—Try to imagine the day when you find yourself in your history lesson face to face with a drawing representing Charles Martel who has just beaten the Arabs at Poitier!
He, Charles sat bolt upright, proud, blond, straight haired, and his horse majestically arched crushing the ragged looking Arabs, yelling, curly haired, mouths wide open and all at once we said “that’s us!”
Magyd Cherfi, The lead singer of The group Zebda, brings us in this book from 2016 the story of his life up to the point where he leaves home and his “Cité” in the north of Toulouse in the early 1980s where he lived in a poor neighbourhood of mostly first generation North African immigrants and their children.
In this lively well told story of a young adolescent torn between his home life, mostly unchanged from the way life had been in the Kabyle mountain areas of North Africa and his school life that did not recognise the immigrants as being anything but French sharing a deep rooted history over many thousands of years (Gaulois). We can imagine their confusion from the opening quote where they start to understand how they are painted in the imagination of the people that live around them.
I will sum up the book here through three excerpts from the book, first of all the everyday violence to keep the women in their place, Magyd with some friends has set up a structure to offer after school support to the younger kids in the neighbourhood, particularly in French and a theatre group, allowing the young girls their only hope of spending time out of their homes, this first quote concerns a lively and independent minded girl Bahia whom Magyd had given Zweig’s Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman to read, she bursts into the theatre group:
—Her face was carnage. Her two lips were split, literally detached from her mouth and all that was left of her nose was a purple mess. Her cheeks looked as though they had been sliced with sharp stones and blood flowed from her two eyebrows into her eyes.
—Later in her hospital bed she would tell us that they pounced on her simply because she was reading a book. Her father and brother had torn her to pieces for a book.
The second episode in the book concerns the French presidential elections of 1980 where a socialist would win for the first time, in the build up to this There was a general excitement amongst the intellectuals, the working classes and the poor and so Magyd did not understand the reaction to this possibility in his neighbourhood:
—They say Mitterrand is going to win.
—Mouhel (Misfortune) he said involuntarily…..
—We’ll be deported like dogs, we should have expected it, said my mother, we should have left of our own accord, that way we would have avoided another humiliation….
Magyd then discusses this reaction with his friend and left wing activist Samir And all becomes crystal clear:
—Mitterrand? But he hates Arabs
—How can you claim such things? I don’t understand ….
Everywhere people were getting out maps, memorising secondary routes to Rabat, Alger, Tunis….
—It’s not the left that scares them, it’s Mitterrand!
—You need to understand the basics, for them he’s still the minister for the Algerian war, brother…..he legitimised torture in the name of the Republic…..
—Yep! For the old uns, the criminals aren’t the army, the orders came from Mitterrand, he was the one that kept the guillotine running….oh yes, from 54 to 57 listen to this, he refused to pardon any of the FLN militants condemned to death.
—But he wants to abolish the death penalty!
—And that absolves him of his crimes?
Magyd takes us through his difficult adolescence towards his mother’s dream of him obtaining his baccalaureate (end of school exam giving access to universities in France), where he would be the first person in his cité to reach this educational milestone which he manages. His description of how this is received in his home and in his neighbourhood is well worth the read and as anyone coming from an immigrant background will know, with an education you can become an engineer or a doctor! But as we know, he becomes the lead singer in Zebda.
First published in French as ‘Ma Part de Gaulois’ by Actes Sud in 2016