Les Arabes

May 18, 2007 | 21 comments
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They weren’t like us. “Watch out for les Arabes,” I learned as a missionary in the south of France. “Les Arabes” were refugees, or the descendants of refugees, from the former French colonies in North Africa, who congregated in large French cities like Marseille. “Les Arabes” were dangerous. Some missionary – nobody remembered who, or when, or under what circumstances – had been held up at knifepoint by “les Arabes” and his bicycle had been stolen. “Don’t carry cash with you because les Arabes will pick your pockets,” warned local members.

We had an investigator who lived in a large subsidized housing complex outside of Marseille. These “HLM’s” are comparable to the public housing projects in major American cities, and the one we had to visit was as desolate and seemed as dangerous as any I had ever seen on TV. Even the bus didn’t go to this HLM – after getting off the bus, we had to walk on the side of a busy six-lane highway nearly a mile uphill to the complex.

It was an ugly place. There was no grass between the bare concrete buildings. There was plenty of broken glass, though. Babies wandered barefoot through the dirt and broken glass, seemingly without supervision, dressed only in t-shirts; undiapered, they squatted where they were to relieve themselves. Teenagers seemed to be everywhere, usually kicking soccer balls. A soccer ball once hit me painfully in the back of my head; when I turned around, nobody was looking in my direction. Most of the time, though, it seemed like the kids were always staring at us, pointing, saying things in a language I didn’t recognize, and laughing in a vaguely menacing way. Our investigator, who lived on the ground floor, used to spread honey on the low wall in front of her door to attract buzzing insects so that kids wouldn’t sit there. My mother would have been terrified to see where I went every week. To tell the truth, I wasn’t too happy about it myself.

One afternoon we got off the bus and started our hike up the side of the highway. Perhaps a half-mile from the HLM, we were startled to see a little boy – obviously a boy because he was dressed only in his t-shirt – barely old enough to walk, toddling down the hill toward us. He had come all that way without any of the dozens of drivers who had passed him stopping to take him out of danger. Although I didn’t like to hold his dirty, bare little body next to mine, I picked him up and carried him on my hip up the hill, my companion adding my bookbag to her own.

The instant we reached the HLM, we were surrounded uncomfortably closely by a gang of young people. We managed to make them understand that we had picked up this baby on the highway, and asked if they knew who he belonged to. Someone took the baby, the crowd dispersed, and we went to visit our investigator.

It’s hard to describe the subtle change we experienced on our later visits to that complex. Nobody spoke to us, nobody smiled at us – but the laughing and finger-pointing ceased. No more soccer balls whizzed near our ankles, and certainly no more soccer balls hit us in the head. In a subtle but unmistakable way, the unspoken hostility between “them” and “us” had vanished.

21 Responses to Les Arabes

  1. manaen on May 18, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Yep, that’s how it works: show that you’ll use your ability to their benefit and they’ll trust you more. My (later ex-)wife gave me an interesting lesson on how that was Christ’s appeal to women: that he had all power and that he always used it to our benefit. Something of a model for husbands and fathers, who either are strong and sometimes hurtful or weak and useless.

    Interesting pairing, this and Rosalynde’s posting on what neightbors think — some of the comments there have evolved to where this posting begins: although what my neighbors think of me doesn’t affect what I am or the heavenly rewards awaiting me (see more in a moment), what they think about me does affect how I’m able to help them share those rewards.

    But — if I am able to help them have those rewards, then how great will be *my* joy with them in the Kingdom, so what my neighbors think of me does affect my heavenly rewards if it allows us to become at-one-ment-ed through God’s grace.

    I believe this is one of the lessons of the parable of the Good Samaritan: that the priest and the Levite did no harm but that it was the Samaritan who reached our and used his abilities/power to help his neighbor — and so should we do.

  2. Dan on May 18, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    One wonders what societal factors made them feel the need to swarm you like that, very protective, very defensive of their own. One wonders about their situation there in France, and their assimilation with the French culture and society. The small and simple kind act you did seemed to soften them. I wonder why they needed to feel the distrust at the start…

  3. Ardis Parshall on May 18, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    Interesting comparison between the posts, manaen, thanks. That act of service, as tiny as it was, had its rewards in more than safety from soccer balls.

    Dan, I don’t know exactly what was in their background, but I know what was in mine — distrust, as represented by the missionary equivalent of the urban legend about trouble to some unidentified (perhaps mythical) earlier missionary, and the uncharitable feeling that somehow I wasn’t called to serve “them.” Seeing a child in danger made me see “them” as part of “us” for the first time, and despite my reluctance to handle that dirty little boy, being compelled to serve, followed by the protective reaction of “les Arabes” upon seeing one of their own in the arms of an outsider, followed by the unspoken detente between us, changed me at least as much as it changed them.

    (Added later: Dan, your question is a good one. I can’t answer it and I didn’t mean to say it wasn’t valid by switching gears the way I did — I had been afraid when I posted this story that readers would think I still adhered to the “they’re dangerous because they’re different” feelings of my early mission days, so I took the first excuse to say “I’ve changed.”)

  4. Kevin Barney on May 18, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    Positively Wilfriedian post, Ardis!

  5. Vince on May 19, 2007 at 5:00 am

    Dan – I think fear, or a sense of ‘the other’, particularly when there are language problems is part of it. That and racism being a 2-way street. My experience is as an Englishman in Wales. Now in our area about 75% of the population speak Welsh. All of the native Welsh also speak English. The majority of incomers are English – and the Ward in this area is largely made up of incomers. Most of us incomers do not learn Welsh well enough to have a conversation. And so we never assimilate into the culture of Eisteddfods, Merced Wawr and Village Activities and entertainment. It’s an interesting parallel to my somewhat racist friends and family in England who complain about Muslim and Asian families failing to assimilate. Meanwhile some Englishmen in Wales are very keen to flaunt there national identity – with flags of St George and a disdain for Welsh Culture.

    I agree with Ardis – it cuts both ways and it beholds ‘us’ to work for understanding and mutual respect

  6. Geoff B on May 19, 2007 at 9:01 am

    Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah learned how to change perceptions by visiting as missionaries a dreadful, scary group of people, and look at the changes they wrought. I hope we can have the same success in our generation.

  7. Norbert on May 19, 2007 at 9:36 am

    These types of experiences on my mission were life-altering for me, personally: the exploration of an ‘other’ I didn’t know existed. It is very very good for the soul. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. John Williams on May 19, 2007 at 11:17 am

    Ah, yes, the underbelly of France. I know it well; I’m an alumus of the France Paris Mission. Oftentimes the people most receptive to taking missionary lessons were living in these ugly concrete buildings that you describe. I recall stairwells smelling of urine.

    Nice story, though. Although I remember the Arab teenagers being very verbally aggressive in France, I was never physically attacked.

  9. JWL on May 19, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    One can not miss the obvious parallels between your experience and the recent French presidential election. Sarkozy would not go into the banlieues and is hated there whereas Francois Bayrou made many efforts to reach out to the foreign quartiers and became very popular there despite also being from the Right. In my own exerpience in the north the Arabs were more friendly than the native French, but that was a little while ago. Along the lines of your post it will be very interesting to watch Al Shaprton’s visit with general authorities. It is easy to knock the Reverend Al’s offhand remark as Mitt Romney has done. And the Reverend Al certainly is an easy figure to denounce. However, what if our response is instead, “Reverend Sharpton, we appreciate your defending belief in God against that very obnoxious atheist Christopher Hitchens (that was the context of the remark), and we understand how easy it is to misspeak in the middle of a heated debate with someone as annoying as Hitchens. However, we want you to know that we believe in God to, and we commend your efforts to stand up and promote faith in the face of this recent trend of self-important, best-selling attacks on belief.”

  10. JWL on May 19, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    sorry, that last sentence should have read “… we believe in God too ….”, not ‘to.’

  11. John Williams on May 19, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    JWL, hey, maybe Church HQ might actually get Sharpton to endorse Romney.

  12. Deb on May 19, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    The fear of “les Arabes” –those who are Not Like Us– goes on, around the world. Mistrust is just part of it.

    Our boy is a missionary in Europe, doesn’t matter where, really, and we spoke to him last Sunday.
    He said his area has way less crime than his previous area did, where getting robbed, spit on, bottles thrown at him, etc, was near daily. “But, Mom, I gotta tell you, some people here are hair-trigger politically, ready to riot over any little difference, or nothing at all. Sometimes it just isn’t safe to be American. Pres said we are to take a false nationality, because we are no good to anybody if we get beat up by anti -American hotheads. So, I’m now from South Africa, and my Californian comp is Canadian, depending on who we’re talking to.”

    It’s a little odd, having a son from South Africa, having never been there…but I’m in favor of whatever keeps him safe.

  13. John Williams on May 19, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    Deb, please tell us where you son is serving.

  14. Ardis Parshall on May 19, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Wow, Deb, that’s a tough one. I could spot an American from a block away, regardless of dress or touristy clues, simply by the way he walked. Americans tend to carry themselves differently, not quite a strut but a “we lords of creation have no fear” confidence. I also wonder about the wisdom of assuming a false nationality; if that matters to someone, it’s too easily exposed, and the lie woul be the catalyst for the trouble they wanted to avoid.

    Kevin, that’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said!

    Norbert, sometimes it’s the littlest things that have the most lasting impact, isn’t it? The big things that were the hardest about my mission are tending to recede, finally, and I’m starting to recognize the moments that really mattered.

    Ah, John, yes, the aromas of France! Pastry shops, butchers, open air vegetable markets, people untainted by Madison Avenue, garlic, apartment house stairwells, seacoasts, flower stands, barrels of roasting chestnuts on the winter streets, fish markets, sidewalk cafes … I’m so used to sanitized and standardized and imitation scents at home that my nose seemed to come alive for the first time in France.

  15. John Williams on May 19, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    The smell of non-American humans was strong in Charles de Gaulle airport on the day that I arrived in France.

    Don’t forget the ripe aroma of cheese shops that hits you like a ton of bricks as you walk by.
    Despite this smell, I love French cheese.

  16. John Williams on May 19, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Oh, and also the Metro subways in Paris smelled strongly as well, but it was sort of charming in a perverse way.

  17. John Williams on May 19, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    Now that I think of it, the average Wal-Mart here in the United States is quite odorless.

  18. DKL on May 19, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    Great post. I’ve had something vaguely similar happen to me with the family across the street.

    In my experience, it takes longer for me to make friends with black people than with other white people — there seems to be an increased distance or formality that takes extra time to break through. I don’t know whether it’s me or them or both, it’s just what I’ve experienced. A black family rented half of the two family home across the street. We said, “Hi,” when we’d pass each other coming and going, and for years we’d occasionally make small talk. But it was always fairly distant and a little strained.

    So I was mowing the lawn one day, and the wife from across the street came out and asked me if they might barrow our lawn mower because theirs had broken. Since we both have small lawns — it takes me only about 20 minutes to mow our lawn an their lawn was smaller than ours. I was already dirty and sweaty, so I just went ahead and mowed their lawn. We never became close friends. We were only ever just neighbors. But after that, that distance and the strain that I’d sensed before evaporated.

    And when I was just dating my wife, her sisters quite antagonistic towards me (as readers here may well imagine). She asked me to help one of her sisters with a paper that she was working on. I was bored enough at BYU that I wrote a lot of other students’ papers to keep busy, usually 8 to 10 per semester. So I took this invitation to help her to be an invitation to write her paper, though all she’d really needed was my fingers, because I’m a very fast typer. So I met her in the computer lab, and she had all of her research xeroxed there. I started typing, while she shuffled through her research telling me what she wanted typed. After an hour, she mentioned that she had a few classes to go to, and I insisted that she go. When she returned a few hours later, I’d finished the paper. It’s not like I had anything better to do. This dissolved the hostility I’d sensed from her, though I doubt it made her any more enthusiastic about the prospect of having me in her family.

    But now that I’ve thought of these, there’s several other times I can think of when doing something small for someone else has made tension or distance or hostility or mistrust vanish.

  19. Terina on May 20, 2007 at 12:42 am

    while i was reading your post, i felt like i was there with you going up the stairs of the stinky HLM’s. i served in the, now split, Bordeaux Mission. most of my time was spent porting in HLM’s. i remember les enfants des arabes aussi. most of them would just yell out things like “what time is it?” or “what is your name”. of course we screamed american. while my bike was locked up outside of a zup (or zoop, i never knew how to spell that word) someone put a knife through my tire. in Pau, we lived around the corner from the worst area of the city. while i was in Pau something happened between the US government and somewhere in the middle east, and we were told to be extra carefull, and not to be out at night. a bit scarey. thanks for your story.
    i know that when we as missionaires tried to find ways to relate to our amis, things became more open, and we were able to share more about the gospel. sometimes just listening to them talk about their struggles was enough. we weren’t just Les Americans, we were people.

  20. Lupita on May 20, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    Thanks for the post, Ardis. Although I served on another continent, sounds like housing projects are universally dismal. I’m glad you picked him up.
    “The big things that were the hardest about my mission are tending to recede”—I would be very interested in any specific examples that you would be willing to share. I still struggle with this, although definitely not as much as I used to.

  21. Bev P on May 22, 2007 at 4:15 am

    Two things: how is it that writing somebody else’s essays, for which they will get the credit, is seen as a good thing? In my neck of the academic woods, we would call it gross dishonesty, complicity in plagiarism, and both would fail.

    Twenty five years and more ago, there was at the primary school my kids attended, a mom who was referred to by some of the “right sort” of moms as “Stinky Sylvia”. Aesthetically, that was a pretty true statement, and Sylvia had a rough time trying – and she tried hard – at all the school events, she worked her socks off for the school, bringing and preparing food that no one would touch, she knitted baby garments to give to other people’s infants, which I’m sure they discarded because they couldn’t be bothered to give them a good wash before they used them. And one day I got the clear impression, “Tell Sylvia about the gospel”. Inside I shrieked, “No! I’m working with a perfectly good young couple who will be a real asset to the ward!” And I didn’t do it. The young couple didn’t join the church either.

    One day the missionaries came to dinner and told me they had found Sylvia, on the tenth anniversary of her baptism. I became her visiting teacher and to some extent her champion, but she never came to church, and never let us in until she’d been hit by a car and needed some help in the house for a little while. We learned about her past, how she had never seen a clean, tidy family grow up, so didn’t know how to do it herself, we tried to teach her a bit about hygiene, but mostly Sylvia taught us about being kind to other people, and having kids who know how to love.