In early October 1968, just 10 days before I was due to take up a teacher-training place in Cambridge, I received an offer of a teaching assistantship at a lycée
in Marseille. I had finished my English degree in the summer and, because you could and I was attracted to the idea, I had applied for such a post, but had little expectation of getting one. Priority naturally went to language graduates and I hadn't studied any French since leaving school four years before. Cambridge was willing to hold my place over till the following year and, despite last minute concerns by my father that I might be abducted into the white slave trade, I embraced the opportunity with both hands.
It was a challenge. Not only had I to accustom my ears to the sounds of l'accent du Midi
, but the French education system was undergoing continual turbulence as the result of what became known as les évènements de Mai
earlier in the year. My final exams had taken place against a background of reports of sit-ins at the Sorbonne and Nanterre, riot police on the streets of Paris and the familiar sight of individuals such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Tariq Ali boldly explaining the rationale for their protests to the press.
I didn't in the end do much productive teaching. Classes were often cancelled at short notice. Pupils seemed to come and go as they pleased. But I hung out in a small café across the street, among an international group of assistants – German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Canadian, American – along with French surveillants
, university students helping out with admin tasks at the school while completing their studies. I rented a chambre de bonne
on the ground floor of a modern apartment block on the Avenue du Prado. I read a lot and my improved French fluency would have made my former French teacher proud.
French bureaucracy was another challenge. I was supposed to get a carte de séjour
. For that I had to go to the port area of the city, which everyone referred to as the Arab Quarter, where I was generally warned off going. There were no concerns about radicalised jihadis in those days. It was a social thing. Economic migrants from the former French North African colonies, and from Spain and Italy, were arriving to work in agriculture, construction and other low paid jobs. They were perceived as grubby, uneducated, not quite comme il faut
. I remember some of them in the room where we all waited, usually fruitlessly, for those cards. They had a downtrodden air, faces etched with anxiety. So much hung on their presence in France being legitimised. It didn't matter so much for me, and it took me almost a whole year to get mine.
Teachers at the school who had lived and worked in North Africa, pieds noirs,
tended to be more benignly disposed. They neither feared nor scorned these migrants, but they didn't have much in common with them. A surveillant
who had done his national service in Algeria and was dating a friend of mine, was very critical of the wary distance people kept. One evening, he took both of us to an Arab patisserie
in the area and treated us to typical cakes made of crisp filo pastry, stuffed with almonds, dates and nuts, flavoured with cinnamon, dripping with honey and dusted with icing sugar. There was something romantic about wandering those quiet streets munching on these delicacies, especially at night. It was also a wonderfully transgressive feeling when you're young and free to do what you had been warned not to.
Some years later, unknown to me, the man I would marry came to France from Fes in Morocco. A cousin of his from the countryside had got him a contract to work on a farm near Nîmes. He travelled by train and stayed six months. The work was physically taxing and the conditions in which they were expected to live primitive. He preferred to return to Fes and his more comfortable and sociable job in hospitality, where, thanks to my fluency in French acquired in Marseilles, I eventually befriended him more than a decade later.
The cousin married one of my husband's sisters. They settled in a small village between Nîmes and Avignon. They have four children and my sister-in-law took on two sons from her husband's first marriage in Morocco. They own their own home, a rose-painted bungalow with a terrace and garden, all immaculately kept. They live respectably and have thrived. All but one of their children passed the Baccalauréat and went to university. One has a trade, the rest have professional jobs. Two are unmarried, one has married a French girl. Four have children of their own. They all have French citizenship.
Although they speak French, my sister-in-law and her husband still retain strong ties with their respective families in Morocco and feel more comfortable socialising with other Muslim families. No problems with alcohol or non-halal meat or celebrating the annual events of the Muslim calendar. Otherwise, they have integrated into their French communities and find the behaviour of radicalised jihadis every bit as abhorrent as we do.
It has not been altogether easy. It has taken the younger generation time to establish themselves in their respective careers. One had to go to Paris to get a proper foothold as a paralegal. Another, after two years perfecting her English as an au pair in New York, took well over a year to land a job as a social administrator in the Gers. The son who married the French girl did not please his father in doing so, but he and his wife, a college French teacher, live happily with their two young children in Montpellier. He works as a government research chemist.
I mention this because as rootless jihadis reappear in French cities, provoking pointless violence and hatred, you should know there are far from unique Muslim French families with quite different priorities.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh