Thousands of people from around the world attended the World Social Forum in Tunis at the end of March. Security was up due to the horrific attack at the Bardo Museum only the week before, but spirits and energies were also high. Participants with their WSF badges, both Tunisian and international, were identifiable throughout the city, along with young Tunisian volunteers wearing blue vests. When we braved the crowded metro to get to the opening march, we squeezed in next to politicians and community organizers from across the globe.
Throughout the hundreds of activities, translation was a constant challenge. Impressively, the World Social Forum organizers tried to have at least a few volunteer translators at each event. But technical issues abounded, speakers spoke too quickly for the translators, translations were understandably imperfect, and often it was a random participant at the last minute who offered to translate, periodically whispering back to a group of people who happened to speak French or English or Spanish or Arabic. One of the most striking aspects of the Forum was this constant flurry of languages among people united by common interests.
On the first day I went to a #BlackLivesMatter event organized by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. Activists from Jackson, Miami, and Oakland shared experiences of racial injustice, especially in light of the recent police killings of black men, and efforts to join forces for justice across the United States. One Asian American woman talked about the movement #Asians4BlackLives and how Asians in the U.S. have been used in a “divide-and-conquer” strategy within a white supremacist system, rendering alliances across identity groups all the more important.
What made this event even more interesting was the fact that most of the participants were Brazilians from black justice movements in Brazil. My Brazilian colleague ended up translating from Portuguese to English and back again as they asked questions of the American activists, eager to make connections between what they had just heard and their own experiences. They expanded the debate as well: “How do your movements treat capitalism? What about economic justice?”, asked one Brazilian. “If you get rid of white supremacy without addressing capitalism, you perpetuate an oppressive system,” responded an American activist, who forms part of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (His own reflection on the World Social Forum can be found here.)
To the extent that the global status system is de-temporalized, or re-temporalized in nonprogressive ways, the nature of the relation between global rich and poor is transformed. For in a world of non-serialized political economic statuses, the key questions are no longer temporal ones of societal becoming (development, modernization), but spatialized ones of guarding the edges of a status group—hence, the new prominence of walls, borders, and processes of social exclusion in an era that likes to imagine itself as characterized by an ever expanding connection and communication.
James Ferguson, “Decomposing modernity: History and Hierarchy After Development” in Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, 2007.
Every Monday and Tuesday I wake up around 6am, get ready and head to Gare de l’Est, from which I take a train to Meaux, a small town of around 50,000 people East and slightly North of Paris. This is where I spend two days teaching English to around 14 primary-school classes of children aged anywhere from 6 to 11. Notice I say “teach”—while I have no teaching credential and am supposed to be an “assistant” who merely helps the teachers with their English lessons, offers the correct pronunciation of words, maybe plans a few activities, the program and schools themselves are highly disorganized when it comes to English and so somehow I am essentially the English teacher.
Meaux is a town with a large immigrant population and an allegedly racist mayor. Besides a vaguely quaint town center with a cathedral and a somewhat substantial reputation for Brie and mustard, there’s not a whole lot to report on. When I arrive at the train station I hop on a bus and bypass the center anyway, heading instead for the neighboring industrial zone. This is where my schools are located, surrounded by housing projects. This doesn’t have the same connotation as “the projects” in the US do, but it does feel a million miles away from Paris. More than anything, it can feel dreary and rather deserted. The teachers, not knowing that I was placed in the town by the teaching assistant program, have asked me confusedly, “but why did you choose Meaux?” Riding the bus here I feel totally anonymous, and an English title on the book I’m reading will generally get me a few looks. It’s a complete contrast to cosmopolitan life-as-spectacle Paris, and that’s one reason I’m grateful for the experience.
Though Meaux doesn’t feel as “cosmopolitan” as Paris, ironically my schools represent a sort of mini-multicultural utopia that Paris could only dream of coming close to. The students have more diverse origins than anywhere I’ve ever seen: North and West Africa are probably the most commonly represented, but there’s also Yemen, the Congo, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Portugal, Poland, Greece, French territories (like Martinique, Réunion, and French Guyana), Romania, China…and that list probably doesn’t even cover it. One lesson the kids loved was learning how to pronounce these countries in English. Continue reading “Notes from Meaux-town*”→
So these “Shit ________ say” videos are getting completely out of control, and for the most part are not funny at all, but I couldn’t help falling in love with this one when my roommate showed it to me. I have no idea if a French person (or really, Parisian) would agree, but most of the phrases an mannerisms in this video are pretty right-on from what I’ve observed and experienced. You can detect his (American or Canadian?) accent in moments, but he’s got the timing and intonation almost perfect. Since I too have a penchant for accents and slang and pretending-to-be-french, I’d really like to find this guy and be friends.
I just discovered that you can watch the entirety of La Haine (1995) on You Tube (so no need to spend a fortune on the Criterion Collection edition). So even though I’ve seen it a number of times, I feel compelled to watch it again. It is one of my favorite films of all time and one that embodies so many topics that fascinate me, as it is ultimately a film about exclusion from mainstream society and how this is reinforced in structural ways such as urban planning and police brutality. And of course, there’s no shortage of vulgar French slang and “Verlan,” a style of speaking that more or less inverses words: “femme” becomes “meuf,” “bizarre” becomes “zarbi,” “arabe” becomes “beur.” Verlan is completely unique to the Parisian region and though it started among immigrants and other marginalized populations of the banlieues, it has spread throughout the city and elsewhere, much to the chagrin of the Académie Française’s arbiters of the French language.
I love this scene, which begins with shots of people hanging out in the housing projects’ playground. The DJ Cut Killer points his speakers out the window and plays a mixture of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” with NTM’s “Nique la Police” (Fuck the Police). How’s that for pastiche? (That is our completely gratuitous highbrow academic word of the day.)