Amuse-Bouche: Ramadan, Madame ?

Ramadan runs for 30 days. 

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 hotsous 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 forjuif (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 Frenchautochtones, 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 algorithmeabricot, 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).