IN Paris the Arab tea-houses and corner-store dervishes debating uncommon theologies, the sad-eyed students and Malian street enthusiasts, are doubtless still on the street where they have been left in imagination, there yet not there – there was an abstract argument implied in the act of removal: to be is to be perceived, yet to be perceived is to exist as a value, and what value do things lost, abandoned or unremembered still possess?
You would go into the Turkish place for sweet mint tea that it was impossible to pay for. Had you wanted or intended it, it would still be impossible to offer money for the tea. It was a gift, out of nowhere. After the tea, a nargileh of cinnamon or apple-flavoured tobacco or both together. The people, men with neat hair, women moving behind them, secret stage-directors, would happily talk – French, Arabic, little English. What language is spoken in your country? We would not know, we have never been there, we have never thought of it. It was the most limpid kind of communication, tiny glasses balanced on our knees, strangers come out of the grit of streets, the traffic and constant street-cleaning machines spraying down man, dog and tree alike, Catholic cleanliness an echo of all the pure pilgrimages, how they spoke of Mecca and the purity of white cloth, the white heart of renunciation, the white light of illumination.
You never wore white.
They were illuminated, as all things were, by the twilight emergence of the café-lights, the more lurid reddish glows from regular bars and the glaring fluoro of West African hairdressers, a heightened bustling with the starlings in the plane-trees at the coming of the night. One of the men there said his name was Hassan and he had sought refuge in Paris from old war and old disintegration: uncles, family house, sisters, sisters’ children, disintegrated in Beirut, Jerusalem, Tehran – which birds of Paris were flying there now? You both could see starlings erupting over the twilights of rubbled walls, minarets saintly pink in the fading, foggy sky, fumes of holiness and disintegration from mosque and car-yard, a million two-stroke engines beetling under the swoop of the birds, which still carried Paris in their hidden bird’s ears…
It didn’t matter that you had never been to those places, though you had been to others. Hassan showed you his hand, the missing joint of the fourth finger, a street-bomb when he was twelve – but what’s different now? he yelled, there in the tea-house, five miles away in the suburbs there are a thousand burning cars tonight, Molotov cocktails, bonfires, celebration, sacrificial joy, you destroy and smash it down so it can grow and be built again. The creator-destroyer – you know him? Him? you asked. Yes, Him! Him! Hassan was excitable, then he could laugh as easily, replenish your glass and speak again, of his own relocations and removals, his fiancée who he had never seen again, the sound of his brother’s oud in the courtyard in the warm evenings – my friend, Hassan said, you were never there but you know already how it sounds, the strings in the light air of memory, how she came to me with a serious face and her textbooks in her hand – she always wanted to go to Australia, become immunologist, immune from what? I would ask her. You can’t be protected from anything, it all comes in, there is no escape, no reason to be safe – she called me fool, me, Hassan, a fool! Maybe she’s there now, strange place Australia. I cut my chances, come to Paris, you see the lights, coming on all over the city, everywhere, this is why I love it here, there is always light, somewhere in the city, my friend, please remember this, I would not lie…
It was true, the city was seduced by lights of fruit-sellers, Metro corridors, ambulances and police-cars regularly sheering through light-filled people, nicotine or hashish-lights, cinematic lights, Jean Renoir and Edith Piaf glowing lanterns and blitzkrieg halogens blaring in the memory of the others who passed them on in prismatic reflection to all the unknowns, milled there under the nuclear Tour Eiffel daring the night every night with the lights of a million sacrificed fireflies, the insect-world summoned and thrown into that extravagance of illumination, enough to roll cigarettes by down by the lit-up slow water, the faint lights of hunger under the bridges, walkways, shadowed space between candle-lit boats. Hassan had said, every time, what do you see today my friend? Always a light in his far-travelled eyes and he knew the question was a metaphor and a koan because if it could be easily answered, as easily as he himself had asked it, it might be merely something glimpsed or supposed, in the light of reason, or happenstance, not seen as you see – he would point her out – the small girl on the pavement who went by singing at the top of her lungs and blowing kisses to all the passersby, or the old woman with the wheeled crate of groceries who passed by at exactly that moment every night, 7.04pm, as often in the rain as in the balmy late-summer, the imam or the intellectual in his robes touching his moustache, adjusting his glasses, coming from a meeting where he has been plotting total world illumination. Do you see, Hassan asked always at those end-of-days. Do you see?
You saw and you didn’t see. You saw that you and Hassan might have been brothers, along with the Bulgarian or Ukraine illegals, that tomorrow he might not be in the tea-house at dusk, sent back into the dusty places, or you yourself snatched in the night by ancient ghosts or unforeseen fears and kept to your own unquiet dark, the unlighted room, the blindness to light. So many were there for a week, a month, always there at a corner table, over a Turkish coffee and a cigarette, and then one day gone. Where was the henna-hair woman with the Marseille tarot-pack? In Marseille? Hospital? Council-house in the dark banlieu? She would be sure to reappear, surely. In the passing of days, though, she she never did. You looked out for her, la rouge, hard to miss…
You saw the Chinese toy-seller moving from café to restaurant always trying out the same wares on an unlikely clientele, dragging plastic gewgaws out of the same huge laundry bag, frayed at the handles, his suit never changed, silver nylon, tie wound too tight around a chafed neck. You never bought anything, though you wanted to. You had no use for anything he could offer – plastic machine-guns, talking poodles, flimsy sunglasses, made in Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai. He would never give up, all the way back to Shanghai, had learnt the hard way, good bosses like Mao or Deng, hard worker, no sweat, no problem, cigarette behind greasy ear, whipped out in one of many idle moments, snapped between big white teeth. He would stay long after the invitation, even Hassan snarled at his approach. Refuses my tea – can you believe it? Too much sugar, too sweet for him. Bonne courage, seller of useless toys.
You didn’t want to feel sorry for the Chinese man but you did, and every time you thought to offer money for something, it didn’t matter what it was, the hard sting in his eyes stopped you, you thanked him before he moved on, but he was alone, slipping into the little India flashing restaurant-lights with the laundry-bag over his shoulder. It was always full, always pregnant with unspent abundance, potential, an excess of life.
Everywhere the same abundance. Untested, untasted, very often. It was a fullness that wouldn’t be exhausted by use. By day’s end the streets were again occupied with a guerilla army of dancing men, moving from foot to foot, exchanging hand-slaps and Euro bills, confidence, radical doubt. Not long before it was AK-47s in their hands, long black arms, khaki drab dulling the eyes. For some it had started even earlier, as ten, twelve year-olds in the Congo, the Sudan, Uganda. Where there have been craters of loss, life floods back in. Large tracts of emptiness assaulted with sudden rainfalls. A flip of the cards, a visa, a passport to unseen worlds.
Fullness, freedom at hand – so why untested? You could hold potential in cupped hands, but it needed something more. You were luckier, not a refugee, nor black, nor illiterate, you could move through all things like a chameleon. They had the widest smiles but the least to choose from. They could pull brooms through the streets, pick up garbage-bins at dawn, hanging on the back of the trucks, still laughing in bright green and yellow fluorescent clothes. You laughed as well, the same jokes, the same loneliness, and caught the Metro to work in an office at a blackboard with black ink on your fingers. In the courtyard the black children always playing with plastic balls – large families, a lone mother, the fathers never nearby, never showing face. They had less choice than you, though their French was native, their songs at play so loud they ran into the classroom, upended tables, sent distracted students out for cigarette breaks, standing apart, the children at one side, the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie at another.
You stood in the middle and waited. In the abundance, the Paris drizzle, a mild rainfall, nothing too spectacular, your potential, and theirs, still held in the hand. The Parisian youth, sharp tousled hair, Cocteau clones ambisex cool, looked out for the same thing – in America, land of plenty, full with towers of milk and honey. The anthrax was a thing of the already-forgotten past. You could offer them the language, they promised continued hegemony. Paris would have culture bleeding like haemmorhoids from its pores til the end of time. So much fullness there was always too much to see, too much art made the retina go slack, too much mental sex and things began to droop. Such rich ideas with such negligible effect. The children would start yelling again, singing songs from Abidjan, listen to us, they yelled, crying now too, listen to this song, you’ve never heard it before.
You hadn’t, it was true, but the traffic was loud and constant, and there were people singing on almost every Paris street-corner. Accordions, steel-drums from Senegal, balalaikas from Belorus, punksters from Iowa in front of a reassuring Starbucks with Uncle Sam berets. When it was time for lunch, cigarettes still smouldering, the students went to Burger King. It was good practice, they thought, to learn how to speak as the locals would, if they were here.
At the Archipel Cinéma on Sebastopol she would be there, reading the reviews, though you never went inside with her. She was too critical of all the films, nothing ever satisfied. Levinas in the no-name wine-bar was better. Levinas was always there, would live forever. Totality and Infinity was her bible – her M.A. thesis, parachuted into the Congo Civil War, how does the Other pass muster now? her father from Strasbourg staying there only so long for her to be born there. She never saw him now, only the mother, divorced, in the country house in Aix. The cultural strain, she said, it couldn’t be sustained. And she was the filet in the middle. She would never see any movie with you – none of them were serious enough, and you were, after so much talk still an unknown quantity. A passenger in space, moving through. You will be gone soon, she said. Another white man with a plane to catch.
The fruit-seller was always there, at Chateau d’Eau, even at near-midnight. He knew it by heart after a couple of weeks: five Euro of red grapes. Thank you Sir, in his Sri Lankan English, and you wondered if he would ever open his own fruit store, in a fixed place, or was his visa truncated as well. You didn’t even have one. The white man with a plane to catch didn’t need one, and no-one asked questions. The French, you already knew, would never talk about money, though they gauged its absence or abundance at first glance. You didn’t want to deceive them, and it’s not easy for nothing to pretend to something.
The nothing, the emptiness, could only fill so quickly, and the rain didn’t always fall, despite the elegant drizzle over melancholy cornices. Everyone went to Paris to suck on its beauty like oysters, but sometimes even beauty took off its mask and a blank, bare face, hard to place, was left there, only something negligible left underneath – a park after dusk, the torn pages of a diary left in the street. Les Invalides, les Tuileries, le Grand Palais, sometimes, when the facade fell after the long, rapturous season – an aging lady wiping off the greasepaint and lying down for a rest and soon she was asleep and nothing was there but the future anterior tense.
When Paris took off its beauty you would repair to the back streets – the back-backstreets. A bar, wholly nothing, on the rue des Favorites, what was there? Nothing there, not even “no symbol where none intended.” It was a jaunty show, not a sign of a tourist, not even a half-decent coffee. It was nothing coffee so nothing it wasn’t even bad. Afterwards you could pass through Denfert-Rochereau and make for the Salpetrière and present yourself to the newest specialist in le néant and show him your wild, empty palms. Look doctor – nothing there! It wasn’t merely being condemned to be free, it was the way they gave your stolen goods back to you after you’d stayed the sentence, full again, fed well on solitude, and you were to go out and lose it all over again. Tant pis!
Sooner or later she was sure to succumb, to the cinema and the dream, and surrender to a story she’d never yet heard. You wouldn’t leave Paris, and she’d understand it before long. No-one would ever leave again. Where was there for you to go now? Istanbul? Sydney? Madras? The boss wanted to send you to Moscow: the zero kingdom. You thought of the snow, the ice, the vast, flat horizons, the Siberian future laid out like a denuded chess-board, everything become two-dimensional in the cracking air. The flat earth won out, you stayed earthbound, you caught the Vincennes line, you unlocked the house of fidelity and made your bed there. You would marry the city and pay court to the gods of Levinas, blind men with agile feet who would bring village singers to your door. They would come from everywhere – from Dakar, Cotonou, Minsk and Des Moines. Let the plenty rain down, let the traffic stop in its tracks, the Metro shut down, the Seine run between our sheets.
You would taste that love, its salt on the tongue. All of them, all the gods of Levinas, would be there, Hassan, his sister, the noisy children trailing after. Even after you had gone, and lost their names on small pieces of paper, they would still be there, passing light from hand to hand.
Copyright © 2006