Shantytown Kid (Le Gone du Chaâba) from Azouz Begag is the final selection Emma made for our virtual Xmas gift exchange. I’m going to begin by saying that this was not a book I would have bought without Emma’s nudge. In fact, I’d never heard of it, and even if I had, I doubt that I would have bought it as I do not usually enjoy books written through the eyes of a child. Lest I seem too inflexible, there are, of course, a few exceptions to that, but experience has taught me to generally avoid books with either a child protagonist or narrator. So that preamble brings me back to Shantytown Kid, an “autobiographical novel” that follows Azouz, who was born in 1957, picking up his story sometime in the early sixties and ending in 1968. So not many years in the life of a child, and of course the story is told by a now adult Begag. Azouz Begag’s parents were illiterate Algerian immigrants who came to France in 1949. They settled in Lyon, and Azouz was born in a Lyon shantytown. These days, the author, who has a doctorate in Economics, is a politician and a writer.
The story begins, as the title suggests in Le Chaâba, a shantytown in Lyon, a place without electricity and no running water. That also means no toilets, but more of that later. While the shantytown lacks facilities, it doesn’t lack a strong sense of community, and we see this facet of Le Chaâba repeatedly through the book. One example is the way the women squabble over the water pump by day, but bury their arguments when the men come home, and in another instance (which is hilarious, by the way), the women and children combine forces–forming an ad hoc and combative neighbourhood watch assault team to discourage the lively prostitution trade that flourishes right outside of their territory.
Begag relates the pivotal classroom incidents and friendships which shaped his life and his decision to “prove that I was capable of being like them.” ‘Them‘ in this case being the French schoolchildren who laugh at Azouz’s use of Arabic vocabulary. Of course, mixing with French children who live in houses and not shacks serves to highlight the differences between Azouz’s life and the expectations of French children.
I knew I lived in a shantytown of shacks made of planks of wood and corrugated iron roofs and that it was the poor who lived that way. I had gone several times to Alain’s home in the middle of the Avenue Monin, where his family lived in a real house. I could see it was much nicer than our shacks. And there was so much space. His house alone was as big as the whole of le Chaâba put together. He had his own room, with a desk and books and a wardrobe for his clothes. At each visit my eyes nearly came out of their sockets with astonishment. I was too ashamed to tell him where I lived. That is why Alain had never been to Le Chaâba. He was not the sort to enjoy rummaging in the garbage dumped on the embankment, or hanging onto the sides of the garbage truck, or getting involved in extorting money from the hookers and the homos. Besides, did he even know what homo meant?
On the down side, detailed here is a nighttime excursion to the outhouse and a genital exhibition between children. Minor asides, but what’s so interesting is the clear impact of education on Azouz. At times the lessons seem designed to illuminate differences between the French children and the Arab children–this isn’t true, of course, the lessons are culturally based in subjects such as manners, etiquette, and hygiene. But the result is that the Arabic children are effectively alienated even further–unless they’re like Azouz and set out to impress the teacher–even at the cost of alienating their fellow Arabic classmates.
Rather than a cohesive narrative, the book is basically a series of incidents that take place in the shantytown, in Azouz’s schools and in the home his family later moves to. One of the best scenes takes place when rubbish is dumped next to the shantytown and the residents go hunting for anything of value. Throughout these scenes runs a strong thread examining identity and solidarity, and the inevitable tug-of-war that occurs between one culture’s values when confronted with an adopted country. Some parents who bring their children to another country (or whose children are born in an adopted country) seem horrified when the children begin to integrate, but isn’t that a healthy development? Ideally two cultures should be meshed equally, but when one of those cultures is considered to be a so-called prestige culture, while another is not, just how does a child accept or filter out cultural values when subjected to peer pressure, family expectations and the desire to belong? Shantytown Kid sensitively illustrates all these difficulties faced by Azouz as he makes some irrevocable decisions at a crucial early age. In one scene, he’s even held up by the teacher as an example against his own race, and in another a pied-noir teacher condescendingly corrects Azouz on all matters Algerian.
He was really modest, my teacher. There he was, explaining my origins to me demonstrating how little I knew of Arab culture, and he dared tell me that he spoke Arabic nearly as well as I did!
As crass as the teacher is at times, he still appreciates Algerian culture–a rare thing at the time with anti-Algerian sentiment boiling away and culminating in France in October 17, 1961. As Azouz tries to navigate both worlds, he inevitably and consciously makes a decision to be “french,” and that decision comes at a cost. For me, however, the most touching parts of the book are not the episodes of Azouz’s life, but the struggles of Azouz’s father who despairs when families leave the shantytown and move to flats. While he expresses this despair as disloyalty in the departing families, Azouz’s father distress is founded in the threat to culture and loss of community, and as the families disperse, his anguish seems based in doubt about the future and fear of lost values.
So thanks Emma for pointing me towards a book I’d never heard of and one I enjoyed. Strangely enough I related to it in some ways.