The Silence Of 'Others' in Marseille

Marseille, France’s second largest city, is an important port of the Mediterranean and a beautiful place with lots of sunshine. It has a long history of migration and its present complex and culturally diverse character is a reflection of the successive generations of migrants who docked and settled here. Migrants began arriving in Marseille in the middle of the 19th century and their migration was closely linked with the French colonial invasion of North Africa, beginning with Algeria in 1830. North Africans were brought to work and develop Marseille’s port and industries. The number of foreigners continued to grow steadily and in 1914, around 100,000 Italians arrived and settled in Marseille. There was a lot of pseudo-nationalistic and xenophobic noise against, what many French had termed as, an Italian invasion. But there is an interesting story that must be shared here. Because such stories – past and present – explicitly highlight the ignorance and hypocrisy of most of the right-wing opinions on the issue of immigration. The question that needs to be asked here is why did France permit thousands of North Africans and Italians to settle in Marseille in the first place. Well, because the French industrial economy, in order to expand, needed laborers who could do dirty and dangerous jobs at the lowest possible wages. The French workers demanded better salaries and safer working conditions and in order to constrain these demands, poorly paid North African and Italian workers were recruited in large numbers. These foreign and colonial workers were effectively used to break frequent strikes and weaken the French unionized workforce. Gradually, the Italian workers got together, formed unions, began striking and demanding exactly what earlier the French workers were demanding. Then the industry owners and manufacturers brought in poorer North Africans to replace the rights-conscious Italians. Like the oil manufacturers in Marseille who recruited migrants from Kabylia, a very poor north Algerian region, to replace striking Italians who were demanding better wages. These new ‘strikebreakers’ were now employed to replace those who had previously been ‘strikebreakers’. So it is important to remember that the North Africans and Italians did not just come to Marseille on their own looking for work. They were ‘invited’ to work, allowed to settle and employed to build an economically powerful France.  
Kenan Malik provides similar examples and lessons from the European history that xenophobic voices conveniently choose to ignore.

The second generation of migrants arrived when after the heavy human losses in the First World War, France was in desperate need of workers to rebuild and restart its industries. The Italians and colonial workers were further encouraged to immigrate. But along with them two new groups also started arriving. The Armenians who arrived as refugees fleeing persecution in Turkey and the Corsicans who came in large numbers and settled in the famous Le Panier (The Basket) neighborhood of Marseille. The third wave of migration came with the need to rebuild and reconstruct France after the Second World War. But more importantly, it was the decolonization of former French colonies in the sub-Saharan and North African region that led to the arrival of large number of immigrants from the Maghreb. In 1975, around 60% of Marseille’s population was from Maghreb. This huge influx of migrants laid the foundation of the present north-south divide of Marseille. The city did not have enough space for the newly arrived Maghrebis and new housing projects, the cités, were constructed to replace the shantytowns and suburbs where these migrants had long been crammed into. And from these cités, I have begun the French chapter of The Silence of ‘Others’.. 

For the first three years of my work in America and England, my objective was to document the impact of religious prejudice and stereotyping on young Muslims. I shared stories of a struggle for equality, citizenship and democracy in the face of ‘Islamophobia’. With this new work in Marseille, I have begun to document how religious discrimination coupled with other factors – racial profiling, poverty, dilapidated housing, high unemployment, rampant crime, juvenile delinquency and illegal drug trade – contribute to the disillusionment and alienation of young Muslims. I am documenting the community’s experience: their struggles to belong and the socio-cultural, economic and political system’s flaws that oppose them. A majority of the Muslim population resides in the cités – the shiny ivory towers spread all over Marseille. The purpose of my work is to observe and understand how things and everyday events contribute to the ‘lived experience’ of young Muslims living in and around these cités. I am photographing their activities, behaviors, intimate emotions, personal opinions, private lives and public interactions. The photographs attempt to bring forth an understanding of how the Muslim youth in Marseille views its personal identity, democratic citizenship, social relationships, political participation, economic equality and most importantly, its wellbeing. My work isn’t over yet. But I am sharing here all that I have been able to do so far. In my interviews with the community, I have tried to collect information on a number of issues – identity, housing, employment, schooling, health services, social relationships, public transportation, police and security. And a lot of that information has been presented along-with the photographs.. 

An overview of the findings reveals a precarious and complex state of the society in Marseille. The implementation of French laïcité has led to an institutional invisibility of Muslims and they appear nowhere in the public sector strategies and policies. In principle, laïcité sounds too good when French politicians tell you that France does not differentiate between job seekers, homebuyers or potential students on the basis of their religion, and that every one is judged according to their needs and merits. But in reality, in almost every sector, Muslims are in fact excluded and disadvantaged. A majority of the young Muslims believe that they are viewed as ‘non-French’, different and inferior. Not many of them feel strongly for the Maghrebi countries of their parents’ origin, but they also do not have a sense of belonging to France. They believe that in order to be ‘fully French’ one has to forget his or her identity as an Arab. You can either be ‘Arab’ or ‘French’ because the society, they say, is still not ready to accept them as Arab French. Racial prejudice and discrimination affects them everyday and it plays a very important role in keeping them away from the southern part of the city. The city is not markedly divided into ‘French’ or ‘Arab’ neighborhoods. It is more of a ‘rich-poor’ divide. But the high concentration of Arab families in the poorer northern quartiers [quarters] of Marseille is clearly evident. The schools are perfect examples that depict this ‘north-south’ or ‘Arab-French’ divide. Children of Muslim families are concentrated in schools in the Northern working-class quartiers of Marseille. In my discussions with some teachers, I was told that the academic results of students from the Northern and Southern schools are very different. Less number of students from the Northern quartiers successfully complete their education and the number of dropouts are higher as compared to the better performing Southern schools. This underachievement, at a later stage in life, significantly shapes the Muslim community’s experience and performance in the job market. Racial, ethnic and religious discrimination in employment and careers is a major and widespread issue for the community. ‘I can not get a good job because I am an Arab and a Muslim’ is the most frequently expressed sentiment in Marseille. Disadvantages, like living in the rough parts of the city and having lower levels of education, further reduce their chances of securing or performing well in good jobs. High unemployment and low incomes ensure that most of these young men and women remain forever trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and crime. I often ask them, “What would be the first thing that you’d like to do if you have a job or some money?“I’ll move to a better apartment” is always their first response. The crisis of immigrant housing has always dominated the social and political debates in France. But the issue still remains critical and partially unresolved till date. When the migrants first arrived in the 1960s, they were settled in dormitories or hostels. But these accommodations were not equipped or big enough for families and so the migrants made their own makeshift houses. They were then moved to temporary settlements where they waited for a private or public HLM apartment [Habitation à Loyer Modéré] – housing at low rent. A number of social housing buildings were erected to accommodate the immigrants. But today, most of these building are old, rundown and barely fit for habitation. And to access housing through the private market, or in cleaner safer neighborhoods, is next to impossible for a majority of the Maghrebi population. There are several studies that prove the ethno-racial discrimination in the private and social housing market of Marseille. The private and social market operators ensure residential boundaries, separating Maghrebis from the French, are enforced and perpetuated. This is one of the key reasons why the ethno-racial divide between the North and South Marseille still persists. There are poor neighborhoods in Southern Marseille too. But comparatively, the Northern Quartiers of Marseille are more densely populated with unemployed and poverty-stricken Muslims, who are systematically excluded from the richer Southern part of the city. Several public and private organizations are working to correct this ethnicized socio-residential divide. But it is a tremendously difficult job. Especially, with the growing influence of the illegal drug traders, who control these cités and would do anything to keep these neighborhoods poor and excluded. Drug related crimes and murders are rampant and today’s Marseille is one of the most dangerous places in Europe. There are a number of reports, articles and YouTube videos on the crimes, gang wars and Kalashnikovs in Marseille. The local community feels that the solution lies in better and increased policing. But the community also harbors a strong and long-standing resentment against the police force. I heard several stories of police racism and their mistreatment of Muslims and Arabs. And unfortunately, I also got to experience it myself. But I’ll share that story some other day.. 

Before you move on to read the photographs and their text, I’ll share these words from a report by Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe project in Marseille. These words, I believe, should help you understand my photographs better. The report says – “Viewed as Marseillais Muslims (emphasis on Muslims), rather than Muslim Marseillais  (or Marseillais who just happen to be Muslim), Muslims are not yet accepted as citizens with full rights. In Marseille, prejudices and presuppositions against them are firmly entrenched: a tendency towards violence, self-isolation, and segregation and support of radical Islam. While the city remains deeply marked by its colonial history, most of the treatment currently meted out to Muslims is unrelated to the legacy of the past and can be construed as a result of the mechanisms of power: the treatment of certain classes by public institutions and authorities with subordination and dependency…In Marseille, the origins of Islamophobia reach back in time far beyond the events of 9/11, and they are deeply rooted in the history of the city. Hence a last paradox, which sums up the previous one: whereas Marseille is often considered, rightly or wrongly, by other Frenchmen and foreign tourists as the ‘most Muslim city in Europe’, it is certainly not, at present, a city where it is easy for one to define oneself as a Muslim, and even less so as a religiously devout one.”. 

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