Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


Little Big Man

"Chico! My bike for a watermelon."

Leaning against a wall, sitting in the sun on the corner of a narrow street, Chico jumped up. He was twelve years old, and the tall, thin gypsy with long straight hair who was addressing him was barely older than he was. He recognized him: Canut, one of the Reyes sons. They'd hung out together a little bit the previous year. But the Reyes had disappeared for some months with their trailer. Now in July, here they were in Arles, after having worked in the markets of Grenoble. Speaking in French, Canut spoke with the spasmodic style of the gypsies' language: a kind of "desesperanto" composed of Catalan, Proven‡al, and their own gypsy language.

"Chico, I'll give you my bike for half a watermelon, O.K.?"

The bike is splendid, and certainly "borrowed," The bargain is tempting but Chico doesn't jump at it. He reflects. "Your bike is really neat. But I don't have a watermelon, nor the money to buy one."


Canut got off the bike, laid it on the ground, and sat down next to Chico. "Look," Chico murmured, "I could certainly go pick one."

Canut said nothing. He gazed at Chico appraisingly. This young guy from the government-subsidized housing at Grifffeuille is tenacious, And since he has a talent for getting others to adopt his ideas - it's second nature to him - he shrugs and taps Canut's pointy knee: Let's go?"

Canut shakes out his long hair. Though his real first name is Fran‡ois- Marie, his parents called him by this nickname from an early age: a "canut" is an Indian flute, long and thin, just like him.

"First, I'll put away the bike. You know, someone could steal it."

Jahloul "Chico" Bouchikhi acknowledges with a look the wisdom of his friend. He's a slight young man, simultaneously plump and small. His father, Mohammed, a Moroccan immigrant from Oudja, works in building constructions. His mother, Mamma, an Algerian from the region of Tlemcen, worries a good deal about her son, and also about her husband who suffers from having engendered such a turbulent son. Mohammed is strict, obsessed by appearances, respectful of the neighbors to the point of lowering the volume on the T.V. (once he had the money to buy one) to the point of inaudibility, so as not to disturb anyone. He's a calm man, short, dry, with lively eyes. He arrived in France in the years after the war and established himself in an old house in Pont-de-Crau, near Arles, where his wife rejoined him.

They have six children: Chaib and Boubakeur (called Bobby) are well- behaved. The three daughters are irreproachable. Their life is difficult but not disagreeable. Mamma creates gaiety in the house, she cooks like a queen. The entire family is very close. The parents speak Arabic to their children - who answer in French despite their strict observance of the Koran. The Bouchikhis are intelligent enough to understand that their children live in two worlds and that their authority must restrict itself to the home.

Today, at the age of forty, Bobby, who smokes half a pack of Marlboros daily, leaves his cigarettes in his pocket when he visits his father. He never drinks wine or beer in the family home. Chico has never drunk, nor smoked. The influence of the family? "Perhaps, It's partly the result of upbringing," he says. "But it's really because I tried it, and it didn't do anything for me."

Nevertheless, Mohammed and Mamma Bouchikhi remember sleepless nights, the fear that something serious would happen, because of Jahloul. Not a bad boy, no. But he'd give white hair to a bald man! Intelligent, yes, but more concerned with adapting the rules to his own wishes than to learning them by heart. One day, he stole a banana - at six years old - and the larceny was discovered. He knew what awaited him. He preferred to hide in a tree to returning home, to confront his father, and his punishment. When night fell, everyone thought he'd disappeared. Everyone worried; everyone in the village looked for him. He remained firmly on his branch, despite cramps. The spectacle of the search amused him. But what did not make him laugh at all was the sight of his father appearing from a distance. His rapid, silent step - with which he still walks today, though he is over eighty years old, when going to the mosque in Arles - makes one believe the rumors that he was a smuggler on the Algerian-Moroccan border when he was very young. He himself has never spoken of it.

All his children, except one of his daughters, were born in Arles. It's their city, they speak with its accent, they go to school there. In Pont-de- Crau, one of the teachers announces one day, in a loud voice, in front of the whole class, that he's sorry that the prison in Cayenne is shut down. "Otherwise, they'd have sent you to school there," he says to Jahloul.

When the entire family moved into a government-subsidized apartment in the Griffeuille neighborhood, Chico got his nickname. He was seven years old, and his Spanish friends called him "Chico." When one of them came to look for him, and asked Mamma (while curiously observing her kohl eye make-up and her tattooed hands) "Is Chico here?" she replied, while waving a casserole at him: "In this house, there's no Chico. I have a son named Jahloul, not Chico!" She wasn't really angry. It was a passing irritation by a young Algerian, Muslim immigrant, isolated and illiterate. Mamma loves life, and gives everything without expecting anything in return. She learned quickly that her role was just to react according to what she felt: where her children's interests lay, so did hers. In the huge space that serves as a kitchen for Muslim or gypsy women, a mother like her, or Clémentine, knows how to create an empire and happiness.

Once Mohammed went to Mecca; she went twice. The second time with Chérifa, her sister, who also lived in Arles, thanks to Chico the Gypsy King, even if it was Jahloul who thought of it. He never liked division. In school, division was the only arithmetical operation that he refused to learn. They'd leave him at the board for hours, he'd stay on strike. Once, when all the other students had left at the end of class, and the teacher had gone out too, everyone forgot Chico, still there with a piece of chalk in his hand. The cleaning woman found him, standing stiffly at the board, the stoic, at nightfall.

Today still, though he's begun to learn English, and knows how to analyze and negotiate a contract, he admits that the recitation of the alphabet is a problem after the letter G. Like "gypsy." ""I hear failure in the motor of the letter F, and I stall immediately after. That didn't stop him from instantaneously becoming "the brain" as soon as he was part of a group. In the school of the street, he passed all his tests. His instinct told him very quickly that it was better to avoid getting people angry as long as one isn't in a position of strength. His method was to wait until they hung themselves. Wandering around the city - because their stays at school were really quite short - he teamed up with other children free and independent like himself: gypsies. In those families, one doesn't scold children who run away from school. On doesn't praise them either. One simply accepts that the children imitate them. That was not the case in the Bouchikhi family.

For the gypsies, for Jahloul, it's paradise: one goes to school a little bit, and then one forgets about it, without having to explain to anyone. One rejects the prison of the "payos," leading to the "payo" lifestyle in favor of locking oneself up outside in the walls of one's own prison: a prison wide as the world and vast as the gypsies' life. Of course, José Reyes disciplines his sons with a belt, when they show disrespect to an adult or they've called too much attention to themselves in public. A lot of yelling, but no big thing. A moment later, José is singing, his sons are grabbing the guitars and "toca la guitarra, nino." Life and games take the upper hand again.

Certainly, Chico feels very comfortable with those children. He hangs out with other too, but prefers the company of the gypsies. They, in turn, don't look at him entirely as a "payo." Physically, he resembles them, and he has his nickname. He sees in Clémentine, with her untiring activity, her ebullience, her talent for cooking, a woman who reembles his mother. Gypsy wives are supposed to be perfect, without weaknesses or caprices. A little boy can feel free when everything is kept clean and neat by the women; in the evening, one can rest after a good meal which has been served to you, hot and delicious. The men can do stupid things, but the women never do, and never reproach the men for it. The world is in order, happiness is in a trailer where a mother, a wife, waits for you. Inside himself, Chico knows that his inclination for the gypsies is not accidental. He believes that God always arranges things well. That's his credo, his faith. It suffices to be confident and to follow one's leanings as long as they are ascending, as wrote a well-known author [André Gide] whom Chico has never read but always understood.

In the wake of José Reyes and his sons, who one day will be his brothers-in-law, he establishes himself, the son of immigrants, in the most extreme marginality. Already marginalized by his origins, he does not choose to attempt social integration. Rather, he plants himself, with delight, in a world of the excluded, sinks his roots in there, and creates additional roots. Later he will learn that Arabs, gypsies, and Andalusians ((in Spain, occupied by the Moors until the reign of the Catholic Isabella) had rubbed shoulders to create that flame - flamenco - with which he warms his nights and lights up his days. He will emerge from that environment twenty years later, as ambassador of music "made in France." But at the moment, he doesn't know where, with Canut, he'll get a ripe watermelon. "Forbidden Games," the name of a guitar piece.

"My kingdom for a horse": Canut has offered his for a watermelon. Chico's route through the streets of Arles with his gypsy friend is like Little Bib Man's, the white boy who became an Indian chief. It's the antechamber of America, the flight from a destiny that others have prepared for him. That won't be achieved without suffering. One may well choose to follow one's leanings, but it's often difficult for a child. Allergic even to the air, he's never liked to turn the pages of a book; that alone sufficed to bring on an allergic reaction. Think of it - the martyrdom of Chico joining the 'sons of the wind' in the windiest region of France, where the Mistral blows more than one hundred days per year.

Having transgressed the limits, he had to find a buffer, a guard-rail. Otherwise, he'd just plunge downward towards delinquency (which he was fast approaching). One day seeing his father crying with shame after a visit from the police, he decided to lead his life in his own fashion but without bringing pain to his father. He didn't even remember what stupidity he'd committed to bring the police to the door, he remembered only his father's chagrin, and his own, which still haunts him when he thinks of those times. Fortunately, he found with his gypsy friends what for him would serve a sacred book, a Bible: music! Music was sufficient for them, it was sufficient for him. And music would eventually transform the little hoodlum into a guru.

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