Barbès, booze, and Berber blues: a Moroccan adventure in Paris
Sidelong glances, dumbfounding back alleys, madcap laughs, and piss-soaked holes in the ground; Paris, how I love thee. I should be so lucky: not so long ago you had my brethren on their knees, they who succumbed to a heady perfume, whose scent seemed to rise ever upwards, a beacon amidst the benighted signalling progress, power – modernité! From pied divans they looked to you, westwards, for succour and stimuli, lost in a fog of sweet opium smoke, their heads reeling with thick purple elixir and the smell of roses. To them, down and out in smoky Teheran, you were the pearl of the West; your children were fair and wore flowers in their hair, as once said a bopping imp. They sipped on bubbly, read belles lettres in their pleasure gardens, sat on four legs, and prodded their grub with strange metallic things. These, you see, were the trappings of civilised men, de rigeur for those of taste and worth, the stuff of substance for the backwards (albeit handsome) brute wishing to ingratiate himself amongst the new conquerors of the world.
And so it transpired that one bittersweet Tuesday afternoon, the rain having soaked the grey blotches of cobblestone outside my window, I found myself – a Persian abroad – in the sordid lap of Madame Paris, looking for a decent bite to eat. After doing up the laces of a shiny pair of soft leather shoes that made me blush with all their clicking and clacking, I made my way downstairs to amble about the passages encircling my hotel in Saint-Georges, just close enough as to be able to retrace my steps. I’ve never been that much of a gourmand, and it’s easy to get distracted in that city; any thoughts I had of 1664 (that most glorious of years) and the effluvia of local cheese were fast allayed. In a store window, I espied Mughal-style dressers, chintz curtains, and sequined slippers; further up the street, a French-pressed Stones vinyl stopped me in my tracks, and I soon lost track of time altogether when I stumbled onto a picturesque side street dotted with little guitar shops. The selections were rather odd, and I spotted, lying demurely amongst the blackies and butterscotch blondes, the guitar my mother once (very briefly) strummed on as a child: a red and white Danelectro, lined with bright faux snakeskin. I can never help but stop and stare at these things – I, who have only ever wanted to live on water and feed on lightning. Just like Johnny.
Her voice had come to me, in splotches of colour and clouds of powder, on the smooth wings of a Saharan breeze during the cool, wet days of an otherwise uneventful April. She looked rather odd, staring at me boyishly in a candy store of sorts, at once exuding the aura of a Riffian ruffian and the emaciated Keef wannabe from Manhattan. Filthy humbuckers, rusty strings of steel, and the roughened tongue of the mountains got me pricking up my ears again in exultation. Punk is not dead, and rock keeps rolling; these amorphous phenomena simply shape-shift with the times, shaking all over all the while. She hath the fury of Eberhardt, the swagger of Choukri, the grit of the Cheikha; her head ain’t green, and her hands ain’t blue: she’s a white-hot woman, through and through – and boy, can this skinny pretty thing howl. Little did I know then that my journey to discover the hallowed place where, as she had once told me, the skin speaks secret words in Spanish, would one day lead me to a grungy hovel on Rue Notre Dame de Lorette.
* * *
I did it again: I quaffed far too much of the red stuff. I should have known better. A wino I am, though one with his wits (usually) about him; so what was I doing, sipping to surfeit? Blame it on the sun – or, perhaps, the perverse effect of that sprawling den of iniquity. Though in Paris, I was indifferent to my surroundings, and could only think of faraway lands: Esfahan, Tangier, whitewashed Algiers. In my tattered tote, torn and frayed, Wharton’s In Morocco jostled against a dog-eared copy of Chardin’s Voyage en Perse I was reading again, for God knows what reason. They both made rather entertaining travel companions, Wharton and Chardin, the one with her bigotry and casual racism, and the other with his vignettes of fair Persia, as seen through the eyes of a fluffy-haired French jeweller. I lay my embroidered rug bookmark on a yellowed page, having finished a passage by Chardin that provided a fitting denouement to that lazy afternoon:
The Courtiers, Gentlemen, and Rakes, drink Wine, and as they all use it, as a Remedy against Sorrow, and that one Part drink it to put them to Sleep, and the other to warm and make them Merry; they generally drink the Strongest, and most Heady, and if this does not make them presently Drunk, they say ‘what Wine is this?’
‘Quoi?’ asked a porter outside a nearby hotel. So much for all those wasted childhood years of learning French; I’d have been better off sticking to English. ‘Where is Barbès?’ He mumbled something incoherent to my virgin ears, and waved his sunburned hands about to guide me. I didn’t see the infernal Tower, or go sauntering down the Champs, but I did go for a most pleasant stroll on Rue Barbès, the street where French propriety goes to die. ‘Zey aghh not consideghhed cool, ze peepel in Baghhbès’, a Moroccan friend of mine had told me over a pint the previous evening. ‘Zey aghh not – how you say – integhhating wit ze société’. Well, they were certainly a cool bunch of cats to me; ever since I saw a spunky young Rachid Taha laud the niceties of the boulevard, sandwiched between two portly, dolled-up broads, I’d wanted to visit the place. We’ve got no problems … in Barbès! The world is beautiful … in Barbès! Who wouldn’t want to go there? It wasn’t my idea, though; Happy and the girl called Gainsbourg wanted to down some lager and popcorn in a side street brasserie, before our time as pupils.
She hath the fury of Eberhardt, the swagger of Choukri, the grit of the Cheikha … her head ain’t green, and her hands ain’t blue: she’s a white-hot woman, through and through – and boy, can this skinny pretty thing howl
Tender was the night: it smelled of sex, sweat, and cigarettes. Happy, whilst waiting in the zigzagging queue, popped in quickly to a nearby souvenir shop to buy a magnet with a picture of a black cat on it, while I cringed at the viscose shawls patterned with Persian pickles beneath a set of hot fluorescent lights. Inside the theatre, all rococo and crushed velvet, the bastard beer took its toll, all of us scrambling to let loose in the loos. We emerged to find the darkened place brimming with bohemians in blue jeans, who had taken just about every half-decent seat left. We didn’t want to disband, and, damn it, I hadn’t ventured across the miserable English Channel to groove to the sight of a pillar. Stand up on your two feet, baby – that’s how it’s got to be. She would have wanted it that way, perhaps, and the various toxins I’d ingested throughout the day had, in any case, inured me to most forms of minor discomfort. One night is not, after all, a thousand, as is said in Persian; but O, would that it could be.
Unbeknownst to us, a renegade mariachi band had hooked up with a brigand on the gumbri and blind bluesmen from the Mississippi, and hit the high road for the ‘Kesh. Smoke swirled about in ringlets amidst the glowing apertures, and you, the lanky girl with raven hair, emerged from the shadows to a fanfare of corroded nickel, greasy trumpets, and stinging overdrive. Your feet tapping, slender bejewelled hands clutching golden rays, hips swaying, teeth a’gnashin’, my eyes beheld Frida and my ears heard Billie. I can’t figure you out, put my finger on you, svelte songstress from the land of faded blue tattoos and leering djinns. Whence came that bewitching melody? Andalusia melted into a shotgun shack in Mississippi, shamans made wild love to witch doctors on the steppe, and a voodoo priest danced with a dervish in the glow of the moonlight, on curls of hashish. You taught us, the uninitiated, how to dance, how to roll; there, in the frenzied throng, in the squalor of the Cigale, we were given a lesson in Hindi. The girl beside me shut her eyes, tuned in, and dropped out, waving her long arms gently and pressing herself every now and again against the shiny black balustrades behind her. We were wet, hot, and strung out on cheap thrills, riding waves of raw electric euphoria, watching you writhe about in a halo of light, shaking violently and tossing your swarthy black locks, spellbound. Dancing girls, their anklets and castanets tinkling amidst the clamour flitted by in the darkness, silver revolvers let fly a hail of bullets, and Baba Zar laughed all the while, confabulating with spirits malevolent and benign in furtive, husky whispers.
Gainsbourg clutched my bony hand in hers as we pushed our way through the damp horde, making for the dirty avenue outside. The world turned azure, and amidst boozy banter and the ruffling of denim, you were there, alone, bidding the night farewell. The once-teeming theatre was pouring itself out onto the back alleys of Pigalle, and under a bright, burning bulb, you sang a song – not of darkness and disgrace – but of strange, ephemeral beauty. Gainsbourg’s grasp tightened, and I was slowly led away, reluctantly, watching you recede into that from which you had emerged.
Not a word was said as we three, guided by stars and street lamps, sought Guimard’s letters and a good time in the silence of a brisk, black night that would soon disappear in sweet billows.
Listen to Hindi Zahra’s latest album, ‘Homeland’, on iTunes
Cover image: Hassan Hajjaj – Hindi Zahra (detail; courtesy the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery).