Laïcité and The Gap of Cultural Assimilation

By Andrea Scrima

It’s said that European societies are always about assimilation, and that’s almost true, but not entirely. Minority cultures alter the dominant culture in subtle ways. My twenty-one-year-old son speaks with a Turkish-inflected accent he shares with most boys his age who have grown up in Berlin. It’s a mark of masculinity, of coolness, and the ones who go on to college eventually outgrow it—or don’t, because the ways in which it affects everyday German speech will only become apparent in hindsight, after its traces are already securely imbedded in the language. In Europe, the immigrant presence rarely finds acknowledgement in high culture, but you can see it wielding its influence on popular culture in subversive ways. The Turkish ghetto identity, which developed in response to the discrimination a younger, German-born generation of second- and third-generation migrant worker families continues to face there, particularly in the wake of German Reunification and the deadly xenophobic attacks that followed, has always identified heavily with Black American subculture. The Turkish-German assimilation of Hip Hop and Rap was seamless: it gave them a language, dealt embarrassing blows to German political correctness and its many blind spots, incorporated taboo themes otherwise held to be racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic, and posed questions that cultural commentators, at a complete loss, are still largely trying to evade.

Some time ago, I went to see Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory with a friend; the film made us hungry, and when we reached Bahnhof Zoo we decided to have a Döner. The young Turkish men working there tried their macho number on us—that unquantifiable, unmistakably sexualized nonchalance as they performed a few moves to the music playing and neglected to take our orders until, appraising our appearance, they realized we were old enough to be their mothers and morphed almost instantly into respectful sons. Paying for our sandwiches, we tried to decide what had annoyed us the most about the film—whether it was the self-absorption and vanity, the male artist cliché, or the absence of any viable female roles apart from the idealized mother and doting assistant—when all at once the volume was cranked up loud and a young Turkish-German guy in a baseball cap came rushing inside and thrust his arms out ecstatically in response to the blaring music. The beat was so loud it penetrated the muscles in my arms and legs; when I heard the words “my neck, my back, lick my pussy and my crack” over and over, I jumped up and nearly accosted him. I don’t know what I’m doing in moments like these; the volume was earsplitting, and my body responded to the situation as it would to any other assault. I was shaking with a rage I rarely feel—a rage that wants badly to get into a fistfight, because my mind doesn’t understand that I’m a middle-aged woman and not a boy from the Bronx like my father was, and hence ridiculous—and as the fury blots out all thought, I feel the wave of physical aggression swelling inside me urgently seeking an outlet. The situation felt primal, imminently violent; distant epigenetic memories of war and bloodlust shivered in my veins. Turn the music off, I shouted, the lyrics are misogynistic.

The truth was, there was no time to even consider what they might have been about in any larger sense; the music was sudden-onslaught deafening, terms for female genitals were thundering throughout a public space occupied mostly by excited, electrified young men: to be a woman in this scenario was to feel under threat in a way that was simple and visceral. The boys behind the counter complied and quickly apologized; they turned the music down and then switched to another track altogether, but the other guy, the one who’d rushed in with such exhilaration, said no no no, you don’t understand, it’s not misogynistic at all. He was smiling in an ingratiating way that disgusted me. This is misogyny, I said, I understand every word and I will not tolerate it. He backed off; he seemed to understand that this was not a fight he was going to win.

It took me some time to calm down; unwilling to be chased away, we stayed in this late-night Döner shop under the bright fluorescent light, waiting for the adrenaline to drain from our systems before eating the sandwiches we no longer had any appetite for. Time passed, the heat of the incident dissipated, and when we finally left, the boys tried not to notice. When a situation provokes a violent reaction in me, it almost always has to do with sexism and the space men occupy, the liberties they take in public, with the aura of menace and domination that is meant, consciously or otherwise, as an expression of maleness or masculinity. It’s gotten me in trouble many times throughout my life; it’s embarrassing and not very smart, and more than once it’s been dangerous.

A few days later, I went to see another film, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms. A young Israeli moves to Paris, intent on leaving everything he once believed in behind, intent on forgetting politics, social and familial pressure, and the military service that has traumatized him. Wandering through the streets chanting strings of etymologically related words, his grasp on reality growing shakier by the day, he loses himself in the impossibility of becoming French. There’s a scene in an integration class foreigners are required to take when they apply for French citizenship; the teacher preaches to her class the glories of France and its history, intoning the words “laïcité, laïcité, laïcité” as though she were issuing a papal edict. God is dead, she adds with visible satisfaction, her voice as crisp as her skirt. The expressions on the faces of her pupils range from stunned to crestfallen. In a country in which a woman wearing a headscarf to work can lose her job, one doctrine is replaced with another as the line between religion and secularist fanaticism blurs.

The next morning, I woke up with a nagging sense that my own cultural bias was creeping up on me. I Googled the words “pussy and crack” and discovered a significant lapse in my knowledge of popular culture. The rapper Khia, who oddly enough grew up in Germantown, Pennsylvania, debuted with an album in 2002 titled “Thug Misses” that featured the track we’d heard. And so the joke is on me, because the song “My Neck, My Back” turns out to be feminist, at least in the sense that it claims, in a male-dominated genre, ownership of female sexuality and desire and voices a woman’s demand to be fully satisfied, offering clear instructions to her male fans on the best technique for accomplishing this. But there’s another side to the story, of course: “My Neck, My Back” turned out to be Khia’s most successful single to date, a success that bothered her and that she commented on with the remark: “I guess the world is just nasty and freaky like that.” Sex sells, she discovered, it wasn’t even her favorite track, and although she later denied the detrimental effect the song’s success had had on her subsequent career, it eclipsed the rest of the album and everything she’s recorded since. It’s hard to know if the young Turkish-German guy in the baseball cap was thrilled by everything Khia’s sexual assertions had taught him (i.e., how to evolve from viewing himself exclusively in phallocentric terms toward learning how to actually please a woman in bed), or by the charged atmosphere the song created in public, the way it could be used to make women feel threatened. Perhaps a bit of both—although it’s anyone’s guess how he reconciles any of this with his views on proper feminine behavior, how he’d feel about his sister or his sister’s boyfriend singing Khia’s song, or whether it’s he or I who is more at home in contemporary American pop culture; he or I—or for that matter Khia—who has fallen deeper into the gap of cultural assimilation.