restricted access Resistance and Identity in Beur Narratives
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Resistance and Identity in Beur Narratives

On 17 October 1961 an unknown number of Algerian immigrants were killed when police went on the rampage against a peaceful demonstration in Paris. That day, members of the normally docile immigrant community had marched in large numbers to protest against the highly repressive measures to which they had been subjected under emergency regulations imposed during the Algerian war, then in its seventh year. The physical ferocity with which the immigrants' challenge to the might of the French state was broken was matched by the thoroughness with which news of these events was suppressed in the French media. Although memories of 17 October have been transmitted orally through the years among immigrants and their families, it was not until almost a quarter of a century later that the full extent of police violence against the Algerian community was brought home to the French public in a spate of printed and broadcast narratives, both documentary and fictional. Among these was the first novel of a young author, Nacer Kettane, titled Le Sourire de Brahim (1985). The opening chapter of the novel describes the death of the eponymous protagonist's younger brother in his mother's arms during [End Page 87] the police repression of the demonstration of 17 October, followed by the gruesome recovery of a large number of corpses from the river Seine.1

Kettane has been an important figure in the emergence during the 1980s of a vibrant cultural movement among France's Beurs, a popular name for the sons and daughters of North African immigrants (these include smaller numbers of Moroccans and Tunisians as well as the statistically dominant Algerians). This cultural uspurge reflects an important demographic shift. Until the 1950s, the families of almost all North African migrants remained in their country of origin, to which the breadwinners eventually returned. Since then, a growing proportion of their families has settled in France. Their children began to reach adulthood in large numbers during the 1970s. Among them was Kettane. He is now the President of Radio Beur, one of the many privately-run radio stations that mushroomed under the liberalisation of the air-waves introduced by the Socialist administration elected in 1981. That station, combined with a nationwide march known as the Marche des Beurs held in 1983, was largely responsible for the introduction of the word Beur into the vocabulary of the French populace. The Marche des Beurs was the first major political demonstration by younger members of the immigrant community. Unlike the older generation, who had been so brutally repressed in 1961, the Beur demonstrators were given star treatment by the media and warmly greeted on their arrival in Paris by no less a figure than President François Mitterrand. Their triumphant arrival on the political scene is the subject of the final chapter of Le Sourire de Brahim.2

Kettane is one of more than a dozen Beur writers who have so far succeeded in finding commercial publishers. All but one (the Moroccanborn Leïla Houari, who was in fact brought up in Belgium) are of Algerian origin. Their entry into print is still a very recent phenomenon: the earliest Beur novel to be published was Hocine Touabti's L'Amour quand même (1981). Practically all of their works are prose narratives, most of them heavily autobiographical in content. The protagonist's experiences in Le Sourire de Brahim correspond in most of their essentials to real events in the life of the author. The only major invention in the novel is the death of Brahim's brother. Kettane was not himself present at the demonstra-tion [End Page 88] of 17 October, nor did a brother of his die there.3 This fact makes the author's decision to focus on that incident at the very beginning of the novel all the more evidently a deliberate revalorization of a previously suppressed perspective.

It is tempting to read Kettane's narrative, like the life history of the author himself, as emblematic of the cultural and political emancipation of the North African immigrant community as a whole. The son of illiterate Algerian parents, Kettane was raised...