I am sitting at an outdoor terrace in Paris on January 5 at about 7 pm. This brasserie is by the Marais, the old Jewish quarter in Paris, a neighbourhood that used to thrive with commerce and traditional life: kosher butchers, bakeries and Judaica shops. There were schools, places of worship, mikvahs and bookstores. Today, the neighbourhood has been taken over by famous fashion designers and stores like American Apparel, as well as bars and gay dance clubs for men.
What do we do, in the Diaspora, when our landmarks begin to disappear? What happens when we lose our touchstones, those spaces we have built from our memories to remind us of what we have lost?
In the past two years, the kosher grocery store in the Marais has closed, as well as the bakery where I liked
to buy poppy seed strudel and drink lemon tea. The falafel shops are still here, but I don’t see any children.
Apparently, it’s been years already since Jewish families lived here in significant numbers. They have long since moved to the suburbs, to Israel, or integrated into non-Jewish neighbourhoods. But Paris’ oldest synagogue was built here. This is the historic heart of Jewish Paris and instead I am having a drink on a heated terrace.
My mind flits to my upcoming trip to Guinea. I am in Paris on an extended layover and I am heading out soon. In Guinea, I will study dance every day as well as drumming. The conditions in which I will live will seem challenging at times.
Why do I want to go there? I know it’s impossible, but I feel I need to go to the source, to go deep. I need to return to the source, not simply by learning about West African culture and what life was like before contact with the West, but I want to experience it in my body. I want to begin from a place largely of unknowing and see what I can learn from a sensory, kinetic and emotive perspective.
Going to Guinea is about connecting to my African ancestors, more distant than the Jewish connection that pulls me to the Marais. But both forces compel me nevertheless, and I feel obligated to listen to that call to Guinea, just as I felt compelled a few years ago to travel to the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Austria looking, as I went, for the traces of my Jewish European family.
It may be a simplistic analysis, but it seems to me that, when the landmarks and neighbourhoods in the Diaspora are lost, we also lose our triggers for memory and nostalgia, which function together for diasporans. They make us morose as well as joyful, and they help to nourish connections over time to the homelands and communities we can never recover.
When I go to Guinea, I will be in the presence of an indigenous and ancient culture that continues to thrive. I will want to find myself there. I will want to find something familiar there. But, likely, I won’t, and I need to brace myself for that rejection.
And, yet, when I visit New York, the Caribbean, the American South, and even Toronto and Paris, when I am in communities populated by diasporan Africans, I am recognized there and I recognize myself in the shared experience of celebration and separation. Not only the desire to connect to the source, but also the sense of loss.
That dual experience is what we hear in jazz music and blues, and also in hip-hop, zouk and calypso. It is what we see in the creased faces of women selling Malian cloth at the entrance to the subway. It is what we read in the writings of African Canadian and African American writers who long for Africa in their prose and poetry while also fighting to be accepted where they live. This is the experience of loss and resilience at once.
Diasporan communities thrive when they provide touchstones for memory and shared experiences. Without covering over rupture, the art and communities made by diasporans make life possible in the aftermath of trauma and in the new world. When the neighbourhoods holding the traditional bakeries, gathering places and bookstores are colonized by new forces, will we still be able to remember all that we have lost? Or will we be even more at sea?