An interview with Abdul Zahiri, an activist with ACJ REV in Avignon.
At the Social Forum of the Banlieues (FSQP) at Nanterre, Paris, in October 2008, Naima Bouteldja interviewed Abdel Zahiri, 28, an activist living in a banlieue populated by 20,000 people, in Avignon (southeast France). He is a member of AJC REV, a local organisation, and has joined the recently formed New Anti-capitalist Party.
Which organisation do you campaign for?
I’ve been campaigning with others in AJC REV (the acronym pronounced in French sounds like ‘Act/Dream’), a local organisation in Avignon. At the beginning, our work was quite similar to others’: we were doing school tutoring, ensuring that kids could get access, cultural events and so on. The association was doing very well and run exclusively by youth from the banlieue. We were basically addressing the difficulties of the banlieue – school failure, drugs, the underground economy etc. So we basically started with social work and, step-by-step, we got more politicised. Because, to start with, for young people it’s the hell and boredom of the banlieue, then it’s the hell of finding accommodation, then it’s the hell of finding a job, and finally we find ourselves facing difficulties that we don’t have power over at all and which require an investment within the political sphere.
When we started, we didn’t have a clue about politics, but we eventually ended up seven years later, through experience and hard work, understanding the Left as well as the Right, understanding, as well, the inequitable distribution of power between those ‘below’ and those ‘above’. We can be one million on the streets without changing anything while they can be just a few and rule over everything.
And, therefore, our organisation started looking into political matters and that’s one of the reasons we are present here at the Social Forum of the Banlieues because only these kinds of answers will enable us to radically change things.
Social work is ok but does not move us forward; for the last thirty years that’s all we’ve done – social work! For the last thirty years people have been complaining about discrimination, racism, but so what? Where are we at now, thirty years later? There is even more discrimination than before, more hassles than before, and many more people suffering from hunger than ever before because it’s on the political level that decisions are taken. So we need to be in the position of decision makers or we need to have amongst the decision makers people who are obliged to apply policies in favour of the people at the bottom. So voilà, that’s more or less why I’m here; voilà more or less who I am; voilà more or less what I’m doing.
There is a whole delegation of AJC REV here. What are you expecting from the Forum?
Eight of us came and one of us even hitchhiked. We only heard about the exact date of the Forum at the beginning of the week. The organisers launched an appeal for help and the following day we were here. It was hell, but eventually we managed to set up stalls and tents and things. We came because it’s important to gather together and to see the whole movement to which we belong. For me it’s important that the veteran activists who are here pass on their knowledge and their experiences to us.
I also have my camera and I’m filming to try to catch what has happened here and show bits to the people of my banlieue because I know that some of them can’t read. If they were reading we would have changed things a long time ago. We wouldn’t have to beg people to vote during election time and would in fact have our people running for office. We know they don’t read and when they try to read we know they don’t always understand everything. But we also know why, especially when you have entire families of twenty-five people crammed into each flat. And in the banlieues, we also have blokes who are bought off to calm people down, and there are also drugs. And, surprise, surprise, drugs have never been in such abundance since Sarko came to power. We are no longer dealing with just weed, nowadays it’s about cocaine and it’s getting everywhere. And you think Sarkozy’s got nothing to do with the fact that drugs are circulating everywhere? The government created the GIR (a special police force) to supposedly stop the dealers. But the blokes from GIR know everything – they know who deals but they let it happen because it suits everyone. As long as the youth are dealing, they make a bit of money and don’t hassle people. But what is horrible is that the youth have been made dependent now, and that means that they can’t be mobilised politically because every time we try to mobilise them, we clash with their dependency, it’s really terrible.
I made a noise during the last plenary because although we’ve spoken a lot during these three days we haven’t produced much. For many people the Forum is a letting-off steam exercise, and while it’s true that too many people have suffered greatly, we can’t bury our heads in the sand. The question is what we are going to do now. Everyone agrees that we need to carry on the struggle, but to do so we need to create genuine structures, to produce documents and to agree on a set of issues. Of course, we won’t all agree on some issues but there are other issues on which we do all agree, so that’s where we need to start.
And the remaining issues we need to talk about. For example, feminism and the place of women in the banlieues. We know that there are many women who are suffering in the banlieue and one needs to understand that there are situations and mechanisms leading to it. At the same time some work needs to be done with the blokes, on the mindset of the countries we come from. But, having said that it doesn’t mean that I want to see my sister wearing a G-string! There are some cultural aspects that one would like to preserve, not to oppress or to dominate but just because they belong to our identity. There are contradictions inside all of us: that we live in France doesn’t mean we should eat pork nor does it mean that no one should eat pork – those who want to eat it can eat it, those who don’t want it don’t have to. Similarly, those who want to follow their religion, should be able to, there is no problem; those who don’t want to, don’t have to – no problem either! It’s this kind of space that we want to create in which everybody is clear, where nobody imposes anything and where one can debate anything.
Read an IRR News story: Unity of purpose in the French banlieues
Read an IRR News story: Organising in the banlieues