by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PANTIN (Seine-Saint-Denis), France — A month ago I found myself in a confrontation with Islamophobia as only Islamophobics on the Left are capable of producing it. To explain why they had a problem with Muslim women covering their bodies, their heads, or even their hair, two otherwise presumably cultured and intelligent people (she’s an independent publisher) I’d invited into my home offered the contradictory justifications that a) France is a lay country and b) France is a country with a Judeo-Christian tradition. The woman would later tell me that she found the simple head covering “monstrous.” This is a sort of colonialistic-paternalistic brand of feminism (whose primary theorist is Elisabeth Badinter) that assumes that if a woman mounts her faith with her wardrobe, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so. In other words, she’s too stupid to think for herself, and it’s up to liberal white feminists to think for her and save her from her backward customs. (No one seems to have the same problem or make the same assumption when it comes to Hasidic women wearing tacky wigs.) Some of them see such garb as a threat to the French Republic, presumably because in their view it’s the first step to sharia law and thus dictatorship. After I politely asked the couple to leave, the man revealed what it was really about, coming out with the equivalent of “They don’t dress like us, they’re in our country, they need to conform” or basically hide their religion — which is not what the lay principal in France is about.
I think it was this confrontation that finally clarified for me why Islamophobia — which is often just a disguise for Arabophobia — bothers me so much. Part of it is the hypocrisy; for people like this, France is only a lay country when it comes to Muslims. But I’ve realized that it’s also because in the way they’re singled out by some, and because it’s no longer acceptable (and rightly so), to criticize and ostracize what used to be referred to here as “Israelites,” for many in France Muslims are today’s Jew. They don’t dress like us. They don’t worship like us. (My guest had even defended himself by saying, “Some of my best friends are Muslims.”) This racism or if you prefer prejudice has tangible effects on the Muslim and Arab populations. Testing by SOS Racisme and others has consistently shown that a job applicant with an Arab-sounding name is less likely to be hired than someone with a more “French”-sounding name of equal or lesser qualifications.
Outside my window right now, at the other end of the side street it looks out on, lined principally with two to three story stone and red brick buildings, I see a group of men clustered on the corner, some in gowns and wearing skull caps. The only indications that the low building in front of which they’re congregating is a mosque is the “Vigi-pirate” sign on the window and the mirror above it which lets those inside see who’s coming in. It’s like they have to be ashamed of their religion. In France. As I crossed the corner coming home this noontime, several men were taking off their shoes and entering.
Unlike the Jewish school in Belleville which I walked past on a gallery ramble last night, there are no high barriers around the mosque. Unlike the early 19th century Portuguese synagogue in my old neighborhood in Paris’s 10th arrondissement, there’s no police guard.
Before picking up groceries for lunch today, feeling sorry for myself (because most of you don’t want to pay for this) I’d walked down to the Ourcq canal, which leads to the Canal St.-Martin, which feeds into the Seine. From the other side of the water I heard what sounded like bagpipes and drums. Crossing the bridge, I saw it was a wedding party emerging from the city hall of Pantin (which borders Northeastern Paris). From the dress of the musicians, I realized it was an Algerian-style wedding party. (To get an idea of what the music sounded like, check Gérard Krémer’s field recording here. The bride and some of the guests had their heads covered. Some wore full-length gowns. Others did not. (The bride wore a white wedding gown.) A group of men was clapping hands and dancing around the musicians. A few younger girls were also dancing. Several of us watched the celebration from the other side of the grill, including a woman about my age with curly red hair next to me who kept proclaiming “C’est beau.” At one point half a dozen young men and women took trays filled with petites-fours and bottled water into which a slice of orange had been inserted from the back of the car blocking the entrance and began circulating the refreshments amongst the guests. One young man reached through the grill to offer a petite-four to a babushka guarding a stroller.
Regarding the couple, their families, the musicians, the dancing, and the petites-fours, I looked up at the arch under which the wedding party was standing and saw the “RF,” Republique Française. And thought: “C’est ca, la France.” Et c’est pas de tout monstrueux. Ca qui est monstrueux c’est que certains gens ne comprendre pas le devis de leur propre pays. And it’s not monstrous at all. What’s monstrous is that some people who consider themselves good French people don’t understand the guiding principals of their own country.