Answering New Questions on Racism. Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan-French novelist, poet and essayist who writes about culture, the immigrant experience, human rights and sexual identity. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s book ‘Racism Explained To My Daughter’ is published in America by The New Press. It has just been republished with a new preface by La nave di Teseo in Italy.
In 1998 you wrote ‘Racism Explained to My Daughter’, a world bestseller translated into 47 languages, including Esperanto, the universal language?
Yes, I sold around 2 million copies, and the text of this book has been used and taught in schools all over the world. In South Africa it is translated into Afrikaans and two other regional languages. This proves that racism concerns the entire humanity. There is no society in the world that can say, “There is no racism here.” It is a phenomenon that is deeply linked to the human condition, but it is something we can fight against.
“Racism concerns the entire humanity.”
Thousands of people marched in Paris in March 2018 in memory of Mireille Knoll, the 85-year old Jewish Holocaust survivor murdered in her Paris apartment.
Can you describe how this book that has been published many times in the last twenty years deals with the development of new racism events in Europe and in the world?
In 1998 when I was writing the book and answering my daughter’s questions, the word ‘Islamophobia’ did not exist, but the word ‘anti-Semitism’ always existed. Anti-Semitism has changed colours and origin. For instance, terrorism in the name of Islam creates very evident anti-Semitism, and terrorism in the name of Islam has generated fear and hate of Islam, of Muslims, creating a new racism. The book was answering questions that all children, who are not racists, ask. Now I had to answer new questions that did not exist twenty years ago, and in particular about Islam, Muslims, and their status in Europe.
Your book has been republished in Italy by La Nave di Teseo in a new edition of 300 hundred pages and will be republished in France in October by Éditions du Seuil. What is new?
The main thing that has changed in twenty years is that the first edition was questioning the issue of ‘races’. I was saying that ‘races’ do not exist. There is only one ‘race’: the human race. When I go to different schools all over the world and speak to children the first thing that I teach is that there are no ‘races’. The French government has proposed to parliament to remove the word ‘race’ from the Constitution and from the law books. During this time we have seen political leaders of the Right and extreme Right parties who are set against this, and they say that they belong to the ‘white race’, which is for them superior, different from the so-called ‘black race’. For me this is the first victory against racism.
“We need to find a realpolitik agreement about immigration.”
Why do you say that racism is endemic to the human being?
People are different but similar. Man makes differences and transforms them with inequalities. Everything starts from there. What is different is inferior.
What about the Jews?
Jews can be of any colour. It is the difference that Judaism represents that is intolerable for the others. Jews have always been persecuted because of their difference, and because they were the first monotheistic religion. History proves that.
Can we stop anti-Semitism?
It can only be stopped by justice and education, but to be an anti-Semite has changed. Before it was a European obsession and in particular German and French. Today anti-Semitism has been stopped but the terrorism of ISIS and its ideology is based on the hate of Jews and Christians. It was translated in France with the murder of children and adult Jews, the crime of the extremist Mohammed Marrah and the crime of the barbarians who kidnapped the young Ilan Halimi, who was tortured and assassinated. The attack after Charlie Hebdo on January 7 2015 on the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, the assassination of Sarah Halimi, aged 65 years, by her neighbour, plus the assassination of Mireille Knoll, aged 85 years, by two neighbours; these are crimes that all took place in France, and this is new in France. Before they were killing Arabs, now they kill Jews.
How do you feel yourself as a Muslim?
I am wounded and humiliated by this kind of racism, and this is the case for the majority of the Muslim population in France. The result is that Jews are frightened. More than 6,000 Jews a year have left France because of this. The Muslims are frightened too, because they are suspicious in the eyes of many people.
What about the dramatic problem of the migrants that is shocking the entire world?
One has to make a distinction between the Africans that are coming to find work and the refugees that are escaping from war, like in Syria and Iraq. The refugees need to be comforted, and they aren’t coming to stay in Europe; they hope to go back to their homes. The economic migrants from Africa create a problem that Europe is not able to resolve. We need to find a realpolitik agreement about immigration. Europe should negotiate with the rich African countries like Nigeria and Gabon and others, so that those communities can give work to their citizens. It is a scandal that people from these countries do not have enough help to stay there. Europe could invest in the poor African countries and create conditions for people to stay in their countries. All these African countries have to fight against the mafia of the people traffickers who exploit this human misery.
“Racism explained to my daughter” by Tahar Ben Jelloun
“Le Racisme expliqué à ma fille” by Tahar Ben Jelloun, Editions Du Seuil
“Il razzismo spiegato a mia figlia” by Tahar Ben Jelloun, recently republished in Italy by La nave di Teseo
A striking image protests Islamophobia in America
In September 2016 police moved in at dawn to remove migrants, mainly from Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan, who were sleeping in tents and on mattresses in a camp in northern Paris.
“We are not made to fight but to live together.”
Do you feel that a writer like you has real influence today? Do you feel that people listen to you?
Sadly I wrote articles and I spoke on the radio and TV, and many other writers did the same, but we are not listened to. People today live in a state of fear and ignorance, and they are closed in on themselves, and this creates the triumph of the populism parties that are pre-Fascist, the Far Right movement.
Are the new populist parties racist?
No, they talk about ideas of fear for poor people who feel menaced by all that is foreign, and the arrival of Trump on the international political scene has been a disaster for humanism and solidarity with people who need help. It has encouraged other European countries to vote in political parties who are racist and demagogic.
Are violence and fear coming back?
Yes, they do come back, but with less intensity than what our grandparents have seen in the Forties.
Is history repeating itself?
History progresses and the human being is always the same; either dominant and egoistic, or full of solidarity and generous. It depends.
At the end of the day, what are your major concerns?
The horror of the genocide of the Syrians by their own President Bashar al-Assad with the help of the Russians. We have never seen this before. He should be judged for the crimes he has committed. The second country that creates trouble is Libya, which has become the centre for ISIS, and it is in this country that people are sold. It is this country that allows the mafia and the people that organise the voyages of death. It is because power is disputed by several sides, and this chaos is an advantage to the people traffickers and the terrorists. Libya as it is today is the central source of racism.
Your real battle is against racism?
Yes, we are not made to fight but to live together. We are not here to fight. When I was a child of 8 years old we were living next to a Moroccan Jewish family in Tangier. Every Friday my mother was sending them a plate of couscous and the day after the Jews were sending back a plate of skhina, a typical Jewish dish. It was human solidarity. In Morocco today we are nostalgic of the time when Jews and Muslims were living together in solidarity and in peace. From there comes my concern and my fight against racism.
Tangier, July 2018
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