Why Paris?

1 April, 2024
Random thoughts in guise of an editorial.


Jordan Elgrably


Paris is like any other megalopolis around the world in that it stretches far and wide, attracts legions, harbors immigrants and exiles, copes with traffic and gentrification, and struggles to hold on to its past while looking toward the future. And yet no other city is quite like Paris, and for the all the major metropolises in which I’ve lived, Paris remains beautifully unique, brazen and insolent — the city has soul, it has its own ways, from the police who vary from indifferent to chummy to racist, and the shopkeepers who are as likely to share a laugh with you as to give you a sullen stare, to its colorful neighborhoods (Pigalle, Barbès, Belleville, Bastille…) and historic landmarks, each more stunning than the next.

Paris is not a place you want to be a tourist; it is a city that demands your fealty, your love; those who don’t love it leave it, and many who are in love with everything Paris has to offer leave anyway, but you always find yourself looking back, almost wishing you had never left.

But here are some of my memories: of riding the metro line from Châtelet to Belleville and watching as the cops get on the train car and begin their usual razzia, rousting Algerian, Moroccan and sub-Saharan immigrants, demanding their id cards. Whenever I would stand up and speak out, “Et moi, alors; vous ne me demandez pas la mienne?” the answer would be: “Occupez-vous de vos onions.” Mind your own damn business. Each and every time that occurred, I would ask myself how many cops knew the story of the October 1961 Seine Massacre, under chief of police Maurice Papon, when dozens of peacefully protesting Algerians were killed, and hundreds were injured, the subject of Leila Sabbar’s novel La Seine était rouge. I had no doubt that most Algerians had heard of October 1961.

I remember walking in Montparnasse and running into Franco-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, author of the unforgettable plays, The Bald Soprano and The Rhinoceros; he and his wife were coming out of their apartment at 96 Bd. de Montparnasse, and a car was waiting for them, but the aging playwright balked; he insisted upon walking, and Madame Ionesco was beside herself. What could she do but follow her man as he ambled slowly toward his favorite sidewalk café, while the driver followed along in their black Citroën in the background?

On another walk in the 14ème arrondissement, I ran into Samuel Beckett, who with his cold hawk-eyed stare, defied me to stop and question him; and indeed, I did very much want to ask him about the time in Paris when he was stabbed by a man for apparently no reason; when the police brought the culprit around to his hospital room for identification, Beckett in a faltering voice asked: why did you stab me? And the man replied, “Je ne sais pas, m’sieur.” Critical theorists surmise that this incident led to absurdist plays such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I don’t doubt it.

What the Irish playwright who wrote in both French and English learned living in Paris over many decades was that often, the completely unexpected and even ludicrous could happen to you at any time, and often did. Thus, the extraordinary could become mundane, and even banal — numerous theatregoers have complained of Beckett’s plays that nothing dramatic seems to happen, but that just means they really weren’t paying attention; Waiting for Godot remains one of the most beloved pieces of theatre in the US prison system; lifers love Beckett, they understand his work intimately, without explication.

While one can wax nostalgic about the many seductions of Paris, the tension that exists between French authorities and Arab and African communities is something I suppose will never subside; there are endless examples of individual and institutional racism, and yet Paris refuses to run a proper census, and pretends that all French citizens are equal (though some are more equal than others). While the Seine Massacre is almost forgotten in the rear-view mirror, as Andrew Hussey writes in The French Intifada, “The most acute problem for the recent generations of Muslim immigrants to France is that the proclaimed universalism of republican values, and in particular laïcité, can very quickly resemble the ‘civilizing mission’ of colonialism.”

Every now and then, in an effort to explore our diaspora communities, The Markaz Review looks at cities that are home to large populations of residents from the Middle East and North Africa, including thus far Berlin, Marseille and Los Angeles. TMR 40 • PARIS features a number of essays, reviews and short fiction, including excerpts from two new books, Paris en lettres Arabes by Coline Houssais (Actes Sud) and Paris Isn’t Dead Yet by Cole Stangler (Saqi Books). There is also Wanis El Kabbaj’s “Happy as an Arab in Paris,” a Moroccan’s remembrance of his Fez-raised father, who studied in Paris and remained an acolyte of the City of Light to the end of his life; a portrait of Franco-Iraqi novelist Feurat Alani by Nada Ghosn; and a portrait of Ariella Aïsha Azoulay and discussion of her latest book on colonialism and identity, by Sasha Moujaes.

Art critic Arie Amaya-Akkermans’ story on abstract artist Yvette Achkar, whose Paris years are not well-known, goes into fascinating detail, while co-curators Rasha Salti and Kristine Khouri share with us their 10-year odyssey in putting together Past Disquiet, now at Paris’ Palais de Tokyo through June 30, 2024. And this issue’s featured artist is the filmmaker/visual artist Bani Khoshnoudi, who has made a number of art films on migrants, and talks about her peripeteia in a brief interview.

Other pieces include a musical history of the Moroccan group Nass El Ghiwane by Benjamin Jones; a sardonic short story, “Paris of the Middle East” by MK Harb; and a list of suggested books in French on Paris from the viewpoint of its Arab/Middle Eastern residents. For those who live a city via their stomachs (and don’t we all?), Paris has an endless number of addresses when it comes to culinary adventures, but we have provided our minimalist list of some of our favorite restaurants. We’re also featuring the Algerian artist Baya, in the eyes of graphic novelist and writer Naima Morelli.

We’ll always have Paris.

Places to visit to explore Arab and Middle Eastern art:

Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), the largest Arab arts and cutural center in the western world.
Islamic Cultural Center, highlighting the diversity of Islamic cultures across many regions and countries.
Musée du Louvre, which lo and behold, houses the world’s largest collection of Islamic art.
Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac with its Middle Eastern and North African collection of more than 20,000 objects.


Jordan Elgrably is an American, French and Moroccan writer and translator whose stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in many anthologies and reviews, including Apulée, Salmagundi, and the Paris Review. Editor-in-chief and founder of The Markaz Review, he is the cofounder and former director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz in Los Angeles (2001–2020). He is the editor of Stories From the Center of the World: New Middle East Fiction (City Lights, 2024). Based in Montpellier, France and California, he tweets @JordanElgrably.

BarbèsBayaBeckettBellevilleFeurat AlaniIonescoNass el GhiwaneYvette Achkar

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