by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson
The Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis is a hallmark of ethnoreligious pluralism. It has the highest proportion of immigrants of any suburb in France. Almost a quarter of the population hails from North Africa, and an addition quarter from sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world. At the Saint Denis Market, barrels of cardamom and couscous outnumber baskets of croissants. Toward the market entrance, a family barters with their spice vendor in mixed French, Spanish, and Moroccan Arabic. Outside, Swahili-speaking vendors sell discounted everything – track pants, hookah pipes, fake pearl earrings, mattresses. A woman donning a blue floral hijab stands with her husband and two-year-old son, who flashes a sign as big as he is that reads famille syrienne: SOS. Some passersby throw them a euro. Others pretend not to notice. Nearby a man wearing a khamiis, an ankle-length white tunic traditionally worn by Somali Muslims, chants alhamdulillah, the Qur’anic phrase meaning Praise be to God.
The market is one facet of Seine-Saint-Denis. Just a few blocks away looms the Basilique Saint Denis, a Gothic church that reflects France’s deeply Catholic roots. The warmth of the market is lost on the basilica. Its winding corridors are freezing and dimly lit. The people there are different, too. As Princeton Professor Florent Masse notes, many visitors to the basilica come from neighboring suburbs to tour. Unlike Seine-Saint-Denis, those suburbs are affluent, and full of traditional Catholics. Professor Masse points out the “conservative” garb of a family nearby. The girl of about seven toys with her floor-length dress. Her father smooths his long-sleeved checkered shirt. They concentrate on Louis XVI’s memorial statue. “They still love all the old kings,” says Florent, “and they don’t go to the market.”
But on the underground level of the church, the market’s culture resurfaces. A temporary photo exhibition called “Mater – Reines de France” represents female migrant residents of Seine-Saint-Denis as Mater dolorosa figures. They appear at once pure and tough. They lie in jeweled cases, draped in white. But their faces are wrinkled. Their eyes pierce the viewer. According to their placards, many of the women are Muslim. But the artist, Arilès de Tizi, has attempted to integrate them into the history of Seine-Saint-Denis. So in the depths of this basilica, one finds a rare convergence of the borough’s disparate cultures.