Here it is Paris
Les vainqueurs l'écrivent, les vaincus racontent l’histoire/Les vainqueurs l'écrivent, les vaincus racontent l’histoire/Personne dans le monde ne marche du même pas/Leurs règles ont toutes une tombe, c'est ça qu'ils ne comprennent pas.
—Booba, “92i Veyron”
Omar watches the heavily folded sway of Cécile’s skirt with growing contempt as they cross the road. His face shows no emotion, as if just sculpted in some poor artist’s studio. The contempt, writhing and without conscious target, rests in his belly. Hips loose, he almost glides over the pavement. She walks ahead, seemingly with a purpose. Yet her steps are short and anxious. She doesn’t look up to watch for any change in traffic and two cyclists swerve at hard angles to avoid her. Tree shadows mottle her exposed skin, which is freshly scrubbed and shines in such a way to exhibit comfort. Omar and Cécile are passing from Paris into the banlieue for a family gathering. But they do so without witnessing the dividing circular highway that marks center from periphery and vice versa. A tunnel hides the traffic circulation to create an illusory continuum: walking on this road is walking on top of the highway, rendering it as hollow as it is exceptional. I happen to know that for them the division is also linguistic because it is in Paris, the city, where they had to learn to speak differently for their studies in philosophy. They had to lose the French slang words that can go backwards and forwards, like the flaps of window shutters or those wind-up toy cars, with their myriad genealogies in Europe’s creolization and the history of colonialism. Walking now then, this twofold way of being in language is also temporarily masked—and not only because of their own dizzying passions. One reason the highway is hidden could be because of the kind of buildings in this area. Stretched between the Paris border and Bagnolet, in the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, nearby where Omar and Cécile share a one-bedroom apartment barely just inside the city, rest several sandstone fortresses that together comprise a secret service outpost of some kind. Here the division between the suburbs and Paris is literally fortified, as if a war were set to break out at any moment. A war that here is simultaneously made invisible and seemingly impersonal.
Walking myself in the surrounding area of these buildings, on the way to the cinema in Bagnolet or just aimlessly, I’ve noticed it is forbidden—interdit, as you say to a young child who cannot yet speak properly but acts in all sorts of knowing ways—to take photos in the vicinity. I learned this in the first place by casting my gaze onto the walls of the fortress and, only then, catching the repeatedly posted prohibitory signs. The sign’s outdated graphic of a video-surveillance camera makes clear that it is the allotted work of these many-windowed buildings to watch citizens as they walk by—not vice versa. That is, how it is they walk, with what cadence in their gait and with what object in their hand. Nothing new then. This is simply the mutation of a so-called scientific, photographic physiognomy of what makes good and bad citizens, something that, I read, the 19th-Century French police attempted to perfect after the invention of photography. So to take an image here also means war—even if the war imagined by the signs, given the current political context and crisis in France, with state of emergency as rule, is an impossible outdated one that takes as its target the dimensions of an impregnable symbolic structure. Tempted yet defeated, I take a photo of the tree shadows on the sidewalk and then one further down the road, with the buildings only just visible in the upper right hand of the frame. It is as if the prohibitory signs assume the essence of the photographer to be not that of the modern flâneur, who apparently is always either a terrorist or artist in our contemporary, but that of an ancient geometer. The geometer whose work it is to perfectly deduce from a particular, empirically-given figure its universal properties. So reveals the unconscious logic of these signs: that the power lies not only in what is empirically capturable in an image, but also in the paradigmatic control to the very right to see and to be seen.
Omar starts to think of the last few months in Paris while walking, under the walls of these buildings, pushing Cécile’s anger out of his own gut. How crazy it’s all been. How crazy he’s got too, allowing Cécile to become a stranger or extra in the movie of his life. He’s always stuck in the idea that life is like a movie. But it could be worse. He thinks of Frédéric who got out of prison on November 13th after serving a year for robbery. It was his second sentence. The first one was for beating another guy to a pulp. The guy didn’t die though. Getting out, Frédéric is told his best friend and her mother were killed at the Bataclan concert in an attack claimed by ISIS. But this “unimaginable horror” wasn’t enough to get him to want to go back to prison, he told Omar. Omar saw, in a way that greatly affected him as well, how clearly Frédéric tread an uneasy, contorted reality between the two worlds. His face only really lit up when talking to his old cellmate by text message, sharing jokes no one else could understand. No woman, and he saw many, one after the other, those months, could bring that same joy. He told Omar the story after they hadn’t seen each other since they were teenagers—their lives had taken different paths. The night they reunite is by chance: at a free film screening in République, the first night of Nuit Debout’s occupation of the square on March 31st. It is the only time Frédéric attends, unlike Omar who goes frequently until the general strike really takes hold in May. On this night, the square’s purpose as a memorial to the 130 victims of the attacks started to wane. The nearby attacked restaurants were beginning to reopen. Omar notices one graffiti tag that says: homage to the families of the broken windows [vitrines not victimes.] People, including Frédéric, were angry for so many different reasons that night and for nights and days of action to come, as if, Omar thought, answering to ISIS that to be someone who lives in France does not mean just to sit in a café, go to a concert or see a football game—something that the government throws right back at them.
I am French, Omar thinks whimsically almost laughing, as if it was a thought experiment and not what his passport really said. Both his and Cécile’s parents came to France, via Libya, from Lebanon during the civil war. They were born here and grew up together as children, learned to speak together, play, get strong, everything together. Now they are both high school teachers, actively striking alongside their students these months to overturn the proposed labor law reform inspired, and in part imposed, by Germany. It will undoubtedly affect everybody’s conditions of life negatively, cutting welfare and upping exploitation, if not lowering unemployment numbers on the books—“for what kind of jobs?” Omar thinks to himself, picturing the jagged unemployment charts since the 2008 crisis that remind him of how he used to draw mountain ranges as a child. To encourage students to pass the philosophy exam on Hobbes is a running joke between him and Cécile. Everything, everything—is in fact what Cécile repeats in her head as she walks. She cannot think of all these other things right now. Even without looking, she can sense the easy freedom of his gliding step in comparison to hers. She cannot say everything to him. Is that what closeness really is then? she asks herself, immediately distrusting the paradox. Unlike me, neither one of them notice the signs once on their path. Up until the last building, whatever thoughts are racing, Omar looks only placidly at the figure of Cécile and Cécile only at her own feet as they repeatedly fall and are caught under the pace of anxiety. Yet this is most likely because, unlike me, they are already too familiar with the stretch of road and the signs. Indeed, only when they turn off of this watchfully hollow, exceptional road does Cécile stop to face her lover.
Omar’s face is sweating under the noon-time sun, still still as if sculpted. The story of Frédéric, death, the threat of growing immiseration, revolt…all this fades as he faces her and her him. He acted to hurt her so as to be found guilty by her. No wonder Cécile has begun to distrust paradoxes. She tells me later how she memorizes this expression of his and stores it away somewhere else [ailleurs]. Her eyes dance looking back and forth between him, the roof and the now more open sky. In this image-making moment of Cécile’s, nearly hypostatic yet also allowing Omar to radiate between all other things caught in that summer afternoon, the prohibitory signs she never saw are no longer visible. Lucid, she registers how to stop walking here meant to stop that repetition, psychotically rendering impossibility between them passable, between her own corporeal falling and catching with each step. In contrast, Omar only endeavors to decode Cécile in this moment so as to absolve his guilt as soon as possible. I picture here how, no longer differentiated
Terra Incognita still by Ghassan Salhab, reproduced here with his permission (2002).
by their gaits, fabric folds hang over Omar and Cécile’s halted flesh framed now only barely in passion. Cécile smokes. Perhaps they breathe heavily still, it is true, while necessity of one for the other is mise à nue. A shared necessity by definition, even if each of their relation’s to that necessity is distinct. And a dismal necessity, they know, that denies the sky’s infinity. That same sky youth in Paris have lanced a new assault upon, invoking old words of Marx but giving them new meaning. The sky that, so goes the Booba lyric they flew on banners, knows how underneath hoods heads bleed—struck again and again by police, here in Paris as in elsewhere.
“Bien qu’elle soit un lien entre deux personnes, elle a quelque chose d’impersonnel…” Omar, in the language foreign to both of their preferred Lebanese Arabic tongues, quotes Simone Weil on friendship to Cécile. They had read the text one hot day together last summer. He had reread it that Sunday morning while Cécile met with me for coffee and first spoke of their relational difficulty. “Imagine,” responds Cécile cooly in Arabic not French, typical, filling her eyes with meaning only once he looks away again, “what difference does that make? Tell me. What is an impersonal love? Only the sky knows that. Only the sky could want that. Omar.” Cécile places her left hand on her throat at the enunciation of his name. Fuck, she thinks, it hurts from the smoke. He says back to her quickly without thinking, also in Arabic, that under the sky is the roof. His face is suddenly so nervous and faltering. Watching its clay-like texture fold with these words, with the roof, she starts to laugh in a small way that also brings tears—her hand still on her throat. Cécile knows that he enjoys these kind of moments too much. The moments in which a distance is slowly reined back in and where touch again soon becomes possible. “So,” she says after letting silence fall, “let’s be rooftops in our next lives then. Up there we won’t smell the dog shit. Only pigeon shit and teargas. The air de Paris, quoi.” In spite of the joke Omar is still on edge. He can’t tell if her anger is softened or not. She doesn’t make eye contact and rubs her cigarette butt into a pulp, flashing up an image for Omar of Frédéric’s first convicted crime. Shaking his head, he ventures a response: “Okay. I’d like to be more central though. The suburbs smell too good.”
At some point during their exchange, out of sight from the prohibitory signs—but I’m not sure exactly when nor by the way am I sure how it ends between them, since Cécile’s account became more vague—a car passes slowly, with the new release “92i Veyron” by Booba thumping. Two shirtless teenage boys run out from the nearby park to join the lone driver, whose hair is slicked back. They are ready to go out on the town.