Adam Shatz writes: In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes how, not long after he settled in France in 1948, he ‘had watched the police, one sunny afternoon, beat an old, one-armed Arab peanut vendor senseless in the streets, and I had watched the unconcerned faces of the French on the café terraces, and the congested faces of the Arabs.’ With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin’s friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:
If so crude a nation as the United States could produce so gloriously civilised a creature as myself, how was it that the French, armed with centuries of civilised grace, had been unable to civilise the Arab?
The response was breathtakingly simple: ‘The Arabs did not wish to be civilised.’ They, the Arabs, had their own traditions, and ‘the Arab was always hiding something; you couldn’t guess what he was thinking and couldn’t trust what he was saying. And they had a different attitude toward women, they were very brutal with them, in a word they were rapists, and they stole, and they carried knives.’
Aside from ageing veterans of the French-Algerian war, no one in France talks about ‘the Arabs’ any longer. Instead they speak of ‘the Muslims’. But France’s Muslims are the descendants of that Arab peanut vendor – and, all too often, targets of the same racist intolerance. Like the racism Baldwin encountered among his Parisian friends, it often wears an ennobling mask: anti-terrorist, secular, feminist. [Continue reading…]