Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On My Mother's Head

Being a first-generation American, I am used to the idea of stating what my background is. One takes pride in ones origins and roots. America is indeed a veritable melting pot of cultures from all over the world. Blah, blah, blah and all that good stuff...

The French, however, are adamant on insisting that they are French. Even if their origins come from another country, a Frenchman or Frenchwoman will identify themselves as French. I noticed that in the larger cities, France is evolving into a multi-cultural society. The small villages seem to consist of predominantly White French. (In my ex's tiny village, there was only one Black guy.) The French even talk of la France profonde, which I equate to as "backwards France." These are people who believe that France needs to be kept "racially" French...whatever that means.

Enter the North Africans from the Magreb of countries Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. I've noticed that French Algerians and French Moroccans have the preference of identifying themselves by their roots. This, of course, clashes with the mentality that "we are culturally French and we must stick to how we've always done it."

I tread upon this subject with great care because the societal issues of cultural integration hit the French hard into their national core. As an American, it fascinated me how different my perceptions were to the French. I have no qualms stating my roots because they contribute to who I am as a person. The French tend to identify themselves based on their région or city: "I am Parisian." "I am Bourguignon." For the North Africans, the tendancy tends to be their parents' homelands.

The following is my lousy attempt at just giving the basic historical facts of the French-Algerian War and relations in an un-biased, non-controversial manner.

Way back when, Algeria was a French colony. The Algerians wanted their country to no longer be a French colony. Both countries fought each other on Algerian soil between 1954 to 1962. Algeria won independence. Algerian men came to France to work, leaving their families behind. In the '60s and '70s, the French government started a family regroupment program that brought the families left behind into France. And everyone lived uncomfortably ever after.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: the minorities in France tend to be discriminated. They sometimes are designated to live in Habitation à loyer modéré (HLM), and they have difficulty finding stable, well-paying jobs. Bad economy exists everywhere, but it especially sucks for certain people because they have convinced themselves that they have zero chances of getting out of their situations. The French don't really admire the "American Dream" of starting from nothing and eventually working your way up to something.


The most contact I've had with French North Africans is pretty much limited to the random guy who cat-called "hé Mademoiselle" and chased me down a couple of blocks while he annoyingly insisted that I was a very lovely lady.

Now, for an explanation to the post's title: Sur la Tête de ma Mère.

When I first heard this phrase, one French friend explained that it was typical for French Arabs to sometimes swear on their mother's head when they wanted to assert that what they said wass true. They view their mothers as being the most sacred thing in their lives. Otherwise, they would not think of uttering those words.

I was shocked. I would never think of swearing on my mother's head because she probably would not like me doing so. Maybe that is why I was also fascinated by this saying. The differences in culture entrance me.

Then, a few days later, after I had gone happily believing that I had learned a new thing about the North African culture, another French friend insisted that this was completely untrue and that the phrase was indeed 100% French.

In other words, don't always believe what people say because they sometimes don't know it themselves...this phrase may have originated in Bulgaria for all I know.


Shortly before my departure from Dijon, I had the chance to see the music video of the rapper L'Algerino. The song is called --you guessed it-- "Sur la Tête de ma Mère."

At first, I thought that I was watching an advertisement from the Marseille tourism board. We get a glimpse of what seems to be the Vieux port. Expansive views of the ocean spread across the screen as the sun casts a golden glow upon the city. Waves crash against rocks and explode into white foam. The opening shots feature images of the Vélodrome stadium, where the football team Olympique Marseille plays.

There is no doubt that Mr. Algerino has Marseillaise pride in his blood. In the video, he cruises down Marseille in a gleaming black Audi with all of his buddies in tow. The license plate proudly bears a 13 (the département Bouches du Rhône) thus indicating that the car was registered in Marseille.

The contrasting lyrics, however, are what seal the deal. In the song, L'Algerino gloats about the good life he has while complaining about social injustices (the police ask him for his papers while he's driving in a Mercedes Benz). The song as some point mentions that he even spends a day in prison.

The chorus translates to:
I didn't see nor hear anything, Mr. Commissary, I swear it
On my mother's head!
Mrs. Judge, I don't relate to this, you have a hard time believing me, I swear it
On my mother's head!

(Stop swearing, swearing
Stop swearing, swearing
Stop swearing, swearing on my mother's head)

I'm no fan of rap. French or otherwise.

On another note: seeing as how the U.S. team knocked Algeria out of the World Cup, I now wonder that if that jeopardizes my safety in France. I've heard that football fanatics can truly take their passion to horrible extremes...

Barb the French Bean

Disclaimer: the video is not mine

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