Postcard — March 30, 2018, 3:25 pm

The Bubble Bursts

Having made it to paradise, refugees are stuck sleeping on Paris streets

Photograph by the author

On a cold night in the Porte de la Chapelle district of Paris, I walked toward the Humanitarian Center of Initial Welcome, an inflatable dome with yellow and white stripes that reminded me of a circus tent. It was 10 pm, and freezing. Municipal workers stood at a checkpoint decorated with a single band of Christmas lights. I didn’t see anyone enter, but a steady flow of people walked away from the structure and onto the highway, which was noisy with traffic and rain. I asked one man where he was going. “To sleep,” he said, tucking his chin in his scarf, “in the street, or under the bridge.” He carried a rolled-up blanket under one arm and a banana in his other hand.

Outside the barbed-wire entrance to the center, or “the bubble” as it was nicknamed by volunteers, a hub of refugees stood waiting, rubbing their palms together, breath like fog. Two white police vans were parked nearby, one officer with his feet up on the dashboard. Peeling off, the refugees arranged their sleeping bags and toiletries, barely earning a glance from people huddled at a nearby bus stop.

Near the edge of the crowd, a tall, striking man, wearing two woolen hats, a red sheepskin jacket, and mittens, cocked his head at me quizzically. Suldan, twenty-two, was from Somalia, and this was his fifth night in Paris. So far, he had slept in train stations, under bridges, and on the street. “I am strong, you know?” he said with a laugh. Back home, he told me, he’d been shot twice, once in the neck and once in the knee, by the Islamic fundamentalist group Al-Shabaab. Not long after that, he was arrested for managing a music studio and cinema and locked in a cell for a month, eventually escaping past a sleeping guard. Before arriving in France, he’d lived in Germany for eighteen months and Austria for six, his requests for asylum in both countries denied. “That is why I’ve come here,” he said, holding his arms out to the sides, palms open, nodding at the bubble. “I want to live free, you know?”

In 2016, I had volunteered at the Calais jungle, a makeshift camp on the coast in which some 8,000 refugees from the Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan lived in deplorable conditions. It was dismantled by the police in October 2016, forcing many refugees to make their way to other cities, several thousand to Paris. And I was curious what had happened to them. That same fall, another ad hoc, open-air camp sprang up around the arches of Paris’s Stalingrad Métro, swelling to 4,000 people. Just as they had done in Calais, riot police arrived in the early dawn, carrying shields, teargas, and batons to clear the area.

Built on an old railway site in the eighteenth arrondissement, the humanitarian center was an emergency response to the proliferation of such encampments. Launched by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and two NGOs, Utopia 56 and Emmaüs Solidarité, in November 2016, the bubble was designed to provide immediate shelter and help refugees begin the asylum process. Those who make it inside are given food and a warm bed and submit to an administrative evaluation. If eligible for asylum, they are relocated to one of 450 welcome centers across France, where they wait for their applications to be processed.

In the year since it opened, however, the bubble seems to have aggravated problems it was designed to alleviate. According to Utopia 56, there are between two and four thousand refugees sleeping on the streets in the Porte de la Chapelle area alone, a number hard to pinpoint because they live in hiding from increasingly hostile police. The only other center like it is the Porte d’Ivry in the south of Paris, dedicated to women and children. Last year, France saw around 100,000 asylum claims—three quarters were rejected.

On New Year’s Day, I met Chrystel Laurent, a volunteer at Utopia 56, outside a cream-colored decommissioned parking garage where the NGO has its office, and she explained to me that the group has since split ways with the humanitarian center. She said the center’s limited capacity—it has just 450 beds—and disorganized operating protocol exacerbated tension between refugees and police. “People were sleeping in the road to try to get a place in the building at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning,” Laurent said. “It was a mess.”

Laurent had set up vats of coffee on a picnic table next to an empty soccer field. About a hundred refugees stood in groups, eating biscuits and baguettes. Laurent explained that one of Utopia’s major concerns with the bubble was its policy of mandatory fingerprinting, which put refugees at risk of deportation if they had already registered fingerprints elsewhere in Europe, as the Dublin Regulation requires that refugees seek asylum in the first European country they enter.

Since leaving the welcome center, Utopia 56 has concentrated its efforts on the streets, distributing food, clothes, and sleeping bags, and partnering with local families who agree to host refugees, on a sofa or in a spare room, for free. But the NGO’s network, so far just one hundred families, can accommodate only a fraction of the refugees scattered across Paris.

Standing in front of the parking lot, I could see the yellow tip of the bubble above a highway overpass, under which police had piled boulders to block refugees from setting up camp. I was about to leave when I bumped into the man I’d seen outside the bubble a week before, the one carrying a blanket and a banana. Sipping coffee with three other men, he shook my hand.

Introducing me to his friends, he pointed in different directions. “This guy lives here, and I live here. That bridge and that bridge.” One of the men, wearing a hat with the word “sport” stitched to the front, was especially aggrieved. Only hours ago, he told me, the police had taken everything he owned. “I have a blanket. Gone. I have a tent. Gone. I have a sleeping bag. Gone. Everything. My gloves, my pack, my clothes.”

Nonetheless, Noor, twenty-six, was friendly and talkative. He’d left his home in Darfur two years ago, he told me, after the government burned down his village. “My family and I fled. We moved to the mountains. Then I moved. I just keep moving.” To get to Europe, Noor spent three days traveling from Libya to Italy by boat, wearing just underwear and shorts so smugglers could cram 135 people onto the deck. “You can’t sleep,” he said. “It’s nothing except water and fish and sky.” Before crossing, he’d been locked up by smugglers for four months, somewhere near Tripoli. “We were kept in a hidden place,” he said. “They transferred us to different places, and gave us different names.” Noor recalled threats, being forced to shake hands with a skeleton, and the smugglers’ final instructions: “Go. Get in the boat. Get to paradise.”

Noor had been in Paris for eight days, sleeping on the streets, eating donated food, waiting, like hundreds of others, for a bed and some sense of his future. The center in Porte de la Chapelle is set to close at the end of this month, and it’s unclear if anything will replace it. “Usually they move our tents, but this morning they hosed them with cold water, so we can’t use them,” Noor said. “They see us and they tell us: ‘Go. It’s time to go.’”

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More from Alice Whitwham:

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

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A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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