Shantytown Kid is an autobiographical novel written by Algerian writer Azouz Begag and published in 1986. This is a story about a young boy whose parents immigrated from Algeria in the midst of the Algerian war in the 1960s. The book explores a variety of subjects related to the challenges faced by the Algerian immigrants, ranging from unimaginably severe living conditions to cultural and language crises. In the story, the author depicts the lives of the immigrants who lived in the French ghettos. In order to assimilate to a new society when fleeing from extreme poverty and devastation caused by the atrocities of the war, they had to overcome a multitude of problems. The book covers the inner reasons for the refugee crisis that encapsulate the relationship between Europe and the Arab world to this day. Through a story of a young Algerian boy, the Shantytown Kid aims to capture the history of an intercultural and inter-ethnical conflict as experienced by an immigrant.
Financial Situation and the Living Conditions of the Immigrants’ Suburbs
From the very beginning of the story, Begag describes the hard living conditions and financial situation that his family had to deal with. As Algerian immigrants, Begag’s family lived in a shantytown with almost no infrastructure. The wooden houses, which were shanties rather than normal houses, did not have some of the essential living facilities such as basic plumbing, running water and electricity taken for granted by the local French population. The immigrants had to deal with deplorable sanitary conditions with the absence of toilets and very small square spaces for many families. The protagonist gets astonished by the spaciousness of the house of his French classmate, which he describes as “as big as the whole of Le Chaaba put together” (Begag 2006, 45). The author emphasizes the economic discrepancy with the local French population by contrasting the immigrant living conditions with the perfectly laid out spacious houses of the French.
One of the episodes illustrates the exceedingly challenging financial situation of the Algerian immigrants who lived alongside his family in La Chaaba, especially vividly. He describes how he and other immigrants would rummage through the garbage, trying to find anything of value and fight to the point of pulling other people’s hair over the findings. Throughout the story, the author makes clear the excruciating material situation common for the Arab population living in the French suburbs.
Cultural Identity Crisis
The protagonist of the story, Begag’s childhood alter-ego, daily has to maneuver in between two essentially different worlds. One such world was the world of his family, with its Muslim moral codes and the Arabic language. The other was the world of the French language and culture he encountered daily at school. In his work, the author shows how a child orients in between these two intrinsically different realities where at home, he has to adapt to the Arab practices and meet the expectations of the French in the classroom.
The socioeconomic and cultural gulf between Begg’s character and his French counterparts becomes vivid during the description of daily routines at school when confronted with daily etiquette or hygiene habits demonstrated by the French. The author points out the feelings experienced by his character as the feeling of “shame and disgrace” whenever the teacher points out the rules of correct behavior (Begag 2006, 58). Not only does the protagonist get exposed to the French behavioral and etiquette norms for the first time, he is also expected to perform and internalize them.
The discrepancy between young Azouz’s heritage and the desire to assimilate into French society becomes clear when one day, the protagonist makes a decision to become “French” or “one of them” (Begag 2007, 37). This is when Begag’s character decides to get rid of his “Arab-ness” by dedicating himself to studying and becoming one of the smartest students at school after his father’s admonitions not to become “a poor laborer” like him (Begag 2007, 32). Young Azouz understood his father’s instruction to take education seriously and do well at school as a necessity to get rid of his “Arab-ness” and become more “French”. Doing well at school was originally associated with the French students who only continued to fuel the stereotyping of the Algerians and other Arab people and largen the gulf between the immigrants and the French.
The novel brings up a totality of problems associated with immigrants and a complicated process of integration of one culture into another. The author poses a question on whether a society that consists of more than one culture should become the so-called melting pot or should one prevailing culture absorb the other. In the book, Begag points out how the stereotypes and the dismissing attitude towards the Algerians penetrate into the education system.
Instead of facilitating the process of acculturation between the Arab and the French children, Begag shows how the educational system chooses to assimilate and suppress the alien culture. For instance, Azouz’s teacher generalizes all the students in the class by saying that everyone in the classroom is a descendant of Vercingetorix. Thus, he unintentionally excludes all of the Arab students and ignores their cultural identity and belonging to a past that is different from the one shared by the white French population. Through such detail, Begag demonstrates the gradual and invisible process of assimilation forced onto the Arab children that caused perpetual internal confusion and the intensification of the already existing identity crisis that they experienced.
Young Azouz has to put on any cultural identity other than his own Algerian one whenever he wants to protect himself from mental and even physical abuse. For example, he calls himself Jewish in order to avoid being bullied by classmates (Begag 2007). Stripping away his Arab-Muslim identity and swapping it for a French one is what Begag’s character learns to do throughout the story. Ultimately, Begag’s character starts to favor the French identity over his own as he learns that it is perceived as preferable within society. This process is accompanied by rejection and disdain for his own cultural identity within himself, as he starts to look down on it and strives to detach himself from it and associate himself with the French.
Maneuvering In Between Languages
The duality of young Azouz’s identity is portrayed especially vividly through the use of the Arabic and French languages throughout the novel. The protagonist constantly has to maneuver between different styles of Arabic and French when adjusting to different situations. In one day, the boy would have to talk in informal Arabic spoken at home, formal Arabic, proper French at school, or slang spoken in French with his mates.
Language plays an integral role in the Shantytown kid, as it forms one more element of confusion within the protagonist’s identity. Begag describes that he felt ashamed whenever he heard his comrades at school use French words he had never heard before (Begag 2007). Likewise, sometimes he would use the words from Arabic slang spoken at Le Chaaba that would also be incomprehensible to the people at school. Thus, the author shows the process of how the main character learns to juggle the two languages several times a day.
Gradually, Azouz starts to perceive his mother tongue as socially unacceptable and as the one that should be eliminated outside the home. Here, the school system becomes the engine of the process of dragging the protagonist into the prevailing French culture. Language becomes another skin that Azouz sheds and puts on and off when needed, which leads to him ultimately stripping it off completely. Eventually, along with the Arabic language, Begag’s character excludes the rest of the customs and values of his native culture.
Begag’s Shantytown kid is a vivid illustration of the challenges that Arab immigrants and their children were confronted with on an economic, social, and cultural level. With an example of a small Algerian boy, Begag illustrated the frustration and confusion that this social group had to go through in the process of finding their own identity and place within a new society that severely rejected their native culture and customs. The anguish caused by any attempt to withstand cultural assimilation forced onto them would not leave any chance for acculturation. The novel perfectly describes the origins of the everlasting social crisis that Europe faces up to this day. With his work, Begag points out the inadequacy of the status quo and suggests that it can be improved by changing the approach to the education system starting from the very childhood.
Begag, Azouz. 2007. Shantytown Kid. Lincoln, Nebraska: the University of Nebraska Press.