Mahir Guven ‘Big Brother’


Finally they took us to a Greek that nobody knew. “Here it’s 100 percent Halal” said the red head. I felt like answering: “because it’s only 97 percent elsewhere?” But ok, I kept my joke to myself. It wasn’t the right time to ruin the atmosphere, I was too hungry and the risk of my sandwich disappearing due to a bad joke was too high, seeing how unfriendly he seemed. Even for the sauce they fucked us around. Ketchup, mayonnaise and the rest he decreed haram. Only the harissa was allowed. Fuck… I don’t mind harissa, but it gives me ring sting, and afterwards it’s like Palestine in the toilet for two days.***


Mahir Guven’s first novel, ‘Big Brother’, winner of the Goncourt prize in the first novel category is a breath of fresh air. The story told by two narrators, for the most part the big brother and occasionally the kid brother is a story about nuances, about lives in the difficult suburban towns on the wrong side of the périphérique in greater Paris. The story is told in the language of the streets and an 8 page glossary of words and phrases is given at the end of the book. The family at the centre of the story came to France with their French mother and Syrian communist father in the 80’s. After their mother’s early death they were raised by their father, a taxi driver brought alive by Guven both in the language, broken French and in the authoritarian, communist, anti-clerical character.

The boys however lived in a mostly poor neighbourhood populated largely by North African and African Muslims, and undergo pressures from the integrist part of this population as described here, on their way back home from football practice:


Two huge blokes appeared. Like the genie from Alladin’s lamp. Six and a half feet tall, with enormous hands, and enormous stomachs and beards as well. A white djellaba on one, a beige kamis for the other and a book under their arms.***


The two men persuade them to come over to the mosque at Aubervilliers. The Pharos’. The Egyptian immam where the kid brother discusses religion with them whilst the older brother can only think of food as shown in the opening quote until they are taken to a cafe.

In the present day, the big brother tells us of his life as he tries to survive, working as a driver for one of the platforms in competition with Uber, about their relationship with the existing taxis, epitomised by his father, how they were well paid in the early days and how this turned to exploitation afterwards:


To keep your steak, you need an advantage over the others. Either you are more discreet, or you have a certificate or a skill. In my case I have nothing to protect my job. All tou need to do is to buy a whistle and flute, a phone, then to obtain a quick certificate to get behind the wheel…. Obviously all the desperate cases flooded into the sector. The most extreme examples are the bros just out of slammer. An electronic bracelet doesn’t stop you getting behind the wheel. It’s the only job possible, no need for a CV. The platforms don’t give a damn about your past.***


We slowly learn of the story’s drama as the kid brother, the clever brother who has trained to be a male nurse disappears, after trying to go to Syria to help the wounded and the poor with Doctors Without Borders, he eventually leaves with a Muslim organisation where he slowly learns that the border between aid worker and active fighter is thin. But the story is that of his decision’s effect on those that stay behind as his brother is pressed into service for the interior ministry:


Ever since Charlie and the 13****, we were living a new love story with the pigs. Drugs, burglaries, car theft weren’t sexy enough for them.***
**** Charlie Hebdo and the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali


But what would happen should the kid brother come back, which he does? The older brother goes to see a lawyer to understand what are the implications, of course not telling the lawyer, the brother of Younès the convert, that he was actually already back:


For my brother, it was complicated, to begin with the cops have to catch him. And to arrest him, they first need to suspect my kid brother of going to Syria, then they have to find him. After, so that he goes to prison, the courts would need to prove he took part in a jihadist or terrorist organisation. That’s under normal conditions. But today, one single proof of a trip out and back from Syria is enough to lock him up. Because except for journalists and some humanitarians, nobody goes to Syria by accident.***


This was my second exceptional book in one month! But it will certainly be a difficult book to translate.

First Published in French as “Grand Frère” in 2017 by Editions Philippe Rey
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

À la fin ils nous ont emmenés dans un grec que personne connaissait. “Ici c’est 100 pour cent halal” a dit le rouquin. J’avais envie de répondre: “Parce que ailleurs’ c’est 97 pour cent?” Mais bon, j’ai gardé ma vanne pour moi. Pas le moment de plomber l’ambiance, j’avais trop faim et le risque que le sandwich s’envole à cause d’une mauvaise blague était très élevé, vu l’antipathie du gars. Même pour la sauce, il nous a cassé les couilles. Ketchup, mayonnaise et toute les autres, il les a décrétés haram. Seule la harissa était autorisée. Putain… J’aime bien la harissa, mais ça m’arrache le trou du cul, et après c’est la Palestine dans la cuvette pendant deux jours

Deux types immenses sont apparus. Comme des génies d’Alladin. Un mètre quatre vingt dix chacun. Des mains énormes. Leurs ventres et leurs barbes aussi. Djellaba blanche pour l’un, kamis beige pour l’autre un livre sous le bras

Pour garder son steak, il faut avoir un avantage par rapport aux autres. Soit être plus discret, soit avoir un diplôme ou une compétence. Dans mon cas, y avait rien pour protéger ce job. Suffisait de s’acheter un starco****, un téléphone, de passer un petit diplôme et de prendre le volant….Forcément tous les morts de faim se sont engouffrés dans le secteur. L’exemple ultime c’est les rheys**** sortis de taule.Le bracelet électronique, ça empêche pas de pousser la pédale. C’est le seule job possible, pas besoin de CV. La plate-forme en a rien à foutre de ton passé.

**** french slang (verlan) for costard, itself slang for costume, i.e. suit

**** french slang (from Arabic) for brothers

Depuis Charlie et le 13, on vivait avec les keufs**** une nouvelle histoire d’amour. La drogue, les cambriolages, les vols de voitures c’était pas assez bandant pour eux.

**** Charlie Hebdo and the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali

**** french slang (verlan) for flics, itself slang for cops or pigs

Pour mon frère, c’était compliqué. Déjà, il fallait que la volaille l’attrape. Et pour le serrer, fallait d’abord que les flics aient des soupçons sur un séjour en Syrie du petit, puis qu’ils le trouvent. Après, pour qu’il aille en prison, la justice aurait à prouver sa participation à un mouvement djihadiste ou terroriste. Ça c’est dans les conditions normales. Mais aujourd’hui, une seule preuve d’un départ et d’un retour de Syrie suffisait à le faire mettre en cabane. Parce que, à part les journalistes et certains humanitaires, on allait plus au Cham**** par hasard.

**** Cham: Syria. The ancient name of Syria is Bilad-el-Cham, which means Country of Cham, Noah’s son.