Black hands

by Philippe Pujol

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

The new arrivals among the immigrants always welcome you with open arms. They have not yet been made bitter by the impeding affronts and are still full of hope for a better life than the misery they’ve fled from. Nobody leaves their home without good reason: It could be hunger or violence that sent you running. Just as her sister Miyandi did two years ago, Bahuwa asks me in. The two sisters show me around the apartment as if it was all about showing me that they had to get out of here, and fast.

There are at least four people sleeping in every room. There are definitely 15 people crammed into this 70 square meters. You have less space here than in prison. “We pay €672 for rent and another €70 for other costs.”

Everyone is pragmatic about their accommodation. “We sleep in shifts. While some of us go to work, the others rest,” Miyandi says even before the question is put to her. And because there are no jobs, there are always more people resting, torturing themselves through the long and meaningless days, trying to kill time and dreaming of another kind of life.

There’s a big pot sitting on the oven, the contents of which are continuously being warmed up throughout the day and part of the night so that everyone, whether they’re coming or going, gets something to eat.

The men don’t even look up to see who is talking to the women. My accent is enough. “Our men only speak to whites about jobs or religion,” Bahuwa whispers. And I don’t really look like a potential employer or an imam. Even though it is the afternoon, Miyandi and Bahuwa set a “maélé na rougaï” in front of me. Actually it is too late – or maybe too early – for this rice-based dish with tomatoes and onions.  But it would be an insult to refuse the hospitality.

The two sisters won’t sit down with me, not alone, not with a single man. It’s a little uncomfortable but they continue to stand, almost directly behind me. They spent their childhoods in a slum on Mayotte. After having her third child, Miyandi wanted a better future for her family. As a French native of a French territory, she decided to move to the mainland at the end of 2013. She ended up in Marseille, in Kalliste, in the poorest part of the city, in the most miserable apartment block, Building H, in the apartment of a local slum landlord. And she was satisfied.

In the meantime though, she has lost some of her illusions and doesn’t mind that the building is falling into wrack and ruin, “so that when they finally tear it down, we can be accommodated elsewhere”. She often visits her sister in Building B. When I asked Bahuwa, she gave the same reasons for being here on the French mainland as her sister had. She has come to know “modern western ways” and she dreams about a better social standing through a better apartment.

Just like the other tenants here, they first used the toilet as though it was a garbage chute. “I hadn’t seen anything like it,” she laughs, embarrassed. Their neighbours don’t do anything to maintain the property either: “They’re happy that they’ll leave soon and they want that to happen faster.”

That works best when they damage something. They’ve been convinced of this: When their ghetto is really destroyed and dangerous, then a new home will be found for them.

Bahuwa’s small daughter wants to show me something “really sweet”. The eight-year-old girl skips to the broken front door of the apartment opposite her family’s place. “They’re always inside,” she whispers, in a voice like Disney’s Cinderella. “Putt-putt-putt…sh-sh-sh…come on, come here!”

Her hand outstretched, her head forward, she sneaks in like a cat hunting. Suddenly, with an almost human screech, a rat appears in a pipe. “Isn’t it totally cute?” A rat! This kid is trying to pet a rat! A fat rat with ruffled fur, a long tail and an angry look. If you grow up among the rats, then they become your playmates.

This is far from an isolated incident. I saw the same thing once in the Maison Blanche apartment complex where slum landlords work the same way as they do in Kalliste. A local politician also told me about a similar situation on the La Renaude estate. Sometimes in my work, I see ugly things and crime scenes but this situation – this little girl and her rat – shook me deeply. 

Excerpt from Phillipe Pujol’s book, Die Erschaffung des Monsters (in English, The Creation of the Monster). Translated from French by Till Bardoux and Oliver Ilan Schulz. (Copyright: Hanser Berlin/Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2017).

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