Adnan Azzam, activist and defender of immigrants' rights, in Paris.
Adnan Azzam, activist and defender of immigrants' rights, in Paris.

Adnan Azzam, defender of immigrants' rights: 'People should be able to exist in dignity together'



Adnan Azzam rode a horse around the world to deliver a message of peace from the Middle East to the West. Back in his adopted country of France, he is battling to secure justice and dignity for all. Olivia Snaije tells his story. France is no longer the country it thought it was. Its secular tradition is under strain as it tries to come to terms with Europe's largest Muslim minority. From calls to ban the burqa, to its failed government initiative for a national consultation on l'identité nationale, or what it means to be French, the melting pot debate has never been so passionate. In the run-up to regional elections earlier this month, there was much racial mud-slinging. An informal survey by Le Monde into the ethnic background of regional candidates found the political landscape "a great white desert" with few immigrant candidates.

But if things are moving slowly on the political front, more and more immigrants and those born in France of immigrant parents are making themselves heard. Adnan Azzam is one. His Paris headquarters are in the racially mixed section of the 17th arrondissement. He runs several neighbourhood associations, including La France qui Marche (Marching France) and La Marche des Valeurs (the March of Values), which both promote equal opportunity and oppose discrimination.

Syrian-born Azzam, 52, has lived in France for more than 20 years. He considers himself an Arab of French nationality with an unconditional duty to be a responsible citizen. Having run - and lost - in several legislative and municipal elections in Paris since 1994, he considered standing as an independent in the recent regional elections but decided against it for lack of funding, time constraints and disillusionment with the political system.

Azzam is a long way from his Druze village in southern Syria where his father was a police chief and a traditional elder of his clan. One of Azzam's earliest memories is of walking barefoot behind his brother to collect a few pounds for the Algerian war of independence. "I'm not an Arab from the Champs Elysées," says Azzam, seated in his modest office, flashing a smile. "I stayed in my neighbourhood for 23 years to breathe the same air the French breathe. I have been on the labour relations board, I've worn many different hats and have explored all the layers of French society."

Azzam studied law in Damascus and then spent time in Abu Dhabi in the late 1970s, working in the restaurant business, in construction and as a sports instructor. It was in Abu Dhabi that he observed westerners for the first time and felt "they were there just for the money and weren't interested in Arab culture. I began to want to show them our culture." After reading an article on the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said's seminal book, Orientalism, Azzam was galvanised.

He decided to tour the world on horseback to bring a message of peace from the Middle East to the West, and exchange ideas and cultures. With President Hafez al Assad's blessings, he left Syria in 1982 with two mares, travelling through Turkey, Greece, Italy and France, where he met Brigitte Van Laer, who later became his wife. The two travelled to Spain, then sailed to the US where they rode 7,000 kilometres before sailing back to Spain. From there they rode to Morocco, Algeria and then sailed to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and finally Syria.

During the course of his travels Azzam met King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Hassan II of Morocco and Greece's president, Constantine Karamanlis. Azzam says his character and "vision" were in large part formed in Abu Dhabi and then on his trip, which he chronicled in a book A Cheval Entre Orient Et Occident (Riding Between East And West), first published in France in 1989 and again in 2004.

A long-time supporter of human rights, Azzam calls his form of politics simply "living". "People should be able to exist in dignity, living their differences together and with respect for one another." When Azzam moved to France in 1986, he opened a neighbourhood restaurant with his wife called La Reine Zenobie, where he organised cultural events and became involved in grassroots politics. "We defend a secular France, open to all religions - a universal symbol and a land of exile where men and women can live freely no matter what their origin. A France that battles racism and discrimination that still occur on a daily basis," Azzam writes on the website of his association La France Qui Marche.

Azzam defines himself as a Muslim but says it's no different from being a Christian. "Every religion is a stream that runs into a common river." As Azzam's neighbourhood activism gained momentum, the local UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) MP, Françoise de Panafieu, became interested in Azzam - "to use my popularity because she was seen as being bourgeoise and removed from the people", he says. Azzam asked de Panafieu if he could be part of her political campaign but she refused, leaving Azzam to present himself as an independent candidate in subsequent legislative elections.

When contacted, de Panafieu said she did not recall the event. Azzam later became the victim of rumours linking him to the Syrian secret service, a link he denies. Azzam used a lawyer and the CNIL, an independent administrative authority that protects privacy and personal data, to gain access to his file, in which he was accused, among other things, of travelling frequently to Libya, "where I've never set foot".

Azzam's experience is reminiscent of a recent incident involving Ali Soumaré, the Socialist candidate in the Val d'Oise - a department just outside Paris. French-born Soumaré, of Malian ancestry, left school before obtaining his baccalaureate but quickly gained recognition as a community activist, before joining the socialist party. In February, two UMP mayors of villages in the Val d'Oise referred to Soumaré as a "multiple offender" offering "proof" to the public. Most of the accusations proved to be false and Soumaré's name was cleared. The president of the CNIL officially requested explanations on the source of the information, which appeared to have come from police files.

In the end, the affair proved to be an embarrassment for the UMP, who suffered a heavy defeat in the regional elections and losing to the Socialists in the Val d'Oise. Soumaré, unlike Azzam, grew up on the outskirts of Paris and feels that children of immigrants are slowly gaining ground but admits "social ghettos and cultural prisons are also realities. One cannot hide the serious difficulties that the youth from immigrant backgrounds encounter."

In yet another embarrassing, yet revelatory incident this month, Gerard Longuet, the president of the UMP group and a close adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, said he wasn't sure that the French politician Malek Boutih - whose parents are from Algeria - was the right candidate to take over the presidency of La Halde, the highest anti-discrimination authority in France, and that it was better to have someone from the "corps traditionnel français" or a traditional group of French people.

"Immigrants in France have an essential role to play," says Azzam. "They've already helped with demographics. But I'm convinced that immigrants arrive here with a healthier lifestyle and better morals. Immigrants need to take into account the richness they offer this country. Here, since 1968, for example, 'values' has become a dirty word. What's wrong with it?" Furthermore, this French-style assimilation is all wrong, says Azzam, who is in favour of integration closer in manner to the US or Britain. "The proposed law against wearing a burqa is absolutely idiotic. It's not up to politicians to tell people what to do about their culture."

Azzam is putting the finishing touches to his book Al Istighrab (Occidentalism), which will be published this spring in Syria. In it, he "dissects western man, with the positive and negative aspects". It is also a call to young Arabs to revisit their history and feel proud of their culture, to stop their fascination with the West, he says. If Azzam were to become an MP, he says he would eliminate the discussion on national identity. He would immediately enact a law that would condemn France's colonial period and award moral and financial reparations to people, in particular to Algerians who suffered from nuclear testing.

Azzam is referring to French nuclear tests that were conducted in Algeria's Sahara desert between 1960 and 1965, when the country was still a colony. After decades of complaints by people made ill by radiation, French parliament passed a law in December allowing compensation to be paid to victims of nuclear tests in Algeria and the South Pacific. Although Azzam was awarded the prestigious Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Merite in 2009 for his involvement in city politics, he says he has become more radical over time. Azzam marks the violent civil unrest in 2005, in the poorer suburbs of Paris, as the beginning of a general consensus among grassroots organisations that a more aggressive approach was needed to fight for equal rights and battle discrimination.

La France qui Marche organised two marches, one in 2005 from the European Parliament in Strasbourg to the Parisian Senate, the other a year later from Marseille to Paris. A regional march was held in 2007 from the disenfranchised northern Parisian suburbs, dubbed the "93" in postcode shorthand, to the newly opened Cité Nationale de l'Histoire de l'Immigration. The museum, commissioned by Jacques Chirac with the mission to recognise the contribution of immigrants in France over the past two centuries, was opened without a public ceremony under his successor, President Sarkozy, who, to this day, has not officially inaugurated the museum.

A year ago when Eric Besson, the unpopular minister of immigration, integration, national identity and development solidarity, attempted to inaugurate the media library, the police force came out en masse to control protesters demonstrating in support of illegal immigrants. France is in the midst of an identity crisis but well aware that changes will have to be made. As the National History of Immigration museum pamphlet reads: "[It hopes to] generate a public re-imagining of what it means to be French, displacing long-standing assumptions of ethnic homogeneity in favour of the acceptance of greater cultural diversity."

The biog

Siblings: five brothers and one sister

Education: Bachelors in Political Science at the University of Minnesota

Interests: Swimming, tennis and the gym

Favourite place: UAE

Favourite packet food on the trip: pasta primavera

What he did to pass the time during the trip: listen to audio books

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo
Power: 261hp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 1,750-4,000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
Fuel consumption: 10.5L/100km
On sale: Now
Price: From Dh129,999 (VX Luxury); from Dh149,999 (VX Black Gold)

Why are you, you?

Why are you, you?
From this question, a new beginning.
From this question, a new destiny.
For you are a world, and a meeting of worlds.
Our dream is to unite that which has been
separated by history.
To return the many to the one.
A great story unites us all,
beyond colour and creed and gender.
The lightning flash of art
And the music of the heart.
We reflect all cultures, all ways.
We are a twenty first century wonder.
Universal ideals, visions of art and truth.
Now is the turning point of cultures and hopes.
Come with questions, leave with visions.
We are the link between the past and the future.
Here, through art, new possibilities are born. And
new answers are given wings.

Why are you, you?
Because we are mirrors of each other.
Because together we create new worlds.
Together we are more powerful than we know.
We connect, we inspire, we multiply illuminations
with the unique light of art.

 Ben Okri,

Aggro Dr1ft

Director: Harmony Korine
Stars: Jordi Molla, Travis Scott
Rating: 2/5

The specs

Engine: 2.3-litre 4cyl turbo
Power: 299hp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 420Nm at 2,750rpm
Transmission: 10-speed auto
Fuel consumption: 12.4L/100km
On sale: Now
Price: From Dh157,395 (XLS); Dh199,395 (Limited)

What it means to be a conservationist

Who is Enric Sala?

Enric Sala is an expert on marine conservation and is currently the National Geographic Society's Explorer-in-Residence. His love of the sea started with his childhood in Spain, inspired by the example of the legendary diver Jacques Cousteau. He has been a university professor of Oceanography in the US, as well as working at the Spanish National Council for Scientific Research and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Biodiversity and the Bio-Economy. He has dedicated his life to protecting life in the oceans. Enric describes himself as a flexitarian who only eats meat occasionally.

What is biodiversity?

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, all life on earth – including in its forests and oceans – forms a “rich tapestry of interconnecting and interdependent forces”. Biodiversity on earth today is the product of four billion years of evolution and consists of many millions of distinct biological species. The term ‘biodiversity’ is relatively new, popularised since the 1980s and coinciding with an understanding of the growing threats to the natural world including habitat loss, pollution and climate change. The loss of biodiversity itself is dangerous because it contributes to clean, consistent water flows, food security, protection from floods and storms and a stable climate. The natural world can be an ally in combating global climate change but to do so it must be protected. Nations are working to achieve this, including setting targets to be reached by 2020 for the protection of the natural state of 17 per cent of the land and 10 per cent of the oceans. However, these are well short of what is needed, according to experts, with half the land needed to be in a natural state to help avert disaster.

Multitasking pays off for money goals

Tackling money goals one at a time cost financial literacy expert Barbara O'Neill at least $1 million.

That's how much Ms O'Neill, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University in the US, figures she lost by starting saving for retirement only after she had created an emergency fund, bought a car with cash and purchased a home.

"I tell students that eventually, 30 years later, I hit the million-dollar mark, but I could've had $2 million," Ms O'Neill says.

Too often, financial experts say, people want to attack their money goals one at a time: "As soon as I pay off my credit card debt, then I'll start saving for a home," or, "As soon as I pay off my student loan debt, then I'll start saving for retirement"."

People do not realise how costly the words "as soon as" can be. Paying off debt is a worthy goal, but it should not come at the expense of other goals, particularly saving for retirement. The sooner money is contributed, the longer it can benefit from compounded returns. Compounded returns are when your investment gains earn their own gains, which can dramatically increase your balances over time.

"By putting off saving for the future, you are really inhibiting yourself from benefiting from that wonderful magic," says Kimberly Zimmerman Rand , an accredited financial counsellor and principal at Dragonfly Financial Solutions in Boston. "If you can start saving today ... you are going to have a lot more five years from now than if you decide to pay off debt for three years and start saving in year four."

If you go

There are regular flights from Dubai to Kathmandu. Fares with Air Arabia and flydubai start at Dh1,265.
In Kathmandu, rooms at the Oasis Kathmandu Hotel start at Dh195 and Dh120 at Hotel Ganesh Himal.
Third Rock Adventures offers professionally run group and individual treks and tours using highly experienced guides throughout Nepal, Bhutan and other parts of the Himalayas.

The Specs

Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cylinder petrol
Power: 118hp
Torque: 149Nm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Price: From Dh61,500
On sale: Now

Titan Sports Academy:

Programmes: Judo, wrestling, kick-boxing, muay thai, taekwondo and various summer camps

Location: Inside Abu Dhabi City Golf Club, Al Mushrif, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Telephone: +971 50 220 0326

Premier League results

Saturday

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Arsenal 1

Bournemouth 0 Manchester City 1

Brighton & Hove Albion 1 Huddersfield Town 0

Burnley 1 Crystal Palace 3

Manchester United 3 Southampton 2

Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 Cardiff City 0

West Ham United 2 Newcastle United 0

Sunday

Watford 2 Leicester City 1

Fulham 1 Chelsea 2

Everton 0 Liverpool 0

How to avoid getting scammed
  • Never click on links provided via app or SMS, even if they seem to come from authorised senders at first glance
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The Sky Is Pink

Director: Shonali Bose

Cast: Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Farhan Akhtar, Zaira Wasim, Rohit Saraf

Three stars

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Revibe
Started: 2022
Founders: Hamza Iraqui and Abdessamad Ben Zakour
Based: UAE
Industry: Refurbished electronics
Funds raised so far: $10m
Investors: Flat6Labs, Resonance and various others

MATCH INFO

Manchester United 1 (Rashford 36')

Liverpool 1 (Lallana 84')

Man of the match: Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)

UAE medallists at Asian Games 2023

Gold
Magomedomar Magomedomarov – Judo – Men’s +100kg
Khaled Al Shehi – Jiu-jitsu – Men’s -62kg
Faisal Al Ketbi – Jiu-jitsu – Men’s -85kg
Asma Al Hosani – Jiu-jitsu – Women’s -52kg
Shamma Al Kalbani – Jiu-jitsu – Women’s -63kg
Silver
Omar Al Marzooqi – Equestrian – Individual showjumping
Bishrelt Khorloodoi – Judo – Women’s -52kg
Khalid Al Blooshi – Jiu-jitsu – Men’s -62kg
Mohamed Al Suwaidi – Jiu-jitsu – Men’s -69kg
Balqees Abdulla – Jiu-jitsu – Women’s -48kg
Bronze
Hawraa Alajmi – Karate – Women’s kumite -50kg
Ahmed Al Mansoori – Cycling – Men’s omnium
Abdullah Al Marri – Equestrian – Individual showjumping
Team UAE – Equestrian – Team showjumping
Dzhafar Kostoev – Judo – Men’s -100kg
Narmandakh Bayanmunkh – Judo – Men’s -66kg
Grigorian Aram – Judo – Men’s -90kg
Mahdi Al Awlaqi – Jiu-jitsu – Men’s -77kg
Saeed Al Kubaisi – Jiu-jitsu – Men’s -85kg
Shamsa Al Ameri – Jiu-jitsu – Women’s -57kg

Company Profile

Company name: Namara
Started: June 2022
Founder: Mohammed Alnamara
Based: Dubai
Sector: Microfinance
Current number of staff: 16
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Family offices

Company profile

Company name: Hayvn
Started: 2018
Founders: Christopher Flinos, Ahmed Ismail
Based: Abu Dhabi, UAE
Sector: financial
Initial investment: undisclosed
Size: 44 employees
Investment stage: series B in the second half of 2023
Investors: Hilbert Capital, Red Acre Ventures