- African Muslims in France: Walking Parallel Bars in Calixthe Beyala’s Le Petit prince de Belleville
In his book, Islam and the West African Novel: The Politics of Representation, Ahmed Bangura identifies a “[…] deeply ingrained pattern of prejudice toward and denial of Islam in European writing on Africa” (23). Using Bangura’s remark as the chief motivation, this paper will posit the fact that as a crucial thematic foundation and as a discursive presence in the West African Francophone novel, Islam has been unfairly glossed over in favor of other themes. Critical reception of Calixthe Beyala’s Le Petit prince de Belleville (1992) is one of the numerous examples of a deliberate sidelining of the Islamic thematic. Born in Doula, Cameroon in 1961, Beyala studied in Africa, Spain and France before settling in Paris. Since the publication and resounding success of her early novels: C’est le Soleil qui m’a brûlée (1987) and Tu T’appelleras Tanga (1988), Beyala has published six other novels and is also the recipient of Le Prix Tropique, Le Prix François Mauriac and Le Prix de l’Afrique Littéraire. Published in English as Loukoum: The Little Prince of Belleville, the novel presents the story of the Traore family, an immigrant Muslim family from Mali living in that Parisian suburb.
In her study of the novel, Cheryl Toman emphasizes the problems faced by the Traore family by calling it a “polygamous immigrant family from Mali”(257) and insists that the main male protagonist Abdou Traore’s exile in Paris is “self-imposed” (259).1 According to Chris Dunton, the novel captures the racism and marginalization faced by the “black community” in France (210).2 The aforementioned critics, among others, employ the terms “tradition,” “culture,” and “original space” to define the conflict between African and French cultures. To this list one could add terms such as “a Malian family,” “an African family” or quite simply “an immigrant family” lacking the specificity and the particularity of the family’s identity. By contrast, this analysis will demonstrate that the Traore family’s struggle is not merely an engagement limited to its African and immigrant identity, but extends in large measure to its Muslim affiliations. In his analysis, Jean-Marie Volet remarks that the protagonist Abdou Traore’s mind is “confronted with the massive aggression of a new social order that shows very little respect for traditional values” (311).3 Rendered as particular, this analysis will demonstrate that these “traditional values” are paradigmatic of African Islam. Stated otherwise, it is more fruitful to identify why the Traore family experiences difficulties in its effort to adapt to French culture than to emphasize its foreignness and immigrant status.
The objective of a deeper understanding of the Islamic dimension of the family’s identity lies within the scope of a postcolonial space conceived by the participation of diverse cultures; a site articulated by different cultures accepting what Anouar Majid has termed “equal differences” (1). More crucially, the chief characteristic of this site according to Majid is an acceptance of “values that are uncompromisingly different” (31). As Homi Bhabha has shown, this space is determined by:
the emergence of the interstices- the overlap and displacement of domains of difference- …the exchange of values, meanings may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable.(2)
Within this postcolonial space then, there occurs not only “an exchange of values,” but also an understanding of “profoundly antagonistic” differences set in motion by dialogue. Therefore, the objective of postcolonial theory is, as Majid defines it, “the very act of cultural affirmation and political expression needed to reconnect individuals with their traditions” (24).4 Abdou Traore is a similar example of immigrant labor looking to reconnect himself with his traditions and religious differences in a culturally different society.
Beyala’s novel unfolds through the eyes of a ten-year-old African boy, Loukoum whose real name is Mamadou Traore. Loukoum lives with his father, Abdou Traore, his two mothers, Ma’am Maryam and Soumana and his two sisters. The novel is divided in two narratives — the longer narrative centers on Loukoum’s description and evaluation...