Many remember the place of their upbringing with fondness and nostalgia. This may be particularly so for those who through life’s circumstances, have had to leave their childhood home behind. As a Parisian born and cité bred immigrant to the UK, for me the banlieue of Paris evokes memories of multicultural community and a sense of togetherness I have never experienced anywhere else. It makes me think of adolescent rebellion and the hiphop anthems which were the soundtrack to our youth. Since my departure I have constantly longed for the warmth and safety of those close knit communities, mainly made up of migrants, amongst whom my parents made their home amidst the dire deprivation around. However, returning to the cité after being away for many years was surreal. It feels like a different place.
A place where burkas are now worn with defiance by all creeds. A place where men I had been friends with and, who as teenage boys had unsuccessfully tried to teach me to breakdance and who dreamt of making it big on the French rap scene now wore jilbabs, had long beards and were avoiding eye contact with me if we crossed paths on the streets. A place where kids, some still in nappies, ask my children whether they eat pork on the neighbourhood playground to assess whether they can be friends.
The dark side of a youth in the banlieue started to re-emerge in my mind’s eye; troubling images and flashbacks that my selective migrant memory had put away. Our regular clashes with the French riot police over police brutality and harassment, the stigma and prejudice attached to ‘les quartiers’ freely propagated in the media and the limitations this placed on our lives.
I remembered that when I was growing up the area had been an emergency-services-free-zone because it was deemed ‘too dangerous’. I recalled the daily racial indignities placed on older generations because their French was not good enough, or their attires were too colourful or some other purely republican reason of course; managed robotically and with resignation by members of our communities most of whom believed fairness, dignity and equal treatment was not theirs to claim in their ‘host’ country. I became flooded with embodied memories of collective experiences of alienation, of exclusion, of invisibility and the resulting anger and our constant quest for respect, validation and belonging in all its by-any-mean-necessary dysfunctional manifestations. Clearly the issues are complex and multi-factorial but, let’s be real; it is not simply coincidental that the inner cities offer breeding grounds for the radicalisation of young Muslims. Refusing to look at the social context and its drivers which give terrorism its local face is short-sighted. Worse, in the longer term it may perpetuate the very same alienation and invisibility that leads many to seek refuge in extremism.
Racism and Islamophobia in France are still ubiquitous and vitriolic in the most offhand of ways. France is still a country which uses the everyday expression “du travail d’arabe” (literarily ‘Arab’s work’) to refer to botched or poor quality work. A country that is so removed from the violence it inflicts onto its racial minorities that it has no qualms using this expression as the title of one of its movies whilst simultaneously denying all responsibility for the hurt, tensions and offence this causes. A country where just a few years ago, the appointment of the first ever Black newsreader, Harry Roselmack, on the national channel TF1 (the equivalent of BBC1), caused demonstrations and uproar because, wait for it… he was Black. A country that still bans all-Black cast movies.
Is it not possible to hold both the position that the Charlie Hebdo killings were absolutely abhorrent and unjustifiable acts, whilst also calling for increased attention to be paid to the marginalisation of entire generations of citizens and its complex link to Islamic radicalisation and fundamentalism in France and elsewhere? Can a balanced debate be had on the essential value of freedom of speech, its deriving responsibilities whilst also integrating discussion about ethical and legal bounds? And while we’re at it, can we also reflect on the liberties that we so value, but which only seem to be selectively afforded to others? Alas there seems to be very little evidence of measured and rational debates.
Cabut’s cartoons have been like the wallpaper of my teenage years, in the background but present. They provided an important reminder that no one should be above scrutiny or ridicule and indeed that nothing or no one should be taken at face value. I have the utmost respect for France’s philosophical tradition of irreverence and satirism. It has provided the foundation of my critical thinking and, no one in their right mind should hold Charlie Hebdo responsible for the atrocity it has faced. Nonetheless, though they may have sensationalist appeal or score political points for those eager to resurrect their political career, the current apocalyptic narratives of war, of barbarism and the acts of retribution both in speech and in deed are very dangerous, they add fuel to an already highly tense, fragmented and polarised racial context.
It seems that most want to ignore a fact which is plain for us all to see. For me this quote from a classic French rap song featured in the the movie La Haine says it all:
‘La honte infligée à nos rents-pa se paiera, ils veulent faire des exemples pour qu’on les craigne mais ils ont oublié que la haine engendre la haine’
This translates as:
“You will pay for the shame you’re inflicting onto our parents…they [the police] want to make examples out of us so that we fear them but, they have forgotten that hatred breeds hatred.”
Expression Direkt: Dealer pour survivre
These lyrics were written about 20 years ago. It is extremely disturbing that in 2015 they still speak of the experience of many of those who have to contend with the triple jeopardy of being of (eternally) foreign origins, of living in the inner cities and being Muslim in a country that continues to despise all three of these traits. To me, the most terrifying thing about the Charlie Hebdo massacre is the fact that the perpetrators look like men I could have gone to school with. Even though some may choose to bury their head in the sand and pretend that the perpetrators and indeed the journalists were ‘islands’, some of us aspire to be little more questioning. It is after all what I was taught in France.
This article was written for Media Diversified and was originally published on January 10th 2015. Media Diversified is a young and growing non-profit organisation which seeks to cultivate and promote skilled writers of colour, by providing advice, contacts as well as promotion of content online through its own platform. Click here to find out more about Media Diversified.
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