Rue Jean Pierre Timbaud runs through the 11e arrondissement, from the boulevard de Temple to the boulevard de Belleville. It’s a slice of Paris populaire, a hodgepodge of immigration, gentrification, hipsterisation, and all the good and bad that go with them. It’s a good place to grab a bite, and to be honest, it’s not infrequent that I wind up poking around here even if I had another destination in mind.
Previously rue d’Angoulême, this street is now named after a French metal worker, union organiser and member of the resistance during the German occupation. Timbaud was imprisoned at at the Nazi internment camp Choisel at Châteaubriant. In October 1941, he and 26 other otages were executed in retaliation for the killing of a Nazi commander by a member of the communist resistance. Timbaud has since become a symbol of the French syndicaliste (trade unionist) tradition, which has long featured prominently on this street.
Originally a factory that manufactured musical instruments, many of which were sold to famous American jazz musicians in the 1920′s, this building was bought by the Union Fraternelle de la Métallurgie in 1937. “Le 94,” as it’s also called, became a hotspot for union events and more. Gatherings for the resistance against fascism and the wars in Algeria and Vietnam were also held here, and during the Spanish Civil War, trucks of supplies were sent from this building to support the Republican resistance. L’Esplanade Roger Linet out front, also named after a prominent communist union organiser deported during WWII, and the nearby rue Moret have hosted some of the most important labor protests in Paris. Facing financial trouble in the late 90′s, the union didn’t want to see the building privatized. They formed a collective and gained the city’s support. Today, it remains a union building, but also houses the Maison des Métallos (94, rue Jean Pierre Timbaud), a cultural center with a theater, a restaurant, and an exposition space.
Right across the square from the Maison des Métallos is the Mosquée Omar. After the mosque opened here in the 1970′s, a strong North African Muslim presence and identity grew up around it. Today, the rue Jean Pierre Timbaud houses a large number of Arabic bookstores, as well as shops selling prayer rugs and various forms of hijabs, kaftans and taqiyahs.
The food also changes as you walk up toward Belleville, reflecting the tastes of the various waves of immigrants from North Africa and East Asia that have settled here. North African spices and cooking tools are widely available along with halal meat — not uncommon in Paris, but pretty much the only option here. On my last visit, I was tempted by a gorgeous tajine at a small bazar. When I explained that I couldn’t buy it because I have neither an oven nor a gas stove, the owner, a small, smiling man probably in his 70′s, responded, “je m’en occuperai.” All I had to do was bring the ingredients and pick the finished dish up the next day — a tempting offer I had to decline. But, when I’m eventually in the market for a tajine, I know where I’m headed.
At the bakeries, traditional religieuses and macarrons give way to cornes de gazelles, sugary treats with dates and pistachios, and other patisseries maghrébins that are gaining popularity here. Although you’ll still find baguettes, the sandwiches are more often soft, bready and round. If you want to try something distinctly North African, pick up a Tunisian sandwich called a fricassé. The word comes from the French words fritté (fried) and cassé (broken or pulled apart). A product of Tunisia’s colonial past, Tunisian street vendors compensating for their lack of ovens began to sell sandwiches in a light deep-fried roll. They’ve become an institution all their own — a total carb bomb, filled with chunks of potato, tuna, harissa and garnished with a slice of egg and sometimes a few olives. But, after a long bike ride, they do hit the spot.
This street is also the location of the first — and only, as far as I know — Uyghur (ouïghour) restaurant in Paris, Tarim (74, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud). The Uyghur people hail from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. The region has been accorded various degrees of autonomy throughout the Chinese occupation, and joins Taiwan and Tibet as thorns in the side of the People’s Republic posing difficult questions of sovereignty and political status. Traditionally Muslim, speaking a Turkic language and largely self identifying more as Central than East Asian, many Uyghurs prefer to call their homeland East Turkistan. But, any manifestation of nationalism or separatism, including flying their flag, is currently met with fierce opposition from Chinese authorities. Our travels through this area were one of the highlights of our time in China, and our favorite little neighborhood spot to eat in Beijing was a restaurant run by a Uyghur family.
Whether or not you’re familiar with this part of the world, I recommend this restaurant. What makes the cooking from this region so great is the influences from both Chinese and Central Asian culinary traditions, and you definitely get a sense of that here. Their brochettes d’agneau (grilled, spiced lamb kebabs) are meaty and fragrant like those we ate in Kashgar, and less like the spicy mutton yáng ròu chuàn in Beijing. I also recommend the langman, a lamb dish with hand-pulled noodles. The one major drawback: they don’t have Uyghur nan. But, they do serve samsas, pulao and other simple but bold lamb dishes characteristic of the region, that you can wash down with a bomber of Tsingtao or an Efes Pilsen. It’s sure cheaper than a plane ticket and helps me get my fix when I need it.
Another address I love on this street is Fong Lai (24, rue Jean Pierre Timbaud). From the outside, it looks like any other traiteur asiatique (which, we know I’m skeptical of in general), but don’t be fooled. When I last stopped by, I was greeted warmly and seated amongst regulars, many of whom didn’t even need to order. The owners are from Hong Kong and they have a surprisingly long menu for a traiteur like this in Paris. Yes, there are noodles, nems (rolls), and stir-fried dishes in the refrigerated case which they’ll microwave and serve or pack to go. But if you wanted that, you could walk into any old traiteur, non? Plus, who wants to eat something that’s been previously stir- or deep-fried and then zapped in the microwave until it’s a mushy mess? Not me. My advice: be patient, have a seat, look over la carte and order something fresh from the kitchen. I was craving comfort food, so I ordered soupe avec raviolis de crevettes. The woman behind the counter asked if I wanted noodles or vegetables. Opportunities to personalize orders are rare in Paris, and any place that’s going to offer me more vegetables earns a special place in my heart. The bowl arrived huge and steaming with lots of perfectly cooked veggies, topped with 5 or 6 big shrimp dumplings, and accompanied with hot sauce on the table à volonté. I managed to polish it all off, not having eaten anything yet that day, and felt réchauffée enough to head back out into the rain and the cold. How anyone could eat more noodles on top of the shrimp dumplings already in the soup is beyond me. But, a few did sneak into my bowl and after tasting them, I’ll be back for a noodle dish.
If you’re in the mood for more traditional fare, Restaurant Astier (44, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud) and it’s more casual traiteur, A Jeanne, next door are good bets for reasonably priced French food and a great cheese selection. Although the restaurant got some negative feedback in recent years, many like it just fine and things have reportedly improved since a change in management.
This area really picks up on Friday and Saturday nights and can be a great place to go out. Be warned, the vibe in some of these places can be a little irritatingly hipster at times, but for the most part it’s a nice alternative to Oberkampf. Alimentation Générale (64, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud), hosting concerts and DJs, and the quirkier nearby theater and concert hall, Zèbre de Belleville (63, boulevard de Belleville), are popular venues. Many of the bars and cafés here host DJ’s and concerts in the evenings and on weekends. Whether or not you’re as clueless as I am about the next best thing or even old favorites passing through, Gigs in Paris is a great anglophone resource for shows all over the city.
The zinc bar Le Cannibale (93, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud) is also a good bet. During they day, it’s a great place to study or work with decent coffee and free wifi, although it can get a bit crowded. They have a great terrace for when the weather’s nice, as do a few other cafés on this street. For the moment, outdoor seating is largely empty because of the rain and the cold. Still, it seems nothing can deter the fumeurs from huddling on those freezing cold, wet patios.
True to its roots, the rue Jean Pierre Timbaud remains a locale of social tension. Along with its storied history of la lutte populaire, this street also reflects an identity crisis France is grappling with. An unfortunate element in the current political debate is the “place” of Islam in French society in light of the constitutional principle of laïcité : the French conception of secularism, which differs greatly from the American idea of separation of Church and State and has been called by some the closest thing to a national religion. The reach of this principle has in recent years been expanded beyond public utilities and increasingly applied to private citizens benefitting from these services. The result has been a series of laws governing outward signs of religious practice in public spaces.
To further complicate matters, the Mosquée Omar has gained a reputation and has been placed under heightened surveillance by French authorities. Worshipers at the mosque have performed salah in the streets out front, in protest against the ban on public prayer which went into effect in September of this year. Also, the mosque is affiliated with Tabligh, an Islamic proselytising movement with a notable following in France. The movement itself is very decentralised and represents itself as apolitical and peaceful, but some individual members have been connected to terrorist activities. Finally in a terrible incident last year, a feminist performer and activist whose show, critical of the role of women in Islam in Algeria, was running at the Maison des Métallos at the time, was verbally abused and physically assaulted in front of the building. In fact, her aggressors tried to burn her alive. The men responsible were reportedly connected with the mosque, one of the primary reasons for this increased surveillance.
Some of the mannequins in the shops on rue Jean Pierre Timbaud are displayed with veiled faces, a clear stance of defiance against the September 201 law banning the covering of one’s face in public. Widely criticized both in France an abroad, the law has still managed to garner a lot of popular support. Although it applies to men and women of all faiths and has been justified as a public safety measure, the true legislative intent is obvious. The ensuing political dialogue about women’s dignity and the broadly-framed exemptions that cover just about everything but women who consider la voile intégral necessary for conformity with hijab, have inspired the nickname “burka ban” or “la loi sur la burka” (even if the terminology is a misnomer). Women have already been arrested and fined, some deliberately in view of appealing their case to the European Court of Human Rights, who will no doubt soon be forced to rule on the matter.
Place this socio-political climate in its historical context: a tooth-and-nail fight to keep certain colonies within la République while maintaining an all-out refusal to accept their populations as part of the French identity. Combine this with the xenophobic politics of today’s far right and political pandering to these voters by the conservative government currently in power, which rub additional salt in these wounds. Add the resulting paranoia and very real concerns from 9-11 and the wars and violence that followed, and you get a sense of how inflammatory things have become. The debate about freedom of religion and laïcité continues to intensify as the 2012 elections approach: protests against the current legislation alongside appeals for more stringent regulation of religion in the public sphere are both readily visible.
But, outside of a few incidents, this neighborhood exists largely as a peaceful mix of cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds. People come and go to mosque unheeded. Cafés and epiceries serving traditional cooking from l’hexagone stand side-by-side with halal butchers and restaurants serving North African fare. And on Friday and Saturday night, the neighborhood smoothly transitions to a vibrant nightlife. I don’t propose to have painted you a full and complete picture of the state of affairs here, but this little slice of Paris with all its faults, gives me hope. Hope that there will continue to be courageous advocates out there, of every faith, who fight to improve the situation of women. Hope that we can one day embrace the entire French population, in all its diversity, as full members of society just as deserving of rights and freedoms. And, hope that our political debates will soon truly live up to the republican ideals we claim to represent.