A community in Paris helps me rediscover joy.
Women stand above me, brightly colored boubou dresses blending into an African origami screen blocking my view. Hands, like undecided hummingbirds, hover over my heart, swiftly moving to my eyes, covering them with damp palms. Children tied to their mothers’ backs watch, as I lie on the thin mattress in the tiny apartment, wooden bones of crates underneath pressing into my back. I feel the slap of hands hard against my calves, hear the metallic ring of the spoon as it stirs an elixir of powder and mango juice. I drink the glassful greedily, juice running down my chin, tasting the sweetness mixed with clay, dirt, earth.
Glimpses of the room through the crowd of women: verdigris green walls splattered with tea colored stains, sporting faded posters of a Senegalese paradise. Plastic bags of fruit and spices hang from the ceiling, an occasional cockroach dancing among them. Cherry pink satin drapes hang crookedly at the window, dirty glass framing a view of the largest African street market in all of Paris. The sweetness of carnations and the lushness of rotting fruit argue and push their way into the apartment. Street sounds blend and float up: the lilt of the melodic languages of the Ivory Coast blending with clipped French and rap music, forming a background chorus to the cluster of women in the room, who call to one another loudly, as if they are far apart.
Rocking, singing, the women close my eyes and cradle my head, guiding me to sleep, to an earthy rain forest I once knew that is far from this green room. I travel until I touch reddish rainforest earth, hear shifting animal sounds, smell bitter coffee beans roasting in fired gourd pots. Prompted by the creaking of delicate strings of a hammock sighing with my weight, following the echoes of stone hitting stone mashing yucca roots, I re-enter jungle time, and dream.
How I’d come to this bed, this room, this apartment, this tiny piece of West Africa located on the edge of Paris felt almost like another dream, too.
I’d been on a multi-year journey around the world, and having spent more than half a year living and working with an indigenous tribe in remote Panama, I wanted to experience something different: Paris. When the day finally came when I had to leave, I walked through the village, finding it hard to say goodbye. Embraces exchanged with women in circus colored dresses, grinding corn by the river in lean-to kitchens, sheltered by shiny slick palm roofs. Prayers spoken with holy men on horses adorned with collars of fruit, braided with sugarcane stalks. Accompanied by barefoot children in wet party clothes, I walked for a day through a downpour to the nearest village, where a four by four truck sat waiting to take me to a plane, sending me far from such a rare and untouched world.
Halfway to Paris, on a layover in Dubai, the news came that a flash flood had destroyed the part of Panama I just been in. Torrential rains and manmade erosion had made the river of my memories swell almost overnight. Dams broke, leveling villages, leaving people clinging to trees, eventually swallowing them whole. Only the night sky remained the same, still dressed in midnight, strung with stars of alabaster pearls. Hours later, boarding the plane for Paris, eyes burnt from tears, I was filled with longing for a place that no longer was. The pull towards the City of Light extinguished, I would arrive in Paris blinded by grief, blind to the most beautiful city on Earth.
Paris. It had begrudgingly welcomed me with rain that streaked the sky like scattered silverfish. I searched for the Paris of my imaginings as the taxi from the airport took me through city streets, but all I saw was cool cement and stone, attended by molding statues and bedraggled pigeons. Brisk Parisians, dressed in a monochromatic blur of black-charcoal-mushroom-brown rushed by homeless tent villages reflected double in glassy mirrored windows. Finally arriving at my rented rooms, I stood in a puddle in the street as the taxi pulled away, my shoes crushing crumpled red geranium petals that had fallen from the balconies above.
Cathedral bells outside my pied-a-terre rung each morning while it was still dark, sending me out into rain drenched streets, dodging flowing gutters, wandering in search of something that would make me feel the soulfulness of the people I had just lost. My loss, incompatible with the touristic laminated veneer of the Michelin route, allowed me to avoid the café where Hemingway ate his meals, the standard photograph from the top of the Eiffel tower.
It was on one of these wanderings that I discovered the Grand Mosque of Paris. Turquoise pools filled with cerise hibiscus blooms. Walkways tiled green and gold, a stylized forest floor. The hamam, staffed by women who had looked at my face wet with grief without questions as they willingly scrubbed a years’ worth of jungle dirt away. Pinkish, glistening, I had emerged from the hamam blessed to witness the sun finally unveiled, glinting white and yellow lights off the Mosque minaret, its spiral tower reaching to God.
But while I’d been being pummeled and scrubbed raw, the street outside had come alive, not just with sunshine but with the sound of drums. The pavement was a blur of crowded commotion, held back by police. Everyone arched towards the drumming: fast, furious, exuberant.
As the procession turned the corner onto the avenue and came into view, the crowd had roared in angry French, shaking hands and fists, a few among them spitting or mumbling curses. Their cat calls were drowned out by day-glow orange bullhorns, trumpeting songs in a melodic language alternating with French.
What was this? A parade?
“It is the Africans. They are allowed to legally protest today about their status in France. Many of them are here illegally.” A man standing near me had replied to my silent question. “Stay away from them. They are dangerous.”
The protesters were so close I could trace the flowery details of their long robes of bright batik, see the folds of the complex crossword of fabric covering their heads, black skin shining brightly against the white marble of the Mosque. I watched their happiness as they sang and danced, pausing now and again to state their case, voices resolute. They were the first people I had seen here who seemed alive, real. My hands lifted the ropes dividing the crowd from the Africans, and I ran, flying, towards the protesters, ignoring the shouts of the police, ignoring everything but the joyful drumbeats.
“Soeur! Sister!” The protesters had called out to me as I entered their group, breathless, giddy from the realization that I’d just broken the law. Everyone hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, smiled. My shoulders and waist were wrapped in a piece of African batik, and I held onto it tightly as I attempted to copy the curving moves of their dances. The beating of the drummers forced my feet and arms to move in ways they never had before, past the City Hall and the Sacre-Couer Basilica, through the Jewish Quarter and Montmartre.
We moved, swirling and dancing through the streets of Paris, a Paris I had never seen before that afternoon. And what a way it was to see it: not a rushed blur from a tour bus, nor a route suggested by a stuffy guidebook; instead, a view from the center of the street. Traffic stopped and statues gazed as traffic lights blinked in unison, fountains timed their water show with our steps, and parks bloomed. Paris, at last, was no longer grey and sullen, but had come to life. And so had I.
Goutte de’Or, Drop of Gold, was our final stop: the African quarter on the outskirts of central Paris. People greeted us with explosive exuberance, handing us flowers and cakes smelling of peanuts and sesame, dancing alongside us until we reached the center, an enormous outdoor market filled with hundreds of people. The drumming got louder, the singing flashed faster, spinning the dancers into streaks of violet and orange batik, turbans touching. With a throbbing head and blistered feet, I pushed my way out of the mass of music and neon to the comfort of the sidewalk.
Surrounded by endless food stalls and grocers, the scent of food was overwhelming. Cinq Centimes, sugar cookies frosted with peanut butter, cooling on racks in front of Senegalese bakeries. Rainbows of fish, metallic against slabs of ice, pink eyes glassy. Ochre bundles of spices, hot pink coconut candy, shining stacks of iridescent white tripe. Crowds stood around open backed trucks, watching the live butchering of goats and chickens. Sizzling chunks of meat twirling on wires over hibachi grills. Men carrying silver canisters of hot sugared mint tea, cups clattering on carts. Ropes of green plantains mixing with dark red bananas hung from rafters. Baskets of green mangoes leaning against celadon melons stacked in crates. Clusters of dusty pink grapes resting delicately in sky blue paper.
The Islamic call to prayer sounded out, followed by church bells. Then sirens sounded. Shutters marked with graffiti suddenly closed. People disappeared. Blending. Fading. Left was the lingering smell of fish and peanuts, shopkeepers’ blank expressions, the rustling of goats and chickens as they shifted legs, having gained a little more time.
I stood alone.
It was then that I recognized a woman from the protest: wide face with equally wide-set eyes, thick arms in bangles, dress of acid yellow, black stripes. She stood staring at me from the doorway of a restaurant, its façade painted in an oceanic mural of moonscape waves. I found myself pulled towards her, as if strung along by an invisible fishing line cast from within the mural of watery blue wilderness.
“Welcome, welcome! I am Binta. Come, come!” she exclaims, opening the door and quickly grabbing my hand to pull me inside.
I introduce myself, but she moves her body impatiently, jiggling protest from her arms to her hips. “Sister! You are the one who marched with us. I already know who you are.”
The street is suddenly pockmarked with police vans with grated metal windows and officers running darkly past the windows like quick daggers, helmets shining black. Binta swiftly locks the door and shuts the crusty blinds, motioning me to follow her to the back of the restaurant. My anxiety surfaces just for a moment, but her smile reassures me as we walk up a rusted metal staircase, her chatter effortlessly moving from French to English.
Once upstairs, Binta opens a door to a tiny apartment, the color of a greenish copper penny. The room is tightly filled with a dozen ample women wearing voluminous dresses of sorbet shimmering polyester, a display of batik fireworks golden and green, lounging on mattresses spread out on the floor. The jangle-jangle flash of gold bracelets mixes with babies and toddlers swaddled in between folds of flesh.
“There is no room for me.” I protest. “I will just stay downstairs until the trouble is over.”
“No.” When Binta says it, her eyes narrow, her yellow and black dress puffing up like a bumblebee. “You walked with us. You will eat with us. This is our way, terranga, to be welcoming. Welcome to Senegal!” she heartily laughs, as she moves babies off of a mattress to make space for me.
We both sit down together, Binta beside me. A woman brings us bowl of water, and I reach out to take a drink, causing wild laughter amongst the women. Binta takes the bowl from me, motioning for me to wash my hands, then dry them with a washcloth. The water smells of oranges and roses, the washcloth sour and ripe. Binta leans forward, taking the cloth from me, and I breathe in more of the same smell: she smells like oranges and roses, too.
Stories begin, Binta first. As she tells me about Senegal, her home, several women get up and begin to make tea in a tiny kitchenette serviced by a single hotplate. Binta tells me who she left behind: children, parents, family. A journey by boat from West Africa to Spain, she was one of the few who survived the trip. Traveling by night on foot, by bus, by truck, hiding until she reached France. And then joy, to arrive here, at Goutte de’Or. Her luck at finding a job, learning English, saving money for her children. Her words are punctuated by the clatter of spoons mixing with the whistle of the kettle, and when her story is finished, a dozen teacups magically appear, brimming with hot mint tea.
“And you? Why did you join us? You are different, not like the rest.” Binta says, her hand squeezing mine tightly.
“I came here because I thought Paris would be beautiful, but it isn’t. I’ve been terribly sad.” Crying, I tell them about the extraordinary people I had left behind in Panama. The flash flood that took them away. Their bright dresses. The ring of their language. The night sky from my shared hut. How I don’t want to say goodbye to that mountain, that village, those people. How I don’t want to forget. How they taught me how to live in the moment, and now, their moment was gone.
When I finally look up, it is to silence: the women stare at me and the children are gone.
“We don’t believe in showing our sorrow with tears.” Binta wipes my face with a cloth. “Tears take your power away. Tears are not good for children to see.” As she says this, the women begin moving the mattresses against the walls, rolling the bedspreads, clearing the teacups. It must be time to go. I get up, confused, embarrassed. Everyone pushes me to sit down again. Binta presses harder than the rest.
She tells me that they will do something to help me, a ritual.
“You helped us, and now, we will help you. Death is not the end, it is just different. You must keep the relationship with your friends forever. To do this, we will call a Jabaran-Kat, a healer. You will stay. ” Binta says the words firmly, yet her expression is warm and her hand is still holding onto mine.
For a moment, I feel my familiar grief, sharp, the spaces where the people I once knew now empty. But then I turn her words over in my mind: death is just a different place…I don’t have to say goodbye.
“Ok.” I say softly. I want to say more, but no words come out.
An hour later, the tiny apartment is a flurry of activity, the women a blur of cleaning and cooking. A long green plastic mat is brought in, rolled out into the center of the room with the mattresses laid around it. The kitchen has moved onto the balcony, where hibachis roast meat so spicy my nose itches. Like new puppies, the children have returned, bundled in blankets, some asleep on my lap. Men sit on plastic lawn chairs in the hallway, drinking tea and reading newspapers while teenage boys stand in the doorway shyly watching me. Binta stands in the center of the room, her wide face beaded with sweat as she waves her plump arms, shouting orders to everyone all at once. Windows opened to the street below, sirens gone, market stalls bustling, rap music filling the apartment.
When the Jabaran-Kat arrives, I am nervous, afraid to even look at him. Perhaps he knows this, for he never speaks to me, and disappears after a long conversation with Binta, spoken in low and soothing tones. Binta comes and explains to me all the things we will do: a meal, with special foods; bowls of water outside the door as offerings; and the women will sing all night. But she says the most important thing tonight is that the Jabaran-Kat has given me a gift, so that I will not forget my Panamanian friends, but remember them even more so than when they were alive.
Never once do I consider leaving and going back to my lonely pied-a terre: I know I am in the place I need to be. The colors, laughter, and spiritedness here reminds me of my friends I lost in the flood, of their connection to one another and to me. Tonight, there are no strangers, only friends.
The meal is served to the men in the hallway first, individual dishes scooped up, piled high on a single communal dish. Once the men are done, dozens of women file into the apartment, until they fill all of the mattresses on the floor, propping up sleeping children along the walls or tying them to their backs with long strips of cloth. Chipped floral platters are placed in the center of the green mat on the floor, lit by a single bare fluorescent bulb, which casts an unappetizing purplish glow on the meal of rice mixed with meat.
Binta sits near me, full of advice. “Eat with your right hand, never your left. Use only three fingers to scoop up the food into your hand. Only eat the food nearest to you. Do not touch the mat with your feet. Do not point your feet towards anyone.”
Everyone waits for me to eat first, but there are no forks, spoons, or plates, and I wonder if they have been forgotten. Soon I figure out cutlery isn’t coming. I pretend to take a few bites, and the platters are quickly emptied by expert hands, rings glinting, red polished fingers grasping bones and meat. Laughing gaily, telling jokes, clapping hands, shouting louder and louder across the room. Many hours later, when toasts are being made with swigs from jars of thick soured yogurt, I discover the gaiety they have been showing is false. They believe their happiness will encourage the dead to go their next destination.
As women begin to sing and clean up after the meal, Binta takes me out into the hall, showing me shallow pans of water lined up at the door. “We put these here when someone dies suddenly in the night. It keeps them from entering the house. For you, the Jabaran-Kat did not know what was best. So he put them here, to protect you.”
I stare at the tin pans of water, not understanding fully yet overcome at the trouble that they have gone to insure my peace of mind and the peace of a people they don’t even know halfway around the world.
“You all have done so much, Binta. I don’t even know you.” My lips feels swollen and thick as I stumble over the words.
Binta leans down to straighten a pan, her eyes tearing. “I know you, Sister. You open yourself to people. They open to you. Come. It is time for the gift Jabaran-Kat brought for you.”
As we turn away from the hallway, there is a sharp bitter taste on my tongue matched with a heady perfume clinging thick in mid-air. Oranges and roses again. Binta and I walk through the cloud of scent, back into the center of the crowd of singing women, their babies gurgling wisdom wide eyed, towards a single mattress set up high on wooden crates.
I sit, Binta beside me, guiding me. Two glasses are poured of mango juice, each mixed with brown powder. I drink the first quickly, spilling it on my face and blouse. Sweet, raw, the bark of a tree. The second glass is harder to finish, the green room now mixing with smells of the jungle: sharp and distracting, a fast moving kaleidoscope of palms, cherry pink satin, the smear of batik.
“Sister, finish it all so you will not forget.” Binta’s voice slides in, slow motion.
I drink it all, and fall down to the ground, listening to the cicadas playing their rainforest sonata.
The room, damp, steamy, seeming to perspire, rivulets of sweat running down the walls, over my legs, dripping onto the floor. Crowding around me, the women’s patterned dresses moving like book pages quickly turned. Their voices singing louder and louder, lifting me high, out the window, across a blue-black sea, deep into the jungle of Panama, to my friends who run to greet me. They tell me I smell of oranges and roses. I tell them tonight, we are together forever.
Dedicated to Binta.
Amy Gigi Alexander
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