“I dream in French”

This has nothing to do with travelling Africa Clockwise, but as the promotion of satire is the Sampson family business, both in comedy and carnival, I take the duty very seriously, and must speak up.

The day after Ruby[1] flew back to SA to start high school, Jan 7th, 12 people were shot dead at the Charlie Hebdo offices.

I don’t think there was a single news report in the first three days here that didn’t use the adjective ‘barbaric’; it was bandied around irresponsibly, by leaders from France to the UK to Canada, who waved it about like a loaded machine gun. The word primarily means ‘savagely cruel’ but also ‘primitive, unsophisticated, heathen’ and comes from the Greek word barbarikos, from barbaros meaning ‘foreign’.

The news reporters could have chosen to use the words ‘brutal’ ‘vicious’ ‘ruthless’ ‘pitiless’ or even ‘inhuman’ instead of ‘barbaric’, but their knee jerk reaction was to choose the word that emphasised the foreign-ness, the other-ness of the gunmen.

‘Barbarian’ is how the ancient Greeks described non-Greek peoples they regarded as culturally inferior – in the same way the English came to employ the word ‘boorish’, from boer the Afrikaans word for farmer, as ‘crude’.

On Jan 9th I woke up and listened to live radio coverage of the OJ Simpson-style chase with helicopters and trailing press and found myself praying for those Kouachi brothers. They didn’t have a hope of getting a hearing, let alone a trial, although I longed to have them explain their twisted motivation. I knew they’d be dead by the time I got back from buying a new uniform for Zola[2].

Well, it was what they wanted.

At 8am on Jan 10th I heard the first balanced coverage on Radio 4 since the attack. There was an interview with an imam, Mehdi Bouzid, from Aubervilliers, a suburb with an unemployment rate twice the national average, where the Kouachis grew up. He described the younger brother Chérif as basically “a good guy”, recalled playing football with him and said he had recognised him in the video footage of the attack by the way he walked. He described sadly how he had “lost” Chérif to radicalisation a couple of years ago, although he had tried to persuade him against leaving for Iraq: “I told him it’s not a solution, you don’t know for whom you are fighting.”

When asked to speculate on why the brothers had taken this course of action he said, in halting English, “First of all, vengeance for Islamic countries. When you look at the pictures on the internet, the TV screen, always some Palestinian people die, some Iraqis, some Syrian people, the rape of Muslim women, and they think the West is responsible about this.”

The imam sighed and continued “I don’t justify any attacks, OK, but when you look at their past, they’re orphans; when you don’t have any identity, when you don’t belong… we can make some act very, very ugly.”

When asked if Charlie Hebdo went too far by mocking the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the imam replied, “When you notice that something will hurt me, you have to respect me, but Charlie Hebdo don’t respect us… When you have some Muslim or Arabic name, it’s very difficult to find some job, to make your prayer, to wear your veil. I went to Paris yesterday, I feel the eyes on me, it’s eyes with fear and angry and hate on me, I feel that.”

The imam does not condone the brothers’ actions, but he understands the emotions of alienated young men who grew up being made to feel like foreigners in their own country. “I don’t have any power here. I was born here, I have my family here, I dream in French, I am French… but if we continue like this, in a few weeks or months there will be some bad things in France.”

While planning the details of their dreadful deed, did the Kouachi brothers not dream in French?
Did you know that Muslims make up 12% of the French population, but 70% of the prison population?

The morning before, I had to turn off a radio magazine interview with a 35 year old Japanese man who was defending manga and its depiction of underage girls in sexual situations. These are not forbidden under Japanese law, unlike pornographic photos of minors, which were banned last year. Most Europeans would not see any distinction between pornographic photos of children and hand drawn cartoons, finding both deeply offensive to our morals. But manga is entrenched in Japanese culture as high art and considered in different way – one I obviously can’t understand or stomach.

Is some Freedom of Expression more expressible than others?
Are some freer than others to express?

If you haven’t already, please check out some Charlie Hebdo cartoons here.

In the UK and Europe, blasphemy isn’t the offence it once was, capable of having you excommunicated by the Pope for example, a fate worse than death in the 14-16th centuries. The revered tradition of laïcité in France cannot be strictly translated as ‘secularism’, because La Republique goes beyond the mere separation of church and state. One might go so far as to say that the laïcité expressed in the passing of a law banning the wearing of the niqab in 2010 is a more ‘militant’, ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ interpretation of secularism.

It is a doctrine I subscribed to before coming to live in South Africa, a country that aspires to “belong to all who live in it”, never mind what accident of slavery or immigration brought your ancestors here.

Yesterday Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek declared “How fragile the belief of an Islamist must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper”. I agree that the brothers Kouachi felt fragile and threatened and powerless in a society that was never going to allow them to succeed at anything but martyrdom. But I also wonder how fragile the liberté, egalité and fraternité of a society must be if it feels threatened by a woman in a scarf.

Like Voltaire, I may not agree with everything you say, Charlie Hebdo, but I would defend to the death your right to say it. Should it not follow, that although I may not feel that wearing niqab is in the best interests of all women, I should defend to the death a woman’s right to wear it?

PM quote

[1] our white-skinned daughter, who flew back to South Africa, the country of her birth
[2] our black-skinned son, for his new English school in the village of his father’s birth
who are both lucky enough to feel they belong…


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3 Responses to “I dream in French”

  1. Peter Wallis says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and erudite letter! May I comment that I was led to believe the main reason for the banning in public of the niqab was to enable authority to more easily discern woman from man in view of the terrorist suicide patterns, the man being the chosen vehicle to carry and detonate explosives hidden and strapped to their bodies.

  2. Bernard Reinosé says:

    Personnellement, je trouve en effet leurs actions “barbares”. Dans le français comptemporain, le sens s’est éloigné de l’originel. Il n’y a aucune excuse pour leurs actes. Ils n’ont pas tués que des caricaturistes, et pas que des français d’origine européenne ( deux arabes, une antillaise, quatre juifs ), dont certains avait peut-être eu la même enfance. Sans les forces de l’ordre, ils en auraient tuer d’autres. S’il n’y a pas de procès, c’est parce qu’eux n’en voulait pas. Mourrir en martyr, quelle gloire ! La justice et la police aurait bien aimé les interroger. Bien des questions resteront sans réponses.
    J’aurais aimé faire un dessin sur l’arrivée des mécréants ( Cabu et ses camarades ) devant St Pierre, pendant que les trois assassins retrouvaient leurs camarades salafistes en enfer. Cela aurait-il fait rire les caricaturistes athées ? Malheureusement je n’ai pas le talent de Cabu pour dessiner, ni celui de Mark pour faire rire.
    Je mourrais aussi pour le droit de Charlie de publier ce qu’il veulent mais certainement pas pour le droit des femmes de porter la burqua ou le niqab. Le salafisme ou le wahabisme sont un danger pour tous, pour les musulmans aussi. Dans le monde entier, des femmes aimeraient avoir le droit de pas le porter. Le niqab est le symbole extérieur d’une pensée rétrograde qui ne mérite pas d’être défendu. Depuis le début de l’année, les camarades des tueurs fous de Paris ont fait des milliers de mort en Irak, en Syrie, au Liban et plus près de nous au Nigéria, au Cameroun et au Mali. Sans parler de ceux dont on ne parle pas au Yemen, en Somalie, en Afghanistan ou en Indonésie.
    Quand rentrez-vous à Noordhoek, cordialement.

    • Cher Bernard,

      Tellement agréable de vous entendre, et désolée pour le retard de ma réponse, je me bats avec ma santé ici au Royaume-Uni. Vous savez mon français ne est pas assez forte pour discuter de ces choses compliquées, mais je vais faire de mon mieux! Je regrette ces meurtres tellement, et les décès au Nigeria de la même semaine, je voulais juste souligner à quel point les mots peuvent être dangereux. Je estime que le gouvernement et les médias ont une responsabilité pour calmer les tensions, pas les intensifier. Même si je suis d’accord avec vous qu’il n’y a aucune excuse pour de telles actions, si nous pouvions sympathiser un peu plus avec les frustrations des minorités qui se sentent exclus et détestés, nous pourrions être en mesure de ralentir la campagne de recrutement. Comment ne désespérée un jeune homme à se sentir de choisir la mort comme son choix de carrière plus attrayante?

      Dans un autre point, je suis reconnaissante que ce blog http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/olivier-tonneau/110115/charlie-hebdo-letter-my-british-friends m’a aidé à comprendre un peu mieux l’écart entre l’anglais et la culture française, et le fond pour le style satirique plus agressifs “Take No Prisoners” “pas de vaches sacrées” de le dernier. Mais là encore, ce ne souligne mon point que nous devons tous ses efforts afin de comprendre la distance entre nos points de départ culturelle fondamentaux: se il peut y avoir autant de différence entre l’Angleterre et la France, séparés par seulement 22 miles de l’eau, comment beaucoup plus difficile de combler le fossé entre l’Europe et beaucoup plus géographiquement cultures séparées comme le Japon ou ceux du Moyen-Orient?

      Nous espérons que vous et Gina allez bien – nous pourrions vous voyons plus tôt que vous le pensez,
      Sam xx

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