Editor’s Note: This piece launches SLG Perspectives: a series of columns which provide ways to promote cultural understanding, share insightful experiences, and break global stereotypes.
Another Paris: The Metro and the Plurality of Paris
It’s just after 6 PM and all of Paris wants to get home. Pressed against the glass door of the Metro, I am crammed between the knees of a woman sitting to my right and the elbows of a man reading the paper on my left. It’s body v. body and no one is spared. Eyes avoid one another in an effort to maintain privacy even while asses rub up against legs and hands accidentally meet as passengers grope for the handles.
But in a moment, all false boundaries of space and privacy shatter. Above the noise of rails screeching on the turn, we all hear it. Allahu akbar. And again, this time longer and louder. Allaaahu akbar. The sound—it’s a recorded sound from some phone or iPod that will not stop—pierces the contained stillness and anonymity of the Metro car. Awkward glances meet awkward glances.
An old man’s gaze meets mine as the adhan continues, spot on for asr at 6:08 PM. His silent expression seems to communicate everything. “This isn’t the way it used to be,” he sighs silently. The prayer is continuing and it seems like it’s even getting louder.
From my vantage point in the crammed car, I can see a Maghrebi man fussing with the pocket of his crew jacket while the call to prayer continues. He’s fiddling with something, but won’t take it out of his pocket. Could that be him? The sound still will not stop and passengers around me are growing more and more visibly uncomfortable. Individuals are shifting their gaze from the floor to ceiling to the wall, trying to see where the sound is coming from without settling eyes on anyone. Finally, the sound stops and I notice the man now standing quietly, as if nothing happened.
But something happened. In that moment between stops on the Metro, between Blanche and Place de Clichy, the social code was broken. Some passengers seemed to express silently that “whoever that is, just shouldn’t do that,” or “not here, not in public.” In that moment, the unspoken, ignored truth had been quietly—if temporarily—accepted. Half the Metro car is white. Half is not.
We reach Place de Chichy, and the Metro car takes in a breath as the doors open and passengers rush in and out. The man who fumbled with his pocket squeezes between boarding passengers and disappears from my sight. And as he disappears, I wonder what he’s thinking. Is he embarrassed that he broadcasted his religion to the masses? Why was he so secretive about turning it off and not identifying himself? And as the Metro beeps, doors close, and we begin moving to the next station, I watch passengers reshuffle into seats, leaning against doors, and slowly slipping back into normality and anonymity.
The Metro is a corridor between one Paris and the next. Individuals from each arrondissement, each banlieue, and beyond share space, often crammed space, for several minutes before reaching the right station, mounting the stairs, stepping into the sunlight, and going their separate ways. In the several minutes still underground, individuals are trapped in the Metro’s steel and glass compartments and are forced to encounter one another in every way they avoid on the street. The Metro is often the first place that tourists discover that the city is more diverse (read also: less white, less affluent) than its depictions in Kate McCann’s Madeleine stories or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Sitting between hijabi girls and listening to the sorry stories of poor vagrants, it is here that tourists discover that the City of Light is home to many cities, some recognized, some not, and most undiscussed in guidebooks.
The main aim of this column is to explore the intersection of different cities within Paris in an attempt to gain an more complete picture of an urban center and society in transition. France is now home to over 5.4 million foreign-born, non-EU immigrants. And yet, travel books rarely talk about the different cultures these 5.4 million individuals—and more—have brought or have cultivated within the Republic. It is as though these cultures do not exist until one encounters them, maybe jarringly, in the Metro.
Conceiving of Paris as a city whose attractions include not only the Eiffel Tower, but also the strip of Maghrebi fish markets in the Goutte d’Or, this column offers humble portraits of how the challenges of diversity are manifested in daily interactions and in spaces within the urban environment. Whether in the classroom, on the football field, or in the Metro, these interactions begin to teach us something about the reality of diversity and the plurality of Paris.