North African `Beurs' change the face of France. Arab art, music, and politics make their way into French mainstream

Rachid Khimoune sculpts the face of a new France. At first glance, his works recall French cubist masterpieces. But a closer look reveals figures constructed from asphalt and steel manholes, all covered with Arabic calligraphy.

``These materials dominate my environment,'' Mr. Khimoune says at his studio in a housing project in this northern suburb of Paris. ``I use all different traditions to make my own art.''

Khimoune represents the emergence of the children of North African immigrants who poured into the country during the prosperous 1960s and '70s. These North Africans call themselves Beurs, French slang for Arabs. Slowly, often with great difficulty, they are integrating themselves into the French mainstream -- and like Khimoune, changing it.

Traditionally, France has seen itself as a homogeneous culture. Now the Beurs are defining themselves as both French and Arab, drawing on both cultures. ``Beur is beautiful'' is the slogan of a growing army of musicians, artists, writers, and filmmakers. There is a Beur newspaper, a Beur radio station, and a Beur casting agency.

``Algeria is my mother and France my father,'' says Mehdi Charef, director of the film ``Le Th'e au Harem d'Archimede'' (The Tea in the Harem of Archimedes) about his crime-filled youth growing up in an immigrant ghetto. Mr. Charef says he wants to live in France while continuing to practice Islam, study Arabic, and maintain other Arabic customs.

``You Americans should understand,'' adds Khimoune. ``You are all American and something else -- adding to American culture.''

But such talk frightens many Frenchmen. The Beurs have come to attention at a time when the National Front of extreme right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has made deep inroads in French politics on a simple platform -- there are too many immigrants in France. For Mr. Le Pen and his followers, the children of North Africans take jobs away from Frenchmen. They bankrupt welfare budgets. They cause crime.

For other Frenchmen, though, who would prefer to see a more balanced, racially integrated country, the presence of the Beurs reveals a ray of hope. Unlike their North African parents who continue to dream of returning home, the Beurs, most of whom were born in France or came here at an early age, have nowhere to go back to. It may take time, but their continuing presence is making a permanent change in France.

Unfortunately, much of the process proceeds at a slow pace and with great pain. Many Beurs feel caught between two cultures, not wholly able to accept their parents' Arabic values or home-grown French values. Conflicts abound.

``At school, we are taught that our ancestors were the Gauls and in the cafeteria we ate roast veal; at home, we speak Berber and eat couscous,'' remarks Khimoune. ``Then at age 13, the father wants his daughter to . . . be married away to a husband he has picked. The daughter refuses, runs away, or even commits suicide.''

Many Beurs also suffer from the poverty of their ghetto homes. Many have grown up in the concrete compounds ringing Paris, Marseille, and Lyons. Many drop out of school and have drifted into drugs, prostitution, and crime. Some never escape a physical and mental landscape marred by graffiti, broken bottles, and racism.

``Whenever we go for work, they take one look at our curly hair and say there is no work,'' says Nacer Kettane, a novelist and the director of Radio Beur. ``Whenever we call for an apartment, they hear our perfect French and they say `yes.' As soon as we arrive, they say it's already been rented.''

To battle against racism, the Beurs are moving to acquire political clout. Last year, some of them formed a group called SOS Racism to promote goodwill toward France's immigrant population. Some 300,000 people packed the Place de la Concorde in Paris last June for an antiracism festival that featured Beur performers.

Beur leaders want to translate this antiracial support into anti-Le Pen votes in next spring's parliamentary elections. Khimoune says officials from the major parties have begun visiting the Beur social center he has formed in Aubervilliers. Their aim is to woo those Beurs who, as French citizens, may vote.

``The vote will make all the difference,'' he says. ``By 1987, we will be 500,000 strong and the politicians will be forced to listen.''

While they organize, the Beurs continue the struggle to escape their ghetto stereotype. As they become better educated, a number are succeeding, especially in the arts. Radio Beur claims 400,000 regular listeners. A Beur fashion model named Farida regularly appears in glossy magazines. Director Charef's film elicited rave reviews from the Parisian critics. And Khimoune's art has been shown in the prestigious Pompidou Center in Paris.

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