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Interpretation of “Le Métèque” by Georges Moustaki

For these “interpretations”, I usually pick a Greek song and translate its lyrics to ultimately forward some philosophical point. My goal is to do philosophy in an even more approachable way, though I also seize the opportunity to introduce you to beautiful music you may not be familiar with. Culture has no borders.

Today, I am deviating from the norm in that the song is in French, although the singer is part Greek. This is Le Métèque, meaning “the metic” (from Greek “μέτοικος”: which denotes one who has relocated—the emigrant): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WI5mld3uDz8. And here is the Greek version by George Dalaras (Γιώργος Νταλάρας): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAA0p9q0FxA.

Below are the original lyrics, my translation of them, and some further thoughts on the underlying philosophical points I discern therein.

Le Métèque

Avec ma gueule de métèque
De Juif errant, de pâtre Grec
Et mes cheveux aux quatre vents

Avec mes yeux tout délavés
Qui me donnent l'air de rêver
Moi qui ne rêve plus souvent

Avec mes mains de maraudeur
De musicien et de rôdeur
Qui ont pillé tant de jardins

Avec ma bouche qui a bu
Qui a embrassé et mordu
Sans jamais assouvir sa faim

Avec ma gueule de métèque
De Juif errant, de pâtre Grec
De voleur et de vagabond

Avec ma peau qui s'est frottée
Au soleil de tous les étés
Et tout ce qui portait jupon

Avec mon coeur qui a su faire
Souffrir autant qu'il a souffert
Sans pour cela faire d'histoires

Avec mon âme qui n'a plus
La moindre chance de salut
Pour éviter le purgatoire

Avec ma gueule de métèque
De Juif errant, de pâtre Grec
Et mes cheveux aux quatre vents

Je viendrai, ma douce captive
Mon âme soeur, ma source vive
Je viendrai boire tes vingt ans
Et je serai prince de sang
Rêveur ou bien adolescent
Comme il te plaira de choisir

Et nous ferons de chaque jour
Toute une éternité d'amour
Que nous vivrons à en mourir

Et nous ferons de chaque jour
Toute une éternité d'amour
Que nous vivrons à en mourir
The Metic

With my face of a metic
Of a wondering Jew, of a Greek shepherd
And my hair at the four winds

With my eyes all faded
That give me the looks of a dreamer
I who no longer dream often

With my hands of a marauder
Of a musician and of a prowler
That have pillaged plenty of gardens

With my mouth which has drunk
Which has kissed and which has bitten
Without ever sating its hunger

With my face of a metic
Of a wondering Jew, of a Greek shepherd
Of robber and of vagabond

With my skin which has rubbed against
The sun of all the summers
And all those who wore skirts

With my heart which has made for it
To suffer as much as it has suffered
Without making a fuss out of it

With my soul that no longer has
The least chance of salvation
For avoiding purgatory

With my face of a metic
Of a wondering Jew, of a Greek shepherd
And my hair at the four winds

I will come, my sweet captive
My sister soul [i.e. soul mate], my life source
I will come to drink your twenty years
And shall be a prince of blood
Dreamer or adolescent
As you will prefer to choose

And we will make of every day
A whole eternity of love
Which we will live until we die of it

And we will make of every day
A whole eternity of love
Which we will live until we die of it

The lyrics must be inspired by Georges Moustaki’s own background: a person of many identities. Part Jew, part Greek, yet decisively French. This metic is, in some way, a foreigner, yet in others a fellow citizen. They come from someplace else only to be naturalised as a local. The dynamic between the metic’s world-view and the local culture produces a blend that borrows attributes from both. What is culture, if not a melting pot of influences? Any identity we try to establish is, in some respect, arbitrary, for it introduces a distinction between endogenous and exogenous magnitudes on a continuum of concepts and experiences. Put differently, the “Frenchness” in Georges’ song is not strictly French, any “Jewishness” is not purely Jewish, “Greekness” Greek, and so on.

[ Watch: False binaries and the continuum ]

Cultural identities are abstractions. We derive them by observing patterns in the learnt behaviour of people, their aesthetic preferences, underlying values, and the like. At their best, abstractions give us a general idea of who a given person is. Even though one may have a notion of what it means to be French, no two French people are the same. To judge someone on the basis of their belonging runs the risk of mischaracterising and misunderstanding them.

[ Read/watch: The presumptive idol of you ]

The metic’s actuality reminds us of the diversity of the human condition. Within each culture and between cultures there are differences and similarities springing from a shared nature. We have race, ethnicity, gender, appearance, accent, hobbies, and whatever factor we single out as elements of differentiation. Though these are secondary to what we all have in common: a mouth that kisses, a heart that hurts, a body that ages.

To my mind, the metic is also a metaphor that describes a person who has lived a variety of experiences outside some controlled environment. The vagrant who is exposed to the beating sun of countless summers is one who has been places and seen things. Maybe they learnt something from all those travels, trials and errors. How does it really feel to be a dreamer who doesn’t dream all that much anymore? Perhaps this is the person who has something to say; something they did not read in a book and decided it would make them sound smart. They lived through every moment. Their every statement is rooted in the emotions associated with the relevant phenomena.

[ Watch: On thinking, living, acting ]

The metic is the person who has at least once disturbed a truth they took for granted; the person who outgrew any identity that applied to them, venturing into an uncharted territory only to eventually be acclimated in it. Though the metic at heart won’t stay around for too long, despite the promise of love till death. Their feet need to traverse new lands, their mind must explore any obscure recesses it can find. Whatever life-long love can only materialise with a fellow traveller. It will otherwise be ephemeral, like those summers.