by Jack Newsham:
“Authority,” I said.
“Father. Uniform,” my French host brother Balthazar responded. We sat in the kitchen of the family’s apartment after dinner, playing a word association game.
“Suburbs,” I said, thinking of detached homes and manicured lawns. But Balthazar’s association was less rosy:
From the northern reaches of Paris, you can just start to see them: the towering suburban housing projects where much of the city lives. These northern suburbs, which align closely with several of 751 state-designated “sensitive urban zones,” or ZUS, aren’t a stop on many tourists’ itineraries. While outsiders like Balthazar view these projects as volatile riot sites with high poverty and unemployment, many first- and second generation French immigrants call them home.
Rarely trafficked by non-resident French, much less by foreign visitors, the ZUS are somewhat of a sociological frontier. I felt compelled to visit. But after I told my host family what I planned to write about, they were apprehensive.
I had a hunch what they would say. The few English-language online resources I had found about these places were largely Islamophobic, and several were affiliated with far-right movements in France and the United States. According to such sites, the suburbs are “dangerous to whites and non-Muslims,” and resolutely “in the hands of drug traffickers, gangs, and imams.” According to one dispatch, ZUS are “microstates… governed by or under the influence of Islamic Sharia law.” Conservative commentator Daniel Pipes labeled them “Dar al-Islam: the place where Muslims rule.”
Mathieu, an English-speaking friend of the family, sat with me after dinner one evening and voiced his concerns.
“There are some places where you don’t want to go, where you aren’t welcome,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “When you’re on the Métro and you’re trying to find out where you’re going, they know you’re an outsider.”
Two weekends later, I found myself stepping out of the Métro into the northern suburb of Aubervilliers. Following my teacher’s advice, I had dressed to blend in: plain white tee, jeans, no camera. Nonetheless, after Mathieu’s description, I was prepared to have everyone’s eyes on me, to witness street crime, or worse. But after walking a few blocks,I noticed that despite a higher-than-average concentration of halal meat vendors, the city wasn’t that foreign.
Venturing further into Aubervilliers, down its dirty streets and past its rundown storefronts, I found a small playground amid several apartment blocks. The equipment was mostly new, and unlike most Parisian playgrounds, completely untouched by graffiti. A diverse group of kids played with their parents looking on: Asians, Eastern and Western Europeans, Africans and Middle Easterners, all of them speaking French. Where was the hotbed of violent Muslim separatism I had been told to expect?
My expectations were similarly toppled elsewhere in Paris. The Goutte-d’Or, a ZUS, sits at the base of Montmartre, home of the majestic Basilique Sacre-Coeur and its mobs of tourists. Amid the bustle of the neighborhood, between the street vendors and money order shops of the Rue Doudeauville, sits a shop called Dar al-Salaam that advertises cut rates for long-distance phone calls. Dar al-Salaam, or “house of peace,” is another term for Dar al-Islam, the term used disparagingly by Pipes to suggest Muslim dominance of the ZUS. But if this store suggested anything, it was that to the residents of the Goutte-d’Or, where beefy police patrols stroll through the market and the ornate Wallace fountains of Paris dot the sidewalks, Dar al-Islam is confined to a street corner, only accessible by long-distance phone calls. The residents of this neighborhood don’t feel like they run things at all.
In one regard, Mathieu was right: I was an outsider. Though I wasn’t mugged or shoved off the Métro, rundown projects and signs that pointed to the welfare office had never been a fixture of anywhere I have ever called home. In the words of community organizer Isabelle de Rambuteau, the residents of neighborhoods like the ZUS are “isolated at every level,” caught between disunited families, a disunited city, and difficulties communicating with the established power structures. Their social advancement, she relates, will not be easy, but will require politics of pragmatism and character.
A week later, I would return home to lifelong friends and family, a relatively stable living situation, and a system I felt I understood and could navigate. And in that regard, I was different: Somewhere else, I was an insider.
JACK NEWSHAM ‘14 is in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org