Last year I asked in my German class in a Northern suburb of Paris if my 16-year-old pupils knew what happened on 8 May 1945.
The Jewish kids looked away;
the Eastern European kids looked at me;
the African-French kids murmured until finally one Algerian girl looked straight into my eyes, verifying if she could trust me.
Looking back to her with an encouraging „Yes?“, she said: „The massacre of Sétif, Miss.“ - „Ok, yes, you are right, that is true. That happened, too,“ I replied, but quickly moved away from the topic to the one I wanted to discuss: „even though I wanted to tell you that the German nazi regime capitulated on that day in 1945.“ That being said I realised that what I have just mentioned seemed of a minor importance to the youngsters than the massacre of Sétif.
The end of the German occupation and the atrocities of the Hitler regime hung loosely in the room as a not collectively shared memory.
Maybe the memory was there, but kept secret, hidden or was too multiple facetted to be shared.
Is it really pointless to say that I have no French kid in my class who has no ultimate migration history? In such suburbs with a bad reputation and a high level of precariat, every corner, each stone and even the big trees between the tower buildings whisper endless phrases and words out of France’s memory of an undesirable past: they portray somewhat angular pieces that have no space in the national narrative. It is as if the kids' sometimes difficult and unadapted behaviour at school would tell us more about the suffering of their family line: ,Miss, we don’t count, we are never mentioned in an appreciative way!
Can we be other than the keen poor kids they want us to see? Can we have our own unique frenchness? Can we liberate ourselves from this kind of ghetto we adapt to every year anew?“
It is not easy to represent a country just because you or your parents were born in that country. It makes others commenting, especially when the world encourages them to do so.
But who is the world?
Who decides what is told, how it is told and in which language?
I know deep in my heart that belonging does not equal assimilation and that there is a reason we have a certain culture and heritage; though culture and heritage and how others define them do not have to limit us.
We have the ability to cross borders, physically and emotionally.
Belonging to the human race means meeting one another at the same level, to care for one another and to navigate through differences, as ignoring differences creates a dangerous romanticism and idealism that do not bring us forward. It just leads to superficial love demonstrations generally losing value when times are not nourishing anymore. How can you truly love someone when you just see the things you want to see?
Love demands and facilitates courage, awareness and honesty.
Love helps easing the pain, if it is not even the major condition of healing.
Being born in a country and into a certain family makes us vulnerable as humans with our own history and experiences. However, our identity is neither their achievements, nor their problems: even if our body remembers them by elevating or hindering us to find our own individual expression, no one is to blame when we are not always ready to do the required work.
Working through trans-generational complexity takes time and patience. The world contents itself to have an international narrative on nazi Germany without being able to stop these kinds of atrocities since then. Major crimes are still committed not only by political and religious groups, but also in the name of international peace keeping missions and with the help of diplomatic immunity.
I don’t say that the world is dark, I rather say that the world does not dare to shed light on its darkness.
As a German I know that collective murder, its underlying thoughts and experiences need generations to be understood and healed. Obviously, most of the people prefer to compensate pain and feelings of powerlessness by consuming goods. We clearly need to share and develop more tools to do this spiritually demanding job together. There are many associations, cultural groups, educators and care-workers doing and sharing this wonderful work already. Sadly, they don't get the attention, recognition and financial support they deserve because the dominating discourse does not want to acknowledge that peace, as well as mental and physical health need to be maintained regularly.
It is easier to stuff the population with unnecessary and toxic goods than to think of a new societal organisation; easier to take the lobby's money instead of putting trust into the population's innovative workforce.
Despite of this functioning, we are told the lie that there is not enough money available for us or just for a few. Today, there is still a notable extreme right movement in Germany: threats and assassinations against foreigners are taking place since the country recruited immigrant workers in the 1960s. But Germany is also a welcoming country with lucrative opportunities, a great work ethos, a high standard of living, smiling openness, mixed cultures, freedom of expression and artistic sensitivity. How to put all that together?
How to teach more efficiently that wealth and security are available to each and every one of us?
Am I really surprised that that morning I wanted to talk about the German nazi regime and the Shoa, but ended up by being silent on the French colonial oppression in Algeria? That I just wanted to avoid touching an unhealed wound which could turn into a polemic in my classroom? When I want to talk about Germany’s division after the Second World War, why do they want me to talk about the scar of France’s and Algeria’s division?
Am I really surprised that me, not only being German, but also of Algerian origin, that I am facing this crossroads of collective narratives in my every day life? Not only constantly explaining my German culture, but also my Algerian heritage, the gaps, the missing, reducing the complex, responding to prejudices, experiencing the joy of being able to correct and amplify the perspective of the other… all that effort despite of inappropriate, hurting and often never ending questions.
All that to justify my existence to someone learning just now and with me that crossing borders in the name of love is possible; that one can simply not classify a person’s life into political or social definitions.
It seems that people expect you to talk when they judge your country inferior to theirs.
It seems that we are all learning to do that if we always stay in the same corner (of thought).
But isn’t it voyeuristic to ask intimate family details or to talk about a genocide or political problem when first meeting a person from another culture? Indeed, we need to be more respectful with another culture, although we might disagree with its practices and beliefs.
When two people meet for the first time they open up a fragile space in which they need to apply a kind of soft approach in order to getting to know each other. But all too often one of them, terribly anxious, verbally invades this space, tries to dominate it and risks its dissolution as the second person in most of the cases leaves.
The person who feels culturally or in any other way superior (f.ex. gender-wise, financially, in appearance etc.) likes to ask, but rarely listens because the truth is: we don’t need to listen when we look at cross-cultural issues with glasses of assimilation. (By the way, this ignorance can also be found in minority groups rejecting their hosting culture.)
Altogether it is about the capacity and the will to approach one another with authentic openness and curiosity.
The young girl in my class said what she wanted to say because she knew that I was listening; that I felt with her; she didn’t know that I am German-Algerian, but she sensed my empathy.
Where to start to put an order into that messed up library of memories of an unspoken past?
Is it just up to us, children of multiple nationalities, cultures and heritages to build new structures? To explain the similarities of the people to the people without being dragged down to an exclusive subcultural group or being put in a drawer of prejudices?
I don’t think so. It is certain that our children deserve better than being stuck in old narratives. We are all here together on France’s soil, our country of choice. Here we are happy, we are protected and we are free.
Nevertheless, taking part in the country’s latest social and political challenges is somehow frustrating as we have to observe the cruel reality that if we don’t look at our own problems, others will take advantage of it;
that other political currents, collective thoughts and beliefs will try to infiltrate our system with destructive hatred; just to install the bitter-sweet and never ending practice of vengeance.
I am sure that suffering and pain are the least we long to in this world, in this country, in this city and in my classroom; that all we want is to grow together, feel secure, loved and entirely free from the ghosts of our very own and collective past.
My two countries of origin and my country of choice have two faces, they have even more than that: why not acknowledging them when we meet one another?
Is it really too difficult to reveal the tissues of our past experiences, to contemplate them together and helping each other to unknot them? Do we really lose countenance or don’t we rather gain it?
Let us stop raging against one another, but, as Dylan Thomas would say it, let us rage against the dying of the light:
„Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.“
Dylan Thomas, Do not gentle into that good night, URL: https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night