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Category: paris

la peur des étrangers

Un monde étrange avec son langage, ses musiques, son goût pour la violence, où l’on brûle les voitures après les avoir volées et où les centres commerciaux forment le décor et la cible les émeutes urbaines.

There’s something about assimilation that has always struck me as violent. It’s a colonization of self, isn’t it? No one is invading your territory, but as they welcome you onto theirs (reluctantly), a list of prerequisites comes attached. Speak our language. Adopt our dress. Bend your cuisine. Adhere to our norms.

I couldn’t tell you what it feels like to have one particular way of life or culture imposed, because it didn’t quite happen that way for me. Maybe if someone had told me how to behave, which flag to carry, which team to root for, I wouldn’t be so patchwork. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt adopted by so many peoples.

Le rejet par la société des enfants de la seconde génération immigrée peut conduire à l’apparition d’une nouvelle forme de communautarisme. Celle-ci est le fait de sujets socialisés par l’ecole qui ont adopté le genre de vie des jeunes de leur milieu social et de leur generation. Malgré cette intégration culturelle, se manifeste le sentiment d’une identité distincte, construite en réaction à l’expérience de la xenophobie. Le retournement du stigmate en revendication identitaire, le fait de s’affirmer avant tout Arabe ou “Black,” quand on est Français, et qu’on a établi tous ses repères dans la société française, s’apparente moins au retour à la difficulté de vivre simultanément la réalité de l’intégration culturelle et la ségrégation sociale.

The quotes are from “La peur des banlieues” by Henri Rey. It was one of the first books I read when I moved to France in September, and was a harsh and ugly introduction to the mentality behind segregation, laïcité (state-enforced secularism), class divides, and racism. I hated it, but I read the whole thing. It is about insiders and outsiders in the most literal sense — if you are a true and well-to-do Parisian, you live within the city’s borders; if you do not belong, you are banished to the outskirts. Ban-lieue, the lieue de ban, place of exile.

La peur des banlieues, c’est encore la peur de l’etranger et, pour être plus précis, de l’Africain, Arabe d’abord, Noire ensuite, même quand il est Français depuis quelques générations ou quant il vient des départements français d’outre-mer. Refoulés d’une histoire coloniale ponctuée d’épisodes tragiques, la crainte et le rejet de l’étranger marquent de leur empreinte une tradition, peur revendiquée mais coriace, de notre culture nationale.

I had never heard of the principle of laïcité before I moved to France. In a part of the world formerly dominated by the Church, it makes perfect sense — a separation of politics and public life from religion. But holidays still revolve around Christian feast days and saints, and on Sundays, the Lord’s day, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many points of commerce open beyond the most tourist-heavy districts. Pesky details! Under this principle of secularism, the people of France are protected from discrimination and religious oppression. Unless, of course, you’re Muslim. In which case, you, your scarf, your skin, your body are enemy number one.

One arm beckons in a show of welcome. The other holds a stick, in waiting, lest you forget where you belong. The borders framed by flesh and bone are the most complex of all.

they know us by our trails

Yesterday I saw a woman crouch between two parked motorcycles on my street, lift up her skirts, and pee.

This afternoon it was a little boy at a bus stop across the way. As his mother fussed with his baby sister, fastening the pink straps of her stroller, he unzipped the front of his pint-sized pants and peed onto the sidewalk. His four-year-old urine mixed with the rain.

City as toilet. Even with so many free public potties dotted throughout Paris, I’ve still seen more street peeing in my time here than anywhere else I’ve been in the western world.

Public peeing knows no race, no age, no class. It knows only desire.

The town’s hygiene workers have to clean an average 56,000 sq metres of urine-splashed surfaces per month — a figure that rises to 65,000 in summer.

The highest penalty for urinating in public was dealt to Pierre Pinoncelli, a Frenchman who was fined 45,122 euros (£31,400) in 1998 for relieving himself into artist Marcel Duchamp’s modern art urinal, called Fountain — said to be worth £1.9 million.

He described his “attack” as a surrealist act.

Parisians have battled the public pipi for years. First, there were the pissoirs — open-air urinals, geared mainly toward male offenders. Next came the Sanisette — a multi-purpose, self-cleaning WC, mostly free and happily open for use by men, women, children, bums and tourists alike.

Yet despite their ubiquity, these public loos have not deterred even the most casual of urinaters. Paris is their turf, and it is there to be marked. They may not own their homes, have gardens or access to green spaces, but the sloped streets — yellow trickling downhill — are theirs.


There is something about wandering, lost in the rain, that is still the greatest way to get to know a place. Not so great for curly hair or suede boots, but sacrifices must be made. A slow, steady stroll. Bridge over the vast, grand cemetery. Hills must be climbed. Nooks uncovered. And at the top, where the view stretches beyond the the towers and arches to the city’s southern walls, there’s space to breathe it in.


red, light, red, light

Before you’ve gotten off the escalator that spits passengers from the belly of the metro onto Rue Barbès, you can hear the chorus:


Men lined up along the sides, four, five packs of contraband smokes stacked in each hand, throwing numbers. Two euros, three euros. Why pay five at the tabac? You want KHAMEL? No?

Once you’ve made it past them, pushed past the bars of the metro street exit, beyond the flyer boys for the local psychic (“IL ou Elle sera pour toujours comme un toutou — EXCELLENTS RÉSULTATS”), it’s corn. You smell it first, blackened and hot, ears roasting over makeshift BBQs the men wheel around in shopping carts. They don’t yell prices. They don’t have to.

Turn right, cross the street, allez tout droit. It says Rue de Poulet on the sign, but here we call it Rue des Cheveux. Hair everywhere. Knotted strands, stray braids, clumpy bits of weave, red, black, brown, and brassy blond. The neighbourhood storefronts are plastered with images of glossy locks or twisties piled and arranged on smiling models. These high-heeled hairstylists, forever sweeping excess from their floors, shoo much of it into the garbage. But then, there are the pieces that escape. Freed by front door breezes, they roll south along the hill, blow in wisps toward Château Rouge, and down the stairs to the next metro in line.

a s k

what i was talking about.

train was moving fast, i could barely see out the window.

had to trust my gut to know when to pull the trigger.