THE BANLIEUES OF BADROU AND MEHDI
THE FACES BEHIND THE STORIES OF DISAFFECTION AND MARGINALIZATION
Two young men, Badroudine Said Abdallah and Mehdi Keklat, both aged 23, are apparently the latest incarnations of France’s rich intellectual legacy joining the ranks of such giants as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean Paul Satre. Kudos to them both! Prolific producers of books, films, blogs and television and radio appearances, Badrou and Mehdi are intent on showing the world the complicated reality of minority life in the Paris suburbs – the banlieues – where they grew up and which suburban communities ringing central Paris are tagged with fomenting violence, anti-Semitism and Islamic violence. These minority communities have long been home to disaffected and marginalized youth from Algeria, Morocco, and French West Africa, and other parts of France’s former colonial empire.
Back in 2005 the Paris banlieues were ground zero for riots that triggered a national emergency. Most recently French authorities arrested a man man from Argenteuil who was said to have been in the “advanced stages” of planning a terrorist attack. It is the oversimplification of the narrative that goes: “marginalization leads to discontent, discontent leads to unrest, unrest leads to violence” that is the prime focus of Badrou’s and Mehdi’s efforts to revise this simplistic narrative. “When you turn on the TV, you will not see everyday stories about the banlieues – love stories, school stories, anything like that. What we try to show are the inner lives of people here.”
Putting a human face into play, Badrou and Mehdi’s novel, “Burn Out,” is a fictionalized account of the 2013 suicide of Djamal Chaab who set himself on fire outside an unemployment agency after years of struggling to find work. “When things don’t go as they should,” the novel begins, “you have to leave. When there’s fire. When water starts to rise, almost drown you, you have to flee.” Says Mehdi, from his home base of La Courneuve, “Here, we are only 10 or 20 minutes from the Elysee,” referring to the seat of the French Presidency. “But we're a world apart from the institutions and the top politicians that run them. The young people here – they don’t feel French like others do.”
To be “French” in France, is simply to have an identity. It is a particular and perhaps peculiar feature of French culture and citizenship, this being French is above all else. If you’ve ever spent time in France, you will know what I mean. Here in the U.S. the moniker “American” basically means that you are a U.S. citizen and living either within that part of the planet that rests between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, south of Canada and north of Mexico or in one of our outlier states, Alaska and Hawaii or one of our overseas provinces like Puerto Rico and the Mariana Islands. That’s it. End of story.
Well, not quite the end of the story. While we don’t have an overarching national identify based on an historic legacy of language, the arts, literature and culture, we do have our “assimilation” problems as the current “Black Lives Matter” movement attests. And this is nothing new. The Irish, Italians, Jews, and other ethnic and cultural minority groups have been discriminated against in our historical narrative but, by and large, so-called outlier social groups have overcome disaffection and marginalization and have been folded into the patchwork that we call American culture and identity. It is both interesting and instructive that the African American community here has had an outsized influence on American culture (Jazz, Literature, Entertainment, Fashion) even while not enjoying full participation in and equality of the American experience.
At base, the very definition of what it means to be an “American” eases such transitions and assimilations. Unlike what it means to be “French,” one can trace a French cultural heritage and national lineage in an unbroken line back to say the Norman Conquest in 1066. American is unable to. We have no such national narrative or indelible heritage, as the French often throw in our faces. I would posit that it is this lack of historical antecedent (save for our still not quite fully assimilated Native Americans) that has given rise to the polyglot nature of “what it means to be an American.” While the idea of the “American melting pot” is derided and scoffed at in this age of fundamentalist purity and truth (for example, we Americans are currently engaged in a proxy war against those raping, criminal and murderous illegal Mexican immigrants) it is precisely this engagement in a national discussion that makes the American experience different from the tidy French one. Here, everyone is an American first by fiat, not by history or lineage. Even during the worst of times for African Americans here, there was never any doubt that – no matter how disaffected or disenchanted – they felt and we believed that they were Americans before anything else, whatever that may mean.
America is and has been from it’s very founding not so long ago, a nation of immigrants. A nation whose national identify has been molded, shaped and altered by people and influences from other places who bring their customs and traditions into the mix of this multi-threaded tapestry that we call America. Not always with equanimity. Not always easily. But inevitably. At times we are more open to having “foreigners” change us; sometimes less so. At the moment we are in one of those “less so” phases. But I have every confidence in the world that this phase will not prevail. It’s why our current Presidential election process is so tumultuous: We are in the process of restoring the ideals of equal treatment and equality for all that has served as the American narrative, if not our perfectly realized reality, since the beginning.
France, and Europe in general, might what to pay heed to what Badrou and Mehdi saying. We’ve have had Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Isaac Babel, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Santana, Ricky Martin, The Simpsons and a virtual United Nations of folks to help us along the way.
PS: Not only did we have an “active shooter” situation at the U.S. Capitol building just the other day, today half of downtown is blocked off for the International Security Summit. And, so I hear, lots of folks are simply taking the day off since driving through this part of downtown on any day is an exercise in dodging construction trucks, backhoes, cement delivery trucks and swaying tower cranes. Not sure what’s going on, but you can’t leave your house and travel two blocks here in the Capital of the Free Market World without being blocked by some variety of construction mess.
Have a good day!