conditions that motivate human behavior rather than subscribing to prefabricated mis-representations of Arab men based on hegemonic bias and media intentionality. As Stéphane Beaud asserts: “Il s’agit bien . . de lutter contre l’image des “jeunes immigrés” . . . qui s’est imposée aujourd’hui dans les médias où ces derniers incarnent, pour le dire vite, la “figure du mal”: d’origine arabe et de condition socialement défavorisée, ils sont le plus souvent montrés ou décrits comme “machos,” provocateurs, agressifs, voire violents, potentiellement susceptibles de basculer du côté de l’islam radical et du terrorisme” ([It is a question . . . of fighting against the image of young immigrants . . . that has been imposed today by the media, where the latter incarnate, in a nutshell, the “symbol of evil”: of Arab origin and socially disfavored, they are most frequently represented or described as “macho”, agitators, aggressive, even violent, potentially capable of swinging over to a radicalized Islam and terrorism] 2004, 208). In other words, the men are subjected to the violence of mediated representation. They are immobilized within racist categories of social deviance, non-respectability, and macho behavior, characteristics that delimit their overall access to self-representation.

 

Social abjection and revolution

The structural inequities of the projects are replicated in the school system, a further reminder of the disfavored status of France’s ‘other’ children.  Located in the most disadvantaged areas of working class neighborhoods, these schools follow a colonial model of educational disengagement to alienate and isolate the children of the projects through a curriculum of enforced non-belonging.[16] The narrator admits: “Whatever, I want to drop out.  I’ve had enough of school. It gets on my nerves and I don’t talk to anybody” (18).  The school ensures a high drop out rate by providing a socially and culturally irrelevant education managed by disinterested teachers who “don’t give a shit about our homework. I’m sure they don’t even read any of it. They just stick on a random grade, rearrange the papers, and go back to sitting on their leather couches between their two kids”(18). Supported by class and racial hierarchies, these schools for the dispossessed or défavorisés do not favor universal ideals of enfranchisement for all French citizens. Instead, as Keaton claims: “It becomes, therefore, not only interesting but critical to connect identity politics with social institutions in order to demonstrate more broadly how those very politics – structured by those institutions – contribute to maintaining a status quo, despite resistance to it” (13).  These schools reinforce the disenchantment of the youth by further highlighting the impasses in their lives through low expectations, disciplinary control, and a syllabus of compliance.  Like the welfare system and the proletarian labor market, schools enforce a level of psychological dependency/despondency by guaranteeing the imminent failure of students. Homi Bhabha equates the school’s power to disenfranchise and demoralize with its “governmentability” (1997, 70) and ability to create an educational protectorate for the socio-economically colonized. These curricular and administrative restrictions reveal the imperialistic tendencies of these colonial schools that impose alien systems of learning on those who have the least to benefit from such a unilateral enforcement of authority. Failure in school and a series of low paying, temporary, and dead end jobs leave the protagonist in a state of heightened anxiety and insecurity about the future to the point whereby “sometimes I think about death. I even dream about it. One night I was at my own funeral” (13).

 

This sense of desperation highlights a broader polemic within contemporary French society focusing on the place of beurs and their postcolonial identity amid colonial circumstances.  Alec Hargreaves reveals the vexed postcolonial predicament of beurs when he states: “The cohabitation within the beurs of conflicting aspirations derived from their bi-cultural conditions makes the construction of a coherent sense of personal identity a highly problematic process” (1991, 21).  Inner conflicts and unresolved tensions characterize the daily lives of beurs who are constantly reminded of their outsider status, while the young women are further alienated by conflicting gender prescriptions, as stated earlier.  Excised from the national imaginary, beurs are being forced to choose between competing French and Arab allegiances to establish a sense of home in France, the only home they know as French citizens. However, claims to the national home do not represent universal rights of ownership ironically.  As Keaton points out: “And while such young people are taught that France is their country, indeed their homeland, this idea becomes a metaphor for hypocrisy when home is an immense, multistory housing project” (59).  In fact, the decaying school system and the dilapidated housing projects represent living vestiges of the colonial residue to interrogate France’s continued engagement with coloniality and its hypocritical claims to democratic citizenship.

 

Vernacularity and Subaltern Rights

At the same time, the projects invite an important discussion on vernacularity and subaltern subjectivity through the mode of resistance, political enfranchisement through voting, and the possibility for an “intelligent revolution” (Guène 179) led by the narrator.  Grant Farred offers the following definition of vernacularity: “Vernacularity is the language of the Other that, while conscious of its difference and Otherness, stands as a form of singular intervention” (2003, 15).  The vernacular, as an effective ‘subalternspeak’, represents the political interventions of the popular in matters of social justice and cultural legitimacy through a radicalized positionality. As a response to and contestation of marginality, vernacularity articulates the language of social protest in popular parlance, a street tongue that undermines the bourgeois standardization of French through linguistic ‘corruptions’ capable of “sullying our beautiful language” (142). According to the narrator’s teacher Madame Jacques: “It’s the faaaaulttt of people like yooouu that our Frrrench herrritttage is in a coma!” (143). In this case, the vernacular facilitates linguistic subversions of French, the very core of purist notions of French identity and nationality. At the same time, it highlights the ossification of French culture in outdated ideals of authenticity that do not reflect the changing social realities of France.

 

Anthony Lodge argues in French: From Dialect to Standard: “For many French people their language has come to stand for French national identity, French culture, and France’s position in the world” (1993, 6).  Lodge’s formulation of “an ideology of the standard” remains particularly relevant in France. This ideology is based on normative binaries affirming the superiority of the written over the spoken, of uniformity over variation, and standardization over non-standardization (1993, 15).[17]  The vernacular consequently represents an interruption in these resistant cultural paradigms by voicing the popular in the language of “political oppositionality” (Farred 7). This articulation creates new spaces for ideological revolutions that undermine the status quo through an oppression/resistance dialogic. The invention of a new language by the socially dominated is a way to de-center the exclusionary paradigms of bourgeois French represented by the teacher’s ability to trill the French ‘r’ to a point of perfection as another way of discriminating against ‘non proficient’ French-speaking ethnic minorities.

 

Interestingly, verlan as a vernacular tongue is an ingenious way of reversing these normative absolutes of identity and linguistic propriety through ‘irreverent’ implosions within the French language as acts of redefinition and reaffirmation. If standardized French sustains itself through hierarchical oppositions framed within a good French/bad French dialectic, then verlan resists this duality by figuring a third space of resolution.  The street slang mode of verlan or langue verte consists of inverting or reversing terms to create new systems of signification that mirror the continually renewed and shifting paradigms of identity. Resisting stasis in confining paradigms of identity, verlan is an attempt to go beyond the literalness of meaning by creative neologisms that expand and extend the limits of academic French and limited paradigms of Frenchness. If the word Arabe signifies cultural marginality and represents a justification for Islamophobia, the reversal of the terms into beur is an attempt to go beyond colonially determined categorizations by claiming transnationality.  If, in turn, the nomenclature beur is being appropriated by neo-liberal multicultural discourses, then a further inversion of the term into rebeu reflects a heightened desire to reject conformity to a stereotype.

 

Verlan is consequently a marker of place and identity for disenfranchised youth by enabling them to claim a sense of belonging found in a disruptive language that reflects the unpredictable disruptions and fluxes in their own lives.  As an embodied tongue, “it’s the best way of getting her to understand how I’m feeling, “ states Doria (168). This vernacular language fills the void of homelessness experienced in France by reversing a disempowering circumstance into a creatively affirming locus of being. With a particular vernacular, each individual constructs their own personal narrative to make sense of the world around them, while establishing the legitimacy of their identity. In other words, verlan represents a particular border language that actively hybridizes French through indeterminate vocabularies, syntactical dis-order, and a nomadic referentiality traversing France and the Maghreb. This strategy of reclaiming is further underscored by the insertion of Arabic words into French to create a more familiar/familial relationship with French on the one hand, while linguistically de-colonizing the oppressor’s tongue on the other.  This language fills the void of homelessness by creating the necessary discursive space within which feelings of alienation and loss are de-centered by a self-generated linguistic rapprochement between and among the dispossessed.

 

In this way, vernacularity marks the progression from despondency to hope for the narrator as it cultivates her growing political consciousness simultaneously.  She states: “I’m still missing lots of stuff. And lots of things need changing around here . . . Hey, that gives me an idea. Why don’t I go into politics? “From highlights to high offices: It’s only one step . . . “ That’s the kind of slogan that sticks.  I’ll have to think up some more along those lines, like those quotes you read in history books in third grade, like that joker Napoleon who said: “All conquered people need a revolution” (179). Developing a certain vernacular consciousness regarding subaltern rights through the reclaiming of language, the narrator turns French history on its head. She de-mystifies the loftiness of elitist historical narratives based on acts of colonial infamy committed in the name of civilization and progress by calling for a rewriting of history from a vernacular perspective, wherein “like Rimbaud said, we will carry in us “the sobs of the Infamous . . . the clamor of the Damned” (179).  The ideological shift from the violent Napoleon to the 19th century poet Rimbaud who revolutionized archaic poetic forms through creativity signals a new form of dissidence[18] as a way of imagining a more peaceful and socially relevant France: “It will be an intelligent revolution, with no violence, where every person stands up to be heard. It’s not just rap and soccer in life” (179). The narrator’s idealistic stance for change calls for the transformation of an entire mindset through creative action, whereby the “damned” will rise up against their imposed oppression through a more artistic form of dissidence found in historical revisions, cultural affirmations, and engaged literature.  This creative call to arms provides the ultimate catharsis for the subaltern’s claims to humanity as a politicized consciousness-raising strategy, and a social call to non-violent activism.

 

Identifying the projects as the locus of creative energy and political expediency, the new revolution moves beyond violence “by its ability to speak popular resistance and popular culture to power” (Farred 12) through a transformative un-learning of coloniality. The act of creative dissidence is a movement toward transcendence for the disenfranchised through innovative resistance found in vernacular writing and other forms of subaltern expression. This creativity finds its most successful outlet in the cultural mixity that emerges from the projects that nevertheless continue to be characterized by the mainstream media as “quartiers difficiles” or difficult neighborhoods.  This “creativity in-difference” aligns the banlieue with “the American urban ghettos from which surge rap artists, sports heroes and an underground culture of popular street fashions, jargons, literature, and political attitudes. This new appealing dimension of a underground French culture, which, according to its critics, mixes purity with esoteric cultural forms like borrowing words from foreign languages, submitting the French language to creole rap lyrics, and adopting new foods and fashion styles from foreign cultures, is increasingly . . . a threat to the integrity of France and its political and philosophical projection of the nation” (Echchaibi 8-9). The “threat” of a more pertinent and transnationally articulated Frenchness articulated by the margins through popular modes of cultural production is inscribed within the tenants of “dissident citizenship,” defined by Holloway Sparks as “the practices of marginalized citizens who publicly contest prevailing arrangements of power by means of . . . creative oppositional practices,” 1997, 75). Dissident citizenship is a form of creative democratic praxis to fight exclusion, invisibility, and negativity within the dominant polity through a participatory cultural, social, and political ownership of French society that can no longer be confined to an elusive and ironically reversed minority of elitist “Français de souche” (pure blooded French).

 

At the same time, Guène does not condemn the violence that represents the subaltern’s cry against continued marginality: “I don’t want to set myself up in opposition to those who are burning things. I don’t condemn them at all. I support them. I’m lucky to have this means, this tool, to express myself, this facility with words that they don’t necessary have, so they express themselves in other ways,” she tells Wolfreys (2006, 2). Echchaibi describes the motivation behind the 2005 riots that have been couched in exclusively religious and racial terms in the rhetoric of neo-conservative intellectuals. Echchaibi states: “The 2005 suburban riots in Paris have exposed the languid narrative of the universalist republican model and weakened the hereto -fore widely celebrated French ethos that ethnic and religious differences simply evaporate in public life. While the riots were neither racially nor religiously motivated, despite numerous interpretations to the contrary, they were primarily orchestrated by minorities of North and West African descent, mostly in their teens. Most of the rioters . . . claimed they did so not because they have no desire to integrate, but mostly because their decrepit banlieues often remind them that the universalist ideals – liberté, egalité, fraternité they have imbibed since their first schooling day do not apply to them. The real problem with ethnic minority youth in France lies indeed in the gap between their successful cultural integration and the lack of their socio-economic integration” (1).  Consequently, revolutionary synergies found in writing and fighting back script the language of dispossession in which “at last we’re making ourselves heard” (Guène in Wolfreys 2006, 2). Words as action and actions as an expressive language highlight the complementary workings of vernacularity in its attempts to both expose the appropriating intent of the colonial tongue and claim a new ‘idea’ of French citizenship articulated by the next generation. The novel nevertheless ends on a note of youthful resolution about the future, a possible sign of hope against the continued marginalization of the urban poor including beurs and their immigrant parents in France today. In any case, Kiffe Kiffe demain takes the initiative to imagine other forms of revolution through the discursive power of literature and different forms of cultural resistance emerging from the projects. These discursive tropes incite their own symbolic insurrections against dominance from a gendered subaltern perspective, “even rap lyrics with a philosophical slant,” admits the narrator (82).

 

In conclusion, Faïza Guène’s novel provides a complex perspective on daily life in the Parisian housing projects, where Maghrebi residents and French citizens struggle to overcome the vicissitudes of their working class existence within racist paradigms of French dominance.  Her characters elude stereotypes by acting ‘unconventionally’ to negate imposed representations and preconditioned cultural dispositions.  Highlighting the overlapping oppressions that dominate these communities, the author is also careful to affirm the subjectivity of her protagonists to avoid facile characterizations of uncomplicated victimization.  Written from an insider perspective, Kiffe Kiffe demain celebrates the grit of an entire community as it accommodates and contests assimilation, while searching for new models of French belonging.  These residents of the “other France” nevertheless mark their presence on the French landscape through cultural tenacity, literary productivity, and religious integrity to highlight the need for transforming the multi-ethnic spaces of France into a national safe space for immigrants, citizens, and residents alike. The narrator imagines this new beginning as a politicized site of reclaiming in the concluding section of the novel: “It’s what I used to say all the time when I was down, and Mom and me were suddenly all on our own: “kif-kif tomorrow,” same shit, different day. But now I’d write it differently. Spell it “kiffe kiffe tomorrow,” borrow from that verb kiffer, for when you really like something or someone. Oh yeah. That one’s all mine” (178).

 

 

 

 

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[1] According to Alec Hargreaves: “Beur is a name popularly applied to the sons and daughters of North African immigrants.  The term was formed by inverting the syllables which make up the word ‘Arabe.’ A longer-established label is that of ‘second-generation immigrants’, but as most of those concerned were born in France, this is something of a misnomer, for they have never migrated from one country to another. In their daily lives the Beurs have, however, been compelled to migrate constantly between the secular culture of France and the traditions carried with them by their Muslim parents from across the Mediterranean” (1991, 1). At the same time, many beurs have also rejected the term because of manipulated media associations of the word with violence and suburban decrepitude in the housing projects.  See Sylvie Durmelat’s article, “Petite histoire du mot ‘beur.’” French Cultural Studies 9.2 (June 1998): 191-207. Also consult Michel Laronde’s Autour du roman beur. Paris: L’Harmattan. 1993.

[2] Houda Rouane’s novel Pieds blancs is a tongue-in-cheek claiming of beur positionality in France. The term pieds noirs refers to French settlers born and raised in North Africa. In an ironic inversion, pieds blancs establishes the political and social locatedness of beurs as French born citizens.

[3] It must be pointed out that all North Africans are not Arab or even Muslim.  These populations also include Berbers from Kabylia and the region of the Rif mountains, Christians, and Sephardic Jews. As Alec Hargreaves and Mike McKinney argue: “These differences are completely effaced in everyday French usage of the word Arabe, which is applied indiscriminately to virtually anyone connected with the Maghreb other than the pieds-noirs…In a wider sense, Arabe is used more or less interchangeably with Musulman (Muslim) to cover people of Middle Eastern appearance (not all of whom are Arabs, or, for that matter, Muslims) along with Maghrebis” (1999, 19).

[4] Berbers also face similar discrimination. However Arab-Muslims continue to be viewed as the ultimate threat to French secularism due to the fears engendered by religious revivalism and the growing popularity of Islam in Europe despite its vilification in dominant discourses.

[5] Beurs have been impacted by the Méhaignerie and Pasqua laws of 1993 together with the Debré law of 1997.  According to this legislation, “the restriction of access to French nationality for the French-born children of foreign parents meant that young people of Maghrebi descent whose parents had not claimed French nationality themselves were obliged to apply for it once they reached the age of sixteen”, according to Tarr (2005, 7).  These laws subsequently subjected the children to the insecurity of un-belonging in France; an application for citizenship did not automatically guarantee the right of citizenship for this French-born generation further contributing to its ambivalence and resentment toward the French state. At the same time, France has also witnessed the emergence of a growing “beurgoisie” or beur middle class of professionals, politicians, artistes, and intellectuals who are making vital contributions to France’s cultural and social landscape.

[6] It is completely erroneous to assume that a young adult perspective is necessarily mediated or in need of mediation by an authorizing figure such as the film professor and the Hachette editor.  The viewpoints of suburban youth constitute a vital social text representing a minority voice that ‘speaks its condition’ in the language of social protest.

[7] See Benjamin Stora. La gangrène de l’oubli: la mémoire de la guerre d’Algérie. Paris: La Découverte. 1991.

[8] Banlieues refers to the French suburbs. Since the 1980s, the term has been “widely used to denote disadvantaged urban areas with dense concentrations of minority ethnic inhabitants” (Hargreaves 2007a, 139).

[9] All the residents of the projects are not exclusively Arab-Muslim.  This population also includes sub-Saharan Africans, Caribbeans, working class whites, and other ethnicities. However, this paper focuses on Arab-Muslims given the cultural context of the novel.

[10] The North African presence in France, Algerian in particular, is the result of French colonization and subsequent decolonization that brought waves of migrant labor through flexible immigration control laws.  In need of a cheap work force to revitalize its economy after the destructive economic impact of World War Two, “in 1947, France granted a new status to her largest North African colony, Algeria, which gave the Muslim majority of the population equal freedom of movement alongside the settler minority,” according to Hargreaves (1991, 9). An overwhelming number of Algerians took advantage of this ‘mobility’ to go to France in search of work and soon began to outnumber the European migrants of Italian, Portuguese, and other origin, a social phenomenon that was not welcomed by France.  Algerian migration ironically increased after the country’s independence in 1962 to constitute a significant part of the proletarian labor force in France even today.

[11] Kiffe-Kiffe Tomorrow. English translation of novel by Sarah Adams. New York: Harcourt, Inc. 2006.  All subsequent references will be made to this edition.

[12] Also consult Winifred Woodhull’s article, “Ethnicity on the French Frontier,” in Writing New Identities: Gender, Nation, and Immigration in Contemporary Europe, edited by Gisela Brinker-Gabler and Sidonie Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1997): 31-61.

[13] Hargreaves argues: “For many on the majority ethnic side the endlessly stated need for “integration” has been a coded way of saying that people of minority ethnic origin must give up the cultural differences supposedly blocking their absorption into mainstream society. In reality minorities have been prevented from participating in French society not by their cultural differences but by prejudices and roadblocks placed in their way by members of the majority ethnic population” (2007a, xix). The Islamic designation of these populations serves as another obstacle to acceptance and social participation.

[14] The Algerian War of Independence (1958-62) has been described by historians as one of the bloodiest wars of decolonization in French history. The traumatic impact of the war and its consequences are still impacting both France and Algeria in terms of immigration, minority rights in France, and French negotiations of the colonial past. Morocco and Tunisia were French ‘protectorates’. Their transition to postcoloniality was not based on a violent war of independence.

[15] Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissives) is a feminist collective started by anti-racist activist Fadela Amara in 2002 to expose the culture of male violence against young girls in the projects. This organization offers female victims of violence a healing space of hope, comfort, and respect in the face of rape, domestic abuse, forced marriages, and sexual harassment. The group has also investigated several cases of ‘honor’ killings among immigrant families. The organization currently has over 6,000 members. See Ni putes, ni soumises, co-authored by Fadela Amara and Sylvia Zappi. Paris: La Découverte. 2003.  At the same time, the organization has also been criticized by liberal intellectuals such as Etienne Balibar, Elsa Dorlin, Houria Bouteldia, among others for its conservative anti-Islamic stance with respect to women’s rights and its political affiliations with the French right.

[16] The term Zone d’éducation prioritaire (ZEP) is used to designate disfavored working-class neighborhoods with ‘special’ schools for remedial learning.

[17] Also consult Martine Fernandes. Les écrivaines francophones en libterté. Paris: L’Harmattan (2007): 36.

[18] The link between creativity and dissidence is credited to Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi.

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