Sign of the Times: A Photo Essay

Scenes of Abu Dhabi, UAE during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Young masked men play pool outside Madinat Zayed. Others seem to be selling fake designer clothes in an illicit secondhand market. A lone man in a polo shirt has erected jumping castles to make extra cash outside the Gold Center. The castles are deserted. He listens to something on his phone, absorbed with all the intensity of the clouds gathering above. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — must continue to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.

Laborers in the city must continue to earn money. Juice shops, cafeterias, carpet sellers, cobblers, tailors, honey vendors…all remain. They sip tea in their shops, trying to sell. In 48 hours, they will have to pack up and stay home for two weeks. Almost everyone on the street is masked. Small cigarettes and “massage cards” lie motionless on the pavement. Malayalam, French, Urdu, Wolof, Bengali: all the languages of the streets, of the working class, dance. They filter through masks and mix with the air like steam rising from the chai at Happy Cafeteria. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — must continue to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.

Small groups of young West African men swap cigarette boxes, thin rolls of money, and bottles of hand sanitizer as they congregate outside an apartment building. I try not to look. I, girl with the zooming camera and lens-corrected eyes, am looked at. I stumble upon a shop called MASK FASHION nearby. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — continues to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.

 

 

Vamika Sinha is a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Postscript. Find more of her photography here.

The Islander

They say it doesn’t rain in Abu Dhabi, but this is a lie. Something’s always leaking. Fat, fat droplets, that I see on Sayed’s face sometimes, when he walks in from the heat or disappears into the storage closet to quickly rub his eyes. It’s probably sweat. Everything here sweats: the air-cons above the shops, the glasses of lemon mint and the soft-skinned people with cameras who look at me too long. Abu Dhabi is really a rainy city, otherwise it would burn up. That is why when Sayed gets tense, I go to him. Like today, there were no customers around so I walked into his room to let him I know was there. Sometimes he just looks at me for hours, not moving. It is a very long time. But I don’t mind with him. His face softens a bit, like sogged up paper, and he lets something in him rain. I don’t know what that feels like but I do know that in Abu Dhabi, it is very important to stay cool.

Sayed is making chai. It reminds me of that boyfriend I had once, with skin the color of karak. He stayed close by behind the baqala, from where he’d steal large cold water bottles for me. One time, we had ended up walking as far as the corniche from Al Wahda. There were so many men there, like yapping puppies, dressed in t-shirts fitted to the smile of their bellies. I fleetingly wondered how my body would change if I got pregnant. The men had been staring. Staring hard, it seemed, at a pair of logs, in a creamy pinky milky color, like a shake. Logs? We moved closer. The long peach stumps soon revealed a set of knees, swelling up into thighs, flowering up into a whole person. It was a white woman, sunbathing.

How different those men were from Sayed. They must not be praying; and I’m sure it had even been a Friday. The thought of it makes my back arch again, as if some cold slime is trickling through the vertebrae. I remember my boyfriend gazing out towards the water, oblivious to all. We had not looked at each other for a single moment; there was something more beautiful in front of us. It was so blue, so bright and lovely and unmarred by humanness. An oasis. And yet, I don’t remember much else but feeling hot, just too hot. That boyfriend is gone now, but my stomach still feels funny when I catch the smell of karak.

These days the weather is quite cool at night, so I go walking in Al Wahda. Hours pass as the taxi cabs go by. I think they are beautiful. These days I find myself dreaming of walking straight onto the road, as if wading into an endless current. Nobody would see me; everyone would be looking up, looking at the road ahead. How long would this game last before I lost my body, in some forgotten underbelly of that powerful stream? Yet when I watch these cabs swim through the night, something inside me stops. I wish I could communicate it – that ripple settling into silence.

Why don’t the big, creamy, perfumed people take photographs of such things? Like the yellow hats of taxi cabs or the pastel apartment blocks with so many eyes or the crushed pools of dates on the pavements. Things grown and fallen and full and lived in. Instead, they pick and choose what to see. My friend Roza who stays with an American expatriate, told me that they like to gather in very specific places, like Emirates Palace. Or they go to the Louvre, to take pictures of the ‘rain of light’. I wish I could see this mysterious rain but Saadiyat Island is very far and I would die walking there. But I’m sure I would like it. One day perhaps, if Sayed gets a nice car; a rain of light sounds like something you could never look at long enough. Perhaps it’s true then, maybe those people do know better. Maybe they look so carefree because they are the best at deciding the most beautiful and lovely things. Imagine, a rain of light. Even Sayed might pull out his phone to take a picture and send it home. Maybe he’d make it his background for a while, replacing the shot of his parents’ home in Lucknow.

It is difficult for me to understand Sayed’s world. But I think I have definitely figured out the word “paisa”. Sayed needs money. I’ve obviously never needed it myself but I want to make Sayed happy and that is what he says he needs. Paisa, paisa, paisa, he yells many times into the phone. At first, I thought paisa was a woman. There was this Filipina nurse who came into the shop once. She had soft hands, and she bent down properly to talk to me, her voice kind of sticky. I saw Sayed look at her for a very long time, even when she had walked out. He would stare as if the corniche itself was in front of him, except there was no visible horizon, only a world he wanted to reach his arms out to forever – if only his body didn’t ache so much. On that island there would be no rain perhaps. Just sun and palms and breeze – and paisa. Different. Different from where he was.

Sayed talks to me a lot nowadays. I’m afraid I’m his only real friend, except maybe Hamza-bhai from the baqala who comes over with a pack of cards on a blue moon Saturday. But nobody really talks to me either, unless they want me to get out of the way. I know I’m not pretty. I’m too skinny, even though I eat well now, and my limbs remain bone and angles. But Sayed still loves me. He told me so. I didn’t know how to ask him what love was, but I think I sort of figured it out one day, from a guy called Rahul. He was a skinny boy with a face in permanent shadow. I found him one night while walking, spraying the letters “A M A L” on a wall, eyes leaking and leaking like some faulty faucet. He taught me some signs; he kept going on about how he had missed or dismissed them. Like the way someone talks to you, a bit more padded and softer than usual, like the underside of a new-born kitten’s paws. The shape of their palm when they touch you. Where they touch you. A gaze that lingers. Sayed lets me sit next to him while he prays. When he finishes, he looks up for a long time, his face as open as a desert. I look too but I don’t really see anything. Not even rain. But I am grateful to be with him. Nobody else sees the love he mouths upwards, evaporating to join the clouds. I always move closer and lay my head on his thigh. And he smiles in return. I think we have so much to give to each other.

We watched a new Madhuri Dixit film today. Obviously, we couldn’t miss it on ZeeTV now that it was finally showing. This was Sayed’s favorite actress, and the most beautiful woman in the world. How incredible, firstly that I even have a name, and that I’m named after her. I often wish she would just shake off the TV screen like pesky bathwater and walk into Sayed’s arms. Then we’d be a real family, a filmy one in a white house. Sayed would smile so much that his cheeks would ache for months. He would hug us and call home and pay for extra meethai and invite Hamza-bhai for chai and then hug us again, tighter. I would wind through both of their legs. They would laugh, entwined, Sayed’s face bursting like the splitting open of a flower, seeds spilling, life pouring forth.

This is my favorite daydream.

Sometimes it comes back so sharply. My life three years ago – eating out of garbage cans, like so many others in this city. It was so difficult to move. And then Sayed. Sayed found me in that pedestrian underpass. That place where the sun couldn’t glare at me anymore, where the ground was cool as lemon mint because of course, everyone knows it is important to stay cool in Abu Dhabi. I had gone to that underpass to give up. My body spread in surrender. So many footsteps bobbed by me, interrupted at times by curiosity and then inevitable, helpless revulsion. My eyes were perpetually half-closed but I still saw, always the same grotesque realization hooking onto their features: “Awww…oh…oh…poor thing. Poor kitty.”

Until. One pair of feet, paused. A man kneeling down to look at me, properly, even gently patting my fur. He had begun to talk softly in Hindi, which a lot of people speak here. The words I know best are “Chal hat!” and “kaali billi.” I get the feeling they don’t like me because my fur is a deep black. And so they don’t understand when I try tell them it’s just like the hair on their heads. Many of them run away in fear, eyes popping.

Sayed brought me to his home, and soon I came to learn new smells – blackened banana peel-stinks forgotten, I discovered the sharp tang of lemon dishwasher liquid, so heady my eyes swam. I remember resting for many weeks in a little bed made from old fabrics. All the fabrics sold at Sayed Fashion Tailors are the color of apartments in Abu Dhabi. Or of sand. The sand is to Abu Dhabi what hope is to us: me, you, Sayed.

“I think, I will name you Madhuri,” he had told me when I finally started walking properly again, pointing to the television. And he had smiled. We had looked at each other for a long time that afternoon and I hope he knew I was close to happy too.

I hope he knows.

Today, Madhuri Dixit is dancing, shut within the television set – for outside the window, there is rain, and a song is beginning to play. It talks about love. As Madhuri’s body moves, she suddenly remembers that she knows all the words well.

Artwork by Khalid AlHammadi

new york

new york. creaky joints squealing
onwards and upwards
scaffoldings screaming, cranes
singing loud jazz bars subway rhythms
symphonic traffic
workers’ shouts.
buzzing bulbs
sirens
alarms.
ring ring customer service elevator
music hello
how may i help you? sure thing!
have a good one! sunny
sing-song kettle whistle
daisy’s voice like money
jangling coins, jewelry rattle
screeching sidewalk pram-strapped infant
and obese mother’s white tee spelling
“TACOS & TEQUILA”
central park flip-flop
soles thwacking kisses smacking
hola! puta! you twaaalking to me?
stiletto heels, cuban beat
pulse throbbing boom-pow out
the car window exposed head nodding
3 and 4 and
signal change horn
blaring too fast
come, quick
moan and sigh
mmmmmmmmmmmm
breathe in
swipe right
scroll up
steam rising
off noodles, pan sizzles
breathe out
gulp, bite, gaudy bollywood
item number
gunshot. yoga.
NEXT STOP WEST 4TH STREET
bic lighter whispers to paper to brain
KEEP AWAY
FROM THE YELLOW LINE
yeah man, it’s all about the hustle
all about the bustle and
the universe, man, the universe
yeeeeaaaahh.
you want a blunt?
basketball courts and old men with canes tapping
hip hop sweating profusely in the dark
club bangers at forever 21,
guzheng thick and sweet in chinatown station
grimy cash registers and coffee cups
drunk, careful tattoo needle buzz
drilling, drilling holes
out scuttles a cockroach in a dorm.
places of religion and their chaos of footfalls
heads bowed and pages flapping
clapping
are you there
god? i’m calling from new york.
left on read, left on hold, ping! tweet
tweet facebook messenger
somebody replied
too fast or too slow?
english lessons for sale!
NOW DEPARTING FROM GRAND CENTRAL STATION
immigrant security guard laughs like a cheerleader
border control man laughs like sorority leader
big fists and slim handshakes
shake shack. shack shake.
shaky blur stamp on your visa, kid, what you doin?

welcome to new york
you are free to go.

 

Image from New York Times Magazine’s Love City issue, “24 Kisses Around New York City in 24 Hours”, June 2018

US Embassy

This is Trump’s regime
A neocolonialist bureau in a
Post-colonial city
The grey building with its well-manicured grass
Has its guards stand tall with
Cartoon moustaches that are
Anything but funny

They make you feel so small
First they spit orders into your face to
Empty yourself bare
You feel like a child who
Ate her homework
And stumbled into the headmistress’ office with a bad stomachache

Then they make you stand in silence
Even as you try to make conversation with the
Equally nervous person behind you who’s
Going to visit their daughter for the first time in 3 years or the
Hopeful student who just got into this university in Iowa or
That one in Arkansas

“Sir how old were you when you left Tehran”
“My parents are sponsoring me”
“Husband is in Philippines, ma’am”
“Virtual key accounts manager”
“Housewife”
“Sir it’s a one number question can you just answer me straight”
“Until I was eighteen ma’am”

Accents
Interrogated by some voice on TV with no soul
And we were not allowed to look, our knees
Trembling like we were waiting in line at the
Site of an execution
After all capital punishment is still a thing in
Free America

“NYU?”
“History major”
“Your visa is approved ma’am”
Such ease in my privilege I thought I moved worlds and
Tried to keep my relief in check because there were still many
Before me and after

All these words rehearsed in nervous minds and robotic ones
The white people at the counters had nuclear missiles to blow our hopes dry
And turn our hearts into a giant
Wasteland that was once
An American dream

I wanted to punch Uncle Sam and scream
I hate America
Or burn down a McDonald’s while
Showing my middle finger to Trump
But I kept silent with my head down
And as I walked out I saw a woman in a burqa
And I have never been aware of
Privilege as such

 

Artwork by Yeo Tze Yang, “I Could Live in Hope”, 2015

Point Ephémère and the Slum: How Paris Handles Her Refugees

Stretching along the Bassin Louis Blanc in Paris there are clusters of multi-colored tents, sitting idly, practically steaming in the May heat. The canal water lurks by quietly, and next door, Parisians sip beer or coffee at a trendy bar turned breakfast spot during the day. The bar is called Point Ephémère, French for ‘ephemeral’: fleeting, transient, temporary.

“I was going to have my throat cut in Afghanistan.”

It’s one of the first things he tells me. His assertion that he deserves refugee status, that he was in real danger — he will say it to some student who is not even French. I imagine he’s said it over and over again.

“I am a translator by profession. I speak five languages.”

His resume, his proof that he’s not a migrant worker. France is friendly to refugees, or so she claims, but wants to stop the flow of migrant workers, especially into Paris.

“In Afghanistan, I had a big villa, a nice car…”

He is not moving to Paris because he was poor at home and wants to make money. He is an intellectual, a skilled worker. He is useful. He is not a leech. He is more than his situation.

“This is not my life”.

While living in a temporary shelter beside the Bassin should have been a situation “ephémère,” Ahmed has lived on the street for over a year. After fleeing his situation in Afghanistan, he finally arrived in Europe and made it to Paris: the city of love, the city of lights. Stickers on the door outside Point Ephémère advocate for refugees, “J’existe”; around the city there are stenciled graffiti cutouts that have cropped up all over Europe — “refugees welcome”. He tells me that he wants to stay in Paris. He is good at French, he has family who have settled here, he wants to stop moving.

Immigrants in France who do not have documentation are called sans-papiers, the majority of them refugees, and while they wait for the government to determine their status they are not allowed to work. This means they are at the mercy of charities and a government allowance to stay alive. For the entire settlement of refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, there are a few portable toilets and there are the tents. While French President Macron had promised to see refugees housed by the end of 2017, thousands are still sleeping rough in the streets waiting for their fates to be decided. The ultimate requisite is, did you suffer enough at home to be allowed to stay here? Are you worthy of Paris?

This year Paris saw an unusually cold winter. The snow made the city picture perfect, but while many Parisians marveled at city dressed up in white, French police were spraying asylum-seekers’ blankets with water. The water would freeze, making it impossible for them to stay on the street and be warm, with the idea that they would go to immigration centers. The question the police never asked was why people would be sleeping on the street if there was space for them to be anywhere else. There were accounts of police telling immigrants to disperse, and when they asked where they should go, the police officers said, we don’t care, just somewhere else. I wouldn’t meet Ahmed and the other Afghan refugees until the snow had already melted, but they told me that it was Parisians, and particularly people who are of immigrant descent who helped them to make it through the cold. It was Parisians who brought blankets, food, water and winter jackets. Meanwhile the shelters were at full capacity. Temporary settlements cropped up and were treated like weeds by the police. Sprayed, cleared, and the people shuffled along. Sometimes they had to sleep standing up to avoid being noticed by the police.

I first encountered Point Ephémère accidentally, on a night out with two friends in March. I was on my way to a jazz club near the Stalingrad metro station; night had already fallen, and the Stalingrad area is already a little sketchy to begin with. When you exit the metro, you pass a neon “Paris Fried Chicken” shop, and are dwarfed by a grey bridge with peeling posters and graffiti.

It’s easy to get confused on the Parisian streets, especially when it’s nighttime and your mobile map app thinks you’re floating in the Seine for some reason. It took us a long time to find the jazz club, so we were disappointed when we looked through the window and saw a lone musician and an empty restaurant.  The music that floated through the glass was sub-par, and my jazz-expert friend deemed it “not worth it”. We decided to go to a different place, Point Ephémère, which popped up as a suggestion on the internet.

We stood on the bridge, looking down at the club and I pointed out four rats to my friends as we paused at the bewildering scene below. On one side of the rat meet-up there was a line to get into the bar. On the other side of them there were tents, sleeping bags and a canal with the most overpowering smell I’d encountered in Paris thus far.

My friends and I looked at each other, and then looked back at the scene. This place was beside the water, a prime location to party, but didn’t these club-goers notice the slum beside them? Didn’t they care? Across the canal there were about a dozen police vehicles. Unsettled, we followed our map up the wrong street, and then down that same street, and then up it again. We were sure that place below couldn’t be where we were trying to go. A smiling stranger walking his fluffy white dog stopped us, “You seem lost!”

We explained what we were looking for. He frowned, “That’s it, it’s right by the canal.”  He pointed to some stairs we could take down to the water. When we peered down onto the alley below we saw three men peeing against the wall.

Some people come to Paris because it’s the city of love, the city of lights. It’s easy to see Paris through these rose-coloured glasses. You smell something funny and breathe through your mouth, you hear something scuttle in the corner of the metro and you choose not to look.  Why ruin an otherwise perfect place by paying attention to those little flaws? Other people, the artsy types, come to Paris because of that layer of grime. It seemed we had found one of those places; the kind of place where the music is loud, the hipsters are chatty and artists float in and out with ideas spewing from their multi-coloured lipstick mouths. Point Ephémère calls itself “a center of artistic dynamics”, with visual artists and musicians in residence, rehearsal studios, a concert hall and a bar. As with so many places in this city, you never know who you might meet there.

We descended the stairs, careful to avoid puddles of anything at that point, and entered into a crowd by the canal. People were drinking and smoking, talking and laughing. We weaved our way through and approached the bouncer, but paused when we saw the tents.

“Why would they camp next to a river?”

“Well they need somewhere to go to the bathroom.”

“I wonder if they’re immigrants.”

“I wonder if they’re gypsies.”

Someone was barbequing next to a tent. We debated whether the people in tents were actually a bunch of hippies who were choosing to sleep outside of the club.  

“Is that allowed?”

The smell told us otherwise. These people were living here at least semi-permanently. We looked at the bright lights of the club and the fog of people pressed against each other. I kept thinking I could see a rat in the corner of my eye. We decided to leave, with our heads full of questions about Point Ephémère. I knew that we would be back.

Homelessness and poverty in Paris are two things that you can choose to confront or ignore. I’ve noticed that many people tend to pretend not to see it, or they romanticise it. In the Châtelet metro station there is a woman who lies with her forehead to the ground and her hands stretched out in front of her, a coffee cup balanced in her fingers. People mill right past her. Entire families sit on the stairs in the metro, children asleep on their parents’ laps, signs stating that they’re Syrian refugees, or that they just need a meal balanced on their knees. Sometimes people come onto the train with cups, declaring their need for food, or quietly asking each person for a euro. There is a particular question, when the beggar or homeless person is a person of colour, about whether he or she is a refugee or not. I didn’t realise how important that question was until we returned to Point Ephémère for a second time.

When I returned, I brought the same two friends with me. The Stalingrad area looked totally different in the day. It felt like it had its arms open; there were people with babies in strollers and groups standing outside smoking and chatting. Even the “Paris Fried Chicken” shop that had seemed so comically seedy at night looked like a nice place for a fried chicken sandwich during the day.

We approached the tents and the bar and noticed that there were people sitting outside, having lunch and chatting. Once again, I was shocked by how little they seemed to care about the people in tents beside them. The club-goers or hipsters and the people living in the tents came from two different worlds: one of abstract care for immigrants among little-known musical beats and one of homelessness.  Two worlds that don’t mix.

We approached a man having breakfast, and asked him if he knew a little bit about the club and the people living near it. We were surprised to learn that all the people in tents were “Syrian refugees”. He told us that they were being supported by NGO’s and they had to live there until they got official refugee status. They sometimes came to the club for Wi-Fi. We asked him what he thought the solution to the problem could be and he said that the only solution was to end the war in Syria. Then we clarified that we’d meant what was the solution to people living outside in tents, and he shrugged, “the situation is so complicated, very complicated. The NGO’s do good work for them.”

We walked past a man sitting cross-legged on the slope leading up to the bridge. He was wearing round John Lennon-style glasses, had long flowing blond hair and was eating his lunch with the view of the slum below. Another hipster who wanted a taste of the grimy layer of Paris, yet he was still elevated above the slum-dwellers of course. I felt uncomfortable looking at him.

We stood on the bridge contemplating how to approach these “Syrian refugees” when my friend, Chiran, caught their attention. They waved to him and he waved back. Then we stood, awkwardly staring at each other. My friends and the people near the tents below were all laughing and glancing at each other, unsure of how to handle the situation socially. Chiran broke the impasse by waving for them to come up onto the bridge. They did, and what we learned was surprising.

Around ten of them came up to talk to us, and at first it was difficult to navigate through a sea of French and English. We found ourselves miming to them. Finally, after the men clarified that they’re from Afghanistan, my friends realised that they had a language in common: Hindi/Urdu. My friends spoke to everyone this way, but especially a man named Malang. That was when I met Ahmed.

He tried to speak to me in French first, since it was obvious that I didn’t understand Hindi. Then he switched to English. For some reason he thought, or maybe hoped, that telling me his story would bring about some change. He had spoken to journalists and government officials, people who were full of promises.

“They take our fingerprints and our pictures and they tell us soon, soon, soon. I’ve been living here for a year.”

Meanwhile, one of the men said to my Indian friend, “India and Afghanistan are brothers. You have to help us.” She was lost for what to say, and only gently reminded him that we’re students but we would do what we could.

Some of the men watched my conversation with Ahmed intently, adding pieces and weaving strands into his story. They took us seriously. I asked what happens once they get refugee status; do they get any more help?

“Sometimes people move in with family once they get the papers but some of us already have them,” one of the men passed his to me gingerly, “and we still live here, we have nowhere else to go.”

For the group of people that I met as well as asylum-seekers all across Paris, health and sanitation are rapidly deteriorating. Public bathroom facilities are available but you often have to pay for those. Without being able to wash themselves properly they risk skin infections and scabies. They also live in fear of the police, who slash their tents and force them to move on. Immigrant centers turn them away because they’ve been maxed out. Police will show up without warning at temporary shelters like the one along the Bassin Louis Blanc and force immigrants onto buses to temporary shelters. People who don’t happen to be at the camp when it’s rounded up can be separated from friends and family, and risk losing the few possessions they do have when the entirety of the camp is thrown into dumpsters. Police have been known to tear-gas the groups as well. Sometimes they don’t send them anywhere in particular, they just tell them to disperse. Immigrants are treated like criminals in Paris, for all of the artists’ insistence that “immigrants are welcome” and Macron’s claim that France is “honored to welcome refugees.”

Roundups have created a vicious cycle for refugees of flitting from under one bridge to another. They go to immigration centers only to end up on the streets again. They are photoshopped out of the pristine Paris and are weaved with flower crowns in the hippie wonderland. Ahmed told me his greatest annoyance was that people from the bar would come to take pictures of the camp.

“When we ask them why, they say they will make a Facebook post so people know about us. But people already know, and it is not dignified.”

The life of the refugee is transformed again, into a sad story that is shareable. A thread in a night at an artsy bar that you visited. A grimy layer in a tapestry. But the people living in those tents are not just a backdrop. They are not ephemeral men.

The problem with awareness campaigns and Facebook statuses is that these people are already very visible. They are so visible in Paris that it becomes possible to have a cigarette next to their living space. To have a cocktail and talk about contemporary art. To piss a few meters away from where they have to sleep at night, seeing them but not understanding what their presence really means. They become reduced to the way they look, flattened into ‘Syrian’ refugees who “we”, the true Paris, can do nothing for. In Paris, people view immigrants, especially immigrants of colour in two ways. They are refugees, who only matter because of their sad situation, and there are economic migrants. I met one man in the Paris flea market who, when I said I was from Abu Dhabi, told me he wanted to go to Dubai.

“Paris is racist. They don’t like me because I am Arab, because I am Muslim, because I have a beard.”

The man we met was not a refugee, so he is seen as a leech. Taking “true” Parisians’ jobs. Not French. Not worthy. His journey has been deemed not sad enough, not enough of a struggle. His story is a thread that so many would like to tear out of the tapestry. He is a beard, a religion, an “other”. Ahmed’s thread, by comparison, is a little blue one, a thread that we’re used to seeing and can’t distinguish from all the other refugee threads. I’m surprised when he tells me that he goes into the bar sometimes, that he parties, that he hates his boredom the most out of everything he has to deal with in Paris.

I left my conversation with Ahmed with a head full of questions. I had wanted a neat narrative, the kind of story that would help me to understand him and use him as a lens to see all refugees through. I wanted to write a story that would also act like a manual for how we could help “them”. Instead I was confused. The story was messy, and facts conflicted from one person to the other as I spoke to them. My friends got the phone number of the refugee they’d spoken to the most, named Malang. He said to call him any time. We promised that we would. I was determined to retrieve a “classic” refugee story, to dig out that blue thread and twist it around my finger.

A couple of weeks passed. When we called Malang he said of course he remembered us. We asked to meet at a McDonalds in Stalingrad, but he said to come to the camp and pick him up from there. I had a list of questions ready for him. I wanted to know who his family was, how he’d come to Paris, what he was running from, the smallest details of his life in the camp. I wanted a beginning, a turning point and a journey. I wanted trauma. I wanted a checklist for how to help.

When we arrived in Stalingrad we called him, as he’d told us to. A different voice answered the phone.

“Can we speak to Malang?”

“Who?”

“Malang. The owner of this phone.”

“This is my phone. I don’t know a Malang.”

We had just called less than an hour ago to arrange the meeting. We wondered if Malang’s phone had been stolen, who was that other voice? We decided to call back a little while later. This time a different voice answered.

“What do you want with Malang?” … “I don’t know who Malang is.” … “My name is Walih Khan” … “Who are you?” … “wrong number I think.”

Everything we asked was met with increasing suspicion. We told the voice we were students, that we’d arranged to meet him a little while ago.

“Malang got his papers and has a house now, he can’t meet with you because he has his papers.”

The voice hung up and I stood in a McDonalds in Stalingrad with a list of questions and no answers. I had wanted to learn the story of a refugee but realized how short-sighted I’d been. Of course, strangers asking for him by name would be suspicious. Refugees in Paris get treated like criminals. Men who don’t have homes and papers disappear, not worthy of the city or too afraid of the system to continue to trudge through it. They become ghost people, ephemeral and flittering, bounced from place to place without dignity. There is no one story of being a refugee, and there are no true answers to the who, what, when, where. There is especially no answer to the question why.

Just like the people at Point Ephémère, who had infuriated me, I was flattening the refugee story. I tried to whittle it down to one man, and I colored the entire experience blue rather than accepting complexity. When Ahmed told me that he hated that people came to the slum and took pictures I was confused about why it would bother him so much. I thought he was worried people might see him living in such conditions, but it was so much more than that. The attempt to take a snapshot of the refugee experience is futile, not only do we see it all the time, we also fail to see it because we’ve decided, like the French man who told us that they were Syrian, that we know the truth already.

I’m not the only writer who has tried to tell The Refugee Story. In our compassion, we often try to dig up the people who are suffering, already having decided what the narrative is going to be. We think that in telling their stories we’ll make some change. What we create is an easily-consumed mistruth.

Popular newspapers and magazines have focused on the widespread refugee situation, collecting heart-wrenching quotes from asylum-seekers about feeling like animals, being mistreated, being exhausted. The Independent writes about the “trail of misery”, City Lab writes about the asylum-seekers hope “unraveled” in Paris. They take a snapshot of the lives of each refugee and we read the newspaper and sigh. Then it becomes part of the picture of Paris, a part that you step over just like you step over the woman bowed with a cup in her hands in the Chatelet metro station. An easily-consumed story is also an easily forgotten one.

When Malang-not-Malang instructed me to meet him in Stalingrad and then another-Malang-not-Malang said he didn’t know who Malang was, it frustrated me. I imagine that I got a small taste of the frustration Malang and Ahmed and other asylum-seekers feel in Paris. They’ve lived on the street for over a year and there are no answers. They do exactly what they’re instructed to do but there is no neat ending in sight. While they’re very visible as a group, the individual man is a ghost. His story is too complex, too difficult to write, especially when we expect him to speak for the entire group. It’s easier to take a picture and let it speak for him, it’s easier to collect quotes that only depict suffering, as if everything about him is his pain. Statistics and snapshots are important. It would be much worse for the refugee to be invisible because nobody wants to try to depict the complexity of his story. Brushing it into a different alley, or under a different bridge, is exactly what we don’t want to do. Awareness is important, but it has to be accompanied by the individual story.

The first thing Ahmed told me about himself is that he is a translator. He can speak five languages. I learned from him that our compassion can also rest heavy on the shoulders of people who are suffering. In an effort to understand, or even help, we flatten. Malang and not-Malang taught me how difficult Paris has made it to know refugees because they’ve been dehumanized to the point of self-silencing. Discovering the individual refugee has been made into a near-impossible task because we’ve expected them to speak for the entire group, and because the city has been so hostile to them that they have to hide in case the truth has them deemed unworthy.

This piece is part of the Invisible Cities series.

Taking the RER B

Bir-Hakeim

My best friend missed her flight because she needed to see the Eiffel Tower. She simply would not have been to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. On the day, the train takes just a bit too long but when we emerge from the Bir-Hakeim metro station, finally, the tower emerges like Goliath pouncing upon our fantasies. The sky is grey; the Eiffel Tower is grey too. My friend peers up at it and I quickly snap a photo. It comes out fuzzy, bleak. This picture will exist as a record on her Instagram, that she has been here, that she visited this continent, that she came to this city and stamped it.

She was here. She was there.

Later, when my friend disappears down the stairwell, into Bir-Hakeim station and out of her Paris, I walk closer to the base of the tower. There are little knots of West African men, selling mini Eiffel Towers on keyrings. Five for a euro! Five for a euro – small, medium, big! I can tell they are West African because their accents have that curious spooling of two histories – French and Wolof maybe, or another native language. Colonial and natural. It is one of my favourite accents, as if speaking whilst a truffle rolls around in your mouth, a sticky mixed chocolate truffle where the white and dark are swirled together like marble. I am reminded of my friend Arame, an economics major from Senegal who studied with me in Abu Dhabi, how her lips turned even such words like “finance” and “merger” into a unique kind of music.

The West African men are smiling at us but their grins all have droplets of anxiety lodged within them, like weak rain struggling to slide down the tower’s crisscrossing beams. It is raining now. They huddle into themselves, into their almost threadbare hoodies, and spread their hands across the mini Eiffel keyrings, as if gesturing to an array of potions that when drunk, will transfer you somewhere else, up the tower and beyond, all the way to your far-off dreams.

 

Aéroport Charles De Gaulle

Name: Vamika Sinha
Date of birth: 03/04/1998
Sex: F
Occupation: Student
Nationality: Indian
Place of Issue: Gaborone

The stamp on my passport page exists like a tattoo on skin: a visible mark carrying a history, an imprint both borne out of and onto memory. Permanent. What is the story behind this fading French thing? How has it become a double mark of identification, both technically, my admittance through the Paris airport, as well as metaphorically, an engraving on my evolving identity?

The story of my stamp begins, as it usually does, on a page.

When I was 15, I checked out a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast from the school library. This is a memoir written about Hemingway’s time spent as a struggling expatriate journalist in Paris during the 1920s, surrounded by his friends and fellow artists, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and others – known as the “Lost Generation” in the artery of history, a clump of artistic creatives, meandering misers and penniless geniuses. A Moveable Feast is a mosaic of a time and a place and a set of people now lost to us in the present; personal accounts, written observations, streams of consciousness and old rendezvous’ melt into each other on the page, with the fluidity and irregularity of the River Seine. Throughout, Hemingway mentions several addresses of cafés, apartments, bars and residences that can still be found in Paris today. What results is a fragmented piece of textual cartography, mapping a narrative of Paris through the lens of a writer and artist amid the city’s jazz age.

I was a believer. I believed in Hemingway’s moveable feast; I believed in his city, his Paris in text. I believed it and committed to it as something holy, a distant reality and sacred fairytale. Maybe I still do, in a corner of my gut. At 15-16, I was lost, inside the unwieldy spines of literature that were so much larger and smarter than me, inside the mouth of an impending future as a literature student-maybe, an expatriate journalist-maybe. Through Hemingway’s text about his Lost Generation in Paris, I could remain lost but also find a sense of belonging in that lost-ness, of smoky cafes and smoky opportunities. Paris had come to save me. It was reaching out a hand to help, fingers outstretched, one of them looped on a cigarette and the rest promising to propel me into a city that, in its own beautiful, fragmented authenticity, could allow me too to be that beautiful, fragmented thing: a creative human, comfortable within itself, comfortable as exactly itself and what it was trying to be.

At 19, I got the opportunity to find my own Paris, not just Hemingway’s, but like a warm baguette hugged to my chest, just mine for the savouring. What I write today is my own textual cartography, perhaps just as fragmented and even more questioning of what it means to put down a city on a page, to formulate its borders in words, to stamp it.

 

Louvre-Rivoli

Next to Paris’ oldest bookstore is an overpriced café. You can sit inside a little plastic enclosing with a heater above your head, to protect you from the cold rain. I sit in a corner with my two friends. We order tiny coffees, black and bitter inside shiny, white cups. The rain drums gently on the plastic roof, like the sound of someone’s footsteps running away. For the next hour, my friend reads aloud from a French poetry book, maybe it was Rimbaud. Sip, sip, sip. The rain falls steadily. Run, run, run. We stare off into the distance and speak stiltingly in our nascent French. Oui, oui, oui. We think, we are sure, we are intelligent. My friend lights a cigarette and the meeting between paper and flame makes a soft fizz. All of history, conversations past between Sartre and Picasso and Dali and Beauvoir inside warmly lit cafes, are smoke phantoms hovering above our heads. I wonder if this is what it is to truly be in Paris. I think, I am sure, I want this to be true. The cigarette dies out and we are left with a stub, an unfinished book, a hefty bill and some rain.  We think, we are sure, we are very, very young in a very, very old place. Somewhere in a little Haussmanian apartment in the 5th arrondissement, a little child kneels at the feet of his ailing grandfather, exchanging stories bright like peeling pink paint.

 

Cité Universitaire

“May I have a Nutella crêpe please?”
“Bien sûr, mon ami. Here, have some tea.”
“Really? For free? C’est vraiment gratuit?”
“For free, mon ami – welcome to Paris.”

Outside my dorm, deep in the unglamorous 14th arrondissement, there is a crêpe stand. Pass by and you will be followed by Holiday or Sinatra, wispy in your ears like smoke; pause to stop and you will get free Middle Eastern tea in a small plastic cup. Opposite the stand, there is the way to the airport, direct on the RER B. The central artery of the Paris metro, this train connects all us students to the rest of the city and also, in a way, to the rest of the world.

I sip my tea in thought. Hmm…there is some mint in this, a generous amount of sugar…it reminds me of the two-dirham tea I like to buy in downtown Abu Dhabi. A sentimental taste. My mouth warms up from the cold, metallic newness of the French language.

“I am from Palestine,” he says, after I praise the tea, fishing for a recipe to WhatsApp my mother. “The thing is, you will not be able to make this on your own. You will have to come here only. Why? Because first, I make it with love. And then, the ingredients are plants I bring from home, from Nablus. So I think I will keep this recipe secret,” he says, grinning, one hand on the Algerian sauce, the other wielding crepe batter.

One day, my Mexican friend Diego, who studies at NYU London, visits me for the weekend. Every time I host a visitor, the first thing I do is have crepes with them. It was how I was welcomed to Paris and how I want my friends to be too. Something warm and fulfilling, something I come to consider more Parisian than even a baguette or spotting beret-clad heads in the winter. Diego orders a “crêpe special”, hot with eggs, meat, veggies, sauce and cheese. It is 10pm and the stand is busy. Conversations fizz around us, mingling with the steam of the crepes and the ever-present radio jazz. A man beside us orders in Spanish and Diego interrupts, gleefully pouncing on the chance to speak his mother tongue. We find out the customer is actually Italian and studies business in France. I interject in English that I am planning to go to Italy soon and he rattles off a few recommendations for things to do in Rome and Florence. He asks us where we are from and we sigh with faux-exasperation at having to explain the curious complication of being a NYU Abu Dhabi student. The act is tiring but secretly pleasurable. Diego explains that he is Mexican but studied in Costa Rica before moving to the Middle East for school and is now doing a semester in London. I explain my Indian origin, growing up in Botswana and then meeting Diego in Abu Dhabi before coming to Paris for this semester. Our new Italian friend is fascinated and then surprises us by saying he too applied to NYU Abu Dhabi. I feel heady. A guy from Iran joins in our conversation. Behind me, the American girl who lives next door to my dorm orders a sandwich in French. Two passers-by greet the crepe man in cheerful Arabic, their words bouncing off each other like happy marbles. I am struck at this moment by the thought that I am content.

“Do you like it here in Paris?” Diego asks the crepe man.

“Oh, yes. I love my crepe stand. People come here and I can give them tea and food and for a little while, I can make them feel at home. I have met so many students like you. I know so many of their secrets!” he laughs. “I like helping them. Sometimes I will know my customer’s birthday and I will offer them a crepe for free and they will start to cry. I just want to make people feel at home. This is a big city. I like it. I have experienced a lot here. I have suffered here, I have almost died here. It is important for me.”

I return to his stand almost every day – after classes, after dates, after naps, after long work days, after crying, after grocery shopping, after bittersweet Skype calls, after clubbing. The food is cheap and I know, however much I ache with aloneness, I will always get a smile here, always a friendly “ca va?” that isn’t just for obligation, and always a cup of tea that, although irreproducible, will never fail to reproduce a tender memory of somewhere I once lived. Perhaps I will also hear another language, a Moroccan grabbing a quick dinner or a pair of German backpackers clutching cups of tea. I bask in this flagrant display of diversity and difference. The crepe stand becomes a kind of utopia, a microcosm of the globe, tongues full of various languages, cultures and histories, all meeting over a few Nutella crepes in peace.

“What is your name?”

Diego asks the question and it occurs to me that I do not know the name of the man who serves me crepes almost every day. He laughs, the sound of skittering marbles.

“Uh. You can just call me the Crêpe Man. That’s it, that’s who I am.”

I understand: this jovial, dreadlocked man will never reveal his identity to me. He is telling me I will never really know him and that is true. We will eat his crepes and talk for a little while and then we will all go on our ways. We are transient. My first day in Paris, I boarded the RER B to the Cité Universitaire station, realizing that at one point, I will memorize almost all the stops but never really understand what any one of them means. I will write about them. That’s for sure, again and again, until I am an old lady, quietly making tea for herself in an apartment, on the corner of experience and optimism.

 

Châtelet-Les Halles

On a bright Friday afternoon, I find myself outside the Châtelet-Les Halles station, waiting for a good mood, waiting for a friend. I have ordered a chocolat viennois, my favourite thing to drink in this city, the uneven pyramid of white cream on dark, dark sweetness. The sun slides itself into vision, lazy and slow, leaving the air, my hair and the glass on the table draped in light like honey. There is the urge for a cigarette. All around me, young Europeans bloom like individual petals off their round café tabletops. I am alone. Their clothes are simple and beautiful, their espresso cups glossy, their mouths effortlessly curled around Marlboros and common French expressions – ben non, en fait, ouaiiiiis. My clothes too are stylish if cheap, my highlighter new and shiny –  3 euros’ worth from my closest Franprix – and I am silently watching everything through my amateurly lined eyes. Down to its spring light, Paris has effortlessly smooth skin, without trying. Without trying at all.

It seems I have arrived in the great belly of the feast. Sipping on my drink, I pull out a book to read by a prolific writer; the café waitress wafts over with a tissue-like receipt; I respond automatically with “merci”; I wait. It is a performance, a kind of ballet routine, a series of movements I once learned in a dream. But I know my almond skin peeks out of the corps de ballet, like a shy sun from within the clouds. I know I cannot really speak like them, even after months of language classes, their matte mouths talking away at Sartre or Islam or fascism, so many things that always somehow only concerns them, while thousands of tiny cigarettes die at their pale hands. So many creamy white Venus sculptures coming to life in a café outside Châtelet. So many of them mattering, without trying. Without trying at all. They do not know the smallness of being from nowhere, of being a mere capillary in the body of relevance.

They do not know me and I do not know them.

 

Gare de Lyon

This morning, I talked to the Crêpe Man again before work. I found out he has a Master’s degree.

“My major was political science and international relations. I used to work for the presidential cabinet here, receiving the, how do you say, the internationals? I was in the administration.”

He flips over a crepe, his lips mouthing the words to something by Louis Armstrong playing on the radio. I am surprised and then ashamed at being surprised.

“So why are you not doing that anymore?”

The Crepe Man explains to me how he didn’t have good relations with his colleagues in the administration. “They didn’t like me. Probably, it was jealousy. I could speak French, although not as well as them, but I also spoke English and Arabic, and better than them. So they were, kind of like, hostile to me.”

“Did they say something? Were they ever rude to you, directly?”

“No, no, it was…I felt it. I could just feel it. Sometimes they don’t have to say anything but you know. You feel it. You feel you are not wanted there.”

I nod and do not say anything.

A group of tourists come up to order paninis and cokes and the crepe man strikes up an animated conversation, signalling me to wait. I take this chance to really look at him. The Crepe Man’s face is a clear expressionist homage to the emotions he has worn in his life. His shadowy jaw, his swinging dreadlocks, a mouth stretched with both sorrow and beaming, a pair of temperamental dark eyes with crow’s feet.

He turns to me when the tourists leave.

“I can speak about six languages. Arabic, of course. English, because now everyone in Palestine, they are knowing English. I wanted to be different so I came to France and now I speak French too. Also, a little Spanish because I think it is a beautiful language. I like travelling there and I wanted to learn it to speak it there. And you know, it would also be helpful for my diplomat job. And then there is Portuguese. One time I had a Portuguese family, they were my customers and they were visiting so while they were here, I picked it up,” he pauses to flip a crepe over. “I also speak Hebrew.”

He doesn’t say anything more so I ask him how he learned it. He laughs, slightly nervously. I wait to see if he will answer.

“Okay. Okay, I, uh…you know, Fidel Castro once, he said that to understand your enemy, you must know their language. So…that is why I am able to speak it.”

I nod and do not say anything.

Jazz from the radio fills the gap in our conversation, the sound of it a pat on the shoulder, a comfort for both of us.

“Who doesn’t like jazz?” the Crepe Man laughs, “But to me, this is the music of resistance,” and I am astounded by the reality of someone still listening to jazz as exactly what it once stood for: a subtle revolution. “I listen to it because for people like me, this is the sound of resistance. Of not wanting to surrender.”  He goes on to tell me how he is planning to form a jazz band in Paris. In Palestine, he used to work as a music teacher’s assistant, just like I once did in Botswana. In Paris, he laments how the music for people like him has become a bizarrely bourgeois commodity.

“For good jazz, you have to pay all these euros just to be in the presence of it. That’s not what it’s supposed to be!”

After I leave with my panini, I put on some Coltrane and take the long commute to work. The RER B reminds me of the A train in New York, how it travels up to Harlem, the once-hotbed of jazz and resistance.

My phone pings with an email from my boss. For a few weeks now, I have been working as a writing and communications intern at a tourism start-up, doing translations and fluffy blog pieces to attract Anglophone customers to the company. The window by my desk looks over the city like an observant parent. In the distance, the Sacre-Coeur rises from the skin of Paris, a pretty little blemish that is the former village of Montmartre.

When I arrive at the office tower outside Gare de Lyon, the glass doors slide open quietly, submissive to their guest. I walk through, moving faster to catch the elevator going upwards. A different receptionist is in the lobby today, an old East Asian woman with unflattering eye makeup, spectacles and a pixie cut. She stops me at the entryway.

Because I am a new intern, I haven’t received an access card yet to enter the offices. The receptionists usually let me through with a smile when I tell them I work for Intripid on the 11th floor and that I will receive my card in a few days. Today, however, I am stopped.

When I approach the desk, the receptionist starts rattling rapid-fire French to me, gesturing me to fill in some forms and show a bunch of IDs. I think I have to sign something. I have to explain who I am. I try to cling on to the hooks of familiar words and phrases, to notice when they curve up into questions in the end so I know I have to formulate a response. She asks me many things. I rummage for the words, my French coming out toothy and gapped.

I can see the receptionist getting angry. The receptionist is pissed. She slows her words into mockery, speaking in a painful, loud, laboured French, modelled to fit my apparent incompetence. She sighs and rolls her eyes and purses her thin lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I see two of my colleagues emerge obliviously from the elevator, heading out for a smoke. I have been standing here for twenty minutes.

“Okay, you listen. I. Am. Very. Busy. I have a lot of work. Can you speak French? No…English? Do you speak that?”

I stare at her.

“I have. A lot. Of work,” she repeats.

“Yes, yes, I speak English,” the words spill in a gush, my mouth re-adapting to something it is confident with, to a renewed sense of control.

The receptionist chews up the seed of my French and spits it into the air. Something in me is shrivelling. This is not even her language. It is not mine either. English, French, none of us own them. We are instead owned by them. I stare at her, the way her soot black eyeliner misses the rim of her eyes. I can’t look away. I can’t run away.

The receptionist begins explaining the forms to me in English. Her English is very bad, like a piece of broken glass on the floor. Something in me wants to clamp down my boot and crush it. To say words like “discombobulate”, words I know better, that are so big they could dwarf her mouth the way she has dwarfed me. It feels sick, this power, this desire for control, this primal display of humanness, this sharp rebellion against being made into an alien in a matter of minutes. I want her to feel it. I want it to squeeze around her neck as well, like a too-tight turtleneck.

I want to make her feel like she is the one without the bloody access card.

Instead, I quietly sign my name and walk through to the elevator. I have a lot of work today.

 

Porte de Choisy

“Bienvenue de chez moi!”

The tram doors open to a blustery Wednesday evening. My Malaysian friend Tzy Jiun has brought me to an Asian supermarket because she wants to taste her way across the distance to home and because I have very little money to eat. We are going to buy ramen and on the tram there, I stick my head in a novel while trying to calculate the maximum number of Indomie packets that will be affordable for two weeks. My friends crack jokes in the corner or scroll through Instagram, swaying from the poles in order not to fall.

Last night, I woke up at 4;34 with a scrabbling in my stomach. I gulped water and rolled over to sleep. The good thing about sleep is that you can will yourself into oblivion about anything real. I will not get eight hours again, ok. There is one frozen lasagne in my fridge and half a baguette in my bag today, ok. I have three pages of writing to finish tonight, ok. There are four tram stops to Chinatown now, ok. I study literature but life is also maths, ok. Maybe not Pythagorean theorems but the cashier counts out your change in French, ok. This ATM doesn’t tell you your balance in English, ok. Two flicks of mascara on your eyes so you cannot cry today, ok. 17 more days till home and your mother cooking for you again, ok.

Okay. Okay. Okay.

How many okays does it take to really feel ok?

I go quiet as we thread our way through apartment blocks and food vendors. I think my friends have become used to this but today, it’s not because I am feeling anxious or depressed, as I have nervously explained to them in past cases. I am watching Tzy Jiun practically bound across the concrete and zebra crossings and it makes me glad to see her find a sense of warmth, a semblance of her home in “the land of white people” as she calls it. For months, I have been reading her poems, unashamedly angry and desperately tender, as she writes about conversing with two old ladies near Porte de Choisy in her language, or eating with chopsticks, her everyday rebellion. I have seen her quietly write herself into a middle finger, aimed at the white boxes she’s had to tick all her life, again and again.

I have been ticking boxes too. Sometimes I become the box itself. A white box – grease-soaked cardboard flimsy –  of chilli chicken curry, made cheap with too much oil and too much haste, in a far-flung foreign country. For take-away, please. I walk ahead, looking up. The apartment blocks in Chinatown are off-white and look like stacked boxes. If I squint my eyes a little bit, they transform into a beige neighbourhood in an unimportant part of New Delhi. My stomach is scrabbling and I squint harder. So many boxes in the world, all I am doing is trying to make a home out of them.

On the tram, between calculating ramen purchases, my eye snagged on a few phrases from my novel, that come back to smart in my vision.

“That’s nothing! You’re just making yourself sad.”

“You’re just making yourself sad.”

That’s nothing!

That’s nothing!

That’s nothing!

Nowadays, if you feel something, it is nothing. It is fleeting, it will pass, it is temporary, it will not stay – therefore, it is nothing.

I too am fleeting in Paris. I will not stay. I have been fleeting in every country I have ever been in: the one I grew up in, the one I fell in love with, the one on my passport, the one where I was born. What am I, then?

That’s nothing!

If you theorize an emotion and put it in a box, it becomes something. If you put people of color’s feelings into an A4 academic document, they become something. If you tear down our historical temples and buildings, then come to marvel at our ‘exotic’ ruins discarded like wrappers, we become something – the Paris of the East, the Switzerland of India, the Venice of Asia or whatever else. After Van Gogh died, someone put his paintings in four-corner frames and only then they became something.

But weren’t they always beautiful on their own? Weren’t they?

That’s nothing!

Inside the Asian supermarket, called Tang Frère (I note the amalgamation of a Chinese and French word each, a space left purposefully in between, the latter word meaning ‘brother’), it is a labyrinth. Foreign symbols and labels surround me in flocks, stacks, boxes. I am overwhelmed. Tzy Jiun is skipping across the aisles, picking things out for herself. I shuffle through the foreign sea, trying to find the ramen. I wonder if there is a place like this for Indians, or South Asians at the very least, somewhere in Paris. I berate myself for not having made the effort to find it all this time. In my head, the symbols around me transform into familiarity – Haldiram’s snack packets, Kurkure, Dabur remedies, okra, rows and rows of Maggi noodles (the mildest flavor, hot), Amul dairy, Britannia biscuits, chai, Everest masalas, even paan and somewhere wedged in between, incense sticks. My eyes close. For a moment, I think I might slide to the floor, so quick that nobody would see, a smooth, boneless crumple.

That’s nothing!

My eyes shutter open.

I must be too hungry; this is no way to think.

That’s nothing!

Our plastic bags are full and the walk back is desperate. Bead by bead, restaurant after restaurant, follow on a string. What a beautiful necklace! Tzy Jiun seems happy.

That’s nothing!

Homesickness is something experienced by many but always felt so firmly as an individual, so very on your own: alone. It’s like birth or death. There is no one else in the world who can understand what my mother’s biryani symbolizes, walking through a street near Porte de Choisy. But I know, everyone has their own assortment of eggs in their basket, their own collection of pains they can turn over and polish, hopefully neglect, shamelessly consume.  

“Every step, there is a new kind of smell hitting you,” Tzy Jiun exclaims as we walk. She is right. Everything smells foreign, fresh, delicious, and my stomach is scrabbling, my innards like scorpions on sand. Through the windows, men and women lift heaving chopsticks to their lips; through the windows, people carry on and carry on and carry on, inside the apartment blocks, inside a box. I look around me before we near the tram, squinting. The thing is, even here, where another people try so beautifully, so naturally, to assert themselves in this city, all I can see is another place where I don’t belong. Again.
That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!

The tram approaches and we step inside. Here is another box, where we don’t look at each other, until, of course, we are home.

 

Barbès-Rochechouart

This area is full of immigrants. You can notice these things on the train itself, the porous carriages filtering in a more eclectic mix of people as you approach Barbès. Tall, thin black men in ripped jeans and denim jackets, women in muumuus and babies strapped to their backs, young boys in rip-off designer kicks and snapbacks, huddled over a cheap iPod, a desi man with gel in his hair, talking just a bit too loud on his Nokia cell. My friend Zoe and I chew our bottom lips. This metro station is not pretending for anyone. Here the doors open to the smells of urine and urbanity; a vendor sells strawberries by the narrow staircase.

I am ashamed to say I immediately feel unsafe. My eyes scan the crowd for women. Especially, I am afraid to say, white women. The type who don’t look like they belong here. I put my head down, saying nothing, snaking my way through hordes of men, fingers extra tight on my purse, my wallet, my phone case.

As we walk out in search of a café, we pass a store called the Rose d’ Orient. It means what it sounds like: the rose of the orient. Zoe and I are drawn to the beautiful window display – bejewelled gowns with unusual draping, sequined lehengas, a grand Ethiopian wedding dress. Both of us are surprised to see such a casually expansive, rich display of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian dress. Of course, we smirk at the name “orient” and chuckle, remembering all our conversations about post-colonialism and Edward Said, watching them trickle into a small part of a small store in an “ethnic” area of northern Paris. We think, we are sure, we are very intelligent. Orient is the kind of word that if it were an object, would surely reek of incense; it is a kryptonite for alternative Parisians, or the “bobos” as they’re labelled here, the bourgeois-bohemians.

Later, I will go home and type the clunky French name – “Barbès-Rochechouart– into my search bar and this will come up:

“Everyone has their own story about Barbès, but there are repeating themes in the stories of outsiders: the disproportionate number of men in public spaces, Friday prayers in the street, drug traders and crack cocaine, the market under the Metro overpass, hijabi girls, and pickpocketing. Told to loved ones and strangers alike, these stories form the public reputation of Barbès and regulate the paths that individuals take to work and the places they frequent and shop. “They’ve never been here,” a co-worker tells me of her friends as we’re walking to my apartment. “And I don’t think they ever will.”

But of course, the orient is more than a word, I realize as we quickly walk towards more open spaces, wider streets. The orient is, in fact, an object. Just like a woman is an object. A piece of humanity made into concept, then galvanized by ignorance, misperception and blindness, into nothing more than a thing. It is an erasure of complexity – within this place, within Barbès, within the Orient, within people like me. It reeks, every single day.

Barbès is described as the kind of place where “disorder becomes danger”. There are no neatly lined boulevards but neon signs and corn husks and salons for African braids. It is a tapestry. The French is woven through with Wolof, Arabic, Urdu and more. The butcheries sell halal and there are foreign spices in the local groceries. There are swarms and swarms of swaggering, staggering men, hands stuffed in pockets, whether yours or theirs. There is the colonial and the natural, designer and original, splayed together on the streets like lost, scuffed Adidas sneakers looking for their pairs.

I am suddenly angry – a hot flush of shameful frustration. I am angry that an immigrant area is approached with such disdain. That my default setting is to think of an area as “shady” if it is full of black and brown men. I am angry that almost every immigrant neighbourhood I know is a blemish on a city map, a place of poverty and disrepair, a place to avoid. I am angry but I also understand. Of course. Of course, Parisians are scared. One is scared of the unknown, what they do not know, what they do not understand. This is a Parisian orient. This Barbès, this tapestry, this thing. I too am scared. In my H&M dress and bourgeois stability, I too am scared and I write this to try and redeem myself. Barbès, in a way, is a bit like Porte de Choisy. It is a place of outsiders trying to belong, trying to assert themselves in an environment that does not try to understand them. It is a place for people like me, teetering on the edge of a home but never really getting there. It is a place of cardboard constructions, both literal and metaphorical, on the street and within inner consciences. Barbès is ugly. It is poverty, low prices, sweaty pockets and gangs. But Barbès is also hope: it is coins found on the pavement, tinny boombox rap, markets, hot meals, intoxication. Prayer.

In the windows of the Rose d’ Orient, the mannequins resemble queens, beckoning me to two different kingdoms, that of my past, watching technicolor Bollywood films in the living room, and the shallow future, the color of my bridal lehenga, jewelry and rituals around a pious fire. Zoe knows I have been feeling homesick and she asks me if I want to go inside. I do. I want to go inside because Paris is a place of cravings and here I crave control: control, because some part of me thinks touching these fabrics could let me place a steadying hand on both my trembling past and trembling future, or in other words, just a trembling me, the notion of my identity. I want to go inside because I feel a greater sense of kinship here, somehow, than when I walk along the Champs-Elysees or the cafés in trendy St Michel.

Inside the store, an old hijabi woman in spectacles giggles in Arabic with her colleagues as she spreads out 4 euro-kaftans for Zoe to look at. I wonder, as I do with almost any immigrant in the west, how she got here and what exactly she is doing in this foreign place. It’s the writer’s elusive bait: what’s the story? My fingers run over the sequins of a children’s lehenga on a hanger and I am back to being a little girl watching Bollywood films in my bedroom, unaware of her own story and how it will unfold, from the foot of Africa to the foot of Montmartre, like a magic time-travelling carpet. As we walk out of the store, I return to my 20-year-old self, feeling less scared and more disoriented, as if I have just emerged from daydreaming on the couch at home. We walk back to the metro station and as I swipe my Navigo pass, I smile faintly at the strawberry vendor before boarding the train.

 

Porte de Clignancourt

Writing about a city, just as writing about any subject, is a way of documenting it within history, for giving it a voice, for making it human almost, letting it breathe and move and speak. It may have dreams, it may have fears, it may have flaws and disease. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow asserts that “the city has always been an important literary symbol, and the ways in which a culture writes about its cities is one means by which we may understand its fears and aspirations.” When we narrate a city, just as we when we create any story, we add complexity to an existing or new narrative about it. Some cities, like Paris, have been written about for a very long time, by many people –  famous, poor, foreigners, nobodies. They have been filmed and spun into verses, boxed into blog posts and captured in fiction. A place like Paris is complex in a way that it has many narratives, regardless of whether these are diverse or multifaceted. Complexity is the key word. The more narratives that exist on a particular subject, such as the city, especially if they come from various types of sources, differing socially, historically and culturally, then the better it is. The story of the city thus gains complexity and there is more to untangle, to pick apart, to unravel into understanding.

In his book Crepuscule, the novelist Roman Payne describes how people wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris. The answer, he states, is simple: Paris is the best place to pick ideas. Just like if you want to pick opium poppies you go to Burma or South-East Asia, if you want to pick novel ideas, you go to Paris. Perhaps in Hemingway’s lost Jazz Age, this meant something different. Today, when I think of Paris as fodder for the budding novelist, I think of how history collides with gritty graffiti modernity, how Senegalese men shift awkwardly beneath the city’s greatest monument, so much a part of the Eiffel Tower lens yet always photoshopped out of history. I think of how a Syrian man beneath a Chanel advertisement asks for a “coin or a smile” at the Denfert-Rochereau station, close to midnight when I return from a sour date, foolish and feeling sorry for myself. I am a crumpled receipt in a Parisian street bin but I am still a scholarship student; I stop to smile at him, almost sinking to my knees. I think of how a young black Frenchwoman makes and sells feminist art using only black and white inks, at the Clignancourt market, right opposite a little, old white lady stooped over her vintage flea shop. She tries to sell me a leather bag as soft and pliant as memory, then closes up early because of her bad knees.

 

Saint-Paul

Halfway into my Paris fairytale, I am disillusioned. I become that bridge across the Seine that needed its love locks sawn off because it couldn’t take the burden. I sag under the weight – the towering Eiffel, the catcalling in Barbès, the crowded Louvre, the bobo cafes and daily commute on the RER B. I become the bags under the Crepe Man’s eyes, grocery bags full of debt and unshed tears.  This place is a mess. A raggedy patch-up of stories held together by the needle of the Eiffel.

I have been living in Paris for months now. I have spent these months unravelling a tapestry of Paris that existed in my head prior to arriving here. I’ve been trying to worm my way to the apple core of this city but then I’m not sure that’s entirely possible. However much complexity we create, however much we try to unlearn then understand then re-weave a place in our own words, can we ever really find the “real” Paris? Does the “real” Paris even exist? Can a city, like a human, ever be caught in essence, ever hold a singular truth about its identity?

The question then becomes a matter of authenticity. Everyone is in search of this mystical thing, this “authentic” experience. We want the local food and the checklist of historical monuments and the native lifestyle and all the years of history classes we took, come to life.

But what happens in between? In that liminal space: the metro carriage travelling between Concorde and Stalingrad; the blank spaces between the checkboxes on your TripAdvisor itinerary; the margins of A Moveable Feast; the gaps in conversations between Arab perfume sellers, Canadian tourists, French bankers, Indian exchange students?

One afternoon, I decide to watch a film called “Paris, je t’aime”, meaning Paris, I Love You. Ironic, actually, because right now I hate it. It is foreign and it doesn’t make sense, this place, this thing. Baguette crumbs slide off my mouth onto my shirt. I lie in bed, retreating from the disintegration, the slow crumble, of my fairytale. I press play.

Halfway through this city montage, my face is wet. I am the pedestrian in the corner of a scene set in Montsouris. I am the protagonist in the 3rd arrondissement, a visiting actress of a period film who quietly falls in love with her hashish dealer. I am a rat scurrying under the Hotel de Ville, suffering from an acute case of Stockholm Syndrome. I am living and breathing in Paris.

“Paris, je t’aime” is a collection of 18 vignette-like short films. Each film has a different director, all of them setting a different-colored lens on the city. These directors are diverse, offering various cultural backgrounds, styles, genders and perspectives to the overall cinematic collage that is created. In one short set by the Quais de Seine, a French boy, sitting by the river with his two catcalling friends, meets and falls for a young hijabi woman. In another set at the trendy Marais, a prominently Jewish-gay neighbourhood near Saint-Paul station, a male art customer is attracted to a young male printshop worker, behind one of the heavy Marais doors that hide whole art galleries behind them. The customer spends the whole film explaining how he thinks this worker, who does not open his mouth, is his soulmate. After he leaves, it is revealed that the worker could barely speak French. A segment at Place des Fetes in the 19th has us watch a Nigerian man who is dying from a stab wound ask out his female paramedic for a cup of coffee. The story unfolds into flashback and it is revealed that he had fallen in love with her at first sight some time before in a parking lot where he worked as a cleaner. By the time the paramedic remembers him, the man has died. The film ends on a shot of the paramedic holding the coffee that has finally arrived, the clink-clank of the cup in her trembling hands drowning out any other thought.

What unifies each of the short films in this movie is, of course, Paris, the muscling, electric, sweet city that contains all these people, whether they are permanent or transient. Each film is also, in some kind of way, a love story. But none of these romances are conventional, often twisting and turning into the world of misunderstanding, chance and the macabre. Some are not even romances involving people, but instead ideas, objects, narratives, the city itself. “Paris je t’aime” picks up the label of the “city of love” and plays with it, stretching it, poking it and ripping it at the seams.

You may have realized by now that this piece of writing does the same thing. Every vignette I have written is set at a different metro station. Each one plays with my own pre-existing label of Paris, my initial passport stamp, the Hemingway-esque fantasy I carried here. It pulls it and pokes it and plays with it, this thing.  The first time I felt any sort of relationship, any kind of love story, however flawed or twisted or magic, with Paris was when it was contextualised before me in “Paris, je t’aime”. In two days, the stamp on my passport will go moot as I fly out of Charles de Gaulle and end the final chapter of this fairytale. I will leave with this on the page, a collection of my own love letters to Paris. Love is a complex thing. It can start at a metro station, lie quiet on the street like a stubbed cigarette, flow down the route of the RER B and end up on a young girl’s notebook page.

If there’s one thing I know, Paris is always there, waiting for us. It beckons and we come. We will always show up for love. We will snap that Instagram photo of the Eiffel Tower and it will come out grey and blurry. And we will go back aboard the RER B while the West African men smirk into their hoodies, quietly palming our euro-worth dreams.

 

This piece is part of the Invisible Cities series.
Photograph by Rita Crane

Porte de Choisy

“Bienvenue de chez moi!”

The tram doors open to a blustery Wednesday evening. My Malaysian friend has brought me to an Asian supermarket because she wants to taste her way across the distance to home and because I have very little money to eat. We are going to buy ramen and on the tram there, I stick my head in a novel while trying to calculate the maximum number of Indomie packets that will be affordable for two weeks. My friends crack jokes in the corner or scroll through Instagram, swaying from the poles in order not to fall.

Last night, I woke up at 4:34 with a scrabbling in my stomach. I gulped water and rolled over to sleep. The good thing about sleep is that you can will yourself into oblivion about anything real. I will not get eight hours again, ok. There is one frozen lasagne in my fridge and half a baguette in my bag today, ok. I have three pages of writing to finish tonight, ok. There are four tram stops to Chinatown now, ok. I study literature but life is also maths, ok. Maybe not Pythagorean theorems but the cashier counts out your change in French, ok. This ATM doesn’t tell you your balance in English, ok. Two flicks of mascara on your eyes so you cannot cry today, ok. 17 more days till home and your mother cooking for you again, ok.

Okay. Okay. Okay.

How many okays does it take to really feel ok?

I go quiet as we thread our way through apartment blocks and food vendors. I think my friends have become used to this but today, it’s not because I am feeling anxious or depressed, as I have nervously explained to them in past cases. I am watching my Malaysian friend practically bound across the concrete and zebra crossings and it makes me glad to see her find a sense of warmth, a semblance of her home in “the land of white people” as she calls it. For months, I have been reading her poems, unashamedly angry and desperately tender, as she writes about conversing with two old ladies near Porte de Choisy in her language, or eating with chopsticks, her everyday rebellion. I have seen her quietly write herself into a middle finger, aimed at the white boxes she’s had to tick all her life, again and again.

I have been ticking boxes too. Sometimes I become the box itself. A white box – grease-soaked cardboard flimsy –  of chilli chicken curry, made cheap with too much oil and too much haste, in a far-flung foreign country. For take-away, please. I walk ahead, looking up. The apartment blocks in Chinatown are off-white and look like stacked boxes. If I squint my eyes a little bit, they transform into a beige neighbourhood in an unimportant part of New Delhi. My stomach is scrabbling and I squint harder. So many boxes in the world, all I am doing is trying to make a home out of them.

On the tram, between calculating ramen purchases, my eye snagged on a few phrases from my novel, that come back to smart in my vision.

“That’s nothing! You’re just making yourself sad.”

“You’re just making yourself sad.”

That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!

Nowadays, if you feel something, it is nothing. It is fleeting, it will pass, it is temporary, it will not stay – therefore, it is nothing.

I too am fleeting in Paris. I will not stay. I have been fleeting in every country I have ever been in: the one I grew up in, the one I fell in love with, the one on my passport, the one where I was born. What am I, then?

That’s nothing!

If you theorize an emotion and put it in a box, it becomes something. If you put people of color’s feelings into an A4 academic document, they become something. If you tear down our historical temples and buildings, then come to marvel at our ‘exotic’ ruins discarded like wrappers, we become something – the Paris of the East, the Switzerland of India, the Venice of Asia or whatever else. After Van Gogh died, someone put his paintings in four-corner frames and only then they became something.
But weren’t they always beautiful on their own? Weren’t they?

That’s nothing!

Inside the Asian supermarket, called Tang Frère (I note the amalgamation of a Chinese and French word each, a space left purposefully in between, the latter word meaning ‘brother’), it is a labyrinth. Foreign symbols and labels surround me in flocks, stacks, boxes. I am overwhelmed. My Malaysian friend is skipping across the aisles, picking things out for herself. I shuffle through the foreign sea, trying to find the ramen. I wonder if there is a place like this for Indians, or South Asians at the very least, somewhere in Paris. I berate myself for not having made the effort to find it all this time. In my head, the symbols around me transform into familiarity – Haldiram’s snack packets, Kurkure, Dabur remedies, okra, rows and rows of Maggi noodles (the mildest flavor hot), Amul dairy, Britannia biscuits, chai, Everest masalas, even paan and somewhere wedged in between, incense sticks. My eyes close. For a moment, I think I might slide to the floor, so quick that nobody would see, a smooth, boneless fall through into the ocean.

That’s nothing!

My eyes shutter open.
I must be too hungry; this is no way to think.

That’s nothing!

Our plastic bags are full and the walk back is desperate. Bead by bead, restaurant after restaurant, follow on a string. What a beautiful necklace! My Malaysian friend seems happy.

That’s nothing!

Homesickness is something experienced by many but always felt so firmly as an individual, so very on your own: alone. It’s like birth or death. There is no one else in the world who can understand what my mother’s biryani symbolizes, walking through a street near Porte de Choisy. But I know, everyone has their own assortment of eggs in their basket, their own collection of pains they can turn over and polish, shamelessly consume, hopefully neglect,.

“Every step, there is a new kind of smell hitting you,” my Malaysian friend exclaims as we walk. She is right. Everything smells foreign, fresh, delicious, and my stomach is scrabbling, my innards like scorpions on sand. Through the windows, men and women lift heaving chopsticks to their lips; through the windows, people carry on and carry on and carry on, inside the apartment blocks, inside a box. I look around me before we near the tram, squinting. The thing is, even here, where another people try so beautifully, so naturally, to assert themselves in this city, all I can see is another place where I don’t belong. Again.

That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!

The tram approaches and we step inside. Here is another box, where we don’t look at each other, until, of course, we are home.

 

***This article is part of a larger, work-in-progress that will be published in a later issue.

Painting by Brendan O’Connell