What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?
I was born in Togo, a small nation-state in the Gulf of Guinea. When I was growing up in capital-city Lomé in the 1970s, I remember the post-Colonial optimism of the civil servants who (my father included) were hoping to march into the twentieth century armed with the renewed confidence that comes with post-struggle emancipation, economic growth and social benefits. Togo, like most French colonies, had gained independence from the French in 1960, and the talk was always about building proper institutions on an ambitious pan-African model. True, the French colonial legacy would remain for some time, but I remember hearing, as a child, thoughtfully crafted - and vividly explained - visions of prosperous, democratic African societies where stability would come with the emergence of a powerful - and well looked-after - middle class.
The opposite happened, and sadly I witnessed the change from afar. I had moved, as a 12 year-old, to France, where my father enrolled me in a Catholic boarding school. I don't remember them ever saying it, but I knew that my parents were secretly hoping that I would return to Togo after my European studies, and help to build the young nation. Instead, I became a naturalized French citizen, and chose to start a European career in publishing. Instead of moving back to Lomé, I moved between London, Paris and eventually New York. My parents actually ended up blessing my decision because by the mid-1990s, they had become disillusioned with the state of Togolese affairs.
Many in the new Togolese establishment had profited from "the system" (as my parents used to call it) by colluding with and manipulating the military rulers who'd remained in power by assassinating the most prominent members of the opposition and stealing most of the proceeds that came with the export of Togo's natural resources. A direct result of the actions led by Togo's kleptocratic régime was the near total decimation of the Togolese middle class. Every time I went back home, usually on holidays, I would hear complaints from schoolteachers who had not been paid in six months, from university graduates who'd been unemployed for six years, from farmers who'd fled the countryside because of the collapse of the cooperatives they so depended on. Meanwhile, the rich were getting richer, and the corrupt were getting more corrupt.
The European taboo that this Togolese-French student-turned-media-entrepreneur confronted was the active role the French government and French corporations were playing in the wholesale confiscation of the Togolese economy. When the remaining opposition leaders and activists became more vocal, the police became more violent, and as I now assess the economic effects of violent conflict, coupled with the related capital market reactions where Togo's foreign direct investment was pretty much cut off in the mid-1980, I can lay at least some of the blame on what the media has been calling the "Françafrique." In the 1980s, President Mitterrand's son Jean-Christophe Mitterrand (an "advisor" to his father on African affairs from 1986 to 1992 who later became a convicted arms dealer) kept an office next to President Gnassingbé Eyadéma's in Lomé and in the late-1990s President Chirac insisted on protecting General Eyadéma when much of the human rights community had listed him as one of the most ruthless rulers on the continent. The post-colonial role of France in Africa has not been so glorious.
How can this taboo be overcome?
The taboo cannot be overcome until Togo and other African societies unite instead of being divided into ethnic groups. Although the dubious role played by French heads of state remains a taboo because of the way an entire post-Independence generation was sacrificed for the economic gains of a few privileged Togolese citizens and French corporations and individuals, it must be noted that much of the responsibility lies with the Togolese populations themselves. Any serious student of Togolese or, for that matter, African history, will place special emphasis on the salience of ethnic conflict. Much of the economic inequality and despair that came with the alliance of misguided French and Togolese interests resulted from the inability of the Togolese themselves to get along. The Togolese just could not bring themselves to transcend ethnic divisions. By and large, the Togolese from the North do not get along with those from the South, and vice versa. My own family comes from the center of the country, and I sometimes wonder about our allegiances. The French colonial masters understood this ethnic conflict early on, and maintained the status quo. Because it was in their interest. In other words, it is the Togolese themselves who created an environment where high level French and Togolese officials were free to pursue their ends without any concern for justice and economic redistribution.
As we analyze the economic perspectives and social musings on Togolese culture today, we realize that public goods are still being divided and allocated along ethnic lines. But the good news is that the share of economic contributions and allocations made by and to specific ethnic groups is evening out. Ethnic warfare has diminished considerably. The current administration, led by President Faure Gnassingbé, is to be commended for aiming for peaceful stances in the face of a new youth rebellion that could turn hostile at any moment. Because of his own DNA, and the fact that his father is from the north while his mother is from the south, President Gnassingbé is in a unique position to bring about change through dialog. Ultimately, both ethnic and class conflict can be tamed if all of the ethnic constituents of Togo understand that only unity can lead to prosperity. A united Togo would be wonderful and powerful on so many levels: the celebration of social and economic milestones can become a reality if ethnic considerations are set aside for the benefit of the entire population, not just the Togolese government cronies and their French protectors. I believe in Togo, and I can see many positive roles that François Hollande's government can play in restoring active solidarities between the two countries.
What would change?
As a black African Frenchman, who happens to also carry Togolese and American passports, the issue of identity is at the heart of my everyday travails and concerns. Traveling across Europe for business or pleasure, as I have done (extensively) during my entire adult life, I am constantly reminded that the status of “the other” is meant to identify and describe people like myself – non white European citizens whose multiple identities and transcultural sensibilities can be mistaken for schizophrenic behavior. Where are you really from? Well, I really am from all these places, and I do really feel like a citizen of Europe, like a citizen of the world. As any non white European will tell you, it often feels good, even if it sometimes hurts, to broadcast one’s identity crisis, if only because it allows us to occasionally confuse white Europeans even more.
Even when I try to carry on with my daily tasks, minding my own business in Paris, Amsterdam, London or Barcelona, I cannot help but notice the surprised glances, muted stares and expressions of disbelief when I write down (or spell out) my Polish surname. (An episode at Warsaw airport a few years ago was particularly funny, but I will save that one for another story.) So sometimes I overdo it, and answer the question about where I am really from with the answer: Poland, Togo, France, the United States, and also the UK (because I studied and spent my formative years in London). How’s that for an answer?
I used to always say that the book that shaped my adult sensibilities was Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands, which was published right around the time I left Paris for London at age 20, in 1991. Now, my answer has changed. Having read Zadie Smith’s masterful novelWhite Teeth, which was published ten years after Rushdie’s tome, I now believe that her book is the one that best describes the complex cultural tapestry of London and, for that matter, modern metropolitan Europe. I cannot forget the internal struggles of teenager Irie, a central character in the novel who somehow tries to discover who she is by attempting to learn about her family history. In her own book of collected essays, Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith, speaking of the promise of Barack Obama, describes what she calls “the multiple sensibility.” Finally! A simple term to describe what I’d been trying to explain away, in my own books, as transculturalism.
The multiple sensibility, as applied to European dogma and my own feelings of “otherness” is about being European without looking European, and still feeling beautiful. It’s about speaking European languages with non European accents, and not feeling ridiculed. Ultimately, it’s about appreciating European cultures and European history while still valuing the flavors in our cultures of origin. I, for one, feel a lot smarter for having always relied on my centuries-old African compass, on those ancestral Togolese values that my late grandmother used to tout when we were growing up in Lomé.
The question here is, what would change if we were finally able to overcome these cultural tensions and see beyond those European points of pain, often expressed as nationalism, that prevent so many non white Europeans from fully integrating into European societies. For me, the answer is simple. What would change is that we would spend a lot less time explaining who we really are and where we reallycome from. As a serial immigrant who ended up getting really comfortable with the multiple identities and multiple sensibilities, I think we owe it to all the adolescent Iries of Europe because, after all, having to always explain everything about oneself can, after a while, get really tiring.
What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?
To me, the single most important learning moment was around 8pm France time, on Sunday April 21st, 2002. I still remember that day, ten years ago, when my Togolese-French friend Romain called me to inform me that the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen would face Jacques Chirac in the runoff election as one of the top two candidates in the French presidential election. I was in New York on that day, and had not bothered to vote, preferring instead to spend my afternoon at the swimming pool, because I took it as a given that the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin (whose son had been my roommate in New York’s Lower East Side) facing Chirac in the runoff would win.
Now, all of a sudden, France faced the prospect that an ultra-nationalist politician, one whose revisionist theories and anti-immigrant statements had somehow managed to seduce enough French citizens to become, at least for a while, the second political force in the country. Even though Chirac would win the presidency, and be reelected in a landslide, the climate of French politics had changed forever, and it was now OK to be blatantly racist and anti-Semitic. It was OK because many French now officially recognized themselves in the National Front’s policies, paving the way for the party’s acceptance as a democratic alternative to mainstream conservative ideology.
I remember being depressed for weeks on end, and blaming myself for not voting, because I could feel that a new chapter had begun in French politics. And that it would have to do with intolerance and knee-jerk reactions to confrontations relating to immigration, religion, terrorism and other national security issues. Which is why I was not the least bit surprised when, three years later, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy seized on the 2005 civil unrest in the country to advocate a tougher “law and order” approach to crime. That approach itself I didn’t have a problem with, because I agreed with most of my fellow French citizens who felt that the rioters should be punished. But it was the demagoguery behind the divisive language – the word “racaille” that Sarkozy used can be loosely translated as “scum” – that was meant to single out suburban (mostly non-white) French youth as the main culprits, as the main drivers behind the breakdown in French social cohesion.
Of course, we know that Sarkozy rode this hardline, anti-immigrant stance all the way to the Elysée Palace in 2007. Having never voted for (or liked) Sarkozy, to me the lesson is twofold. Firstly, anti-immigrant rhetoric would become popular all over Europe, which meant that any political attempt to promote the social integration of the rejected would prove futile until European citizens could find a common ground. And finally, despite the fact that Sarkozy was defeated earlier this year when he tried, once again, to use inflammatory, anti-immigrant language in his face-off with François Hollande, I believe the clear path to any conservative political mandate in Europe is now paved with hardcore identity politics and warlike semantics. Which can make non white Europeans like myself feel very unwelcome in some parts of Europe.