“Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, the famous motto of the French Revolution, which became the mantra of France until it was included in the Constitution française and inculcated to us from childhood at school in the suburbs of Paris in classes full of immigrants children. If I want to analyse this concept, 25 years later, today it still vibrates in my head like a badly played note.
Egalité: at 18, in order to access all the benefits that the University in Paris could offer, I had to choose between becoming French or Italian: do you want a scholarship? Sing the Marseillaise and we will open all te wisdom doors to you…. And like Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, I probably switched to the dark side of the Force in my father’s eyes, because he didn’t speak to me for six months after discovering that I had sworn allegiance to Chirac rather than Scalfaro. Even today he reproaches me … a Sicilian doesnt’ forget. In the end, the taste of education always left us a bitter taste in our mouth and in search of our own identity. Erykah Badu sang in Other side of the Game “brother got this complex occupation. And it ain’t that he don’t have education ‘Cause I was right there at his graduation.” In the 90’s, in the suburbs of Paris, people of my generation, perhaps still today, paid dearly for Egalité, for their excessive desire to succeed, to emerge. And there were many, people from the “complexe occupation”, genius at school who, in order to continue studying and not burden their family, crept into the vicious circle of easy income. But there were always those who bowed their heads as a sign of respect, every time an “oldest” passed by, including my father, despite they scared the whole neighbourhood.
Fraternité: I lived racism, the real one, my name could go unnoticed, but my surname was no escape: today in Italy they call me nicely “la Francesina” but for my first 25 years, in Paris I was “la Ritale” like the “Dago” in U.S, Albert Camus’s L’Etranger. It is also true that we were, perhaps unwittingly, the caricature of Italian abroad: my father had a “restaurant italien” and cooked pizzas all day, and in my house Ramazzotti and Pausini (damn…) reigned supreme being the soundtrack to the Imam of our neighbourhood who called Muslims to pray during Ramadan. And my mother’s pasta, a must, every Holy Sunday. I still remember with melancholy that I was even a victim of the hatred of my sixteen-year-old boyfriend mother who maybe saw me as the future death of her son if one day he would finishes in the clutches of my “mafia” family. But I was good student, so she let him hang out with me as long as I could help him with his homework; he was rejected at high school and the “Fraternité” ended at this moment.
Liberté: at school I remember that in history class, with this beautiful Melting Pot, souls always warmed up when, for example when we faced the theme of Palestine, Jewish and Muslim students, despite having a very superficial knowledge of this eternal and sad conflict origins, they violently confronted each other on the subject, but never talk about it when the Headmaster passed by, Freedom of expression yes, but keep calm…. The taboo hit like a boulder, it was our censorship. Police controls gently marked my group promenades in the suburbs, it wasn’t like the movie with Roberto Benigni and Massimo Troisi “who are you, how many are you? Papers? At the police station … “. The image of the model student sitting waiting for her parents to come to pick her up was pathetic, but it didn’t take much to make mild situations degenerate in the police stations, so I sat in silence and always laconically, as in the movie of Mathieu Kassovitz “The Hate”, I repeated to myself“ jusqu’ici tout va bien… ”until now everything is ok.
Even today, when I return to the “Cité” where my parents still live, sometimes I meet someone from the “complexe occupation” some of them become professors, journalists, engineers or even local officials who fight for the good of the suburbs and younth. Yes, maybe today the banlieue has been re-emblazoned, services of all kinds everywhere, ecological and avant-garde public transports, even “Les Cités” are more modern, renovated, but extended in width, no longer in height, as if to say “Hide them, because like that it’s a bit ugly, who knows who can come and see …”.
The Street Art of those who tagged on the city walls to express repressed thoughts has become an attraction for tourists and intellectuals of the upper class who, wearing a scarf around their neck and escorted into the deep neighborhoods, come to soak up the desperate culture of the suburbs to feed their thoughts; but only the result counts: my city has become a famous and recognized cultural pool even if always in contradiction with the illiteracy that still exists and existed at the time when it was common to see parents coming at school interviews accompanied by their eldest to translate the anger of the professor.
Maybe after 25 years those of my generation feel a bit like survivors and have embraced only the good things the banlieue has been able to offer us, like the song of Zebda, maybe we are what “le béton a fait de meilleur” and yet we have still the illusion that it is the place where we feel safe, where those who haven’t lived there would run away. Probably at the time I did not realize the worth that all this was giving me, a precious luggage that I would have carried with me all my life, occasionally pulling out some dirty cloth, but above all many priceless treasures. And if today they offer me the privilege of writing some of my ramblings, then I can say that there is actually life after the banlieue…
By Liliane Arnone