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Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia
(Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

[update below]

The headline story in last Friday’s Le Monde, which I am looking at on my desk as I write, is entitled “Après les attentats, Europe se referme” (After the attacks, Europe is closing the door), and with a big photo of refugees, presumably Syrian, in a dingy off the coast of Lesbos. The accompanying article, on “the return of fortress Europe,” quotes PM Manuel Valls—a member of the Socialist party and formally a man of the left (albeit its most rightist flank)—saying that Europe must make it clear that it cannot welcome as many migrants as it has up to now. And on the France 2 news yesterday evening was a report from Slovenia, which is putting up a barbed wire fence on its border with Croatia to keep migrants out, taking after Hungary, Slovakia, and other EU member countries sure to follow.

On some level I can comprehend the reflex of Slovenia et al (though not Manuel Valls; I don’t care if he’s prime minister but it is simply not acceptable for a leading personality of the French PS to talk the way he does on this issue). European states are indeed not prepared to confront the torrent of refugees and migrants flowing into the continent—even though Europe has successfully dealt with refugee/migrant flows of equal, indeed greater, importance in the recent past (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), not to mention after WWII. Hopefully the EU-Turkey agreement that’s being hammered out, which will presumably allow for an orderly processing of asylum requests of the refugees in Turkey, will work.

As for the bottom line—and there is no getting around this—the majority of Syrian refugees will eventually have to be settled in third countries, mostly in the West. The war in Syria will not end anytime soon and when/if it does, there will be nothing for Syrians who have left the country to go back to. Syria has been destroyed and is not likely to be rebuilt, at least not in the foreseeable future (e.g. see this report from Kobane). The destruction of Syria is not only physical—of cities (Aleppo, Homs) and towns—but also societal. Wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that have generated large cross border refugee flows have mainly involved rural people, who await the war’s end so they can return to their villages and farms and try to resume their lives. The great majority of Syrian refugees are urban and educated. Their livelihoods and social networks—not to mention extended families—are gone. And they can’t sit around in refugee camps in Lebanon, or live on handouts in Turkey, for years on end. They need to be able to work, continue with their education if they’re of that age, and rebuild their lives. Now. A few will be able to do so in the MENA region but the only part of the world where this can happen for most is the West (including Russia).

The United States could easily absorb a large number of Syrians—say, one hundred thousand, even more (why not?)—but obviously won’t in view of the current political climate. The post-Paris hysteria in the Republican party—leaders and base—over taking in any refugees leaves one speechless. As WaPo’s Alexandra Petri put it a couple of weeks ago, the reaction of Republicans is “past the point of parody.” The fear of Americans—mostly on the right—that even a tiny number of potential terrorists could be embedded in a refugee population is particularly puzzling in a country where just about anyone can legally constitute an arsenal of assault weapons and then carry out a massacre—in a movie theater, elementary school, college campus, family planning clinic, social services center, you name it—and with no reaction whatever from the political system—and precisely because those Americans who fear potential refugee terrorists are also the kind who are all for the unlimited right to acquire assault weapons and will vote against any candidate to elective office who thinks otherwise. Fearing jihadi terrorism in a country with practically no jihadis but where mass shootings happen every day of the week—and to which politicians respond with prayers and thoughts and that’s it—is, objectively speaking, irrational.

Continuing to speak objectively, Syrian refugees are “not the problem,” as Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch asserted in a piece in Foreign Policy. Americans who do think that refugees are a problem tend, however, not to look at websites like Foreign Policy. Addressing Americans on that side of the political spectrum, my friend Claire Berlinski, who blogs at Ricochet—the tagline of which is “Conservative conversation and community”—has a good, well-argued post, dated November 24th, “What’s in it for us? Why we should accept Syrian refugees.” Glancing at the comments thread, it doesn’t look like she convinced too many of her numerous refugee-skeptical readers.

One group that has been excellent on the refugee question is the libertarians, with whom I otherwise disagree 100% on a whole range of issues (notably the economy and social policy). E.g. Dave Bier, the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center in D.C.—a new libertarian think tank—has a fine piece (November 16th) on the “Six reasons to welcome Syrian refugees after Paris.” See as well the analysis (November 18th) by the Cato Institute’s immigration specialist Alex Nowrasteh, “Syrian refugees don’t pose a serious security threat.”

If one needs further convincing on the question, don’t miss historian Josh Zeitz’s explanation in Politico Magazine (November 22nd), “Yes, it’s fair to compare the plight of the Syrians to the plight of the Jews [and] here’s why.” Voilà.

UPDATE: Regarding my comment above on “mass shootings” in the US, Mother Jones’s Mark Follman has an important clarification in the NYT op-ed page, “How many mass shootings are there, really?”

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America’s immigrants

Algerian man, Ellis Island, circa 1907 (photo: Augustus Sherman)

Algerian man, Ellis Island, circa 1907 (photo: Augustus Sherman)

WaPo’s Wonkblog has a great post, dated October 24th, on “What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island,” with amazing photos taken between 1892 and 1907 by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman, who worked as the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island. Check it out. I’d be curious to know what happened to the immigrants one sees in Sherman’s photos and their successive generations (and particularly the Algerian, who was possibly the first immigrant from that land to set foot in America). A great country America is, to have absorbed, and then integrated/assimilated, so many people from so many cultures—and which, pace Donald Trump and others in his party, continues apace today.

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Dheepan & La Vie en grand

Dheepan-affiche

These are two new French films set in the rough cités of the northern Paris banlieues and which I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. ‘Dheepan’, as one likely knows, was the surprise Palme d’or laureate at Cannes last May. The pic begins in a DP camp in far northern Sri Lanka, at what looks to be the moment of the army’s final victory over the LTTE insurgency (which would set it in 2009). LTTE fighter Sivadhasan—actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who was an LTTE guerrilla himself in his youth, so is familiar with the subject matter—is trying to hightail it out of the country—and for good reason, in view of the behavior of the Sri Lankan army after its victory (not to mention before)—for which he is aided by LTTE higher-ups, who furnish him with the passport of a dead fighter named Dheepan, that thus becomes Sivadhasan’s new identity. To improve his asylum chances abroad, he has to constitute a bogus family en catastrophe—his own has been killed—so does so with young widow Yalini (actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and nine-year-old orphan Illayaal (played by the impressive Claudine Vinasithamby, who was in primary school in the Paris area when she was cast for the role). They make the short hop by boat across the Palk Strait to India and then to Paris by plane (how that happened was not clear; did they get visas at the French consulate in Chennai? I’d be curious to know how this works, in view of the large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees France has received over the past 25-30 years).

Once in Paris, Dheepan requests political asylum for himself and his “family,” aided in crafting a halfway plausible story by his Tamil translator during the interview with the French case officer. The translator essentially makes up Dheepan’s story for him, with the fonctionnaire naturally not understanding a thing of what the two men are discussing and concocting. This bit I found interesting, as it points up a real problem in evaluating asylum requests, which is that asylum seekers can and do fabricate part or all of their stories—for which one can hardly blame them—and that are difficult, when not impossible, to verify by the host country authorities. And the veritable stories of many asylum seekers are indeed ambiguous. Dheepan, e.g., had well-founded reasons to fear that his civil rights, if not his physical integrity, would be violated were he to be taken into custody by the authorities of his country. On this level, his asylum application would be a no-brainer. But he had also been a fighter with an insurgent organization that carried out numerous atrocities, assassinations of elected officials—and in more than one country—and acts of terrorism—with it thus being designated as a terrorist organization by the EU, US, and others—which could result in the rejection of his asylum request. While watching ‘Dheepan’ I thought of the very good 2013 Sri Lankan film ‘Ini Avan’, which I wrote about at the time. The protag in that one, a former LTTE fighter, was not being sought by the authorities but, in view of his past, had become a social outcast and with his only option for making a living being criminality, of accepting offers he couldn’t refuse. And he was at permanent risk of retribution and from both sides. Had he been an asylum seeker in Europe, he would have had a strong case.

Returning to the film in question, after Dheepan’s asylum request is filed—and in France the process can take up to two years—he receives a job offer, to be gardien d’immeuble (superintendent) in a slummy building in a trashy cité, incongruously named Le Pré (the meadow), up in the Val d’Oise. This cité is as bad as they get: spatially isolated, populated entirely by immigrant families from the African continent—with nary a Français de souche in sight—and with rival drug-dealing gangs ruling the roost and engaging in periodic turf wars settled with semi-automatic weapons. If France allowed televised political advertising, the Front National would have a field day with images from the film. But a job is a job and an apartment that comes with it—even if it’s a dump—is an apartment, so Dheepan and his “family” take up residence there no complaints (this may be a movie—and thus fiction—but the image of immigrants willingly taking jobs that no one born and raised in France would do is real). Most of the film is set entirely in the cité and with three storylines, the first of the reality of their “family” situation, the couple of Dheepan and Yalini being purely instrumental, pour la forme, and devoid of sentiments—during most of the pic, at least—and with Yalini refusing to play mother to Illayaal, but with Dheepan nonetheless trying to build a normal life for them. And then there’s their adjustment to life in France, not speaking French—most of the film is in Tamil—and with the cité in which they live resembling nothing that the vast majority of French and non-Frenchmen alike would recognize as France. Dheepan, who has handyman skills, puts 100% into his job—he’s not a slacker (immigrants never are)—and forges a camaraderie with the older men in the building, who sit on the rooftop drinking and talking, while their gang-banger sons—over whom they have no authority—occupy the grounds of the cité below. Yalini finds relatively lucrative employment tending to the infirm father of the caïd, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), of one of the gangs, who’s nice to her but is not someone whose bad side one wants to get on. Illayaal has social adjustment problems in school. And then there’s the gang violence in the cité, that harks back to what Dheepan et al left in Sri Lanka and from which they cannot escape.

I found it an absorbing, well-acted film. The tension slowly builds, as you know something is going to happen. And—spoiler alert!—it does with Dheepan, who, fearing for the safety of Yalini and Illayaal, and fed up with the gangs and their crap, employs the skills he mastered as an LTTE fighter to bring the voyous to heel and clean up the cité. But the paroxysm of violence at the end sent the film into genre territory, as more than one reviewer observed. We’ve seen it countless time (I thought of the final scene in ‘Straw Dogs’). This was too bad. As one critic incisively tweeted: “It was 80% a great film…and then it wasn’t. Va savoir.” And the rose-tinted final scene, of Dheepan and the family—now a real one—settled in middle-class English suburbia, was problematic and on three levels: 1. The nightmare of France and its cités are starkly contrasted with the idyll of England (if current refugee/migrants in Calais were to see the scene, they would redouble their efforts to get across the Channel), suggesting a curious—and debatable—parti pris on director Jacques Audiard’s part. 2. How do Sri Lankan asylum seekers in France receive authorization and then visas to move to the UK anyway? and 3. How does a man who has just killed several persons in a bloodbath—even if they were lowlifes just asking to be whacked—get off the legal hook so quickly? I know that one sometimes has to suspend credulity for movies but still. So while I will give it the thumbs up, what could have been a great film turned out to be merely a good film and with a couple of issues. It is not on the same level as Audiard’s chef d’œuvre ‘Un prophet,’ though ranks above ‘Rust and Bone’, which I didn’t like too much. As mentioned above, its Palme d’or was greeted with surprise by critics at Cannes. As I have seen only one of the other nineteen pics that were in competition, I can’t say for myself if it was deserved or not. French reviews are good on the whole—critics and Allociné spectateurs alike—though the Africultures website critiqued what it saw as the film’s clichéd, stereotyped portrayal of the banlieues. Hollywood press reviews are also good grosso modo, notably the ones in Indiewire and THR. Trailer is here.

The second film is ‘La Vie en grand’ (English title: Learn By Heart), the directorial debut of Mathieu Vadepied and which also premiered at Cannes (though not in competition for the Palme). This one is set in a cité in the neuf-trois, also gang-ridden, where 14-year-old Adama (first-time actor Balamine Guirassy) lives with his Senegalese immigrant mother, Fatou (actress Leontina Fall), who has been constrained by a judge to live apart from her polygamous husband—as living in a polygamous household will get one’s carte de séjour cancelled—and is having difficulty making ends meet. Adama is an indifferent student at school and on the verge of expulsion for failing grades, which are not due to lack of ability but rather his preoccupation with his mother’s precarious financial situation, having to work the marchés at dawn to earn a little money, and his separation from his (half) siblings, who live in another banlieue and whom he misses. One day his buddy, the 11-year-old Mamadou (Ali Bidanessy), finds a quantity of hashish, comme ça, and then Adama finds even an even greater quantity (this one dumped by dealers during a police raid), which the two decide to sell to the upscale kids at the local private lycée. So they go into business together, though with Adama only wanting to make money to help his mother. But as drug dealing is a dangerous business, not only because it’s illegal but as new entrants inevitably encroach on the turf of other dealers—and who are never nice people—Adama gets into trouble with some badass motherfuckers, who decide to make him and Mamadou work for them. One thinks of the runners in season 4 of the The Wire. But Adama tries to outwit the caïds all while striving to keep up with his schoolwork and avoid expulsion. And aided by three of his teachers plus the school principal—who are firm with him but go all out to help him succeed—he does so.

The school, with its teachers and principal, are Adama’s salvation. The film is a paean to l’école de la République. If I were a fonctionnaire with l’Éducation nationale, I would love the pic. And as for me, I did like it. Despite the subject matter it ends up being a feel good movie, mainly as Adama and Mamadou are absolutely, totally adorable. They’re boys you care about and want to help, indeed give a big hug to. And then there’s the happy ending (no spoilers). Going into the theater I was under the impression that the pic would be a comedy. It’s more of a dramedy, though, with the comedy part being one particularly hilarious scene, when Adama, who is ordered by the principal to bring his father to school the next day for an urgent meeting—but which Adama cannot and will not do—pays a clochard to accompany him and impersonate his father. This is one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen on the screen this year. Reviews of the film—by critics and spectateursare mostly good, though Africultures, in the link above, sniffed that the film’s feel good side served to downplay the complexity of the problems of the banlieues (and which the functioning of the educational system is a part of). Bof. Trailer is here.

la-vie-en-grand_2015

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Clichy-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis), 2010 (photo credit: Sipa)

Clichy-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis), 2010 (photo credit: Sipa)

This is the title of a lengthy article by George Packer in the August 31st issue of The New Yorker, in which he inquires into the social climate and general mood in the Paris banlieues—the Seine-Saint-Denis (le neuf-trois) in particular—in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher killings of last January, specifically asking if they are “incubators of terrorism.” It’s one of the better explorations of the subject I’ve seen by an Anglo-American journalist, nowadays as in past years. I naturally have a quibble here and there and Packer made an unfortunate choice in at least one of his informants, but no big deal, as most of them are very good, e.g. Fouad Ben Ahmed from Bondy and the academics Farhad Khosrokhavar and Jean-Pierre Filiu. It’s too bad Packer didn’t meet Bernard Godard, who can speak more authoritatively on the subject of Islam in France than anyone (e.g. see his La Question musulmane en France, which came out in February). I’ll come back to the general subject soon, as, comme toujours, there is much to say about it.

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houellebecq soumission

Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and writer in residence at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies—and dear personal friend—has a fine review essay in the latest issue of the LRB on Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission. As one is no doubt aware by now, the novel is about a Muslim takeover of France following the 2022 presidential election, in which Marine Le Pen squares off in the 2nd round against one Mohammed Ben Abbes—candidate of a new (moderate) Muslim party, La Fraternité Musulmane—who, supported by the Socialists and everyone else seeking to block Marine LP, wins. And then the Islamization of France en douceur begins. The pre-publication hype around the novel—which fatefully hit the bookstores on January 7th, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre—made it out to be Islamophobic but Adam says that it’s not, that while “deeply reactionary” it is not only not hostile to Islam but is almost sympathetic. And as Adam emphasizes—as have Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla in their reviews of the novel—the veritable targets for backhanded scorn are the French political class and French people themselves, who willingly, without resistance, slouch towards the new Islamic republic. It is more a commentary on France than on Islam.

Soumission is, not surprisingly, a best-seller, the nº3 ranking novel two months after its release. And one may predict that the English translation, due out this fall, will also sell well. So will I read it? Most unlikely. I’m not a big fiction person to begin with, Houellebecq has a well-known twisted mind, and my fiction-reading wife, among others, says she doesn’t like his style. That’s enough for me. I also find both preposterous and mystifying the lurid fantasy—more in the Anglo-American world than in France—of Muslims/Islam taking over the European continent in the coming decades. It is such a crackpot notion that I will definitively cease listening to or taking seriously anyone—by definition an ignoramus—who adheres to it. For starters, identity Muslims in France—the Western country with the largest Muslim population, in both absolute numbers and percentage—number 4.5 million max (and probably less), representing some 7% of the French population (the higher figures one sees in the media and elsewhere are exaggerations based on not a shred of published data). And the number is unlikely to increase by even 50% in the coming decades, let alone reach 50%. How an ethno-confessional group making up a tenth of the population “takes over” a country is not apparent to me. Moreover, Muslims in France do not constitute a “community,” as Olivier Roy—whom Adam cites—has insisted. It is a disparate population divided by national origin, ethnicity, degree of religious observance, generation, social class, and you name it. French Muslims do not constitute a bloc for anything and there is not the slightest chance in the foreseeable future that even a small number among them will coalesce qua Muslims in the realm of national electoral politics or representative bodies (assertion: there will never be a “Muslim caucus” in the French National Assembly as, e.g., Afro-Americans have in the US Congress; the mere notion is ludicrous). So even if I were a novel-reading person and liked Houellebecq’s style, I am not a science fiction fan, so doubt I would expend time on one based on such a harebrained, science fiction-like premise. The reviews will suffice.

BTW, Adam has a major article coming up in The New York Times Magazine, on the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, has a very good review of Houellebecq’s novel in The American Interest. (October 24th)

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Bande-de-Filles

In my December 31st round-up of French films of 2014, I mentioned that I’d have a separate post on films focusing on immigration and ethnicity, of which there were several last year. Le voici. Three discussed here have received nominations for this Friday’s César awards. ‘Bande de filles’ (English title: Girlhood) leads with four, including Best Director (Céline Sciamma) and Most Promising Actress (Karidja Touré). The story, in short: Marieme (K.Touré), a.k.a. Vic, is a mid teen girl of African immigrant stock, who lives with her hard-working mother (hotel chambermaid) and two brothers in a cité in the neuf-trois. She’s generally well-behaved but doesn’t have the grades to get into a lycée général—that would track her to higher education, which she desperately wants—and is thereby told that the only option open to her is a lycée professionnel (vocational high school), which she refuses. Following this setback she falls in with a gang of black chicks (African), led by the cool and cheeky Fily (Mariétou Touré), drops out of school, adopts an attitude, and spends her days with her new BFFs, getting into fights with other girls, riding the RER into Paris to hang out at the Forum des Halles, shoplift, and just fool around. But then the nice boy Ismael (Idrissa Diabaté) takes a liking to Vic and she to him, but as Ismael is a pal of Vic’s dictatorial older brother, who enforces the code of honor of the cités—thereby keeping tabs on his sister’s girl-boy interactions—the budding relationship with Ismael runs into logistical problems. So Vic, who’s basically a good kid, splits from the cité and takes her distance from her girl gang. It’s a coming of age movie about a black teen in the Paris banlieues who is finding her way. I was engaged enough with the film—it is well acted and certainly holds one’s attention—but won’t call it a chef d’œuvre. French critics mostly gave it the thumbs up—N.B. in particular this review on the Africultures website—and their American counterparts positively loved it (the pic opened in the US on Jan. 30th). So as cinema it may be seen; as ethnography—if one is into that—it may definitely be seen. Trailer is here (plus the great scene here of the girls dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”).

A note on the film’s choreographed opening scene, of a team of black girls playing American football, which more than one US reviewer took note of. The scene, which one may interpret as symbolizing the aggressiveness of the social interactions one sees in the film, is, as one reads, a mere clin d’œil of director Céline Sciamma at her favorite TV series, ‘Friday Night Lights’ (the players are from an amateur female American football team in the banlieue).

Also receiving a César nomination is ‘Samba’, by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who co-directed the 2011 Über hit comedy Intouchables—which sold 19.5 million tix in France, making it the nº2 French film of all time—and became the biggest ever French film at the box office in several countries. And it propelled the career of Omar Sy—already popular with the younger generation—into the stratosphere. So seeking to capitalize on his and the film’s success, Toledano & Nakache made another movie intended to be crowd-pleasing—though this a dramedy, so more serious—with Omar Sy in the lead, and accompanied by top draws Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim (though the pic’s one César nomination went to the relative newcomer Izïa Higelin for Best Supporting Actress). In this one Sy plays an undocumented Senegalese immigrant in Paris named Samba, who has been working hard for ten years (in a restaurant kitchen), causing no trouble whatever and stealing no job from a single French person, and whose boss wants to promote him, except that he doesn’t have papers. Snared by the police, he is subjected to deportation proceedings and sent to a detention center near CDG airport. In trying to avoid deportation, he is assisted by a not very experienced immigration case worker named Alice (Gainsbourg), a corporate executive on extended medical leave for burn-out—which is, as I have learned from a friend who is suffering from it, a serious affliction indeed—who is volunteering her time with undocumented immigrants during her recovery. She is touched by Samba, develops feelings for him, and the two forge a relationship of sorts, which I didn’t find entirely convincing BTW (no spoilers, so I won’t say what does or does not happen between the two, or whether or not the pic has a happy ending). The film, which has its share of bons sentiments and tugs at one’s heart toward the end, is perfectly watchable but is not a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. French reviews were good to very good on the whole, though US critics who saw it at the TIFF were more reserved (here, here, here, and here). The word-of-mouth on the film was obviously good, though, as it sold over 3 million tix, which was nowhere near ‘Intouchables’ but still very good by any measure (and way higher than any other film discussed here). This is good and gratifying, as the film presents undocumented immigrants—and from Africa—in a sympathetic—and accurate—light, as law-abiding, hard-working potential future citizens—should they have the good fortune to have their status regularized—who want no more or less for themselves than any other Frenchman or woman. On this level—and in view of the near toxic nature of the issue in France at the present time, and with the attendant demagoguery and political surenchères—the film is salutary. Trailer is here.

affiche-samba

Also netting César nominations is ‘Qu’Allah bénisse la France’ (May Allah Bless France), a biopic of Abd al Malik (né Régis Fayette-Mikano), the well-known Franco-Congolese (Brazzaville) slam poet and rap singer (I should say well-known in certain milieux, as I was not familiar with his music and other artistic work before the film came out; see the NYT’s 2012 portrait of him here). The pic is directed by Abd al Malik himself—earning him a César nomination for Best First Film—and based on his eponymous 2004 autobiographical novel, though his role is played by Marc Zinga (César Most Promising Actor nominee). The film begins with the teen Régis/Abd al Malik’s life in the tough Strasbourg cité of Neuhof, where he hangs out with his homies, most of whom are drug dealers and petits voyous—Régis/Abd al Malik partaking in petty crime himself—lives with his nurturing (mother-headed) Catholic family, and performs brilliantly in lycée—notably in French and philosophy—resulting in an invitation by the school to enter hypokhâgne after receiving his bac (signifying that he is indeed very bright and with marked literary talent). Needless to say, there aren’t too many cagneux around of his social class and ethno-racial background, so he kind of stands out among his fellow students. He keeps up his friendships with his gangbanger homies, though, and when one with whom he was close gets killed in a gang règlement de comptes, Régis/Abd al Malik decides to convert to Islam (and change his name). During this time he’s writing slam poetry, composing music, and gaining celebrity. Under the influence of the Franco-Moroccan Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani)—his g.f. and future wife—he moderates his religious practice and a spiritual voyage of discovery to Morocco brings about a reconversion, as it were, to sufi Islam, which gives him inner strength, peace, and everything else contemplative, mystical sufism is supposed to do. The film—which is in black-and-white, à la Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’—is understated, almost low-key. And while one hears the poetry, there should be more of Abd al Malik’s music. The film could have also delved more into what the title strongly suggests, which is Abd al Malik’s (positive) relationship with France. His life experiences and trajectory give the lie to the crap one hears almost daily about problems of integration in France—whatever “integration” is supposed to mean and which I will insist is not a problem in this country—as Abd al Malik is clearly a success story of the Republic (among other things, he has published books with titles like La guerre des banlieues n’aura pas lieu and L’islam au secours de la République). It all goes to show that, yeah, one can be a rap-singing convert to Islam of 100% African stock and love France all the same. The film received generally good reviews in France—for a US review go here and scroll to the end—but was not a box office hit, which is perhaps unfortunate in view of the present-day salience of the immigration issue and the clear message of the film. The word-of-mouth clearly did not work in Abd al Malik’s sizable fan base, a likely consequence of him opting to make a film d’auteur rather than a more conventional, bigger-budget biopic. Trailer is here.

quallah benisse la france

Another recent film with an Islam/immigration focus is ‘L’Apôtre’ (The Apostle), written, directed, and produced by Cheyenne Carron—who was previously unknown to me—which opened in October in exactly one cinema (independent) in Paris, before being released on DVD the following week. The reason why the film played in only one salle: no distributor would touch it, as the subject was deemed too hot to handle. And what is the subject? The conversion to Christianity of a young Maghrebi Muslim. The story: Akim (Fayçal Safi), who’s in his late 20s, lives with his parents, older brother Youssef (Brahim Tekfa), and adoring younger sister Hafsa (Sarah Zaher) in an inner Paris banlieue. The family is close-knit and middle class (living in a house, not a flat in a cité). And they’re practicing Muslims, though “moderate”—mother and sister are not veiled—and with the father’s brother the imam at a nearby mosque. Youssef, who takes his religion seriously, is following in his uncle’s footsteps and it is hoped that Akim will become an imam too, but he declines. One day Akim is invited by his friend Fabien to attend the baptism of the latter’s baby daughter. It was Akim’s first time ever in a church. He is taken by the Catholic ritual and sets out to learn more about Christianity. The interest becomes a fascination, leading to a meeting with the priest of the local cathedral. Deciding that Catholicism suits his spiritual needs more than Islam, Akim takes the plunge and converts. And when he announces to his family that he’s found Jesus, well, a little crisis ensues, and particularly with Youssef, who considers his younger brother—the two are very close—to be an apostate and disgrace to his family. But—spoiler alert!—things work themselves out and there is no tragic ending.

I thought it was a pretty good film—the few reviews of it were positive—and on a topic of vital importance, as the issue of how Muslims deal with conversions out of Islam is a real one. The phenomenon is not insignificant in France, where the Muslim identity population (of some 4 million) is the highest in the Western world (the number of Muslim-to-Christian converts in France is into the five figures and one sees literature tables and other proselytizing efforts by Maghrebi and African Christian converts—mainly evangelical Protestant—in heavily immigrant areas). After seeing the film I was interested to know what kind of reaction it received among French Muslims. But as it played in just one theater—albeit off the Champs-Elysées—practically no one saw it (and no one I know). And I have seen no mention of it on the higher profile French Muslim websites (e.g. Oumma.com, Al-Kanz). C’est dommage. The film merits being seen and discussed. Trailer is here (followed by a 14-minute interview with actors Safi and Tekfa).

There are several more films I’d intended to discuss here. Will do so in a separate post in the next week.

l-apotre

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Banning the niqab

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Christopher Dickey, grand reporter for The Daily Beast, offers an excellent argument here for banning face veils in public space. In a post 3½ years ago I expressed my disapproval of France’s “burqa” ban—which had just entered into force—, though not out of high-minded principle or respect for religious freedom, as face veils are specific to certain cultures, mandated by no religion—not that this matters one way or the other—, and cannot be defended on these particular grounds. But I’ve changed my mind. The French law may have been enacted for the wrong reasons but that doesn’t mean it was wrong tout court. Now this is not to suggest that the police should stop every last niqab-wearing woman they see on the street; discretion can and should be exercised—e.g. to avoid causing a riot—, as the police generally do when witnessing persons in the act of committing misdemeanors. But they should still have the authority to stop and detain those who conceal their faces in public. So on the question of the niqab, I say ban the damn thing!

UPDATE: Omer Aziz, a writer and J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, has an op-ed by the title of “Banning the niqab harms an open society: So does wearing it,” which is one of the best succinct arguments I’ve come across on this question. (March 16, 2015)

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