Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

“Refuge” and “Prison”

North African Arabs in the Foyers

The collective life in the foyer of labor migrants faced with poverty and isolated from country and family would seem to offer the potential of comradeship, even of political action. The very fact of residence in a foyer has been important on occasion, as when foyer residents organized rent strikes in the 1970s. As the strikes led to improvements in conditions in the foyers, especially the relaxation of visiting rules noted above, tenants’ organizations appeared to lose their raison d’être. Nor have the Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan amicales, or “friendship organizations,” been very effective. All tend to be small groups dedicated to performing useful services, such as repatriating dead bodies. North Africans certainly tend to identify with their countries of origin, but this is not manifested through adherence to voluntary organizations such as the amicales, and their national sentiments are more cultural than political.

Islamic practices, often centered on the foyer, are typically part of those cultural sentiments. A 1985 survey conducted by Michalak in the Marseilles area included questions such as:

Of being Muslim, Arab, and [Moroccan/Algerian/Tunisian], which is most important for you?

How do you spend Ramadan in France?

Do you fast when you work?

Do you believe in God? Pray? Give alms?

Have you made or do you plan to make the hajj?

Do you drink alcohol? Eat non-halal meat?

Are you a good Muslim?

Have you changed your practice in France?

Is there a place to pray where you work?

Have you given money for a mosque?

Are you a member of an Islamic organization?

What is your opinion about Islamic political groups?

To the question of primary identity, all but one of those interviewed replied that their main identity was as Muslims. “There is no God but God,” one worker said; “that comes before anything else.” Some denied having any identity besides being Muslim; “My only nationality is God,” said one. National identity usually came next, then regional identity. Everyone interviewed affirmed belief in God and in Muhammad as His Prophet.

All those interviewed, both formally and informally, claimed to fast during Ramadan, even those who did heavy manual labor on farms. As one person described it:

During Ramadan it’s hard and tiring, especially when Ramadan comes in the summer with long days and heat. I come home and fix dinner, eat at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.—I fast longer than sunset because I have to cook. Then I go to the mosque [prayer room in the foyer] until 1:00 a.m. for the prayer—yes, for about 2 ½ hours. Then I come back to my room and sleep and get up at 2:00 a.m., eat, and go to work. I hardly sleep during Ramadan.

Another said:

I work better when I fast, especially after the second or third day. I fast, I pray in the evening, I read the Qur’an, and I work. My children fast too.

Far fewer people pray than fast. About half of those interviewed performed the daily prayers—usually cumulatively, rather than at the five prescribed intervals, in order to avoid interrupting their work. Nobody interviewed had a workplace with a prayer room.

The foyers are sometimes focal points because of their prayer rooms. A typical prayer room in a foyer has minimal furnishings, such as a rack for shoes; rugs, which are rolled up and placed on shelves when they are not in use; a set of five cardboard clocks with movable hands posted on the wall to indicate the five times of prayer; and a small carpet with the image of the Ka‘ba mounted on the wall to indicate the direction of prayer (fig. 17 below). Some prayer rooms in the foyers used to be canteens, which, among other things, served alcoholic beverages, but were converted to prayer rooms at the request of the residents. This is an example of the adaptation of French space by Muslims.

On Fridays, an imam usually leads the prayer in the foyer prayer room and gives the Friday sermon. One respondent described the imam in his foyer as follows:

Our imam is sixty-three years old and is Algerian. On Fridays he gives a khutba—about Muslim life, the life of the Prophet, the words of God, what things are halal and haram. The imam was a worker, and we pay him with donations. People who earn good wages and don’t have large family responsibilities give 50 or 100 francs a month each. One of the foyer residents replaces the imam for the Friday sermon when he is on vacation. On weekdays, anyone among those present, usually someone older, can lead the prayer.

The prayer rooms at the foyers are usually open to anyone, from within or outside the foyer, and outsiders do come in to pray, especially on Fridays and especially in places with no mosque. Of course, many pray privately. One agricultural worker said that he worked every day except Sunday and prayed in the fields. So attendance at the Friday prayer is not a reflection of the numbers of Muslims who actually pray.

One of the foyer residents told me that he sometimes prayed at his workplace in a relatively unfrequented room where broken equipment was stored:

One day about two years ago—I’ve been working there for eight years now—I put down my cardboard in the tower in front of the door and was praying. Then my foreman came in. He was with a big boss of the company visiting from Paris, and the director of the refinery and a bunch of engineers—a whole crowd. I said to myself, he’s going to say I’m stealing time from my job, and fire me. Well, I continued my prayer, and they visited the room as if I wasn’t there, and left. Later I saw the superintendent and asked him about it, but he didn’t know what I was talking about. He said yes, he had taken the group on a tour, but he hadn’t seen me. I asked one of the other people who was in the group, and he hadn’t seen me either.

The factory supervisors may have been avoiding potential controversy. The worker, however, believed that because he was engaged in prayer, he was rendered invisible and under divine protection from any harm.

The North Africans generally agree that it would be a good idea for there to be a real mosque to pray in—not just a room set aside for prayer in a secular building. As one worker said:

I read in the newspaper the other day that there are 450 mosques in France and 33 in Bouches-du-Rhône. We Muslims should take care of building the mosques, and the consulates and the North African governments can help us. You have to get an authorization from the city hall to build one. I’ve given money for mosques. [Here] we need to get a bigger place to pray, to be on our own. There’s a really good, big mosque in Marseilles, near the old city gate.

No worker in the sample had yet been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, although they all said they would like to go some day.

North African workers often try to time their vacations so that they can participate in zardas, the annual festivals at rural North African shrines. One worker said:

The zarda of Sidi Tahar, who was a son of Sidi Abdelkader, is always in the late summer, after the harvest, starting on a Wednesday afternoon and lasting until Thursday morning, with a hathra (ecstatic dance) and a draouch (divination), but which week the zarda will be is always set at the last minute. Nobody ever has to tell me when it will be. I just wake up in the morning and I know. I go to work and tell the boss, I have to go, and he says, go. I’ve never been refused.

Another worker expressed an objection to zardas, reflecting the opinion of reformers and some transnational Islamic movements:

The zarda is an error, a false Islam. You can’t ask a marabout like Sidi Belkacem for help. He wasn’t a prophet. Muhammad was the last prophet. You can’t ask Muhammad for help either. You have to ask God.

It is possible that the status of being a member of a Muslim minority in France tends to make some workers more Muslim than if they had stayed at home. That is, people become ascriptively Muslim when they are born into Islamic settings, where minimal religious practice—for example, fasting—is expected. In a non-Muslim setting, practice of Islam may become more self-conscious and linked to expressing a group identity.

In a situation of being part of a Muslim minority and encountering hardship and adversity, some migrants may become more observant Muslims, or join Islamic groups that can organize with greater freedom abroad than at home. The phenomenon of being treated as a Muslim by non-Muslims also reinforces Islamic identity. None of the workers I interviewed, however, expressed enthusiasm for Islamic political movements, for which they often use the pejorative term khawangiyya (from the ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood). One worker associated Islamic political movements with sabotage. Another, evincing absorption of French values (cf. Bloul, this volume), remarked, “Politics and religion should not mix; you can talk about politics in the amicale, but not in the [prayer room].” Several spoke of increased practice:

I prayed from when I was about seven because my father made me, and in school, and then for a while after I finished school, until I was eighteen. When I came to France that changed. I found another system of life. From 1971 to 1978, I worked in a factory in the Alps where they made jam and tomato paste and other preserves. In 1978, they wanted me to work in the kitchen and make preserves from pork. I explained that I couldn’t. They said they would fire me if I didn’t, but I wouldn’t set foot in that kitchen. Then I came here, where I had friends. I found work after only two days. Ever since then, I pray every day.

One might argue that many people have become more observant in Islamic countries too, especially in these times when Islamic practice is being intensified. In this instance and in many other instances, however, the return to Islamic practice was brought on by an experience of discrimination abroad, which makes migration an important element in individual religious experience.

There is a political advantage to emphasizing Muslim identity in France. In separating church and state, France guarantees religious freedom. Since Catholics and Jews have the right to build churches and synagogues, for example, Muslims logically have the right to build mosques. There has been discussion in France of creating a commission for Islamic representation. Thus workers might adopt an Islamic stance, not only out of conviction, but also as a strategy for dealing with the French authorities under certain circumstances.

“Refuge” and “Prison”

Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.