Archive for the ‘Homelessness’ Category

Perspective: La colonisation à Jérusalem-Est

December 28, 2009

Débarqué dans un nouveau pays, il est rare de remarquer aussi vite les fractures, dissensions et conflits qui déchirent le tissu social. Pourtant ces signes dans la ville de Jérusalem sont incontournables, et ce, malgré les tentatives du gouvernement israélien de maintenir l’illusion d’une normalité occidentale. Les graffitis sur les murs de la vieille ville, l’omniprésence des soldats armés, des postes de contrôle, des détecteurs de métaux et des caméras de sécurité (500 rien qu’à Jérusalem-Est), les t-shirts “Free Palestine” vendus dans la rue qui côtoient ceux aux logos de « l’armée israélienne» et « Amérique, ne vous inquiétez pas, Israël est derrière vous », sont autant de preuves du profond malaise qui règne à Jérusalem.

Toutefois, ces manifestations superficielles ne sont que la partie émergée de l’iceberg. Elles ne font que reflèter un conflit plus pernicieux qui concerne le contrôle du territoire. Selon un rapport de l’ONU, près d’un tiers des maisons palestiniennes à Jérusalem-Est ont été construites sans permis. En effet, les Palestiniens qui désirent construire une maison ne peuvent demander l’autorisation que sur une zone correspondant à seulement 13% de Jérusalem-Est, et déjà densément peuplée. Le résultat est qu’au moins 28% de toutes les maisons ont été construites illégalement et que sur les 250.000 Palestiniens vivant à Jérusalem-Est, 60.000 sont ménacés de voir leurs maisons démolies.

Un des quartiers où l’effet colonisateur est le plus prononcé est Silwan, un quartier arabe de 45.000 personnes sur une colline abrupte, juste au sud de la vieille ville. Dans ce quartier, plus de touristes. Les juifs orthodoxes et les etrangers, qui grouillaient dans la vieille ville à seulement 50 mètres de là, à proximité de son très sécurisé Mur occidental, ont soudainement disparu. De même que les magasins et les routes bien goudronnées. Ici, verre et ordures jonchent les rues, et les terrains vagues remplis de gravats abondent comme les regards furtifs à l’égard de notre présence dans une zone sans aucune carte postale à acheter. Même les transports publics n’ont rien à voir, et alors que les autobus qui fonctionnent ne semblent pas être financés par l’État israélien, il est clair que les 4×4 blindés remplis de soldats et de policiers qui rôdent autour du quartier le sont.

Après avoir atteint le bas de la colline, en regardant derrière soi, on peut contempler les nouveaux appartements du chic Quartier Juif à côté de la mosquée Al-Aqsa sur le Mont du Temple. Le contraste est frappant : on a l’impression de regarder un pays occidental depuis la frontière d’un pays du tiers monde.

Dans ce quartier, il y a actuellement 1500 personnes (88 familles) menacées par la démolition de leurs maisons. Les résidents ont bien reçu une « proposition » de dédommagement de la part du gouvernement israélien pour les encourager à construire ailleurs, mais uniquement si c’est à l’extérieur de Jérusalem, de l’autre côté du mur. C’est “Le transfert silencieux”. Peu à peu, le quartier se “judaïse” de façon à ce que la vieille ville soit entourée de tous cotés par des quartiers juifs.

Les signes de cette invasion israélienne sont omniprésents : les maisons occupées arborent des drapeaux israéliens démesurés et des barreaux protègent leurs portes et fenêtres. Un immeuble « occupé et fortifié » au milieu de ce quartier affiche un drapeau énorme, les étoiles de David descendantes tout le long de ses cinq étages. Il est visible depuis toute la vallée et ce type de provocation par des groupes de colons n’est qu’un début. Le gouvernement a mis en place les panneaux menant à Silwan avec le nom hébreu d’il y a deux milles ans -Ville de David-, et a facilité les activités et la présence des organisations fanatiques et d’extrême droite qui menacent ouvertement les résidents palestiniens.

A la racine du conflit, militarisation de la société, invasion des villages et expropriation des Palestiniens sont toujours les moyens de répression privilégiés des Israéliens.

Publié dans l’Amiante: http://journalamiante.wordpress.com/

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The Worst of the Occupation: Collective Punishment and Humiliation

August 11, 2009

Checkpoints

Palestinians have wasted millions of hours of their lives waiting in line at checkpoints like Qalandia to enter Jerusalem from Ramallah.  On this day the line was short, but young giggly Israeli soldiers decided to take 1.5 hours for 50 people to pass through.Fences like the one at this checkpoint near Bethlehem are often busted up.  Fires burn below them to melt the metal.

Imprisonment and Torture

Ismail runs a cafe in Hebron since 2.5 years ago.  He has been imprisoned 7 times for political activism, spending over 5 years of his life in Israeli jails.  Tortured, mistreated and beaten on many occasions, he will live the rest of his live with chronic headaches, ticks, and irreparable broken bones.

Water

Israel/Palestine is a dry place.  Yet, when the water runs low only the Palestinians get turned off.  While Beit Ommar has around two days a week with NO running water, Israeli Dead Sea desert resorts like this one remain green.

Olive Trees

The Israeli army often cuts Palestinian olive trees for reasons of "security."  Thousands and thousands of trees have been cut or replanted in and around settlements

Land Confiscation and Poverty

Forced away from their traditional lifestyle by the Israeli state, many Bedouins in the Judean desert live in shanties on the outskirts of Israeli settlements

An SDF on politics and religion

December 9, 2008

The verb flâner in French literally means to stroll around a city for the hell of it.  It makes sense they have this verb here because the cities are amazingly beautiful just to look at and be in.  For this reason I have gotten into the habit of exploring on off days.

Passing by one of the large World War I statues honoring the dead ‘pour la gloire de la France’ which you find everywhere here, I saw what appeared to be a homeless man waking up from an afternoon nap.  Surrounded by a grocery cart filled with plastic bags, 2 dogs and a pot of spaghetti, he looked up at me and smiled.  I approached him on my bike, dismounted, and thought I’d ask him if he needed money for food or something to break the ice.  Though it seemed like a rather condescending question since he wasn’t there asking anyone for anything, I knew he’d hear my accent and forget to think twice to judge me.  This was one of the few moments where being a foreigner seemed advantageous.  Not only did I know he wouldn’t immediately judge me, but I also knew that I could ask him stupid questions and generally be nosy about his life situation without offending him, playing it off, at best, as intercultural curiousity or, at worse, ignorance.  The latter being the case in this instance, my first idiotic question after handing him the 2 euro piece was, ‘So, you sleep in the street all the time?  You must not like it.’  I realized I had to say something else when he gave me the blankest of blank stares.  ‘Uh, it must be really hard.’  That was better I guess ’cause he said, ‘Yeah, it’s hard.’  I then played the wildcard and said, ‘Oh I’m sorry, I’m from North America and I don’t really know how anything works here.’  This seemed to change his mood.  From now on he could teach me a thing or two and I could just stand and listen.

Over the course of the next few minutes Marcel introduces himself and his dogs Bozo and Daurade, two beautiful and shockingly clean specimens who he referred to as his children.   Marcel has lived in the street for 33 years.  My mouth was gaping when he told me this.  When I asked him how that was possible his response was confused.  It just seemed to be comme ça.  Yet, Marcel hasn’t always slept on the same corner.  He has traveled, living on the streets – and sometimes in the woods – all over France and even going to Rome once.  I asked if he spoke Italian and he laughed.  I asked how it was possible for him to live on the street in a non-French speaking country and he laughed again.  He just spoke French to people apparently.  I suppose that’s not as strange as I thought at the time.  Frequently when I see what appear to be homeless people on the street in France they have the appearance of coming from somewhere else.

Following this, our rapport seemed to sink into a certain comfortability.  He got out some photos and newspapers clippings.  There was Marcel on the street holding a small child… a friend he says.  There was Marcel on the street with someone dressed up like Santa.  The clippings were more intriguing.  One clipping with him looking like your standard raving-mad-homeless-man in the picture (whose online article can be found at http://www.ladepeche.fr/article/2007/12/18/420055-Un-SDF-qui-creve-dans-la-rue-ils-en-ont-rien-a-foutre.html) was on the subject of SDFs (meaning sans domicile fixe or lacking a fixed address) who die of the cold in the street.  The title, ‘Un SDF qui crève dans la rue, ils en ont rien à foutre !’ meaning ‘Homeless people are dying in the street and nobody fucking cares!’ was a direct quote from Marcel.  He was very proud.  In the article he goes on to say that nobody cares about the homeless, ‘not social workers, not firemen.’  He says he has asked for an apartment but was always refused, government employees even making fun of his request.  ‘Why are there all these fucking empty apartments everywhere?  They could at least let us sleep inside them.  Is that too much to ask?  We aren’t born to live in shit our whole lives.’*

Marcel’s ferocity intrigued me.  It is absurd what he has gone through.  The article mentions problems with alcohol as well as emotional ups and downs that led him to the street in the first place.  Despite a government plan creating 100,000 – a rough estimate of the number of SDFs in France – new accomodations in shelters beginning last winter, it is not so easy for him to find a place because of his dogs.  However, I can’t but be amazed at the fact he was in the newspaper in France with his photo, tirades, and all.  American newspapers would never spotlight the life and concerns of someone so utterly powerless.  In fact, over the last month as the weather has gotten colder and colder, there have been seemingly constant news coverage of dying SDFs.  Recently, a 6th homeless person was discovered dead in their unheated caravan near Paris.  This seemed to spark a national debate.  The poorest of the poor were dying in the streets and people were paying attention; the press was paying attention; the right-wing government was discussing policy, and the president’s 4 or 5 minute speech on the subject was broadcast on the radio in full.  I heard it at least twice.

Nevertheless, following Marcel’s appearance in the press last year, blasting ineffectual government, he was finally ‘dealt with’ by the authorities.  Marcel said he was put into a ‘psychiatric hospital’ and not allowed to leave for one month.  My mouth gaped even wider this time.  How is that fucking possible?!  How can they just lock you up like that, I said.  He sorta shrugged, and said after a month he just left the place.  After looking into it, it turns out that according to degree n° 2006-556 made law on 17 May 2006, the French state is allowed to take homeless people deemed pathologically incapable of rationally making decisions on the status of their shelter – or lackthereof –  into custody for a period not to exceed two months.  ‘Lits Halte Soins Santé’ or Halt Bed Health Care centers are places where these SDFs are put into state custody for mental health care as well as a social accompaniment – presumably for reinsertion into society.  However, considering that common practice in the United States is to criminalize homelessness outright, thus putting the homeless in jails and prisons as criminals and consequently destroying their record and possibility for a later smooth re-entrance into society, the French solution no longer appears entirely irrational and inordinately inhumane.  Nevertheless, Marcel’s insistance that he was held against his own will for an entire month in a government institution tarnishes the ideal of the perhaps well-intentioned social services that exist for people in precarious social positions.

Following this discussion, which I felt was illuminating and surprisingly politicized, our conversation went slightly downhill.  Marcel made me hold the prized cross around his neck.  He talked spiritually about what the horse shoe, the big A, the fish and the other thing on it meant.  I didn’t really follow but it sounded a bit crazy.  He then started giving me all this Catholic literature, prayer cards, a sheet with “La Prière de St. Germaine de Pibrac” on it, and some other junk.  He then offered to show me some knives.  I felt like the conversation was going on a little bit too long.  I didn’t feel threatened, just more in the mood to continue on my way than to look at his knives.  I said I’d pass by later though.

When I saw Marcel later that night, he was in the same place cooking a small piece of meat on a small gas grill.  He seemed to be crying.  I excused myself for not passing by sooner in the day and he said, ‘No No, It’s fine, it’s no big deal.’  He told me he usually sleeps on my route into town so we’d see each other soon, and we wished each other a good night.

* original text: “Même pas les pompiers, même pas les assistantes sociales : j’ai demandé un appartement. Refusé ! Les gens se sont toujours foutus de ma gueule. Pourquoi ? Et pourquoi y a des putains d’appartements qui sont vides, là ? Au moins qu’ils nous laissent dormir dedans. C’est beaucoup demander, ça ? J’ai tellement les glandes… On n’est pas nés pour vivre dans la merde.”

Françafrique

June 12, 2008

Françafrique is a term that refers to France‘s relationship with Africa. It was first used by president of the Côte d’Ivoire Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who appears to have used it in a positive sense, to refer to good relations between France and Africa, but it was subsequently borrowed by François-Xavier Verschave as the title of his criticism of French policies in Africa: La Françafrique, le plus long scandale de la République.

I met Charles (a.k.a. Nasty) at the public library in Toulouse.  While playing the piano he interpellated me and wanted to talk about his music.  Charles had just moved to Toulouse from Limoges where he previously lived in a public housing complex with his Cameroonian parents and siblings.  He’s 20 now and wanted to get out on his own.  After talking for a while he came back to my house and we listened to some of the electronic music he composed in his free time.  The next day I receive a call from him about his housing situation.  He asks to stay a week or so chez moi and I oblige.

Charles’ stay is short.  After a week or so he finds an apartment while holding down a temporary painting job.  The next step in the process was moving all of his things down to Toulouse from his family’s apartment in Limoges.  He asks me to come help him move, and after some poking and prodding, I once again oblige.  This is how I met God-given, his father.

Dieudonné is a medium-sized man of 49 with a large belly who lives with his family in a 7-story building shaped like a giant elongated S (it is, in fact, affectionately known as ‘Le S’).  The S, which is surrounded by dozens of buildings of similar ambiance, is part of a 50-building or so complex of 1960s style vertical affordable housing interspersed with car-parks and empty green spaces – a phenomenon common on the outskirts of many French cities now known as Zones Urbaines Prioritaires (or ZUPs).  These are areas that look drastically different than the old, inner parts of French cities, yet nonetheless provide a place where large groups of people can live together affordably.  While many may despise them as disasters of modernist, post war-style functionalism, I can’t help but comparing them to the disaster that is the modern American suburb, where contact with humanity only exists through car windows.  In any case, Dieudonné seemed relatively glad to have his little place in Le S.

When we first arrived the room was filled with the smell of roasting mutton and spicyness.  Everyone was gathered around the room’s prominently placed, large television and intermittently chatting.  In all, Charles has 5 siblings; a brother older than him who is currently a boxer in the north; an older sister of 22 who is currently pregnant with her 3rd child; a younger brother who the parents no longer talk to; and two of the four younger children between 2 and 7 constantly running around the house and making a racket while I was there.  According to his father however, Charles is the only one who turned out able to face things on his own.

In the morning, Dieudonné offered to show me around his ZUP.  I followed him with one of the little ones, Julien, as he bought some hash in another tower and walked a mile in the opposite direction to buy some tabacco so we could smoke it.  In a cold rain, we wetly walked toward the destination as he unexpectedly poured his heart out.  His personal history began when he moved illegally to France from Cameroon in 1991, grossly overstaying his 3 month visa, living as a sans-papier (or without papers) for 8 years in the region Parisienne.  After 8 years of scrapping for money, staying at random locations, avoiding the police and establishing a Cameroonian traditional dance association (or non-profit) called “Pass to your neighbor,” Dieudonné was finally able to bring his family from Africa in 1999 after faux-marrying a citizen also of African descent.  “I could have easily just let them die in Africa,” he tells me, referring to his family.  “It had been 8 years in any case.”

Yet they arrived in France around the year 2000 and had to rapidly adjust to the shift.  Charles’ younger brother quickly became a ‘delinquent’, fighting with his parents and getting consistently kicked out of the house.  Dieudonné was very reproachful toward his son when he spoke on the subject, showing no sign of forgiveness for the vague descriptions of what seemed like serious offenses against the family (not to mention the law).  Charles tells me later that the adjustment was hardest for his younger brother as he was used to visiting friends and family and hanging out in the street after school in a generally laid-back environment.  With French society, and certainly their neighborhood, being less conducive to such habits, his behaviour quickly degenerated into delinquency.  The younger brother eventually took his parents to court so he would not have to live with them anymore.  Even while I was staying there, this subject seemed extremely touchy, representing the starting off point of several verbally-violent disputes between Dieudonné and his wife.  Yet, this didn’t stop him from talking openly with me about the subject when no one else was around, though he frequently finished such anecdotes with thoughts like, “I’m just not right in the head right now” and “What do you say we smoke some hash.”

Charles’ older sister was staying in the apartment with them when we arrived.  Intensely pregnant, with a tangly hairdo and a large sheet as a dress, she seemed to constantly shift from drinking beer (and whisky and wine and pastis), to watching tv, to yelling at her two children, 6 and 3.  When I asked her how it was possible that we were the same age yet she managed to take care of 2 kids with another on the way by herself, she replied, “I love kids.”  Dieudonné was more than candid about his discontent with her situation.  Beginning when she was 17, Dieudonné talked about her tendency to run away from home and come back months later, pregnant.  Her current pregnancy was the third time this has happened, when most recently she ran away to Paris and came back a few months ago with another bun in the oven.  The strain on him to make sure her offspring were cared for and unabandoned seemed more than he could bear (especially due to his concern that this could potentially happen a fourth time).  I wanted to ask about abortion but decided in the end to hold my tongue.  We walked back to the apartment block in the cold rain, little Julien freezing cold and unable to speak, savouring the cheap hash.

While he was a sans-papier in Paris, Dieudonné volunteered at several cultural associations and performed his dances at many events.  Appropriately nicknamed “Multiforme,” Dieudonné went clandestinely from place to place putting on shows for the surrounding fully-legal French public.  Among the many dances he performed was Makossa – literally, throwing your ass around – a dance where he places a bottle on his head, balancing it while he thrusts his hips, shaking every part of his body except for the neck up.   He shows me pictures of these events, wearing many different colors of paint and just enough cloth to cover the appropriate places on his body.  He wears an enormous smile.  These are the things that allowed him to get through his time as a sans-papier, he says; the capacity to maintain this vital lifeline to his previous life thousands of kilometers away.  In the last few years, Dieudonné has given free classes at the public community center in his ZUP in Limoges.  While not many people come, he says with interest that most intrigue comes from white French people in the community.  Today, most of his dancing happens at home with his 6 year old grand-daughter Virginie.  When Dieudonné puts on one of his recent album’s compiled just last year when he returned to Cameroon for a brief reprieve, Virginie moves her hips like a pro, imitating her father’s personally-styled moves and often flailing in a way that seems all her own.

In addition to dance, Dieudonné also plays me several cds he created or created with friends.  Most notably, one was entitled Kanibal, after a friend of his who in one instance sang metaphorically about the cannibalism in their new home; people’s tendency there to gobble one another up.  Musical reflections on modern day France by its former colonial subjects who, after continued suffering within its borders, finally achieved its oh-so-cherished citizenship, mixing jazz, latino music, and traditional African percussions was a complex phenomenon.  I mean, here were individuals who were literally born as inferieurs in the dying days of the official colonial french system, with parents and grandparents even worse off, fleeing to the origin of their subjugation only to see similar mechanisms arise in their supposedly liberated children.  Here he is, “Dieudonné”, an African Frenchman “given” by the christian “God” living in the former center in relative comfort, but still somehow feeling distinctly on the outside.

HLMs, or public and rent-controlled housing complexes in France, while disproportionately inhabited by West and North African immigrants, nonetheless house 40 to 50% of all renters in the country.  This means that while there are many people of foreign origin or immigrant descent, there are also many white French people.  In other words, it is not uncommon in these areas, while walking around, to see young white families out for a stroll or returning chez eux after going out for the afternoon.  While Dieudonné constantly reinforced his assertion that racism was rampant and that so many of the white people despised blacks, I couldn’t help but think about the urban structure in the U.S. where whites and blacks live in separate neighborhoods with whites virtually never venturing into those areas.  While here there was a diverse community with relatively maintained communal tower blocks, neatly ordered on a litter-free green carpet, in the U.S. the two distinct communities were often distinguished by extreme affluence and extreme poverty.  The Other was rarely seen thus conflict was precluded.  When I mentioned these things, Dieudonné seemed to understand what I was saying, adding that he was extremely glad he didn’t have to worry about health care or any of the public social services non-rich French citizens take for granted compared to their U.S. counterparts.  On the way out the door however I got a taste of what he’d been talking about.  Two older white neighbors on the ground floor – who he had previously mentioned being racists – had apparently mistaken three youths of various African origins as being part of Dieudonné’s entourage.  They disdainfully told Dieudonné he needed to tell his friends to stop loitering in front of their window; Dieudonné, understandably, was offended and got angry.  “Why do you immediately assume they are with me, they have nothing to do with me!”  Their reply was equally unconstructive, saying that he was always causing trouble etc., and the ensuing argument between 4 white French adults and Dieudonné in front of several young people degenerated.  What was apparent was the fact that these people clearly did not see the racial assumptions they were making in the first place, and then not owning up to them, and ending up cursing racially-derisive epithets.  Running to the car to make our train on time, I didn’t get to thank him and say goodbye, only waving to him through the window as he walked in the cold rain with Virginie and Julien.

Here are some photos of ZUPs in or around Toulouse.  Empalot is in the city limits and is generally whiter and more well off from appearances.  Le Mirail is outside city limits in the banlieu and is significantly more bleak.