Author: Sebastian Rotella
September 27, 2005
(Copyright (c) 2005 Los Angeles Times)
Abd al Malik rolled back into the projects with his crew on a
sunny day, his voice blaring from the car speakers.
It was a track from his latest CD about how the Sept. 11 attacks made
him feel ashamed to be Muslim.
"Neither fundamentalism nor extremism," his voice chanted over a
stark drumbeat. "Me, I don't mix politics and faith." Malik nodded to
the music in the back seat. His gaze lost itself in the landscape where
it all began: the Neuhof housing project.
Surrounded by vacant lots, Gypsy shacks and Alsatian farmland on the
edge of Strasbourg, Neuhof sprawls in a maze of towers whose
dreary design recalls a prison or a hospital. More than 5,000 people
live behind the blue and yellow facades streaked with graffiti and
dotted with mini-satellite dishes that are often tuned to Arabic-
language television networks.
Malik lives in Paris now, as befits an up-and-coming rapper
and author who is equally at ease talking about Dr. Dre, Voltaire or
Raymond Carver. But his family still lives in Neuhof. So does most of
his rap group, the New African Poets (N.A.P.). The founders include his
older brother Bilal, 33, who rode along with him during the visit, and
Mohamed Achab, 34, who drove the compact Renault sedan.
Youths roared alongside on dust-churning motorcycles and three-
wheeled monster scooters, calling Malik's name, placing hands on hearts
in a sign of respect. The hard-faced homeboys hanging out by the
discount grocery hurried up to welcome him.
Malik got out and straightened to his full height: a rangy 30-
year-old in an aviator jacket and crisp, low-slung jeans. His hair was
close-cropped above the sleek, dark features of Congolese ancestors. He
returned greetings and accolades with a smile and soft words of thanks,
bestowing four ritualistic kisses on the cheek.
There was no swagger, no thuggish preening. Malik, the bespectacled
Bilal and Achab in his tan sport jacket looked more like streetwise
graduate students than hip-hop heroes.
But they are the real thing. With titles such as "Gothic Ghetto" and
"The Rabble Cut a Record," their music has been forged by a front-line
experience of deprivation, crime and redemption.
Malik pointed out the spot where his friend Fouad was stabbed to
death in a brawl. He stopped outside the window where, as a boy, he
watched the heroin dealers fleeing police through syringe-filled
gangways, the junkies scratching, hustling and dying -- a swirl of faces
that would one day populate his lyrics. He saw the ground- floor
apartment that once housed the mosque where he worshipped after
converting from Catholicism to Islam.
Malik, Bilal and Mohamed are grands frères ("big brothers")
now, and use their prestige to set a good example. But they discussed
the bad old days dispassionately, recalling how Neuhof homeboys had
pioneered the tradition of torching cars en masse. It started in
the mid-'90s when cars burned during riots to avenge the deaths of two
youths who stole a car, led police on a chase and crashed.
Car-burning grew into a New Year's Eve event here, and spread across
France, Malik said.
"It was like a symbiotic relationship between the media and the
kids," said Achab, a curly-haired Frenchman of Moroccan descent who, in
addition to being N.A.P.'s technical ace, has a job as a city social
France is full of tinderbox Neuhofs. Gloomy public housing
towers ring urban peripheries like modern-day versions of the walls of
medieval cities. Known as cites, some projects resemble isolated
city-states with their own laws, language and culture, problematic
products of a clash between France's stratified, secular mainstream and
immigrant diasporas that are predominantly Arab, African and Muslim.
The French worry that the cites are bastions of the Islamic
extremism that is spreading in Europe's biggest Muslim population.
Militants from the cites have fought U.S. troops in Iraq, plotted
terrorist attacks around the world and landed behind bars from
Afghanistan to Guantanamo.
But the larger ethnic and religious ferment
also generates some of the richest, most interesting cultural activity
in the country. Islam has become a force in the flourishing
hip-hop scene in France. Even some gangster-style rappers brandish
their Muslim identity. Other artists have become rigorously pious,
shunning wind and string instruments that they believe the Koran
Malik's chameleonic life story displays the tensions,
contradictions and sheer energy of urban hinterlands that are France's
future in the making. As a teenager, he was a scholarship honors
student at a private school as well as a thief and drug dealer. After
converting, he walked a tightrope between a budding musical career and
angry itinerant preaching for a fundamentalist sect spreading an
anti-Western message. But then he broke ranks with hard-core Muslims.
"I realized that my Islam of the ghetto was just a ghetto of
Islam," Malik said. "There's a disconnect, a kind of phantasmagoria of
Islam. The so-called reformers are trying to invent something in
reaction to the West.... We have to put things in another context.
Otherwise, we would be in the Middle Ages."
Last year, Malik published an autobiography titled "Allah Bless
France!" It resembles to some extent "The Autobiography of Malcom X," a
figure whose journey from crime to extremism to tolerance had a profound
effect on Malik. The title offers an unabashedly patriotic response to a
notorious extremist pamphlet titled "Allah Curse France."
"I'm black, I'm from the neighborhood, but I am French," Malik
said. "And this is the country I love."
His given name is Regis Fayette-Mikano. He was born in France but
spent his first six years in the Republic of Congo, where his father was
a well-connected government official. Then his father ran into political
misfortune and brought the family back to France to settle in a cramped
apartment in the Neuhof complex. The population included, in descending
numbers, North Africans, Turks, Gypsies, Asians and recent immigrants
from sub-Saharan Africa.
"Everybody got along, though," Malik recalled, as a Spanish-language
dance tune echoed out of an apartment nearby. "In Paris, you have more
conflict among the races, especially black against Arab. But here you
N.A.P.'s ethnic mix reflects that reality, which Malik attributes to
the influence of nearby Germany. The Protestant tradition here has
preserved a stronger role for religion than elsewhere in France,
enabling faiths to find common ground, he said. Today, Neuhof's mosque
occupies a former wing of a Protestant church.
Wandering the dusty, narrow streets of Neuhof, Malik pointed out an
old recreation center decorated by murals of rappers, the place where
N.A.P. got its start. Malik acknowledges that he helped finance his
early career with cash from a "silent partner": a neighborhood drug
lord. And the manager of N.A.P. did prison time for armed robbery.
Hoodlum culture shared space with another force: resurgent Islam.
For many Muslim immigrants, religion represented a fading folkloric
relic, a habit more than a passion. But their French-born children and
grandchildren reclaimed Islam as a defiant badge of identity in
The trend swept up non-Muslims, too. Islam, like rap, gave them a
sense of belonging; it had a powerful presence on the street. Bilal
converted first and Malik followed suit.
"It's what was going on where I lived," Malik said. "For someone who
had spiritual needs, it was much easier and more natural to find an imam
than a priest."
In the makeshift apartment-mosque across from his building, Malik
encountered recruiters from the Tabligh, a fundamentalist sect of
itinerant preachers whose origins date to the 1920s, in India. The
Tabligh are a fixture in cites and equivalent neighborhoods across
Europe, patiently proselytizing to anyone who will listen.
Islam gave Malik discipline and structure, but it did not quell
his rage and restlessness. He joined the Tabligh in 1994, grew a beard,
put on a white Pakistani-style tunic and pants and went fishing for
faithful. The relentless mission appealed to him: "the Islamization of
everything that surrounded us."
The preaching teams of seven rode in beat-up vans and cars, intoning
Koranic verses. Their "emir," or leader, liked to recount a well-worn
and dubious anecdote about how a venerable cleric visiting from Pakistan
had used prayer to keep a van rolling for miles after it had run out of
The sect was nonviolent, but it sometimes opened doors to violence.
In 1995, when a wave of attacks linked to Algerian terrorists struck
France, two militant "brothers" came to see Malik. They proposed that he
join a plot to bomb police headquarters in Strasbourg. Malik says he
rejected the idea; he never found out whether they were genuine
extremists or police informants setting a trap.
It soon became clear that he could no longer juggle religion and rap.
N.A.P.'s first disc in 1996 had cranked up the band's popularity. His
emir told him it was time to abandon sinful pursuits; the emir explained
that he had once been a Barry White fan himself, but had thrown out all
his albums in the name of Islam.
The rapper abandoned the Tabligh instead. He grew interested in the
Sufi strain of Islam and the teachings of Sidi Hamza, a spiritual figure
based in Morocco. When Malik undertook a pilgrimage to Hamza's remote
village six years ago and met the sprightly 80- year-old, he says with
characteristic earnestness, he was "transported into an ocean of love."
He joined Hamza's brotherhood, which emphasizes mystical, spiritual
concepts. Malik came to regard his previous interpretation of Islam as
repressive of women. These days, he shares baby-sitting duties with his
wife, Wallen, a singer with whom he has a son.
And although the world he came from seethes with an undercurrent of
anti-Semitism, Malik's new awakening spurred him to make a visit with a
multi-denominational group to Auschwitz.
Malik's family and hometown remain powerful anchors. He has a gruffly
affectionate relationship with Bilal, who led the way in both religion
"He's always the one telling me to 'keep it real,' " Malik said, as
Bilal rolled his eyes. Both Bilal and Malik look out for their younger
and wilder brother Stephane, who has spent time in prison.
Neuhof has gotten calmer in recent years, shedding the war-zone
quality of Malik's youth, but there are still plenty of temptations for
a young man who is easily led.
As afternoon shadows darkened the rows of housing towers, Malik ran
into Stephane outside the family apartment. The younger brother's
sheepish smile suggested he was happy to see Malik, but eager to get
They had a brief conversation beside the car. Stephane strode off
through the courtyard. Malik smiled narrowly at the retreating figure.
And he called out: "You watch yourself now."
Credit: Times Staff Writer