Whether you’re well-versed in the history of Maghrebian immigrants in France, or a newcomer, Jérôme Ruillier’s graphic novel will bring their stories to life for you.
When Readux Editor Amanda gave me the green light and placed a (virtual) copy of the graphic novel The Mohameds (Les Mohamed, Ed. Sarbacane) in my hands, I didn’t hesitate to get started. Oddly enough, it took awhile for me to digest what I’d read. Though I’m no expert, I’m also far from ignorant of the often tragic history of the Maghrebian immigrants who significantly bolstered the French blue collar work force after World War Two. The Mohameds struck me full force with its poignant “mémoires d’immigrés” initially collected by Yamina Benguigui during the 90s and sensitively rendered in images by Jérôme Ruillier.
“The Mohameds” are first of all those Maghrebian fathers France called on in the face of the labor shortage just after the war to support reconstruction: throughout the three parts Ruillier introduces the degradations experienced by that initial wave, the Ahmeds, the Abdels, the Mamouds …who, with open disdain, were all indiscriminately called “Mohamed.” The mothers, the sons, and the daughters of those brave men suffer the same deprivations, and they too are “Mohameds.” In their own way, each carried France in their hearts, even as they were continually treated as second-class citizens — for example by confining them in dormitories or squalid camps far from the city that barely had running water.
Come alone, that was the condition for their “invitation,” “the Mohameds” left everything behind them without notice: their family, their children, their roots…Upon arrival they were confronted with solitude, with endless separations, some with squalor, difficult and sometimes degrading work conditions, others with racism, and for many of them with a profound sense of estrangement and enormous disillusion.
Some, like the Tunisian Khemaïs suffered or suffer from illiteracy, while others like Yasmina begin to teach literacy courses. They also suffer from indifference, from the trauma that stays alive within them; but they loved, and for the most part continue to love the France that was so full of promise to them but that gave them so little…They tried to efface their individuality, to integrate, to cause as little trouble as possible, but every day they were reminded of where they came from, the place they’d like to send them back to with a laughable amount of money once they weren’t needed anymore. Thus Khemaïs expresses his love for French culture without reserve, quoting Victor Hugo before announcing that he’s refused the infamous “aide au retour” (government assistance to send immigrants back to their country of origin).
Some of them took refuge in nostalgia; only Mamoud confesses his “life is a failure.” Others manage a turnaround that permits them to make their daily lives less of a disgrace, and some live through the success of their children, as does Ahmed, whose son became an Olympic judo champion in 1996.
For many, France remains and will remain a land of liberty, as the women in the book tell of it, the mothers. A land that welcomes them, even if it is with qualifications, and demands that they and their descendants work twice as hard as the average person if they’re to be recognized. In this France they’ve given up everything for, even their health — the Moroccan Abdel’s lungs are destroyed in the coal mine where he worked — you can read between the lines the humiliation of having left everything and found nothing, not even a homeland.
Jérôme Ruillier casts a tender look on them, one of respect mixed with great empathy. His pseudo-naive black pencil drawings sketch their individual stories, their hopes, their disappointments, their resignation, their dreams, and expresses their difficulty staying or leaving, their internal conflicts, their desire to be accepted for what they are.
Elegant still lifes, emotive scrawls, the heavy specter of their displaced suffering seems to lurk in a corner, a great monster, scribbled black, devouring the page.
Each of these “Mohameds” comes to life in Ruillier’s hands. He makes their universe familiar to us, touching as we share in their shabby yet generous homes, their stumbling French, and their moods.
However, when Ruillier questions this reality, shares his doubts, and attempts link his personal history with that of these men and women, the book is less of a success. These asides in a deliberately direct style free of judgement, beyond being mere accessories, seem empty and lacking in perspective. Rather, they tend to suggest a Manichean and simplistic vision, notably the recurring comparison with his daughter’s Down syndrome “causing trouble” in society…
Fortunately when Ruillier approaches certain topics with candor, it rings true and, with an eminently sensitive approach, is able to render each person their dignity.
Reading these stories, treated twenty years after their original telling, I was saddened to see where they stood today, and how “the Mohameds” continue to struggle to find their place in a society that doesn’t recognize them, that accepts them when it suits but doesn’t hesitate to point fingers the rest of the time. Take the case of Djamel, who claimed victory at the Olympics, by virtue of which he’s considered completely French (similar to a certain Zidane). Members of his family, though, are never considered as such, no matter how long they’ve lived in France.
Translated from the French by Amanda DeMarco.
This text by Emily Rocher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.