For the Being Human Festival 2016 the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression coordinated a series of translation workshops with asylum seekers in Paris unable to complete their intended journey to the UK. This work then travelled to London to become an exhibition built in a one-day workshop with foreign students and local Londoners.
She writes a lot of things that I can’t understand but she writes them in a way that leaves me no doubt that writing is a staple, a thing you do when you want to settle, to get away from the conflicting demands and noise of the world, when you need to be in the medium-term and not up against it, even when you’re doing several low-paid jobs at anti-social hours and supporting your two daughters through their determinations and difficulties in staying their distance with formal schooling in France in these benighted days of narrowing perspectives and waning confidence in the possibilities of emancipation through education.
Fatima is the name of Philippe Faucon’s film about all the things we can’t ever know about how Fatima writes herself in this world, including the other names she bears. We never know her second name. We have to accept that uncomfortable ignorance, which aligns us with her employers who tend to use only her first-name, and also with her children, and her doctor, all of whom ‘fail’ to read Fatima, though they learn to listen to her, as we do too, whatever our capacity to understand her mother tongue. The scene where she reads herself out loud, to her doctor, was a moment of strange affirmation for me. I was reliant on the subtitles to understand as she read from her notebook, the one we have previously seen her take up in the privacy of her own bedroom, but I barely registered them. The force of her speech and the recurrent use of her own first name were what imprinted her meaning on me – her lucidity about the crucial contribution she makes to the variety of situations through which she moves, despite the constant reflection back to her of her uselessness or her inability to understand, most painfully from her own daughters. It is Fatima, she explains, who makes it possible for the woman whose house she cleans to go out to work; Fatima who does her washing, dresses her aged mother, takes her bins out, scrubs the bath; Fatima who wipes the tables clean at the refectory, Fatima who washes the stairs, and the toilets. And Fatima who does this and more again when she gets back to her own home and family. In one particular scene, the bourgeois mother explains her frustration with her lazy late-adolescent son after Fatima has witnessed a clash between the two: we’ve done everything to help him, the mother sighs, he’s had the best private tutors, what more can I do? And Fatima replies, ‘moi aussi, j’aide mes filles… je fais ce que je peux,’ to her bemused employer, who doesn’t seem to have even contemplated the idea that she might also have a family, as well as a surname.
When Fatima reads her writing out to the doctor she is at the end of a long period of medical leave after a workplace accident. For her GP she is now again fit to work, the x-rays reveal nothing untoward to explain the pain that she still feels, and he cannot justify signing off again on a medical certificate to prolong her leave. But he does at least point her towards another doctor who speaks Arabic, and who is a woman. We don’t know what else happens with this new doctor to prompt Fatima to share her writing with her, but it matters to the quiet affirmation of this film that the writing is prior to and independent of the medical situation. And it matters too, though more bittersweetly, that it is not positioned in the narrative as a means beyond the pain. We never know whether this new doctor will manage to help Fatima repair the effects of her fall. Nothing fits very stably into a causal narrative in this film and if we see the older daughter pass the crucial concours after a first year of exhausting social adjustment and medical studies, we’re not particularly invited by the film to think that the way forward is now smooth for her any more than for her younger sister, who has been playing truant, hanging out with the ‘wrong’ crowd, speaking back to her mother and her teachers, and generally endangering her chances of getting out of the galère of being a sixteen-year-old today born of working-class North-African parents.
The sense of consequence that Faucon’s film inspires doesn’t hang on particular positions being achieved (medical school), or blockages overcome (teenage disaffection, chronic pain). It depends only on the sort of attention we can give to it and, within it, to one another. This is primarily a linguistic effort in Fatima, primarily a question of attuning the ear and taking the time to hear what might not be immediately audible or understandable. Fatima has to make this effort all the time. After her first day at work in the house of the working mother, she asks her daughter what ‘persuadé’ means when someone affirms: ‘je suis persuadée qu’on va bien s’entendre.’ Her daughter tells her that it means ‘Je sais mieux que toi’ – ‘I know better than you.’ The basis for this confidence is Fatima’s willingness to have her working hours be declared in such a way that the employer can maximize her tax credits. Fatima understands this. It is part of the text she reads out to the doctor. She understands a lot of things because she has listened really carefully. And the film asks us to do some of that careful listening too. Or at least to stop for a while in the presence of that need, to consider it, so that the effort does not only run in one direction. That would be a recognition of our bound-togetherness, not just within the small family groups such as Fatima and her daughters, but as a society. That would be hearing some of what Fatima knows and describes to her doctor. It’s because of someone whose daily trials are more like those of Fatima than mine, and whose children face obstacles more like those portrayed in the film than my children, and who suffers pain in ways that seem to me similar to Fatima, that I can do my writing, which is also my way of being in the medium term of reflection, also my staple. And Fatima has offered me a radiant reflexive moment to realize that more clearly.
At the close of this day, the three words that have echoed around the planet in the shock wave of outrage and sadness after the attacks of last week, have come full circle. There they are, held up by a bonhomme who might be a prophet, signing the resilience of Charlie Hebdo, printed once more several million times and snatched up in minutes. The incredible curve of their amplification looks set to drop as fast as it rose, and who could imagine a better form of testimony to a team, to friends, to a project and a posture, than stopping short the increasingly muddled noise with one simple drawing? Luz seems to me to have done that, with the kind of light, deft jab that leaves you wondering where exactly it hurts, and feeling the possibilities ricochet off one another, not nasty, but never quite settling into one clear wound. Hard to diagnose, and in that respect very different to the tragic multiplication of sources of suffering that people in their hundreds of thousands felt moved to take on and into themselves in solidarity this weekend: ‘je suis Charlie, je suis flic, je suis juif, je suis musulman…” Not obvious how to diagnose that condition either, but fortunately these were all just epidermal manifestations of the heart of the matter: ‘et surtout républicain,’ read the declarations, which of course contains its capacity to heal within itself.
But does it?
Like many people living in France, I’ve been struck and moved by the numbers of people in other countries who have felt the need to share in the expressions of grief. I don’t doubt this has to do with compassion, and fear. But I think it also has something to do with those three words, with the easy inclusiveness of that diminutive and its cheerful Charlie Brown overtones. Everyone, or at least a lot of people, can wear that comfortably enough. Very different from Charles: ‘je suis Charles – de Gaulle to you.’ And ironic that the Americanized taunt adopted by the hebdo when its predecessor Hara Kiri was closed down for its scandalous headline after the death of France’s erstwhile and upright bearer of manifest destiny, should also come full circle as the catch-all for our collective moment of horror, compassion and anxiety. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s what happens when words are loosened from their mooring. They eventually get caught in new currents.
Unmooring was partly what Etienne Balibar’s words were about in Friday last’s issue of Libération, written before the terrible final escalation of the tragedy. He offered three different words from those being brandished at large, balancing his sense of ‘professional obligation’ as public intellectual to speak out with the modesty of the idiom: he had ‘trois mots à dire.’ They were ‘communauté,’ ‘imprudence’ and ‘jihad.’ What he said about them can be read (link below), and the read is well worth the while. He doesn’t define them as words adrift, but I think they are, and that is part of the reason for his choice. Part of the reason too why he offers them as singular substantives, bereft of their articles that would ease them back readily into speech. ‘Communauté’ is particularly striking in this respect, today being so often pluralized as a sign of the danger lurking in that word and its cousin, ‘le communautarisme,’ with its Anglo-American inflection. ‘Imprudence’ seems more firmly anchored, and perhaps a prudent choice in itself for broaching the question of how to think about the risks that Charlie Hebdo ran and will no doubt continue to run, just one day after the brutal decimation of its team. But ‘imprudence’ is heavily freighted too by its derivation, carrying the old mother of all virtues, Prudentia, into the zone of freewheeling individualism. And Balibar reminds us that we might need, tomorrow in all likelihood, to reactivate some of that older sense of prudence, not fearful caution but intelligence of consequences. Then ‘jihad,’ the most unassimilated, perhaps the most urgent to articulate with other words, if we’re not going to let language escape us. I don’t have much idea what happens when ‘jihad’ gets wrested from the habitual syntaxes that hold it, in a whole range of languages today, but I know that words can always flow in new currents, and that the health of the Republic depends on it.