Home > 1980, 20th Century, French Literature, Highly Recommended, Novel, Sebbar Leïla, TBR20, Translation Tragedy > Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar – and before, their mothers

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar – and before, their mothers

December 18, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar (1981) Original French title: Fatima ou les Algériennes au square.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au Square by Leïla Sebbar is not available in English and it’s a shame. Set in La Courneuve in end of the 1970s, this novella describes the lives of immigrants from North Africa in the suburbs around Paris.

Fatima and her husband belong to the first generation of immigrants from Algeria. They came for work and they intend to go back to the country. Meanwhile, the children grow up in France, go to school and are on the bridge between two worlds. They want to be as French as the others but at home, they are summoned to be Algerian, Muslim and to remind themselves that their country is Algeria.

Dalila is the oldest daughter and she loves sitting by her mother on the bench at the square near their apartment building. The women meet at the square and share news about friends and relatives. From one afternoon to the other, it’s like a feuilleton for Dalila. Sometimes she dares to ask about someone in particular. The Algerian ladies stick together and never really learn French. They often come from poor villages and are illiterate. These meetings at the square are their network and support system.

In her novella, Leïla Sebbar perfectly describes the life of this first generation of immigrants. They struggle with the language and their children learn it quicker than them. Their mastering the language reverses a bit the power in the family. The parents cannot talk to teachers properly. The children can read administrative documents and are propelled in the adults’ world because they have to help their families. For the parents, everything is different and they had to adapt to a new country, with different customs. Leïla Sebbar also describes very well the condescension of the French and their racism.

The author is very thoughtful and delicate in her descriptions of their lives. She doesn’t hide the clash of cultures, the violence in the couples and the strict control that fathers and brothers have on the girls of the family. Dalila would like to be like other French teenagers but fashionable clothes and make-up do not agree with her father. He can be vocal and violent about it and the responsibility falls down on her mother.

She captures very well the atmosphere of the time and she reminded me a lot of things from my own childhood. She tells the fights between communities and neighborhoods. She shows that these girls are studious in class and see school as a key to a better future. It’s a path to independence, if their parents don’t marry them too young. The boys are the kings of the house and they take power because they are male and are more at ease in France than their fathers. We see a culture where men have all the power and don’t hesitate to use it.

We also see families torn apart by immigration: the parents’ only dream is to go back to Algeria and the children’s only dream is to settle in France and be like the others in school. The parents have not yet understood that they would not go back because their children and grandchildren would stay in France and because, whether they fight against it or not, they slowly lose contact with their former lives in Algeria.

Fatima is the generation before the one featured in Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au square was published in 1981. Native French and Algerian immigrants live under the false impression that the Algerians’ presence in France is temporary, just to earn money before going back to Algeria. Both sides acknowledge too late that, contrary to what they thought, these immigrants were in France to stay. It might explain the loose ends in the assimilation process.

Fatima was written was before the foundation of the association SOS Racism (1984) and the marches against racism towards . I was too young to march but in school, a lot of us wore the pin Touche pas à mon pote (Don’t touch my friend) It was the time of awareness: these families where here to stay; their children went to school with the children of their age and France was their country. Leïla Sebbar perceived that and Fatima and Dalila are the representative of two generations and she shows a turning point for the immigrant communities.

Fatima made me understand how much they hoped that their stay would be temporary, in what frame of mind Fatima and her husband were. As a child, it never crossed my mind that Mohammed in my class could move “back” to Algeria. Unfortunately, the assimilation didn’t go as well as it should have. When you have curly brown hair in France, some people still feel entitled to ask you of what origin you are, as if you weren’t French.

It is a pity that this brilliant novella has not been translated into English. I think that it has a British follow-up in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. This quote in Ali’s book could come from Sebbar’s novella.

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

  1. December 18, 2019 at 11:47 am

    This sounds great – a lot packed in to a short book. And still very relevant by the sounds of things.

    Like

    • December 18, 2019 at 11:13 pm

      It’s a great book, well written.

      Like

  2. December 19, 2019 at 1:24 am

    This story feels familiar, but I guess it reflects the migrant experience in all western countries. The children having to stand between their parents and authority as interpreters, men asserting a level of control at odds with modern western values. And yet Australia does not have many books which tell this story. My favourite would be Chris Tsialkos’ Loaded.

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    • December 19, 2019 at 7:45 am

      I’m under the impression that it reflects the post WWII migrant experience. It was the idea of going back that made a difference, among other things. (one being that they came from former colonies)

      The ones who came before knew they wouldn’t go back.

      And in France we don’t want a society which is a jigsaw of different communities who live nearby and don’t meet. I ‘m afraid happening, though.

      Like

      • December 19, 2019 at 7:58 am

        Migrants to Australia mostly came to settle, though of course there were examples from convict times onwards of people going the other way and finding their home country had changed while they were gone. Australian Greeks I think, used to be seen as very old fashioned in Greece. I had an aunty who married a Yugoslav and returned to his village for a few years. She found that very odd!

        Just now we (Australians) are importing just the problem you suggest – having Pacific Islanders here as seasonal farm workers and expecting them to go home again. Not going to happen, in my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. December 19, 2019 at 11:45 am

    This sounds excellent and I wish it was available in English, as I don’t think my French is likely to be good enough to read it through! It does make me think that I should pick up Brick Lane, though, which is a book that’s been on my radar for a long time but that I’ve never got around to reading.

    Like

    • December 19, 2019 at 11:17 pm

      It’s a shame that it’s not available on English.
      Brick Lane is good and interesting
      Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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