[box border=”full”]As an historian, I am of course concerned with the accurate reconstruction of this narrative. Did the Mosque director, Si Khaddour Ben Ghabrit, and the mosque’s Immam actually help conceal Jews, and if so, how many? Unfortunately, the archival work has simply not been done. “][/fusion_tagline_box] Besides one 2007 book by Robert Satloff, we know very little, at least from the professional historians’ point of view, about what actually happened in the Grand Mosque’s courtyards. Ferroukhi was inspired by an article by Albert Assouline, who claimed the mosque concealed over 1700 members of the French Resistance who actively helped save Jews. The film has since sparked a debate in Israel around Ghabrit: should he be honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations?
Because the question of Jews in the mosque is so salient, it is easy to forget that there are other fascinating historical impulses and narratives at work in Free Men, particularly surrounding the colonial struggles of North Africa and the Middle East. The film wanders through glimpses of unions, communists, French Resistance, and Algerian Liberation Movements. We witness the anti-colonial speeches and writings that invoke the intellectual genealogies of the (Cartesian) Enlightement. We hear a narrative of liberation in the background, describing all “races” as equals in a struggle, as they play out in the politicized prayer rooms-turned-meeting rooms of the mosque. Indeed, there is no separation between sacred and secular in this film. Younes wears French clothing in the mosque; Ghabrit attends political events and meets with German officers always wearing his Immam’s robes. We see the way in which everyday life, especially religious life, was politicized and infused with the ideologies not only of the occupiers, but also of those resisting.
Si Khaddour Ben Ghabrit, the mosque rector, walks through the courtyard with a German Officer
There is also a fascinating element of surveillance in the Foucauldian sense: there is a feeling that everyone is being watched (Foucault, by the way, came of age in Vichy France). The Germans are watching the Muslims and the Jews, the French police watch the communists and the immigrants, the rector watches over his congregation. Actors are constantly looking over their shoulders, and the structure of the mosque, with its Andalusian courtyard, lends itself perfectly to the infamous panopticon.
Ferroukhi undertook a daunting directorial task, and despite some of its shortcomings on the historical front, Free Men is still a magnificent cultural artifact. It gives us wonderful insight into the highly ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse world of the Metropole. The Grand Paris Mosque stands as a microcosm of all these identities, exemplifying the necessity of recovering moments of altruism during the darkest of historical moments.