I seat in the TGV on our way from Paris to Marseilles. Seating in front of me is my 87 year old grandmother that no amount of complex problems in the beginning of our trip has shaken. Next to me is my 21 year old cousin, together we are going to travel Provence. Every year my grandmother says this is her last trip, but every year we see her looking happier and younger in these always beautiful but undoubtedly exhausting trips. So here we are enjoying the beauty of France.As I mentioned in my last post I was supposed to meet my friend Yonathan who is a brilliant Israeli pianist. We did and It was an absolutely fascinating night.We sat for a while in a little jazz cafe but then I suggested we walked. We met midnight in Paris, in the most agreeable summer night, and under a full moon.
We walked by the river bank of the Seine. We went down the stairs to get closer to it. We passed some young people drinking and smoking. We chose an empty bench to seat on and talk. Yonathan who is quiet and reserved was impressed by all the movement around.
We talked, and talked and suddenly a drunk man approached us saying something about the past thousand of years of human history. He had just interrupted me explaining my friend why I always talk to strangers…
I asked the man’s name. Assab, if I am not mistaken. And then a long night started. The man carried a guitar on his back. He came from Ethiopia. He knew all there was to know about Semitic languages. He was drunk but he made full sense. It seemed sometimes like a dream. He explained he was a musician and that his grandfather was the brother of Haile Selassie’s wife and did not want him to be a musician.
At first I did not take the talk so seriously but as he went further and further into the explanations of Ethiopian history I did no longer even care how true this was. Then he told me he had once played with Brazilian famous composer Gilberto Gil. Hearing this, yet not convinced, I asked him to take his guitar out and show us something from Ethiopia.
I was accompanied by an absolutely brilliant jazz pianist and somehow I did not expect what was about to happen.
We were by the river which was placid reflecting the lights and the beauty of Paris. We were surrounded by young French boys and girls of north African descent. They were drunk and smoking weed. they were loud. They were exactly what so many people are afraid of. They had this energy of youth wildness, mixed with economic frustration, and desperate unresolved cultural and national identities. They wanted to be French but not.
But once the Ethiopian took his guitar out and started to play in different Ethiopian languages little by little stillness came. The youngsters had come before that, seeing the guitar on his back they wanted him to go to their circle and play. Assab said he was going to play to us, if they wanted to listen they could, but that they should move.
It seemed a bit unreasonable logistically as we were 3 and this group alone had more than 10. They were unconvinced, and went back to their place. But as soon as Assab’s voice suddenly started to float around the river bank we all became flabbergasted. We were suddenly all quiet. People started to move their little gangs towards us. Assab who could speak tigre, tigrinya, amharic, arabic, and so many other languages played the sound of Africa .
And then came a Moroccan from the desert. He was a gorgeous black man looking incredibly Gnawan. He was carrying what looked like to be a guitar case. The group around us begged him to stop. He seemed to be famous in Paris, maybe in Africa as well. He hesitated but listening to Assab music he did.
He opened his case to take out a Gimbri (three stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa) people. Suddenly, we were making music. My Israeli friend took out a flute that had broken out but in his music genius he could still steal some melody out of it. The beautiful African girl next to me joined the songs in new invented melodic lines. I sang in Portuguese over the Ethiopian, desert, Gnawan sounds
The boy who looked like the sharpest and angriest at first suddenly said
” I never imagined this morning I would have such gift this night.”
Neither had I.
North Africans greeted themselves in their Salem aleikums . They often wondered where I came from. I asked them to guess. They guessed I was Italian usually. Yonathan, my Israeli friend, was usually taken to be Arabic. Assab when confronted with Yonathan being an Israeli Jew said
” Oh well, I am also originally Jewish and then history takes place. Invasions, expansions , conversions. it does not matter really, does it?”
Assab was a fascinating character and I did not expect anything else from him. I was however surprised when seating in between Yonathan and Ahmad.
Ahmad was loud, extremely tribal about being north african. He greeted with extreme joy other north africans, and stronger joy and noise Moroccans. I sat there wondering what would happen when that talk would come.. As I just knew it would.
There was something fascinating about the fact that they all felt it was very important reinforcing similarity between these people coming from different places but it happened together with cherishing the culture of where they came from. I wondered now surrounded by predominantly North African Muslims how they would act to Yonathan once they found out he was from Israel.
I was not scared or worried, I was just curious. Yonathan is not like me who just talks to people so I also wondered how he felt about being there. And then suddenly the question came. Ahmad asked me where was Yonathan from.
I told him to guess and he said ” Arabia”
Some silence stood still and then
” Palestinian?” ahmed asked
There was some probably millisecond of silence but it seemed like ages. I thought of the irony of it… People cant even tell these differences looking. They can only identify labels…
” No. I am Jewish, yemenite descendent.”
Ahmad smiled took his hand out in Yonathan’s direction and said
“Salem my friend”.
Yonathan shook his hand. It was a hand shake that happen above me, it happen crossing my body.
And that crossing made my thoughts meddle. As a result of my last post I got answers that made me think about that hand shake over my body. A Brazilian friend of mine who comes from an elite in Brasil told me she thought I was looking the world through an Western European academic point of view where labels mattered. She thought in Brazil that was not the case.
I argued that maybe not to us because we had been blind by being always part of a Brazilian elite. We had never had to think about whether their was any consequence being what we were, but that was not true for all Brazilians. it was a consequence of being an elite. I agreed with her that studying in The western world had probably modified me, but I often think it is more in the sense that I am capable to see these labels now, not that I create and impose them. I could, of course, be wrong
Then I received a message from another Brazilian friend who thanked me for writing the last post. She told me she understood it well as she was Lebanese descendent in both sides.
As I sat under this crossing of hands I thought about it. There was some sense of acknowledgement of difference and acceptance to it at the same time. But there was this huge silence just before and though and I wondered why I felt no fear. I realise a part of it is due to me being Me (.always trusting…) But the other huge came from me being Brazilian. And on that case, like in most others in my life, It meant nothing. Not nothing as in a pejorative sense but in the great sense of all, the one of being allowed to let people be empirical as the national label you carry is in this case quite politically neutral.
I sat in between a Muslim Moroccan who did not com from a Moroccan elite, and an Israeli Jewish brilliant jazz piano player. And I realised that silence I did not fear carried with it a million of possible old as time prejudices. And when the smile and handshake came I thanked the music. I thanked the shared time we had all spent before we identified our labels. And then listening to the Ethiopian song in the background I thought of the thousands of years of human history that started my conversation wi both Assab and Yonathan. In these thousand of years humans have always been trying to reconcile this desire to be particular and cherish their own kind while at the same time encountering others. It is so good when both happen simultaneously in music. Even better if you are by the Seine and the moon is full.