21 January 2018

Paris, Where Good Americans Go When They Die (Part 1)

Light skinned nigger sitting in the metro. Handsome nigger, wrapped in an evidently expensive black coat and chewing on his gum as he sits staring out of the stained window into the dark belly of Paris. He looks like a model or a very rich playboy who just happened to catch the metro today because his Mercedes had been borrowed for a few hours by his best friend and from where I am sitting, I imagine the air around him rarefied by his beauty. His skin is flawless caramel and as his well defined jaws move with the chewing of his gum his tongue darts out from time to time to lick his lips. It's a night like any other, I'm on my way home after a full day of school then two hours of teaching my rich privately schooled American students about the horrors of World War II. I am tired and I want to be anywhere else than in this crowded wagon full of strangers making their way home after a long day serving the Man. I barely take in the dirty white beggar as he walks into the metro. He reeks of alcohol and a past full of better things than his present and as he passes me, I wrinkle my noise a bit at the smell. I notice idly as he makes his way down the aisle. He hesitates for a moment near the empty seat next to the model then he sits down. Handsome lights up and smiles widely at him as he offers him a stick of gum and a few minutes later they are deep in a conversation I cannot hear from my seat.

Row upon row of flats, grey against the weak blue autumn sky. Grafitti covers everything...
(c) Oneself, Skyscraper City

It's my first hour in Paris. After months of visits to French embassies and consulates in three different countries. A visa rejection and two subsequent applications on the back of countless interviews. After multiple trips with second hand laptops hidden in my bag as I pass the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe after having boldly ticked the Nothing to Declare box. After months of agony and prayers and a year of begging security guards to let me into the office parks that surround Sandton with their perfectly manicured gardens and sparkling fountains and the receptionists who would smile weakly as I explained that all I wanted was to leave my CV. They had seen all this before. And from the tone of their voice, they had heard it all before. Who was I to think my degree meant anything other than the fact that my university had ink and paper to waste? And finally here I am, heading to my bright future at the University of Paris. The train lumbers down the tracks from Paris Charlles de Gaulle, its windows stained with rain and dust. Nothing like the Gautrain I had expected. Outside the industrial wasteland gives way to row upon row of flats, grey against the weak blue autumn sky. Grafitti covers everything, from the other trains we pass as they head in the opposite direction towards the airport, to the bridges and the depressing buildings. I look around at the exhausted tourists like me, I can't be the only one disappointed by what I am seeing. Or rather not seeing. Where are the shining gleaming towers and the shining gleaming trains? Why is there a puddle of a suspicious yellow liquid near the train door and why is there a strange man begging as he makes his way down the crowded aisle of the RER B? A fat white woman, American from her accent, starts to loudly proclaim that her wallet is missing. Her group of fellow Americans is soon in a commotion but no one else in the train moves to help them, no one seems to care. I shrug and look out the window. I sigh and my breath condenses on the dirty glass and for a moment I am spared the sight of Paris North, a wasteland that has landed firmly where I had imagined Paradise to be. 

'A wasteland that has landed firmly where I had imagined Paradise to be'
Pont Alexandre III with Les Invalides in the background
I make my way up the stairs of Auber, once the largest underground metro station in the world. I had googled that fact excitedly ages and ages ago. Now the excitement is gone as I make my way through the semi-darkness of the tunnel filled with people. The out of service escalators are grimy with the collected dirt of the thousands of Parisians who make their way through this station everyday and the smell of urine rises up like the stale breath of a demon from the darker corners of the station's passages. I'm on my way to my student's apartment. I am almost a Parisian now; eyes forward, don't touch the rail, ignore everything that has nothing to do with me. A few days earlier I had passed a man masturbating on the stairs of Chatelet and I hardly broke my step as I passed near his prostrate form on the ground. Around me, no one hardly even stopped to look or exclaim. We don't have time, is the anthem of the Parisian. I hardly have time to breath as I leap from the platform to be swallowed by the closing doors of the metro, my American students are waiting for me. A quarter of an hour later I make my way into their enormous kitchen. The evening sunshine streams through huge windows onto the massive table that dominates one end of their vast kitchen, the room alone is larger than my entire student apartment. I sit there quietly as I catch my breath. It's been a long day and my eyes wander idly onto the other apartments outside and above them, the skyline of the 18th arrondisement, one of the most expensive parts of the city. Google had given up that information to me as well. My American student comes in, flustered as always. She complains about the day she has had at her 40 000 euro a year private school. I listen, I was once a teenager, I know how it can be. She catches me off guard though. 'Bongani, I was thinking about the World War thing we did yesterday...' Her voice trails off and I wonder where this is going. 'Yes?' Her light blue eyes stare directly into mine. I hold her gaze. 'If war is so terrible, why did so many Americans rush to war in Iraq and Afghanistan?' I am surprised. Not just at the question itself which I know she must have put a lot of thought into but at the fact that she thought of me as a reference for more than just recited facts from a textbook and the implicit criticism of her country of birth. I look outside at the skyline in the fading light. For a moment the room is silent and even I am surprised by the sound of my voice, 'It is easier to fight a war half a world away than one on your own doorstep. Ask the Germans and the French about war. Heck, ask the Syrians and Iraqis about War and what it costs. Americans have no idea.'

My world has broken into a thousand tiny pieces. I do not know what I want to do as I walk out of the hospital. Hotel de Dieu de Paris, the Hospital of God. It is a formidable grey palace sitting on the banks of the Seine and I have made my way past it to school a thousand times hardly noticing its silent form guarding the sick and the broken of the city. Now I am one of them as I make my way out of the Emergency Room. The City goes on around me, its noise rising up into the night air, as if nothing has happened. I don't want to go home, to be alone with my thoughts. I have no one to call. I put my hands into my pockets and begin walking away from the Metro station that would take me home. I make my way past Notre Dame with its statutes of the bishops who have died for their God. Will they pray for me broken as I now am, passing underneath their shadow? I have soon crossed the Seine to the Right Bank, near Hôtel de Ville. I don't know where I am going or what it is I am looking for, all I know is I don't want to be alone, don't want the memories of my past twenty four hours to come to me. The golden arches of McDonalds welcome me. I stand in the queue and finally buy a burger and potato wedges. I try to sit at one of the tables to eat but the sight of so many normal happy faces makes me want to throw up. Makes me want to start screaming and throwing chairs through windows. I pack up my uneaten meal and make my way out of the door. I see them sitting just outside of the shop, as you turn away from Hôtel de Ville and towards Chatelêt. They are an entire family, their belongings spread around them on the street as they huddle together. It is the mother who points at my food and signs for just some of it. She gestures to her children and makes the universal sign for hunger, a hand to the belly. I take the entire bag and give it to her, her surprise is apparent. I look for a while before I ask quietly to sit with them. They make space for me and I sit down as they eat. They offer me some of the food but I refuse, I was never really hungry to begin with. Our quiet island forms in the busy night air as the family concentrates on eating their food. I let out a deep breath and close my eyes. The mother asks me if I am okay, I smile for the first time in what seems forever, overcome by the concern in her eyes. 'Yes', I say. 'I will be fine. I will live'. 
I will live. 

"Will they pray for me as I pass broken beneath their shadow?"
A gargoyle looks down from the roof the Notre Dame cathedral (c) Cornellier
The air is tense. You can feel it everywhere you go. Soldiers are marching in groups of three or four in full military fatigues, their weapons to the ready. Parisians are rushing around as always but there is a difference in their resolve, a hesitation in their step. It has been a few days since the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent shooting in Montrouge. My school is a ten minute ride by car from the magazine's offices and Montrouge is the next tram station from my University residence. I thought I had grown immune to all this after Algeria but how does one ever get used to terror? How does one make peace with dying in a war to defend another person's God? Questions of life and death, of darkness and light begin to drift through my mind. I avoid the news with its dramatic declarations and simplified opinion pieces. I avoid the crowded metro stations and I willingly surrender my bag to be searched at the university gates by the security guards in suit and tie who had never been there before. I think of those in poorer countries and browner countries who have experienced terrorism on a daily rhythm that makes this attack look like child's play but those thoughts do not make my fear go away. I wonder when the blame game will start, when the brown and black people will start being looked at even more suspiciously in the metro on their way to work, when people with names Ahmed and Mohammed will cringe every time a 'joke' is made in the office. And as the drama unfolds, as the dust quietly settles, I watch as the accusations fly.  It is the fault of the immigrants, it is the fault of the Muslims, the fault of Islam, no it is no one’s fault, it is the fault of the West, the fault of the French, the fault of the Left. This is a moment of grief, but whose grief is it? Who has the right to grieve over the dead French, as other dead pile up in Syria, in Beirut, in Nigeria, in Palestine? I am too numb to think or care. A few days later I see the words etched on the side of the Institute of the Arab world, We Are All Charlie. It is too late to think of the ironies of an institute funded by majority Muslim countries defending a magazine that has desecrated the image of the prophet. It is too much to think or to feel. I stand at the window of my classroom and stare at the giant words, red as blood on the gleaming silver windows.

We Are All Charlie, in Arabic and French on the façade of the Institut de Monde Arabe, Paris

'Loss and losing. Grief, failure, brokenness, numbness, uncertainty, fear, the death of feeling, the death of dreaming. The absolute relentless, endless, habitual, unfairness of the world. What does loss mean to individuals? What does it mean to whole cultures, whole people who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?' 
- Arundhati Roy, Come September

'Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts ... '
- NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

'They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris," chuckled Sir Thomas... "Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?" inquired the Duchess. "They go to America,'
- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey

'Je t'écris des tranchées de guerre abandonnées 
Je t'écris d'un baiser, de ce banc de paris où deux amants
s'enlassent dans leur éternité et que rien n'y personne ne pourrait déranger'

(I write to you of abandoned trenches of war
I write to you of a kiss, of this Parisian shore where two
lovers are embraced in their eternity and nothing and no-one can unmoor) 

- Gregory Lemarchal, Je t'écris

'I wanted to write something beautiful but Life can be ugly and the Truth with a capital T is ugly and I should never hide from the truth by covering it in beauty.'

- me, Twitter

For you, who I loved. 

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