Noureddine is a retired French banker, aged 69, with no Syrian, Arab, or non-French family. He is from Rouen, and studied there and in Paris. He holds the equivalent of a Master’s degree in finance. He has lived all of his life in France, first in the north and for decades now in Marseille.
He has been married to a Moroccan woman for some 20 years and converted to Islam while he was still a banker, well before he retired nine years ago. He says his bank colleagues knew he had converted to Islam but encountered no professional problems related to his conversion as he kept his private life private and conformed to the bank dress code (suit and tie).
Since his retirement, his contact with the Arabic-speaking and Muslim community has increased. He went on the Hajj pilgrimage 6 years ago and lives within a largely Muslim community. He walks around wearing a jellaba and beard in his Porte d’Aix neighbourhood, where he is taken to be a Kabyle. When questioned about any discrimination he might have faced, he says, “this is Marseille” (meaning there are many Arabs and Muslims here so there are fewer incidents here than elsewhere).
His retirement plans include studying Arabic and giving refugees French lessons. He set up Arabic classes for the influx of Syrian refugees and now teaches French to Syrian refugees of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds three times a week in a makeshift community association with classrooms. His students also instruct him in Arabic. He says he can read and write Arabic reasonably well and speak a little but that he is “not a serious student.” That said, he says his efforts in learning Arabic build bridges with Syrian refugees and he shows them how he makes mistakes in Arabic just like they do in French. From the first class with newly-arrived Syrian refugees, he says things in Arabic like “ahlan wassahlan” (welcome) and “shou ismak?” (what is your name?). “I can see the relief on their faces.” They are often surprised to see a French convert but he says Syrians are discreet. If he is questioned, he reminds them that most Muslims are not Arab and he’s a French one “so let’s move on to something else.”
He has never visited Syria but he has travelled to Morocco to visit his wife’s family. Since teaching Syrian refugees and becoming friends with many beyond the classroom, he follows the news in Syria and reads about the culture and history. He says that to avoid any arguments he does not allow political discussion in class. He focuses on French society and history but he often asks students how French customs compare to those in Syria. He and they both learn a lot, appreciating affinities and differences.
He says that he does not adopt various Arab-Muslim ways unless he feels like doing so “naturally.” He says his family accept his conversion and consider it to be his choice and are fine with it. They continue to visit one another as they always have.