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Ella Boureau: Towards a Place That is Not Home

The city of lights, migrant refugees, and gay Muslim weddings.

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Photo taken by Flickr user Philippe Milbault.

By Ella Boureau

The day N and I went to D and H’s muslim gay wedding in Paris was the first hot day of the spring. We were running late. Why? Why is any couple late for anything? They are either fucking or fighting. Or both, in this case. The air in the room was sore and resonant, as though a bell had just been rung. Or I was sore and resonant, N seemed to have moved on to other matters.

“What is H playing at, getting married? I really thought he knew better,” she grumbled.

An ex-muslim who found her liberty of thought and sexuality squarely in atheism, I knew she was not going into this looking for an affirmation or an identity. She was simply going to support her friend. Despite its tender state, my heart took a pause as it often does, to gaze upon this little grumpy gus of a lover, and see the sweetness behind the pouting lips.

I pulled my only dress-up clothes out of the suitcase (a black dress, velvet) and N worried over the slight stain in her only dress shirt. The dress she had brought remained crumpled at the bottom of her bag, threatening to be worn if she did not manage to get out the stain. Neither of us wanted that to happen.

“No one will notice. Wear the jacket over it.” I said.

The doorbell rang. Fuck. N and I caught eyes, she in her underpants, I in my towel, still un-showered. I went to the door, and Y waltzed in, the picture of Dracula in a dress-shirt, bowtie, black burnous (a North African cloak) and pencil mostache. He eyed my toweled, unwashed form and smirked.

“So this is why you have kept me waiting outside that door forever. You were putting the final touches on your outfit.”

Y is an excellent guilt tripper, he claims it is the greatest skill being Moroccan has taught him.

And now here they were, the survivors, washed up on the banks of the 18th arrondissement, their blue and green tents undulating like waves as we walked.

“Don’t be dramatic. Come in. I’m just going to be a minute.”

Forty-five minutes later, the hour the ceremony was scheduled to begin, we were trudging down Rue Marx Dormoy at an unconcerned pace. Having given up on finding a taxi, we decided to walk in all our finery. We were a good looking bunch, I thought, my mint green scarf trailing behind me, N looking fresh faced and cleanly butch. It was Y however, who drew the most attention. He outclassed us all, the hem of his long burnous just brushing the bottom of his shoes, giving him the appearance of floating rather than walking. Another point for Dracula. We turned right at La Chapelle and traced the path of the Metro Line 2, sweating slightly in the late afternoon sun. Under the tracks was a wide median, with a long line of tents stretching as far as the eye could see. They were the blue and green government-issued tents given to the homeless, but I had never seen so many of them. I said as much to Y.

“Are they SDF?” I asked, referring to the (Sans Domicile Fixe, the ‘Without Fixed Abode.’

“They are refugees, been here for a year or so.”

“Where are they from?”

“From Sudan and Eritrea mostly. The government aid gave them these tents and two portable toilets and left them here,” he told us.

I later found out that this group of refugees had in fact refused housing, in order not to be separated from one another. A man crossed the median and began speaking to us in Arabic. N and Y responded, I looked on.

After the exchange Y said, “That guy came from Libya, and left because of the war. They are being moved tomorrow.”

“Where to?”

“He didn’t know.”

We walked in silence after that, shifting between eying the slapdash refugee camp, and trying not to stare. This is fucked, I thought. I had heard about the naufragés on the news. The people who drowned crossing the Mediterranean in boats not fit to sail, the poorest of them locked into the holds to prevent them from moving around and disturbing the equilibrium, thus ensuring their deaths. And now here they were, the survivors, washed up on the banks of the 18th arrondissement, their blue and green tents undulating like waves as we walked. It occurred to me that there was no way to take them in properly because they were not supposed to be there.

He ticked off his fingers, “Is it the gay thing? The Muslim thing? Or the French bureaucracy thing? I think it’s all three!” We nodded our heads in grave understanding, amazed at how quickly our congratulations had turned to condolence.

Consequently one either blended them into the scenery or gawked at them like they were in a zoo. I thought of my grandfather, who made a safe crossing from Algiers to study in France, so many years ago. I pictured him braced against the railing in a brand new coat, staring down his future on the hazy blue horizon, rocked slightly by the steady chugging of a new and solid steamer. A strange constellation, this old image overlaid with this contemporary reality.

Crossing in a ferry to study at university.

Drowning in a boat trying to escape war.

Which is the old-world story? Which is the modern one?

Progress! What a crock of shit. Though maybe it is not so much a question of progress, but of pathways. My grandfather’s crossing was a pathway well forged by colonization. For the naufragés it was simply not an option to continue on those old paths. And so here they were, where it was impossible for them to be.

We arrived at the wedding venue nearly an hour late. It was a small stuffy room in a nondescript building on the Rue Dunkerque, packed with people, mostly French. As predicted, the ceremony hadn’t started yet. Everyone was milling around eating sticky Lebanese pastries and sweating. I asked N why they had booked this place, it seemed an odd choice. She said that they had changed venues at the last minute, but that she didn’t know why. We spotted the couple in the front, outfitted in black kufis (hats, similar to a fez in shape), black leather ties and black thobes (Lebanese and Emerati inspired floor-length tunics) with their names embroidered tear-drop style in blue Arabic calligraphy on the back. We went up to congratulate them. D offered back only an exhausted stare, his eyes glazed over, mouth pinched. I shifted my gaze to H, who rolled his eyes and explained that it had been the week from hell. No venue had wanted to book them when they found out what kind of wedding it was. He ticked off his fingers, “Is it the gay thing? The Muslim thing? Or the French bureaucracy thing? I think it’s all three! D’s family has been amazing, thank God.” We nodded our heads in grave understanding, amazed at how quickly our congratulations had turned to condolence.

I looked around to spot D’s parents, blonde and smart looking, dressed in navy. They looked like very correct French people, unremarkable. H’s family was absent. A hush fell over the crowd, and we craned our necks to see the imam enter. He was an exceptionally handsome light-skinned Berber, with blue eyes and pink cheeks. A long thin nose managed to make him appear both dignified and weak.

“That cannot be the imam!” Y breathed.

“It is!” hissed the woman next to us. “I met him earlier. Gorgeous isn’t he?”

“I’ll be getting his number later,” Y grinned.

Everyone took their seats and the ceremony began.

The imam was soft-spoken and nervous, and the street sounds pouring in through the windows, thrown wide open to counteract the stuffiness, nearly drowned his words entirely.

“In Koranic law there is no vroooooooooom against the wedding of two zzzzztzzzzztzzzzzt simply a contract between two individuals whose gender is not specified. Let us celebrate the beauty of this kadakadakadakada these two souls who have found whooowhoooowhooo.”

N let a little hiss out, and bit her lower lip. I knew she was managing to listen carefully, but not finding the argument convincing. I squeezed her hand, and whirled back around to look at the imam, whose voice had suddenly broken, now no longer with nerves, but with emotion. Had I missed an exceptionally moving passage? Had H and D done something extraordinarily cute? Impossible to know, it was nearly 6 p.m. and the traffic outside was deafening. As far as I could tell, the couple had said nothing as of yet, neither had anyone else, so I had to surmise that it was simply the beauty and depth of his own words that had caused the spontaneous tears of the imam, which were now tracking freely down his windswept cheeks. He paused to ask the crowd for a tissue, and once it had been proffered hand to hand from the back row, he blew an enormous honking something into it, recomposed himself, then continued.

I cried like an idiot. Silently but snottily, and otherwise without restraint. Then, remembering myself, I tried to cut it out and look like a tough, radical dyke who is unmoved by public displays of government-sanctioned contract signing.

I had given up trying to follow his words and now focused on H, whose gaze was fixed upon the eyes of his beloved. It was a slow and steady gaze, ravenous, victorious and humble, but most of all, incredibly still. He appeared hypnotized and hypnotizing. I recognized that gaze, had given and received it only earlier that day, post-argument and pre-coital. The fight had been simply another braid on the long rope of disagreement that we picked up to wind around one another from time to time, to remind ourselves of the impossibility of a total union, that placing one’s faith in another is a fraught and ultimately stupid endeavor. N cannot be out to her Egyptian family. I am very out. This is our rope, even though we don’t want it to be. It has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with us. Tie it tight, knot the chest.

H’s eyes still held fast their object of desire. I felt sure that he was deaf to the words of the imam, to the traffic outside; he could not see the cadre of people clustered around him and was ignoring the emptiness where his family should have been. Everything H needed to see was directly in front of him. A direct shot, point blank.

We would rather be stupid. The fucking was the unwinding, legs stepping out of unbinding coils. The laying down and wrapping around of arms. Stupid, stupid yes. Give me more of it. Stick me to the flypaper of your feasting eyes. How daring, dear H, to unleash this gaze for such an unyielding period of time, and in front of so many. The secret heart spilled from him, a holy text unspooling, a brimming cup gleaming, to be consumed only by his lover. He knew what he was choosing. We will pick the rope up later, I know, but for now, let us be naked.

To be stupid is to defy the gulf. To walk like Wile E. Coyote. To stand where it is in fact impossible to stand. Eventually gravity, borders, family indoctrinations, will catch up to us, but we can decide not to know that, we can walk in mid-air for a time. I wondered if the look H was giving D was all that had kept them standing for the past week, all that had kept them from falling into some terrifying abyss that threatened to pull them in with every step they took. And, because I am a hypocritical sap/skeptic who doesn’t believe in marriage but who loves weddings, I cried. I cried like an idiot. Silently but snottily, and otherwise without restraint. Then, remembering myself, I tried to cut it out and look like a tough, radical dyke who is unmoved by public displays of government-sanctioned contract signing.

Hours later, after Y had unsuccessfully tried to chat up the imam, and N had gotten drunk, I managed to corral them into leaving the reception early. We snuck out while a line of people tripped through the dabke (Lebanese line dance with complicated footwork) and were concentrating too hard to notice any defectors. N held my waist and whispered something into my ear that made me blush, while Y walked ahead trying to wave down a taxi. He found one and we piled in. I peered at the rush of lit streets from our throne of gleaming chrome. Kabyle music warbled on the radio as we sped along wide imperial boulevards, toward a place that was not home.

Ella Boureau is a writer, teacher and translator living in New York, Marseille and her own twisted little mind. She runs the online magazine and reading series In the Flesh. Her first full-length play, Helps to Hate You a Little: a Lovestory will be premiering at Dixon Place this fall. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Slice Magazine, The Rumpus, Full Stop, Pretty Queer, and The Huffington Post.

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