Shantytown Kid is the childhood memoir of Azouz Begag, the first North African immigrant cabinet minister of France. Begag was born to Algerian immigrants in France and wrote this autobiography in 1986 in almost his thirtieth year, by which time he had already become one of a handful of successful immigrants to have risen to positions of power…
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The story covers the period of Begag's life from childhood to early youth: his origins and his childhood in a bidonville or a shantytown suburb, colloquially called Le Chaaba, outside of Lyon. Here the difficult living conditions are described with humor and painful nostalgia. Poverty and social marginalization are typical of the living conditions experienced by these Algerian immigrants in France. The book starkly describes Begag's childhood in the slums and banlieues (suburbs) where Maghrebi (North African) immigrants like young Begag live on the literal and figurative edges of French society. Here, hovels of hastily-piled wood make up houses with no electricity, water, sewerage or proper codes of health and sanitation. Life in the tin shacks and empty lots is described in repulsive detail, with the highlight of the boys' days being rummaging through a fresh garbage dump for interesting things, which they consider "piles of treasure". The children are also expected to work in the market to earn money to help their parents.
Begag's childhood is full of contrasting images of sweet dreams for the future and harsh realities of the present. Most of his dreams originate from the books he buys every Sunday at the flea market, being encouraged by his father. "This book is a bird" he tells Begag, encouraging him to pursue his readings. A bright and sensitive child, Begag loves his small community but is determined to leave behind the poverty of his shantytown life. He is prompted to excel at school and prove to his French teachers that he is as capable as his native French classmates. Begag works hard to become a star pupil at his local primary French school, Ecole Leo Lagrange where Begag learns to read and write. This unlocks the key to opportunities denied to his parents who were illiterates. But this ambition also alienates him from his Arab classmates. While Azouz Begag is slowly recognized in school as a smart child, his playmates from the Chaaba lag behind because they work in the market to earn a living and, therefore, perform poorly in class. Begag, consequently, earns their jealousy and rejection. This conflict with other Arab children because of his insistence on succeeding academically leads to many humiliating and harrowing incidents.
Normal children like Begag and his fellow Arab playmates (whose country of origin is Algeria and country of birth is France) clearly have two social environments. Minorities clearly know the difference between the two. As the French society refuse to recognize them as French, they deliberately assert their "Arabness" and, in consequence, develop a stubborn attitude. A strong solidarity is formed as the Arab children only stick to each other. In the story, being "Arab" meant defying teacher's authority, being in the bottom of class standings, and practicing poor hygiene. To be "Arab" is to act in accordance with these expectations. Begag, because he performs extremely well in his classes, is labeled an outlaw. Because he spends more time with French kids, he is accused of being an infidel. But Azouz Begag simultaneously has to compete with the anti-Arab racist feelings of his French peers. Begag's moving and comical account of finding a path between the two contending cultures is a tale of his growth in a world full of ethnic and racial tensions.
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