Paris - “France, you love it or leave it”. This is one of the most famous mottos of the French right wing politics à la Sarkozy. We ask a segment of the population to love France, but did we ever ask ourselves if France loves them?
Paris – “France, you love it or leave it”. This is one of the most famous mottos of the French right wing politics à la Sarkozy. We ask a segment of the population to love France, but did we ever ask ourselves if France loves them?
After being born and raised there, after living 23 years in France, today more than ever, I have clear answer to that question: I love France, but it doesn’t love me.
It has been – already! – around 8 years that the idea of leaving France crossed my mind. Since the Sarkozy years, the idea of exile came back on and off, as annoying as the buzzing sound of an insect that one would at times ignore and at time try to make go away.
In France, we constantly talk about the wealthy who leave the country for tax reasons, about the youth who leave for professional reasons, but we seldom speak of French Muslims who, just like me, choose exile in order to flee the suffocating and nauseating air of islamophobia.
And yet, we are thousands of individuals tired of the political atmosphere, contemplating settling under more favorable conditions or actually making the final leap. The City of London or Gulf countries are full of young French talents of Islamic faith. And unlike the rest of the youth, most of them didn’t make that leap for tax or financial reasons, but out of self-esteem. Talking with even just a few of them, one soon realizes that if it weren’t for the creeping islamophobia, many, if not most of them, would have stayed in France, even knowing that they often would have earned half of what they are currently earning abroad.
This is quite ironic knowing that those same French, most of them descendant of immigrants, are accused on an almost daily basis of loving France only out of interest, of being money suckers bleeding the country dry out of its welfare money.
So here am I, a young French Muslim, who graduated several times from great Parisian universities, a letter of acceptation from a great and prestigious American university in hand, boxes full of souvenirs and heavy hearted, now having to consider a future elsewhere than in the only country I have ever really known.
All those years, I was stricken with remorse at the idea of leaving France. I wanted to give everything to this country: my time, energy, money, life, everything. I wanted to give back to all those who gave me so much. I would have forgiven and forgotten all the insults. I would have wiped the slate clean about that father who yelled at his daughter and my ex-comrade in elementary school because she shouldn’t swim with me and forbade her to talk to me again. I would have pretended to forget all the times I was refused internships and jobs by people who said they don’t hire people like me. I would have turned the page on the constant taunts, insidious remarks or other more or less bad insults.
I would have pretended to forget that time I dared to demand some kind of a-politic approach in my university environment, after which I was subjected to a proper online bullying with people demanding me to shut up, supposedly because immigrants were being given an inch and were taking the mile, that we were taking advantage of the welfare system and that were living off of it. I was told that, knowing that my father immigrated in the 70’s and used to wake up at 4 am to work and came back home only at 11 pm.
I would have accepted any insult if only my state protected me, if I had hope. But I don’t have any anymore hope.
I dared to hope, once upon a time, that things would change. That it was just the old generation, that my generation is suffering from it and that the future generation would never experience this. But my generation is even worse than the old generation.
I wanted to fight against this daesh-ish idea that Muslims belong nowhere else than in Muslim land, against their French alter ego who think Muslims and Islam don’t belong in France. I wanted to fight against this discourse that considers Middle Eastern Christians national citizens while excluding me, and its Middle Eastern counterpart that talk about us as we belonged there while describing local Christians as an European outgrowth. I didn’t want to contribute in making this dichotomy and this clash of civilization real.
I cannot forget all the humiliations
Years have passed and things have gotten worse. I cannot forget anymore. I cannot turn a blind eye anymore. I cannot ignore the fact that we first forbade veiled girls to go to school, that they had to be homeschooled, cut out of the rest of the society. I cannot forget that we refused to let veiled mothers to take part in school activities when every class is lacking volunteers. I cannot forget that we forbade them to work outside while veiled and then afterwards, we forbade them to be veiled while working at home as baby-sitters – I cannot forget we asked these women to take off their veil in their own homes!!
I cannot forget all the controversies about halal meat, all those who tried to forbid halal slaughter altogether, the lies about Muslim kids supposedly stealing French snacks from non-Muslim comrades to forbade them from eating during Ramadan, the lies about Muslim parents making their kids late to school in the morning because they supposedly force them to pray the morning prayer, the prohibition of long skirts at school because they look too “Islamic”, the niqab/burka controversy.
I cannot forget the accusations of us being a Trojan horse and a fifth column, the suspicion of Islamic invasion, the theory that we are plotting to replace the indigenous white Europeans.
I cannot forget that the mosque next to my house when I was little was closed down because of supposed noise disturbance, despite the fact that right in front of there was a church that rang the bells so strongly on Sundays that I could hear it from my room. I cannot forget that when a mosque wanted to extend by buying the adjoining building, the mayor lost no time in getting it sold to somebody else just to avoid that.
I cannot forget that while this was happening throughout France, some officials dared to compare Muslims praying in the streets outside of mosques too small to make room for all of them as being akin to Nazi occupation. I cannot forget the racist stickers put outside of my home by right wing militants.
I cannot forget this woman in my entourage that was fired by her boss when she decided to put on the veil. I cannot forget that she told me he was about to cry because she made the company’s profits hit the roof, and as a good Anglo-Saxon he wanted to keep her, but was afraid the French clients wouldn’t sign any contract with them anymore as soon as they would see a veiled woman was in charge.
I cannot forget this other woman in my entourage, a very caucasian looking Maghrebi who owns a local business store. She confirmed being of North African descent after a client ran out to her, completely panicked and telling her what a “terrible rumor” was spreading about her in the neighborhood. After admitting her background, she saw the number of clients collapsing all of a sudden, only to hear that she was being subjected to an unofficial boycott by locals.
I cannot forget this man to whom it was refused to visit or rent apartments, until he started to use his wife’s -French- last name for appointments.
I cannot forget this one time when someone seriously compared the daily incivilities, potential attacks and “anti-white” racism that some people have to bear with the daily bullying and the INSTITUTIONNAL racism that French people of Islamic faith have to put up with on a daily basis, and that she further justified the latter with the former.
I cannot forget that I was seriously told that I knew nothing about racism as long as I didn’t experience what it was to work in a McDonalds while being white.
I cannot forget this one time when I was talking to a British friend, complaining about the fact that I was interested in a career in diplomacy, but that I didn’t want to go through the same thing than this woman, who after having rose to the top, ended up being fired when she decided to wear the veil.
I remember making the case about the powerful message France could have against the supporters of the clash of civilizations if it had an ambassador or a consul who wears the veil! What a great image we would then have in the eyes of the world, a country promoting democracy, meritocracy, embracing diversity and deconstructing all those patterns of division and hate! We could have been a way for France to show to the whole world what a magnificent nation we are, we would have been a bridge with Muslim countries, restoring our good image in their eyes.
I remember having a hard time swallowing when my friend, after a long silence, looked at me and told me: “but what a country France would be, if it considered you or any veiled Muslim woman for who you are and your real worth, for your intellect and not as an object or a tool of negotiations and even less as a foil in front of other nations…?”
What can one answer to that? What can we answer when we realize that we internalized oppression and we are reduced to giving ourselves a national worth only as a foil? What could I answer him then, when I knew that even the most liberals among my close ones were viscerally opposed to having a veiled diplomat?
I cannot forget this one time when I discussed meeting a highly ranked official within the Foreign Ministry with an acquaintance who happens to be an Arabic speaker like me. She revealed to me that this same official pushed her to apply, saying the Ministry was in shortage of Arabic speakers at every level and that it had a hard time filling the void because most of the Arabic speakers during the national application process and exams were…Arabs. And that the ministry would rather have non-Arab Arabic speakers!
I cannot forget I asked a former member of French secret services how he could explain that the Ministry of Interior was reduced to putting up posters in French universities who teach Arabic in which they were asking – almost urgently- Arabic speakers to join the Ministry as translators, while all other great security departments in the world rely on professional and well-trained teams. I was in shock when he said that the unofficial rule in that field was to not hire Arabs even if they had the needed qualifications, and that he gave up working for them because of the frustrations and errors generated by that policy.
Should I have been surprised then, given that although France used to be the heart of orientalism, it did everything it could to block the training of Arabic teachers in higher education and its otherwise teaching on a national level for years? It ends up today with an unbelievable gap between supply and demand that it shamefully tries to justify by saying it is in order to avoid the “communautarism” and “radicalization” that the teaching of this language would generate?
I cannot forget all of this anymore, because my country doesn’t want me. It doesn’t want me as I am, it wants a sanitized version of me, an invisible, a silent me.
I don’t have any hope left
Long before, despite the daily humiliations, I had hope that if not me, at least my nephews and nieces would be treated with respect and dignity. Despite everything, I wanted to stay, to fight for the upcoming generations for this French utopia, “Liberté Egalité Fraternité.” Those three words engraved in the rock, sometimes written in golden letters, but always so radiant and imposing, always regal. Those three words that filled me with wonder in all shapes and sizes, that I could never grow tired of, those words who lead so many Parisians to grumble at me after I stopped, without warning, in the middle of the road, looking up as if I were discovering them for the first time, my breath completely taken away, my throat tightened, my hands shaking and goose bumps all over me.
I wanted to believe in it so badly. I wanted France to be exactly like it was described to me, I wanted France to be what I was taught it was. I had so much hope that it might become it (again) one day.
Today, I don’t have any hope left. The racism of the older generation is not going to disappear. Many – too many- among the future elite, politicians and judges are stained by an even more vicious racism than their parents or grandparents. This is something one realizes after being acquainted with them, after sitting in the same benches and cafés with them, after attending the same conferences, debates, reunions.
I have zero hope for France to change. And so, I don’t have a reason to fight anymore. I don’t have any hope anymore, at a time when racism is spoken up with pride. Even all its amazing inhabitants, my great fellows, can’t keep my hope alive, because I believe on day they won’t be able to do anything to stand up to this institutional monster anymore.
So, I decided to leave France. I love France, but it doesn’t love me. France hurts me and abuses me. I deserve to be loved by a country that doesn’t call me a money sucking parasite and criminal. I deserve to be loved by a country that will not spit on me on the subway and won’t ask for “the likes of me” to be deported. A country that will not demand my services while at the same time denigrating me and them.
And maybe I don’t deserve that love. However, I sure do not deserve that hate.
I made the right choice
Watching the pictures of these policemen ordering a woman to strip off her clothes on Nice’s beaches, I realize I made the right choice. I could never regret it. My family, my friends, Paris and its crazy people and spirit, I’ll miss all of it. But I will never regret leaving France.
I will never be able to give back to France what it gave to me. I will never be able to make everyone realize what she owed me and that I had to snatch from her instead, all the crumbs I had to pick up and collect. And I will never be able to respond to all those who, when they hear me speak so lovingly and patriotically of France, tell me “I wish all Maghrebis showed as much gratitude as you”, and tell them that the gratitude I show, I show it as a human being conscious of her luck. I am full of gratitude because I realize the chance I have had to be born and raised in the right place at the right time, and I believe it is the kind of gratitude it is logic to have on a national basis and not on an ethnic one.
I cannot forget, on the other hand, that I am as a friend of mine would say a “statistical anomaly”. My father never went to school, and my mother is illiterate. I am of North African descent and I am Muslim. I should have never become who I am nor shouldn’t have had all the opportunities I have today. I am seriously aware that if I have them today, it is not thanks to France but despite France given the fact that sociological studies show I am a small exception and certainly not the rule. I cannot forget that for each person like me who managed to make it through, thousands of others are facing doors being constantly slammed in their faces.
I am aware that while I had teachers that looked at me, at the same time thoughtful and confident and said, as if I weren’t there, “she is going to go far”, thousands of others were being told they wouldn’t end up anywhere and had to reconsider their life goals.
I will never have the time to make it understood to all those who say diversity is a richness that it’s false, it is not true for everyone, it is not a richness when you have the wrong origin or the wrong religion. It is not a richness when you are cursed by birth. It is not a richness when your very existence turns to a curse in those circumstances. I will never be able to explain how tired I am of some people’s utter incapacity to grasp the complexities of our world.
Because I am nothing but a product, an infant of that complexity. And I am tired of having every pieces of me deconstructed and rejected. I am spending too much time healing what seems like an eternal wound, a wound I am unable to blame on any individuals, groups or entities, a deeply rooted pain I carry by virtue of being born and alive. I am spending too much energy trying to assemble the never ending puzzle of my belonging. I can’t let it be destroyed anymore.
The late Mahmoud Darwish once said “my freedom is to be what you don’t want me to be.” France doesn’t allow me to freely be who I am, French and Muslim. Thus, the only way for me to keep being myself is to leave, and finally be free to be who I am: a French Muslim.
Some might rejoice at the idea of having one less Muslim on French territory, and some close ones ask me not to leave to not do them this favor. To those, I say that if the partisans of hate lose the battle, then it wouldn’t have been a favor, and if they do win the battle by making more Muslims flee, let it be known they would have been the authors of a self-fulfilling prophecy: by constantly accusing all French Muslims of being criminals and idlers, they will end up living only with idlers, because all those among us who have the intellectual or financial means of leaving will do so.
Some will accuse me of leaving France after getting so much out of it. To those I say, first and foremost, that I am just like any French and that I got nothing more from it than what it promised indiscriminately to all its children. Furthermore, France’s worth to my eyes isn’t pecuniary, and if it weren’t betraying both itself and its population, not even the whole world’s wealth could get me to leave it. But since it is betraying itself, not even the whole world’s wealth could make me stay there.
You cannot at the same time denigrate me, treat me like a second class citizen because of my origins and our faith and demand us not to leave.
To those who think they are neutral, and say I made a logical choice by understanding the position of France on those matters and choosing to respect France’s law by leaving I say: your heart sickening apathy played a huge part in me losing any hope of change for our beautiful country. I do not and won’t ever either understand or accept all the statements and actions aimed against the French Muslim community. Laws can change and can be fought, and I might have lost hope but thousands and hopefully millions of French -Muslim and non-Muslim alike- do value our humanist heritage and hold our country to a high standard, and as long as they have hope, they will not cease to try to revive French spirit.
Finally, I will never be able to thank enough those who supported me, put up with me, accepted me, whether friends, neighbors, teachers or just acquaintances.
You are the reason why, no matter how far I go, I can never stop being linked to this nation. If you have even an ounce of hope for the future of France, fight for it, I will support you. If you lose any hope, save yourselves, I will help you. I am not abandoning you, I am leaving because I love you and because I don’t want the bad encounters and the bad moments to take over the good ones and to take over you in both my heart and spirit.
I am leaving so that I don’t end up being ungrateful towards you and make you equivalent to those who hurt me. I am leaving to safeguard what’s left of good in my heart and my memories, so that I can keep on loving France, even from afar. So that I can still have good things left to say about it, so that I can still proudly talk about our cuisine, the subtleties of our language, our sense of fashion, our literature, our arts. So that I don’t have to be in denial or stay silent when I end up feeling embarrassed whenever someone describes France as the country of freedom and human rights, too ashamed to give a bad image of my country by contradicting them, and too honest to deny the reality or hide it.
I am leaving in order to flee an unrequited love, a crazy and passionate love, an eternal but an unshared love.
I am leaving France, but France will never stop living within me.