Around this time last year, I took a trip with two of my best friends to the South of France. It was a short trip, but such an incredible one — the kind filled with stunning sights, unplanned hilarity, and beautiful conversations. I look back on those days in a soft-focused, dreamy way. This is rare for me. I can usually find the bad in everything. But part of the reason it so was lovely was because the locals were so shockingly nice. We all know the reputation of the French: rudeness, ghettoisation of their Muslims, a strange interpretation of a free society — we had good reason to have pretty dismal expectations. But they weren’t rude. They weren’t even indifferent. They were warm and welcoming. We’d never experienced anything like it. Starved of society’s love and affection as Muslim girls in our daily lives, we were like kids in a sweet shop.
It took us by surprise each and every time. Making conversation with us, calling us beautiful, asking us where we were from, — we’d never had it so good. We marvelled over this. What was this? And in France? I concluded in my head that the South of France must be different from Paris. The lifestyle, the weather and the sea — they can’t be mean to people with this view.
After dinner one night, we took a stroll where groups of friends were hanging around on the beach and on the promenade. We perched ourselves on the edge of the promenade, conversing and people-watching as we looked down at the beach below us. It was such a lovely evening, with a simplicity and ease I will never forget. I’d also never in my life seen so many men piss in public, so it was a memorable evening in more ways than one. We ended up counting these men as the evening went on. It was a game we could not help but play.
It was festive and fun and nice and then we saw some police officers with sniffer dogs walking towards us. They stop at a group of young guys who appear of North African origin who we just notice sitting on the bench just behind us. Things get serious. Their brownness is the only thing that distinguishes them from the other groups of people. In fact, they seem pretty well-behaved and calm compared to other rowdier groups. In full sight they are searched and their bags are searched with the police and dogs surrounding them. Though I am aware of the frequency Black and Brown men are subjected to stop and searches, I never quite realised how awful even one of these experiences could be. In our proximity, I feel their humiliation run through my blood too. And though we are looking on in compassion and sadness, likely all they see are some gawking Muslim girls. So we have to turn our backs on these poor Muslim boys and it feels equally awful.
And then I realised how I got played. Because we were tourists, eating at the nice restaurants, with British accents, we were the acceptable sort. It all came together the next day when we tried to pray in a mosque, hidden away in one of the most unappealing streets of Nice. There was a general sadness and hidden-away feeling that you could sense in the air. We realised that for all the North-African men that were around, we had seen hardly any visibly Muslim women. So back to reality with a thud.
What annoys me is that I had thought I was above this. I knew, in theory, that there was a socio-economic element to racism, I knew that there was nuance in the way racism presented itself. And I always scoffed at those who so explicitly attempted to gain acceptance. I just didn’t quite realise how vulnerable I could be to this desire. But thats the thing about this kind of discrimination or racism or whatever. One reason it’s so effective is exactly because it plays on human emotions and desires. It violates you by changing the way you act and the way you feel. So new motto: Assume and accept kindness graciously, always, but also remain vigilant that deep inside, you’re not exchanging solidarity for some diluted temporary form of acceptance.
Written by Rawan Abdulla