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Ex-Centric Migrations: Europe and the Maghreb in Mediterranean Cinema, Literature, and Music

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Ex-Centric Migrations examines cinematic, literary, and musical representations of migrants and migratory trends in the western Mediterranean. Focusing primarily on clandestine sea-crossings, Hakim Abderrezak shows that despite labor and linguistic ties with the colonizer, migrants from the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) no longer systematically target France as a destination, but instead aspire toward other European countries, notably Spain and Italy. In addition, the author investigates other migratory patterns that entail the repatriation of émigrés. His analysis reveals that the films, novels, and songs of Mediterranean artists run contrary to mass media coverage and conservative political discourse, bringing a nuanced vision and expert analysis to the sensationalism and biased reportage of such events as the Mediterranean maritime tragedies.

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Introduction: Mediterraneans and Migrations in the Global Era

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I am neither French nor Moroccan, I am in between. I am Spanish!

—Mustapha Al Atrassi

The end of summer at the port of Melilla, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco. Arabic music played loudly, drowning out the conversations of families in cars and vans. It was late at night in this remnant of Spain’s protectorate. About an hour earlier, the drivers were directed to form lines near the ferryboat so that Spanish customs security employees could check vehicles and identification papers. I was seventeen years old when, at this same port, I watched a dog sniff out a teenager hidden in a bag tucked under the feet of the rear seat passengers in the car parked in front of us. As my family waited to be searched, we observed the entire episode. From inside our car, we saw the frightened teenager being taken away, gasping for air and sweating heavily. We never knew what became of him or the other people in that vehicle. Every September on our way back to France, we would see young men walking back and forth on the rampart that overlooked the docks. They would get as close as possible to vehicles waiting to board the ferry in hopes of catching a ride. The vigilant agents of the Guardia Civil relentlessly chased the migrant hopefuls away. On one particular trip, I saw a young man try to board our ship by climbing up an anchor rope. Alerted by the cheering of travelers, agents ran to the ferry and attempted to shake the man off his precarious perch on the rope. The crowd grew anxious when he seemed likely to fall to the ground. Moroccan strangers were imploring God’s help. Some women covered their eyes, anticipating a tragic end. A few passengers were screaming. Two couples, however, who happened to be taking an evening walk took in the scene with seeming amusement, probably because they were accustomed to witnessing such events. The man was finally captured upon reaching the deck and then escorted into the rear of the patrol van and driven away in the night. This was one of several encounters I had with this type of chase on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar.

 

1 Disimmigration as a Remedy for the Illness of Immigration in Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Le Grand voyage

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On November 2, 2009, a grand débat (great debate) was initiated by Eric Besson, Nicolas Sarkozy’s minister of the lengthy and ambitious Ministère de l’immigration, de l’intégration, de l’identité nationale et du développement solidaire (Ministry of immigration, integration, national identity, and solidarity development). The debate on national identity soon turned into a reflection on how to assert one’s Frenchness, and the consequent stigmatization of the supposedly “non-integrate-able” Other, embodied by the North African, the Arab, and in the post-9/11 era, the “out of place” Muslim in “secular” France. The goal was to win the votes of the most conservative fringe, but confusion and controversy caused the debate to be dropped within a few months. Racist comments were made by average French citizens and governmental officials alike, as was evidenced by many unfortunate statements that circulated on television and the internet. The debate was an avenue for what some may deem slippages of speech, and for others, a willful decision to say aloud what many were thinking softly. Such a discourse evolves in a Foucauldian sense as a discursive practice and is thus subject to power structures. It is a production that becomes a grid, reading the Other and confining him behind it. The national debate showed its limits and its sinister nature. Aware of its stigmatizing effect, many politicians warned the government against the second debate that Sarkozy asked his government to initiate, le débat sur l’Islam (the debate on Islam), right before the cantonnales (local elections, which took place in spring 2011), and a few months before the French presidential elections of May 2012.

 

2 “Burning the Sea”: Clandestine Migration across the Mediterranean in Francophone Moroccan Illiterature

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The Mediterranean is a fracture . . . because it is meant to be one and because it is sailed to and fro by warships aligned against civil rafts . . .

—Ali Bensaâd, “La Méditerranée, un mur en devenir?”

OVER THE LAST four decades, a series of French anti-immigration laws have caused many Maghrebis hoping to immigrate to turn to Spain instead, first as a country of transit, and more recently, as a possible country of settlement. After Spain entered the EU in 1986, however, it too began to enforce stringent immigration policies. In 1991, these laws ended the Moroccans’ privilege of entering the country without a visa. In 1998, Spain implemented the Sistema Integrado de Vigilancia Exterior (Integrated System of External Surveillance, or SIVE), a technologically advanced surveillance apparatus that lines the Spanish coasts. By establishing this electronic wall, European authorities hoped to fight clandestine immigration into Spain, as Spain has become a gateway for immigrants to make their way to other European countries.

 

3 Southward Road Narratives: How French Citizens Become Clandestine Immigrants in Algeria

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SOCIOLOGIST ZYGMUNT BAUMAN explains that globalization is about its effects on us versus our goals: “‘Globalization’ is not about what we all, or at least the most resourceful and enterprising among us, wish or hope to do. It is about what is happening to us all.”1 Thus, as the common vision goes, a distinction between rich countries and less rich ones has been made, encapsulated in the appellations global North and global South. The effects of globalization unfold in the daily lives of people in these two spaces. At the intersection of the pressures of the local and the global, the term glocal has been proposed to describe the connections and relationships between various types of local and global businesses, organizations, and processes. This term, coined by Roland Robertson in Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture, is often used to refer to local ways of dealing with globalized practices and products. The glocal should not be understood in simple terms and binary divides, such as a glocal North and a glocal South but rather as a multifaceted process with numerous effects within these two regions.

 

4 The New Eldorado in Mediterranean Music

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Stuart tannock writes, “In the rhetoric of nostalgia, one invariably finds three key ideas: first, that of a prelapsarian world (the Golden Age, the childhood Home, the Country); second, that of a ‘lapse’ (a cut, a Catastrophe, a separation or sundering, the Fall); and third, that of the present, postlapsarian world (a world felt in some way to be lacking, deficient, or oppressive).”1 Many Beurs consider “the Golden Age, the childhood Home, the Country” to be located south of the Mediterranean. Within this particular vision, it is not surprising that French nationals of Maghrebi descent should be nostalgic of a past, from which migration acts as the “cut, Catastrophe, separation or sundering, the Fall,” which irremediably leads to “a world felt in some way to be lacking, deficient, or oppressive.” As Tannock adds, “the nostalgic subject turns to the past to find/construct sources of identity, agency, or community, that are felt to be lacking, blocked, subverted, or threatened in the present.”2 Nostalgia and exile have long played an important part in raï music, but in the context of French raï music (and raï made in France) they have recently become popular tropes.3 Recently, a series of Beur Raï n’b albums have positioned North Africa as a site of wealth and abundance. In this Maghrebi-French category, the Maghreb has replaced France as the gilded Eldorado. To combat negative depictions of the Maghreb and to advance the concept of a more welcoming and competitive North Africa, three DJS recently collaborated on a multivolume collection, which includes Raï n’b fever, Raï n’b fever 2, and Raï n’b fever 3. The reputation of the hybrid Raï n’b genre has enabled the labels to invite a great variety of artists to be part of this musical initiative. Some of the most famous names in raï, R&B, and hip-hop have participated in the project. Original songs even include tracks crafted especially for this musical style, as is evidenced by the dedication made to the DJS or the mentioning of the Raï n’b genre or even of a “Maghreb United”—a special rallying motto for the artists and for listeners in need of a sense of belonging south of the Mediterranean. Intended primarily for an audience based in the French metropole, the subject matter resonates with individuals disillusioned with France and nostalgic about an actual or imagined country of origin. Some of the songs partake in an obvious conceptualization of France as an ex-center, while others treat leavism as a worse evil and Europe-bound journeys as a dead end. For France-based listeners, the lived French experience is different from the Eldorado perceived by their North African counterparts. Instead, France is synonymous with the racism, alienation, and the towering, gray housing projects that outline the country’s urban peripheries.

 

5 Europe Bound: Shooting “Illegals” at Sea

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On January 14, 2011, Tunisian President Aziz el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Following the tragic death of protester Mohamed Bouazizi, demonstrations spread to various parts of the country, precipitating the Jasmine Revolution, the first revolution of the Arab Spring. Bouazizi was a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian man who set himself on fire in front of the Préfecture of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi’s self-immolation was an expression of his despair at his condition as an unemployed college graduate. His irreversible act was a physical migration out of an unbearable plight, because both physical and symbolic burnings are called hrig in Arabic. The extreme gesture is an unauthorized crossing over into death where the promise of a better life or the end of an ordeal is imaginable. Indeed, suicide is a religiously condemned practice. For lack of better professional opportunities, Bouazizi had resorted to selling produce. He set himself on fire after the municipal police confiscated his merchandise for not having a proper permit. Eighteen days after his desperate gesture, the young man died at the Ben Arous Burn and Trauma Center, and his fate set the Arab Spring in motion. The emergence of this revolution and subsequent ones in the region is partly attributed to the energy and dedication of the citizens ready to die at the hands of the police state1 to fight for justice and to denounce hogra.2 Some, like Bouazizi, sacrificed themselves—in Bouazizi’s case, it involved burning, in the literal sense of the term.3

 

6 Heading Home: Post-Mortem Road Narratives

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It is perhaps at the occasion of the death of the migrant that one can grasp his real place with regard to the migratory space that he took up more than a generation ago. Standing on his feet or lying in a coffin, he will return to his place of origin where something stronger than him snatched him one day.

—Yassin Chaïb, “Le Lieu d’enterrement comme repère migratoire”

Born, or arrived in France at a very young age, schooled and brought up in France, they will have to work there all their lives, and they will die in France (and maybe unlike their elders, they will have tombs in France; because the conditions and reasons of a post-mortem repatriation, which is almost the norm nowadays, will have ceased).

—Alain Gillette and Abdelmalek Sayad, L’Immigration algérienne en France

The choice of burial place for French citizens of North African ancestry is a pressing issue not only because death is inevitable, but more importantly because for Maghrebis and their children, burial cannot always follow rules of tradition, which are essentially practical. Indeed, it is customary to bury loved ones in local cemeteries. It is logical that one should want to keep close to home that which is close to heart. But this is not an inevitability for Maghrebis and Beurs. From the moment of their arrival in France and even more so when they realized France was to become their “home,” Maghrebis have had to ponder the question of what was to be the final “home” for them and their children. Available scholarship in the humanities, and in the realm of cultural studies in particular, has treated the notion of home, uprootedness, exile, and biculturalism. But the notion of final “home” has understandably not yet concerned scholars, for the generation of immigrants who arrived in France in the middle of the past century has just started to pass away en masse. Questions related to their burial have been tackled in various disciplines, such as sociology and (clinical) psychology, which deal with the practical and economic aspects of this phenomenon. One can only hope that the humanities will catch up soon. This will become more likely when a higher number of fictional accounts and biographies are produced, thus provoking humanistic studies. Indeed, as of today only a few of these have appeared. A dead individual cannot by definition write the account of his own passing away, just as with illiterature the experience of the death of the other is often told by external “witnesses,” humanists, writers, relatives, etc. But what the available literature and cinematography teaches us is that a reflection on the issue is taking place a priori. It is characterized by investigative journeys, the unknown, and rituals of initiation. According to writers and filmmakers, these narratives imposed themselves as an inevitable source of creative productions through personal confrontation with death. Put differently, these writers and filmmakers’ experiences of the death of a loved one have led them to ponder the sensitive subject. Consequently, retirement, death, and burial sites have taken center stage in their fictional works. This emergence in migrant literature and cinema often concerned with questions of identity in the here and now is a significant move that is bound to raise a few important questions for experts. This is no new matter for the North African community based in France; indeed, the epigraph from French journalist Gillette’s and Algerian sociologist Sayad’s L’Immigration algérienne en France dates back to 1976. It highlights the essential and continual concern: will Beurs be buried back home like their ancestors? The quote starts with the expression of an objective vision: French citizens of Maghrebi heritage will pass away in France. It includes a statement introduced by “maybe” and framed by parentheses. The embedded hypothesis indicates that one is to expect the ending of a trend, which consists of taking the corpse of a family member to Algeria to bury it there.1 Why do the authors assume that this practice is likely to come to a close?

 

Conclusion: “White Sea of the Middle” or “Wide Sea to Meddle In”?

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The works discussed in Ex-Centric Migrations provide a vision not solely of the other but of the other continent as well. Maghrebi works that treat the notion of clandestinity have presented the European Eldorado in its declination from “a country of light” to a land of disillusionment. It is the latter vision that has been the focus of the contemporary cinematic, literary, and musical productions examined here. In response to the old notion of Eldorado (the French one), which bred mythical stories that emigrants brought with them on their short visits back home, artists have crafted a “new” Eldorado—the Maghreb. The latter construction is a core theme in music such as Raï n’b and in films such as Bensalah’s Il était une fois dans l’oued. This conception of the “new Eldorado” tackled explicitly via musical and cinematic representations is an original one, which lies in sharp contrast to the portrayal of the global South as a place that individuals desire to leave.

 

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