Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

In The Maim of the Father:
The Discourse of Disability in French-Maghrebi Immigrant Texts

Madelaine Hron, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Dept. of English and Film
Wilfred Laurier University
75 University Ave. W.
Waterloo, ON, N2L 3V5, CANADA
E-mail: mhron@wlu.ca


This paper explores the "enfreakment" of the father in French-Maghrebian immigrant literature. The father, or the first-generation North African immigrant to France, is routinely depicted as disabled in literary texts. I account for various economic, medical, socio-cultural, and literary reasons for the figurative maim of the father and I examine the possibilities and limits of this disabled position. On one hand, disability seemingly enabled some first-generation immigrant workers, granting them voice and agency in the public forum. On other hand, in immigrant literature, this discourse of disability engenders a freakish form of identity politics; certain second-generation immigrant texts reify and re-appropriate the maim of the father, so as to further disable, and thus enable, the immigrant subject.

Keywords: immigration, Maghrebi, North Africa, French literature, labor, disfigurement, fathers


"Il aura fallu l'accident" [There had to be an accident] (Zouari, 1999, p.53). Thus speaks the narrator of Fawzia Zouari's novel, Ce pays dont je meurs, as she describes her father, an immigrant from the Maghreb (Arab North Africa), who came to France as a factory worker in the 1970s. Like many Maghrebi immigrant workers, he suffered a seemingly inevitable work accident — in this case, it condemned him to a wheelchair. Once disabled, the father becomes an abject object that cannot be looked upon, either by society or by his own family — "Handicapé et reclus chez lui, mon père n'existait plus aux yeux des autres. [...] Je n'osais pas le fixer trop longtemps" [Disabled and confined to the house, my father did not exist in the eyes of others [...] I didn't dare fix my gaze on him for too long a time] (ibid, pp.55-6).

The body of the first-generation male Maghrebi immigrant remains largely invisible in French-Maghrebi immigrant texts and in contemporary literary theory. Yet, all too often, the body of the Maghrebi father is shamelessly visible — it is often portrayed as disabled. From Mehdi Charef's classic Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed (1983) to Fawzia Zouari's recent novel, Ce pays dont je meurs (1999), the immigrant father is regularly depicted as mentally or physically disabled. If not literally disabled, the father's agency and voice is figuratively disabled in immigrant texts by the father's conspicuous silence or absence. In this paper, I fix my attention on the ambiguous representation of first-generation French-Maghrebi males in immigrant fiction, focusing, in particular, on their relationship to disability.

While there have been a number of studies on the father figure in Maghrebi literature set in North Africa, (Bahri, 2004; Douider, 1999), there are relatively few literary analyses of the father in French-Maghrebi immigrant texts. None of them refer to the disabled immigrant father. Literary analyses of North African literature focus on the father's patriarchal role — the father as a destructive or castrating figure (Doudier, 1999, p.107); "the revolt against the father " (Déjeux, 1978, p. 285); "the silence of the father" (Boubeker, 2003, p.182) or "the illusory quest for the father" (Bonn, 1974, p. 84). Novels set in the Maghreb tend to depict the father as a sadist, a negative body [Corps-négatif ] (Khaïr-Eddine, 1968), or a "being [...] that vegetates and only desires to vegetate" [un être (...) qui végète et ne désire que végéter] (Chraïbi,1954, p.85). Again, though many of these descriptions implicitly allude to disability, none of them explicitly examine it.

Disability studies are not as an established field of inquiry in France as they are in North America. Nonetheless, there are a few centers focused on the study of disabled persons (l'étude de la condition des personnes handicapées) or on re-adaptation (études en réadaptation/ sciences de la réadaptation) or on rehabilitation, incapacity, or invalidity (réhabilitation, incapacité, invalidité). Interestingly, a large number of studies published on disability concern pretium doloris — work accidents and disability insurance (Barrot, 1988; Dérobert, 1980; Harley, 1993; Jaillet, 1980; Wisniewski, 1983). In France, disability is thus often situated in the context of jurisprudence, economics, and medicine. American Disability Studies of course tend to emphasize the social construction of disability, as a product of cultural rules and social relations. Disability has thus moved from the realm of law or medicine to the realm of political minorities, "recast from a form of pathology to a form of ethnicity" (Thomson, 1996, p. 6). Intriguingly, in these examples of male Maghrebi immigrants, the physically disabled body is clearly associated with a specific ethnicity and a specific gender — and thus reflects a particular form of identity politics.

While these disabled Arab men are clearly not standard "freaks," (a term which in French is translated as monstre or animal), their representation in these texts relates to discourse about freak shows. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson has argued, American freak shows offered spectators examples of physical otherness that drew attention to their common American identity, "verified by a body that suddenly seemed by comparison ordinary, tractable and standard" (1996, p.17). In France, as Arabs and often Muslims, the racially and culturally different immigrants from the Maghreb visibly interrogate and destabilize notions of French identity and French citizenship. However, if viewed as "freaks," as Garland contends, disabled Maghrebi immigrants would reinforce the idealized French body and "pure" French identity. As "freaks" however, they would cease to be fellow French citizens and rather become something Other.

The representation of Maghrebi immigrants in literary texts I analyze also puts into question the conceptualization "enfreakment," first alluded to by David Hevey in relation to Arbus' photographs (1992, p. 53), but now employed to refer to images of "heroin chic" or anorexia. According to Thomson, enfreakment operates according to a "cardinal principle" — wherein the body becomes "pure text":

[...] the cardinal principle of enfreakment: the body envelops and obliterates the freak's potential humanity. When the body becomes pure text, a freak has been produced from a physically disabled human being (1996, p.59).

In the literature I examine, disabled Maghrebi immigrants literally represent "pure text". Unlike in freak shows or Hevey's photographs, there is no visual image or spectacle to behold. Yet, as we see in Zouari example, the gaze of the onlooker still continues to reify the disabled subject. More saliently however, on a figurative level, the disabled bodies in these literary examples are reduced to "pure text" much more radically than in any freak show. While freak shows are often accompanied by hyperbolic narratives, exotic costumes, dramatic lighting and staged music, no such spectacle or performance characterizes the description of disabled Maghrebis in these literary works. On the contrary, the presence of disability is almost glossed over in these narratives. While freak shows exhibit the bodies of freaks in their most intimate details, emphasizing corporal curiosities or bizarre genetic defects, the references to disabled Maghrebi bodies are usually bereft of particulars — their bodies are generic and featureless. In some cases, the maimed body seemingly does not exist at all; in Zouari's novel for example, the father is hardly described at all — his only freakish physical characteristic is... his wheelchair. Finally, while the grotesque bodies at freak shows are objects of fascination or repulsion, maimed Maghrebi bodies provoke little reaction. Abject objects, they seemingly only stir indifference. The tangential, featureless, abject bodies of injured Maghrebi immigrants thus starkly contrast with classic freaks. Completely reduced to "pure text," they are freaks without the show, without the story, without the body even. They are freaks by accident, literally.

In the following analysis, I establish that the representation of disability in French-Maghrebi texts is not accidental, however. Rather it is an intentional literary maneuver that both reflects the marginalization Maghrebi immigrants in French society and grants them agency in the public forum. By examining the different interpretations ascribed to these disabled bodies, I show that they are clearly more than "pure text." I will explore the various ways that Maghrebi immigrants both resist and re-appropriate their enfreakment to maintain their humanity. Finally, I will question the potential proffered by this manifestation of disability. What then are the various meanings attributed to the disabled body in Beur literary narratives? What type of discourse does disability enable —what are the possibilities? What are its limits? These are some of the questions I raise in this paper as I explore the multiple, contradictory meanings of the maimed bodies of fathers in French-Maghrebi immigrant texts, so as to ultimately ask — must there always be an accident? Must Maghrebi fathers remain fixed in a position of disability?

Bodies of Labor: Disjointed Literary, Medical, and Socio-Historical Observations

The disabled bodies of first-generation Maghrebi immigrants expose inequalities in representation, labor, race, and citizenship in French society in the mid-20th century. The first generation of Maghrebi immigrants, male workers, came to France between the 1940s and the 1970s as manual laborers. On a most basic level, these immigrants may be compared to bodies of labor, or corps-labeur to refer to term employed by Abdelmalek Sayad in Double Absence (1999). In his sociological text, Sayad shows how these e/immigrants are so often absent in social discourse, excluded from civil, national and labor rights, though they are manifestly present in the social order as laboring bodies.

Medical discourse, however, has long noted the somatized suffering of French-Maghrebi workers. Notably, French neuro-psychiatrist Robert Jarret observes that Maghrebi immigrant patients persistently complain of a "mal partout" — pain everywhere (1981, p.1721). Jarret advances that this somatic pain, corroborated by numerous other psychiatrists (Bennani, 1980; Ben Jelloun, 1977; Groselle 1979), is symptomatic of these migrants' psychological suffering, and that this suffering largely derives from their immigration experience. He concludes that "particularly for the Maghrebian, the damaged body-tool needing repair is a current representation which has the meaning of a cry for help" (ibid., p.1723). Contemporary medical ethno-psychology continues to offer important resources for understanding the plight of first-generation Maghrebi immigrants (Nathan, 1991; Moro, 1994; Yahyaoui, 1991, 1997); however, aside from Jarret's observation of the psychosomatic "damaged body-tool," there have been no studies focusing on the condition of disabled immigrant worker.

Intriguingly, in immigrant texts, first-generation Maghrebi workers are often reduced to body-tools, or bodies of labor. Marx, contrasting the work of artisans and factory workers, argued in Das Kapital that concrete labor activities take on increasingly abstract forms until they are eventually repressed, reduced, and disregarded as interchangeable fragments of homogeneous labor. In immigrant novels, we witness such homogenization as all the immigrant fathers eventually resemble each other. On the assembly line, many immigrants are only identified by the anonymous label Momo [a generic nickname for Mohammed] (Zouari, 1999, p.71) or, worse, taken for Haitians or Africans, coco or mon-z-ami, ["coconut/penis" and "mah friend"], while being condescendingly talked to in petit nègre [pidgin Negro] (Houari, 1988, p.56). Furthermore, especially in novels focusing on second-generation immigrants, the first generation immigrants, "fathers," are reduced to stock characters in the home as well, simply referred to with such epithets as Le Vieux [Old Man] (Sif, 1997) or Le Père [The Father] (Charef, 1983) or "Le gros, l'ogre, le father. [sic] Rarement papa, encore moins El-hadj" [The Fat One, the Ogre, the Father. Rarely daddy or even more rarely El- Hadj] (Raith, 1986, p.189). Here the father's lack of identity reflects the mechanized homogenization of the assembly line that defines much of his existence.

The worker is also often described by references to the body, or by corporeal metaphors, often related to labor. To cite a poignant example of such a "body-tool" metaphor, I refer to Myriam Ben's short's story, Émigré (1993), where the protagonist compares his first day as an agricultural worker to open-heart surgery:

C'est ainsi que j'assistai à ma première opération à coeur ouvert. Ils ont branché les électrodes. Non, non. Ce n'est pas cette fois-là qu'ils ont branché les électrodes. Ils ont ouvert mon coeur. Non, je me trompe. Non, cette fois-là, c'est le coeur de la terre qu'ils ont ouvert, le coeur de la terre et d'un fleuve (p.147).

[Thus I assisted at my first open-heart surgery. They plugged in the electrodes. No, no. That time didn't plug in the electrodes. They opened my heart. No, I'm mistaken. No, that time they opened the heart of the land itself, the heart of the earth and of a river.]

In this multi-layered quote, the hero conflates the act of tilling the ground with a medical operation — the extraction of his own heart. In this image, the immigrant, his labor, his country — everything except his confused conscience— is reduced to a violated body. As in a gruesome medical procedure, the heart — metaphorical seat of one's life, one's story and one's meaning — is gouged out from all of these bodies. In much of the experiences of first-generation immigrants, the heart of the matter is excised from these immigrant texts; all that is left is the materiality of their bodies, bodies of labor.

In order arrive at the heart of the matter — the stories and experiences of first generation immigrants — I turn to Yasmina Benguigui's Mémoires d'immigrés (1997). In this series of socio-anthropological interviews, Benguigui offers an excellent overview of the concerns facing these "fathers," as she terms them. As manual laborers, first-generation immigrants worked long hours in strenuous, physically demanding jobs and often lived in unsanitary housing conditions. If they became ill or injured, they rarely had recourse to medical care, disability compensation, or benefits, as labor unions were either not open to foreigners or were only just being founded. Most lived with the fixed idea of return (Benguigui, 1997, pp.11, 19) and chose not to settle or integrate entirely into French culture. Their relationship to language was also precarious; many were illiterate and therefore essentially mute in the public forum (1997, pp. 9, 17, 35), unable to complain or bear grievances in social debates.

Strikingly, the interviews point the physical suffering these laborers incurred because of their working conditions. At the time of the interviews, as older men, they were all broken, discarded bodies of labor. We observe men whose bodies are gnawed by silicose and deafness (Benguigui, p.39), of others who became lame (p. 62) or paralyzed when machines fell on them (p. 64). With few workers' rights, pension disability insurance, unions or strikes (p. 40), these broken bodies were unemployed and forgotten.

Yet, despite their many hardships, most of these immigrants chose not to exhibit their wounds of immigration, especially to their children (Benguigui, p. 41). As one explained, he did not want his children to develop hatred towards their country, but rather to become good, happy citizens (p. 41). Many allude to the image of the utopian male body that is strong and resistant to pain, and most agreed that their self-worth, status, and identity is defined wholly by work. This interviewee makes this self-definition clear, when referring to the day he was forced to retire:

Ce qui a été terrible, c'est le jour où je suis devenu inapte au travail. [...] J'avais toujours travaillé, deux fois plus que les autres, d'abord pour évoluer, ensuite pour être considéré comme les Français qui avaient les mêmes qualifications que moi, enfin pour mes enfants, pour mes fils, pour qu'ils soient fiers de leur père, pour qu'ils comprennent que j'avais tout fait pour m'intégrer. [...] Je ne comprends pas ce que cela veut dire, au fond, s'intégrer (Benguigui, pp. 31-32).

[What was terrible, was the day I became incapable of working. [...] I had always worked, twice as hard as the others, firstly to evolve, then to be considered like the French who had the same qualifications as I had, and finally, for my children, for my sons, so that they would be proud of their father, so that they understand that I had done everything to integrate. [...] I don't understand what it means, in the end, to integrate.]

For these first-generation immigrants, "integration" seems directly related to labor. It reproduces the traditional model of immigrant success, the progressive capitalist myth of "poor boy makes good", that through honest, hard work, immigrants would succeed as citizens. The broken bodies of these immigrant workers reflect the failure of this success story and point to the dehumanization and exploitation of labor within the economy.

First—Generation Immigrant Texts: The Possibilities of Disability

In Maghrebi immigrant fiction, "fathers" are rarely given a chance to speak at length as they are in Benguigui's interviews. In order to create a composite sketch of "fathers" in Maghrebi immigrant literature, I combine two sources of immigrant fiction: firstly, first-generation Bildungsroman texts that follow the journey of immigrant workers to France, and describe their attempts to make their fortunes in their adopted country (Houari's Confessions d'un Immigré, Raith's Palpitations Intra-muros or Zemouri's Jardin de L'Intrus) and secondly, contemporary novels that focus on the second or third generation of immigrants, or Beurs, as they are referred to in contemporary France. The term "Beur", derived from immigrant slang called verlan, is used to refer to second- or third-generation Maghrebian immigrants, or children of working-class North African immigrant parents, who were born or schooled in France. Beur novels refer to fathers only in passing, and, adopting an intergenerational and retrospective perspective, are laden with skeptical hindsight (Charef's Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed, Imache's Une fille sans histoire or Zouari's Ce pays dont je meurs).

A careful examination of first-generation Bildungroman immigrant novels reveals many of the same themes as in Benguigui's interviews — illiteracy, poor housing conditions, and, ultimately, injury and disability. Many novels also point to the silence and shame that circumscribe the workers' wretched living conditions. For example, in Houari's Confessions d'un Immigré (1988), the protagonist Selim concludes that it is because of "excessive shame" ("par excès de pudeur") that his father hid the state he was living in (p. 51). The father's shame is largely induced by his inability to be a successful provider for his family. As the story progresses, Selim himself becomes unemployed and slips into similar depression and silence, and throughout the narrative attempts to express his suffering. Unlike Selim, his father is not given a chance to tell his story, and, largely expunged from the novel, is reduced to shame, silence, and absence — typical attributes of Maghrebi father figure.

In most first-generation texts, the many hardships experienced by immigrant workers serve to destabilize the traditional narrative of success. Most novels, such as Le Jardin de L'Intrus (1986) by Kamal Zemouri, present dystopic versions of the "poor boy makes good" narrative model. In Zemouri's text, set in the 1950s, the father's job is the creation of fertilizer from excrement at l'Entreprise de Purification de la Seine (p.19), an ominous foreshadowing of harrowing events that subsequently ensue in the novel. By the end of the story, the father loses his job, becomes ill and dies, while the mother is condemned to a sanatorium. With the rise of the FLN, the narrator, Lamine, is too terrified to leave his HLM and dreams of returning to Algeria, but figuratively paralyzed, is unable to act.

In early immigrant arrival stories then, illness, injury, and disability serve to put into question successful integration within French society, and draw attention to the exploitation and oppression of Maghrebi workers. Disability makes visible what often remains invisible in social and literary texts— the forgotten role of labor in the Maghrebi experience. Yet, despite their ailments, in these Bildungsroman texts, first-generation immigrants are not constructed as disabled. On the contrary, despite dire conclusions, even the most dystopic arrival stories describe the valiant efforts of immigrant workers, who, despite their sacrificial wounds, are portrayed as a heroic, albeit doomed figures.

Intriguingly, in some first-generation novels, disability designates a coveted locus of possibility — a means of escaping or evading the system of labor. For example, in Raith's Palpitations Intra-muros (1986), the father actually becomes angry because the doctor "ne lui avait pas pronostiqué la maladie qu'il suspectait avoir" ["had not diagnosed the disease he thought he had"] (p.198). In this case, the father was hoping for a leave of absence or at least compensation for his illness. In Houari's rather utopic text, Confessions d'un Immigré (1988), the mutilated hand of Said, the friend, signals the idyllic hope of compensation, rest and even return 'home.' Said, the narrator, expresses his resentment of Tayeb, an unsuccessful miner who became a celebrity when his leg was crushed in a mining accident; Tayeb then returned to Algeria to live contentedly from his workers' compensation. Said claims to know people who put one of their hands under a pile of bricks or even cut off a hand just to receive such compensation. (p. 52) He also believes that "Ceux qui perdent un membre du fait d'un accident du travail s'estiment souvent touchés par la grâce de Dieu, car ils en finissent une fois pour toutes avec l'exil." [Those who lose a limb in a work accident often feel blessed by God, because they finish with exile, once and for all] (p. 52). In these cases, an injury offers immigrant workers a means by which to transcend their working status and attain a different identity, albeit the identity of a sick individual.

In a chapter of Double Absence devoted exclusively to the prevalence of injury among sick immigrant workers, Abdelmalek Sayad posits a similar hypothesis: Injuries offer immigrant workers a means of engaging with social discourse. As Sayad explains, in the social sphere immigrant workers are largely ignored as corps-labeur, "labor-bodies" (1999, p.288). Sickness, injury, and mutilation, however, force the medical institution to take notice and treat their sufferings. Financial or social institutions are often also implicated as they must offer immigrants compensation for their injuries, largely incurred because of socio-economic or labor exploitation. Immigrants must often wrangle with medical and social institutions to make them aware of the severity of their injuries, and so are compelled to express their experiences in the public forum. In so doing, immigrants attempt to treat more than their physical wounds; they take up illness "à des fins qui ne sont pas toujours thérapeutiques" [for more than therapeutic purposes] (p. 267). Instead, immigrant workers often take up a sick status means to resist their marginalization in society and their objectification as mere bodies of labor. What is more, disability compensation offers them a means of reparation for past ills, and sometimes even assures them a more financially stable and work-free future. As Sayad sums up,

Ce qui étonne et fait problème (voire scandale) au point d'être mis au compte de la pathologie, c'est-à-dire de l'anormalité, c'est la manière dont l'immigré malade use de sa maladie (et de l'instance médicale) pour régler un litige qui est, dit-on, d'ordre social [...] (1999, p. 267).

[What is astonishing and problematic (scandalous even) to the point of being considered a pathology or an abnormality even, is the way in which the sick immigrant uses his sickness (and the medical juridical process) to settle a dispute that is said to be of a social nature...] (italics in original)

As Sayad intimates, such "sick maneuvering", or the appropriation of disability as a locus of possibility, might be viewed as scandalous, abnormal, and pathological — freakish — in mainstream French society.

The representation of disability in arrival stories of first generation immigrants might also seem freak-like to the general French readership — as injury signals a locus of possibility, both literally and figuratively. On one level, injuries enable immigrant workers to fight for compensation for their hard work, and sometimes disability insurance grants them a means of exiting the labor force. On a metaphorical level, disability also bears numerous possible connotations about the immigrant condition. It serves to disable the traditional narrative of success and facile immigrant integration. It calls attention to the stereotypical image of the active, fit, and autonomous citizen, typically used in contrast with the clichéd representation of the socially disengaged and isolated disabled citizen (Marks, 2001, p.170). It emphasizes the immigrant's role as that of a productive, undamaged object of labor. It points to the immigrants' vulnerability in the economic system, and their exclusion, invisibility, and marginalization in social discourse, even when normal, healthy, able-bodied workers.

In these literary examples, the appropriation of disability in many ways functions as a means of "flaunting the narrative prosthesis" in literary and social texts, to refer to a theory proposed by Mitchell and Snyder (2001, p. 8). A "textual prosthesis", much like a prosthetic device, Mitchell and Snyder argue, seeks "to return the incomplete body to the invisible status of a normative essence" (p.8). "Flaunting" one's prosthesis, or undressing the wounds of one's disability, on the other hand, exposes disability's troubling presence, and "provides literary works with the potency of an unsettling cultural commentary" (p.8). Here, as immigrants flaunt their injuries, they exhibit the various 'social prostheses' that render their exploitation and marginalization normative and invisible.

Beur Texts: An Impossible Disability

In Beur texts, I argue, disability functions quite differently -- it is no longer a locus of possibility, but rather, of impossibility. Mehdi Charef's Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed (1983) offers us the archetypal image of the disabled Maghrebi father. Narrator Mehdi's father is brain-damaged; "Il n'a plus sa tête" [he has no head/ he lost his mind] (p. 41), ever since he fell of the roof in a work accident. A walking vegetable, the father cannot articulate his own condition, and remains silent throughout the novel. His inner state can only be inferred from the "la même éternelle expression dans le regard, un mélange de vide et de lointain" [the same eternal expression in his gaze, a mix of emptiness and distance] (p. 41). Were it not for his son's intervention, the father would be wholly absent from the novel; however, Mehdi must pick him up at the local bar, because he is too drunk to find his way home. When not completely drunk, the father is depicted as inertly watching TV.

The disabled father thus embodies many of the stereotypical representations of fathers in Beur novels — absence, silence, and debauchery. In Beur novels, fathers are often reified as absent, reduced to silence, and readily related to dissolute actions. In Charef's text, the father's disability emphatically calls attention to the father's degenerated role in the family unit and his diminished capacity in the social sphere. Clearly the disabled father is no longer an authority figure; on the contrary, he is likened to a meek child: "Il est comme le dernier de la famille, le plus petit, le plus jeune." [He is the benjamin of the family, the smallest, the youngest] (ibid, p.159). Furthermore, the location of the father's injury — on the head — is also not concidental. Neuropsychiatrist Jarret notices that Maghrebi workers often express their psychic pain through the head, by feigning headaches, vertigo and theatrical falls (1981, p.1721). Jarret attributes this focus on the head, as their difficulty of transitioning from "using their muscles" to "using their brains," and their loss of authority as the "head of the household" and "source of tradition" (p. 1721). On one hand then, the father's disabled condition may be viewed as an evasion or escape from family responsibilities, which then befall on the children. On the other hand, it also signals the father's loss of traditional authority and patriarchal power.

In Beur texts, then, the visible father-cripple epitomizes the intergenerational perspective on Maghrebi fathers — absence, silence, irresponsibility, impotence, and powerlessness. Rendered invisible, though, is the father's role as a worker; that part of the father's life-story is amputated in this disabling stereotype. Clearly though, the father is silent and absent only because he is brain-damaged as a result of a work injury. He turns to alcoholism and inactivity only because he has no possibilities for gainful employment when injured. He has no role in the family or in society because there is seemingly no agency possible for disabled people in his social and familial environment.

In some cases, the father's entire life-story, and indeed the fate of his entire family, is wholly conflated with his injury. A scene from Tassidit Imache's Une fille sans histoire (1989), where the family gathers around the father when he returns home with a sling, nicely epitomizes this stereotypical perspective. Here the father's wound becomes the locus of knowledge and identity, both about the father and the family unit. The author stresses the intense gaze on the father's maimed hand, an abject object, when she writes, "Il s'était assis sans un mot. Et ils s'étaient tous penchés au-dessus de sa main. Leurs têtes n'avaient jamais été aussi proches de la sienne. Un état d'immobilité les avait tous saisis là" [He sat down without a word. And they had all leaned in over his hand. Their heads had never been so close. A state of immobility had seized them all] (p.118). In this significant moment, the family seems to grasp its future of collective immobility. The wound signals the ineffable — their fear of an uncertain future, financial instability and the loss of a paternal authority figure. Intriguingly the whole scene is staged in silence; there is no story to accompany the father's woundedness. On the contrary, the father says nothing at all, and thus the family assumes that he never felt any pain: "Et parce qu'il n'avait rien dit, ils en avaient conclu qu'il n'avait jamais mal" [And because he never said anything, they concluded that he felt no pain] (Imache, 1989, p. 112). This example again points to the father's missing voice and the intergenerational misunderstanding that derives from it, especially concerning his suffering of immigration. The father's wound proves to be the only sign of his repressed suffering, the only symbol of his silenced story. For the family however, the father seemingly wholly becomes his injury, a sight/site of abjection and dystopia, as it elicits the knowledge of a critical, inevitable change of fortune for the family, a future of uncertainty, instability and loss.

In many cases, the maiming of the father signals the climactic point of reversal in the narrative — the fatal flaw that leads to tragedy. In Zouari's Ce pays dont je meurs (1999) for instance, the narrator bluntly states: "Il aura fallu l'accident" [There had to be an accident] (p.53). The father's inevitable accident, which confines him to a wheelchair, triggers the cataclysmic reversal in the family's fortune and sets into motion their unemployment, poverty, exhaustion, passivity, and, ultimately, their deaths. Upon the father's accident, the family's tragic story is dismissed as:

Un père disparu dans un accident banal. Une mère malade de son pays. Une vie sans joie. Les crises anorexiques d'Amira. L'argent qui manqué comme chez tous les pauvres. Rien qui ne pourrait permettre d'espérer. (Zouari, 1999, p.144).

[A father who disappeared in a banal accident. A mother sick missing her country. A life without joy. The anorexic crises of Amira. Money lacking like with all the poor. Nothing that would grant any hope.]

In this novel, all the family members eventually die: the father dies from a hemorrhage (Zouari, p.99), the mother dies from over-exhaustion, one daughter dies from self-induced starvation, and the other daughter also chooses to die, because, as she explains, she cannot create any other story for herself (p.185).

The maiming of the father thus represents a necessary narrative device, the pernicious origin of all of the family's misfortunes. In Zouari's text, upon being maimed, the father has no role at all, other than death, a death often glossed over by the narrator as "un père disparu dans un accident banal" [a father who disappeared in a banal accident] (p.144). Though he embodies the family's tragic fatal flaw, the father is barely fleshed-out as a character. Upon being disabled, he simply loses all authority and agency: "Il n'osait plus lever la voix sur nous, ni nous commander. Improductif, il se persuada très vite que son autorité, à l'image de la moitié inférieure de son corps, ne faisait plus effet." [He dared not raise his voice against us. Useless, he was quickly persuaded that his authority, in the image of his lower extremities, no longer had any effect.] (p. 56) Before the accident, the father is likened to a sexual predator who wanted "to imprison the body of his wife so as to take possession of his country" ["Emprisonner sous lui le corps de sa femme, c'était aussi sa façon de reprendre possession de son pays"] (p. 53). After the accident, he is depicted not only as disabled, but as a completely sexually inactive. Ultimately he dies from a hemorrhage, which his daughter attributes to his feeling of sexual impotence and inadequacy: "Je reste persuadé a dû mourir désespoir de sa femme [...] le vide de ses nuits sans amour" [I am persuaded that he had died because of the despair of his wife (...) the emptiness of her nights without love-making] (Zouari, p. 99).

Most generically, the father is likened to an abject object who inspires neither fear nor pity. We are told that that he provokes only indifference: "mon père n'existait plus aux yeux des autres" [My father did not exist in the eyes of others] (Zouari, p.55). While the sight of disabled people usually viewed with some emotive reaction, either as objects of pity or danger, the figure of disabled father in Beur texts often provokes little reaction or emotion at all. Even the daughter in Zouari's text dares not look at her father or his face, which is likened to a black hole: "Je n'osais pas le fixer trop longtemps. Un hâle sombre, cuivré, imprégnait son visage figé, comme les réminiscences d'un soleil antérieur, devenu cendre." [I dared not look at him. The dark copper sunburn branded into his inert face reminded me of a former sun turned to ash.] (p. 55). When he finally does die, he is transported to Algeria literally as a piece of luggage, "en caisse, dans la soute, une forme inanimé parmi tant d'autres" [in a box, in cargo, an inanimate form among other such forms] (p.103). Zouari's description of the father as luggage — "inerte, serré entre mille et un objects dont il faisait partie" [inert, compressed among a thousand and one objects that he was part of] (p.103) — is almost as lengthy, and certainly in the same tenor, as is the portrait of her father when alive, as a useless abject object.

Needless to say, I find the depictions of disability in these Beur texts deeply problematic, from a number of theoretical perspectives. On a basic level, not only are these injured fathers reduced to archetypes, but also they are utterly reified as static, absolute body-objects, lacking any voice, agency or subjectivity whatsoever. The stereotyping of fathers, be it as "permanently damaged goods", "fatally-flawed products," "isolated misfits" or "invisible outsiders" manifestly exposes mainstream prejudicial attitudes towards disabled people. Thus — very problematically indeed — these second-generation writers depict their fathers in the same discriminatory manner that they themselves claim to be represented in majority discourse.

Furthermore, from an intergenerational perspective, such objectification clearly creates a visible social differential between first-generation immigrants and those of subsequent generations. Clearly, in contrast to his mentally disabled father, Medhi appears as a hero, just by virtue of being able-bodied. Thus instead of advancing ethnic equality, it would appear that some of these texts are perpetrating ableist prejudice.

Obfuscated in this discourse of disability, is the fact that the father became disabled because of his working condition. Unlike their fathers, however, many of the second-generation narrators in these Beur texts remain unemployed. While it is true that in the last 30 years the demand for manual labor in France has decreased, leaving many first-generation immigrant workers unemployed, it must also be recognized that, unlike their fathers, immigrant children have had access to education, and therefore are not illiterate or uneducated and thus are able to work. Yet, in Zouari's text for example, it would seem that the father's inability to work wholly determines the family's demise.

In my concluding analysis, I point to a final, most perturbing observation: in some cases, Beur heroes usurp the father's disabled position, so as to create for themselves an identity — an identity forged out of victimhood. Such is the case in Zouari's novel, where Amira, the youngest and only French-born member of this traditional French-Maghrebi family, is an anorexic who ultimately dies from this self-inflicted condition.

When her father dies, Amira becomes fixated on her father's wheelchair, a space of immobility and disability. Instead of going to work, she sits in his chair, caressing the wheels and playing with her father's beret. Later she is joined by her mother, exhausted from her own work, and they both passively remain there, "le même espoir assassiné logeait dans leur corps immobile" [The same murdered hope lodged in their immobile bodies.] (Zouari, p.147). Eventually, discriminated both at work and at school, willingly unemployed and friendless, Amira embodies the father's disabled position, most notably by her self-induced starvation. The sister-narrator suggests that Amira's anorexia is a form of agency and even, of revolt; while she and her parents merely attempted to find peace in their adopted home, Amira rebels against her native land (p. 123). Amira's starvation is depicted as a "provocation" to show her "difference ;" "c'est une façon de chercher sa place, de lutter [...] de soigner le mal par le mal" [it's a way of finding one's place, of fighting... of treating evil with evil] (p. 133). In her agonizing death speech, Amira reveals the deadly evil that caused her disease: society's indifference and its lack of concern for the oppressed. The book concludes with the sister-narrator's promise to die too, because she finally fully understands her sister's pathology. As she explains, "Petite soeur, c'est de cette France que tu meurs" [Little sister, you are dying because of this France] (p. 185). In the dismal conclusion, we are to realize that in fact it is the nation that is responsible for Amira's terminal disease, as suggested in the title, This Country That I'm Dying Of.

In this context, Amira's willed illness brings to mind disability "passing" or rather, more accurately, a form of "disability drag." Disability theorists often apply the queer theory terms of "passing" or "outing" to disabled persons, when they either simulate the "normalcy" of able-bodied persons, or on the other hand, divulge their disabled status (Brueggemann, 1999). In this case, Amira's anorexia may be considered as "narrative drag," or "masquerade," to employ a term from Tobin Siebers: "allowing expression of a public view of disability for political ends" (2004, p.9, italics in original). In Zouari's characterization, Amira is visibly constructed as disabled, so as to claim reparation for discrimination, oppression or neglect from this disenfranchised locus.

More pertinently, Zouari's text reflects a growing discourse of victimization, or "wounded attachments," as formulated by political theorist Wendy Brown with respect to the U.S. identity politics. In her article "Wounded Attachments" (2004), Brown argues that in the politics of recognition, experiences of pain, trauma and oppression increasingly become the basis of epistemological knowledge and moral authority. The result is that minority individuals are always assuming a victim position in order to confirm and legitimate identity for themselves.

Amira's anorexia points to some of the perils that this discourse of pain entails. In Zouari's text, the disability of the father or the death of the mother by exhaustion is apparently not interesting enough; to offer a different twist, the author finds it necessary to sensationalize a tragic death by malnutrition in order to create a story of utter suffering and sacrifice. In this case, the traumatic shock of the sensational sacrificial starvation eclipses more latent forms of social suffering, most notably the destitution of the disabled father. Finally most perturbing in narrative is its only possible resolution — the complete annihilation of the subject. Amira's final act of resistance — death — is a deeply solitary act that cannot impact society in any way.

Concluding With Disability

The ubiquitous image of the disabled Maghrebi father enables us to see certain aspects of French society that often remain invisible in literary and social discourse.

These bodies in pain lucidly translate the suffering that these first-generation workers themselves cannot express — their objectification as bodies of labor, their socio-economic exploitation as tools of labor, their absence and silence in the social order and their inability to transcend their condition because of illiteracy, lack of education or changes in the economy. Within the family enclave, their wounds speak of their curtailed role as family providers, their loss of respect, honor and traditional patriarchal authority, as well as their resulting sense of shame, disappointment and helplessness caused by their failure to integrate successfully in France.

The repeated maiming of the father in Beur texts also exposes a disabling form of discourse. In these texts, the recurring objectification of disabled fathers — be it as fatally flawed, silent, invisible, aberrant or abject beings — visibly replicates typical marginalization and discrimination of disabled persons. In Charef's or Zouari's novels, we clearly observe the disabled fathers being reduced to "pure text," in a process akin to enfreakment as theorized by Rosemarie Garland Thomson; these maimed fathers are completely stripped of any humanity, subjectivity or potential agency.

Ironically, Beurs often complain of the racial intolerance and social exclusion they themselves experience. Yet Charef's text, the main character's ability and empowerment is clearly contrasted with the father's disability and loss of power. In some cases then, ability/disability becomes a social differential, a means of gaining voice, agency and authority in the narrative. In other cases, as in Zouari's text, disability becomes an echelon in a hierarchy of differential suffering. Here, in revolt, the protagonist takes up a position of even greater sacrificial suffering than her disabled father, so as to acquire her identity and power from a position of greater victimhood.

In all, the maiming of the father in these narratives is hardly accidental; rather it is a deliberate discursive strategy, so often visible by French—Maghrebi immigrant texts — a rhetoric of suffering and a politics of pain. In the end we may ask — must the corpus of French Maghrebi immigrant literature be defined by accidents? And thus, necessarily, by suffering victims? Must French-Maghrebi authors define their marginalized identity in the maim of the father? How to move from a discourse of disability to one of possibility, agency, and ability?

Editorial note: All translations of the French are the author's.


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Copyright (c) 2005 Madelaine Hron

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