Financial Situation and the Living Conditions of the Immigrants’ Suburbs

From the very beginning of the story, Begag describes the hard living conditions and financial situation that his family had to deal with. As Algerian immigrants, Begag’s family lived in a shantytown with almost no infrastructure. The wooden houses, which were shanties rather than normal houses, did not have some of the essential living facilities such as basic plumbing, running water and electricity taken for granted by the local French population. The immigrants had to deal with deplorable sanitary conditions with the absence of toilets and very small square spaces for many families. The protagonist gets astonished by the spaciousness of the house of his French classmate, which he describes as “as big as the whole of Le Chaaba put together” (Begag 2006, 45). The author emphasizes the economic discrepancy with the local French population by contrasting the immigrant living conditions with the perfectly laid out spacious houses of the French.

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One of the episodes illustrates the exceedingly challenging financial situation of the Algerian immigrants who lived alongside his family in La Chaaba, especially vividly. He describes how he and other immigrants would rummage through the garbage, trying to find anything of value and fight to the point of pulling other people’s hair over the findings. Throughout the story, the author makes clear the excruciating material situation common for the Arab population living in the French suburbs.

Cultural Identity Crisis
The protagonist of the story, Begag’s childhood alter-ego, daily has to maneuver in between two essentially different worlds. One such world was the world of his family, with its Muslim moral codes and the Arabic language. The other was the world of the French language and culture he encountered daily at school. In his work, the author shows how a child orients in between these two intrinsically different realities where at home, he has to adapt to the Arab practices and meet the expectations of the French in the classroom.

The socioeconomic and cultural gulf between Begg’s character and his French counterparts becomes vivid during the description of daily routines at school when confronted with daily etiquette or hygiene habits demonstrated by the French. The author points out the feelings experienced by his character as the feeling of “shame and disgrace” whenever the teacher points out the rules of correct behavior (Begag 2006, 58). Not only does the protagonist get exposed to the French behavioral and etiquette norms for the first time, he is also expected to perform and internalize them.

The discrepancy between young Azouz’s heritage and the desire to assimilate into French society becomes clear when one day, the protagonist makes a decision to become “French” or “one of them” (Begag 2007, 37). This is when Begag’s character decides to get rid of his “Arab-ness” by dedicating himself to studying and becoming one of the smartest students at school after his father’s admonitions not to become “a poor laborer” like him (Begag 2007, 32). Young Azouz understood his father’s instruction to take education seriously and do well at school as a necessity to get rid of his “Arab-ness” and become more “French”. Doing well at school was originally associated with the French students who only continued to fuel the stereotyping of the Algerians and other Arab people and largen the gulf between the immigrants and the French. 

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