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Genet and Europe1 Edmund White T O SPEAK OF GENET as a European makes sense only if “ Euro­ pean” takes on the utopian meaning that Nietzsche attributed to the word, as someone who could live multiculturally, beyond race and racism, above class and linguistic and ethnic distinctions. Genet was born in Paris in 1910 to an unmarried young woman, a domestic servant, who died nine years later in the great influenza epi­ demic. She was able to keep him with her only seven months and then turned him over to public welfare, which in turn placed him with paid foster parents in the Morvan, one of the poorest regions of France, where the peasants raised cattle—and children—for money. After an adolescence spent in a reform school, Genet joined the army and was sta­ tioned in Syria and Morocco. The Arab world was something he liked instantly, and he returned to it and defended it all his life. Because of his early and repeated exposures to Arab culture, Genet had a constant point from which to view and judge Europe. At Mettray, the reform school where he was as a teenager, the inmates were called colons, or colonists, just as French settlers in Algeria were also called colons. In a long but never published or produced filmscript that he wrote in the last decade of his life called Le Langage de la muraille,1Genet devel­ oped a theory that French colonization had been built on the exploitation of the French underclass. The criminal kind of colonist was broken, re­ educated, then forced into becoming the other kind of colonist, in North Africa, according to Geriet. Genet pointed to the fact that Jules Ferry, the same man who had devised universal, free and obligatory education in France at the beginning of the Third Republic, had also been the archi­ tect of French colonial policy. Genet himself was released early from reform school because he joined French colonial forces in Syria, the Army of the Levant. This link between the criminalized and exploited French underclass, to which Genet belonged, and French colonialism, allowed Genet to identify himself with the Arabs he encountered. When he arrived in Damascus, Syria was a French protectorate. Genet himself helped to build a French fortress that was meant to domi­ nate the city, which had just been nearly destroyed during the French suppression of the Druze uprising. In this terrorized city, where the VOL. XXXV, NO. 1 5 L ’E sprit C réateur Syrians stepped down off the curb to let French soldiers pass by, Genet chose the Syrians. He played cards with them all night long, and hurried back to the barracks just in time for reveille, feeling like a tired partygoer . Part of his interest was, of course, erotic, and Genet, far more honest than most people, never made any bones about it. Whereas Puritans tend to be shocked that someone could base his advocacy of a cause or a peo­ ple on his sexual interest, Genet felt such a basis was natural, and in no need of defense. In Damascus, the nineteen-year-old Genet fell in love with a sixteen-year-old hairdresser, and Genet felt that the Syrians found their love amusing as they walked hand in hand down the street. This romantic, civilized kind of dalliance was in complete contrast with the brutal sexual exploitation that had been the rule at Mettray. In old age, Genet again found comfort and acceptance amongst Arabs, since he felt that Arabs, unlike Europeans, did not despise the aging body. Genet’s last lover, like his first, was an Arab, a Moroccan named Mohammed ElKatrani , who was one of Genet’s three heirs—two of the three are Arabs. Genet is buried in Larache, formerly a Spanish colonial town in Morocco, between Tangier and Rabat, the town where he lived with Mohammed El-Katrani and his family. When Genet died in 1986 in Paris, his heirs considered burying him at Thiers, the Paris cemetery where the great love of his life, Abdallah, the highwire circus artist, was already at rest. But Thiers is a Muslim cemetery and it was finally decided to send...


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