As you pass the Porte de Châtillon on the Paris ring road, you might catch a glimpse of a giant wall painting. “Chibani”,
it says, next to a portrait of a bald, moustachioed, north African gentleman knotting his tie.
Chibani is a respectful term for an old man. The portrait shows Mohand Dendoune, who emigrated from the Kabylie region of Algeria in the 1950s. Dendoune worked in an automobile factory, then as a hospital gardener. He and his wife, Messaouda, settled in Seine Saint-Denis, the infamous banlieue north of Paris.
Mohand Dendoune died earlier this year at the age of 90, after a decade in the fog of Alzheimer's disease. His son Nadir, a writer, film-maker and journalist, says the portrait, by the street artist Vince, is a form of immortality. "Through him, it's an homage to all the dads who had the courage to leave their countries to build France, and who received very little recognition."
Dendoune was once so ashamed of his identity that he told Australian girls his first name was Patrick
The award-winning photograph by Jérôme Bonnet that served as the model for the fresco is also the cover of Nadir Dendoune’s book, Poor People’s Dreams.
Dendoune has made telling his parents’ story something of a vocation. “My real identity is banlieusard [an inhabitant of the banlieue] son of a prolo and son of poor people. That’s more important than all the rest,” he says. He calls his parents heroes, for raising nine children on one minimum wage.
When Dendoune published the first of his four books, “I went to the Fnac [book chain]. I read my name on the cover, the same name as my parents, who couldn’t read or write. I cried because of the symbolism.”
Figs in April, an hour-long profile of Dendoune’s mother, Messaouda, now aged 83, was released last year and is being shown this summer in festivals, prisons and public parks. Dendoune has completed five documentaries, but says “This film is the thing I am most proud of in my life.” He often takes Messaouda with him, as the film tours the country.
Mrs Dendoune comes across as big-hearted, coquettish, mischievous and wise. She refers to her late husband as “Monsieur Dendoune”. She never tired of visiting him in the retirement home, even when he no longer recognised her. “Some men leave their wives,” she muses, “but a woman does not abandon her husband.”
Had it not been for the love of his parents and siblings, Nadir Dendoune says, things for him would have ended badly. He had repeated scrapes with the law, over fights and petty theft, but his mother always defended him. "I'm the one who made you, so I knew you'd turn out all right," she explains.
Dendoune (46) lives 300m from the housing project where he grew up. He then for a time deserted what he calls "the planet of the housing projects, the most brutal", with its gangs and knife fights. Aged 20, he went to Australia and stayed seven years.
The Red Cross sponsored his round-the-world bicycle trip for the benefit of Aids research. He was a human shield in Baghdad in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion, and in 2008 became the first Franco-Algerian to climb Mount Everest, an adventure he turned into a book and film.
Until he went to Australia, Dendoune says, “I didn’t realise we were treated like s**t in France.” He quotes Jean-Paul Sartre: “‘One is Jewish in other people’s eyes.’ It’s the same when you’re Arab. In Australia, I stopped being that, because no one saw me that way.”
In France, Dendoune says, white girls wouldn’t date Arab boys. That has changed for the better, because of the success of the football player Zidane.
Dendoune was once so ashamed of his identity that he told Australian girls his first name was Patrick. An Australian girlfriend “saw me through new eyes, without mistrust and without condescension . . . Her ‘I love you’ gave me confidence. It freed me.”
Back in France, Dendoune went to journalism school on a scholarship, obtained a press card and worked for mainstream media including France 3 and M6 television stations and Le Parisien newspaper. At media events, he was usually the only journalist whose ID was checked.
Several times, Dendoune’s reservations with Airbnb or the rideshare website BlaBlaCar have been cancelled, he believes because of his name. He says it’s appalling that he has to borrow the name of a “Franco-French” friend to make reservations.
When he was growing up, Dendoune was repeatedly subjected to rectal searches by police, who claimed to be searching for drugs. Now his hair and beard are graying, but police still stop him. “It used to enrage me. Now it affects me less. When I show them my press card, it calms them down.”
We've been dispossessed of our own narrative and history, which is a form of neocolonialism.
Racial, religious and class prejudice still enrage Dendoune. He says right-wing politicians insult his people, while the left demean them as victims. All they want is to be considered normal French people.
Dendoune published a bitter open letter to former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who referred to youths in the banlieue as scum.
Dendoune’s father came to France without a visa, when Algeria was still part of France. His family have been French since the 1830 invasion of Algeria, he argues. The real “immigrant” was “Sarko”, whose father was Hungarian.
‘Stronger than average’
“It’s no thanks to the Republic that I’ve done as well as I have,” Dendoune continues. “I got this far because I’m stronger than average, and because my family loved me. If I hadn’t cheated, if I hadn’t broken rules, I would have croaked in my banlieue. All this talk about meritocracy is rubbish.”
Dendoune is working on a play and two films. “We’re fed up with white Parisian men making films about us,” he says. “We’ve been dispossessed of our own narrative and history, which is a form of neocolonialism. I want to let women and immigrants speak.”
He refers jokingly to himself as a “gnoule”, short for “bougnoule”, probably the ugliest epithet against Arabs. “We have to reappropriate all their words, even those that insult us.”