PARIS—Karim Baïla unlocks the door of his silver VW Beetle and we cram in. We pull out of chic central Paris, headed for the low-income suburbs and public housing districts where thousands of cars had burned since the youth uprising began two weeks earlier. Karim is something of an anomaly. Born to illiterate Algerian parents, he is now one of few French Algerian reporters who make regular appearances on national TV.
“They use us to cover these crises,” he says, referring to minority reporters in France. “But when the story is over, they forget about us.”
When we first meet him, Karim, 35, has been reporting on the fires in the Parisian suburbs, or banlieues, for 14 days straight. He’s been covering it for French TV and has spent every night cruising the streets in his car with a video camera leant to him by the network. They didn’t send him with a cameraman because, he says, none would go.
“They only had black and Arab reporters in the guerre de banlieues,” says Karim, a slight but handsome figure with brown skin and a regal nose.
Karim has agreed to take us on a tour of the Parisian suburbs to meet some of the youth he has been reporting on.
As he tears around highway exits, a reporter calls from Baghdad and Karim yells into his cell phone. Karim has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran for France’s top television networks, but always as a freelancer despite his efforts to be hired on full time.
It’s not just the name and the skin color that give him entrée into the Parisian banlieues, where few white French journalists would venture. Karim himself grew up in the suburbs of Marseilles, the rough port town. His parents were in the first wave of immigration from France’s African colonies after World War II. They came in 1948, after Karim’s uncles died in the first line of infantry sent out to fight for France. His dad became a barber and his mom worked in a restaurant to support their six kids.
He learned from his sisters, excelled in school, worked his way out of the ghetto and went on to university where he studied journalism. Fifteen years later, he’s a veteran reporter who has covered Baghdad and the Taliban.
Dusk deadens the towering buildings of the public housing block we roll up to. He shakes his head as we pass some burned out trashcans with rotting garbage. Before we can ask any questions, Karim is standing in front of the building, punching random doorbells.
Finally a woman’s voice, “Yes?”
“It’s me, Yosef,” he winks at us.
“Yosef who?” comes the reply.
“Me, Yosef!” Karim yells back.
Finally someone else entering lets us in. Karim points to the scorched bottom floor of the building. We ask if there are burned cars littering the neighborhoods, but he says the state cleans everything up within a day or two. It’s not the specter of a riot we had expected.
We pile back into the car and are surrounded by Elton John belting a Disney soundtrack while Karim croons along.
In spite of his personal music choice, Karim understands the importance of rap in the life of young banlieue dwellers. He wants us to meet Dopey, a 23-year-old French-born, Senegalese preschool night guard that he befriended while reporting on the fires. He calls Dopey on his cell to warn him we’re on our way, and asks if he’s written any new raps.
We pull up to the school and Dopey lets us in. A wide smile spreads as he shakes Karim’s hand. He leads us into the neon-lit office with educational posters framing his seat at the principal’s desk. He jumps at the chance to perform one of his raps for the camera.
For those who never been to their home land, I wrote a song
We all gotta be proud of where we come from
Never deny your roots your culture, your customs
You don’t even eat the foods from where your mother come
You should never lose the ability to speak your mother tongue
Karim has been outside standing guard and misses the rap, but he already knows the story. He has himself fielded suggestions that he change his name to further his career.
A few minutes later Karim sticks his head back in the room. “Pack up, quick,” he hisses. “The supervisor is coming.”
The supervisor appears looking much like a petite and pissed-off Ben Kingsley. There are threats of calling the police and a lot of screaming at Karim, who it seems lied about getting permission to film at the school. We’re ushered off the property with a firm handshake.
We were afraid we had compromised Dopey’s job. But the riots were over and he had been working graveyard shift for two weeks straight, guarding the school from local youth who might have been tempted to toss a Molotov cocktail. It was a temporary job for him during the crisis.
The mood is quieter as we get onto the periphérique, the highway encircling Paris. Karim’s croonings have died down to political musings.
He feels proud of the way he reported on the fires; he got some of the footage the networks wanted, but afterward he spent his time talking to people in the neighborhoods, young and old alike. Now he worries that the abundance of sensational coverage may cause more problems than before.
“After the burning of 8,000 cars, I think the discrimination is going to be even worse,” he says. “But I’m a journalist, not a militant. And I don’t want to become militant in order to fight discrimination.”
When I spoke to Karim a week later, he sounded low.
“After the fires, I really reflected,” Karim says. “There is a real problem in France, but we don’t talk about it, we hide it.”
Like Dopey, Karim’s usefulness has disappeared with the protests. He hasn’t gotten any calls for freelance work since the fires died.
Brahmani Houston works for New California Media, an association of over 700 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations founded in 1996 by Pacific News Service and members of ethnic media.