Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paris is Burning

The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon…or too late.—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1967) (translated from the French)

On my first trip to Paris in 1983, I spent a month living with an elderly widow. She got a little money in exchange for boarding me and my French improved over nightly dinner. She warned me about les Noirs and les Arabes and I tried to look away in the face of her racism.

Still, it is impossible to visit Paris and ignore the dozens of African men selling mechanical birds at the base of the Eiffel Tower, the Arab men painting portraits on the Place in front of Notre Dame. And, years later, visiting poorer friends in those high rises on the periphery or going to the Flea Market on a Saturday jaunt, I saw for myself the neighborhoods that are now in flames.

How easily Fanon and Sartre could have predicted this. And what would James Baldwin, whose “Equal in Paris” masterfully compares his relatively humane treatment in a Paris prison with what would have been his fate as a black man in an American prison in the sixties, think? Baldwin’s experience of “equality,” as he likely knew (but partly suppressed) had everything to do with his being American.

The gap between my gut reaction to this violence and what I read and hear from the French government staggers me. While I think back to what little I know of the pain, alienation, poverty, and hopelessness of life for French Africans (citizens and immigrants both), the government seems to speak only of restoring order. Of course, with rioting spreading across the nation, order should be restored, but, eleven days ago when rioters expressed their outrage at two accidental deaths, could not someone have reacted with sympathy instead of defensiveness?

I walked to the train this morning gathering my thoughts about Paris, sending off little disorganized prayers for the people desperate enough to want to make themselves heard through riots. My iPod was on shuffle and when Cheb Hasni came on, the festive and plaintive Algerian music was almost too much. I remember feeling such hope for France and the world, for a strike against jihadists and for cosmopolitanism when I first heard that music on another trip to Paris. This morning, how different it sounded.

On the elevator, a boy bragged to a girl that he already had a topic for his history paper: the Algerian Conflict. “What’s that?” “I don’t know. It was on the list. I picked it because it had a definite start and end date.” So he thinks now, alas, so he thinks now. But, hearing that I felt both saddened and confirmed that the little I can do here from Jersey City—listening to Algerian dance music, flipping through my Fanon and Sartre, writing a little bit about it, sending thoughts of peace and healing and better conditions, opportunities, and rights to Paris—are better than the nothing of not caring what Algeria is, just being glad that, whatever went wrong there is over.


Louise said...

Dearest Anne,

You are always so much more eloquent and literary than me... a lovely post. France made me think of being a student in the wrong colour coat...

Louise x

Sarahlynn said...

Wonderful post.

I was leading a little class on world religions for 20- and 30-somethings, and the lack of shame, even pride, with which some people exhibited their extreme ignorance was . . . disheartening, to say the least.

genevieve said...

It is astonishing how much damage a stupid remark by a politician can cause. Australians have more than a few examples to compare it with - our racism and dispossession of peoples is, however, more widely acknowledged for the evil that it is. The French now have a chance to get it out into the open and acknowledge it, so as to be able to do some of these things better.