Postcard — December 24, 2015, 10:00 am

The Golden Drop

A visit to the heart of African Paris

HarpersWeb-Postcard-ParisRef-700

Abdel’s first glimpse of the city he hoped would be his new home was of its most frantic crossroads: Paris’s Gare du Nord station. “It was pretty, actually,” Abdel remembered. “I was suddenly in France. I was proud.” Abdel, who was twenty-three years old, had come to France seeking asylum from the perpetual humanitarian crisis and dictatorship in Sudan. With nowhere to go, he wandered through the transit hub. Eventually, he found a pair of Arabic-speaking Sudanese immigrants and asked them for help. They directed him to the La Chapelle metro station.

A ten-minute walk north of the Gare, La Chapelle sits near the southeastern edge of Goutte d’Or, a traditionally working-class neighborhood and the heart of African Paris. Inside the austere station, a series of staircases leads up to a stop on one of the city’s few elevated train lines. To the south the arched windows provide a glimpse of distant Haussmannian Paris, all axial views and wide, tree-lined boulevards. The narrow, winding alleys to the north offer a stark contrast, some remnants of pre-purification cobblestone passageways still intact.

Every two minutes, La Chapelle’s raised steel tracks rumble under the weight of a passing train. Beneath the viaduct sits a barren, windswept strip of concrete. “That’s where we slept before,” Abdel told me as we exited the metro stop, when I visited him late last summer. “For months. And the metro made so much noise. So much that we could barely sleep.”

The Goutte d’Or—or “golden drop,” named for the wine produced there in the Middle Ages—is one of central Paris’s last truly working-class neighborhoods. It’s on the Boulevard de la Chapelle that readers first met Gervaise, the tragic protagonist of Émile Zola’s late nineteenth-century novel L’Assommoir (the slang title loosely translates as The Drinking Den), which fictionalized the lives of the area’s alcoholic workers, mired in poverty and despair. The book crystallized the Goutte d’Or’s reputation as seedy, poor, and dangerous, and, nearly two centuries later, in the minds of many Parisians, not much has changed.

As is often the case with areas the more fortunate shun, the neighborhood has historically been a haven for outsiders. The first wave of migration to the area was internal, as members of the rural French underclass arrived to toil in urban factories after the Revolution. Then came Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, and Eastern Europeans, all looking for work. By the late nineteenth century, members of North and West African diasporas were settling there. Today, it offers some semblance of sanctuary to thousands fleeing war and dictatorship.

Just outside La Chapelle’s exit, street vendors hawk their wares—contraband cigarettes, roasted corn, and cheap cell phones. Nearby is the now fenced-off lot where Abdel and several hundred others spent last winter—a particularly frigid one—in tents. Though his first Parisian home was beneath the metro tracks, Abdel told me he still thinks of the La Chapelle station as a source of comfort, a place where he “could find friends . . . from Sudan, even here in France.”

His first night at La Chapelle, huddled with other refugees for warmth, the elation of having finally reached Paris helped Abdel sleep soundly. The next day, though, reality hit: he had no money, no legal status, and no winter clothes. When humanitarian workers came by with asylum applications, Abdel submitted his claim.

That was nearly a year ago. Last month, Abdel received notice that he would be able at last to testify before the immigration officials who will decide his future. If his claim is accepted, he’s hopeful he will finally get permanent housing.

Most afternoons Abdel and his friends kill time walking down Boulevard de la Chapelle, a major artery demarcating Goutte d’Or’s southern boundary. They share cigarettes and window-shop, blending in among women buying yucca root and fresh mint, men leisurely sipping espressos at one of the many café tables, and harried commuters hustling up and down the stairs to the elevated train platform.

Abdel—who asked his last name be withheld as his asylum application is ongoing—fled his country in a last-ditch effort to escape imprisonment and murder by Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir’s regime. He spent a year harvesting produce in civil-war-torn Libya to earn enough to pay someone to smuggle him across the sea and into Europe. When the overcrowded rubber dinghy broke down in the Mediterranean, he thought his life was over.

“No one intended to survive,” Abdel told me one day in the neighborhood over lunch at a tiny Sudanese restaurant tucked behind La Chapelle. As we spoke he dipped hunks of baguette into a tureen of foul, a cheap bean dish that for him tastes like home. “I was incredibly scared. Everyone was scared. No one talked to anyone but God.” The Italian navy ultimately rescued him and dropped him off in Sicily. He then evaded a series of border controls in order to reach Paris, hoping the French he had learned as a child at a cultural center in Khartoum would work in his favor.

Abdel’s story is, unfortunately, hardly unique. As of October, nearly 1.5 million individuals have formally sought asylum in the European Union. Many others, like Abdel, are still waiting on applications that seem perennially stalled. The situation show no signs of improvement; conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan are ongoing.

“Before the war, we were happy,” Abdel said, as he signaled to the waiter for more bread. “I was with all my brothers, my sisters, together. We were happy. We went to school; we would read the Koran at home,” he continued. “We didn’t know it would all disappear.”

Abdel lived at La Chapelle until June, when Paris police evacuated the camp, which had been there since the summer of 2014, citing public health issues. The police “came so early in the morning. They made a circle, and they said no one can leave,” Abdel explained. “They put people in their cars, their buses. But I wasn’t there.” He wishes he had been; then he might have been bussed to temporary housing. But he had woken before dawn that day and gone for a walk in the Goutte d’Or. When he returned, his camp, along with many of his friends, was gone.

France ostensibly guarantees shelter to those who have submitted applications for formal refugee status, but for many, like Abdel, that promise has remained hypothetical. Housing shortages, a lack of personnel to process applications, and complicated bureaucracy prevent many asylum seekers from accessing their rights.

For two long months after the evacuation, Abdel lived his days not knowing where he would sleep when night fell. Occasionally he crashed with friends lucky enough to already have housing; other times he squatted in train station lobbies. When I first met him in August, he—along with approximately 200 other asylum seekers—had found temporary shelter within the crumbling walls of an abandoned school. Tattered blankets lay atop makeshift cardboard mattresses, lined in rows on the cold tile floor of the vacant classrooms. Outside, the asphalt courtyard reverberated with bouncing basketballs. Some men sat on broken-down boxes, playing cards.

At one of our meetings at the school, Abdel introduced me to his new friend Khaled, who had arrived two days earlier from Sudan after a journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean as harrowing as Abdel’s own. Khaled carried a box of cookies he found in the school’s makeshift kitchen, which was stocked with donated goods. The linzer tortes were wrapped in a flyer featuring a quote from Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s interior minister, about protecting the oppressed. Beneath the text there was a photo of a man lying on the streets, bleeding, a policeman’s boot inches from his face.

Abdel and Khaled decided to head back to La Chapelle in search of a cheap cell phone. As we walked to the metro, Khaled explained why he left his country. “I’m not poor,” he says in broken English, “but my government is not good.” He paused so we could go through the turnstile. I swiped my ticket, and the two young men jumped over the barrier after me. “If you talk, the government kills you,” Khaled continued. “You don’t have the ability to speak for freedom. You can’t talk about anything.”

The metro halted at La Chapelle, and as we descended from the elevated platform, Abdel pointed to several policemen frisking a young black man. “Look, the policemen—they’re in the middle of inspecting blacks,” he said, shaking his head. “And there’s all the whites over there. There’s such segregation and racism in this country.” Throwing his hands up as we exited the station, he added, “Are there any white people getting inspected? There’s none.”

In large part because of its colonial heritage, France is reputed to be one of Europe’s most multicultural and multiracial countries; it’s also plagued by xenophobia and inequality—evidence of which is more than anecdotal. A recent study found that black people in Paris are, on average, six times more likely to be checked by police than white people; those who appear to be Arabs are stopped nearly eight times as often.

After Khaled purchased his phone, we headed to a café on the corner. Two elderly men sidled up next to us, and we realized we were standing in front of their beers. Abdel and Khaled were uneasy with the thought of being in someone’s way; both quietly looked down into their coffees before shifting to the side and exchanging a few words in their native Arabic. Abdel looked back up as he started pouring sugar in his cup. “It was their place; they were first,” he said to us, looking over at the men. “And they’re elderly, you have to respect them.”

Before we parted ways at La Chapelle, I asked Abdel if he envisions ever returning to Sudan. “I love my country,” he said, “but I love my life more.” For those of little means, there’s nothing easy about existence in Paris—Zola’s destitute Gervaise meets her untimely end in the Goutte d’Or, dying not of cold or hunger but of “utter weariness of life.” It’s a sentiment asylum seekers like Abdel know all too well.

“It’s true, we’re screwed right now,” Abdel said. “But we’ve got to persist. I’ve dealt with it for years because I have to. I have to. Because I don’t know where to go. I can’t go to Sudan. I’ve got to keep going.” If he receives legal refugee status, he hopes to start a family—and a new life—in France. If he doesn’t? “I’ll make a plan B.”

Share
Single Page

More from Maggy Donaldson:

Postcard July 19, 2017, 12:46 pm

Spirits at Death’s Door

A visit to Wisconsin’s oldest continually operated tavern.

Postcard May 26, 2016, 12:49 pm

Upward Immobility

Navigating Colombia’s class-based estrato system

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2020

Out of Africa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Waiting for the End of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Harm’s Way

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Fifth Step

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A View to a Krill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Old Normal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Old Normal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Addressing the graduating cadets at West Point in May 1942, General George C. Marshall, then the Army chief of staff, reduced the nation’s purpose in the global war it had recently joined to a single emphatic sentence. “We are determined,” he remarked, “that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

At the time Marshall spoke, mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces had sustained a string of painful setbacks and had yet to win a major battle. Eventual victory over Japan and Germany seemed anything but assured. Yet Marshall was already looking beyond the immediate challenges to define what that victory, when ultimately— and, in his view, inevitably—achieved, was going to signify.

This second world war of the twentieth century, Marshall understood, was going to be immense and immensely destructive. But if vast in scope, it would be limited in duration. The sun would set; the war would end. Today no such expectation exists. Marshall’s successors have come to view armed conflict as an open-ended proposition. The alarming turn in U.S.–Iranian relations is another reminder that war has become normal for the United States.

Article
Waiting for the End of the World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1.

A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

I rose long before dawn, too thrilled to sleep, and set off to find my tribe. North from Greenville in the dark, past towns with names like Sans Souci and Travelers Rest, over the border into North Carolina, through land so choked by kudzu that the overgrown trees in the dark looked like great creatures petrified in mid-flight. The weirdness of this scene would, by the end of the weekend, show itself to be appropriate: my trip would be all about romanticism, and romanticism is a human collision with place that results, as Baudelaire put it, “neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” My rental car’s engine whined as it climbed the mountains. Day was just breaking when I nosed down a hill to Orchard Lake Campground, where tents were still being erected in the dimness.

Article
The Fifth Step·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Harold Jamieson, once chief engineer of New York City’s sanitation department, enjoyed retirement. He knew from his small circle of friends that some didn’t, so he considered himself lucky. He had an acre of garden in Queens that he shared with several like-minded horticulturists, he had discovered Netflix, and he was making inroads in the books he’d always meant to read. He still missed his wife—a victim of breast cancer five years previous—but aside from that persistent ache, his life was quite full. Before rising every morning, he reminded himself to enjoy the day. At sixty-eight, he liked to think he had a fair amount of road left, but there was no denying it had begun to narrow.

The best part of those days—assuming it wasn’t raining, snowing, or too cold—was the nine-block walk to Central Park after breakfast. Although he carried a cell phone and used an electronic tablet (had grown dependent on it, in fact), he still preferred the print version of the Times. In the park, he would settle on his favorite bench and spend an hour with it, reading the sections back to front, telling himself he was progressing from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Article
Out of Africa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. In 2014, Deepti Gurdasani, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, coauthored a paper in Nature on human genetic variation in Africa, from which this image is taken. A recent study had found that DNA from people of European descent made up 96 percent of genetic samples worldwide, reflecting the historical tendency among scientists and doctors to view the male, European body as a global archetype. “There wasn’t very much data available from Africa at all,” Gurdasani told me. To help rectify the imbalance, her research team collected samples from eighteen African ethnolinguistic groups across the continent—such as the Kalenjin of Uganda and the Oromo of Ethiopia—most of whom had not previously been included in genomic research. They analyzed the data using an admixture algorithm, which visualizes the statistical genetic differences among groups by representing them as color clusters. The top chart shows genetic differences among the sampled African populations, in increasing degrees of granularity from top to bottom, and the bottom chart shows how they compare with ethnic groups in the rest of the world. The areas where the colors mix and overlap imply that groups commingled. The Yoruba, for instance, show remarkable homogeneity—their column is almost entirely green and purple—while the Kalenjin seem to have associated with many populations across the continent.

Article
In Harm’s Way·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten yards was the nearest we could get to the river. Any closer and the smell was too much to bear. The water was a milky gray color, as if mixed with ashes, and the passage of floating trash was ceaseless. Plastic bags and bottles, coffee lids, yogurt cups, flip-flops, and sodden stuffed animals drifted past, coated in yellow scum. Amid the old tires and mattresses dumped on the riverbank, mounds of rank green weeds gave refuge to birds and grasshoppers, which didn’t seem bothered by the fecal stench.

El Río de los Remedios, or the River of Remedies, runs through the city of Ecatepec, a densely populated satellite of Mexico City. Confined mostly to concrete channels, the river serves as the main drainage line for the vast monochrome barrios that surround the capital. That day, I was standing on a stretch of the canal just north of Ecatepec, with a twenty-three-year-old photographer named Reyna Leynez. Reyna was the one who’d told me about the place and what it represents. This ruined river, this open sewer, is said to be one of the largest mass graves in Mexico.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today