[Other Press; 2023]
Tr. from the French by Emma Ramadan
A young child watches her parents through a crack in the kitchen door while they sit in the living room, laughing and watching their wedding video. She’s mesmerized by the lightness they exhibit in this recording. She relishes this moment and subsequently repeatedly reaches for the video when her parents are out working night shifts. Kaoutar Harchi opens her memoir As We Exist with this defining moment of her admiring gaze on her parents, seeing them as icons when she replays the video in private. As she writes, “It was like being at the movies. Hania and Mohamed, real, unreal.”
Hania and Mohamed’s past and present realities appear disparate; the elation at their wedding in Morocco differs from how Harchi witnesses them as she grows up in France. This sets up Harchi’s preoccupations for As We Exist: examining the hostile surroundings of her upbringing, her parents’ sacrifices for her education, and the reality of her time at school. Unwavering gratitude for her parents seeps off the page. The three of them, like a webbed yarn, are a central unit as they navigate life in France as a family of Moroccan heritage.
As We Exist is sociologist and writer Kaoutar Harchi’s first autobiographical work and first to be translated into English. It follows three novels and academic writings, one of which, Je n’ai qu’une langue et ce n’est pas la mienne, her study of Maghrebi writers publishing in French, is currently being translated into English by Liverpool University Press. Littérature et Révolution, co-written with Joseph Andras, is forthcoming with Éditions Divergences in 2024.
In As We Exist, Harchi extracts memories from her childhood and teenage years in the 1990s and 2000s with hyper-observation. She chisels memories of family life, her education, and the community in the suburb of Elsau. An initial is often used in nonfiction to replace the name of a person: Here “S.” replaces Strasbourg, whether to articulate contempt for the place, or that the name of the city is irrelevant. Harchi invokes that the racism experienced by her family and neighborhood is commonplace in France.
Harchi’s early childhood is spent in the suburb of Elsau. She recalls its borders, its bus routes, the neighbors in the housing complex, crossing a tree-lined street from north to south to attend elementary school. One of the neighbors was a teenage boy, whom she only knew of. She recounts the horror of how Ahmed was reduced to his first name; he was brutally beaten to death by the police, not dissimilar to the police’s killing this summer of Nahel M. in Nanterre. Ahmed’s mother comes knocking, asking if Harchi and her parents will attend his funeral because “Ahmed was all of their sons.” Later, Harchi remembers the riots in October 2005 over the police murders of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré in Clichy-sous-Bois. Harchi gathered with her mother and other mothers at the social center in Elsau, protesting. One mother speaks of laboring night and day raising the children of others: “They remove us from the life of our children to better remove our children from life.”
Kaoutar Harchi moves beyond the parameters of Elsau when her parents, wanting the best education for her, enroll her in a private Catholic middle school outside of her neighborhood. From the first day she boards the bus to the new school, a group of white girls from the school accost her for her hair, along with that of another student Khadija. Harchi and Khadija become best friends, the type who are “drunk on water,” sparking uncontrollable laughter in each other. At school, her teacher confiscates an object from Harchi’s pencil case, a wrapped gift from her mother unknown to Harchi, until she sees her teacher unravel a miniature Quran. The teacher disregards it, throwing it into a container of paperclips. With the school a hostile place, Khadija and Harchi skip class and hang out at their haven, the library.
The visceral memories stack up as Harchi depicts a palpable erosion of her life from each instance she is targeted for her race, prohibiting her from coming into her own being. A teacher offers Harchi a book and imposes an epithet on Harchi with a note, “to my little Arab girl,” to “help” her “understand” her “people.” Afterwards, she is asked to present a talk on “her” people. Of this she says, “I have a striking memory that nothing stamps out, moored in me. One of those memories that prowl, roam, haunt.” Harchi recalls the specifics of what the teacher was wearing when asking her to speak a few words on her “culture” and in her “mother tongue.” These images impose themselves on Harchi, rather than being willingly conjured. The refrain often preceding these recollections, “I can still picture,” suggests the persistent stain of these memories.
In high school Harchi encounters sociology texts including The Suffering of the Immigrant by Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad. This text satisfies her desire to understand herself, the bond in her family, and her feeling of entrapment. It ignites Harchi’s reckoning with her surroundings and racial injustice, resulting in her pursuit of autonomy through the study of social sciences. When she begins university, in 2004, the law forbids students from wearing the veil. Soon after, her friend is attacked by a man as they leave campus for wearing a veil: “Targeting the veil was, in a way, for that man, a way of targeting the skin, my friend’s skin, my skin, our collective skin.” As We Exist and Harchi’s body of work targets the collective skin that is an Islamophobic France.
Through all of these experiences, Harchi’s parents are never far away. Harchi notes that any distance from her parents is only a façade. The intimate proximity introduced early on, in which “Hania and Mohammed remembered—and I tried to remember with them,” is never broken. She describes each stage of her education with them—coming home to them, what she shared with them. Also, what she kept secret to protect them from the outside world and from what was said, done, and happened to her at school. Harchi’s parents didn’t know of her skipping school or the insults she endured. In one scene where Harchi returns home after receiving the epithet from the teacher, Hania enquires about the book. Harchi lies, saying she bought the book and pretends to be enthused. The bond between them is a striking tool that enables Harchi to focus on particular strands of childhood: family life, neighbors, education. How does a writer access truth? Annie Ernaux takes different routes in her texts, writing of her younger self in the third person, writing of a generation. Harchi unravels a truth by writing of herself in relation to her parents. Often the reader is introduced to a scene through Harchi’s eye, which functions like a film camera slowly panning the room, lingering on each of her parents, their position, before the camera flips onto her.
As We Exist is a sharp, tunnel visioned interrogation of what happened and happens to Harchi, her family, her neighbors. The “we” she uses in the title and in the text could be a “we” of her family unit, but also of second-generation North African immigrants, all suffering racism in France, where there is no census on race, religion, or ethnicity, preventing any assessment of the impact of xenophobic policies and police violence. The selective tableaux compose a slim memoir that glides with sustained precision as the reader feels the sting through each aggression Harchi endures. As We Exist is a cinematic literary archive, fixing “on paper that which was ordinarily refused, killed, ignored.”
Sophie van Well Groeneveld is currently a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at NYU. Her writing has appeared in Artillery, Review 31, and Metropolis M.
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