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The gangster's wife who lived to tell her tale

Dan MacGuill · 30 May 2013, 16:03

Published: 30 May 2013 16:03 GMT+02:00

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Who’s Elina Feriel?

She is a 34-year-old author and former ‘gangster’s wife’, whose first book is causing a stir in France.

Why is she in the news?

Feriel has appeared in the French press in recent days promoting her first book “Au bout de la violence” (After the Violence).

It’s a memoir of her years as the self-confessed wife of a drug dealer and career criminal in the violent and poverty-stricken northern district of Marseille, France’s second-largest city.

Over the course of just a few years, Feriel lost the three most important men in her life to violent crime.

Her husband, her older brother, and her new partner were all shot dead on the streets of Marseille in gangland killings.

Tell me more.

Well, Feriel is only just emerging in the French psyche now, but she’s already making an impression.

Her story – guns, drugs, bling, young love and the pain of repeated tragedy – is a fascinating one.

But it’s her personality as much as anything else which is making her a favourite on TV and radio talk shows.

Feriel is brutally honest and very passionate. She is critical of failures among her own people – the Arab community in Marseille – but scathing about the ignorance and hypocrisy of France’s Parisian establishment, which in her view claims to care about Marseille’s monumental problems, but actually does little to help.

So what is her story?

She grew up in the northern district of Marseille, with an absent mother and an alcoholic father. “I was raised by the streets. I used to go around like a little boy,” she told France Info radio.

A distracted trouble-maker at school, Feriel married her husband Sabri when she was still in her late teens. She had fallen for his rough charm, and the two quickly started a family of three children.

He showered her with expensive gifts, the proceeds of his drug-dealing, but as Sabri rose through the ranks to become a top gangster in the city's northern district, his paranoia and abusiveness increased.

Living in constant fear, Sabri began to beat Feriel, and their life spiralled out of control until he was finally shot down with a machine gun while riding his scooter.

Then, incredibly, Feriel’s older brother, who had been convicted of a bag-snatching, as well as her new partner Sam, who was “in with a bad crowd”, were both shot dead over the next few years.

Feriel says her book is not the start of a career in politics, but just to “get things off her chest.”

“I’m not an activist or a spokeswoman…I just felt the need to write this to get things of my chest. It’s crucial. And if it helps to change things, all the better,” she told Elle magazine.

After everything that has happened, Feriel has moved "far away" from Marseille's northern district, and lives with her three children.

Paint me a picture of her.

Feriel is sharp, witty, and very sassy. It’s clear there is some hurt, and even bitterness behind her words.

However, with the writing and publication of her memoirs, she gives the impression of someone who is prematurely wise and eager to share what she has learned (the hard way) about poverty, violence, and the allure of glamour.

Here she is in flying form in an interview with BFMTV (in French). She’s lamenting the way that young men and women – in particular poor, Arab, Muslim men and women – interact nowadays.

Story continues below…

She attacks the influence of music videos and says “there is a lot less respect for women, now.”

When the interviewer mentions reality TV starlet Nabilla Benattia (herself of Algerian origins), he clearly touches a nerve for Feriel.

“What is this?! What is this mediocrity in France?...So for Muslim girls, there is what – either the niqab [Muslim veil], or Nabilla? And there’s nothing in between?”

What does she have to say for herself?

“After the death of my husband, some people would have preferred if I just stuffed myself full of Prozac and shut myself off in silent mourning. But I’m a bigmouth, and I do the opposite of what people expect from me,” she told Elle magazine in a recent interview.

"I try to pass down to my children an open-mindedness, and a trust that didn't exist where I came from. But I also want them to toughen up, and to know that the world that's out there waiting for them, it's not all Care Bears," she said in the same interview.

The Local's French Face of the Week is a person in the news who - for good or ill - has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as French Face of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

Dan MacGuill (dan.macguill@thelocal.com)

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