Ramadan in Saint-Denis

By ALA FOX

Saint-Denis

It is Ramadan in Saint-Denis, the banlieue north of Paris. It is almost 21:00h on a June Sunday, and the sun hangs a hazy orange in the sky. The elevator in Amir’s building is broken so we climb the six stories, past the floors of muffled French Arabic and children’s screams. His mother’s home has one bedroom and a narrow tile-floored kitchen, like the one in my grandmother’s apartment in Beijing. There is a cigarette lighter for the stove, but I am too clumsy for this, so Amir manages.

I warm the meal I’ve brought us while Amir goes to shower. First he heats the water in the tank above the kitchen sink, waits for the electric whine that signals hot water has begun to rise. I make us two plates of fried mushrooms and potatoes, leftovers from the dinner I cooked for the French family I work for. There is no table; I eat perched on the counter by the sink while Amir leans against the stove opposite, our knees close enough to touch. We eat slowly and smile often. We are still hungry when we finish.

The living room is filled with boxes of Amir’s shoes; in the corner is a twin bed where he sleeps. Amir is tall, lean, and longer than the bed. He plays soft music from his phone, and we dance together across the small room. Ignorant of each other’s language, this is the only way we know to communicate.

Princesse the cat is quick to join us, angling her tiny body between mine and his. She is clearly in love with Amir. Only when he’s swung her around on his shoulders and she’s danced her fill do I get my turn again. But I know how she feels, and I too make Amir lift me by my waist to spin above him, until he tires and gently taps my head against the ceiling.

It is only an hour to midnight, though the sun’s rays still light the horizon, and eighteen-hour fasts bring clarity and color. I can taste the bronze caramel of Amir’s skin, hear tiny screams from the pores on my arm where his fingers trace their path.

Behind the open window, streets come alive. Amir stops his music, and we listen to the slow exhale below: a breath of noise given space to exist.

It is now dark outside, and the neighborhood awakens. The men kneel on the sidewalk for prayer, spilling out from the masjid on the corner. A crowd forms outside the halal shop, lit up by the restaurant in the otherwise unlit street—a Maghreb festival in the overflowing, abandoned suburbs of Paris.

 

Chessy

I live in the attic in Chessy, as the Lambert family’s au pair for the summer. We’re some twenty miles east of Paris. The nearest train to the city is still miles away, but I’ve been granted the spare electric car while I’m here, to shuttle the children around until they leave for holiday.

My room is sparse and romantic. Not cozy—an electric heater next to the bed is the only touch of warmth in the space, an end table and lamp the only other furnishings. What makes the room beautiful is the window. The attic sits atop a two-story French villa and looks out above its carefully manicured gardens. Below the window, a stone path lined with wildflowers leads to a modest fountain and rows of beech trees.

Eloise, the matron of the house, tells me it used to belong to the Sabouraud family. In these rooms, Jean de Brunhoff created and wrote the stories of Babar, the orphaned elephant who brings European civilization back to the jungle. It is easy to believe such tales were born here. Each morning I open the shutters to chirping birds drinking from crystal pools, before I hurry downstairs to bring the children to school.

I have three youths in my charge—Ynez, Lisette, and Nikolas. They are seventeen, fifteen and twelve. Ostensibly I am here simply to converse; my American English and ignorance of the French language are perfectly acceptable for these new Parisian cosmopolites. Already enrolled in the best private schools Paris has to offer, the children gain another edge over their peers by speaking with me.

I do not love the children, except perhaps Lisette.

Lisette appears least remarkable and is least adored by her mother. She is more reserved than her siblings, but also more kind. She likes fashion, which Ynez derides. Her face brightens beautifully when I ask her about the latest clothing trends.

The oldest, Ynez, is confident. She is beautiful and obviously intelligent. When not studying for college entrance exams, she records music and has just released a debut folk album to some acclaim. Ynez intends to enroll at a grande école, live at one of her parents’ furnished apartments in Paris, and set up a recording studio while she studies. I am certain she will.

Nikolas I do not like. Nikolas loves American rap, and, like all the Lambert children, he speaks perfect English. I have to remind him daily to stop cursing in my car. The tracks are censored, but he’s memorized the lyrics; every time he drops the N-word I cut the music and he rolls his eyes.

Nikolas loves to rap for Ynez. When she teases him, he shoots back: “Don’t mess with me; I’m from the 93!”

“Oh yeah? You’re from—?” She names some place I don’t recognize.

Nikolas responds enthusiastically in French, pointing finger pistols at his sister until she tires of him.

When I ask Ynez to translate, she tells me, “He pretends he’s in one of the gangs from the Paris banlieue.” Banlieue: a pejorative for the immigrant-dominated suburbs, or a term reclaimed as a badge of honor, depending on which side of Paris you land. When I ask if there really are any gangs, Ynez nods: “Very many, but they mostly stay on the outskirts. Nikolas wouldn’t survive a day there.”

Only much later do I realize they are thinking of Amir.

 

Paris

Amir is a dancer.

The first time I saw Amir was in some underground cavern carved into the side of Belleville. It was Chill in the City’s summer breakdance battle. Amir was sitting on the edge of the stage, across from me in the circle of bodies at whose center two dancers faced off. I did not see him dance, but I knew he was a dancer because his limbs twitched as he watched the others, and when I watched Amir I also wished to dance.

Later we’ll speak often of when we met—I guess there were few other things we could communicate with only Google Translate and smiles. We’ll reenact the first time we saw each other: where he was sitting, and where I was sitting. What he was wearing: his gray hoodie with the militant monkey, his long hair pulled back into a burst of brown coils, elongating his already too-tall frame. What I was wearing: that jean jacket from Printemps I couldn’t afford, my hair trailing as it used to in twin braids down my shoulders.

I saw the intensity with which Amir watched the other dancers and felt I understood completely. I wanted to show him there were things outside myself that I, too, loved as part of me.

Too quickly, only two finalists were left. Amir took one of the two aside and gestured movements while the other boy listened, both serious. I watched the last battle unfold through the reactions on Amir’s face: each grimace and cheer reflecting his friend’s success.

I saw this and thought: This is love.

I positioned myself near the exit, determined to grab hold of this moment. But when Amir smiled as he passed, I frowned and looked down. When I looked up again, he was gone.

I called Akia in tears: I think I found myself today, but then I lost him. Later, I scrolled through photos from the event, and suddenly there he was. I hit “Follow.” And then, his message in my inbox: Saluuuuut. Tu étais au battle Belleville. Tu est arrivée à la fin je pense.

The next time I see Amir, we take the train to Concorde and walk along the river Seine. We sit under the bridge that crosses the Île Saint-Louis, in the shadow of an unburnt Notre Dame. That was the year the Louvre flooded, and the water reached nearly to our feet. We walk the Tuileries, and it is Amir’s first time in the gardens. He is twenty-two, and we are less than eight miles from his home.

We try to speak but understand little of the words the other says. Sometimes Amir stops passersby to ask for translations; sometimes they know. In this way we exchange names, activities, places: simple pieces of information that require little else to comprehend.

In the absence of speech, every embrace seems more meaningful. I try to convey a thousand thoughts in every look, and interpret a thousand more with each Amir returns. In those waning hours of Parisian summer, we share countless words in this way: my fingertips traveling the veins in his arm; his arm across my shoulders as the light fades.

When Amir asks about my mother, it is as simple as pointing toward the heavens to tell him she is dead. Afterward he asks nothing more, but every time he runs his thumb over the lines where I scratched her name into my wrist, I feel he understands deeply.

When Amir tells me his mother is from Guadeloupe and his father from Algeria, I reply that he is ocean and sand. Amir nods vigorously at this. When I tell Amir I am from California, he understands I mean I am American. And when he tells me he is from Saint-Denis and writes the name of his housing project—his citéI understand he means: not quite France.

 

Saint-Denis

On the fourth day of Ramadan 2016, the Euro Cup begins. France is hosting. Eighty thousand people pour into the stadium in Saint-Denis to watch France’s victory in the opening game.

The majority will enter and leave the Stade de France on one of several walkways connecting to the metro station. Crowds buoy along raised paths, beneath fluttering arches of national flags—recently warring banners, now united in this new European identity. Beneath the official arches other colors appear, borne on the backs of spectators. The green of Algeria, a deep Moroccan red.

Most visitors will land in Saint-Denis without ever setting foot on any street of the commune. As part of the tournament’s opening ceremony, the French air force conducts an elaborate flyover. French combat teams have only just returned from launching air strikes over Syria, the latest campaign in the global “War on Terror.”

In Paris, Amir and I make our way to the Champs de Mars, one of many designated fan zones set up for spectators across the country. Neither of us has any interest in soccer, but I am curious about the noisy energy that sweeps through Paris. Thousands gather under the Eiffel Tower, where rows of erected screens broadcast the match.

To enter, Amir and I must pass three security checkpoints, temporarily separating into gendered queues for pat-downs. The police presence at every subway station, continually enforced since November 2015 after coordinated bombings across Paris, has expanded with the influx of soccer fans.

ISIS would later claim responsibility for the Paris bombings. Afterward, France launched its largest air strikes yet in Syria, and police raided over two hundred French households suspected of “Islamic extremism.” French military laid a full-scale assault on a second-floor apartment in Saint-Denis—capturing eight, killing three, and reducing an entire floor of the building to rubble. The burned ruins of this residential building are one mile from the soccer stadium.

Finally, the game begins with the French national anthem. Many around us join in to belt the words to “La Marsailleise”: “Arise, children of the Fatherland. To arms! Let an impure blood water our brows.” Amir rolls his eyes. He laughs and tells me, “Non je ne chante pas ce chant de guerre.” I do not sing this war song.

Of the twenty-some players on France’s national team, nearly half trace their roots back to the Paris banlieue. Soccer fields and policemen are the two resources that truly abound in the 93. Every year, scouts across Europe descend on the poorest Paris suburbs hoping to sign the next Zidane or Mbappé.

In a country where most consider the banlieue only a problem to be solved, the national team has become a symbol of positive unity. It is in the first-ever French victory at the 1998 World Cup that the chant “Black, Blanc, Beur”—Black, White, Arab—is shouted proudly for the first time. Since then, this phrase is championed as an embrace of banlieue-forged Frenchmen, a symbol of their positive contribution.

This is true, at least when the team is winning.

 

Chessy

Driving back with Nikolas from golf practice, we pass the statue of Cornelius the Elephant on our street. I can make out his protruding, greened copper tusk before turning into the gates of the Lambert residence.

Cornelius is another character from the pages of Jean de Brunhoff. Cornelius stands on two legs and wears European clothing, which marks him among the “civilized” elephants: ones who have entered Babar’s refined culture and left behind their jungle ways. Throughout the stories of Babar, his companions endeavor to spread their civilizing mission across the land, though some of the jungle’s existing inhabitants do not accept these new customs. Some miscommunication between the parties occurs, and war ensues.

In the Lambert kitchen, I cook a meal I will never get to taste.

Eloise is hosting a private concert for a celebrated pianist in the detached music hall behind the house. A few select guests arrive early for dinner. I’m tasked to prepare food, though Eloise oversees the seasoning, dipping her pinky finger into each sauce so I don’t break my fast.

The Lamberts are model liberals, in the American sense. They pay their taxes and host benefits for the philharmonics. I run the laundry for the children every day, but always hang-dry the clothes. The electric car gets parked next to the Mercedes and Lexus to charge, between trips to school, and golf, and clubs.

The Lamberts donate to the usual charities and demand justice for the forgotten poor. Their daughter writes folk songs in English, and their son raps all the new banlieue slang that’s made it to the private schools. But when I ask Lisette to translate a voice note from Amir that has stumped me for days, she cannot. Even the professors do not speak Amir’s French, which they call “verlan beur.”

Verlan: a term for the flipping of French words that is itself an inverse of the syllables in l’envers. And beur—verlan slang for Arabe. This now-popularized vernacular is another invention born of the Paris banlieue. Originated on the edges of mainstream society, it is the children of the modern banlieue who claimed verlan as their own. From the high-rise immigrant housing intentionally built to be physically isolated, new words, songs, and stories now ignite and spread like wildfire across the country.

There is a professor at the Lambert house tonight. When I bring out the bread tray, he is talking to Ynez about her university application. I linger a moment, until Eloise waves a hand in my direction; I catch my name in her flurry of words.

Then, in English: “Ala is not eating with us. She’s fasting. For Ramadan!”

Beyond this moment, Eloise has shown little interest in my fast, though on Fridays she remembers to halve the seventy euro that is my weekly salary for weekend meals. Since I am breakfasting at the house before sunrise, she reasons I only need enough for dinner in Paris.

The professor nods slightly in my direction, before responding to Eloise with some urgency. Though my own hair is uncovered, I have just supplied the party with their next topic of conversation—hijab. A garment apparently so controversial, it grips the nation in impassioned debate. Less than a month after this evening, France’s coastal towns will legalize their first official “burkini bans.”

Regarding hijab, Eloise is passionate. She’s often asked me why she should be forced to see another woman so oppressed. It upsets her sense of justice. Eloise tells me the scarf is an insult to French laïcité. I understand this word to mean “secularism,” but despite many explanations and many conversations, I’m sure something has been lost in translation. Because, really, I do not understand.

So I bow out, and head to Paris to see Amir.

 

Paris

Amir’s mother works at a bar near Gare du Nord. Amir invited me there once, though neither of us drinks. His mother works late into the morning; she’s never in the apartment. I was afraid to meet her—what would I have said? And if she found me mute, ignorant?

I never met his mother, but I know her laugh: deep, and lonely. I heard it on the phone when Amir and I were planning our grand adventures. She interrupted—“But, who is going to California?”—and when Amir said “Me!” she laughed and laughed and didn’t stop when she asked him how.

Amir has a sister he says looks nothing like him, but I’ve seen the photographs. And though she inherited all the Creole blood from her mother, while he inherited all the hard angles of his father, even somber her eyes laugh like Amir’s.

Amir’s best friend is Francky. We ran into him in Paris once at République, skating with some boys from the neighborhood and surrounded by TV cameras. The city was unveiling its summer skate spot with Volcom. They built a geometric stone structure in the middle of the famous square, then bussed in Francky and them for the grand opening. I guess the network wanted to show the Saint-Denis skaters onscreen, but not enough to build the park where they live.

One night I missed the last train out of Saint-Denis, so Francky drove me back to Chessy. I sat in the back seat, listening to the soft voices of the two boys laughing up front. In that tender moment, I felt this is what drew me most to Amir—the familiarity with which he loved and was loved. I felt deeply that he belonged to those around him—to Francky, to the girls in the banlieue, to the concrete towers of Saint-Denis.

There are few things I remember from the period of my life after my mom died and my dad moved back to China. Those years between ages fourteen and eighteen were dominated by fear—my terror at living alone in that nondescript residential tower in Minneapolis. I feared the silence of my empty home; I feared growing close with anyone and being forced from a difficult situation to a worse one. I ran from the broken fluorescent lights in the hallway every day, sprinting the short distance to my door.

For the longest time I recalled my adolescence only through this haze of fear and loneliness. But with Amir, I’m reminded of tender moments I’d forgotten. Or perhaps being with him creates tender feelings around memories I only ever acknowledged with pain. It is not until I meet Amir, six years after leaving home, that I begin to think of the place I grew up as anything other than a place to escape. In Saint-Denis, I’m reminded of the young parents in my building who packed plates of rice and curry for me every time I watched their newborn. Of walking the neighborhood with KD and Montrey, and KD saying, “651 is not 612, you get me? I know Minneapolis like the back of my hand.” Of driving to the 18+ club with Akia, clutching our older sisters’ ID cards. Then, chickening out when we see cops at the entrance, and telling Akia’s sister they’d shut it down when she makes fun of us for showing up back home twenty minutes later.

On that midnight drive to Chessy I was shocked when, after only thirty minutes, Francky pulled up to the electric car where I’d left it at the station. The time seemed too short to have crossed these two worlds. With Amir and Francky there, I suddenly felt like this quiet French town, too, could be mine. How do I describe it? Like when Akia and I used to cut class and smoke cigarettes on the steps of the Walker Art Center. We’d pick purple flowers from the bushes and strew them in our hair, daring passersby to tell us we didn’t belong.

When Amir saw Francky at République in Paris that day, the two men embraced and laughed at the absurdity of running into each other here, à travers le périph.

Across the péripherique: the Paris ring road that divides the city from itself.

 

Chicago

It is Ramadan 2022. Amir messages me almost every day just before 11 p.m. in Chicago. 05:00h in Paris, an hour before sunrise. Amir wants me to know he is awake. To prove that if we share nothing else, we still share this fast.

It’s been six years since I’ve seen Amir in the flesh, each of us buffeted along by the currents of our separate lives. The world is still big for us. In this time I have known and loved other men; Amir has known and loved other women. Still we stay always in each other’s orbit, if only as a silent testament that we, too, were once young and in love.

Four years ago Amir shaved off all his hair, just weeks after first arriving for school in Nice. Even without the loose Afro to mark him, for years his only description of the picturesque French beach town was “raciste.” In some ways it felt to me like a personal loss, this attempt of his to better fit in with the others at the dance academy. As if his new look took him further from me, though nothing material had changed between us. I wonder if this was the inverse of how Amir felt when I started wearing hijab. He was so animated, so enamored, as if this somehow brought me back closer to him.

Now, with his hair grown back, Amir looks more like the boy I knew. He still holds his headphone wire on his lip when he FaceTimes me on his walk home; he still climbs the stairs in his mother’s building because the elevator is broken. Amir’s mother still takes the train to Gare du Nord every day.

Paris still weeps over the “problem of the banlieue.”

Since I left France, new officials have been elected, new stars won France its second World Cup. New films won Cannes that tell the same tragedy of poverty and police violence in the Paris suburbs.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the death rate in Saint-Denis has outnumbered that in Paris two to one.

Ynez Lambert, the eldest of her siblings, completed university at Paris Dauphine last year. It is the only institution with the prestige of being both a grande école and a public research university. She released her second EP in 2018. Lisette went on to become a stylist and editorial assistant while finishing her studies. Nikolas is in his final year of high school, at a private professional program east of Paris.

The last time I saw Eloise was at the end of our summer together. It was a cool farewell after weeks of increasing distrust. I’d scratched the car and tried to hide it; she’d stormed my living quarters, claiming I’d stolen a SIM card. I don’t wonder how it would be if I ran into Eloise on the street now. Perhaps I’d lower the scarf around my face and keep walking.

I looked for news on the Chessy house as I wrote this, to confirm the statue of Cornelius was really the copper green that I remember. The house has been listed on Airbnb by some hired professionals; you can rent it for $14,627 a month when the Lamberts retreat to their summer home in Brittany or winter estate in the Alps.

Amir told me once that being with me was like a fairy tale. He smiled when he said this, but it was a sad smile I didn’t understand at the time. Sometimes Amir speaks of marriage, but everything is hypothetical. “One day, we will be married,” he says. “When I save up enough, I will come to America.”

When I watched Amir’s body change every time we crossed the invisible border of Paris, it was a recognized gesture that drew me toward him. I felt I understood for the first time the meaning of the verse: We created you in pairs. Now, with these oceans and years between us, I wonder what it truly means to be one of a pair, a half of something whole.

There is a story from the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ about an Arab, a Persian, a Greek, and a Turk. The four strangers argue over how to spend a single gold coin they’ve been given, each shouting what they want in their different tongues. Finally, a wise man who speaks many languages joins the four and, smiling, tells them their solution is easy, because they are all asking for the same thing. I think it is like this for Amir and me. We are reaching for the same thing in our different ways. Or maybe our destination is still unclear, but our understanding of the journey is the same. And as I reach there is Amir, and now we are both reaching, and it is less lonely when we fail and grasp at nothing.

There is no wise man for Amir and me. I look into Amir’s eyes, and in each new pause we study the lines of our faces, the subtle notes that say: My life continues without you. We type out our words, and when we ask, “Quand vas-tu visiter?,” it is alright that we don’t understand the answers, so we can pretend we will see each other soon. We stare at the pixels of each other’s likeness in the screen—silent statues, trapped by our own verbal ignorance.

 

Ala Fox is a Muslim American daughter of Chinese immigrants. She writes in English, Python, memories, and JavaScript. When not programming, she contemplates life and love @alalafox. She is passionate about racial equity and Oakland. Her work has been published in Ruminate, MuslimMatters, and Kweli.

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Ramadan in Saint-Denis

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