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Paris was not a war-scarred city: it hadn't been bombed out. It was fixed in time, stationary and visibly weary, a city of past grandeur on display in urban castles, monuments, churches, royal estates and bridges, all under gray skies. There was no modern edge. The contrasts with the United States were striking, often chilling, and I was immediately taken. People were small or of medium height, somewhat drab and old-fashioned in look; if high fashion and couture were Parisian, they were not visible on the city's streets. There, women were appareled in straight or, at most, pleated skirts, stockings and sensible shoes. They projected an overall hue of gray or brown. Men wore hats or berets and ties, and everybody shook hands whether they knew you or not; friends and relatives kissed on both cheeks every time they met, which could be several times a day. The masculine working population mostly wore ill-shaped royal-blue cotton jackets and pants. No one spoke English, nor were we foreigners much appreciated for our attempts at their language: "That's not French," was the comment, meaning "You're killing our language and that's inadmissible." On the whole, people were not outgoing or especially friendly. There was a degree of mistrust, even defiance, behind their unsmiling demeanor. On the other hand, the food was great and for me unconventional, daring. I was soon indulging in shellfish, marrow, spices, herbs, game, innards, and an amazing array of desserts, aperitifs and wine. The whole of France closed down from twelve to two for the main meal, always wine-accompanied, either at home or in canteens or restaurants, then went back to work until seven. If you became a regular at a particular restaurant, you were assigned your own red-and-white napkin, kept in storage for you in a pigeonhole along the wall; the same might apply to unfinished bottles of wine. On descending onto the platform of a subway station, ladies in uniform, mostly war widows I learned, punched your ticket. City buses had open-air back platforms that agile travelers hopped onto by lifting a lightly attached chain. Cars were miniature and few; large American cars drew immediate attention, people gathering and commenting in detail on the trappings: the dashboards, logos, hubcaps, upholstery and the rest. Miles per liter was a never-ending subject of conversation.
There were exceptions to similarity and they were notable. My first night in Paris, I sat at a table in a restaurant near the Étoile with my friends Bill Friedlander and Naseem Beg. Imprinted on my memory in indelible ink is the image of a tall, fancifully-dressed woman who strolled by in a long, flowing winter coat and a broad-brimmed hat, all black. As I watched from the enclosed terrace of the restaurant, she lifted her gloved hand to drag on a cigarette through a holder; then, head held high, she released the smoke. She was laughing, detached from the man at her side. I had never seen anyone like her, the epitome of worldliness.
The second unforgettable image I encountered when out walking the following morning. On the Left Bank, in the doorway of a building near Notre Dame, I came across two older women enclosed in shawls and long dark skirts, round-shouldered, their graying hair swept up into loose buns. They were talking under their breath with barely a gesture, immobile. It was my first encounter with the French concierges, lodged in practically every Parisian building at the time, who carried out the duties of American building superintendents, but also acted as quasi-official informants for the police.
There were the cops on the beat, as well — should I even call them "cops?" Too streetwise a term for the dashing fellows wearing hard pillboxes with brims and capes that twirled as they turned and twisted like dancers on the city's streets, surely chosen for their handsome faces and supple bodies. Nuns were everywhere, too, habits and headgear flowing with the wind, walking and riding bikes along the avenues, dashes of light blue and white or all black, very young women with smiles on their faces. Men of the cloth as well, priests and monks in black or coarse brown, erstwhile images of Jesus all around the city.
Paris startled me in so many ways. The number of craftspeople that specialized in small tasks, like the stoppeuse who rethreaded runs in silk stockings and holes in clothing — precise, eye-wearying work for pennies. Someone called the rétameur repaired holes in pots and other metal pieces. There were shops that sold only beurre, oeufs, fromage, others called merceries for thread, needles, doily and dress patterns. Bonneteries cluttered with bed jackets, underpants, bras, nightcaps, for bedrooms with little or no heat. Butcher shops that sold only horse meat. Outside of cafés and restaurants stood little raw-oyster bars, with a dozen varieties of the astonishing creatures that I had never before seen, let alone eaten.
The cheap hotels on the Left Bank offered no tubs or showers with their rooms, so I learned to frequent the bains-douches. For the price of a ticket you received a minute bar of soap and a threadbare towel, but the water was hot. Toilets were located on hotel landings; with toilet paper in one hand, you held your nose with the other. In the 1950s, 84 percent of urban French families had no bathtub or shower at home; traveling by metro at rush hour could be a salty experience.
Making friends was easy enough, first among expatriates and tourists, either at the American Express offices near the Opéra, where we all collected our mail, or in the Left Bank restaurants, where for a few hundred francs, about a dollar, we were fed home-style cooking like none we had ever known, and chatted, often at long tables, bonding for a night, for a week ... sometimes forever.
Back in the States, I had been totally absorbed in the world government movement. I was director of the student division of the United World Federalists, until politics intervened. It was the McCarthy era and student concern for social justice in the world, the end of colonialism, peace and entente had driven a wedge within the organization that proved terminal. Fearful of McCarthy, who claimed that world government equaled world communism, the student division was thrown out of the organization as too radical. In Paris I contacted the French section of the movement, the International Registry of World Citizens on the place de la Contrescarpe, where Mary Maverick Lloyd of Winnetka, Illinois, and Jacques Savary and Pierre Hovelaque of France distributed world-citizen identity cards and international passports, backed only by their zeal and an official-looking stamp, to partisans of the cause. Garry Davis, a self-proclaimed world citizen who had jettisoned his American passport, was camping out in front of the hall where the Sixth United Nations General Assembly was taking place.
I can never forget Abbé Pierre, in whose ancient Renault Lloyd and Savary and I traveled to a congress of world federalist associations in Belgium. The Abbé, the most popular Frenchman of the time and for decades afterwards, famous résistant, advocate of an end to priestly celibacy, knight errant and protector of the poor and downtrodden, wrote toward the end of his life on the problems of sexual desire that plagued him. Unkempt, his beard wispy, his long soutane soiled, he was attentive, soft-voiced, and oh so yearning, his hands abandoning the steering wheel, out of control: humbling, embarrassing me.
Surprisingly, I rarely heard mention of the war that had ended only a few years before. There might be a passing allusion, but it was not discussed or voluntarily recalled. It was taboo except for the occasional reference to the exodus from Paris, when families escaped the capital to find refuge to the south. Even French Jews, who had returned to the city, were disinclined to recount their war experiences. For me, obsessive about politics, this was incomprehensible.
It therefore took me time to put the war in context, to understand how profound was the defeat, how unsettling it remains to this day. The French were a conquered people. They had been occupied by arch-enemies and governed by collaborators. In every neighborhood, within the most patriotic of families, such stains on the past could be found.
Collaboration had perforated and maimed society as much as occupation had. The Resistance had been real, but was significantly magnified and romanticized following the war. It would take decades for the truth of collaboration to be recalled publicly. Marcel Ophüls's two-part film of interviews on collaboration, The Sorrow and the Pity, made in 1969, was only authorized for French TV in 1981. The film Français, si vous saviez was finally released for public consumption in 1994, twenty-two years after its 1972 production and a half-century after the facts it depicted. As Adam Nossiter has put it: "They were chained to the past."
My "enlightenment" came on May Day, 1952. I'd been living in Paris for several months when I discovered the "lie." It happened as I stood on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, midway between Nation and Bastille, watching the annual workers' parade.
The day was chilly. At street corners, children and women were selling lilies-of-the-valley, three or four tied in a bunch, gathered at dawn in the woods around Paris. The marchers, however, were dressed for winter, the men with suits and ties, fedoras or berets. The women wore dresses or two-piece outfits over which hung sweaters or raincoats. Their legs were clad in stockings and low-heeled shoes. They walked slowly along the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, heads high with pride.
Banners announced who they were: the electricians' union, the office workers' union, the autoworkers' union, the national teachers' federation, the national council of French women, the students of the African Democratic Assembly. When the central committee of the French Communist Party, headed by Jacques Duclos — wearing a dashing felt hat with a wide brim — came into view, the crowds on the sidewalks cheered and waved.
Many of the banners bore political messages: "Free Henri Martin," "No to the European Defense Community," "Free Zoro Bi-Tra," "Reinstate Family Allocations for Italian Workers," "Social Security for Algeria." France had been waging a merciless war in Indochina since 1946 that the Communist Party and the closely linked trade union confederation (Confédération Générale du Travail, CGT) denounced. I was bewitched by the formidable display of worker solidarity and trade unionism, something I had not known growing up in the United States.
In the early afternoon, as the parade was breaking up, thousands of men appeared out of nowhere, running in formation, ten to twelve abreast. They sped in cadence, arms splayed as they sought to catch up with the vanishing demonstration. They kept coming, more and more — young, grim, slightly built and poorly dressed. They shouted no slogans, carried no flags, no banners. They were Algerian laborers.
They had been scheduled to participate in the parade. Yet at the last minute, the CGT had backtracked on its agreement to include them and then attempted to block the Algerian protestors. I understood why a few weeks later when their leader, the Algerian activist Messali Hadj, was arrested. The CGT had wanted to prevent any demands for Algerian independence at a time when the French government was hell-bent on containing political insurgence against French rule in North Africa. On May 14, as Messali Hadj attempted to address a public meeting in Orléansville, a town in central Algeria, the police opened fire, leaving many wounded and two dead. Messali was whisked away and placed under house arrest in France.
A year later, the CGT performed an about-face and included Messali's organization, the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Freedoms (MTLD), in its Bastille Day parade in Paris. The French police struck again, opening fire on the Algerian demonstrators, beating and wounding hundreds and killing seven.
That May Day 1952 parade was my first contact with Algeria. The events I witnessed gave the lie to French egalitarianism: the famous motto liberté, égalité, fraternité was flipped upside down. Colonialism and racism stood out as the two pillars of power and supremacy. I was shocked into reality.
I had fallen in love with France even before stepping on board the ship that had carried me across the Atlantic. It was my destiny. It came charged with Zola and Dreyfus, Proust and Flaubert, Cézanne, Degas, Manet. Scott Fitzgerald had adopted France; so had Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, Chester Himes ... Black soldiers in the segregated US Army had been welcomed as equals in France during the Second World War, as they had never been at home. But that May Day, I realized that the French were not colorblind. This was the first in a series of sparks that would ignite my growing rage. Something in me associated those gaunt, olive-skinned men on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine with the darker wayfarers trailing along the dusty roads of the South I had observed in Georgia as a student in the 1940s. I had seen them as desperate and estranged, and they had tugged at my heart.
After that, I became more attentive to the large numbers of North African workers in and around Paris. Just outside the city was a ring of bidonvilles, shantytowns constructed from crates, tin, cartons, and planks that were home to thousands of migrants. They spread out under bridges, in trenches or recesses along major highways: rotten, insalubrious hovels, hidden from sight, out of the way of ordinary citizens lest their consciences be burdened.
I had a room for a while near the rue du Pont-de-Grenelle, a street in a workers' quarter leading to the bridge across the Seine on which stands a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Hole-in-the-wall grocery stores and bars catering to a North African clientele lined the street. On warm evenings, men wearing the blue uniforms of France's working class sat on the doorsteps smoking, or leaned into the walls of the small tenement buildings turned dormitories that housed eight and twelve to a room. As I passed, soft voices murmured bonsoir.
Closer to the bridge was a dansing, a dance hall open on weekends in front of which those same silent workers hung and waited, cigarettes still in hand, but dressed as though for a date. Occasionally, "mixed" couples (North African men and French women) could be seen leaving the hall and strolling off.
Eating in the cheap North African restaurants on the rue de la Huchette, one of the little streets off the boulevard Saint-Michel, became routine. With three American friends, I became addicted to couscous, tagines, and heavy red wine from Algeria. One of the three, Frank, a slim San Franciscan with sallow skin and a drooping mustache, often disappeared down one of those streets, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for a week or two. His girlfriend let me in on his secret life: he was of American and Chinese descent, had been an army pilot during the war, and was running guns for rebels in the mountains of the Moroccan Rif. She showed me a photo of him dressed in a long white hooded djellaba, holding a rifle with two hands.
Work and Play
Life was pleasant enough, but I was running out of money. I had to either find a job or take a boat back to the States. I answered an advertisement in the International Herald Tribune and was recruited as a secretary in a Franco-American architectural agency designing bases for the US Air Force, readying France for its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The architects and engineers were American, the titular head of the agency was French, and the dozens of draftsmen were architecture students from the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts.
These students introduced me to Parisian bohemia. French schools of higher learning were unapologetically elitist, but these companions were anti-bourgeois, anti-conformist. They acted out their determination to change the social attitudes of a staid, cramped society. One afternoon, the future architect Pierre Ristorcelli, son of a factory owner in Marseille, stood in the middle of the boulevard Saint-Germain, between the church and the Deux Magots café, in tie, shirt, and jacket, but no pants or underpants, and directed traffic for several hours, undisturbed and apparently unconcerned.
Despite the warnings of my nervous employers, I attended the Bal des Quat'z'Arts and other wild events, improvised or organized, emanating from the École. The ball took place in the Salle Wagram, a concert hall on the Right Bank, decorated with piles of hay and a stage on which nude models and students had sex, or played at having sex. It looked real enough to me. Music was provided by a student fanfare of wind instruments that screeched and wheezed through the night. Wine flowed from squat barrel containers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Algiers, Third World Capital"
Copyright © 2018 Elaine Mokhtefi.
Excerpted by permission of New Left Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Post-War Paris 1
2 The Algerian War 19
3 Moving to Algiers 49
4 Meeting the Black Panthers 77
5 New Arrivals 111
6 Hijackers 143
7 A Wedding and Its Consequences 151
8 After Algiers 199
Afterword: An American Childhood 211