Nestled along Rue Rouelle near the Tour Eiffel in Paris used to be a small restaurant serving authentic Middle Eastern food. I had always walked right by this tiny hole-in-the-wall in favor of a real “sit down” establishment, but given the rain and the cold on this particular evening I decided to grab the closest meal I could find and this was just around the corner from my hotel room.
Three or four very small tables over-filled the available space. For all practical purposes one sat in the kitchen as the proprietor/receptionist/cook/dishwasher was separated by only a small counter space. I sat down to watch my meal being prepared. The restaurant was otherwise empty save for two women at another table conversing softly in what sounded to be Arabic with an occasional French expression. One woman looked to be around twenty five years of age, the other maybe around fifty. Since my knowledge of both languages is almost nil that left one other person in the room with whom I could converse – the cook. And we did. During the 20 minutes or so while he prepared my meal we compared our lives, where we had grown up – the sort of conversation one might have with anyone in those first few minutes of getting acquainted. I learned that the two women were in fact his wife and his mother and that they had all fled Iran along with most other members of their families several years earlier as they had felt increasingly unwelcome by shifts in the prevailing political climate. One brother was in Houston, he said, and another in a small town “you would never have heard of” located in Oregon. Upon further inquiry that small town “you would never have heard of” turned out to be Aloha – a tiny berg near Portland where my wife had grown up. As the conversation continued the world was beginning to feel considerably smaller. It was a wonderful repast which actually lasted longer than the meal itself. I left there with the feeling that I would like these people as neighbors.
Most of the details of our conversation that rainy evening in Paris have been forgotten but the essence of what was said as I was taking my leave has come back to me several times this past week. I had asked how life was in France and if they planned to remain. The response was delivered with a resignation that even now still brings a tinge of sadness as I remember it: “Life here is difficult for people like us. This city is not friendly. People seem suspicious of us. We are made to feel as if we are not welcome. Business is not good.” He then told me that he was probably going to close the restaurant. He planned to immigrate with his family to Houston to join his brother, hoping to start a new restaurant there, hoping for a better reception and a better life in America.
I returned to Paris a few weeks later and sought out that place, hoping for another good meal and conversation. The restaurant was closed and from all appearances abandoned.
The all-too-common expressions of fear and paranoia that seem on the increase in many of the English speaking forums of today often remind me of the friend I made over that meal. And I wonder… Where are my friend and his family now? What kind of reception have they received in America, in Houston? I hope they have found welcome and understanding, but I fear they have read and heard some of the same rhetoric I read and hear.
Recent events in Paris have had me thinking more about that evening some fifteen years ago. Questions turn in my mind: What part do I have in creating a world where people feel wanted and welcome? What are the consequences of letting people feel unwanted, unwelcome?
And I am reminded once again that we all play a part every day in creating the kind of world in which we live and will live.
Ronald Coleman 2015