If not then let Paris swallow me!
Youssef Bazzi - 30/11/2007
We make our way to the hotel, the Molière, in a street with a large stone fountain topped by a statue of Molière himself. The very same night we go out to a restaurant named after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a luminary of the Enlightenment. The vast edifice of the Comédie Française stretches the length of the street. Across the way and carpeted with autumn leaves lies the Tuileries Gardens, whose plants, trees and stones surrounded on all sides by venerable palaces and buildings speak of a long history of nature’s subjugation: the taming and ordering of mute matter.
The scene is a testament to the ancient, and ultimately successful, project to organize and dominate, championing beauty over chaos. A few short steps from the Tuileries Gardens lies the Louvre museum, whose magically illuminated pillars, endless buildings and vast red, white and blue flag set the visitor’s heart a-flutter. The museum is a project of empire: an embodiment of the potency of knowledge and the tyranny of power. Here, too, we witness a doomed attempt to control time and legacy of human achievement. The brutish weight of this vast hunk of red-speckled stone is relieved by the spacious courtyard around the fragile glass pyramid, a lone symbol of delicacy amid the heavily ornamented walls.
Across the way lies the Palais-Royal Square, surrounded by shops, hotels, cafes, bookshops and tiled, tree-lined avenues. It seems as though this must be the center of town, until you realize that such splendid squares are found in every neighborhood in Paris: a “public” square, where ordinary citizens mingle in a perfect architectural embodiment of “participation”. Here, alfresco communication, promenading, shopping and recreation are pursued with a spirit of social celebration by teenagers, pensioners, tourists and all those free from the burden of gainful employment, meetings and dates.
It is our first night in Paris, our sensitive stomachs spared the toxic effects of Arabic news broadcasts and Lebanese talk shows. Just this: the surprise of sitting beneath the open sky, the air clear and invigorating, a brimming cup and the whispering of the trees. Deep sleep, calm and untroubled by the guilt, the hellish agitation that creeps into the bedchambers of my fellow countrymen and transforms their dreams into belly cramps.
Early morning: its grey relieved by the murmuring of the garden and the smells of freshly baked bread, cakes and coffee that drift in through the wide flung window. I experience unexpected joy when the porter greets me with a heartfelt “Bonjour” at the hotel’s entrance. His greeting comes both from authentic good manners and a genuine faith in the rightness of the day.
I discover the source of the scent that woke me from sleep: a small bakery epitomizing the French genius for making bread, cakes and chocolate. Once more I encounter this courtesy, rooted in true social affection, that the author Lydie Salvayre once called the “French art of conversation”.
- “Bonjour, Monsieur.”
- “Merci, Monsieur.”
Then, a “Bon journée” to see you out of the door.
These artists are careful to observe the formalities of greeting and farewell… “S’il vous plait”, “Pardon”, “Excusez-moi” and others flow tirelessly from their mouths, while their gentle, courteous and dignified tone never varies. They never exaggerate and never ignore the smallest propriety. This is Paris’ first lesson: your manners never change with your mood. You cannot let them drop when you feel like it, or deploy them according to your own capricious standards. They are a law, or perhaps more accurately, a common religion. For a less generous explanation of this behavior we have the mean-minded slander subscribed to by many others in the world: French arrogance. This so-called arrogance is in fact pure decorum. What others term empty pride and false modesty is a deep-seated respect for oneself, for others, and for the principles and values of communication and conversation. It is a form of moral economy. It is, I am certain, an inferiority complex that leads to the charge of arrogance against the people of Paris.
One effect of this behavior is the calm one encounters throughout the city, whether in public or private. Conversation and trade are conducted in a soft murmur. It is a city without that does not shout: crowded without blaring, active without clamoring. The heart of this tempest is calm.
I make my way to the Tuileries Gardens, which seems to have acquired a new set of sculptures scattered throughout its grounds. People have been wandering the park since dawn, studying the works with an intense interest and concern. A long-established café—a favorite haunt of former president Jacques Chirac—looks out at the gardens and the Palais-Royal Square. A professor and his student, a group of well, though inexpensively, dressed ladies, a young woman reading a book (has she been there all morning?), a man engrossed in his newspaper, a woman and her child eating breakfast together. Outside, a gentle, almost invisible, drizzle falls and the wind blows the leaves at the feet of theatre students dressed for a masquerade.
I leave the café and have only walked a short distance before I come across the broad and slow-flowing Seine. I notice the Musée d’Orsay on the opposite bank. So then: behind me, the Louvre and the Comédie Française, in front of me the Musée d’Orsay and in the far distance the Eiffel Tower. Paris, the city of bookshops, cafes, gardens, arts, bread, museums and architectural miracles is spread out before me, within my grasp. I think of Hassan Nasrallah’s “projects”: his tents and wagging forefinger. I remember the ambitions of the retired general and of a whole people. I take these thoughts, these woes, cast them into the Seine and walk on.
The myth of standing in line to enter the museum turns out to be true. It’s no exaggerated tourist rumor. I see hundreds of people standing beneath the rain in an orderly queue stretching from the doors of the Orsay. I join the crowds eager, like them, to enter the vast buildings that enclose thousands of canvases and sculptures. Inside lie works by the Impressionists, the post-Impressionists, the Symbolists, the Naturalists and the New Wave, filling six vast floors overlooking a single internal courtyard: six floors with hundreds of rooms, each one teeming with visitors. I can’t recall seeing a single person outside our national museum, nor can I say that I’ve ever thought of visiting it myself. I have no idea whether it’s actually open at all. I feel a profound sense of “national” shame and guilt.
Maybe this is another one of Paris’ lessons: an entire day at the Musée d’Orsay spent looking at art. It’s the easy option: the Louvre requires even greater reserves of patience and time, not to mention a tour-guide, a map of the various galleries and prior research into the objects on display in its endless wings. The Louvre is more like a maze: seeing everything it contains would take many years. Some say that a whole lifetime isn’t enough. I make do with the Orsay.
All fields of artistic endeavor are represented in the section covering art from 1848 to 1914, the period when the visual heritage of modern Western civilization was created. The names on display include Degas, Delacroix, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Klimt, Claudel, Boldini, Bonnard, Munch, Rodin, Rousseau, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugin and Toulouse Lautrec. I could start talking about the universal temple of culture and the cosmopolitan pilgrims that flock from farthest Asia, to Africa, to the Atlantic’s northern shores. Everyone has come to witness this most European invention: to gaze at the artworks and commune with their creators. Even more importantly, they come to enrich their visual culture, to hone their gaze and master the language of color, tone and form.
I start to ponder everything around me: these vast buildings, the museum’s acquisitions, the river, the lofty cathedrals, the vast squares and the delicate orange of the dead leaves. I thought of the hushed voices and the imprint of architecture and engineering on every stone I saw. I fixed my attention on Paris’ unseen power: a civilization’s memory (look for the explanation in Ibn Khaldoun).
I stumble across an amusing parallel for this “memory of civilization”. Wandering into a small restaurant I discover that it is the oldest in Paris, founded in the mid-17th century. Its almost miraculous longevity was a further proof to me of this city’s hidden power. It was like the time I took an afternoon stroll (Paris turns everyone into pedestrians) and chanced across a shop that specialized in Russian dolls and another in sporting trophies. Finally I came to a shop that specialized in handmade ledgers, but not any ledgers: they were works of art, their covers and pages beautifully fashioned in a variety of materials and sizes and displayed like jewels.
I went from Molière to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and from there to Voltaire Boulevard, close by Camille Desmoulins Street (wherever I went I was followed by names of philosophers, authors and playwrights). Then another street, full of flower boxes, ornate balconies and architectural majesty. On the corner stood the customary bistro and patisserie.
Everywhere I went I was accompanied by Bernard Wallet, owner of Verticales Publishing House, a guide to the Parisian maze and the streets, secret basements, intellectuals, authors and publishers that inhabited it. Wallet: with his rickety knees, dressed in black with the physique of a rugby player, the muscles of a mountain climber, the head of a boxer, the heart of a Tibetan monk and the mind of a French intellectual… Passionate about Beirut and its dangers in times of war and peace alike he has been visiting the country since 1979, enamored of its contradictions, struggles and art and closely acquainted with its dreams and secrets.
This man, author of Paysage avec palmiers, speaks neither English nor Arabic, and for my part, I speak no French. I have no idea how we got involved in these weighty debates, arguments between a son of Beirut’s wars, modern Arab poetry, journalism and the Cedar Revolution and a man formed by May ’68, the San Michel riots, a trip to India and all the messy chaos of the French Left. I am a football fanatic, he a rugby supporter (“Huh!” he would say, “Football is a game for battery chickens.”) He was fond of declaring that, “Aside from the street authors, the petty thieves and criminals, I respect Pierre Senges and Régis Jauffret.” Quite what this meant wasn’t clear to me, though I assumed it followed the French critical tradition of passionately supporting a narrow school of thought (although it seemed to me that the owner of a library more than 20,000 volumes strong must respect everyone).
Walih, who smoked whenever he saw fit, who stumbled on his traitorous knees, who was constantly rootling through the chaos of folded papers and objects that filled his pockets, who rarely answered his phone and who lost his wallet almost immediately… this same Walih is punctilious about everything: appointments, meetings and his daily duties as the leader of a tightly run and highly efficient organization. It was only possible because he is passionate about his job. In the midst or disorder and chaos his work is well ordered and rational.
Bernard is taking me to Montmartre on his motorbike. We pass through the Luxembourg Gardens and he notices a poster with the picture of a galaxy. “Youssef,” he asks, “Please take a photo of that. I’ve found it… It’ll be the cover of a book I’m publishing.” He always finds what he’s looking for like this, by happy chance alone.
We motor down Grand Boulevard, a famous thoroughfare lined with theatres. He gestures to a derelict and boarded up theatre and says: “That was our base in the ‘60s: Leftism, cultural and emotional madness and the Golden Age of the youth.” I was looking at the place like a piece of cinematic décor, a backdrop for a film by Truffaut or Godard.
The familiar Paris opened up to me through Bernard’s eyes: a vista of grandeur and despair. Before it belonged to Picasso and Modigliani, Monmartre was home to the poor, revolutions and slaughterhouses. Nowadays it is filled with grating bourgeois residences and moronic tourist traps that rub shoulders with the windmill of the Moulin Rouge on Pigalle Street. Pigalle is now trite and tired out, filled with impoverished immigrants and tourists bewildered by the kitsch splendor of its 1970s shop-fronts. There is no tourist season in Paris: they are here all year round. The Americans seem to be trying to efface the blanched misery that fills their faces. Asians are rewarding themselves for every moment they spent working over the grinding decades. Russians, the truly nouveau riche, are here to blow their cash. I watch them in the Buddha Bar in scenes reminiscent of a movie about the Russian Mafia: money, gold, women and men like peacocks. It’s not a nightclub but a warehouse for gross displays of social vanity. Middle Easterners in Paris hop around in confusion. Their historical wound, the Andalusian delusion, sags open.
On the way to the opening of a Gustave Courbet retrospective I notice a statue, almost impossible to see beside the looming walls of the “Petit” Palais (larger than the biggest palaces we’ve got back home in Lebanon). At first, you don’t quite see it: glimpsed from the street it blends into the walls of the Petit Palais. On closer inspection I see that it is a statue of De Gaulle: a slender body on a slender pedestal. Why have the French placed him out of sight like this? I received my answer that evening. As night fell the statue was discreetly and cleverly illuminated and De Gaulle’s shadow, huge and gaunt, covered the Palais. It is the shadow, not the statue, nor De Gaulle himself, that holds sway over France. Now I understood how the French think of the man that led their “liberation”, founded the Fourth Republic and restored their nation’s glory.
The Courbet retrospective was displayed over four floors of a spacious historical building. Hundreds of canvases spoke eloquently of the ennui afflicting the European bourgeoisie of the mid-19th century. The artist’s self-portraits, particularly Desperate Man and Mad with Fear depict this ennui in an almost cinematic style, alive with light and movement. Another work, Bath of the Dead, Bath of Marriage explores the ritual similarity of bourgeois celebration and death. The canvas Desire, otherwise known as The Origin of the World, is Courbet’s notoriously shocking work. President Sarkozy himself warned photographers against taking close-up shots of the picture as he wandered around during the opening night.
The next day I received two shocks in short succession. The first came when I saw individuals hanging around the entrance of the Opera brandishing small signs at those entering, on which was written, “Please, look for a spare seat!” When have we Lebanese ever been afflicted by such a burning desire for the arts? The second shock was seeing a female taxi driver: an attractive young woman cradling a sleeping dog. Well-dressed, cultured and beautiful she loved novels and travel books and was a fan of Lebanese cooking.
As I walked around an idea took shape in my head. Buildings, I thought, make a state. They are power: active symbols of glory and might. The palace, the prison, the school, the church, the bridge, the monument… all are power embodies in stone and architecture (a point that Rafiq Al-Hariri grasped).
The afternoon, I’m lunching with some young authors—François Begaudeau, Arno Bartina and Mathias Enard along with the inimitable Bernard Wallet and my friend Mohammed Abi Samra. These are young French writers whose concerns and language are almost identical to their counterparts in Beirut, yet they seem to have much more time to write. Begaudeau and Bartina, both in their mid-thirties, have each published four novels to date. The conversation quickly turns to their struggle with the patriarchs of the pen… the stubborn old men of the literary scene. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of trade union and transport workers demonstration. Red flares, firecrackers and policemen in their helmets and protective vests, like extras from Star Wars.
Demonstrations are a venerable Parisian tradition. They recall the whole history of the European Left in the 1960s, and perhaps even further back, to the dawn of the century, when the industrialists held all the power and the workers were the people.
Books, books, books and bookshops, bookshops, bookshops… Paris is brimming over with the printed page. The French devour books like famine struck Africans at a feast. At every corner, every neighborhood, every square and every street stands a bookstore, or maybe two: bookshops of every type and catering to every specialization, bookshops without number, as thronged with customers as our vegetable stalls and supermarkets. This is a people that read, a people of books and letters and writing, a people that treasure the art of conversation, pictures, sculptures and music as much as they adore good cheese, bread, wine and sartorial elegance.
Boulevard San Michel is an endless avenue of bookstores, especially those that deal in rare books, old records and antiques. It’s a thoroughfare for students, a place of longing and nostalgia for the ‘60s and ‘70s and the decades before. Here, fashion and culture are part of life, regulating and giving meaning to life and its pleasures.
San Germain is the home of the two legendary cafés, Les Deux Magots and Flore, where existentialism lives on. Between them lies the white, and even more famous, La Hune bookshop. To the rear is a street of art galleries running around the beautiful and ancient Art College. Everywhere one sees bookshops, flower stalls and galleries’ window displays. A thought comes to me: What is Paris were to swallow me up? I’ll go to the Gallimard studio and get my portrait taken. The intellectuals I was sitting with in a nearby café call this studio “Carmeline”, in tribute to its formidable presence in the history of French literature.
I interview that epitomy of the opportunistic journalist, the man who always keeps his ears open, Phillipe Larouche. He agrees with me that the canceling of the French Book Fair in Beirut is a worrying development and a sign of cowardice and political ineffectiveness. Supporting Lebanon and its intellectuals cannot be effected by words alone, but through action. I meet Philippe Solers, a patriarch with a cigarette holder clamped between his teeth, who laughs when he hears the title of my book: Yasser Arafat Looked at Me. He tells me, “Now you have to write a book called
looked at me.” He shakes my hand with an avuncular mischievousness and goes on his way.
Arab and Muslim immigrants represent one of the most intractable paradoxes in Paris. Despite their historical proximity with Europe and France and despite the fact that the majority of them hail from North Africa (i.e. they speak French fluently), they refuse, by choice, to integrate, remaining cocooned and isolated at the bottom of the social ladder. The more recent (only twenty years old at most) Asian immigration to Paris, from a culture far further removed, has made dramatic progress by comparison. The Asians dress like the French, have no trouble in adopting French manners and customs and are sensitive to local social, moral and religious sensitivities. With the exception of a few individual success stories, Arab immigrants oscillate between failure, hatred and rejectionism.
I make my way back to Beirut, where politics is predicated on the erosion of the state and civilization. I return to my city, hoping against hope that help will come.