NOT TO BE MISSED
"Etrangère", a novel by Kafia IBRAHIM
Paris: L'Harmattan, 2010. (104p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
When twentytwo year old Selma flees Mogadishu, the city is dogged by civil war and the future of the young woman appears rather bleak. Her prospects do not improve when the smuggler in charge of escorting her to Europe abandons her in France with no money, no ID papers and nowhere to go. Stories about asylum seekers are always teeming with harrowing experiences. However, Etrangère [Foreigner] by Djiboutian author Kafia Ibrahim diverges somewhat from well-trodden literary paths: rather than presenting a graphic exposé of the "illegals" predicament, it emphasises people's perception of self and others. This leads to interesting and, at times, profound reflections on values, exile, love and assimilation.
Upon being abandoned in Paris, Salme's fate is sealed. She will not reach England, her intended destination. She has to accept the hand of fate: "I wish", she says with regard to her questioning by a representative of the NGO "French Terre d'Asile" who rescued her, "that I could have said that I chose France because it was the country of human rights, that I was aware of its open-door policy towards successive waves of refugees, that it was the best country in the world; thus, if one had to endure exile anyway, one might as well choose a country that was worth it. But all that was not true. I knew very little about France and the few times I heard about it, it was never for the better. [...] It was very hard for refugees to get papers there, and rumour had it that the French were not that welcoming to foreigners." (pp.15-16)
Beside these fears and apprehension about France, Selma is confronted by irreconcilable feelings from the day she arrives in the country: on the one hand, the relief of having reached a temporary haven of peace and security after years of ominous threats and uncertainty and, on the other hand, the memories of her country and family that keep gnawing at her. Furthermore, language barrier, lack of purpose and cultural shock add to her distress. As one of her compatriot tells her: "Exile is not something one chooses, it is a last resort. [...] Leaving is the main objective; and we put so much energy into it, so much time, that once our wish has been fulfilled, then, we have no plans for the road ahead. [...] We don't know what to do, as we believed that the solution to all of our problems was to flee." (p.84)
But Selma whose integration into French society is remarkably fast, smooth and successful is quick to realise that she has to decide what she wants to achieve next and what she is prepared to do to reach her goal. For a start, she decides to "do in France as the French do". She swaps her Somali traditional clothing for a tight jumper and a pair of jeans, lodges a successful application for refugee status, learns French in no time, gets acquainted with local customs, befriends numerous Somali, and other exiles of various backgrounds, falls in love with a French guy, finds work and blends seemingly effortlessly into French society.
Yet, for all the freedom she gains in taking charge of her life, there is an inner voice that prevents the complete disenthrallment of her mind. One that brings her back to the referential do's and don'ts of family beliefs and etiquette. In defiance of Somali custom, she has no hesitation in befriending a male soulmate like Kadar, another Somali refugee, and Cyril, a French social worker. She enjoys chatting with them and strolling around the city in their company. But when Cyril declares his love, she cannot bring herself to follow her heart and to give free rein to her own feelings. Not because she would not be very happy: she is indeed in love with her suitor; but because her mother would not agree to such a marriage that, she says, would bring shame on the family. And disobeying the elders would mean a permanent rejection by the family.
Selma's mother looks forward to being reunited with Selma's elder brother who has obtained refugee status in Norway, but her move to Europe does not entail a revision of her idiosyncratic values and rather narrow view of the world. Her country is falling apart, xenophobia is rampant and her family split up, but she is still determined to steer the course of her daughter's life. Hence her admonitions exhorting Selma "to remain deaf to the temptations and to avoid bringing shame to the family name." (p.91) She exerts strong moral pressure and reports in the harshest terms the marriage of a young Somali girl with a Swede. Her ranting on family honour echoes her own father's rebuke about the marriage of a distant cousin who, many years earlier, was held up to public obloquy when she married an English doctor, who was not even a Muslim. (p.55)
This family leverage prevents Selma from making the best of the openings on offer abroad, not least of them to marry the man she loves, but she is not the kind of person to brood over lost opportunities; she tries to find the best possible solution to the conundrums she must deal with. Unlike her friend Kadar, who is determined to leave the problems of Somalia behind him and to start life anew, Selma does not want to be disconnected from her mother-country. She is ready to make concessions in order to be accepted by her kin: Marrying someone acceptable to her family and keeping in touch with her compatriots are among them. But there is a limit to her amenability. Love has to be a major feature of marriage, and excitement a main element of her life. Unlike her brother who had to abandon his study of medicine to became a security guard in Norway she does not believe that "Europe was the place were African people where losing their childhood dreams". (p.77) Reaching the shores of Europe was not a finality in itself: "The doors to happiness had to be pushed open" (p.103) and she was firmly intent on doing just that.
Selma's determination to reconcile two apparently incompatible worlds, challenges the assumption that exiles have only two choices: to adopt all the values of the host country or to recreate in isolation a small ethnic islet cut off from the mainstream. As her experience shows, it is possible to blend both worlds into something that suits personal aspirations. Segregation and binary divisions based on race, caste, clan, ethnicity or religion suit hegemonic aspirations and the preserve of established social hierarchies, but they are ill-suited to the fluid interactions and mobility of 21st century people. Ideals based on exclusion are always deceptive and a tight-knit community or family can be both loyal to each-other and open to the world at large.
Selma is brimming with energy. She establishes meaningful links between the now and then, the here and there; however, the gallery of characters proposed in the novel also shows the difficult path towards self-fulfilment, open-mindedness and mutual understanding: For every character keen to meet the challenges of cross-cultural communication there is another, anxious to cast in stone their privileges and the unique characteristics of their cultural inheritance. Although united by a common history, language and religion, Selma's compatriots reflect that diversity of purpose. They range from long established Somali immigrants, well-settled in Paris, to newly arrived refugees trying to find their footing; they comprise women and men, families and unmarried people, young and old. Some are keen to forget the past and to assimilate. Others look at the people around them with much suspicion: they lament their loss and live with their memories. Etrangère is "based on the hundreds of Somali refugees met during the author's sojourn in France" (back cover) and this novel captures well both the diversity and the common thread that unites Paris' Somali community.
The novel also shows that refugees' and exiles' expectations are changing over time. When Selma is rescued by "France Terre d'Asile", fed and provided with a clean pair of sheets, she celebrates the mere fact of being alive, but a year later, escaping the man-made inferno created by the Somalia militia is no longer her main preoccupation. She holds a sacrosanct "carte de séjour", has taken charge of her life, speaks French and does not want to be subservient to anyone, least of all to people who try to cast her in the role of the exile who should accept everything gracefully. Hence, when she is offered a cleaner's job that requires her to start work at 3 am, she lacks enthusiasm, much to the dismay of the recruiting officer "who, she says, probably thought that becoming a cleaning lady in France was a life-long dream of mine" (p.85) and, when a workmate who could never remember her first name suggests calling her "Marie", she agrees on the condition that she can call him "Mohamed". (p.86)
There are many things that lie beyond Selma's control, both in Somalia and in France; but her determination to take obstacles in her stride, and to make the best of what life has to offer, is uplifting. Is she going to stay in France? Will she return to Mogadishu some day? Nobody knows, but the world is her oyster and no one can doubt that she will make her mark, irrespective of where she decides to live, work and love.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities