What makes us feel at home?

The CBS Evening News ended tonight with a feature on the harvest of argan nuts. Argan oil has become an exotic ingredient in soaps and cosmetics in the United States. I remember it as something the people of the Souss used in their cooking, and the goats in trees, which I have seen touristing in Morocco, just reminded me how unfamiliar and strange the Souss was to me, whereas any old picture of Sefrou feels familiar and comfortable as home.

Every student of French, from my generation at least, probably remembers “Nos ancêtres étaient les Gaulois,” the beginning text of a French history primer. Across the Francophonie, generations of young Africans and Asians must have puzzled over the history they were learning and wondered about its relevance.

Morocco Sefrou Miloud Soussi
Miloud Soussi, who had a grocery store in Sefrou. 1973.

When I left Morocco, the migration to Europe was important, and growing, and, possibly, changing from one of single male migrants, who sent back remittances to their families, to one of true emigrants who were taking their families and intending to settle down. If I am not mistaken, Moroccan migration to France dates from World War I, when a shortage of labour produced a temporary opportunity in the war industries.

Temporary migration of young men, for purely economic reasons, is a worldwide phenomenon, of course. In Morocco itself, the Swasa were well known for it (as were the Mzabis in Algeria and the Djerbis in Tunisia, also groups known for running small grocery shops.) Moving one’s family to France, however, is a different matter, and the calculus of considerations is more involved and deeper. Would one expect better treatment by the French after moving from a former colony to the métropole? Some migrants may be naive, but most know that their future may be difficult.

Many of my former neighbors did move to France, and I have since wondered often how they fared there. The younger, single migrants had a tough time, I am sure. I can remember, back in 1971, having a café au lait on a thoroughfare of the Left Bank, and, recognizing the waiter as a maghrebi, began conversing in Arabic with him. An Algerian, he was surprised and delighted to meet an American who spoke Arabic, and willingly suffered my poor command of Moroccan dialect to have a real conversation with me.

Just a few days ago, there was a short piece on NPR, which argued that part of the problem with the radicalization of disaffected Muslim youth in France can be partly attributed to the fact that these young men, born in France, could not identify with traditional French culture. French history has pretty much been a history of France till the Republic, with no role for Arabs, and containing little with which they could identify. Une histoire des autres, for sure. Furthermore, radio and TV do not often portray Frenchmen of Arab descent in high status roles such as doctors or scientists.

This makes me think of the sixties and seventies in America. At the time I served in the Peace Corps, African Americans were still fighting for rights that had been finally enshrined in law, but were not yet accepted by many white Americans. Part of the civil rights struggle involved building African American history and identity. At the time I thought some of the effort was forced and naive, but, after years of Black History months, black Americans and whites, too, have succeeded in creating a common history, ratified by popular textbooks. Perhaps “succeeded” is too strong a word, but back in the sixties I was a young, white, and ignorant of most things black, I knew more about La révolution tranquille in Québec than civil rights in Selma, Alabama. Slowly, but surely, African American history has developed and merged with mainstream American history. Today, American TV regularly portrays African Americans in positions of power, trust, and authority as does the American movie industry.

Culture usually includes a common, shared history, and those French, who are children of Arab migrants in France (or Arab migrants elsewhere in Europe), need to have a sense of their own place in their country’s history as well as society today. Lacking connections leads to alienation. The colonial history of France and the history of migrants is not a pretty one, but many North Africans served in France’s armies and contributed to France in other ways. In the U.S, with a history of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow laws, and the violence and continued discrimination against Blacks that continues today, history has been rewritten. France has at least been largely free from the American kind of racism, where color bias is so strong that it has been compared to caste.

Efforts by academics in the U.S. to forge a world history are ongoing, and though plagued by the usual problems of the social sciences, they have been met with some success. European History, as taught in high schools and colleges, and sometimes presented as Western Civilization, used to be referred to derisively as “the history of old, dead white men.” World History advocates have challenged that perspective head on, including women’s gender roles and regional histories that eschew the North Atlantic perspective. The French speaking world, too, may need to work to create broader, more inclusive histories, and the effort should not be assumed to be a uniquely French one. Perhaps it is time for the French, and all of Francophonie, to revisit history, and find a place for the new generations who will repopulate Europe.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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