In November 2005 two Muslim teenagers got electrocuted in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois while trying to flee from pursuing police. Ten days of violence ensued, in which thousands of cars were burnt in the Paris metropolis, and all over France.
The police steer clear of Clichy-sous-Bois, BBC reporters were threatened when they tried to report on the condition of this suburb, and I'm told by Parisians that Sarkozy himself cannot go there. No Metro or RER lines connect it to the center. So I was a little scared of going there alone. But I felt safe precisely because I am really nobody important. With the right attire, I might just be able to blend in -- until of course I would take out my camera. I was positively frightened to do that.
I set off from my temporary home, the Cite Universitaire campus on the RER B line toward the Gare du Nord. At this train station I need to buy a ticket to Le Raincy/ Villemomble/ Montfermeil. It was all very interesting because Montfermeil happens to be the partial setting for Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, which I am reading these days.
It is not easy for us in these days to imagine what a country outing of students and grisettes was like forty-five years ago. Paris no longer has the same outskirts, and what might be termed the face of circum-Parisian life has wholly changed. Instead of the post-chaise we have the railway-carriage, and instead of the sailing-cutter, the steamboat... Paris in 1862 is a town with all of France for its suburbs. (Hugo 126)Here I was, setting out into the very same suburbs almost a hundred and fifty years later. Now, it seemed, Paris was the same small town but with the entire world for its suburbs -- in particular, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and other French colonies of the twentieth century.
Because my destination was in a zone outside "Paris," I had to buy a new ticket. I found myself in line with African -- for they were dressed in traditional African clothing -- men, women and children that seemed out of place in Paris. Finally I got my return ticket and got on the RER E. I might not have bothered because I could have gotten in with my Pass Navigo and jumped over the barrier in Montfermeil like most other people. I knew from my little incident last summer that I should never travel in an empty carriage. The train zoomed with a speed that made the NJ Transit seem like Hugo's "post-chaise."
At Montfermeil I had to take the 601 A/B bus to one of the stations in Clichy-sous-Bois. I had no idea how to get a ticket for this bus but I found two friendly women who helped me out. And then I was on my way.
Landing in Clichy-sous-Bois was bizarre. It was undelwhelming because there was nothing there really, except some shops and long arrays of apartment buildings. I walked around like I knew where I was going, or like I lived in one of those buildings and was just going back home... everything was calm but there was an ominous feeling in the stillness.
I was awed because here I saw a perverse realization the the Ville Contemporaine and of the theoretical "garden city," a sustainable modern development where the modern man lives in tall buildings that rise from large green fields. It is all supposed to be very sustainable. And not only was this a realization, it was also a sort of fast-forward in history where I could walk around and see for myself and judge what had worked and what hadn't, after 60 or so years had passed since the height of modernist idealism.
To my surprise, a lot of subtleties started to emerge: for example, not all housing seemed to be dilapidated and sickly. There was an entire spectrum from the traditional French cottages in neat streets to the clean and well-maintained gated apartment enclaves to the large modern building that seemed airy, comfortable and middle-class, to the last, which comprised many, many very long buildings with the same entrances, windows, etc. It seemed like someone had a lot of steel and concrete and had multiplied one unit a thousand times to generate a building, and then had proceeded to multiply the building many times to create the Grand Ensemble. It was these buildings that lacked any sort of character. The clothes, bicycles, broken appliances, laundry and trash that hung out from the windows gave to the building its identity.
I took out my camera and started taking pictures. I just had to. Taking pictures is like stealing a little bit of the subject to manipulate it for one's use. You get to set the composition and tell the story. And so I tried to be as humble and reverent as possible. I got some stares but generally I seemed to fit in. A "bonjour" here and there sufficed.
The public spaces, the pilotes, the large windows, the absratct compositions in some of the better-designed buildings were really quite beautiful. It was like seeing the modern dream sort of work, but knowing that somewhere along the line it had failed. The problem, I realized, lies in the social and urban organization of space rather than just architectural.
Another very peculiar thing I noticed was that there was a helicopter continuously making rounds over the entire area. It just did not go away. I wondered what it would feel like to be under surveillance like that all day.
In any case, I had a sandwich at a Muslim place. It was adorned with Islamic art and had arabic all over. And the man behind the corner, who was Tunisian, was so pleased when he found out I was from Pakistan, I got a "Mashallah" from him. A few arab gang members came in and shook hands with everyone, including me. Wow I really was blending in in this place. Was I still in France though... I don't know. There was a little can for the collection of funds to build an Islamic University. There was a drawing on it -- a nice elevation of a grand building. He told me very few people had contributed. The people here seemed out of touch with the rest of France. Only the super-modern buses passing through were a reminder that this was still the republic of France.
Later as I took more pictures, I was screamed at by a young man, and almost followed. I held my breath and walked as quickly as I could away from the place, only to find that a lot of these housing projects had iron fences around them, inhibiting free movement and dividing the town between the rich and the poor.
To my amazement, I walked into a beautiful park, complete with a lake, dense trees, and people picnicking and fishing. None of these people were black or Arab, and the park was fenced off from the Grand Ensemble. The pictures I took are available on my Flickr page (click here).
I came back not with answers but perhaps with an awareness of the complexity of what I was trying to understand. The most troubling thing was the volatile nature of the social fabric in this great metropolis, which I experienced as an outsider. I could identify both with the bourgeois Parisian and with the frustrated Muslim teenager in the suburb. And I believe more than ever that it may now be the time to confront the divide by addressing it... and while that may sound too idealistic, you need only to listen to President Obama's speech in Cairo to begin to want to believe.