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Not Quite French, Not Quite Syrian: ‘Aliens Without Knowing Why’

The younger brother fares better than most, landing a job as a nurse at a hospital, but isn’t immune from discrimination. At work he feels like a puppet, “playing assistant butcher for guys stupider than me, born in a different universe who treated me like Uncle Tom on some Alabama plantation.” Unlike his father, he is spiritual and curious about Islam, and in time he becomes restless. A young Muslim who feels disenfranchised in the West: You can imagine where this might go.

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But his is not a story of radicalization by YouTube; he doesn’t dream of a caliphate or of waging jihad. He has a naïf’s desire to help the people he believes need it most. So he leaves, wordlessly, for Syria to work with an Islamic humanitarian NGO, which has a far greater stake in the war than he realized. Soon he’s working as a field medic for rebel militias fighting Bashar al-Assad.

Back home, his older brother has been pressed into a different fight. He’s an Uber driver at a time when taxi drivers are in revolt over ride-sharing apps, a war that everyone but the bosses is losing. The boys’ father, who staked his retirement on selling his taxi medallion, has been betrayed by both children. The disappearance of the younger son nearly unravels the family, but it’s his return to France that could put them all in peril.

The brothers remain unnamed until the book’s final pages and trade off as narrators, though the older one propels the story. His voice, expertly translated by Tina Kover, is wry, jaded, insouciant: Driving passengers to Paris’s airports, he notes, is like “taking customers into the citadel, the one we’ll never conquer.” He’s capable of expressing real tenderness, but just as often marshals the fury of others like him, “the angry, screwed-up young people.” He’s cleareyed, too, about the in-between space he and his brother occupy: not quite French but not quite Syrian; not immigrants, but not exactly natives. “Aliens without knowing why.”

Guven was born in Nantes, the son of refugees, and worked as a journalist. He has a reporter’s knack for balancing a chorus of perspectives about everything from France’s economic tumult to its charged relationship with immigration. His book — which won a top French literary award, the Prix Goncourt for a debut novel — accomplishes what the best kind of reporting can do: wade into questions that resist simple answers, while restoring dignity to its characters.

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