Identity and Identification in Azouz Begag’s Le Gone du Chaâba and Béni ou le paradis privé
Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognised by him [...] It is on that other being, on recognition by that other being, that his own human worth and reality depend. (Fanon 216-17)
The dependence of one’s “human worth and reality” on mutual recognition, highlighted by Frantz Fanon in his seminal text Black Skin White Masks, first published in 1952, plays a central role in the construction of identity in Azouz Begag’s first two novels, Le Gone du Chaâba and Béni ou le paradis privé, published in 1986 and 1989 respectively. Using contemporary post-colonial criticism to carry out a close reading of these two texts, this article will take into account the memory of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), which marked Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule, and its connection to France’s current attitude towards ethnic difference. Subsequently, the effect of these factors on considerations of contemporary Franco-Algerian selfhood will be examined, and the analysis will go on to demonstrate how an Algerian presence in France, forty-eight years after the end of the Algerian War, continues to come into conflict with the French Republic’s constitutional definition of nationhood, which favours unity of the nation by uniformity rather than an embracing of multiple identities.
More specifically, in the first part of the article, the analysis of the primary texts will reflect how the memory of the Algerian War in France is characterised by silence. As a result, it denies the children of Algerian migrants – these children having been born and/or brought up in France – the ability to identify with their culture of origin. Benjamin Stora’s work on the memory of the Algerian War is key to understanding France’s lack of acknowledgement of what he calls a “war without a name” (“une ‘guerre sans nom’”; La Gangrène et l’oubli 8). Stora’s account of the lies and repression which characterise France’s memory of the war is enhanced by Jo McCormack’s more recent analysis of the various ways in which the memory of the Algerian War is transmitted in France. In Collective Memory: France and the Algerian War (1954-1962), published in 2007, McCormack focuses on three vectors of memory – the education system, the family, and the media – which are “crucial to long term identity formation”, and demonstrates that remembrance of the war is still characterised by silence and conflict (5). In addition to denying the children of Algerian migrants a transmitted Algerian identity and history, this “form of forgetting [...] which neglects to recognise the war” (“forme d’oubli [...] qui vise à ne pas reconnaître la guerre”; Stora, La Guerre d’Algérie quarante ans après 132) also prevents them from identifying with French culture, since “recognition of one’s history in French history and an integration of individual, family, and group histories into the wider dominant French history is crucial to a sense of feeling French and being accepted as such” (McCormack 115). Thus, both cultures that form the identity of the children of Algerian migrants prove to be elusive, resulting in an ‘in-between’ identity which, in Begag’s first two novels, leads to a desire on the part of the respective protagonists to identify with an impression of ‘Frenchness’ in order to affirm their “human worth and reality” (Fanon 217). This desire for identification with French rather than Algerian culture is based on the way in which ‘Frenchness’ is set up as an ideal to be aspired to, and will be discussed further in the latter part of this article. To complement the historical perspectives used, I refer to the work of Alec G. Hargreaves who, in Immigration and Identity in Beur Fiction: Voices from the North African Community in France, published in 1991, provides a wide-ranging analysis of the literary output of contemporary francophone writers of North African origin. Hargreaves’s text is principally dedicated to works published in the 1980s, including the two novels analysed in this article. Therefore, Hargreaves’s work is used throughout to underline my own examination of Begag’s novels, as well as to provide the sociological context in which authors such as Begag are writing.
The ways in which the respective protagonists of the primary texts attempt to negotiate an identity crisis, resulting from the clash between their ethnic origins and the culture in which they are brought up, will be the focus of the second part of the article. This will analyse the extent to which identification with prevailing notions of what it is to be French can be realised. To this end, Fanon’s work in Black Skin White Masks will be used in conjunction with a recent article by Andrew Asibong on the notion of the liquidation of non-white identity. The latter concept recalls Fanon’s discussion of the dilemma faced by the person of colour to “turn white or disappear” (100, original’s italics), thus indicating the continued relevance of Fanon’s work, fifty-eight years on, especially in considerations of the contestations between hybrid and universal identities. Indeed, by relating the attempts of Begag’s protagonists at identification to the ideas of Fanon and Asibong, the article will present conclusions on the difficulty, if not impossibility, of the hybridity of Franco-Algerian selfhood existing within the dominant model of French nationhood. To elucidate the wider implications of this model of nationhood, I will refer to a recent article by Patrick Simon on the stance of Nicolas Sarkozy’s government towards ethnic difference which shows how France remains hostile to the acceptance of ethnic diversity.
Contemporary Franco-Algerian Identity
A striking element of both Le Gone du Chaâba and Béni ou le paradis privé is their lack of reference to the Algerian War or the colonial past shared by France and Algeria. This is a factor that not only points towards a reluctance on the part of the protagonists to learn about their transmitted cultural history, but it further intimates that the protagonists are not necessarily aware that there is a history to discover, reflecting a wider lack of recognition of this time in France’s history. This lack of recognition stems from France’s own initial refusal to acknowledge that a war was taking place at the time, the government preferring the use of “euphemisms like ‘peacekeeping operations’” to describe the outbreak of armed conflict in Algeria (McCormack 2). According to Stora, the very use of the word ‘war’ would have been an admission of the failure of the Republic as “one and indivisible” (“une et indivisible”; La Gangrène et l’oubli 16). Thus, the connection between recognising the war and France’s constitutional definition of nationhood emerges. Although, in 1999, the government belatedly acknowledged that a war had taken place, McCormack’s research illustrates that the conflict is still characterised by “repressed and occluded memories” (McCormack 11). Thus, what emerges is that a double effacement of the war occurs: firstly, in France’s denial that a war was taking place at the time; secondly, in the lack of exposure given to the war in the construction of France’s collective memory after the belated acknowledgement that a war did occur. This double effacement perpetuates the idea that recognising the war does not conform to the French Republic being “one and indivisible”, and serves to keep the children of Algerian migrants excluded from this singular conception of majority French identity. The way in which this exclusion manifests itself in Béni ou le paradis privé, and the lack of conciliation regarding the protagonist’s ‘in-between’ identity, will be the focus of the current section.
The concluding scenes of Béni ou le paradis privé reflect both the protagonist’s and French society’s conflicting positions with regard to the former’s dual identity. The first of these occurs when the protagonist, Béni, and his group of friends are about to drive to a nightclub, in a scene which represents Béni’s rejection of his Algerian heritage in favour of immersing himself in French society. The latter is represented by the girl whom Béni is eagerly looking forward to meeting at the nightclub. Her name, France, marks her as an unmistakeable embodiment of the “land of acceptance and integration dreamed of by Béni” (Hargreaves, Immigration and Identity 61). Uneasy after having lied to his father about where he is going, a reflective Béni starts to contemplate the routine elements of his daily life, in which appears a rare and seemingly out of place reference to the Algerian War (161). Such a reference suggests that Béni is aware that the war forms a part of his personal history, but that it is as significant (or insignificant) to him as the more mundane aspects of his life. Indeed, in his eagerness to meet France at the nightclub, Béni swiftly dismisses his consideration of the war and the potential impact that it may have on his identity – “Too bad, I’ve decided to go to France” (“Tant pis, j’avais décidé d’aller vers France”; 161). Thus, Béni’s limited knowledge of the significance of his cultural history leads him to renounce that part of his identity in favour of France. However, this switch in allegiance ends unsuccessfully with Béni ultimately being refused entry into the nightclub due to the racist cashier recognising that he is North African. The incident reflects the difficulties that the children of Algerian migrants face in their desire to be accepted in French majority ethnic society. With his protagonist being refused entry into the nightclub, and, as a result, failing to fulfil his romantic meeting with France, Begag demonstrates that the “land of acceptance and integration dreamed of by Béni” is unattainable for his protagonist, regardless of his keen desire to be recognised by French society (Hargreaves, Immigration and Identity in Beur Fiction 61).
The protagonist’s failure to conform to either of the cultures that make up his dual identity is reinforced in the final scene of Béni ou le paradis privé, which is marked by Béni departing the mortal world. It is not entirely clear whether or not Béni has died, but there is at least a symbolic death with Béni being taken up into the stars by a shadowy apparition (173). This ambiguous conclusion is all the more significant when we consider Béni’s preceding rejection from the nightclub. Béni is refused entry despite his attempts to disguise his Arab features by straightening his distinctly Arab, curly hair. Indeed, according to Hargreaves, the desire to erase markers that designate them as Algerian is not uncommon amongst the children of migrants:
In the face of the stigmatizing gaze of the majority ethnic Other, inherited to a large extent from the colonial period, many second-generation Algerians have acknowledged that in seeking to find a place for themselves in contemporary French society, they have at times been tempted to bury or efface references to their Algerian ancestry (“Generating Migrant Memories” 218).
However, Béni’s failure to successfully hide references to his cultural origins demonstrates that this conformity to hegemonic notions of French identity is by no means an ideal solution to the exclusion of Franco-Algerian identities from majority ethnic society. Indeed, such a situation recalls the dilemma faced by the person of colour to “turn white or disappear” (Fanon 100). As Fanon stresses, rather than be confronted with this dilemma, the person of colour “should be able to take cognizance of a possibility of existence” (100). Yet, the racism directed towards Béni at the end of the novel, the futility of his disguise and his subsequent ‘death’ all indicate that this “possibility of existence” is far from realisable.
In addition to indicating the exclusion of the children of Algerian migrants from majority ethnic society, the ending of Béni ou le paradis privé also demonstrates that this exclusion is not automatically mitigated by the possibility to construct a singular Algerian identity; the choice is to “turn white or disappear”, not a choice between white and Arab identity (Fanon 100, my italics). Realising the futility of his disguise, Béni rubs his hair in an attempt to make his curls reappear, but is unable to do so (173). This is his final act before the apparition takes him away. Thus, he leaves the world rejected from majority ethnic French identity, but still in search of his transmitted Algerian identity, corroborating Fanon’s idea that by failing to turn white, he disappears. Furthermore, this illustrates Fanon’s claim that “for the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white” (12). Béni has failed in his attempt to recreate himself as French, as white, but neither can he “rediscover the curls of [his] true skin” (“retrouver les bouclettes de mon cuir véritable”; Begag, Béni 173). This reflects his inability to exist only within the limits of the cultural background which he renounced in order to gain acceptance into majority ethnic French society. Thus, taking into account Fanon’s above claim, I would argue that, if the future is not white for Béni, then there is no future for him.
Thus, Béni ou le paradis privé exemplifies the uncertain, ‘in-between’ space occupied by the children of Algerian migrants in a society which upholds “a republican concept of nationhood inimical to the recognition of ethnic differences” (Hargreaves, “Generating Migrant Memories” 220). This claim refers to one of the fundamental principles of the French Republic, that of “equality being forged by unity, itself based on uniformity and the invisibility of ethnic difference” (“l’égalité forgée par l’unité, elle-même reposant sur l’uniformité et l’indivisibilité des distinctions ‘d’origine’”; Simon 446). The latter evocation of French hostility to ethnic difference clashes with the idea that, in order to be accepted in majority ethnic French society, the significance of the Algerian past in wider French history needs to be recognised. In the case of Béni, his exclusion from French society, due to his ethnic background, is perpetuated by the lack of recognition of his cultural history within the majority ethnic collective memory. Ultimately, the continued disregard of the Algerian War and the colonial past leads to a repetition of colonial oppositions which, in the contemporary period, confines Franco-Algerian identity to the periphery of white, majority ethnic identity. However, I will contend that this repetition of oppression also initiates the desire on the part of the children of Algerian migrants to escape from this marginalisation and affirm their identity in French society. A closer examination of this will be the focus of the next section.
Identity and Identification
The previous section argued that the dual, divisive identity of the children of Algerian migrants is not compatible with France’s constitutional definition of nationhood. This ultimately sets white, majority ethnic French identity as something to be aspired to, as exemplified by the dilemma “turn white or disappear” (Fanon 100). The following section will expand on this idea, and contend that this dilemma initiates more than just the desire to eradicate references to one’s ethnic difference. What emerges in both Béni ou le paradis privé and Le Gone du Chaâba is that the protagonists seek to affect a kind of purification of their consciousness and reconfigure themselves as white. Fanon illustrates this conflict in the consciousness of the person of colour as follows:
Moral consciousness implies a kind of scission, a fracture of consciousness into a bright part and an opposing black part. In order to achieve morality, it is essential that the black, the dark, the Negro vanish from consciousness. Hence a Negro is forever in combat with his own image (194).
This process of erasure and recreation corresponds to the notion of liquidation propounded by Andrew Asibong in his exploration of the “sickening dissolution” of the white fantasy-subject (111). This liquidation is made possible by “the process of fantasy self-reinvention (or ‘self-improvement’) whereby the protagonists of various narratives seek to transgress identity borders in order to assert their ‘whiteness’ (and thus socio-cultural and ‘corporeal legitimacy’)” (Kiwan 14). These observations are particularly relevant to Le Gone du Chaâba and Béni ou le paradis privé, in which the respective protagonists both attempt to eradicate aspects that mark them out as Arab, either corporeal or non-corporeal, replacing these Arab features with features that they perceive to belong to the majority ethnic population. The association between whiteness, morality and human worth (“socio-cultural and ‘corporeal legitimacy’”) underlined by Fanon and upheld by Asibong is, thus, very much present in Begag’s two novels, and the ways in which the respective protagonists deal with this association shape considerations of the possibility, or otherwise, of fluid Franco-Algerian identities being assimilated in French nationhood.
While the self-reinvention attempted by the eponymous protagonist in Béni ou le paradis privé is not a fantasy reinvention, Béni’s attempt to eradicate references to his origins does exemplify a desire to assert an impression of ‘whiteness’, which, as highlighted above by Fanon and reiterated by Kiwan in her comments on Asibong’s article, stands for morality and legitimacy. Seeing his older sister straightening her frizzy hair, a distinct Arab feature, Béni suddenly decides that he wants to straighten his own. Significantly, he comes to this decision while he fantasises about being with France, the girl with whom he is infatuated and who personifies the society into which he wishes to be accepted. In this romanticised image, Béni pictures himself running his fingers through France’s “silky blonde hair” (“chevelure blonde et soyeuse”; 143). He then imagines France running her fingers through his own curly hair, and his sudden decision at this point to have his hair straightened suggests a certain horror at the thought of having thick curly hair as opposed to France’s silky blonde hair. I would associate such a depiction of France’s hair, and its comparison with Béni’s, to Asibong’s interpretation of whiteness as “ready to melt and liquefy all the lesser, more fragile, vulnerable or somehow ‘impure’ manifestations of humanity” (118). Thus, in this instance, France’s whiteness is elevated to a representation of morality, threatening to initiate the disappearance of the ‘other’, that which is immoral, from Béni’s consciousness. Accordingly, Béni resolves to eliminate his Arab characteristics which he deems a hindrance to attaining whiteness, and thus Frenchness. The two are clearly linked by the description of the appearance of the girl with whom Béni is so infatuated and by her name. Furthermore, Béni’s decision to not only eradicate a physical feature that marks him out as Arab but to replace this with what he perceives to be a physical feature that belongs to the majority ethnic population - straight hair - reflects his desire to reconfigure himself as white, a prerequisite of existing in the society into which Béni strives to be accepted.
At this point, it is worth bearing in mind that both Begag’s novels analysed here were first published in 1986 and 1989 respectively. Simon depicts the policy of integration at the end of the 1980s as an ostensibly reciprocal one, a policy that asks both majority and minority ethnic populations to make compromises. He notes that it encourages “the convergence of ‘migrants’ and host society by asking the former to adapt to the majority cultural norms and by adjusting the social framework to make it more tolerant towards diversity” (“les convergences entre les ‘immigrés’ et la société d’installation en demandant aux premiers de s’adapter aux normes culturelles majoritaires et en aménageant le cadre sociétal pour le rendre plus tolérant à la diversité”; 438). However, such a definition of integration, based on the converging of majority and minority ethnic populations, and on asking people of immigrant origin to adapt to majority cultural norms, ultimately positions Frenchness as the ideal and as something that can only be attained at the expense of ethnic difference. Furthermore, it advocates the submersion of minority ethnic identity in the majority ethnic population and making oneself unrecognisable within it, since, according to Simon, the policy suggests that “migrants, and especially their children who were born in France, should no longer be singled out in society” (“les immigrés, et surtout leurs enfants nés en France, ne devraient plus se singulariser dans le corps social”; 438). Only then will they attain “equal access to all spheres of social life” (“un égal accès à toutes les sphères de la vie sociale”; Ibid 438). I would suggest that the latter, in particular, raises parallels with Asibong’s concept of liquidation. If the assimilation of minority ethnic identities into the majority ethnic population promoted in this policy of integration does not amount to as extreme an outcome as liquidation, it nonetheless evokes a more gradual dissolving of ‘otherness’ in the dominant social body of French nationhood. In addition to the eradication of ethnic difference proposed by this model of integration, the suggested instillation of majority ethnic norms reflects the idea that people of minority ethnic origin need to reconfigure themselves as white in order to be accepted in French society, a process which is illustrated by the way in which Béni replaces his Arab features with majority ethnic features. Thus, such a definition of integration, rather than allowing for the assimilation of ethnic difference with majority French identity, favours the dissolving of plural identities in a model of identity based on unity by uniformity.
Béni’s attitude towards his own name, Ben Abdallah, further illustrates his desire to eradicate the Algerian specificity of his origins. Hargreaves states that Béni “feels that the name given to him by his parents reduces him to an ethnic stereotype at odds with his own sense of selfhood” (Immigration and Identity 37). Like his frizzy hair, the protagonist’s name exposes his Arab origins and prevents him from being accepted as anything other than Arab. For this reason, he prefers the nickname Béni, which, according to Hargreaves, “enables him to straddle two different worlds”, French and Arab (Ibid 37). At this point, it is worth considering Béni’s “sense of selfhood”. While taking this nickname appears to conveniently allow him to assume a Franco-Algerian identity, this identity gradually becomes dissolved in Béni’s overriding desire for identification and acceptance. Indeed, it is questionable whether Béni wishes to “straddle” these two worlds at all. His rejection of references to his origins indicates, rather, that he wishes to fully conform to his impression of what it is to be French. He even suggests that he would like to change his name to one that is typically and recognisably French (he proposes the name André), since, in his opinion, “it’s completely useless being called Ben Abdallah when you want to be like everybody else” (“ça sert strictement à rien de s’appeler Ben Abdallah quand on veut être comme tout le monde”; 43-44). Béni’s impression of what constitutes being “like everybody else” does not appear to include any reference to Arabness and again exemplifies a desire for acceptance which consists of fitting in rather than embracing his ethnic difference. Thus, in his pursuit of Frenchness, Béni seeks indifference. Rather than allowing him to “straddle two different worlds”, I would suggest that the adaptation of his name causes it to lose its Arabness, which illustrates his rejection of the Arab identity and ethnic difference represented by Ben Abdallah. Furthermore, this pursuit of indifference indicates the gradual dissolving of Béni’s dual identity in his overriding desire to identify with a pre-conceived notion of what it is to be French.
Reminiscent of Béni’s desire to be “like everybody else” is the resolution of Azouz, the protagonist of Le Gone du Chaâba, to be “like the French kids” (“comme les Français”; 58). Becoming more and more unsettled by the difference between himself and the majority of his classmates, Azouz places himself at the front of the class on returning to school in the afternoon, positioning himself away from the back of the class which is seemingly reserved for the invariably underachieving Arab pupils of the novel. Significantly, though, this seemingly positive act is immediately given a negative undertone by the writer. In his enthusiasm to be one of the better, more active pupils, Azouz vociferously expresses his accord with everything that the teacher says, giving his approval to the teacher informing the pupils that they are all descendants of the Gauls in the process (60). Despite the inaccuracy of this piece of information with regard to the protagonist, he does not question it and light-heartedly states that the teacher must be right. Thus, like Béni, the protagonist of Le Gone du Chaâba identifies himself with a pre-conceived impression of Frenchness, which only results in, if not the swift “sickening dissolution” of othered identity put forward by Asibong, a more gradual dissolving of his identity within the majority ethnic Gaulishness (Asibong 111).
As in Béni ou le paradis privé, the protagonist’s attempts to identify with his idea of what it is to be French coincide with a loss of his Algerian identity in Le Gone du Chaâba. This is highlighted in a confrontation between Azouz and two of his fellow North African classmates, which results in stripping the protagonist of his Arabhood. Suffering the indignation of constantly being at the bottom of the class, while Azouz’s schoolwork greatly improves, Moussaoui and Nasser insist that Azouz is not Arab. Shocked by such an accusation, Azouz counters by attempting to uphold his Arabhood but eventually yields when Moussaoui asserts that he is not like them (91). Azouz cannot deny that, despite being of Algerian origin like Moussaoui and Nasser, he is unlike his underachieving fellow Arab classmates in other ways.
Conclusion - No Escape
Azouz’s realisation that he is simultaneously like and unlike his North African classmates reflects the inherent failure of the type of identification sought by both Azouz and Béni. No matter how they attempt to identify with a preconceived notion of ‘Frenchness’, be it through straightening their hair or by transgressing associations of being Arab and failing at school, they are ultimately unable to completely efface their Arab identity. This is evidenced in Béni’s rejection from the nightclub at the end of Béni ou le paradis privé despite his attempts to disguise his distinctly Arab, curly hair. In Le Gone du Chaâba, Azouz’s inability to reconfigure himself as white is exemplified soon after his confrontation with Moussaoui and Nasser. In a lesson on personal hygiene, during which the teacher asks the pupils to tell him what they use to wash themselves, Azouz reveals that he washes himself with a “chritte” and a “kaissa”, to the bemusement of the teacher (95). Despite the ensuing translation of these Arabic terms into French and the encouragement given to Azouz by his teacher for explaining the function of these objects, this scene reflects the difference that exists between Azouz and the majority of his classmates. As a result, Azouz realises that, in his bidonville, they do not follow the model of hygiene proposed by his teacher (96). Thus, the stripping of Azouz’s Arab identity by his fellow Arab classmates is closely followed by a confirmation of his inability to identify with the majority ethnic population.
The failure of both protagonists to identify with either their impression of what it is to be French or with their ethnic group highlights the idea that there is no escape for the marginalised Franco-Algerian population from their divisive identity. Returning to Fanon, this idea of no escape reiterates that the person of colour is faced by the quandary “turn white or disappear” (100). Moreover, this dilemma can be related to the idea that one of the fundamental tenets of the French Republic is that it is based on “uniformity and the invisibility of ethnic difference” (“l’uniformité et l’invisibilité des distinctions ‘d’origine’”; Simon 446). Thus, acquiring Frenchness amounts to the eradication of the specificity of ethnic differences. Therefore, what emerges when considering Begag’s first two novels is that the choice to “turn white or disappear” is, in fact, not a choice at all. On the contrary, whitening oneself equates to the erasure of othered identity. Furthermore, this stresses the idea that, for members of the marginalised Franco-Algerian population, attempts to “transgress identity borders to assert their ‘whiteness’” only result in a dissolving of identity in the hegemonic ethnic culture (Kiwan 14).
Simon’s article on the stance of Sarkozy’s government towards ethnic minorities illustrates that, despite certain assertions to the contrary, France remains hostile to the acceptance of ethnic diversity, due precisely to the contradictory nature of this stance, the “ambiguity and hypocrisy” of which “lead, rather, to reinforcing the logic of discrimination and hindering the effectiveness of the struggle against discrimination” (“l’ambiguïté et l’hypocrisie aboutissent plutôt à renforcer les logiques discriminatoires et à priver la lutte contre les discriminations d’effectivité”; 445). Furthermore, what this demonstrates is that, twenty-three years after the publication of Le Gone du Chaâba, Begag’s first novel, and fifty-seven years after that of Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, ethnic minorities in France are still faced by the same dilemma: to “turn white or disappear” (Fanon 100). Such an attitude to ethnic difference favours “the simplistic binary oppositions inherited from the colonial period” and prevents the engagement with “post-colonial complexity”, thus preventing the multifaceted identity of France’s Algerian community from escaping such dichotomies which offer identification with an ideal, white, moral Frenchness as the only route to acceptance in society (Dine 178). Through an analysis of the ways in which the protagonists of Le Gone du Chaâba and Béni ou le paradis privé negotiate this dilemma, I have argued that such prescribed identity constructions exist to the detriment of the consideration of the plurality of identities engendered in the contemporary, post-colonial period.
 Characterising the Algerian War in such a way also recalls John Talbott’s earlier work, The War Without A Name: France in Algeria, 1954-1962, published in 1980. All translations provided in the text are my own.
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