Friday, March 02, 2007

Chateau Rouge

A world away from the mountains and valleys of Kashmir, as well as the pollution-choked streets of Bombay, is the neighborhood of Chateau Rouge in the heart of Paris, where I find myself for the next several weeks, recovering from a sickness that saw me coughing up blood after significant time spent inhaling the assorted pollutants in India’s Dharavi and Dongri slums.

In the 18th Arrondissement of northeastern Paris, Chateau Rouge, with its famous (and often illegal) street vendors crowding the lanes around the Marche Dejean, is like a bit of West Africa dropped down in the middle of one of the world’s most romantic and cosmopolitan cities. It is a neighborhood heavily informed especially by the scents and sounds of Congo, with many originally hailing from that war-battered nation clustering in the inexpensive (by Parisian standards) apartments and hotels along streets like the Rue Doudeaville and the Rue des Poisonniers, video and music shops pumping out a steady soundtrack of soukous and a myriad of call centers offering discount rates to cities such as Kinshasa and Abidjan. It’s a heady antidote to gray and rainy Paris, though the geometry of life in the district is not always so pleasant, as I have witnessed a fair number of street brawls here and one occasionally feels, amidst the cacophonous shouting in coarse Parisian street argot and the rather rough way some of the residents deal with one another, that one is catching a glimpse of the particular desperation that comes with urbanized country folk thrust from the village into the dog-eat-dog mercilessly competitive struggle for survival that is modern city life. Quite by chance, in the apartment I am staying in I found a copy of A Continent for the Taking, the compelling memoir of time spent covering Africa as a journalist by New York Times correspondent Howard French. The book, which focuses to a large degree on the fate of Congo amidst its own legacy of dictatorship and civil war, the genocide in and subsequent military adventurism of neighboring Rwanda, the charnel house of Liberia in the 1990s, the virtual rape of Nigeria by Western oil companies and the continent’s astoundingly resilient civil society and musical and artistic traditions, lays bare, often with more than a dash of bitterness, a grim roll call of failure and destruction , more that not abetted by venal and short-sighted North American and European political and business actors. The book is a worthy successor to The Africans, former Los Angeles Times correspondent David Lamb’s 1990 whirlwind tour of the continent.

Having attended a press conference at the Hôtel de Ville this week announcing the exhibition Esclaves au Paradis: L’esclavage contemporain en République Dominicaine, to be held here in France in May, and having had the great good fortune to meet and chat with Father Christopher Hartley, who has done so much to help Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, my time in Europe appears off to a productive and interesting start.

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