France has a long and complex history with the Arab population in its midst. As a former colonizer in the Arab world, especially in North Africa, France now has the largest Arab community in western Europe. With a bloody, troubled past, the relationship is fraught. And, as a secular, assimilationist society, having recently banned head scarves in the public schools, France views its Arab citizens with suspicion.
Yet, a visitor to France immediately recognizes that it is Arab workers at the wheel in the sanitation and street-sweeping trucks, Arab women cleaning shops and taking out the garbage early in the morning, and Arab families running the neighborhood epiceries (corner stores)--the ones that open well before and close long after everyone else. And, it's a dour, older Arab man and his young male assistant who run the small Internet cafe in my coin du quartier (corner of the neighborhood). They're open ten hours a day, every day except Sundays, and unlike some of the bigger cybercafes in the city, this one is cheaper and permits clients to stay as long as they want, paying at session's end, rather than for a fixed amount of time up front.
Right across the street is one of the Alliance Francaise campuses, so a majority of the cafe's clients are young Americans. Invariably, they speak to the man and his assistant in English, and one day the young man and I laugh out loud together, wondering what good it does to take lessons in French if you can't put your lessons to use right across the street.
Last year, when my father and I first stayed in this neighborhood and discovered the cafe, the older man was gruff and rude to us. We needed help figuring out the French clavier (keyboard), and it was neighboring clients who helped us, not him. His cafe, however, has the corner on the market. It's a 30-second walk from the apartment, and the only one closer is near the Pantheon, all the way across the Luxembourg Gardens. So, though we trembled each time we went back to his cafe, we remained loyal.
This year, I decided to make a friend out of this man, and I used flattery as my tool. One Sunday, I had trekked across the Luxembourg to the Pantheon cybercafe. It's huge and noisy, and I felt rushed. I hated it. Relieved to be back with my Arab men on Monday, I told them how much I preferred their shop to others. The older man beamed, and, for the first time, he looked right at me rather than down at the counter. Now, when I come in each morning, we have a friendly chat, albeit about banalities such as the weather and the number of clients in the shop. But, I notice that he assigns me the best computer these days--the one in the back with the big flat screen and the English keyboard.
Today, the young assistant was running the shop by himself. He's very handsome, with curly dark hair cut close, liquid brown eyes, and a muscled physique. For some reason, I wondered what his name is, and, feeling emboldened, I introduced myself. He recognizes
me--I'm at the cafe every day at the same time.
"I'm Domenica," I tell him. "And you?" I ask.
He hesitates for a fraction of a second. "My name is Mohammed," he responds, with the accent (a la francaise) on the last syllable.
"Oh," I say. "Just like the Prophet!"
The moment the words come out of my mouth, I feel I've gone too far, and I worry that Mohammed will shut down and cut me off. I'll have to trudge across the Luxembourg Gardens every morning to the horrible Pantheon cafe. But, instead, he flashes a big, generous smile, and I know I'll be able to come back tomorrow.
[Note to readers: I won't be posting again til the end of next week. We're off to chateaux country for a few days, so I'll post about that trip, and today's cooking session, when I return.]