Interview: Karim Miské, by his translator Sam Gordon

April 25, 2016 | By FRENCH CULTURE BOOKS
© Antoine Rozès

The translator Sam Gordon sat down with writer Karim Miské to talk about Arab Jazz, a masterful début thriller released in the United States on April 12.

Sam Gordon: Let’s start with the first word of the book: ‘Ahmed’. Tell me about Ahmed – where did the character come from, and to what extent does he overlap with yourself?

Karim Miské: One morning, without knowing what I was doing, I began writing these words: ‘Ahmed is looking at the clouds in the sky, the clouds, the wondrous clouds, floating up there.’ And suddenly he was there, in front of me, living his life in my studio flat. I just had to look at him and write. He was not exactly me, but not exactly not me. Another self visiting me from a parallel dimension. A literary double. Overlap is really the word: the studio walls soon disappeared, covered by the hundreds of crime novels he had bought at Monsieur Paul’s second-hand bookshop, but the table, the balcony, the clock on the wall, even the CDs I was listening to or the yoghurt I had been eating … they were all mine. Ahmed was able to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Of course, unlike him, I had a job, a family, I did not live on state subsidies, but we shared a great deal: a complex identity, a safe distance from any kind of strong ideological or religious belief. We still do.

SG: Your essay-memoir, N’Appartenir, has been published in France since the release of Arab Jazz. Can you easily sum it up for non-French readers, and explain the extent to which it ties in with your novel?

KM: It’s a personal essay that tries to deconstruct the idea of identity, in all its dimensions: ethnicity, religion, ideology, gender… It’s also full of music and pop culture, from Johnny Rotten to Kurt Cobain, David Lynch, Ray Bradbury, Patti Smith and Desmond Dekker. In this book, I also explain why my first fiction work has been a noir, why I have since my teens been obsessed with crime novels, how I created Ahmed as a literary doppelgänger, and finally, how literature is my country, the only liveable place on earth.

SG: The isolation you mentioned earlier is a crucial part of Ahmed’s character and his journey. Was it always the plan for the novel to be about him “coming out” of this state of mental and physical isolation? How significant is it that such a violent act – Laura’s murder – begins this process?

KM: There was no plan at all at the beginning. Actually, I was barely conscious that I was writing a novel, not to mention a crime novel. I discovered Ahmed, his books, his isolation, while I was writing the first paragraphs. Soon, I understood that the story would follow the path of his release, and that the murder of his lovely neighbor was the first step of this process. Facing death, Ahmed had decided to come back to life, understanding that he had lost a woman he would have loved, had he not been living in his own private 19th arrondissement. For the first time in years, he is able to suffer and cry. The loss of Laura is painful, yes, but this pain is the first moment of his awakening.

SG: What was your own relationship with the 19th arrondissement prior to writing Arab Jazz? And did you view the neighborhood in a new light through the eyes of Ahmed? Other parts of Paris too, for that matter, such as when he takes his walk down the Canal de l’Ourcq to Bastille – “rediscovering Paris” – early on in the book?

KM: When I began writing Arab Jazz, I had just landed in the 19th arrondissement, where I would only live for five or six months, but where I got the inspiration for writing what would become my first novel. The first thing that struck me was the high number of ultra-orthodox Jews, and that they were living amongst Muslims, some of whom were Salafi. A highly explosive and highly inspiring mix! At that time, I had just finished making a TV documentary for the French and German cultural channel Arte about religious fundamentalism in France, spending months in the company of Lubavitch Jews, Evangelical Christians and Tablighi Muslims, and suddenly, they were there, all around my place. It was as if I was doomed to remain a prisoner of my own film. Maybe that’s why I had to create the character of Ahmed: to be able to find a way out. Unlike me, when I was filming, he didn’t have to be neutral. He could express his own feelings towards hardcore religion. Neither judgmental nor naïve. Ahmed hadn’t left the 19th for five years, so, when he began walking the streets of Paris again, I rediscovered my city through his eyes. The gentrification process of the eastern part of the capital, for instance. The Canal de l’Ourcq and the Bastille, places I knew when I was young, had become something new, where members of the working class could not afford to live anymore. If they were lucky they could just buy a kebab and drink a beer amongst the new owners of the surroundings: the famous bourgeois bohèmes, or bobos

SG: Last year obviously marked a bloody new chapter in France’s history of religious fundamentalism, with the Islamist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket in January, and the wider attacks in November. Did you ever expect the tensions you noticed when making your documentary or from your experience of living in the 19th to erupt in this way? Have your views changed about the various causes of radicalisation of young men living in Paris?

KM: The answer’s there in the book, when Rachel and Jean, the two lieutenants investigating Laura’s horrible murder meet a bunch of Salafi kids in the streets of the 19th. Rachel asks her colleague: 

“How many of them do you reckon they’ll find in a bloody mush in Baghdad three months from now?”

“So long as it’s Baghdad … ”

“It’s easy to be cynical. They’re local kids. It’s our duty to look out for them.”

“I’m a policeman, not a nanny. And how do you propose we protect them from themselves?  

Among these kids could have been the Kouachi brothers, the killers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists. Of course, the important words here are “So long as it’s Baghdad … ” I was in the middle of my writing in 2008 when the surviving members of the so-called ‘Filière des Buttes Chaumont’ were tried. Manipulated by a self-proclaimed imam, a dozen young Muslims from the 19th had been sent to Baghdad between 2003 and 2005. There, they joined Al Qaeda and fought the Americans. One of them died in a suicide attack, another in an airstrike, another in an accident. This story was so sad and powerful, that it inspired me to include this dialogue and feature some of the characters in the book. At that time, I remember wondering how long it would take for these kids of the 19th and all of France’s unprivileged neighborhoods, to decide to blow themselves up in Paris instead of Baghdad. This outcome seemed at the same time both unreal and already written, inevitable. But when I learnt that Chérif Kouachi was a member of the filière that had partly inspired me, I felt, for a moment lost between fiction and reality…

My views about the causes of radicalisation have not changed: it’s a dangerous mixture of social and more philosophical causes. The French jihadis come from all the social classes. They may have been raised in traditional Muslim families, but you will also find around thirty percent of converts, which means that it is not only to do with the difficulties of being Arab/black/Muslim in modern France. We also have to consider the much more complicated question of emptiness. It’s not so easy to live in a godless society, apparently. Not that easy to have to decide, as an individual, what meaning you want to give to your life. 

SG: Mental illness is another key factor, no? Certainly in the case of Moktar, the most fervent Salafi in the novel. He’s a very unhinged character…

KM: In the case of Moktar, indeed. His mental illness has taken the shape of the time he lives in. In another time and place he might have turned into any kind of hardcore believer. He’s the kind of guy that can be easily manipulated by a skilled priest, imam or political commissar. He is a tool ready to be used.

SG: In many ways, Moktar and Ahmed are very alike – both struggling with mental illnesses that are the products of their traumatic pasts and turbulent family situations. Part of what saves Ahmed is his decision to return to his psychoanalyst, Dr Germain, who is like his “confessor”. Do you think a character like Moktar could be also saved by undergoing psychoanalysis?

KM: Ahmed is struggling, indeed, but he does not suffer from a psychosis. Moktar’s case is much more serious, and even if I think that psychoanalysis could be useful for him, I’m afraid that it would have to be combined with a heavy medication.

SG: One aspect of the book I found very moving was the sense of isolation that Jean, one of the detectives, originally from Brittany, felt about living in Paris. Do you find that Paris is a particularly difficult place for newcomers, whether they are from the ‘provinces’ or from abroad?

KM: As most big cities, Paris is indeed a difficult place for newcomers, be they provinciaux or foreigners. If you grew up in any of the French regions and want to work, like Jean, in the public sector, you will have to spend a few years working in the metropolis, because it’s where nobody else wants to go (housing is so expensive and Parisians are not all that welcoming) and where one fifth of the country lives. So, yes, many provinciaux will experience this loneliness, for a while, at least. Because, when you get to know them, Parisians are not that bad, you can even befriend some of them. But of course, being a Parisian myself, I tend to speak for my own kin.

SG: The stacks of crime novels in Ahmed’s flat are a potent image. Can you pinpoint your love of crime fiction to a particular novel or reading experience? What in general do you find so appealing about the genre?

KM: My first real experience in the field was when I bought, at the age of thirteen, No Pockets in a Shroud at a second-hand bookshop just around the corner. The title alone was a revelation. I had never before encountered this kind of dark humor. Having been raised in a leftist environment where everybody thought that humanity was amendable, fixable, it was a relief to read these stories about our hidden and shameful desires. It was something like the truth unveiled. I suddenly realised that the grown-ups had been lying to me: we are motivated by lust, envy, greed, and not only by love and progress.

SG: There is a lot of evil in Arab Jazz, despite light-hearted aspects and some redemptive characters. Whether it’s passing, subtle references to dark periods of history (the Phalange massacres in Lebanon, the Algerian War) or the actions of sociopathic individuals or corrupt police, evil is something of a constant. Is that a fair assessment? I suppose I’m keen to know whether this was deliberate, or whether it’s just an inevitable part of setting a crime novel?

KM: I guess it’s an inevitable part of me writing a novel. Maybe because I grew up in this very politicized, optimistic environment, I wanted from an early age to unveil what was hidden. That’s why, once I had started to write a novel, it had to be a noir. It had to be about evil with a capital E. What else?

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