When people think of Paris, mythical place names spring to mind: the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Musée d’Orsay, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower.
In Imaginary Paris, every street corner has a view of the Eiffel Tower.
Imaginary Paris exists in films, in literature, and in other people’s holiday photos. Even the residential areas, featuring no discernable Paristastic monuments, would pass muster on a Disney storyboard. Pretty iron-wrought footbridges sit atop the canal where Amélie skimmed her stones. Jaunty shop-fronts promise they’re not faceless chain stores. Barmen pour lunchtime apéritifs for locals; they’ll sell you a pack of cigarettes after hours if you ask nicely.
There’s a sheen about the city that makes roughing it here seem so quaint that it’s almost glamorous. There’s a certain folklore to it, too. Ordinary Parisians like to think they were responsible for kicking the King out of town and reclaiming the streets. Les Misérables taught us that the kids in the shabby chic rags were the good guys.
Hemingway sketched a paupers’ Paris of table wine and unheated lodgings in A Moveable Feast and spawned a raft of left-bank copycats who are still wandering around the place now. At the place Mouffetard, they’re the ones with the concerted faces as they encounter not the gleam of a copper countertop and the soft clink of wine glasses but the warm whiff of cheap kebab meat and the laminated menus of the Haagen Dazs café. I always sensed there was something phony about Hemingway’s sparse prose. Slumming it in the Latin Quarter, the young writer also took in trips to the Louvre, strolls along the Seine, and the odd punt on the horses.
George Orwell wrote famously of being down-and-out in Paris and – to give him his dues working as a kitchen-hand – he really was. In his tragi-comic account of slave labor, Orwell expresses his solidarity with his Parisian brothers-in-arms and pities the lowly dishwashers he works with. I wonder what he would make of the city’s down-and-outs today. Most of them sleep rough; some would jump at the chance to wash dishes. Many of them don’t speak any French at all.
Suleimane is my neighbor. He lives near that tree-lined canal, the one flanked by cycle paths and bars serving organic wines. Well, he lives there as much as he lives anywhere. I make pantomime angry faces when he drops paper on the floor. He laughs at me and tells me in Afghanistan there are bits of paper all over the floor. I tell him that’s not a good thing and he shakes his head grimly and agrees, “No, no, Afghanistan’s no good.”
It seems trivial to be talking about littering. If I push him for more his tone changes, his mouth sets, shuts, and he flicks the hood up on his sweater. Since we only possess about twenty common words, I’ve learned to read these gestures. He lowers his gaze. So we talk about whether it’s cold or hot (it is cold), whether pomegranates are beautiful or not (they are), and we make sweeping generalizations about whether the staff at the police station are kind or mean (they are mean).
With such forced economy, language becomes elastic; single words swell to become huge recipients of endless concepts. In our language, the word “forbidden” covers: shops that are closed for business, urban areas that are off-limits, non-existent agencies, mobile phones that are broken or switched off, Saturday and Sunday for Westerners, and locked doors.
When I speak English, he laughs and repeats: “Oh my god!” Then I ask him about his god – does he go to mosque? Sometimes. He asks me if I read the Qur’an and doesn’t understand when I explain I don’t have one. No god, either. No, Allah? But, yes, Allah? No, no Allah.
When we talk about obstacles, risks, fears, and the future we say Insh’allah – god willing – a lot. It’s another all-encompassing phrase that can be neatly applied to any aspect of the life he has here, teetering on a razor-edge between surviving and not.
We go to a police station on the edge of town to register an asylum demand. As I leaf through a scrappy file of photocopied papers in a depressingly predictable plastic folder documenting ten months of illegitimacy, I realize it’s probably not his first time in this room. I process the names and dates and infractions that make him speak in that guarded, reticent tone whenever we talk about why he came to Paris.
“Is your birthday really the first of January?” I say. “That’s cool!” He shrugs. I learn that he shares this birthday with many, many Afghan refugees; the years vary, but they’re all worryingly recent. The pile of paper covers his life, more or less, but none of it’s valid. No stamps, no biometric photos, no address. Not good papers.
In the waiting room there are squawking Chechen children, herded by their clucking mothers. There are more white faces than I expected and more women and children, too. But I suppose real asylum seekers aren’t played by the same cast of thousands who trudge before our screens on the evening news. I can’t hear any languages I understand; there are no interpreters. Staff use a mixture of volume and aggressive stabbing gestures with ballpoint pens to get their points across.
After four hours, we get bored. Our habitual pantomime style of conversation is hampered by our limited stage and minimal props. I offer up some reading material in the form of my passport (good papers). He nods approvingly at the photo page of my passport, confirming that the image is, indeed, me and proceeds to read everything, ponderously and methodically, from the back page to the front, upside down.
Walking home, we stop for a coffee and I’m surprised (and not a little amused) when he pushes a crumpled five-euro note into my hand to give to the waiter. Where did that come from? A friend. Really? It doesn’t look like a lie.
Over time, I’ve learned to identify the half-second pause that precedes an untruth. That afternoon I’d learned about something that wouldn’t pass for an adolescence in any other part of the world and a very long, dangerous journey taken in order to leave it behind. But I’ve never fully understood how he scrapes by, here, now. Money, food? Yes, but not every day. A bed? Not tonight, no. But tomorrow, perhaps. Insh’allah.