Friday 8 December

Two compatible identities
European Muslims can work to bring the two cultures closer together

When I was introduced to Morocco in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the art of people greeting one another in the street. This started with “hi, how are you?”, then went onto mum’s health, the sister’s, the aunts’, dad’s and finally the brothers’. The entire family, and by extension the entire community, was involved. These greetings, with no immediate pay-off, seemed profoundly human to me. They softened the shock of contact and paved the way to true confidence or friendly indifference. Of equal fascination was the first vibrant note of the muezzin sounding out over a Moroccan Middle Atlas village, before going silent, and immediately put me in a world of spirituality with the humility this entailed. Of course, in Morocco, I was a roumia – a Christian. This was the foundation of my difference but also my ressemblance – I was another “type” of human. And of course I understood the full meaning of chouma (shame) in this culture, and I altered my attitude in light of its limits. I’d already understood the radical difference between one culture of expressions and representation, where unveiling and transparency are the basis for truth, and another culture of digression and ellipsis, of suggestion and non-representaiton, where the body, the hammam’s master, is codified in its smallest functions.

But the roumai that I was – watched, observed – was respected in the end.

During those years, however, there were already“preconceived ideas” about the West – about Western women in particular – which could have made my stay difficult. But this didn’t prevent what the Spanish language refers to as convivencia (living together) and this was undoubtedly “una buena convivencia”.

It is curious to remark that the media coverage of the ideological discussion the Arab world is having about itself corresponds to an intensification of underlying tensions between the West and the Muslim World.

Why has this evolved into “mala convivencia”? Is this the fault of the “Islamist literalist maximalists” described by Abdelwahab Meddeb? Might we have entered into the “post-discursive” and “post-progressive” era which Robert Redeker speaks of concerning the riots in the suburbs? An era where words would be used like a blade, and where discourse would be no more than loading a cannon and scattering buckets of burning words over one’s enemies, just like in the Middle Ages?

In 1985, Abdou, a camel driver and sailor in Azilah, was a young poliomyelitic man with a shock of sun-bleached blonde hair who liked having tea at ours. He would sit down on the bench next to my husband and the two of them would philosophise. Abdou liked this table of Europeans where men and women would sit down on equal terms. My husband wouldn’t miss an opportunity to show him reviews, including an edition of Libé on Einstein which Abdou asked to take home with him. Abdou lived eight kilometres from Azilah by the beach, in a maisonette covered with Virginia creepers which were settled on the fertile Tahhardaz plain. His brother worked in a Chinese pottery factory in Tanger, and his sister cultivated the family’s land. A terribly sad misadventure befell his sister. He explained to my husband that, when the men go to the hammam, a white liquid emerges “from there” towards them. “Alive”. Then it’s the women’s turn to go to the hammam and this white liquid, which “moves”, creeps up their legs…

And the irreparable happens.

One day, however, Abdou burst into the lounge waving Libé and was very angry: Einstein was Jewish, he couldn’t admire him, and he trampled on the paper before leaving and slamming the door.

In the 1980s, information circulated slowly, or not at all. The representation Muslims have of Westerners is built on clichés. Deprived of mobile phones and the Internet, people tend to live cut off from each other, huddled together in their communities, and from douar to douar groups of burnouses could be seen raised towards a TV hung on the wall, for the football.

Since 2000, in Azilah, the Portuguese walls at the Karim hotel, everyone has a mobile phone and, against the blue of the sky, the couscous makers, obstinately turned towards the stars, silently ingest news of the world. No problems with decoders; all the cards are pirated. Abdou no longer needs us to form an opinion of the world.

2001. The twin towers. 2003. The Iraq War. 2006. The Lebanon War. Not a conflict which brings Muslim identity to the fore. But now, in addition to the national channels, one Arabic channel is conveying a vision of the world: Al-Jazeera. And it is curious to remark that the media coverage of the ideological discussion the Arab world is having about itself, in its comparison with the other, Western, model through Al-Jazeera, corresponds to an intensification of underlying tensions between the West and the Muslim World.

Everything today seems to oppose them: representation/non-representation of the body, creation of a global model of social movement with erasure of the preeminent role of one sex/affirmative tendency towards the traditional social model with separation of the sexes; democratic political model/autocratic political model. Multiplication of information sources, channels of learning and transmission of knowledge/choice of a single channel.

In 2006, the Western-Muslim mixture seems totally uneven. But somebody who loves Islam like me can’t accept this acknowledgement of failure. This is forgetting the “share” of Europeans who profess to be Muslim. There are as many of them as Coptic Christians, who settled in Egypt at the outset. They form an entity whose fringes are “rectified” by the ideological model imposed by Al-Jazeera but which have the incredible opportunity of being in a democratic land, invited to the Universitas table to initiate the “anamnesis” work which Abdelwahab Meddem talks about in Contre-prêches (“Counter-sermons”) (Seuil). There is therefore a chance that the Muslim world of Europe – instead of forming its own communities along the lines of diktats from outside of Europe, and instead of representing just another “market”, the very lucrative market of services “for Muslims” (schools, hospitals, recreational areas), – may be fortunate enough to move along the path of reflection, of adjusting to modernity. They will therefore have come closer to the Greek idea of democracy internalised by the Judeo-Christianity on which our Western societies are founded.

Thus, and only thus, will it be possible to be incorporate the rich Muslim culture into the West.


Author of l’Olivier bleu (“The blue olive tree”), J.C. Lattès (2004) and of 2028, Scali (2006).