Letter from Marseille

Letter from Marseille

I think of the vision that Mrs. Shiflett has toward the end of a Flannery O’Connor story, in which she sees all the peoples of the world blended and mixed as one, heading toward heaven in a riotous pack of shouting, writhing, unkempt cripples and blind folks and street preachers, and bringing up the tail end of this raucous lot, last in line, the good white people who paid their credit card bills on time and carefully separated the recyclables from the garbage.  O’Connor was nothing if not prophetic and, however written in the late 1950s, she offered us a vision of the globalized economy – the tower of Babel is us and we are it, and if one needed any proof one need only follow me through the streets of Marseille.

Not for a moment would you confuse it with Paris, though some streets have a superficial similarity – five story, shuttered apartment buildings, fountained squares, everyone smoking.  But here every vertical surface is covered with graffiti, and in certain sections of town – uncomfortably close to the tourist district for the purposes of the city’s promoters – the city’s 2500 year relationship with North Africa is apparent.  The smell of cumin and coriander fills the narrow streets and the prosperous kids who race by in their sedans are playing not the latest Eurotrash hit but music featuring quanum and nay and the characteristic quavery nasal vocalizing of the Arab world, all underwritten by the tabla’s beat.   Every few feet a widow in white is begging, usually with a small child lying in her lap or sitting, bored and sullen, at her side.   The men wear djellabas and fezes and converse in Arabic as often as French and they argue less about art and culture and politics than about money – every conversation is liberally sprinkled with numbers.

One can find this in Paris, of course, by traveling a few Metro stops out from the rich, white city center to the farther arrondissements and one finds it in spades if one goes to the outlying banlieues, the suburbs of high-rises which always seem on the edge of exploding into violence.  The difference is that in Marseille these dark-complected populations are the city center, a fact that seems very unlikely to change, much as the Marseille city government is trying to encourage gentrification.  Large public buildings are undergoing overhauls, and the city has a snappy surface tram, the most stylish mass transportation I’ve seen anywhere, in addition to its underground Metro.

But though supposedly modeled after the Champs Elysées of Paris, La Canebière – the city’s main drag, named for the cannabis that once thrived here – is so far from resembling it that not even the most overblown of the tourist brochures draws the comparison.  Seedy shops line the street along with low-end restaurants, and even in the middle of the day a step up any side street takes you into the land of prostitutes and drug dealers.

And yet there’s a liveliness about the place that Paris lost long ago.  Lower income people can afford to live in Marseille and do, and there is certainly not the phenomenon here, so common in Paris, of rich foreigners buying apartments that they occupy for 2 weeks of the year and then pay for by renting to tourists for the remaining 50 weeks.  And there is something ironic about Paris, so often gray and overcast, claiming “City of Light” as its nickname when Marseille is endlessly bathed in light, baked in light, bleached by the ever-present Mediterranean sun. Paris is gray, Marseille is ochre and yellow and rose and taupe. These colors are as particular to the painters of the south of France as the grays and dark blues of the industrial Northeast are to the palette of, say, Edward Hopper.

The borderline between Marseille as “lively” and Marseille as “scruffy” is porous and shifting, but I find a uniqueness about Marseille that all the Marseillais immediately point to as the source of their affection for the place.  It’s both of France and apart from it, physically tethered to mainland Europe by multiple autoroutes and the TGV but spiritually somewhere adrift off the coast of Algeria.  Its character is so resolutely Mediterranean – which is to say, not Gallic – that at times walking its streets I feel as if I am in a different nation that happens to serve croissants at breakfast.  The ambiance is as different from Paris and the north as, say, that of Québec City, and that’s quite a difference.  It lacks obvious tourist destinations – the museums are small, their emphasis (rather like Oakland, competing with San Francisco) on contemporary art, the usual very mixed bag; there are very few grand monuments.  But every other block sports a theater and the aggressively laid-back, unambitious crowd that hangs out on the Cours Julien has no equivalent that I know of in central Paris.

Locals tell me that racism is not as intense as in the north of France and I believe them.  Partly this is a phenomenon that I have encountered in, oddly enough, Tucson, where the U.S. – Mexican border was so porous for so long that people formed family and economic allegiances across it and so became comfortably bilingual and bicultural.  Marseille has been trading and exchanging stories with all coasts of the Mediterranean for so long that it sees itself as having more in common with other cities of self-styled “Mediterranean rim” than with its hinterland.  Marseille, Alexandria, and Beirut see themselves as leaders in this new, lively, shake-a-leg venture, so filled with energy and potential and corruption compared to the tidy, law-abiding, cold-blooded north.  On the other hand, another reason Marseille is less racist is because of white flight — its right-wing, conservative money long ago decamped to the palmy environs of Aix-en-Provence, twenty miles to the north.  One could live in Bordeaux, Lyons, Tours, even Paris for a lifetime and still be thought of as an outsider.  Here, after three or four years, immigrants call themselves Marseillais. In this it is the most American of French cities.

Some particular observations:

At one point I was in the midst of an open-air market and watching a fishmonger, an ordinary middle-aged man; and then he turned and I saw that his face was perfectly bifurcated by a line that ran from the middle of his forehead through the bridge and septum of his nose to his chin.  To one side, the side I’d first seen, he was a dark-complected man like hundreds I’d seen; to the other side he was bright red-purple, almost magenta, either from birth or from some terrible accident involving heat.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him, a common response I’m sure – I pretended to look at the fish (which were diverting enough) just to sneak a glimpse.


And later, at the museum housed in the Vielle Charité, the ancient home for orphans and the aged poor, renovated under André Malraux and rather grandly billed as the Museum of African, Oceanic, and Amerindian Art:   Three small but interesting rooms.  One filled with a small but first-rate collection of Mexican folk art (why doesn’t Tucson have such an extraordinary collection?) prominently featuring the fantastic Dia de los Muertos masks of the famous Linares brothers of Mexico City; the second with pre-colonization African art; and the third occupied by elaborately decorated skulls collected from head-hunting tribes of the South Pacific islands (New Guinea and neighbors) and from South America.  Among these sits, inexplicably, a single kachina doll from an Arizona Hopi tribe.

I found myself fascinated by this macabre collection.  According to its accompanying materials, all tribes, both South Pacific and Amazonian, sustain the same requirement of young men, i.e., that they kill and decapitate an enemy in order literally to be named.  Boys receive a name at birth, but they don’t receive their adult names and they are not allowed to claim their individual stories until they kill and behead an enemy, which in the Amazon tribes identify as “one who speaks differently from us.”  (Take that, Yankees!)

But the heads from the different tribes, Pacific Island and Amazonian, differ in that, though both are similarly decorated (strings of beads woven through the lips, lines painted on the flesh, wigs formed from the hair of the deceased), the South American tribes shrink their heads, in a process presented in a recipe so fascinating that I cannot resist reporting it here:

The skin is carefully peeled from the skull, which is then “thrown into the river” (the instructions are quite specific).  The flesh is then boiled, according to the supporting materials, for “exactly ½ hour” to eliminate the fat and shrink it.  Then it is scrubbed inside and out with a tool fashioned from the rough bark of palm branches.  As a final step, tiny round pebbles (“less then 1 cm diameter”) are gathered and heated and stuffed into the cavity created by the skin.  The heat of the pebbles causes the skin to shrink one last time until it fits around its pebble interior.  Thus, the head of the victim is preserved in miniature – the final head is about a quarter or at most a third of its original size. The exhibition is all the more striking for its being preserved in an elegantly proportioned, handsomely restored 17th century building dedicated to caring for the ill and infirm.  The museum webpage presents a history in English and some excellent photos of the building.

I left the exhibit wondering at the ingenuity and perversity of the human condition – who spent all that time, all those generations perfecting the art of head shrinking?  And which is more perverse – the tribe who perfected the process?  The collector — a neurosurgeon, to embellish the point — who traveled the world to bring back samples to be mounted in climate-controlled Plexiglas boxes with state-of-the-art track lighting?  Or the dumbstruck, open-mouthed tourist who shells out two euros for the privilege of inspecting each specimen?  These fist-sized heads, their features perfectly preserved and elaborately decorated, were once men “who spoke differently.”  The reference calls to mind, of course, my own stumbling, awkward French.  “Off with my head!”  The question begs itself:  Should we create a vast preserve in the Amazon to shelter these tribes – some of which are still holding on to a small corner of the rainforest – so that they can preserve their head-hunting way of life?  Or should we educate them into our advanced civilization, where they can learn that civilized people prefer methods of torture – such as those our government practiced in Guantanamo and Al Ghraib – that preserve the victim alive?

I’m not sure what to make of this juxtaposition, i.e., shrunken heads and contemporary art.  After leaving the museum, though, I did feel as if I’d visited a postmodern Ripley’s or Barnum & Bailey.  In the 13th century the French king miraculously uncovered the bones of Mary Magdalene not so many miles to the northeast, where she had supposedly come to do penance after Jesus’ death; for centuries her cave was a major pilgrimage destination for devout Christians.  We can take some assurance in the unchanging foundations of human nature:  Even as we rocket to the moon and explore the bottom of the sea, people are still devising ways in which they can use our gullibility to lighten our pockets.  Marseille is an old hand at this trade.


1 Comment
  • This is why I love the Internet. Browsing – looking for info on narrative non-fiction and I am given the gift like this. Thank you.

    May 12, 2010 at 9:59 pm