A neighborhood shop expands the definition of what it means to be French.
Update, May 1/2018: The restaurant, Le Caire, in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood is closed permanently.
It started when I was given chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook as a present. Suddenly I needed to track down all kinds of fascinating-sounding Middle Eastern ingredients: za’atar, ras el hanout, grape leaves. I had just moved to Rue de Belleville, in scrappy, artsy northeast Paris, and someone in the neighborhood told me I’d find what I needed at “l’égyptien.”
I walked up the gentle slope of my new street looking for someone or something who might be described as the Egyptian. Halfway up the hill I came upon a shop front with a sign that read Le Caire—the French name for Cairo. As I entered, I took it all in: shelves upon shelves of spices, enormous vats of olives and feta, tubs of dried fruit and multicolored lentils, bottles of rosewater, orange blossom water, every flavor of molasses, and dozens of herbal extracts, and beautifully colored aluminum cans or heavy, homey Tupperware holding things I couldn’t identify. I felt a surge of desire to buy a little of everything, re-creating Le Caire chez moi. Walking out, I held plastic bags full of more za’atar than I could ever hope to use. Since then I’ve become a regular at Le Caire, dropping in to stock up on halloumi, sugared ginger, sticky baklava pastries, and peppery, garlicky homemade crème d’artichaut. I always seem to find something I didn’t know I wanted.
After years of living on the Left Bank, I hadn’t particularly wanted to move here. But I wanted to buy an apartment, and Belleville was within my budget. Now, a few years later, it feels like it was meant to be. Belleville straddles four arrondissements—the 10th, the 11th, the 19th, and the 20th—but it sometimes feels like it straddles four continents. As a native New Yorker, I feel very much at home: Everyone, it seems, is from somewhere else. In the 19th century, that meant people from Alsace, the Auvergne, and Burgundy; by the 1930s it was filled with Jewish refugees recently arrived from Eastern Europe, as well as Algerian, Spanish, Armenian, and German immigrants. Over time, it welcomed other populations—Malians, Senegalese, Tunisians. Now, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants crowd together at the bottom of the hill, with shops selling durian, bok choy, and lucky cat statues with waving paws. Over the past decade or so, the neighborhood has gentrified, and I have no doubt I’m a part of this. I wondered, passing the Egyptian recently, how this was affecting places like Le Caire.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot,” the shop’s co-owner, Gamila, told me. “It’s become much more French.” She gestured downhill, toward the new third-wave coffee shop, the upscale wine bar, the retro sneaker shop, and the organic cooperative supermarket. By “French,” she seemed to mean young, white, and hipster. Gamila is striking, with her blue eyes and naturally red hair; she wears a head scarf and speaks softly, but with a slightly ironic tinge to her voice. She and her husband, Adel, set up shop here in 1989. A great deal of public housing had just been built in the area, and the Parc de Belleville, a large park at the top of the hill with a spectacular view of the city, had recently opened. “I don’t feel at home here anymore,” she said. “But the neighborhood has gotten better.” Business hadn’t suffered. People come from across Paris to shop there, she told me, and Le Caire supplies spices and other ingredients to the best restaurants in the city.
But it can’t be easy sitting in her shop, wearing a headscarf, in today’s political context. Even in the best of times, diversity is not always seen as inherently positive in France. Immigrants are asked to subsume their ethnic, religious, or social identities in favor of a collective “French” identity. And although the recent elections rejected the far-right nationalism of Marine Le Pen, her ideas have not disappeared.
I try to imagine what Le Pen would think if she took a stroll through Belleville. She might be pleasantly surprised to see what France can look like. Perhaps she would step into Le Caire and, like me, find something she didn’t know she wanted.