Parker: Prayer in the StreetsApril 13, 2011
It is hard to imagine and understand the events of a Friday in Paris’ Barbés neighborhood until you make the trip there to experience it yourself. It was by far the most educational class trip I have taken since being in Paris. It is a part of my time abroad that I will never forget.
La Goutte d’Or, as described by Thirza Vallois, is “A tiny patch of Africa transplanted to Paris.” It started as an immigration destination for North Africans in the early 1900’s and then in the 1950’s became even more popular as immigrants came looking for work in the automobile industry. Now, twenty-seven percent of the population in La Goutte d’Or lives below the poverty level, and 17% lives in social housing, proof of the lower standard of life that seems to exist in some parts of this area.
But this area wasn’t always struggling, and even now not all of the population is experiencing this level of poverty. Originally La Goutte d’Or was a hamlet of wine growers, living in beautiful old houses, on small lanes, and cute little gardens. In the Middle Ages, the wine from the district was some of the best in Europe, given to the king every year by the City of Paris for his birthday. Some of this history is still evident, hidden behind gates and more modern, less fancy, façades.
While Barbés is still struggling against poverty, there are some positive movements being made toward the growth of the district. The Center for Muslim Culture is making positive strides toward building respect and understanding between the people of the area and the rest of Paris. Through educational and community events, they are creating an environment that will allow the Muslim community to be welcomed in by the rest of Paris.
This is also building toward the construction of a new, larger Center, using some government funding, which has already been approved by the Parisian government, a feat in and of itself. To build a religious center, especially one in a country that focuses heavily on its secular approach to government, with the money of the people, is extremely difficult. But what made the case for the Muslim Cultural Center is that it is supposed to be a place for everyone, and it is hoping that it will be able to follow through on this promise by welcoming all parts of Parisian society. In addition to the Cultural Center, the plans for a new mosque have been approved, which will be funded entirely by private donations.
While Paris already has the largest mosque in France, it is not big enough to handle the Muslim population in the city that is home to one fifth of the total population of France. This was obvious on our trip to Barbés during the Friday prayers. Because the small mosques in the neighborhood are not enough, the male population spills out onto the streets, where a highly organized procedure blocks off the streets, lays down prayer mats, and installs a private security force to protect the prayers of the people. Donation buckets are passed around, collecting funds to be put toward the new mosque, and people flow in from all directions to participate.
The situation is a model of tolerance. It goes both ways, from the tolerance of the Muslim people toward the secular government that makes it difficult for them to practice their religion, to the tolerance of the people of Paris who let this peaceful assembly to exist on a weekly basis, despite the inconvenience it might bring them. It was amazing to walk through the quiet, peaceful streets, while the sound of a service blared from speakers on top of cars lining the streets, and people who weren’t a part of the worship milled quietly about through the clear sidewalks and crosswalks. People kept to themselves, and respected the lives of those around them.
My other experiences in Barbés left me with a completely different feeling, one where I couldn’t wait to get away “to safety.” I felt out of place, exposed, and very uncomfortable. I felt like I was constantly being stared at like an outsider, because I was. I didn’t fit into what I saw as the entire population of the area, and I acted like someone who knew they didn’t belong there.
This trip was quite the opposite. In the clear light of a beautiful day, and with a better understanding of what I was walking into, I was able to feel comfortable, despite traveling with a large group of American students. Of course we got plenty of stares – we were a large group of mainly white students walking in a pack and speaking loud English. But this time they felt more like stares of curiosity, rather than threats. The people were friendly, welcoming, and willing to help. I have never seen Parisians so willing to answer a question from a stranger on the street. Barbés is probably one of the most misunderstood areas of Paris, and I am glad I had the opportunity to experience the culture of such a fascinating social situation.