Hakim Abderrezak follows the twists and turns of the North African migration story
by Danny LaChance
In Cannibales, a recent Moroccan novel, a group of North and sub-Saharan Africans gather on the northern Moroccan shore preparing to make a clandestine crossing to Europe. "All your papers," demands the captain of the boat that will deliver them to their new home. "Passport, I.D., birth certificate, address book: in short, any document that could be used to identify you." One by one, they hand over their identifying documents. It will all be burned, they know--a step necessary to ensure that they cannot be deported if they are discovered by European authorities.
Moments like this one capture the imagination of Hakim Abderrezak, assistant professor of French and francophone studies. In an age of globalization, Abderrezak says, "African papers link these people to countries that have not been able to offer them the opportunities that they long for. African passports limit." Burning them sets characters like those in Cannibales free from those limits.
Abderrezak studies the influence of these complex circumstances on the identities of Moroccans and other Maghrebis, those who hail from the North African nations of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. A scholar of literature and film, he studies the representation of Maghrebi identities as they undergo changes in a globalized world. These identities, he says, are tightly tied to the movements of Maghrebi people to and from Europe and the rest of the world.
A Muslim couple in Marseilles, France. A major port city in southern France, Marseilles is a common entry point for immigrants from North Africa.
The nature of those movements has changed dramatically in recent years, Abderrezak says. "When we used to talk about migration, it was about émigrés going to France. They'd settle, have families, and would not leave because their children were born there and were French," he explains.
That model is quickly growing outdated. Time, globalization, and immigration politics have changed migrations--and the cinematic and literary representations of those migrations. In the past decade, a whole new set of novels and films emerged to describe new kinds of migratory experiences in the western Mediterranean.
Take, for instance, several recent novels and films set in Spain, which used to be a footnote in the experiences of migrating Maghrebis, "a country of transit" for those moving to France. But a bullish Spanish economy has caused many Maghrebis to settle in Spain, leading to new relationships between the French-, Spanish-, and Arabic-speaking worlds.
The children and grandchildren of Maghrebi immigrants in Europe, meanwhile, are increasingly returning to the Maghreb region in order to rediscover their roots. This reverse migration is striking, Abderrezak says: "Some people want to go back to their family's country of origin because they've been shown or told that they're not completely French," he explains. Once they are there, of course, they discover that neither are they Moroccan or Algerian or Tunisian. "They don't speak the language, they don't have a job there, they don't have an identity there. When they're in France, they're called immigrants. But when they're in the Maghreb, they're still immigrants," he says.
Abderrezak is particularly interested in what he calls "illegal literature," novels about migration in an age when access to Europe has been restricted by stricter immigration policies, forcing many to depart illegally. The literature, he says, is a counterpoint to international news coverage of perilous, clandestine crossings of Maghrebis into Europe. "Images of distraught men, women, and children being rescued or escorted by the authorities, or of bodies being fished out of the sea, are often seen in newspapers and on television shows all over the world," Abderrezak says. European media coverage emphasizes illegality. "The image is monolithic: North Africans are shown as criminals," Abderrezak says, "as invaders trying to breach Spain."
That's where literature and film come in. They offer an alternative to media coverage of illicit migrations that helps us to understand the complex and ambiguous experiences of Maghrebis. Describing the lives that those who cross led before and after the passage, literature and film counter media images of people flailing around next to capsized boats with a sympathetic portrayal of the lives that others easily dismiss as illegal.
Abderrezak's fascination with the literature of migration stems from his own experiences. The son of Maghrebi immigrants, he was born, raised, and educated in Normandy, France. But as he was growing up, he and other children of immigrants were commonly known as les jeunes issus del'immigration, or "the generation of youth produced by immigration," a term that portrayed them as others within their own society. "It was stunning to be defined that way when you were born in France, didn't come from another country, and are French according to the law," Abderrezak says. "That prompted me to look at the novels and films that have tackled this inaccuracy and, more importantly, identify several types of marginality."
It's the topic he took up when he migrated across the Atlantic and began doctoral research at Northwestern University, where he pursued research in Maghrebi film and literature. He knows it's ironic--a scholar who traveled to America to study French and francophone literature. But, like the characters in the works he studies, Abderrezak finds that when you're trying to understand identity and culture, distance can sometimes work to your advantage. You see the contours of a culture, its ambiguities and contradictions, better when you're not steeped in its everyday life, he says.
Now that he's settled in Minneapolis, Abderrezak is looking forward to working as part of a new generation of francophone scholars who are seeing Maghrebi migration in its current forms. He's at work on a book that will cover, in depth, each of the patterns he has identified.
The time seems to be ripe for his project. A graduate student recently asked him for help finding sources on new patterns of migration. Despite the number of books on Maghrebi migration to France, he had almost no major critical work to recommend on contemporary literary and cinematic representations of Maghrebi migration to places like Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Books and articles on that topic have yet to be written, he had to explain to the student. There just isn't much out there. Yet.