Friday, April 4, 2008

An Evening of a lifetime with Azouz Begag

Now, that was an evening to last a lifetime!

It was an extraordinary day which started on a rather ordinary note. I had come from college after completing nearly 4 hours of train travel (2 hours ThanePanvel, 2 hours Panvel – Churchgate). On reaching the Alliance Française de Bombay, I found out they were not working due to the press conference for the French Touch Festival. It was 1 ‘o’clock in the afternoon. I didn’t know what to do. The French Words conference with Azouz Begag was to begin at 5 pm at the Cercle Littéraire, near Max Mueller Bhavan. Having no place to go, I had reached G. D. Somani School to use the Self Learning Centre for killing time. I met my French class batch mates, leaving from the Concours “Plume d’Or”. The studies plan at the Self Learning Centre was abandoned. Next stop was Kamath restaurant near the World Trade Centre, Cuffe Parade. After lunch, we finally left for the Cercle Littéraire. All this incessant traveling had left me exhausted and sleepy or rather hypoxic.

The Cercle Littéraire is an aged, attractive but barely discernible structure. On entering it, we went through an old-fashioned, English style staircase which had the allure of an abandoned or to put it better, a barely visited place. It was slightly gloomy. I was contemplating returning home. I shall remain eternally grateful to myself for deciding against it. We assembled ourselves in the chairs in the small room where the conference was supposed to take place.

5:30 p.m. Mr. Begag arrived with the French Consulate General officials. Mr. Azouz Begag is a French politician (I discovered that after the conference!), writer and researcher in social sciences and economics. He is of an Algerian descent. He was at the Cercle Littéraire to speak about political and immigration issues. The conference began and this is how he opened it. “I do not speak French.” Bam! We had all been given extracts from his various books (all French) to familiarize us with his works and here the man jokes about not knowing the language. He spoke a mélange of French and English for the opening 2-3 minutes, called Franglais. The French do not appreciate that. Anyway, more about that later.

He spoke about the life of his parents in Algeria, a life of hardship with no water, electricity and work. Hunger and disease was routine. Illiteracy was rife. Footwear, not shoes, was cut out of Goodyear tyres. Democracy existed in Algeria. The victorious candidates won nearly 99% of the votes cast. Votes were in accordance with the decision of the entire community. Only a few ‘freaks’ would vote in keeping with their individual opinion. He narrated this in a highly animated style with very vivid gestures. He actually kept his foot on the table pointing at his shoes to say that shoes didn’t exist in Algeria! He might just have been speaking about the slums of Bombay or the remote villages of India. He acknowledged that as well.

Azouz Begag was born in Lyon, France in a slum of North African immigrants. He spent his entire childhood, with 8 siblings (the average for Algerian families), in a minuscule 2 room, wooden hutment. His relatives, who had arrived in France after Azouz Begag’s father, had similar family sizes and dwelling spaces in their vicinity. His father had arrived in France in 1956 with just a small piece of paper mentioning the name and address of the factory owner who had promised him employment. He went around with his friends, asking for directions to the place. None of them spoke French, only English. It was nothing less then a miracle that they reached the place they were supposed to reach.

At the factory, workers were just numbers. They were non-entities who had no faces, no names. It was always number so and so who was supposed to complete this and that on a given day. Job security was unheard of. Despite of his economic hardships and being illiterate himself, Mr. Begag senior was extremely particular about his children’s education. He told the young Azouz that books can make a man fly. He would demonstrate this by holding an open book and making it flap like a bird. He would tell his children that with books they could fly over and away from the slums. He was tremendously proud of his Algerian roots and always spoke of returning back to his village in Algeria. He never learnt French as he did not consider it to be his language. He died in France with his dream of returning to Algeria remaining unfulfilled. His, was the story of all blue collar immigrants, all over the world.

After having spoken at length about his childhood and life in Lyon, Azouz Begag started conversing with us. He wanted us to ask him questions. Thinking about an extract from his book Le Gone du Chaâba, I asked him about him about his relations with his peers and teachers in school. He narrated his school life filled with perseverance and dedication towards his education and the consequent dislike, both his French and North African immigrant, classmates felt for him. The French had an aversion for him as they could not accept an Algerian, an outsider surpassing them in studies. The Algerians were abhorrent of him for his ‘attempts’ to become like the French. His French teachers made sure that the Algerian students never said “The capital of ‘our’ country France is Paris.” while studying Geography. It was always “The capital of ‘your’ country France is Paris.” Segregation was the norm.

Conditions at home were more conflicting. The day the young Azouz learnt that the Earth rotates around the Sun and not the other way round, he described that to his father. He was slapped. He was awakened forcefully at 5 a.m. the next morning by his father. With his ear being squeezed, he was dragged to the window. His father forced him to look at the Sun during the subsequent sunrise.

His father asked him, “What is moving, us or the Sun?”

The young Azouz had to answer, “The Sun”.

“Your teacher does not know anything. Don’t listen to him. Believe what you see”, said his father.

His teachers at school would say, “Don’t believe what you see. Don’t listen to your parents. They don’t know anything.”

Young Azouz was of the view that both of them were right in their respective places.

Later, he spoke of his relations with his relatives, his beliefs about his religion and the importance of immigration. On being asked whether he practiced Islam, he answered no. He cited that his parents possessed tolerance that measured 360˚. He never managed to complete reading the Koran and his parents simply asserted that only if Allah wishes would he (Azouz Begag) read the Koran. If it is not Allah’s wish that he read the Koran, so be it.

The evening helped me understand my own childhood experiences better. The Algerians are much like us Indians when it comes to family values and lifestyles. Hospitality is the most preferred value. They never refuse or mistreat a guest. That is the key reason behind Begag senior’s relatives following him to France and his efforts to accommodate them. Mr. Azouz Begag’s first contact with India was through Hindi movies. The Algerians loved Hindi films. They never understood a word of it. The rationale behind the popularity of Hindi cinema amongst the Arabs is that Hindi movies are clean and suited for family viewing. The lead actor and actress will just dance and sing in the rain and go home. Nothing beyond that! So perfect for families! I understood why my family would always be requested by Egyptians to provide photos of Amitabh Bachchan during our stay in the Middle East and Egypt.

The subject of immigration is closest to Mr. Begag’s heart. He emphasized that in the next decade the countries of the European Union would be competing for attracting immigrants to run their economies. He highlighted the reality that immigrants always stimulate growth. Systematic integration of immigrants into the mainstream society actually helps economic expansion and it is their isolation which leads to crime and social problems. Most of us were already thinking of the recent clashes between the MNS and North Indian workers in Bombay (Strange, ‘North’ Africans are considered a problem in France). Mr. Begag pointed out that majority of the French football team members were black and no one bats an eyelid. Zinedine Zidane is of an Algerian origin and nobody considers him an outsider. He is a Frenchman. A little trivia, Zinedine Zidane and Azouz Begag belong to the same village in Algeria. Mr. Begag is of the opinion that the notion of identity is changeable. We can change an identity just as mush as we can cultivate it.

Mr. Azouz Begag is a lover of the Arts. He explained how literature and cinema are a reflection of the society and how they help us understand ourselves better and to reach out to fellow beings. One of his best loved movies is “Pané et Chocolat”, 1973 by the Italian film-maker Franco Brusati. It is about an immigrant’s life and Mr. Begag realized, after viewing the film, that he was not alone. There were many others who faced segregation like him. Amongst his favorite authors, he lists Ernest Hemmingway and Amitav Ghosh. He appeared awestruck by the approach in which Ernest Hemmingway shot himself. “Fantastic!” he exclaimed. Azouz Begag calls Albert Camus his brother. Such striking parallels in both of their lives! Azouz Begag and Albert Camus (separately) topped their class at school, were children of illiterate parents, had exceptional writing skills and faced problems blending into the French society. Azouz Begag was an Algerain immigrant living in France. Albert Camus was a French immigrant living in Algeria.

I was amazed at how much I discovered that evening, about the world and myself. I had never imagined that life can be so similar in different countries, in different time periods. Azouz Begag’s style of speech is highly conversational and animated. He immediately puts the listeners at ease and yes, his talks drive away fatigue too. The imagination and attention of the audience is instantaneously captivated by his talks and vivid gestures. His frequent use of Franglais was later explained by my professor as some form of personal vengeance against the French society that had subjected him to separation and isolation. He still has to affirm that he is French. He is absolutely an astute diplomat. He wrapped up the evening by saying that after the wonderful time he spent with students of Bombay, he will be settling down in Bombay! Anyway, I found myself scrambling for his autograph and photograph right after the end. I don’t know what I might have lost had I not attended the conference. I appreciated for the first time what a wonderful decision it was to join Alliance Française de Bombay. I shall remain eternally grateful to them for that wonderful evening with Azouz Begag.

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An infectiously enthusiastic incorrigible optimist, insanely in love with and morbidly curious about life, death and everything in between.