The Other Paris: Getting to Know the City’s Multicultural Makeup

A journey into the ethnic neighborhoods redefining the City of Light


Even for her most devoted admirers, Paris can have the poignancy of a melancholy widow, endlessly mourning a brilliant past. The city of Toulouse-Lautrec’s music halls and Picasso’s studios, of smoky nightclubs where Josephine Baker sang in the ’30s and Left Bank cafés where Jean-Paul Sartre presided over the insurrection of 1968, is little more than a memory now.

The city is still beautiful, people will tell you, and rich in nostalgia, but without the restless energy that propels dreams and empowers myths.

That’s because they don’t know the Other Paris, where the cast of characters has changed almost beyond recognition but breathes the same extraordinary air of stubborn ambition and down-and-out creative genius. The Other Paris speaks languages many Europeans and Americans have never heard: Fula from Senegal, Teochew from Southern China, and Berber from North Africa, to name just three. And it tells a far more vivid tale than the Lost Generation or the Postimpressionists spun.

A new “moveable feast,” as Ernest Hemingway called his years in 1920s Paris, is under way. But this time its backdrop is a tectonic shift in the social landscape, wrought by mass immigration and intensely personal hopes, rather than the creative experiments of a small coterie of writers and artists.

You won’t find the Other Paris mapped in guidebooks, which cling obsessively to the city that was rather than the city taking shape. Its pulse beats strongest in the marketplaces and gritty backstreets of working-class neighborhoods with a dream life all their own, played out in a separate universe of tiny bistros, unheated attic lofts, and no-cover dance clubs.

I’d known life in those backstreets myself once, as a freelance writer in my 20s surviving on baguettes, Camembert, and cheap red wine in the city of the melancholy widow, the city of Sartre and the barricades of ’68. The time had come to put that behind me—to see Paris through the eyes of her latest lovers.

Chinatown, Left Bank

It took half a week’s indecision and two hours of wandering conversation before Wu Hao, 26, would talk about his version of the Paris dream. A friend of a friend, a gallery owner who showcases young talent, had given me Wu’s cell number. “I don’t know,” he said the first time I called and suggested an interview. “Can I get back to you?” His voice sounded full of doubt. I wondered if he thought I might be a cop. Foreigners, even those who are legal—Wu has a student visa—are understandably nervous in a Europe beset by anti-immigrant hysteria. I waited three days and then called again, after our mutual contact had put in a word for me. “Let’s meet at the Café Cardinal, near the Place de la Contrescarpe,” Wu said.

Later that afternoon we sit at a window table, watching the classic Latin Quarter parade of amorous couples, distracted philosophes, and eccentric panhandlers that once captivated Ernest Hemingway, who lived a short walk from here when he was 23.

Painters, especially émigré painters with halting French, communicate best through brushstrokes rather than words. In this regard, Wu Hao of Tianjin, China, is no different than the young Pablo Picasso of Barcelona a century ago. As we talk, I leaf through his sketchbook full of subtle line drawings in black ink: portraits of his peasant grandparents, a courtyard in Beijing, a country farmhouse surrounded by rice paddies.

“The subjects are all Chinese, aren’t they?” I ask. “Yes,” Wu says, “but not the technique. Not the meaning.” Rather than try to explain, he urges me to go to the Musée d’Orsay, as he does twice a week, and ponder the work of Cézanne. “He is my best teacher,” he says, “somebody who could study African art and make it part of his own vision.”

Wu’s afternoons are often spent at repertory cinemas near the Sorbonne, where he watches old prints of films by Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, and John Ford. “There is fantastic power in their work,” he says.

He pauses, searching for words. “What I am looking for,” he finally says, “I cannot find in China alone. My goal is to learn a way to combine Chinese discipline—we are good at that—with the passion in those paintings and films.”

It is only then that he tells me the other reason he left China for Paris. “As soon as my French is good enough, I want to join the Foreign Legion. To be a true artist, I must experience the world’s extremes, the worst and the best, and put them into my paintings.”

I’m startled for a moment, until I recall that Hemingway did essentially the same thing, enlisting in the ambulance corps in World War I to acquire the raw material—the intimate knowledge of a wider human universe—that was to revolutionize American fiction.

Hemingway, whose stock-in-trade was irony, would have appreciated the genesis of Europe’s biggest Chinatown. It took root in the 13th arrondissement, three Metro stops south of the Café Cardinal, thanks to a failed urban planning scheme that converged with a failed war.

“Back in the 1970s, the government tore down everything that used to be here and built skyscrapers,” says Chung Seng Xue, a resident of the 13th. “Very big mistake! The French can’t imagine living in such a place. But for us, it was just right. Not expensive then, because nobody else wanted it, and a lot like our big Asian cities—Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok.”

The “we” to whom Chung alludes are Chinese who emigrated generations before to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The brutal conflict in Indochina made them refugees, and many wound up in France, the region’s former colonial power.

Chung was among the first Asians to move into the area, after escaping the ruins of his Laotian birthplace in 1976. We talk in La Chine Masséna, a huge restaurant on Avenue de Choisy that doubles as a ballroom. At wedding receptions, slender young women dressed in ornate Cambodian tunics and leggings dance and sway with heart-stopping grace on its stage. Chung’s wife, a torch singer from Shanghai, was a weekend performer here. Chung himself found a job at Paris Orly Airport in the 1980s, “but for most people in the beginning, there was no work,” he recalls. “So, step-by-step, people built their own petits commerces [small businesses].”

Outside the restaurant doors, the April air is pungent with the fragrance of fresh durian, a tropical fruit harvested from giant trees in Southeast Asia, airlifted to France, and piled up for sale in open-air stalls along the avenue. “Smells like hell and tastes like heaven,” say the Chinese.

The main importer of durian, and one of the earliest Chinese grocery stores to appear in the 13th, is Tang Frères on nearby Avenue d’Ivry. It has grown into the largest Asian supermarket chain in Europe, offering thousands of exotic foods. Tang’s chief competitor is The Paris Store, which mushroomed out of another shop-front grocery. The five Tang brothers are Chinese from Laos, Chung notes, and The Paris Store owners are Chinese from Cambodia. “What they sell in their stores is somewhat different, and so are they,” he says.

His comment reflects the enormous diversity within Parisian immigrant groups, internal distinctions that are usually lost on outsiders. Cambodian Chinese tend to speak the dialect known as Teochew, which is incomprehensible to most Laotian Chinese and to the Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking residents of three smaller Chinatowns in Paris. And none of them can understand the dialect of the fastest-growing Chinese community, entrepreneurs from China’s coastal city of Wenzhou who have become major players in the city’s garment industry.

There are millions of stories in the Other Paris, ripe with nuance and irony.

Madame Dehbia’s Salon

The enormous Gothic basilica that rises over the central square of St-Denis, a blue-collar suburb just beyond Montmartre, is known formally as the Cathédrale Royale. Its crypt is the burial place of nearly every king of France, including Charles Martel, who halted the Muslim conquest of Europe at the Battle of Tours in 732 c.e., and the unfortunate Louis XVI, sent to the French Revolution guillotine in 1793 along with his wife, Marie Antoinette.

In their lifetimes, none of them could have imagined the scene outside the basilica’s portals today.

Walk 100 yards from the royal tombs and culturally you are in North Africa—from which the warriors of Islam rode to their rendezvous with Charles Martel 13 centuries ago. St-Denis is also the site of the soccer stadium where France defeated Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final. Celebrated Franco-Algerian star Zinedine Zidane led the team, and more than half of its starting players were of African or West Indian origin.

No city in Europe has more or better markets than Paris, and no market in Paris compares in size and distinctiveness to the vast Sunday morning souk that winds through the streets surrounding the Cathédrale Royale.

Vendors have erected giant pyramids of oranges, peppers, and manioc amidst stalls selling Tunisian olives, Algerian herbs, Moroccan slippers, prayer rugs, and fabrics with bright colors and intricate designs geared to the tastes of specific tribes from Senegal, Congo, Mali, the Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. Stop off for breakfast at Au Royaume de l’Orientale, “the Kingdom of the Oriental Woman,” and the staff will make you a fresh brik to order—a fried pastry stuffed with cheese, vegetables, or spiced lamb. Under a vast wrought-iron canopy, the market’s central hall explodes with the noise of commerce in a babel of Arabic, French, and tribal West African.

But another language often heard in conversation among the merchants here is none of these. Like the great Zidane and the pastry brik, the merchants of the Marché St-Denis—and their vocabulary—are Berber.

Mystery swirls around the ancestry of the Berbers. Some scholars maintain that their earliest progenitors roamed the southern shore of the Mediterranean more than 200,000 years ago. What’s generally agreed is that they are among the oldest settled cultures in the region, documented in artifacts reaching back to 6,000 b.c. Berbers are genetically related to Scandinavia’s indigenous Sami, a connection as yet unexplained by historians, and many are as fair, blond, and blue-eyed as northern Europeans. Others, notably the Tuareg Berbers of the desert, are ebony-skinned, thanks to extensive intermarriage with sub-Saharan Africans.

Berbers began immigrating to Paris in the 19th century following the military seizure of Algeria and Morocco by France. Today, their numbers in the city and suburbs are thought to exceed 2 million, making them the metropolitan area’s largest ethnic group. The mainstay dishes served by the enormous array of North African restaurants in Paris—including brik, couscous (steamed durum wheat doused with a spicy soup and served with grilled or stewed meat), and the clay pot–simmered tagine—are quintessentially Berber.

If Parisian Berbers had their own monarch, she would probably be the elegant woman universally known as Dehbia. The child of an Algerian father and a Jewish refugee mother from Poland, Dehbia Djelil is the patronne of a bistro and de facto literary salon, La Grappe d’Orgueil, near the former central market district of Les Halles. The bistro has the classic ambience of art deco Paris: tall mirrors on the walls, a long, sensually curving zinc-topped bar, and wooden tables and chairs worn smooth from constant use. But its spirit is Mediterranean. La Grappe is to the Berber artistic and intellectual milieu what the café Les Deux Magots was to Sartre and his disciples.

“My father ran this place before me,” Dehbia says, pouring a few drops of ice water into my glass of pastis, the anise-flavored liquor that is France’s favorite summer drink (and that also has its origins in North Africa). “Almost all the old Halles cafés were run by Berbers.” She suddenly jumps up from her seat and runs to the door to embrace a stately woman of a certain age. “A novelist,” the barman explains.

Excusez-moi. She and I go back a long way,” Dehbia says, sitting down to add more pastis to my glass. Then she jumps back up to greet a poet.

Madame Dehbia is a walking compendium of Berber lore. Give her half a chance and she’ll recite the achievements of the ninth-century savant Abbas Ibn Firnas, a Berber physician, engineer, poet, and musician who invented the first eyeglasses, the first mechanical clock, and the first prototype of an airplane. Or she’ll recount the accomplishments of Berber novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar, the first African woman elected to the Académie française, the elite body created in 1635 to protect and promote Francophone culture.

But Dehbia’s principal enthusiasm is reserved for Berber music, which has had its own dance-hall traditions in Paris since the 1920s. “Going back to my father’s time, all of the greats, the singers, the composers, would drop in at the café. When I was nine years old, he started introducing me to them. By the time I was an adult, I was translating their lyrics into French.”

Dehbia’s generation was raised and educated in France, but the distinctive percussion and haunting melodies that gripped them remained unambiguously Berber. That isn’t how young Berber musicians in 21st-century Paris express themselves, though, and it isn’t what their audiences come to hear. The debt to the old Berber dance halls is honored, to be sure—as a deep and insistent current flowing into many others. Today, Madame Dehbia says, “the most important thing about our music is that it isn’t exclusively ours anymore. Everything is changing.”

Mississippi à l’Africaine

Nuru Kane, a lean six-footer in dreadlocks, denim slacks, and a gold-banded Senegalese robe, dances onto the stage of Les Trois Baudets. His arms cradle a weathered guimbri, a handmade lute carved from a log, covered in camel skin, with strings made from goat gut. It can mimic a cello, a double bass fiddle, a banjo, or a human wail. The entire repertoire of sound will come into play for his performance tonight, a journey across Africa and the Atlantic, accompanied by sidemen on the karkabou, the castanets of nomadic Saharan tribespeople, and the n’goni, a stringed instrument fashioned from a hollowed calabash and regarded by anthropologists as the prototype banjo.

This is Place Pigalle, where Parisians invented the nightclub. The Moulin Rouge is just down the road, with its reveries of Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, and the cancan. The old hangouts of Van Gogh and Picasso are up the hill in Montmartre. We’re on the sacred ground of the past, an epoch that sounded its final notes with the ballads of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg two generations ago. Les Trois Baudets—“The Three Donkeys”—was their chosen cabaret, and when it lost steam in the mid-1960s and transformed into a strip club in the ’70s, it was easy to conclude that some essential spirit had left the city forever. Easy, but wrong.

Nuru Kane was a toddler in Senegal then, a continent away from Place Pigalle. In his early teens, he was break-dancing on the streets of Dakar— until the day he built his own makeshift guitar, strung it with fishing wire, and took up what he calls “Afro-funk with Senegalese influences, music for people who want to go out and party.”

Like countless other musicians in the 1990s, he shuttled back and forth between Africa and Paris, earning enough money as a busker in the Métro to keep going while he polished his skills in impromptu jam sessions and took aim at something higher. After a trip to Morocco, he bought a guimbri and taught himself to play—incorrectly, he later discovered. As he told a British journalist in 2006, “I had to scrap what I’d learnt in two years by listening to tapes and other musicians, and start again.”

Today the 37-year-old Kane is a master of the ancient musical tradition known as Gnawa, the seminal themes and instruments of which were carried north by black Africans along the slave-trade routes to Morocco. If it often sounds familiar to the Western ear, there is good reason. Gnawa stems directly from the same source as gospel, jazz, salsa, samba, calypso, Mississippi Delta blues, and rock and roll.

The house lights dim at Les Trois Baudets. The crowd is the Other Paris incarnate, dreamers from every corner of the globe. What draws them here is the kind of music that carries you so deep into its own rhythmic narrative that for the moment nothing else matters.

Bo deme Maroc bii amna poulo,” Kane cries out, “bo deme Senegal amna pouolo, bo deme Mali amna poulo!” He sings mostly in his native Wolof, but he punctuates his lyrics with Berber, the language of his karkabou player, Jawad el-Garouge, or with the French of his n’goni man, Thierry Fournel. No matter that very few of us understand all the words, it’s enough to know that the journey has begun. In minutes people are on their feet, shaking and clapping. You can feel the presence of the fabled Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson in that room, his spirit mingling with the village musicians of Senegal, the carnaval dancers of Bahia, Brazil, and the creole performers of the Caribbean.

You can lose yourself in the tremor of discovery and regeneration that Paris has always offered her lovers.

Pierre Chabrel acquired his first instrument, a set of drums, at the age of 9 on the island of Martinique, a stronghold of Afro-Caribbean music. He moved on to the guitar at 17, roughly the same age at which Kane began strumming chords on fishing wire in Dakar. At 19, he too left for Paris, where he became an accomplished trombonist and composer over the following three decades. If anyone in Paris could deepen my understanding of what I’d seen and heard—Nuru Kane’s leaps between cultures and languages, Dehbia Djelil ’s enigmatic words about change, Wu Hao’s intercontinental odyssey—Pierre could. I called to ask if he and his family were free for dinner.

We meet in La Grande Bleue, a couscous restaurant on the African and Arab east end of the 17th arrondissement. Its noisy, unpretentious dining room, filled with the boisterous energy of large neighborhood families on a Sunday afternoon, is a far cry from the haute cuisine restaurants in the Michelin Guide. Pierre’s daughter, Bethsabee, who is half German, joins us, along with his longtime companion, photographer Brenda Turnnidge, who is half English and half Greek. Brenda has worked as a teacher in France, China, Macao, Egypt, and Jordan and as a disc jockey in Thailand.

Looking across the table at them, it dawns on me that they themselves are an answer to my questions: Where are music and art headed? Where is Paris headed?

“It is all about mixture,” Pierre says, reading my thoughts. “The music you hear today, in the streets and the nightclubs, isn’t African or Caribbean or black American anymore. It’s all of those things, sure. But in a much more important way, it is métissée, mixed. Like the songs of Nuru Kane. Like your president.”

Pierre helped found three musical groups over the past decade, and you can’t quite put your finger on their identity, because everything about them bespeaks that mixture. Melting Point is an Afro-jazz quintet whose members hail from Cameroon, Guyana, Haiti, and the United States. The musicians in his Creole Jazz Orchestra represent Trinidad, South Africa, Mali, and California, and cite influences “from New Orleans, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and South America.” His third band, Makaia, specializes in gwo ka, a slavery-born music from Guadeloupe, performed on African percussion instruments, Pierre’s trombone, conventional modern double bass, Irish flute, and tin whistle.

Melting Point’s MySpace page lists Barack Obama as an honorary “friend,” not because every step he has taken as president meets their hopes, but because an Asian-educated, half-African, half-white American is where they see the future.

At 48, Pierre has known his share of disappointments. It’s not easy being black in Europe today. Mixture is a controversial matter on both sides of the Atlantic, fodder for anti-immigrant demagogues. But the sheer inescapable reality of change trumps fear, Pierre says.

“People used to talk all the time about the First World and the Third World, about north and south. Things are not so simple now. What we have to talk about, what our music talks about—what animates this thing you call the ‘Other Paris’—is an entire planet in motion.”

Pierre pauses and smiles at Bethsabee. She is a willowy 16, with the tranquil self-possession and beauty that embody the city’s new dreams. Her very life is a testament to change and mixture and music. “Something new is happening,” she says.

This appeared in the November/December 2010 issue.

Frank Viviano is a Sicilian-American journalist and foreign correspondent. He attended De La Salle High School in Detroit and the University of Michigan. His journalism career began in 1977.
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