Anna-Louise Milne, director of Research and Postgraduate Studies at the University of London Institute in Paris, reflects on one of the recent translation workshops run as part of the work of the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression.
Taking place on the esplanade outside our Invalides home, the sunny seat chosen for the most recent workshop may not seem to be a controversial spot. Nonetheless, the public bench which hosted the gathering invokes another bench, further north in the city, which has become the latest emblem in the story of the ongoing tensions between Paris’ migrant population and the city authorities. Removed and destroyed by city officials for its role in providing hospitality towards migrants, a 19th-century bench, a simple locus of public enjoyment in a north-eastern corner of Paris is now no more.
“Why do you want to go and sit outside?” asked the security guard on the door, “they’re all too used to the sun, that lot.” His sarcasm was grating. All I had requested was that he would point any late-comers to the bench where we would be sitting out on the Esplanade in front of this building where they had been turning up, expectantly, uncertainly, and sometimes even on the off-chance, for the past few months. “They” are a loosely defined group of asylum seekers whom I had met in a range of different settings and who had joined the work we have been doing at the Institute through workshops and discussion sessions with the students. We had a session scheduled that afternoon and as always I wasn’t very sure how many people to expect, nor what sort of worries or enthusiasms they would bring. I was also still very caught up in the aftermath of an event of the previous days, an event that had prompted me to write a short text to channel my outrage, which had fed straight into what felt like a growing swell of shared indignation, rising like the sap in the trees around me on this lovely early spring day, and ready to burst forth. So I was inclined to suggest that we should do our workshop outside, on a bench, for the outrage had been about the destruction of a bench, a single public bench in the middle of a small triangular pedestrian island at the intersection between three roads pointing north-south and east-west, in an outer district of Paris. A single venerable bench which had been inexplicably destroyed a few days earlier by a couple of municipal employees armed with the rotating blade of a metal saw to slice quickly through its cast iron feet.
Inexplicably? Only in the sense that the act was a totally ineffective attempt to signify the city’s will to restrict the presence of asylum seekers, migrants and refugees in this particularly challenged part of the city where the first ports-of-call for those attempting to register for asylum in France sit close by a growing range of small shops, fast-food places, informal markets, and meeting points for a people journeying from East Africa, via North Africa, or from Afghanistan and Pakistan via Eastern Europe, or from Bangladesh, and other further-flung places still, via routes that prompt initial disbelief. The bench in question had been a focal point for basic food distributions: hot drinks and left-over bread and croissants in the morning, big bowls of vegetable stew and rice in the evenings, provided by community groups and served directly in the street. The destruction of the bench came on the back of the announcement that the local authorities wanted to ban these distributions. Their antagonism seemed to tear into the air with the high-pitched whine of the saw, and to stamp on local resolve to offer a minimal expression of hospitality when the water jet was brought out and the area was hosed down.
The bench in question, just like the ones on the Esplanade in front of the Institute, belong to a particularly emblematic moment of Parisian history, a moment that figures prominently in the work students at ULIP do to understand the forces at play in the construction of public space in the 1860s in the city, and how those spaces – public parks, benches along the newly built boulevards, colonnes Maurice as focal points of public information, street lights to extend public life into the dark hours – had in turn become sites and instruments in the creation of counter public spheres as the forces of social emancipation jostled and gathered, resisting the monopoly of institutional power over public life in ways that ran from everyday co-option to violent struggle. The moment when the bench was tossed into the back of a municipal lorry was one when the long-evolved objectives of classroom work converged for me acutely with the fabric of my daily determinations, and I was still processing its effects. (You can read “Vandalisme d’Etat, ou il était une fois un banc” here).
And so what more obvious suggestion to make to the group of young Somalian and Sudanese men than that we should do our work together on a bench? But the security guard’s sarcasm had made me hesitate. It was true that the attraction of coming to the Institute for these displaced and often disoriented people was partly – perhaps largely – about the peace and quiet offered by the seminar room. The chance to talk and read without the incessant disruptions of crowded cafés or hostels; the stress and noise of public offices; the drone of traffic and the strident bellow of police cars and vans, a constant disturbance in northern Paris, particularly since the State of Emergency was declared in 2015. The surprise and pleasure on entering the seminar room with its big whiteboard ready for our work was palpable. Why indeed go outside to sit on a bench?
The realization that this was my desire became all the more apparent when I discovered that Abdnazir didn’t know the word “bench.” His English is good, his determination to get into education in Europe fierce. Against considerable odds, and not just those of surviving the route to Paris, he has managed to get an official document attesting to his high school education in Sudan and his eligibility for university study. This is no mean feat. But the word “bench” meant nothing to him, and the interest in taking the time to talk about our situation, then write a short text in situ to discuss afterwards in the classroom, had been mine alone. In his text jotted down at my suggestion, he recorded his reaction to my suggestion: “Actually this is a enjoyment place. But me I am stuck.” This was his final sentence. Before that he’d noted the tourists passing by, a group of young Americans being guided on zippy wheeled devices that save them from having to walk, and us, “having a sit with friends in a park.” An “enjoyment place”, “actually,” but for him that had no sense; there is no space for enjoyment in his head, only for doing.
Saïd’s reaction was the same. He goes crazy, he said, crazy, if he stays in his room in the centre where he is waiting for his request for asylum to be examined. But if he goes outside he has nowhere to go, nothing to do. It is difficult to express, he said, that feeling that you can’t stop, you can’t rest, but you can’t go. Abdnazir added that writing is particularly difficult, not because of spelling, but because you have to choose your words. He chose “internal issues” to describe what makes his situation so unbearable, and back up in the seminar room he explained: he realized it was normally the sort of thing you might say about your relationship with your girlfriend, but he doesn’t have a girlfriend, in fact he doesn’t have anyone, and he is trapped inside his own thoughts and his doubts, which keep circling round. He can never get out of his internal issues.
Saïd agreed, and told a story from when he had fled his village and a woman had tried to protect her son, asking the militia to kill her and to spare her son. “She have to do that,” he said, “and we have to do to, we have to…” No reprieve, no rest, no way of thinking outside the pressure of necessity. No time for having a sit on a bench.
Saïd has more resources faced with this situation. He’s older, he’s spent years in a camp in Chad, working at times for the UNHCR. He spent several years in Israel too, working illegally in hotel kitchens. He speaks multiple languages, is also determined to get a university diploma, in translation if possible. And in the meantime, he is channeling his efforts towards a brochure to help his compatriots learn French. He doesn’t recommend the study of grammar. Even the French don’t know their grammar, he says. You have to start with sentences. Two can do. And you re-combine them. Very quickly you get to five. Then you get to ten. He has lists of examples. Sitting out on the bench on the Esplanade des Invalides, under the budding linden trees, he wrote a text that describes the beauty of the green returning, and the joy of this “wonderful normal life.”