Nestled in her family’s apartment, a little girl watches her parents, Hania and Mohamed, in their wedding video. She plays these comforting images, deteriorated by repeated use, over and over, much like other children beg for the same bedtime story. This is the start of As We Exist, the first autobiographical book from writer Kaoutar Harchi, who was born in Strasbourg in 1987 to Moroccan parents. The day she starts sixth grade at a Catholic middle school, her beloved mother hands her a small object wrapped in white cloth and tied with red string. When the teacher confiscates it to punish her for talking in class, she discovers that it was a miniature Quran, which leads to her being called a witch. “I became a little outcast, set out on the steep slope of absence,” says Kaoutar Harchi. These were far from the only scenes of understated violence that the teenager would experience. On another occasion, a high school teacher with hands covered in rings gives her a book. The following message is written inside: “To my little Arab girl who should know her history.”
Drawing on her singular background – a happy childhood and academic excellence – Kaoutar Harchi shines a light on the hidden taboos that continue to weigh on postcolonial French society, and the persistence of unconscious racism and White, bourgeois privilege. Against the backdrop of the French law of 2004 outlawing hijabs in schools, and of the 2005 riots that tore through the projects after two teenagers died running from the police, this powerfully political account shifts when the author-narrator starts university. She finds herself transported to an “enchanted island,” discovers the works of Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad and of Pierre Bourdieu, and develops an interest in “the sociology of immigration, school, and family.” Torn between the need to leave and her fear of being a traitor, she begins to write: “I convinced myself that the pain I felt, born in the effort of writing, would soon be swept away by that wonderful sensation of revenge, even of vengeance – avenging my race – that the act of writing allowed me to fulfill.”
Having since become a sociologist and a writer, Kaoutar Harchi has not become a class defector – a term that she rejected in an interview with Frustration Magazine as a “White concept.” While it ends with her leaving for Paris, As We Exist is not the story of separation. In fact, it is an attempt to continue her family’s video by using literature to fill in the missing images.
As We Exist: A Postcolonial Autobiography by Kaoutar Harchi, translated from French by Emma Ramadan, Other Press, 2023. 176 pages, 15.99 dollars.