DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture
If you only hung out with hip hop heads in Paris, you would start to think that all French people share their food with the people around them.  A bite for me, a bite for you, a bite for him, a bite for her.  By the time it got back to you there'd only be a nickel-sized piece left.

Luckily I've gotten over my inner-germaphobe and paranoia about contracting mono, having shared every can of soda, every piece of candy, and every buttery pastry offered me since I arrived.  I've grown so accustomed to it that I've started to  initiate the food cypher myself.  As they say, "when in Paris…"

So when I turned and offered a tasting of my Royale with Cheese to Sou, she shocked me with her refusal.  "I can't eat it," she said.  Judging by the half-eaten Filet O' Fish in front of her, I ruled out the possibility of her being veggie-tarian.  "Waitaminute," furrowing my brow for dramatic effect, "are you Muslim??"

(MickeyD's has yet to adopt a halal menu though French rival Quick has.)

Sou and I have been friends for over a year and a half.  She lived in New York City as an au pair for 6 months.  We hung out countless times and not once did her religious faith ever come up.  She revealed to me then that while in the states, she deliberately kept it secret; she worshipped Allah on the low.  But why?  Especially among friends?

Out of fear.  "They don't like Muslims over there."  Even though I doubt anyone would guess that this young Thai-Cambodian girl with the French accent was Muslim, she still felt the need to suppress her identity for self-protection.  The US has produced so much fear of Muslims that it's spawned fear of Americans.

Weeks later, I met Yousef who expressed to me his desire to one day visit New York.  I encouraged him to.  But in his broken English, he said that it's a bad idea because once he lands at JFK then…He brought his wrists behind his back to explain the word his vocabulary lacked--detained.  He then pointed at his Arabic features, cited his name, and lamented, "It's not possible."

But I thought it was France that leads the world in Islamophobia, at least against those within its own borders.  It's France that bans burqas in public and denies citizenship to those who wear them as well as their husbands.  It's France that wants to prohibit fast-food menus from conforming to halal restrictions under the guise of laicite or secularism.    It's France that wants to revoke the citizenship of foreign-born French caught assaulting public servants.  It's President Sarkozy who referred to the immigrant youth as racaille--a derogatory term meaning low-life scum--that he wants to be rid of.  Message transmitted: You don't fit in here so go away.

I suppose that's not quite at the level of no-fly lists, secret detentions, renditions, and waterboarding, but still, do people not regard the US as a place of religious freedom and melting pots and a president with Hussein in his name?  I was even part of the fight that brought 49 of 51 New York City Council Members to vote for a resolution to adopt the major Muslim holidays as public school system-wide holidays (though the not so tolerant Mayor won't enact it).  Then again, millions more know about the fight against the Muslim community center near Ground Zero.

The comparison is pointless.  It's like a race to the bottom, finding the worst of two evils.  A Muslim cabbie has his throat slashed in New YorkA Muslim woman gets attacked while shopping in Paris.  Intolerance and inequality know no boundaries.

Yet, through shared adversity, strength and solidarity shine through the bigotry.  In working class neighborhoods of New York, a certain degree of acrimony simmers amongst African Americans and Arabic immigrants that run local corner stores.  Meanwhile in working class banlieues surrounding Paris, African and Arabic immigrants connect through a common religion, parallel cultures, and shared living conditions.  Their youth blend into world champion dance crews, mighty rap groups, and all-star graffiti collectives.  They find solace in each other as there's always strength in numbers.  Afterall, France does have the largest Muslim population in Europe at 10% and totaling over 4.1 million.

My friend Mohamed, a Moroccan-French beatmaker, learned that I'm of Filipino descent.  His immediate follow up question, as his eyes widened in hopeful anticipation: Are you Muslim too??  I was sad to disappoint him.  Unfortunately we can't connect on that level.  In that moment, I kind of wish I had kept my faith (or lack thereof) a secret.

Fascinating survey data from our friends at the PewResearch Center in DC.  Notice that there's a huge discrepancy between the greater French public that believes Muslims resist assimilation and French Muslims themselves who wish to adopt local customs.  Also worth noting is the across-the-board agreement amongst European Muslims that the US is unfavorable.
Cars overturned after anti-Israel protest in 2009
My friend Sara loathes Paris.  Even a few hours in the City of Lights causes her great dismay and gets her red in the cheeks.  She swears, that without fail, every visit to Paris she endures encounters with the most cantankerous people and the most insufferable inconveniences.  Paris is out to get her.

Perhaps this was regional bias coming from the Lille native, I thought.  Like many other hip hop dancers from her hometown, she was just projecting a similar brand of East Coast vs. West Coast rap bitterness towards their rival city.  But rather than call her out on it, I enabled.

"Yeah people here can be pretty rude.  They're not very friendly or open to people.  Plus there's a lot of racism too."

Oooh, the R-word.  Sara responded, "Racism?  Really?  I don't think there is much."

What??  Of course there's racism in Paris and in France as a whole, duhh.  She must be blinded by her white girl privilege, thought the self-righteous American blogger.  Her denial felt like a betrayal to her embrace of hip hop and to her rainbow coalition of friends.

Protesters against France's acts of anti-Semitism during WWII
I looked at Sara sitting across from me, decked out in Dickies khakis and a fresh purple tee like a Cali chola, her black Chuck Taylor's matching her geek chic thick-rimmed glasses.  As she leaned forward on the table, her necklace swung around, dangling over her Big Mac.  At the end of the chain, a small six-point star served as its pendulum.  It was the Star of David.

I realized that I wasn't seeing the whole picture.  Race is an American preoccupation.  In France, it's about a clash of cultures.  It's about immigrants.  It's about religion.  What prejudice I see as racist at it's core, she may see as something else.

France is home to not only Europe's largest Muslim population, but to its largest Jewish population as well.  And the country has had a long, troubled history with its Jewish community.  Guilt from the country's complicity in the Holocaust during the dark days of Nazi occupation still persist. 

In recent years, renewed anti-semitism has erupted as Israel-Palestine conflicts escalate.  Anti-Israel protesters have sacked Jewish businesses in Paris.  In the immigrant communities of the banlieues, Muslim and Jewish youth scuffle in the classroom and on the playground.  French Jews have been the targets of violence including Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed.  The assaults have led many French Jews to flee for Israel while others stay and seek resolutions from the Sarkozy government.

The majority of France's 600,000 Jews come from waves of North African immigration since the 1950s.  Many of these families immigrated to escape religious persecution in places like Morocco and Tunisia in the first place.  They fear that history may be repeating itself.

Protest against desecration of Muslim and Jewish graves in 2008
I'm uncertain of Sara's family history.  Maybe her parents came from Tunisia, escaping the riots of the 60s, after their ancestors settled there from Spain.  Maybe her family came from Eastern Europe post-WWII looking for refuge.  Maybe like the rapper Shyne, Sara just recently converted to Judaism. 

In any case, I'm sure religion plays some role in her life and influences her worldview.  But I doubt Sara would be caught up in the recent religious tensions, the line in the sand dividing neighbors.  Her positive outlook and teethy smiles won't let her.  It's because her sunny disposition is endangered by the rudeness of Parisians that she has such distaste for the city.  She's looking to overcome the disputes and connect with people, not shut herself in.

And so she continues to visit Paris nearly every other month.  She comes for the hip hop events here.  She comes for the people in these spaces.  She comes for the community.  Whether black, white, brown; Muslim, Christian, or Jewish; Sara has nothing but love to give.  And judging by her popularity, that's also what she gets in return. 

In such a sheltered environment, it's no wonder that the "isms" don't really apply.



    Brian is a writer, dancer, activist, and general hip hop head from New York City. He is currently working towards his Master's in Global Communications in Paris.  


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