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Orbiting Uneasily Between Worlds

Part of France's `second generation' of Muslims, Ourida identifies with her parents' culture but lives in a sometimes hostile, adopted one

THE late-winter snow is slushy-wet underfoot as Ourida Boualili negotiates the walk leading to the library of the north-Paris suburb of Argenteuil. Sliding once or twice, Ourida and her friend Nassera grab for each other and giggle, as 16-year-old girls anywhere are likely to do when confronted with an embarrassing situation that risks drawing attention. It's a Saturday afternoon in the French capital's ``red belt'' - so named because many of the communities outside a politically conservative Paris remain strongholds of the French Communist Party - and Ourida and Nassera, both daughters of France's Arab-Islamic immigration, are having a mildly good time talking, looking for friends, and giggling.

Ourida is not at the library to read or to study, but to return ``The Suburbs of Islam,'' a book on France's Muslims checked out by her older sister. Explaining that she doesn't like to read ``except what I have to for school,'' Ourida says she knows nothing about the book, though she recalls seeing its author, a well-known authority on France's 4-million-strong Islamic minority, on television.

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Like most 16-year-olds anywhere, Ourida doesn't consider herself knowledgeable about much of anything. But the truth is she knows much more about the book, or at least its topic, than she seems to think.

As the French-born child of two Algerian immigrants, Ourida is part of what the French call the ``second generation'' of Arab and Muslim immigrants: A youthful population, concentrated in the high-rise suburbs of France's largest cities, whose nationality is French, but whose hearts and sense of belonging are often shared with the North African countries their parents and grandparents call home, and whose traditions are Islamic.

With her slightly curled dark hair under a navy blue, Annie-Hall-type hat, and a stylish paisley scarf spilling out at the neck of her off-white coat, Ourida looks as French as the ``French-French'' kids at the library or at the high school she attends.

When asked, however, she states without hesitation, ``I consider myself Arab.''

Ourida says this with neither pride nor embarrassment, but rather more as a reflection of the central role her parents play in her life, of the moral bearings she gleans from the Islam she ``believes'' but doesn't practice - and as a reaction against the anti-Arab sentiment she considers was growing in France even before the Gulf war.

``It hurts, but it also makes me think just how stupid some people can be,'' says Ourida, referring to the anti-immigration ad campaigns run by France's far-right National Front. On a walk through Argenteuil, antiwar graffiti stand beside other time-worn slogans urging repatriation, or ``Arabs out of France.'' Little stickers on walls and posts at the train station proclaim that integration ``has not worked,'' and call for ``the right to be different'' - which means keeping races and cultures separate.

``I don't consider myself different from anyone else,'' says Ourida, ``but when I see those stickers, when I think about the problems we've had finding a place to live or my father has had finding a new job, I think, `They can keep their nationality, what good does it do me?'''

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Ourida says being a 16-year-old is not so carefree as most adults seem to think. Being an Arab teenager in France, she adds, makes it more difficult still.

``It's not always easy,'' she says. ``There are a lot of worries about school, whether you're measuring up, and just being an adolescent. You realize you're becoming your own person, but it's not settled. You don't know what kind of person you're going to be.''

Yet in spite of those concerns, Ourida seems remarkably removed from the problems often associated with her age group. Though she lives in a suburb that figures on the country's official list of 400 ``neighborhoods at risk,'' she is insulated against the social ills that many in France would assume are running rampant just outside her front door.

QUESTIONS about drugs, alcohol, depression, vandalism, teenage sexual activity, all elicit such a wide-eyed shake of the head and straightforward assurances that they are alien to her world that it is impossible not to take Ourida's word. Just the mention of boys makes her nervous and giggly: Not only are they a very small presence in her social world, but when asked what her parents would do if her nearly 18-year-old sister announced a boy was stopping by to take her to a movie, Ourida says she can't a nswer because ``It just wouldn't happen.''

For Ourida, one's susceptibility to a myriad of social ills is a function of one's family atmosphere. Hers is strict. ``The French kids have more freedom,'' she says - continuing the pattern of referring to herself, even though French-born, as ``Arab,'' even ``immigrant'' - ``but I'm not uncomfortable with the way we are being raised.''

Ourida says her father especially is keen to point out the decadence of the society the family lives in. ``The other night they were talking on TV about 15-year-olds in Paris having babies,'' says Ourida. ``My father pointed to the TV and said, `Do you see how things are here?'''

The Boualilis are not practicing Muslims, but the religion's traditions are observed. Holidays are celebrated. Parents are respected, daughters are protected. Around her neck, Ourida wears a silver chain from which hang the hand of Fatima and a medallion with ``Allah'' written in Arabic - the latter a gift from her father during a trip to visit family in Algeria last summer.

Yet part of growing up is realizing you don't always agree with your parents, Ourida says. Friction between her opinions and theirs can cause problems at home, but Ourida says such episodes are ``pretty rare.'' An inculcated respect defuses disagreements and decides them on the side of parental right.

An example is provided when Ourida is charged with fixing a date with her parents when this writer can visit her home. She says such a meeting will be ``no problem.'' Later, however, she is somewhat embarrassed to report that ``because of events in the Gulf,'' her parents decline the request. ``Here's a case where I don't agree with my father,'' says Ourida, ``but I also have to remember that he authorized me to speak with you.''

Hoping that a conversation ``man to man'' might sway Rabah Boualili, this reporter calls Ourida's father. But after a friendly, sometimes even impassioned conversation that touches on everything from the Iraqi people and Algerian politics to Arab hospitality and child rearing, the answer is still ``no.''

But Ourida's environment is in other ways more typically French: Her mother, educated here, is a fulltime medical secretary; her high school keeps Ourida in class most weekdays from as early as 8 a.m. to as late as 6 p.m., and the popular culture that pervades her life is mostly American.

ALTHOUGH she believes she has ``little leisure time'' between homework in history, geography, science, economics, French, and three foreign languages - English, Spanish, and Arabic - Ourida says ``I love American [TV] series.'' Her favorite: ``Madame Est Servie.'' ``That's `Who is the Boss?' in American,'' she notes proudly.

She generally prefers American movies, and likes to go to McDonald's with friends. As for music, her current passion is ``New Kids on the Block.''

This mix of cultures seems a positive influence to Ourida, especially given her interest in journalism. ``I want to go to people where they are, speak to them in their language, and tell their side of a story,'' she says.

Yet at the same time the stark juxtaposition of her two worlds - one French, the other Arab - can also be confusing. ``Sometimes I feel torn,'' she says.

Someday her parents want to return to Algeria for good, and Ourida says ``It's something I've given thought to myself.'' She lauds the respect for family and traditions she has witnessed in Algeria, yet she is not romantic about life there: ``It would be hard to adapt.''

The girls Ourida befriended during vacations in Algeria do not look at life the same way she does: ``They don't talk about the future,'' she says, ``what they want to do or college or that kind of thing. Here with Nassera and other friends, we do.''

Asked why she thinks that is, Ourida says she doesn't know. Pressed for an explanation, she turns to Nassera, whose only response is a shrug of her shoulders. Then the two girls lean toward each other, and giggle.

Third in a weekly series. Other articles ran Feb. 26 and March 5.

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