The Algerian Papers, 1, or, the Lutèce Diaries in Exile: Belleville à Kabylie (with translated excerpt from Mouloud Feraoun)

Text (after intro) by Mouloud Feraoun
Translation and introduction copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Mouloud Feraoun text copyright Éditions  de Seuil

In my exile from Lutèce (and I am not alone among cosmopolites), wondering how long I’ll have to wait until it will be safe to return to Paris, to ride the Metro, to browse the volumes in the Old Book Market at the parc Georges Brassens before pique-niquing on my five for 10 Euro end of the market cheese platter and -2 Euros sauerkraut on a hiller next to the parc’s bald Japanese creek (on the Canal St.-Martin the other day, police had to disperse a crowd of pique-niquers; these are my people), or hunt for additional volumes of Anatole France’s “La Vie Littéraire” and other hard-to-find editions at the vide-greniers (neighborhood-wide garage sales; vide = empty, grenier = attic), or walk into a Pompidou Museum library packed with other hungry searchers; and most of all to weave my way through my beloved — and often sardine-can dense — marchés of Belleville and Barbes looking for pungent olives, flavorful red peppers, sweet soft Algerian black dates (the dried-out Trader Joe’s facsimile I picked up the other day finna bust my one remaining real tooth; it must have left Algiers before Independence), all at bargain prices, on my last Paris stay thriving on rather than cringing from the teeming multi-cultural humanity, I take solace in books. Because Paris, like New York once upon a time (still?), is a literary city, defined and retained in memory by authors as much as visual artists. Indeed the most vivid description I’ve found of the old pissoirs which used to line the Grands Boulevards (you’ll find one still in working order, even if it does look like a Rube Goldberg contraption of a sewer covering, on the boulevard Arago outside the walls of the infamous la Santé prison where Papon once vegetated during his war crimes trial, except perhaps for the heating coil above the basin) comes not from Pissarro but Victor Serge, the reformed Socialist theorist who, in the 1947 “Les années sans pardon” (I scored a copy of François Maspero’s 1971 edition at a vide-grenier hosted by les Grandes Voisins, a civic organization for immigrants on the Meridian), has his hero, fleeing the French Communist Party he’s decided (like Serge) to leave, fascinated by the lower halves of trousers peeking out from under the pissing stations during the early evening rush hour.

If I may have to wait a while before reuniting with my pissoir on the Boulevard Arago, I have now been able to retrieve the Belleville market — in the Kabylie village of Tléta, as evoked by Mouloud Feraoun, the Algerian writer and educator assassinated by the paras of the French OAS on the eve of Algerian Independence, in “Jours de Kabylie” (my edition copyright Editions de Seuil, 1968). (In which the chapter on the “djemâa” of Aït-Flane could also be a description of the rudimentary cement block benches at the intersection of the rue and Boulevard Menilmontant, where the Belleville market empties out, and which Feraoun’s descendants in Paris have turned into their own djemâa. And mine too; after passing through the gauntlet of the market, I usually collapse on one of these nondescript blocks arrayed around a barren sand pit, my large red backpack recuperated from a sidewalk on the rue Voltaire stuffed with 1 Euro cauliflowers, eggplant, tomatoes, bananas, 2 Euro two-kilo boxes of squishy deglet nour dates from Algeria, .30 cent bushels of fresh mint, conical red peppers, thin pock-marked sweet potatoes, 1 Euro chunks of packaged blue cheese, and 2.30 jars of Dutch peanut-butter from the French Arab epicerie down the street, rewarding myself with a warm pepper-stuffed 1 Euro crepe or a 1 Euro “Diplomate” bread pudding from the French-Arab boulangerie between the market’s end and Pere Lachaise. As in — I imagine — Feraoun’s Kabylie djemâa, neither I nor the mostly French-Arab middle-aged men who are my companions feel any particular need to talk. It is enough to soak in the ambiance, perhaps while puffing languorously on a cigarette. So what if the old oak tree sketched by Charles Brouty for Feraoun’s book has been replaced by a Kentucky Fried Chicken? By common consent, these men have dubbed this corner their djemâa. As Feraoun puts it: “…from the moment that it’s designated the djemâa, it might well find itself at the entry, in the middle, on a random corner, offer but homely sidewalks, or be confounded with the street, this can’t diminish it. It has its history, its importance, its clientele.”) Enjoy what you’re reading? Please make  donation today by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us there to learn how to donate by check.-– PB-I

 

Le marché du Tléta
Excerpt from “Jours de Kabylie”
by Mouloud Feraoun
Copyright Editions du Seuil, 1968
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Some people will tell you to never miss a marché.

“Once a week, what the heck, you can offer yourself a little respite and distraction!”

Distraction, maybe. But respite? Forget about it!

Our marché isn’t far away, happily! It all the same takes six kilometers to get there and six to get back. Three good leagues. Not counting the kilometers of perambulation, over many hours, around the stands with their displays. Well, there must indeed be those who consider this a respite even though on other days they get a lot less tired out going through their daily tasks. Go figure. The weekly respite has its inconveniences all the same.

In one sense, it’s certainly agreeable to go to the market. And also educational. It feels like leaving your shell to penetrate the world and discovering that the world is vast. In the village, we have no idea of this. We’re here going around in circles, making a big deal over minor incidents, bickering over little things, full of our own importance and ceding none to our neighbor. From the moment we find ourselves on the road, all that’s finished: we take it down a notch and keep a low profile. From all over, from all the villages, people mount or descend to the marché. Every path which feeds into the road pours out its batch of men. The groups cross each other, follow each other, surpass each other. Some come by foot, others on donkeys, on mules, in taxis, trucks, busses. Some don’t carry anything, others are loaded down or push in front of them an animal who is loaded down. One man pulling his heifer with a rope maneuvers around horned creatures, another leads a tightly-packed herd of emaciated muttons, their hoofs stirring up a cloud of dust. And then there are the faces! The sizes, the shapes, the outfits! A real world in which you perceive yourself with modest eyes, where you’re forced to size yourself up without complacence and where you’re all the same content to occupy your little patch of earth. You tell yourself that you’re a man among men and that, no matter your age, your corpulence, your physique, your condition, it’s still possible to ascertain that you cut a good figure. You see people from your village, from neighboring villages, and from other tribes all through the same lens. Those you already know seem to be transformed by mounting themselves in a different light. Some whom you previously looked upon as important suddenly become dwarfed in size, while others, on the contrary, surprise you and gain ground in thus evolving outside of their home turf. This occurs to you without even thinking, to tell the truth, it floats in the air, creating an ambiance that one senses vaguely on the teeming road before even getting to the market. The village, the home, the family, they’re not forgotten but they’re relegated to a place behind a vast multi-colored scrim which is the very image of society itself.

For someone who’s not used to moving among crowds, the spectacle of a great market can be imposing and even distressing. You make all the interior concessions, you understand that you are alone and feeble, that you represent but an infitissimal part of an indefinable and ephemeral monster which grabs hold of you for several hours and moves you along, re-fashioning your face, impregnating you with a new spirit, integrating you into a larger form from which it’s no longer possible to cut yourself off.

The story of the seed merchant naturally comes to mind.

The seed merchant was, it seems, a colossus, an affable and modest man, eager to successfully sell his wares but not to show off his strength. One day he received a customer of a comparable size who wanted to buy his wheat and decided to take advantage of the circumstances to see how he measured up against the seed merchant.

“Your wheat isn’t so hot,” the customer remarked. He took hold of a fistful and began crushing the seeds, one after another, between his fingers, making flour out of them. And this from hard wheat grains.

“The market is vast,” responded the placid trader. “You can take your pick.”

“I know. I’ll take two kilos.”

“I am a merchant. You shall be served and I shall be paid.”

When he received the coins in payment, he gave them back to the buyer, retaining one between his massive fingers.

“I prefer paper money, my friend,” he said. “Take your coins back. They’re no good. Look!”

He crushed the coin between his fingers, reducing it to a ball that he tossed back in the man’s face.

“Now, pay me with no fuss. In bills.”

He got his paper money. The other lost his coin and his pride.

Those who have never seen the marché of Tléta can try to picture it if they like, they’ll still have no idea of the real thing because it’s not enough to tell them that it’s vast and that it attracts a lot of people. They must be lead through the inextricable disorder, made to traverse an unimaginable tumult, made to listen to an extraordinary cacophony of calls, of yelling, of noises. This is why it’s one thing to describe something, quite another to see it in the flesh. Our marché, it has to be seen to be believed!