Strange times, my dear!

Maryam Madjidi

The ‘debate’ about immigration, rewritten by Maryam Madjidi, winner of the Prix Goncourt for a first novel

I invented the color of vowels!—

A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green.

—I regulated the form and movement of every consonant,

and with instinctive rhythms I prided myself on inventing

a poetic language accessible some day to all the senses,

~Arthur Rimbaud, “A Season in Hell”


In this crooked blind alley, as the chill descends,

They feed fires

With logs of song and poetry

Hazard not a thought:

These are strange times, my dear.

~Ahmad Shamlou, “In This Blind Alley”


“Strange times, my dear.”


This is from the first verse of a poem written by the great Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou in July 1979, a few months after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

That failed revolution ended up creating an even bigger prison for the Iranian people. A nightmare that forced hundreds of thousands of people into exile.

Ahmad Shamlou passed away in 2000, at the dawn of the 21st century.

This poem, written 40 years ago in a different language, country and context, far away from France, nevertheless resonates deeply with me today.

I have lived in France since 1986. I was six years old when my parents decided to go into exile in this country, which they called “the land of human rights”. A land that would protect us and guarantee our fundamental rights, which were flouted back home.

When I was a teenager, I asked my parents why they chose France. My mother replied: “Because of Simone de Beauvoir”, and my father replied: “Because of the philosophers of the Enlightenment”.

Yet today, at the age of 39, I no longer recognise the country that opened its borders to us back then to protect, welcome and shelter us.

People will say that things were different back in 1986. The world was different. France was different.

Strange times, my dear Shamlou.

Like me, you wouldn’t recognise this country, this Europe, this world or your fellow human beings.

France and Europe seem plagued by an ancient evil, a stubborn old disease I call ultra-nationalism, the far right, identitarian closure and unabashed racism, all of it fed by ignorance and human stupidity.

The foreigner I originally was in this country, knowing not a word of French, gradually became French and European, falling in love with the French language and French literature, writing in that language, discovering the world in that language, like a priceless treasure. And now it is my only homeland.

Strange times, my exiled sisters and brothers. 

Today we point the finger at you, you who walked all the way here to join us, risked death for a dignified life of liberty, and who hope and yearn for nothing more than a better life. Whether you came here as economic, political or climate refugees, you have become the new scapegoats for all of Europe’s woes.

You are ‘suspect’, ‘shifty’ and ‘dangerous’, and that pains me, because you hold up to us a mirror into which we are ashamed to gaze.

A debate on immigration was held in the National Assembly on 7 October. A strange thing to call it: a ‘debate’ on immigration. As if immigration was a rhetorical subject that we can be ‘for or against’. Are you for or against misery in the world? Are you for or against war? Are you for or against persecuting one another? Are you for or against a person needing medical assistance? Are you for or against a person seeking a better life, a higher salary or a more comfortable retirement?

Nobody was fooled. That was no debate. It was just the same old story trotted out by the government as a diversionary tactic to avoid having to confront the true problems undermining this country. A ‘debate’ on immigration rather than a genuine discussion and real measures to save hospitals, schools and pensions, to tackle rising homelessness, student poverty, femicide. Of course not. It’s so much simpler and more strategic to lay into immigrants, people without papers, asylum seekers, anyone who comes here because back home they have no job, no medical assistance and no protection.

The scapegoat is to blame: the scapegoat is the enemy.

Strange times, my dear. 

We are now pushing back the deadline for offering asylum seekers medical assistance, presumably in the hope that we won’t have to provide it. This is shameful. We are told there are abuses, fraudsters, profiteers, dishonest people who come here for treatment while enjoying a nice little stay. The government calls it ‘medical tourism’.

The health minister singles out Georgians and Albanians, but tomorrow the government will point the finger at people of other nationalities and other origins, from other countries. And the list will continue to grow and expand, excluding more and more people.

French medical assistance has to be merited. In other words, people have to be at death’s door before they can receive it, since this is the ‘deadline’ by which emergency treatment will always be provided. Small comfort indeed. After all, what criteria will be used to assess the urgency of their case?

Unsuccessful asylum seekers will only be given sickness coverage for six months, instead of a year.

How should we interpret this measure? As an example of the ‘firmness’ vaunted by the President? ‘Firmness’ and ‘efficiency’, words on every minister’s lips, are stifling another notion, that of humanity. 

My grandmother, who lives in Iran, has epilepsy and needs treatment. But, owing to the embargo, which is also hitting the health sector there, the drugs she needs are no longer available.

Originally, this embargo imposed by the Trump administration and followed by the countries of the European Union, including France, was meant to spare the health sector, but that is no longer the case.

Having endured an anti-libertarian government for more than 40 years, the Iranian people are now also suffering the consequences of this embargo imposed externally by so-called defenders of human rights.

Are we planning to leave whole populations around the globe to die slowly amidst silence and the greatest diplomatic respect?

Just imagine my grandmother coming to France to save her life, because in Iran she risks dying for lack of medical care. Would she be defrauding the health system? Would she be accused of taking advantage of the system and being a medical tourist? After all, Iran also qualifies as a ‘safe’ country, as does Afghanistan, by the way. Remember the Afghan refugees sent back to their country a few months ago on the pretext that it is now ‘safe’ there?

Strange times we live in, my dear. 

It’s a battle for survival. The world is divided into those who ask for help and those who refuse to give it.

By the same token, recipients of state medical assistance will no longer be entitled to ‘non-urgent’ care for the first nine months. This is shabby bean counting reminiscent of the stingy €5 cut in housing support adopted in 2017.

What are they trying to achieve by making such calculations, imposing such restrictions and being so small-minded in a way that only affects the poorest in society? At the same time, the abolition of the solidarity tax on wealth (ISF) and the wishy-washy, inefficient measures taken to combat tax fraud have sparked fury among the French people, prompting nearly six months of street protests.

Among other measures, the government plans to open three new large-capacity administrative detention centres to “improve the rate of deportation”. In other words, the aim is to expedite a more efficiently organised deportation of more women, children and men.

So while money can always be found to spend vast sums on anti-immigration measures – expelling, arresting, imprisoning, building visible or invisible barriers on land and at sea, or filling the pockets of Libya or Turkey to keep the ‘immigrants’ further and further away from us –, when it comes to granting medical aid, awarding benefits or showing a scintilla of solidarity, a smidgen of humanity, the government would have us believe that its coffers are empty and that fraudsters are at work everywhere, intent on destroying our wonderful system of care and protection.

Yet who are the real fraudsters here? The heads of the biggest multinationals always manage to find a way to avoid paying their taxes, supported by the government, supporting the government, in each other’s pockets as long as they both shall live.

How much longer are we going to aim at the wrong target and set our sights on the wrong enemy?

Strange times, my dear.

There is however nothing strange or ambiguous about the message. It is abundantly clear and totally stark: France is no longer the welcoming country that some would still like to believe it is. Indeed, Europe as a whole is closing its borders and withdrawing into itself, and will soon suffocate in the mire created by the meteoric rise of its far-right parties. We all know this. We see it every day.

So what am I to do on this continent? What is to become of me in this country? Me, who moulded my outlook on the humanism of Montaigne and Rabelais?

What do I have in common with these dehumanising capitalist values that destroy people’s lives?

Strange times, my dear.

Over the three years from 2015 to 2017, 78,000 people were granted asylum in France, equivalent to 0.1% of the population.

The European figure equates to 0.2% of the population of EU member states.

Is this the invasion most European governments are talking about? Instilling the belief that we’re being invaded is a shameful lie! It’s like sowing seeds of fear in fertile, but ignorant, ground, killing people’s humanity, turning them into inhuman beings ready to obey any law and swallow any lie or propaganda.

Worldwide, 80% of migrants move to countries outside the European Union.

The ‘invasion’ has been fashioned into a myth truer than reality. And our humanism has been turned into an old dream that was buried long ago. Our solidarity has been degraded into outdated naivety and idealism.

When I talk about my values of mutual support, people laugh at me and tell me I’m from a bygone era, another world.

Strange times, my dear.

I’ve often wondered who I am. Am I Iranian or French? Am I both at the same time, or neither one nor the other? Well, now I know: I am a citizen of the world whose only compass is literature and freedom.

My humanism, a precious legacy of French literature, is no longer echoed in the world around me.

How strange it is to feel so alien in a country that nurtured, educated and protected me.

Strange times, my dear.


Maryam Madjidi was born in Tehran in 1980. She is a political exile, arriving to Paris with her parents in 1986 as a refugee, then spending her adolescence in the Parisian suburb on Drancy.

A professor of French as a foreign language for unaccompanied minors, she pursues in parallel her work as an author.

Her novel “Marx et la poupée” was awarded the Prix Goncourt for a first novel on 3 May 2017.

Drôle de temps, amiePDF file