Between Generations in the North African Jewish and Muslim Textiles Industry in Paris

Samuel Sami Everett, Universities of Aix-Marseille, Cambridge and Southampton University

 

Relations between Jews and Muslims in Île-de-France (greater Paris) are directly impacted and overdetermined by geopolitical conflict and intercommunal ethnic differentiation. In this paper, I draw on intensive periods of participant observation from 2010 to 2012 and 2015 to 2017 at Godefroy Khiyyat’s fabric and dress shop on rue de la Goutte d’Or in Barbès to highlight the dynamics of intercommunal interactions within the socially anchored institutions of faith and work in the textile industry. Faith (la foi), as Jacques Derrida describes in his engagement with Carl Schmitt, has to do with putting trust in a relationship, yet both trust and faith have an ecclesiastical and commercial etymology.[1] Jewish and Muslim (specifically Maghrebi) interactions and philosophies of life, formed from centuries of faithful co-habitation, are shifting as Maghreb-born generations retire or pass away. Nowhere is this more visible than in Barbès near the Gare du Nord, immediately to the northwest of downtown Paris, where many Jews and Muslims set up businesses upon arriving in France in the 1960s.

Background

The name Goutte d’Or (golden droplet), which is both a moniker for the street in Barbès and the neighborhood as a whole, refers to the former grape vines at the foot of the nearby neighborhood of Montmartre, which overlooks Barbès.[2] In the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, la Goutte d’Or became known in the  vernacular as a representative site of immigration, a paradigmatic space of diversity, but also of gentrification and a destination for gastro-tourists looking for a taste of exotic diversity. Perhaps because of this transformation, la Goutte d’Or has become a focal point of public debates about integration and multiculturalism and, more recently, the place of Islam in Europe.[3]

This paper tracks a North African intercommunal story of immigration to France that is slowly disappearing as property prices in Paris increase.[4] With the gentrification of the area, part of a larger phenomenon across the Rive Droite, previously poorer than average neighborhoods with a higher than average per capita percentage of public, or social, housing (Habitations à loyer modéré, HLM) are attracting professional people who began to purchase properties in the 1990s.[5] In Barbès this process has gone hand in hand with an institutional and administrative overhaul that started with the construction of a police station on rue de la Goutte d’Or in 1983. However, due to the social reality of the neighborhood and the premium placed on maintaining increasingly rare and desirable HLM, the urban poor have remained. Barbès is therefore mixed, inhabited by older North African Muslim and newer Sub-Saharan African populations (elderly North African Jewish populations are found nearby in Lamarck-Caulaincourt) as well as those wealthier individuals predominantly not of migrant descent who have since settled. Most of the shopkeepers in Barbès do not live in the neighborhood. Contemporary diasporic and intercommunal specificity and friendship are embedded within the lived proximities of the shopkeepers of Barbès and more specifically la Goutte d’Or. Deconstructing and analyzing instances of tension and conviviality in this neighborhood sheds light on Jewish and Muslim Maghrebi intercommunal encounters and affinities in the French capital today.

With rising contemporary tensions and the pessimism born of recent violence targeting Jews and gloomy depictions of what may come, one could be forgiven for understanding Barbès as a site of the death of contact between Maghrebi Jews and Muslims. But I identify two forms of Maghrebi intercultural exchange that have carried through the generations: first, commercially mediated interactions that combine negative representations of the other with mundane intimacy and second, in the shift between generations, an emerging but still fragile constituency for a meaningful form of encounter partly motivated by an intergenerational and highly mediated form of nostalgia for an imagined past.

Textiles

Similarities and differences in Jewish and Muslim North African migratory pathways to France and the production of diaspora sentiment are physically represented by Barbès’ robes orientales (North African dress) fabric industry and narrated through the stories of the neighborhood’s Maghrebi shopkeepers, as exemplified by Casablanca-born and yeshiva-educated shopkeeper Godefroy Khiyyat. Some of these shopkeepers have been in Barbès for over 40 years, although many have recently retired. The sale of traditional garments made from the fabric traded in the more central le Sentier, Paris’ historic garment district, illustrate an intercommunal North African material culture and daily artisanal practices: dresses such as takshaytât (wedding dresses) and other clothing and fabrics are embroidered by Jews and sold to Muslims for weddings and other life celebrations. In addition to being the predominant clientele at these shops, North African Muslims are employees and specialist creators of handmade garments and accoutrements that are integrated within the Jewish-run fabric and dress shops along rue de la Goutte d’Or—despite intergenerational shifts in these relationships. The experience of becoming French is diverse but can be accompanied by the partial rejection of a Maghrebi past. Yet from within these shops we see patterns of intercultural sociality that defy the idea of Jewish and Muslim cultures as fundamentally at odds with one another or of a straight line of assimilation.

Here in Barbès, the lingua franca is a hybrid mix of French and Darija (vernacular North African Arabic). Translanguaging—moving swiftly from one language to another—between these two is also commonplace. The narrow street called rue de la Goutte d’Or is barely noticeable from the main drag. It lies just before rue des Poisonniers, where, until recently, the local mosque was the focal point for political and public debate on the process of “assimilation” and “integration” of North African people into the fabric of French society. Next to the travel agencies promoting cheap trips to northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, telephone stores sell SIM cards, telephones, and accessories. Many of these stores were previously North African dress shops that were converted towards the end of the 1990s when Algeria began to allow the official importation of foreign, and particularly European, fabrics, putting an end to the unofficial export of comparatively cheap French fabric and textiles to the Maghreb by the North African diaspora in France. The shops from which Algerians had previously purchased their fabric (or dresses) were no longer necessary. On rue de la Goutte d’Or many of these shops—both those that currently sell fabric and clothing and those that formerly sold textiles but are now telephone shops—are run by North African Jewish families. Further along the street, there is a large café-diner called the Golden Agah that sells Maghrebi food. These backroom or off-stage, often commercially-mediated relations between tradition, affect, and mutual interest in the garment sector have arisen despite (rather than because of) the prevailing national models of integration, demonstrating an assimilatory republicanism tempered by more openness to pluralism at a local level.[6]

The neighborhood continues to demonstrate a Maghrebi syncretism of commercial transactions. The four remaining dress shops that are clustered halfway up the street are remnants of a veritable tapestry of Arab-Berber commercial society run by North African Jews and Muslims that flourished from the 1960s to the 1990s and stretched from the nineteenth arrondissement all the way to the center of Paris, then ran east towards Place de la République in a giant Maghrebi diaspora patchwork economy. All four shops are now run by Maghrebi Jews from western Algeria, southern Morocco, and Djerba in Tunisia who practiced the same trade previously in North Africa. Their skills in sewing, stitching, and fabrics, now used to make the ornate dresses and accoutrements in their Paris shops, were passed down from previous generations. The “Arab” food market stretching from La Chapelle to Barbès on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and the marché des voleurs (robber’s market) on rue Caplat with its young North African hawkers also strengthened the flow of customers and trade. The predominantly North African Muslim shoppers who frequent the street either do not notice that those running the shops are Jewish or make nothing of it—even though a young man delivers a Jewish community paper to each store on Thursday afternoons. Even though one of the shopkeepers, Elie Hazan, who I found celebrating the revolution of 2011 with an Egyptian friend, always wears a hat to cover his head because he is observant. Even though the youngest of them, Nora Zahra, was born in Israel and grew up there. And even though the local mosque was said to be a bastion of radical Islamism. Until 2011, the practice of Islamic prayer in an adjacent street to rue de la Goutte d’Or indirectly increased trade to the shops on Fridays. But all parties, customers and vendors alike, remain discreet about religious identification.

The shop names were all originally first or last Judeo-Arabic names. They emphasized the shops’ fusion with the urban Franco-Darija spoken between shop owners and clients. One Moroccan Jewish shopkeeper, Michèle Ouizgan, told me that she ended up learning the Kabyle variant of the Berber language for the wealth of customers from that region because as a Berber-speaker from the south of Morocco (where the Shleuh variant is spoken) it had come quite naturally. Nevertheless, unlike many Muslims, among Jewish Maghrebi families the process of linguistic transmission to subsequent generations had not taken place. Second generations—the children of these shopkeepers—mostly understood, but could not speak, Darija. The relationship to the bléd (one’s North African homeland) for which linguistic transmission is key—in addition to cultural and embodied affinities, notably culinary and craft—is thus more immediate in Maghrebi Muslim families and attenuated and even obfuscated in Maghrebi Jewish ones. This breakdown in a common affective bond to North Africa has historical roots, but the shopkeepers thought the lack of parental insistence on perpetuating the language was a conscious decision made at the family level to facilitate the process of assimilation.

From Migration to Generational Difference 

Running counter to this attenuation, in both craft and commerce, Barbès reinforces the two-way understanding binding together Jewish and Muslim Maghrebi migratory trajectories. Godefroy El Khiyat and I would share msemen (Maghrebi pancakes) with honey and drink hot, sugary bhlib (milky coffee) when there was a lull in trade. During these times, Godefroy would also run errands, such as taking dresses to the seamstress or speaking with friends and family in adjacent textile and telecom shops. In the dress shops on rue de la Goutte d’Or, close working relationships ran deepest with Muslim colleagues who were able to work the days that the shopkeepers took off for Jewish holidays. Perhaps more intimate still were the long-standing relationships, vital for the smooth running of these shops, with various local Algerian Muslim seamstresses. One in particular, Madame Belkaïd, a veritable maalma (virtuoso artisan) from Constantine, eastern Algeria, worked synergetically with many of the shopkeepers, including Godefroy, providing assistance with elaborate dress adornments beyond the capacities of the Khiyyat family—relating, for example, to frills, lace, or extra intricate embroidery. Historian Emily Gottreich makes the point that the hyphenated ascriptive and self-ascriptive Arab-Jew label reflects a strong historical current of North African pluralism both ethno-religiously and in terms of heterodoxy.[7] The artistic and material culture of textiles bolsters this claim through its transnational and intergenerational transmission. Godefroy explained to me that textiles and Maghrebi dress making had been in his family for generations. These skills genealogically inhere within his Maghrebi subjectivity—they are embodied—from his forebearers in the Moroccan High Atlas mountains, to his grandparents in Marrakesh, and through to his passage with his own family from Casablanca to Paris in the late 1970s.

As the generations turn, those with personal memories of migrant journeys to the area of Barbès, who have built up intimate trust in this interdependence, have attempted to pass on their businesses to a homegrown generation with a different experience and who are more rooted in local Parisian (often faith-based) orientations. These latter generations have been shaped by the patterns of insecurity and securitization undermining the ambivalent intimacies that spontaneously arose in the garment sectors. As the communities are increasingly seen as antagonistic, local and national level institutions steadily invest more in organized attempts to stage possibilities for positive contact. Until recently, formal interfaith initiatives were fairly rare among Jewish and Muslim populations in France.[8] Since the 2010s, though, such initiatives have increasingly been promoted as a way to break down a purportedly antagonistic Jewish-Muslim relationship.[9]However, such voluntaristic endeavours to bring about encounters have become compromised by indirect state sponsorship through the huge investment in countering “radicalization.” All too often these rely on a discursively problematic narrative that reifies religious identification to give a moral leverage to some over others, for example to those who can model “moderation” and “assimilation.”[10]

The reification of religious identification results in many of the descendants of the shopkeepers holding ambivalent perspectives about neighborhood differences, often articulating negative representations of the others (with whom they and their parents related daily) on the basis of their religion, rather than language or place of birth, despite their positive personal interactions. This sometimes slipped into racializing banter either about or with customers and colleagues that exceeded and upset the delicate choreography of mundane conviviality. Godefroy’s daughters asked me what it was that interested me along the street and if I was not afraid of conducting interviews and observing interactions in this quartier populaire (working-class neighborhood). They informed me that the concentration of Muslims in the neighborhood on Fridays represented a specific threat. However, in opposition to this apparent fear of Muslims relating perhaps to the social mobility of Godefroy’s daughters—they had, as they put it, “moved up and out of such working-class neighborhoods”—other shopkeepers’ children and grandchildren visiting their relatives’ shops showed different attitudes. These were perhaps also socio-economically predicated, as social difference had abstracted them from a shared Jewish-Muslim North African Arab past, but they did not reject such a connection. For example, grandson Jonathan Ouizgan would tell me that he visits out of a curiosity for “what came before” in North Africa; that is, in regularly coming to see his grandmother, shopkeeper Michèle Ouizgan, he seeks, as he puts it, relations interreligieuses (interfaith relations) played out in situ and in Arabic on the street and in the shops.

In parallel to the kind of emic curiosity that Jonathan demonstrated, the shopkeepers themselves would interact dynamically with a France-born Maghrebi Muslim clientele. Young, well-dressed, professional women accompanied female relatives to purchase dresses and accoutrements. As the shopkeepers were aware of the purchasing power of the second and third generations, Godefroy would focus his sales patter on these women, often traditionally dressed to a high standard (he immediately recognized expensive fabric) and who would return to purchase other dresses and accessories. In multiple instances these women who, like him, practice seamless translanguaging between Darija and French, appeared to be aware that the shopkeepers were Maghrebi Jewish and showed signs of enjoying the mise en scène by taking their time and speaking at length about the occasions for which the dresses were to be bought. For these new generations, who may never have lived alongside North African Jewish families, the desire to feel and perpetuate an imagined intercommunal North Africa in tandem with what might be deemed as voluntaristic relations interreligieuses. There is a displaying or performance of inclusivity around North African ritual and cultural identification in these young women buying their garments from Godefroy.

The intergenerational reactions of rejection, difference, and curiosity all point towards the shifting dynamics within spaces of communal identification that la Goutte d’Or represents. The curiosity of later generations particularly reflects their abstraction from a Maghrebi past and their understanding in terms of language, dress, and customs that underpin the previous generations’ ways of identifying with North Africa. These spaces form a part of a Maghrebi trajectory in France and can be viewed, therefore, as neither an anachronism nor a space of nostalgia—a forgotten world for people who have left the Maghreb—but rather as the establishment of a fragile post-migratory affective attachment to the Maghreb, which creates a relational constituency that maintains a Jewish presence in a predominantly Muslim Maghrebi historiography.

Racialized Solidarities and Separations

While this emerging constituency is the site of a meaningful encounter, many of the shop owners in la Goutte d’Or reflect upon prejudice sparked by the state of tension that has arisen since their position as Jews in a predominantly Muslim context has meant that they may be specifically associated with Israel. When their attitudes to this externally imposed positioning were questioned, they adopted a default Israeli solidarity, as opposed to a more immediate and practiced Maghrebi affective bond. Social groups appear to revolve around not only ethnicity but also social class in Barbès, where racialized forms of separation exist and mobility is visibly present among Maghrebi populations while Black Africans are economically and discursively at the bottom of the French social strata.[11] Racial stratification is mapped onto a colonial ethnic hierarchization of Whiteness (from European to Indigenous to Black) in which Jewish populations are viewed as less Indigenous and thus more privileged than Muslims. This picture gets complicated in relation to religion among both Muslim and Jewish communities with both secular and antisemitic reactions to this hierarchy, an entanglement that also involves a strong Islamophobic thread.

Godefroy recounted that his son, Zeroual, would like nothing more than to leave France because there were too many Muslims. His son’s racism had, he told me, sprung up in recent years and it was common in the younger Jewish generations to hold strongly anchored anti-Muslim and specifically anti-Arab sentiments.[12]Zeroual, in his movement away from his father and the mixed (and humble) public lycée (high school) he attended, found it easier to harbor anti-Arab opinions. However, only a few years earlier, before he had become successful in the IT business, Zeroual had worked with his father in the shop where his charm and wit had had a fantastic effect. Zeroual had enjoyed himself a great deal. His racialized views therefore reflect a progressive yet ambivalent generational polarization pertaining to ethno-religious separation and the difficulty of reconciling simultaneously being Jewish and Arab in the contemporary geopolitical climate. This sentiment is linked to Israeli solidarity and perhaps, more importantly, feeling more freedom to voice an overtly pro-Israeli attitude in public. This is the point at which Zeroual differs from his father. His father is aware that his livelihood and attitudes are interlinked with Arab-Berber solidarity and is not willing to show open signs of hostility to anti-Israeli attitudes. Indeed, he found cause for concern in many of the anti-Arab attitudes of his son.

However, being squeezed on all sides (by friends, family, and clients) means that at times Godefroy cracked. For example, when Maghrebi Muslims used anti-Jewish expressions in his presence, the consequences were quite dramatic. One day in his shop, Godefroy confronted a client, proclaiming if he didn’t stop saying hashek lihoudi (with apologies, a Jew), then what was to stop Godefroy himself from saying hashek lmuslim? Godefroy and the client fought. Godefroy, who is slight of build, managed to eject the client from the shop and hit him with a piece of wood. Under the gaze of many onlookers, the police intervened and both men were taken to the hospital. Not long after this incident, the shop was robbed, stock taken, and money stolen. Godefroy felt that the two events were linked and that when he had “stood up for himself on his own terms,” the favoritism that had been accorded to him as a North African had been taken away as a non-Muslim. Public incidents of racial tension are nevertheless rare, and the social position of being a long-standing shop owner meant that Godefroy was surrounded by an implicit safety net in which he could fight explicitly for non-racist modes of communication. Godefroy was unwilling to compromise on racial prejudice aimed at Arab Jews uttered by an Arab Muslim because his vision of Muslim-Jewish relations is not segregational. Yet there is a slippage in the perception of race and religion between generations here. While Zeroual claims no ethnicity by distancing himself from North African “Arabs,” he simultaneously identifies more strongly in terms of religious difference (“Jewishness”) and, therefore, with the fragility of a minority group, ethnically. His father, Godefroy, has always been North African but, in line with his son, feels bound to Judaism as ethnicity when his religion becomes a marker of differentiation to his own “Arab” in-group.

Conclusions

Broad communal racialized positionings can map on to what sociologist Les Back called the “metropolitan paradox”—that is, negative representations coupled with mundane intimacies in mixed urban contexts.[13] In Barbès there is both an ongoing push for gentrification and a vernacular social push of post-migrant population neighborhood continuity. Textiles in la Goutte d’Or are a particularly apt focal point for demonstrating shared and historically contiguous and continuous Jewish and Muslim Maghrebi affinities that have survived transplantation from the Maghreb to France. The street and Godefroy’s shop, however, highlight divergences between generations in these affinities, ranging from an apparently class-based North African Parisian distancing from Maghrebi Muslims, on the one hand, to a proximity with Maghrebi culture that can be Jewish (the view of Jonathan Ouizgan) or Muslim (the view of multiple young French Muslim women buying dresses from Godefroy) on the other. These feelings generative of trust and primarily mediated by commercial contact are today often further mediated by the lens of interfaith engagement bringing us back to Derrida’s point about the triangulation of “faith” by fiduciary ecclesiatical politics.[14] Traversed as it is by contemporary ethno-nationalism, the separation of faith communities and the desire for social mobility in post-migratory Jewish affective attachment to the Maghreb is a fragile relational constituency that can only strive to find a place and voice in a transnational but predominantly Muslim Maghrebi historiography of migration. Today, ethnically-inflected positionings that enable both pride in identifying with Israel as a default French Jewish political solidarity and also sticking up for being Arab Jews coexist alongside one another in the same families and commercial circles, positions that we tend to think of as incongruent.

 

[1] Jacques Derrida, Politiques de l’amitié (Paris: Galilée, 1994).

[2] Khelifa Messamah, “La Goutte d’Or,”  Esprit Presse (1979).

[3] Mayanthi L. Fernando, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Nilüfer Göle, Islam and Public Controversy in Europe (London: Ashgate Publishing, 2014).

[4] Catherine Rougerie and Jacques Friggit, “Prix des logements anciens,” Insee première no. 1297 (2010).

[5] Marie-Hélène Bacqué, “En attendant la gentrification: discours et politiques a la Goutte d’Or (1982–2000),” Sociétés contemporaines 63, no. 3 (2006): 63–83; Victor Albert-Blanco, “Encadrer le religieux: une politique de gentrification? Le cas de l’Institut des Cultures d’Islam de Paris,” Métropoles 31 (2022) ; Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, Sociologie de Paris (Paris: La Découverte, 2008).

[6] Ben Gidley et al, “Mainstreaming in Practice: The Efficiencies and Deficiencies of Mainstreaming for Street-Level Bureaucrats,” in Mainstreaming Integration Governance, eds. Scholten and Breugel (Palgrave, 2018).

[7] Emily Gottreich, “Historicizing the Concept of Arab Jews in the Maghrib,” Jewish Quarterly Review 98, no. 4 (2008): 433–51.

[8] Joseph Downing, “Influences on State-Society Relations: Analysing Voluntary Associations and Multicultural Dynamism, Co-Option and Retrenchment in Paris, Lyon and Marseille,” Ethnicities 16, no. 3 (2015).

[9] Samuel S. Everett, “Interfaith Dialogue and Faith-Based Social Activism in a State of Emergency: Laïcité and the Crisis of Religion in France,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 31, no. 4 (2018): 437.

[10] James Renton and Ben Gidley, Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[11] Darlene Clark Dine, Trica Danielle Keaton, and Stephen Small, Black Europe and the African Diaspora (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

[12] Kimberly A. Arkin, Rhinestones, Religion, and the Republic: Fashioning Jewishness in France (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2014).

[13] Les Back, The Metropolitan Paradox (London: Routledge, 1996).

[14] Jacques Derrida. Acts of Religion. Edited by Gil Anidjar (New York: Routledge, 2001).