But after the divorce, he moved back to Belleville. To his old neighborhood, the neighborhood of his youth.
His wife—now ex-wife—hated Belleville. It reminded her of the poor Polish girl she had been. All the years they were together, they lived in Boulogne-Billancourt.
He has a small apartment on the rue du Jourdain. It’s just a few steps from the tabac where he used to buy cigarettes for his father. And it’s practically around the corner from the primary school he attended, on the rue Olivier Métra.
Ala Fox speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her essay “Ramadan in Saint-Denis,” which appears in The Common’s most recent issue. Ala talks about weaving together the threads of her experiences living in Paris into an essay that explores a lot of questions but doesn’t try to answer them. The piece dives into the dynamics between neighborhoods, and between native Parisians and immigrant communities, and explores the possibility of creating and sustaining love across language barriers and distance. Ala also discusses why she was nervous about publishing the essay, and how it would be received in the Muslim community.
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.
“Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase.” —Marcel Duchamp, Life magazine, 1952
For many years I hardly told anyone that my grandmother’s sister Teeny was married to Marcel Duchamp, and before that to Pierre Matisse, the art dealer son of Henri. Friends I’ve known all my life have stopped me in disbelief when these facts have come up in passing—a disbelief arising not from the facts themselves but from my never having shared them. The first time I ever mentioned the connection to anyone outside the family, I was in college, sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue with my professor, the poet David Shapiro. “Wait,” he said, “Teeny Duchamp is your great aunt?!” I was surprised he knew exactly who she was.
I found a book by Georges Perec called Tentatived’épuisement d’un lieu Parisien, or An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris. I like Perec very much. He loved word games and wrote crossword puzzles, and very often invented challenges for himself in his writing. In 1969 he wrote a book—La Disparition—in which the letter “e” does not appear. It was translated into English, also with no “e’s” but since the literal translation—The Disappearance—has three “e’s”, the English title is A Void. In 1972 Perec wrote Les Revenents, in which “e” is the only vowel in the book. Perec died of cancer in 1982 when he was only forty-six.
Between France and Marrakech is a route upon which travels a single bus from Paris. The bus reaches its destination safely, as one might hope and expect. Then the passengers who so desire transfer to another bus, which takes them by an established road to Agadir.
We are standing in front of Mark Rothko’s Black, Red Over Black on Red at the Centre Pompidou.
“I love Rothko,” says my companion. “I am not crazy about modern American art, but Rothko is different.” A painter himself, my companion is a talkative man behind whose frail body and white hair is an energetic, sometimes erratic mind. “Look,” he says, as he moves closer to the painting, the guard keeping a polite watch over us. “The way he has layered the painting—as if he were breathing it.”