PARIS BY NIGHT
“I know a good place for Moroccan food,” Lieutenant Zaki Talib said. “But we’ll have to take a train.”
“Is this the place out by Saint Denis your cousin was telling us about?” Lt. CJ Tanahill asked. “Because I’ve heard some things about that area.”
“Well, it’s in La Courneuve, right? Isn’t that the place people are calling a ‘no-go’ zone for the police?”
“My cousin says it’s all a lot of nationalist propaganda. The police do regular patrols there, no one’s instituting shariah. It’s a French neighborhood, ethnically diverse, and maybe a bit gritty, but everyone you meet on the street speaks French. Plus, the food is really great.”
“I say we go,” Emily said.
“… and it’s only one train from the Jardin de Luxembourg stop, which is right around the corner.”
“It’s okay,” CJ said. “You already sold me.”
“It’ll be safe.”
CJ looked up into Zaki’s face – and that’s saying something, since she was quite tall herself, her straight, blond hair making a sharp contrast with his close-cropped black hair – touched her nose to his, and snaked a hand around his elbow. “There is no place on this earth I wouldn’t feel safe on this arm.”
Emily hooked him from the other side. “Have you stepped up the workouts? Because these guns seem to have grown since last spring.”
Perry followed after the trio, happy to bear a distant witness to Zaki’s discomfiture at the subtle sarcasm of the women. “Better him than me,” he thought.
They’d just spent a couple hours relaxing in the famous gardens, discussing world events of great import, and watching Stone sail a toy boat in the fountain alongside a few of the local kids. For much of the time, Li Li tried to look bored to conceal her envy. Eventually, Emily dangled a sketchpad on the edge of Stone’s peripheral vision, and Li Li got her turn. The park was two short blocks from the hotel Michael had arranged, and once the sun had set, the kids were sent packing, to dine in with Andie and Yuki, and give the grown ups ‘some space.’ The remainder of their night promised to be free and clear, and CJ spoke French well enough to navigate the City of Lights.
The early evening traffic had already thinned out by the time they entered the metro station, and Perry spotted a half-empty car toward the front of the first train.
“On a watchlist?” CJ turned wide-eyed to Emily, once they’d found seats. “What on earth for?”
“It’s nothing really. It’s not like they’re going to keep me from traveling. The Geneva Convention requires them to let me pass.”
“Does that even still apply, now that you’ve left that post… and outside of China?” Zaki asked.
“The Convention applies everywhere, otherwise what good would it be? Otherwise, third party nations would be able to disrupt diplomacy in which they were not directly involved.”
“She was supposed to turn the passport in to the State Department last month,” Perry observed, and Emily glowered at him.
“They didn’t give me a deadline.”
“But what was it about?” CJ asked, again.
“I stumbled into the middle of an op their federal police were running.”
“… and put the fear of God into one of their spec-ops units,” Perry added.
“That practically goes without saying,” Zaki said.
“But it was different this time.”
Emily’s eyes turned even darker than usual. “Guys, do we have to?”
“Oh, c’mon, Em,” CJ cooed into her ear, and placed a hand on the back of her neck. “Let us make much of you… for just a moment. It’s one of the rites of friendship.”
“Okay, fine. Tell ’em whatever you think was so different this time.”
Perry cleared his throat to get ready for what he hoped would be a thrilling account. “You know how these encounters usually go? A punch or two, maybe a kick, some grappling and some poor schlep gets to eat some pavement?
“That sounds about right,” Zaki said.
“Well, this wasn’t like that at all. I mean, sure, a couple guys hit the deck hard, but mainly it was these little touches. She poked a guy with two fingers in a couple of spots and his arm goes numb and his knee collapses under him.”
“That sounds like pressure-point stuff,” Zaki said. “I’ve read about that. In india, I hear they even designed a healing art around it.”
“You mean like accu-pressure?” CJ asked.
“Yeah, sort of… and there’s this whole theology behind it.
Perry began to grow impatient with this distraction from his story. “But the best part is the next day, when she’s facing a couple dozen Neo-Nazis in this town square.”
“Neo-Nazis?” CJ’s face had gone pale on hearing of this development.
“Neo-Nazis?” Zaki echoed her surprise.
Emily frowned at him, but Perry forged ahead anyway, since the best part of the story had yet to be told. “It was a political rally… which we could have avoided if either of us could read German, because there were posters everywhere. But, whatever… the kids got engulfed by the crowd…”
Emily cleared her throat and gave him a significant look at this point in the narrative.
“…and she had to do something. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we’re running down this alley back to our hotel, and she turns to face this mob, you know, to keep them from following…”
“They weren’t really that tough,” Emily said.
“… and she throws the first few around, which has the effect you’d expect, of cowing the others, until this huge guy steps through the crowd, and he’s big. Perry glanced at Zaki. “Not as tall as you, but with some serious upper body development.”
“So I let him swing his arms until he got tired…” Zaki snorted on hearing this.
It was Perry’s turn to frown, and take back control of the story. “At one point, she’s got this joint-lock going, and he’s twisted down into the pavement… and I swear it sounded like he was crying from the pain… but she releases him, and he grabs her shoulder and is ready to swing at her some more, and then she jams a thumb under his chin, and suddenly he’s helpless, like she’s found this magical spot and he can’t even raise his arms.”
“Holy crap, Em,” CJ said.
“It’s not really like that. I just found a soft spot, you know…”
“This is what she was doing in China,” Perry continued, now feeling the full momentum of his story.
“You can really just touch someone and they can’t move their arms anymore?” Zaki was now fascinated by this idea. Emily reached over and pressed her thumb into the soft flesh along his jaw. “Ow! That hurts,” he said, once she’d stopped. He rubbed the area and pouted for a moment, until CJ kissed his cheek..
“See… you could still move your arms. It’s not like I paralyzed you, or anything.”
“No kidding. That hurt. Where’d you learn to do that?”
“But you didn’t press as hard as you would in a real fight, did you?” CJ asked.
“No, not really. Still, it’s not like you’d be paralyzed even then. It’s just that moving your arms is not the first thought that would occur to you.”
“So, where did you learn it?”
“In Wudang, like I said… wherever that is.” Perry leaned back with this pronouncement, exceedingly pleased with himself.
“Yeah, right,” Emily snorted. “I retired to a mountaintop monastery and studied with a monk who had long white hair and a beard down to here.”
CJ frowned and cocked one eyebrow. Emily hesitated for a moment, and Perry knew she was weighing whether she wanted tell all.
“Okay, fine. I practiced with a cranky old man in the back of a pottery studio.”
“Does your mysterious master have a name?” Perry wasn’t sure it was wise to press her on this question, but something about the conviviality of friends and the noise of the metro encouraged him. Emily stared at him for a brief moment.
“If you really must know, his name is Wu Yutian, and he’s a Daoist of some sort. The techniques Perry’s all aflutter over are from the Daoist martial arts.”
“Daoist martial arts…” Zaki tilted his face as he tried to understand. “Are they different from the usual kung fu?”
Well, technically, the phrase kung fu doesn’t refer specifically to martial arts. It something like excellence, you know, of any kind.”
“You mean, I can have kung fu in baking bread?” CJ asked.
“Exactly. Most of what we know as kung fu in the west is derived from the Buddhist monasteries in southern China. It’s all about spinning kicks and clever strikes, and meditation is important. Japanese karate comes from this tradition, too.”
“… and the Daoists don’t do that stuff?”
“No, they do. But they do other stuff, too, like the pressure points Perry’s on about. There, now have I bored you enough with all this information?”
The automobile traffic on Avenue Jean Jaurés had largely transitioned to its evening mode by the time they emerged from the Metro, lighter and slower, but pedestrians still clogged the sidewalks, and even spilled into the street, especially when Zaki’s broad shoulders filled some of the narrower defiles they encountered. In any event, Perry thought Zaki’s description seemed accurate, at least judging from the sample offered by these few blocks. La Courneuve appeared to be a multi-ethnic neighborhood with shops and restaurants catering to all sorts of exotic tastes.
“It’s three blocks down on the right,” Zaki said.
“Give me a minute, guys,” CJ said, glancing at a newsstand that happened still to be open. “I’ll just be a moment.”
The rest of them milled about while she made an inquiry of the man inside the kiosk, who seemed to Perry’s eye – now that he was paying attention to such things – to be Asian. A teenage girl sat on a stack of magazines next to him, her face buried in a magazine. CJ negotiated over the wrapping of some trinket – “It’s for my niece,” she would say later, when they teased her about the miniature Eiffel Tower she’d taken so much trouble over.
“Regarde, papa, c’est elle!” the girl cried just loudly enough for Perry to make out. He wasn’t entirely certain what she’d said, but there was no mistaking her agitation. “Demandez-lui, Papa… s’il vous plait.”
CJ turned to look at Emily. “I think she’s talking about you.”
Perry had a sinking feeling that had a dull familiarity to it. He’d seen this phenomenon, but he hadn’t expected to see it again. The man in the newsstand turned to Emily and said something in Chinese, he thought – at least, he was pretty sure it wasn’t in Japanese – and Emily responded, and nodded to the girl. She ran out from behind the news counter, clutching a well-worn magazine, which looked rather like the Chinese tabloids he’d seen at Bagram. She pushed it into Emily’s hands, along with a pen, and after another exchange, a few Chinese characters were scrawled across the cover. Then, just as they were leaving, the girl threw her arms around Emily, and Perry saw her shoulders shake and, when Emily pulled her up straight, there were tears in her eyes.
“What on Earth just happened?” Zaki asked. The expression on his face was mirrored on CJ’s, and they both stared at her. But Emily said nothing, and continued along the sidewalk.
“Hell if I know,” Perry said, when they turned to him, having gotten no satisfaction from her. Of course, he did know, or at least had a pretty good idea, especially after he caught a glimpse of the cover of the girl’s keepsake magazine. But he thought better of inserting himself into this one, since he expected some blowback for it later.
“Em, was that you on that magazine?” CJ trotted up ahead to get a glimpse of Emily’s face.
“Is it really important?”
“You’re giving out autographs on the street, and you didn’t think we’d be curious?”
“Inquiring minds want to know,” Zaki said.
“While I was in Beijing…” Emily glanced at Perry, and her eyes felt like an apology, though he wasn’t sure he wanted one. “… I attended a state dinner, and this guy… this really, really rich guy asked me to dance… and one thing led to another…”
“Em!” CJ cried out, and glanced over to Perry, to gauge his reaction, and he felt nothing.
“… and the CIA station chief ordered me to develop him as an asset. That’s all it was, CJ. I let him take me out to dinner, drive me around in his sportscars…”
“Sportscars?” Zaki stretched the final s into a z.
“The paparazzi made the most of it, until he got bored. The station chief is still pissed that I didn’t turn him.”
“Is this all, like, classified?” CJ asked, eyes wide. “It sounds like you’re a spy, or something.”
Emily snorted to hear this question. “I hope not. I mean, the whole thing was total bull… and I only went through the motions to get him off my back.”
“You know what isn’t classified?” Perry said, glad to see an opportunity to shift the conversation. “The medal they pinned on her.”
“We heard from Kathy Gunderson,” Zaki said. “The Navy Cross… pretty amazing.”
“Kathy said you all got medals,” CJ said, turning to Perry. “You got a Silver Star. She even got a commendation.”
“That must have been quite a shindig you guys had back there,” Zaki said.
“We couldn’t have done it without Kath,” Emily said, and a smile returned to her face.
Behind an azur-green door, and a beaded half-curtain, the main seating area of La Marrakeche awaited. An upright piano hid in the back, shrouded by an ornately patterned cloth, a few booths lined the adjacent wall, and scattered tables huddled near the front windows. The center had been cleared of tables, or perhaps had always been, since the carpeting that covered the rest of the floor gave way to parquet wooden tiles forming a large square.
“I wonder if Sam is going to play tonight.” Perry gestured to the piano. When no one responded, he shrugged. “You guys don’t get out much, I guess.”
“Will there be dancing?” CJ’s eyes lit up at the thought, and then dimmed with the next thought. “Because that would be…”
“Haram,” Zaki said, as they waited to be seated. “It means forbidden,” he added, and pointed to a sign in Arabic by the service bar. “Though I think it only refers to belly dancing, or raqs sharqi.”
“That’s what it says underneath.” CJ read the French words written under the Arabic warning. “La danse du ventre est interdite.”
“I thought you said there was no shariah here,” Perry said. “If people are forbidding dancing…”
“You mean like in that movie… what was it called? You know, the one with Kevin Bacon. Oh, yeah, Footloose.” CJ giggled with Emily over this little joke at Perry’s expense. Maybe he deserved it.
A waiter pushed through the kitchen door, delivered several steaming plates to another table, then addressed them.
“Table pour quatre,” he said, without waiting for a response, and gestured for them to follow. A little man, and probably not more than twenty six years old, he had a little sparkle in his eyes, noticeable even in dim lighting. He showed them to a table by the front windows and distributed menus, and returned a moment later with four glasses and two bottles of sparkling water. Zaki had a brief discussion with him in Arabic, and the waiter nodded and said, “Bismillah,” before collecting the menus.
CJ smiled at him. “I love it when you take charge.”
“I told him to bring us whatever’s fresh… all five courses.” CJ beamed on hearing Zaki’s words, and how adventurous he’d been.
“I’m surprised we weren’t asked to take off our shoes,” Emily said. “Isn’t that the custom.”
“In someone’s home, yes, absolutely,” Zaki said. “Not really in a restaurant in a big city.”
“I didn’t mean anything by that crack about shariah,” Perry said.
“It’s okay, man. It’s just that where I grew up, there was plenty of shariah, if you mean by that other people trying to tell you what to do based on their religion.”
“… and you didn’t grow up in Jordan.” CJ slipped her fingers into his hand as she spoke.
“Yeah, that’s what suburban Louisville was like when I was a kid. I mean, we went to school with everyone else, you know, Christians, Muslims, Hindus… well maybe mainly Christians, but still…”
Zaki paused to think for a moment.
“We all said the same Pledge of Allegiance every morning, ‘under God,’ and all that. I figured that referred to whatever God meant to my family. Of course, my little brother was always into some mischief or other, and he started substituting ‘in sha’allah’ for that bit. The other kids told on him and the teacher said it didn’t matter, that he could say that instead if he wanted. The next day, one of the local preachers organized a protest outside the school. They wanted the teacher to be fired and my brother to be expelled or punished in some way.”
“Holy crap, Zaki,” Perry said.
“Holy crap is right,” Emily said. “What happened?”
“In the end, nothing, because the imams threatened to organize a boycott of local businesses, and the shop owners got together and persuaded this preacher to back off. I guess it was resolved in the American way, you know, by appealing to economic interest.”
“I suppose that is sort of like shariah,” Perry said. “Though no one was killed in the name of religion. Isn’t that what people usually think of?”
“Probably, but that’s not really what shariah is. All it means is that religious authorities should have some input when it comes to making laws. Exactly how much input, and based on what sacred texts, that differs from place to place. But all the gruesome violence perpetrated in the name of some mythical caliphate, that’s bullshit. No Muslim I know supports that.”
“It sounds like Louisville was pretty mellow in those days. I mean, the extremists were reined in by the community and no one got hurt.”
“Yeah, it was a great place to grow up… though when my grandfather first came there, in the fifties, maybe it wasn’t quite as tolerant. That was around the same time the whole “under God” business was going on, and people wanted to add the phrase to the pledge. My father told me all about it. There were protests and rallies about it, and President Eisenhower finally decided that it should be added. Apparently, he said without it the pledge could have been said to any flag, and a spiritual mission was what distinguished America, or something like that.”
“Wow. I don’t remember reading about that in the history books.”
“I only remember it because my grandfather got caught in the middle of it. Some reporter came around looking for dissenting opinions, and he said Eisenhower was mistaken, and that he’d come to America because it was free, not because it was spiritual. Anyway, the day after the article appeared, someone burned down his store.”
“That’s terrible,” CJ wailed. “You never told me that.”
“Well, no one was hurt, and the community rallied around, helped him rebuild, so I guess whoever did it got the opposite result.”
The waiter returned to distribute cloth and utensils, as well as a plate of soft flatbread. CJ seemed to want to ask him something, and when Zaki noticed, he called the man back.
“Mon ami dit qu’il n’y a pas de charia dans La Courneuve,” she said. “C’est vrai?”
He laughed and said, “Vous êtes Americaine, non?” When CJ nodded, he continued. “Shariah? No, not here. It would be impossible. The government of France does not recognize an ulema.”
“Theologians learned enough to make pronouncements on temporal matters,” Zaki said.
“Exactly,” the waiter said.
“What about that sign?” Emily asked, pointing to the bar with her thumb. “Doesn’t it say no dancing?”
“Oui, Oui. But no one has done la danse du ventre in this area for years, not since my father purchased this place. Some young men asked us to put up cette affiche last year. They claimed to have formed a turuq… a brotherhood… is that the right word?” When Zaki nodded, he continued. “But there was no shayk behind it. They were just a bunch of sarcellites trying to throw their weight around.” He stepped to the bar and removed the sign, tore it in half, and handed it to Emily. “We just forgot to take it down. You can have it, if you like.”
“Sarcellites?” CJ asked.
A voice from the back claimed the waiter’s attention, and he bowed to excuse himself before stepping to the kitchen.
“I think it refers to the little towns the government erected outside of Paris to house immigrants, so they could commute to work,” Zaki said. “But mostly they couldn’t find work, and some of them became like ghettos, crowded with lots of frustrated young men.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Perry said.
“I think there were riots a few years back.”
A moment later, plates began to emerge from the kitchen in waves – a lamb tagine, couscous, a beef dish the waiter called tanjia, four bowls of tomato and lentil soup called harira, and plates of fruit and vegetable salads. Eating it all was challenging, but Zaki assured them that Moroccan food was like that: always a little too much. Afterwards, the waiter brought a plate of assorted cookies and faqqas, with a warm recommendation: his mother’s recipe.
At that moment, Emily was relating the plan for the next day – taking Stone to the Louvre – and the waiter overheard. “C’est magnifique! I also work there in the mornings.”
“You are a busy man,” Emily said.
“I must work hard to get ahead.”
“Nothing prevents you from… rising… in French society?”
“Mais, non… pas du tout. My uncle is… how do you say… high up in the Gendarmes. Nothing prevents.”
“I am very glad to hear it,” Emily said. “Perhaps we will meet again at the museum tomorrow.”
“I don’t think so. My work is not in the public places. But I hope you enjoy your visit.”
Perry watched, a bit sheepishly, as Emily paid the bill, having accompanied the waiter to the bar. She always seemed to be flush with cash, and he’d stopped inquiring a while ago. As they left, Zaki thanked the waiter and the chef by the kitchen door: “Alhamdulillah,” he said, and they nodded and repeated the phrase.
The size of the meal inspired all of them with a similar desire to walk, and they strolled to Saint-Denis and the river, passing by the famous basilica. This neighborhood had a different feel from La Courneuve, less colorful, perhaps even a bit grittier, with a few large apartment complexes on either side of the main thoroughfare. From a distance, these seemed shiny and glamorous, but as they drew closer, graffiti and a generally unkempt quality of the plantings around them told a different story. Young men could be seen enjoying the evening, but there were no women in sight, which Perry took as a sign that the area was not quite as friendly as the one they’d just left.
After a few more minutes walking, they ended up at the entrance to a Metro station on a different line. This one brought them to a stop across the river from Notre-Dame de Paris, where they decided to wander the Right Bank, pausing for a bit to enjoy the street scene on Rue Beaubourg, outside the Centre Pompidou – jugglers, card sharps, buskers and dancers. There would be pickpockets, too, but Emily was likely to be alert enough for the whole party.
A sidewalk café across from the Fontaine Saint-Michel satisfied Zaki’s sudden urge for caffeine, and CJ ordered demi-bieres for herself and Perry, while Emily quietly watched the city pass by their table. Soon enough, it was the hour to cross over to the Left Bank and the student quarter, and maybe head back to the Jardin du Luxembourg.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see the catacombs tomorrow?” CJ asked. “The kids would love it, and we could take the tour of the sewers after.”
“We promised Stone we’d take him to the Louvre tomorrow, and he’s been very patient,” Emily said. “You can come if you like.”
CJ leaned in to whisper. “I think Zaki’s seen enough old paint.”“After tomorrow, we can do something else, maybe explore the forests… if you think that’ll make him happy.”
Continue to Ch 6