Amuse-Bouche No. 14: Ramadan, Madame ?by Julia FreyRamadan runs for 30 days. In 2009, it's Friday, 21 August, to Saturday, 19 September.There’s nothing more amusing than two foreigners trying to communicate in a third language. I’m having trouble understanding Mahmoud’s Algerian-accented French. He, in turn, cracks up whenever I say his name (a variant of Mohammed), because my hard American consonants make it sound like mammouth (mammoth).He’s one of 5 to 6 million Muslim Maghrebins (North Africans, i.e., natives of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya) who live in France. Mahmoud started building our terrace in July. Then Ramadan came, and for a month, from sunrise to sunset, he and the other musulman (Muslim) workers neither ate nor drank but continued to work as usual, or almost. They did shorten their hours, going home at quatorze heures (14:00—two p.m.) to avoid insolation (sunstroke). Here in the Midi, it’s hot sous le soleil de midi (in the noonday sun). Midi, as we see, means not only noon, but also one of the cardinal points: south. For the South of France, it’s capitalized.One day, Mahmoud explains to me in a friendly way that he’s not “Arabe”. The word Arabe is the correct word for a person or thing of Arab nationality or origin -- as in the Institut du Monde Arabe. But it can have racist overtones. The French dictionary gives as one, “dated” definition for Arabe: “a tough, greedy usurer”. Coincidentally, it gives the same phrase as a meaning for juif (Jew). “Chez l’Arabe”, the French often say when referring to small groceries run by North Africans -- the ones which are open long hours, seven days a week, even when everything else is closed. French-born children of Maghrebins are not French but Beurs (Arabes in verlan, a youth slang, something like pig Latin, that reverses syllables of French words).Recently, La Marseillaise (France’s national anthem) was sifflé (literally: whistled—i.e., booed) in the Stade de France (a sports stadium) at the beginning of a “friendly” France-Tunisia football (soccer) match. The perpetrators were French citizens -- kids in the 12-16 age range, most of whose parents came from Africa and the Maghreb. When questioned, the adolescents, all of whom were born in France, said they do not feel French, that the “French” won’t let them be French, singling them out for contempt and insults. They aren’t making this up. But everybody feels offended in this debate. French autochtones (people born and raised in the culture) complain that they are swamped by Arab cooking smells, language and music, that they no longer feel chez eux (at home) in their own country. As an immigrant, I naturally think it’s normal to continue to speak your native language at home, listen to music from your culture, cook familiar dishes and above all continue to practice your own religion. But Beurs are in a double-bind. Mahmoud correctly points out to me that his sons, all Beurs, are also French autochtones, born and raised in France. And they feel lost when they visit the ‘old country’ -- where they are considered French.To counter everybody’s alienation, attempts have been made to integrate immigrant cultures into French life. For Ramadan, our local grande surface (literally: “large surface”, meaning supermarket) set up a huge tent as a souk. Modeled on an Islamic covered market, it had individual stands selling décor, housewares and délices d’Orient (Middle Eastern specialties).L’Orient (also a point cardinal: east) is another complicated word. In English, Orient refers to Asia, but in France it often means what is officially called le Moyen Orient (Egypte, Syrie, Israël, Jordanie, Arabie, Liban, Irak, Turquie), mostly countries with predominantly Muslim populations. In the 19th century, l’Orient was misused to mean any Muslim country, including those of the Maghreb. As young men, artists like Delacroix and writers like Flaubert and Nerval took a “voyage en Orient”, usually across North Africa through Egypt, to experience the “exotic” peoples and cultures of the region. If Flaubert’s correspondence is to be believed, they often seriously misbehaved in these cultures, engaging in sexual and narcotic experiments they would never have considered at home. “Les voyages forment la jeunesse”, as the French proverb goes (literally: “Travel trains the young”, i.e., “Travel broadens the mind”).“Oriental” influences on Occidental culture aren’t limited to hookahs and belly-dancing. Mahmoud mentions mathematics, medecine, literature, architecture. At the souk I bought a book called Mots Français d’Origine Arabe (2008), one of no fewer than eight paperbacks authored in the last two years by Beirut-based Nas E. Boutammina, vehemently attempting to rectify the exclusion of Arab influence from the “official” history of the West. He may be obsessed, but he has a point. Although French influence on English is widely recognized and English corruption of French widely deplored, Arabic contributions to both languages go largely unrecognized. Boutammina provides a non-exhaustive list of 573 words that directly or indirectly, via Greek and Latin, are now in common French usage. French-English homonyms like algèbre and algorithme, abricot, bagage, bâton, botanie, cable, café, carafe and coton all come from Arabic—and that’s just after skimming as far as “C”. Other Arabic words appear, unchanged, in French slang, like toubib (doctor), bled (the boonies), nouba (party), gourbi (shack), and kif-kif (the same, equal), not to be confused with kif (tobacco mixed with hashish or marijuana).The French may be tuning in. Under the entry arabe, the dictionnaire Grand Robert lists nearly 400 French words of Arabic origin. Will cultural relations improve? Inch Allah (May God’s will be done).© Julia Frey 2009
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  • Comme vos livres, M Boutammina. Je vous félicite de votre tentative de rééquilibrer notre perception des influences arabes dans la culture occidentale.
  • Merci Julia . Je vais montrer l'article à mes élèves du lycée. On apprend toujours! c'est pareille ici avec les gens du Mexique, Guatemala, Ecuador, etc...
  • I copy here a comment that arrived on my personal page which is intended as a comment on this article:

    At 1:17am on September 21, 2009, Myrtho Felix said…

    "Le tribalisme règne dans bcp de cultures, ..."
    Qui dit Mieux! C'est un sujet qui me touche profondément.

    Le tribalisme a fait le malheur de l'humanité. Les civilises, oui les civilisés en ont fait un outil pour mettre certaines nations à genoux. J'en ai marre. Curieusement, mission une fois accomplie, ils se lavent les mains à la manière de Pilate... Juste pour ne dire que ça...Bref!

    Je retourne maintenant à mon boulot. C'est un grand plaisir d'être des vôtres. Souhaite vous entendre incessament.

    Myrtho Felix
  • I hope we will get there one day.
    A la prochaine fois
  • En fait, ce dont je me rends compte (car j'ai aussi montré cet article en brouillon à un copain tunisien) est de combien le racisme est un "touchy subject" (matière sensible) dans les cultures frçses et américaines. Mon pote m'a tout de suite dit "pourquoi ne pas dire que les Français sont xénophobes? Autant appeler les choses par leur nom". Mais ensuite il m'a avoué que ses amis tunisiens sont partisans de bin Laden et Saddam, car ils ont eu le courage de confronter l'Occident. Le tribalisme règne dans bcp de cultures, et tous les lieux communs font bon prétexte, la loi du plus fort, l'absent a toujours tort, blood is thicker than water, etc. Dommage que nos similarités n'emportent pas sur nos différences.
  • Dear Juia Frey,
    Merci d'avoir pris le temps de lire mon commentaire, En fait je ne pretends pas vous donner une lecon(lesson) mais juste partager avec vous ma crainte que ce que vous pensez etre rigolo peut, surtout quand il s'agit de noms de personnes, etre mal interprete. Mais je ne doute pas de votre sincerite et de votre sens de l'humour.

    Ps. I meant "even if you CAN''T pronounce"
  • Dear Amadou Ba,

    Please forgive me if I've offended you. I guess I wasn't clear in the article. I was making fun of myself! I had no idea I couldn't pronounce Mahmoud's name correctly. I was doing my best. It was he who laughed! If he explained to me that I was calling him a "mammouth" I hope it was because he knew I wasn't trying to insult him. At least he felt comfortable enough to correct me. What's embarrassing is that despite my best attempts, I can't seem to make my consonants soft enough. So I avoid saying his name, now. I just call him "vous".
  • Yes I understand it can be amusing for two foreigners to try to communicate in a third language but please, please please, even if you can pronounce the name dont be thinking about an animal, I think that was not funny at all.
  • Great entry! Back when I knew very little about French social dynamics (not that I can claim much more knowledge now), I remember an Algerian friend of mine giving me a crash course on what it was like being of Algerian descent in France; he said, "It's basically like being black in the United States" - which makes me wonder how long we'll wait to see French president of North African heritage.
  • Although I think French people are aware that they are surrounded by ''oriental'' influences (not only belly dancing and hookahs). Arabs/magrhébins and french have a strong and heavy past in common, and I think the inner conflicts you are describing was more historical than cultural in the first place. That's why it seems that the first immigrants felt more ok with being French than their children and grand children. We could talk about Italian, Portuguese, Spaniards' rejection (which immigration occured earlier ) too. If the conflict became cultural, it is mostly because of international relations : the conflict between Palestine and Israel, 9/11...and the way this cultural breakdown and generalization was embedded by generations who were willing to take a stance on an international issue. Because their origins (cultural origins) is depicted/stigmatized in the conflict. The uneasiness of the situation is indeed fairly recent.

    I don't know if you've heard of Mister Hortefeux comments during UMP's Université d'Eté. For my generation these sounds totally unacceptable. We (French) are willing to live together, in a secular way : no melting pot, no assimilation... : multiculturalism. Your culture defines you and if it is jeopardized, you automatically feel threatened and react.

    Thank you for this interesting article Julia!
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