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from the May 2006 issue

“Villon and I,” from “Territoires d’Outre-Ville”

The ties between Arab youth and the law bring to mind, in many ways, a nineteenth-century novel. For a long time I was fragile, yet in the pervasive delinquency around me, I seemed driven by some borrowed force. Invariably, the ghetto child's first act of revolt is to commit an offence. Poverty, that traditional proletarian sickness, dictates every action. Therein lie the roots of begging, of thieving. I recall being hungry the way a grown man is hungry in the streets of this country. I stole and I had my reasons for it. I don't feel obliged to justify myself; the realities of that world carry their own explanations. Honesty seen as a luxury—the condemnation of the poor. In shop windows, the goods are arrayed to suggest theft, invite it; and the theft itself is born of the circumstances. Shut out from the consumer society that defines who you are by what you have, some kids today want to have so they can be. However, the accepted methods of having are forbidden them. Thieving gives them a relative, temporary self-worth. With time, I've come to realize that very few thieves are opposed to property; on the contrary, they reaffirm it. Theft in their case is but an act of acquisition, a lone act committed for social acceptance. Ordinary greed wasn't what brought me to larceny.

In the eyes of the law, five hundred francs fewer in a handbag and five hundred more in a pocket makes little difference. People aren't born delinquent; they become so according to the accidents of their lives and their response to them. The moment the offence has been committed, society shows its true face; a remorseless logic leads to prison. Before, in my youth, there were gaps between the bars; now these have been filled in.

Savigny-sur-Orge, the reform school where I was locked up at fourteen, cast a spell over me thanks to a book by Francois Villon which I found there, a million miles from the groves of academe. The vigour, the amazing energy of his poetry struck me with tremendous force. His words entered me like life itself, it's as simple as that; and ever since they've been so much a part of me it's as though I came into the world already knowing them. At last, what I had felt in my body had been put into words. Inevitably there was The Ballad of the Hanged Men. Wherever our anguish is at its worst, it's books above all that save us. They tell us that the most frightening things can be endured; they show us a way out from fear. Every reader is solitary, but no one more so than a prisoner. In this solitude, the prisoner seizes the words on offer more voraciously than anyone. Between God and mute Creation there is, we are told, the Word. The poetry of Villon completely filled my head from the start. It was so natural, so much a part of me, it could have been written in my lifetime. It linked intuition and incarceration. We all know that trompe-l'oeil called recognition. Sometimes we think we've already encountered people and things before, or that events happening now have already occurred, which makes what's to come seem like a moment in the past. We can't know if that is confirmation of an earlier prediction, or the experience of a lived moment.

My fellow inmates thought me mad. I'm quite sure that they'd have thrown me out of their cell like a turncoat if I'd altered anything in my behaviour towards them. I read a lot, but was convinced that I'd do nothing with it, and it had to remain private. Even in prison—above all in prison—reading produces a strange sense of freedom. I read Villon as if it were a secret language. He didn't have any practical uses for me, but I became obstinately attached to his poetry, the way someone might defend a universally condemned belief. With Villon I discovered that art is not the same thing as society. In its highest expression, art is its opposite, its enemy. No poet worthy of the name can be "official." The worst danger of all is State Culture, dead in its very essence.

Understanding delinquency is forged by the imagination; via poets and stories, not simply judges and rules. Little by little, I developed ways of acting and feeling that allowed me to identify with Villon. With great spiritual effort, I sought to discover in myself that core of fragility that allows poets to prefer the imaginary to the real. Some young detainees talked of escaping. My aim was to make sense of why I was banged up in there, inside those walls, so that eventually I'd see the light beyond. When things are at their worst, the mind can still create a thought that instantly produces the words to express it.

Paradoxically, it was the first statement I ever made to the police that finally let me decode the hieroglyphs of my existence. I could authenticate it, there, on paper, in ink. Often, in a police station, the intuition came to me of something I couldn't quite define, like a presentiment of the meaning of my life. It seemed as though everything I couldn't read myself were being read out loud. I felt clarified, defined from the outside. In the true sense, it was vertigo. From the injustices of the penal system, I learned to distance myself, to remove myself as far as possible, as if to recede to the Middle Ages. To exonerate my father from the fault I'd committed, I made myself very small, and metamorphosed into Villon's son. You can only live with memory by falsifying it. All human beings invent their own legends within their histories. Life can't just be contained in that little space called truth.

My childhood delinquency only makes sense through the process of unveiling and coming to terms with my origins. Every offence I committed was an act to invent the freedom denied to my father. These "acts of invention" had to shock, to expose me—in the true meaning of the word—to the decent French, the decent Arabs. Then I had no other way to affirm my youth and my origins, but the intense desire for life and death. I do know I felt everything my father had endured. To use a fitting term here, I didn't "repress" any of it. I stored it away; knowingly. Now, today, what I've retained still cuts like a blade, but neither bitterness nor hatred nor anger nor desire for revenge have ever provoked me to misuse this "knife". It lies within me.

My experience is like that of many young people of the Maghreb. And the same thing goes on, everywhere, every day, round the clock, as though the guilt of the children is their precious gift to wipe away the "innocence" of the parents. In French society, immigrant workers may be collectively innocent, but they know that as individuals each one is suspect. They accept this death of a small part of themselves. But I am the other half of my father, severed from him, alienated; the savage part of him. I needed to acquire enough reality to inspire hatred rather than pity. Guilt also creates an absolute sense of who you are. The accusing finger points out your individuality, at least.

Of course these ways of thinking require more thorough study. All I'm doing is to present what I know in my bones. There is so much said of North Africans that is completely erroneous. My delinquency, for me, was never more than an act to restore the authority of my father. Above all, my crimes were to redeem my family. The first danger encountered during a break-in redeemed at a stroke my father's daily, endless subjection. I believe that children of my kind experience the early conflict that turns into delinquency in direct relationship to their fathers.

I've looked to find a type of freedom on the underside of myth. My destiny could not be the kind which crushes an Oedipus or Laius. I leave that type of assassination to the sons of privileged families. No, my story is of resurrecting the father from the death wrought by society. That's the only way I can find the course of my own life.

I was the child that circled the playground like a caged animal; and behind me was another, and another. And so we followed each other, as if guided by the stars above. It is from such a prison of children that freedom flowed; like some centrifugal force that holds the spheres around the head, with the heavens and the stars. Not all roads lead to Mecca and its ritual circumambulations of the Kaaba.

Our hands were empty of so many lost caresses. The lawmen's bracelets snapped shut around the fragile curve of our wrists. My stainless steel chain bracelet glistened—we each wore whatever jewels we could. In the empty hours, our fingers wound themselves around the skylight bars in the low-ceilinged arched cells inhabited by sensual youths, blind to the sun. In my nocturnal memories, a fragment of moonlight illuminates the faces of these children in the shadows. My companions in misfortune were between thirteen and seventeen. The law and the precocious breaking of our will became one and the same thing. We all seemed to have become cloaked like sanctified beings, resembling what in other times would have been sacrificial victims—be they goats, oxen or children. Black tattoos on their arms, a simple cross, no words of prayer, a scar slashed across the skin close to the name of a loved one. Being among them gave me a strange sense of premonition. Within those walls I construed the sign on their foreheads and on mine. I understood their determination to create their own destiny, that perhaps they, themselves, didn't understand The etymology of Latin deliquere, to abandon, recalls the fundamental meaning of delinquency. In secondary school, we wrote with real ink, we dipped our Sergent-Major pens in little white porcelain inkwells. At the front of the class, as close as possible to the podium where the teacher had his desk, sat all the clever pupils, in neat rows, well behaved. As for us, we were already somewhere else.

For a long time, people told me who I was. Now it's my turn. Words are thrown in my direction, I catch them, send them on to other people, and I understand what I mean to them. The young born of immigration come from so far away; a distant journey. Each episode of their history evokes another, that of their parents'. In these young lives, I see reflected my own biography.

V like voice of the city V like Venissieux, Vaulx-en-Velin V like Vitry V like vandals thieving, like viewing shop windows, like violence V like Villon.

So my life will have found its definition on the fertile wastelands of the banlieue, where, paradoxically it seems, the city ends. To steal, to destroy, to take drugs is also to push to the extreme society's Exclusion Order.

It's taken me thirty years to move from the News in Brief columns of the press to the literary pages. Even now, whenever I'm at my lowest, I repeat these lines to myself:

Fellow humans who will come after us Do not harden your hearts against us. If you can show us poor wretches some pity God will be quicker to grant you his mercy.

And each word falls from my lips in the same way I'm sure they came from Villon's heart.

© Mounsi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2006 by Martin Sorrell. All rights reserved.

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