I read Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ and George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris in London’ in my late teens, and for some years afterwards I had a naively romantic dream of moving to Paris and embarking on a creative writing career. I imagined myself in trendy cafes surrounded by other writers and artists, all of us young and beautiful, talented and care-free, poor and horny.
When I eventually moved to France’s capital shortly before the onset of a particularly cold winter almost exactly seven years ago, pretty much the only part of the experience that lived up to my dream was my state of Orwellian poverty. Even that was considerably less glamorous than I’d hoped.
In fact, I couldn’t even afford to live anywhere near the Paris of popular imagination. I was relegated to a grim, grey and long-marginalised banlieue (council estate) called Grigny, where 45% of inhabitants lived below the poverty line, and where unemployment amongst under 30s was also dangerously near 50%.
Pretty much the only other white people I saw in Grigny were the heavily-armed elite police units who sporadically patrolled the area in their minivans, jumping out every now and again to conduct rough and arbitrary “stop and frisks” on young men of colour.
Perhaps as a result of this association with whiteness, listless teenagers in hoodies shouted abuse at me on an almost daily basis. Or even if it was just the depressing surroundings that made them angry, I could hardly blame them.
I got a part-time job teaching English to city slicker businessmen who wore a suspicious amount of moisturiser, and I spent much of my time commuting all over the city by train to give my classes. At the end of the day’s work or after my weekly writer’s group meeting at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, heading back to Grigny felt a bit like travelling into a faraway war zone.
Throughout my time in Grigny, I always had an uneasy feeling that violence or anarchy could erupt at any moment.
The bus that covered the final leg of the long trip was supposed to terminate just a block from the cockroach-infested flat that I was living in, but often it would stop long before the end of the line and the driver would tell the handful of forlorn and weary passengers that they’d have to walk the rest of the way, because the bus was turning back.
When I asked a fellow passenger why the drivers did this, I was told that they had been wary ever since thousands of buses and cars were torched by angry locals a couple of years previously, when violent unrest erupted across Grigny and other marginalised Parisian suburbs.
The immediate catalyst for the unrest was the death of two innocent teenagers, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, who were electrocuted while trying to hide in a power station after being chased by police on their way back from a soccer match.
Even today, these two boys continue to symbolise the dire relations and deep mistrust between police and youths living in France’s monotonous prison-like tower blocks, though there have been similar casualties since.
Throughout my time in Grigny, I always had an uneasy feeling that violence or anarchy could erupt again at any moment. One night walking the last stretch of my route home, I found an empty bullet casing on the pavement, glinting beneath the streetlights like a poignant full stop to my unease.
On another occasion, I witnessed someone stealing a few grimy bank notes from the pockets of a passed out homeless man, then telling me to fuck off when I tried to tell him this was disgusting.
Then one day on the bus, a teenage girl had to be physically restrained by a plain clothes policeman after she lashed out at a middle-aged man who’d politely asked her to turn the volume down on the music she was playing through her phone’s tinny loudspeaker.
It wasn’t all bad. I became firm friends with the owners of a Congolese corner shop, with whom I would discuss soccer and Congolese food recipes at length. Then there was the kind-hearted Algerian woman behind the counter at the local bakery, who told me not to pay any heed to the teenagers who shouted at me.
But for the most part, the positive memories I have of this neglected and cold ghetto on the periphery of the so-called City of Light are few and far-between.
At the same time, I slowly grew to resent Paris for the way it treated places like Grigny. It was as if they were embarrassing and ugly younger siblings who might ruin the city’s favourable reputation if they were seen hanging out together. So instead, Paris turned its back on the banlieues and pretended they were in no way related to it. I regularly had to deal with Parisians telling me adamantly that Grigny was not Paris, its inhabitants not Parisians.
I for one was certainly not surprised to learn that one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers was a Grigny resident.
Numerous articles, personal testimonies and research papers even suggest that your job prospects are severely hindered if you put an address like Grigny on your CV or job application form. It probably goes without saying that you are doubly cursed if you happen to also have an African or Muslim surname, as most residents of such areas do.
In 2015, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls went so far as to say that a distinct “social, territorial and ethnic apartheid” exists in France, something that was starkly apparent throughout my time in Grigny.
In many ways, the situation is comparable to life in the poor townships and estates of the Cape Flats, where the legacy of South Africa’s own apartheid era continues to cast its long shadow.
In France, as in South Africa, there seems to be inadequate political will to combat this dire situation. In France, as in South Africa, a crisis has been brewing for some years, and those who are surprised by or unable to contextualise increasingly frequent and devastating eruptions of anger and violence are woefully ill-informed.
Watching the long-simmering crisis finally bubbling over across France and beyond over the past year or so, I have often found myself thinking back on my experiences in Grigny. Though profoundly saddened, I was certainly not surprised to learn that one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers was a Grigny resident. Nor that the architects of more recent Paris and Brussels attacks hailed from similarly destitute and marginalised ghettos.
Contrary to what many of us believe, one can both abhor such extreme violence and acknowledge and understand the root causes that make it increasing inevitable. When I now reflect on my cold winter of discontent in Grigny, I believe that this is the most important lesson I took with me when I moved on.