Kimberly A. Arkin
Arab Jazz is an award-winning murder mystery that takes place in a multicultural and multi-religious Parisian neighborhood. From the window of an apartment filled with nothing but pile upon pile of books, Arab Jazz’s chief protagonist—Ahmed—can see a Lubavitcher school complex, a Salafist prayer room, and an evangelical church. Ahmed’s life in many ways transcends this neighborhood; in response to the trauma of his own past, he has retreated into the four walls of his tiny apartment, his books, and his music. This all changes when he finds his lovely upstairs neighbor Laura dead, in a mise en scène that suggests that someone from within the neighborhood’s large Orthodox Jewish or observant Muslim communities is to blame. Ahmed realizes only after Laura’s death that he has always loved her, and the novel traces out his efforts to find her killer, to avoid being implicated in the crime, and to reconnect with a flesh-and-blood world outside of novels and songs. In the end, Laura’s death has everything do with the neighborhood’s religious pluralism, but not in any of the ways the mise en scène might allow the reader to imagine. The story and characters are complex and compelling; the denouement is both surprising and subtly foreshadowed.
Karim Miské’s biography reflects the unsettled and transnational feel of Arab Jazz. Born in the Ivory Coast to a Mauritanian diplomat father and a French mother, Miské studied journalism in Dakar and now lives in Paris, where he writes, makes films, and owns part of a Senegalese restaurant. Arab Jazz’s plot likewise crisscrosses and challenges national, professional, and religious boundaries. I do not want to give away the whole plot, but here are a few of the twists and turns that make Arab Jazz such a dizzying portrait of modern, transnational urban life. Laura’s murder turns out to be tied to an international drug ring. Dov, an ex-con Orthodox Jew living in Crown Heights invents a chemical compound that makes people feel like “Captain America or Harry Potter”; with the support of his rabbi and the head of his Yeshivah, Dov produces “Godzwill” for market. Susan, a friend of Dov’s and a vengeance-filled rebel against her strict Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, enlists her brother James to help Dov get “Godzwill” to Europe via a French member of the Witnesses, Laura’s sanctimonious father Vincenzo Vignola. Susan seduces Vignola and convinces him to take shipment of the pills in his tiny French village. From there, the shipment gets passed to newly Orthodox Parisian Jews for circulation in Paris via a network of disaffected Muslim and Jewish youth “managed” by a local imam, Abdelhaq, and an Orthodox Jewish barber, Sam. The imam and the barber are, in turn, under the thumb of an evil police duo who think nothing of murder in the interest of profit and power. Laura—in the wrong place at the wrong time—ends up knowing too much and dying horribly because of it.
I am not in the habit of reviewing fiction, but Miské’s book is more than just a conventional crime story. It is also an attempt to paint a more complex picture of contemporary life in a heavily immigrant Parisian neighborhood than newspaper accounts focused on rising Islam, rampant anti-Semitism, terrorism, anti-Republican headscarves, and putative urban “no go” zones allow. In that sense, I read Arab Jazz as an update of Matthieu Kassovitz’s hit film La Haine [Hate]. La Haine is the story about the unlikely relationship among three young men from the Parisian banlieue [semi-urban periphery]—a Jew of Eastern European descent, a black (presumably) Christian of African or Caribbean descent, and an Arab Muslim. United by class, social stigma, and profound alienation from mainstream Parisian society, the three fight the hopelessness of their situation and then ultimately succumb to it together. La Haine is both compelling fiction and a kind of urban sociology, insisting against growing public discourse that the most important fractures of French society remained class-based and geographical rather than ethnic.
Arab Jazz works similarly. Its story revolves around unlikely friends and confidants whose relationships defy stereotypical assumptions about French urban sociology. Laura was part of a group of young, intelligent and beautiful women who saw their own considerable religious and ethnic differences—North African Jewish, Black Muslim, Arab Muslim, White post-Christian—as entirely irrelevant. Except for Laura, all these women have brothers who were also once inseparable friends—and part of the same band—but seemed to have stopped talking to one another prior to Laura’s death. Miské lets the reader think for much of the book that they no longer speak because of the ways that religious “homecoming” has transformed and fractured the social landscape. In the end, he shows us that the reality is more complex than that. Even the police force contains very unlikely pairs. Initially made partners by a strangely clairvoyant police superintendent, the daughter of secular Eastern European Jews (Rachel) and a Catholic Breton (Jean) with a poorly mastered violent streak become a formidable detective force and fast friends. They serve as foils for the power-hungry and homicidal police duo: an Alsatian monster with a meteoric police career and his amoral Kabyle side-kick. Rachel and Ahmed even forge their own powerful bond and, at the end of the novel, write the first hesitant lines of their own love story.
All of these interethnic and interreligious relationships upend facile political (and to some extent even sociological) assumptions about French society. The police force contains some very good cops and some very evil ones. Social life is not clearly fractured along either ethnic or religious lines. Interreligious and interethnic coexistence is a norm of everyday life, not a fragile exception constantly in danger of falling apart. Women from North African and African families are smart, independent, unveiled, and successful. Their brothers are hardly religious fanatics or neighborhood caïds. They are, however, lost sheep too apt to turn to religion for comfort. But while they get sucked into the respective orbits of the Orthodox barber and the imam, Laura’s death serves as a wake-up call, bringing them quickly out of the noxious religious fog that they had entered and returning them to their sisters and interreligious friendship.
While challenging some classic narratives about delinquency, ethno-religious difference, social cohesion, and gender in France, Miské also traffics in some powerful French stereotypes about religion itself. If all the sympathetic characters in the book have identifiable ethno-religious origins, none are actually religious. Rachel and Ahmed, the only characters that seem to find both redemption and potential happiness in this dark world, are both fully secular pork eaters. They are in some ways good (post)Protestants: invested in the moral message of religion rather than its practice and predisposed to see similarities across religious differences. In contrast, a number of the more unsavory and even sociopathic characters are religious. And even apostates who happen to have been raised in intensely religious environments often end up as morally warped. Laura’s father, an important figure among French Jehovah’s Witnesses, turns out to be a lascivious old man. Susan and James reject their toxic Jehovah’s Witness upbringing only to become international drug traffickers and sadistic murderers. Dov’s spiritual leader believes that God wants him to make and profit from Godzwill. Abdelhaq and Sam are willing to do anything to profit from trafficking in the new drug, including frame Ahmed for Laura’s murder. And the faithful who fill Abdelhaq’s Parisian mosque are inveterate anti-Semites and defenders of the vile French comic Dieudonné. I do not mean to suggest that religion is the source of evil in Miské’s account. That source is the far more prosaic trio of sex, money, and power. But religious convictions, of whatever variety, seem to create a propitious environment for humanity’s worst vices. And for all of its fictional excesses, this kind of negative account is quite consistent with much secular French writing on the ways that fervent religiosity can endanger society and even reason itself.
Miské seems to invite us to read his fiction as a kind of (at least subjunctive) sociology. Occasionally he even jarringly breaks the frame of his narrative to offer what seems like social analysis rather than just character development. At one point in the story, for example, he offers a didactic account of why boys but not girls turn to Islamic fundamentalism. He writes that the brothers were “more prone to focusing their energy on countering a section of society’s scorn toward ‘Muslim youths’ that dangerous new class of the postcolonial Republic. They were frequently tempted to reverse the feeling of stigma, to brand themselves proudly with the very religion that brought them such relentless contempt…. [Whereas the girls] felt the so-called war against Islam had nothing to do with them” (177). But despite Miské’s enticements, it is not fair to read Arab Jazz as either social analysis or ethnography. It is powerful because it is fiction, weaving together verisimilitude with fantasy in ways that help us question some of what we think we already know about both Paris and its people. In that sense, I would recommend it for any course—whether anthropological or literary—that deals with contemporary representations of religion and urban life. Like La Haine, Arab Jazz asks all the right questions.
Karim Miské, Arab Jazz, translated by Sam Gordon, London, MacLehose Press, 2015. Arab Jazz, Paris, Viviane Hamy, 2012.