Ben Faccini takes a walk with Karim Miské through the 19th arrondissement, discussing Karim’s PEN-award-winning book Arab Jazz and its prescient themes of violence, radicalism and disenfranchisement in modern Paris
Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz is a fast-paced thriller with the 19th arrondissement of Paris as its backdrop. It opens with Ahmed, the charismatic but dreamy protagonist, discovering the brutally staged murder of his neighbour upstairs. With all eyes on Ahmed as a convenient suspect, the police are quickly drawn into a wild chase that sees them come up against the arrondissement’s different religious communities.
I met Karim Miské some months ago, for a walk though the streets of his book, but that was before the recent Charlie Hebdo killings and the accompanying attack on a kosher supermarket. Ahead of its publication in English, Miské’s debut fiction is now being viewed by some as a prescient dissection of France’s race and interfaith relations.
Miské’s choice of the 19th arrondissement as a setting for his book is no accident. It was when walking down rue Petit that he had the idea for Arab Jazz. The author remembers passing by a gathering of young Muslims listening attentively to an impromptu preacher. A few metres later, he came across a bunch of teenage Jews. Both groups, Miské says, ‘were on a separate part of the pavement, within spitting distance of each other, but miles apart ideologically.’
It is exactly in this area that the Charlie Hebdo killers – and their acolyte who targeted the kosher supermarket – were indoctrinated. The terrorists’ former mentor once led the so-called filière des Buttes Chaumont (named after the arrondissement’s famous park), running a local training network to prepare young people for jihad in Syria and Iraq. In a disturbing mirroring of fact and fiction, police commissaire Kupferstein in Arab Jazz is seen struggling to protect the area’s young people from themselves and extremist brainwashing, while her colleague, Hamelot, argues that young delinquents should be left to end up as ‘bloody mush’ in Baghdad if that’s their wish. As we walk from street to street, Miské’s theories and ideas collide with my own mental images of Arab Jazz’s intricate geography and characters. I find myself checking over my shoulder for venal policemen, fully expecting to see shifty drug dealers and, of course, Ahmed.
The 19th arrondissement may be a microcosm of French social tensions, but it’s also tolerant and open to the winds of change. We started our walk at the 104 arts centre, a popular hangout in the 19th. Inside a covered courtyard dancers smoothed the air with outstretched hands while pupils from a circus school slithered up and down ropes to hip-hop, interlaced with Arabic vocals. The neighbourhood, in the 104 at least, is something of a hipster-bobo (bourgeois-bohème) playground, where visitors negotiate their way round art installations and clusters of push-chairs.
The nearby 1980s complex of the Cité des Sciences (the biggest science museum in Europe) is built on the site of the old Paris abattoirs. The Boeuf Couronné steakhouse, a key venue for meetings between Kupferstein and Hamelot, is a vestige of that abattoir past – and, according to Miské, ‘still the best place to eat fresh steak in Paris.’ To the south, near Stalingrad metro station, is the upmarket MK2 cinema, where Ahmed reveals vital clues about the murder. As we walk up rue Riquet onto the avenue de Flandre, Karim Miské points at the signs of the arrondissement’s ongoing gentrification. Sushi joints, pop-up fashion stores and organic restaurants are now wedged between traditional barbers, grocers and North African patisseries.
Brought up on a diet of thrillers by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Horace McCoy, but also admiring of Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi and Balzac, Miské feels that fiction can provide a different insight into religious and social complexities. In his opinion, ‘most French literature still finds it hard to get past a middle-class viewpoint. It can be perceived as the preserve of a privileged caste – and if you don’t fit the mould you are pigeonholed.’ It is hard to categorise Miské and his vision. Of Franco-Mauritanian origin, he grew up in the more affluent 5th arrondissement of Paris at a time when the influence of the French Communist party was strong in certain circles of the intelligentsia. While some might imagine Miské spending his childhood puzzling over the complexities of his mixed heritage, he was, in fact, accompanying his intellectual mother on missions to Albania. The extent of the totalitarianism there later came as a shock, but it was how, the author says, ‘he discovered the masks people wear.’ And, he believes, ‘it is precisely the loss of ideological masks that has led people to value religious and ethnic identities over political ones.’
The pull towards fundamentalism in both Judaism and Islam, especially within certain disenfranchised segments of French society, is a subject Karim Miské has investigated from top to bottom. The juxtaposition and proximity of the two religions are central to Arab Jazz, but have also formed the backbone of his seminal four-part documentary on Judaism and Islam (Juifs et Musulmans, si loins, si proches). The characters of Arab Jazz seem to dip into the author’s accumulation of real stories as a documentary filmmaker. Dialogues and opinions feel like they are deeply rooted in experience. General subversiveness and irreverence are then layered on top. Laughter and absurdity are never far from death.
We stop in front of a café featured in Arab Jazz. Opposite is an extensive housing project where many impoverished and orthodox Jewish families live. Miské explains that just as the process of gentrification is now transforming the 19th arrondissement, ‘so the 1967 Six-Day War triggered a wave of Sephardic Jewish emigration from the Maghreb and beyond to France, with many newcomers ending up in the 19th arrondissement.’ Other layers of immigration from Arab countries, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean have since been added to this. From a white European neighbourhood, with some Askenazi Jewish families who had mostly arrived in the previous century, the 19th arrondissement rapidly became a cauldron for diverse cultures.
It has only been in the last ten years or so that spillover from the situation in the Middle East has led to violence and friction in the area. And, in the background, the influence of the Jewish Lubavitch movement has grown stronger, as has Islamic fundamentalism. One of the numerous ironies of this increasing polarisation between Islam and Judaism, as exposed in Arab Jazz, is that many older Parisian Jews (like Sam the Moroccan barber in the book) speak better Arabic than the young North African immigrants born in France. The experience of immigration is embedded in many of Miské’s characters, from Kupferstein to Ahmed. Surprisingly, it is the Jewish policewoman, with a family from Lithuania, who provides a model of integration for the younger female characters from North and sub-Saharan Africa.
We stand looking at the streams of people of all different ethnic origins making their way along rue Petit. We have so far passed a couple of synagogues and ahead is a large hamman, all within a stone’s throw of each other. To create a perfect triangle of faiths and cultures, church spires poke through the skyline in the distance. ‘There is intolerance and tolerance,’ Miské says, ‘and in between the two poles, there is la société commune, a kind of living-together.’
Reading Arab Jazz brings the contradictions and nuances of that in-between space to vivid and dramatic life.
Karim Miské is appearing with Sarah Lotz, author of The Three, on 11 February 2015 at Waterstones Piccadilly, to discuss ‘Colliding Faiths – religious fundamentalism in global fiction’.