Where the people have no name

Arguably the most important part of journalism is accuracy.  So when I strolled through the Arab market of St. Jacques in search of a story, I knew I had an impossible task.  Not only was I told (multiple times) to put my camera away, but I was unable to find any stand owner or worker who would give their last name.  I should have expected this; not only do some people have an aversion to being on film, but apparently Europeans in general are very skeptical of anyone who breaks out a notepad.

“They will think you are with the government,” said a local resident who served as my translator. “Many people here don’t want to answer questions because the sales here are just cash,  not taxed.”

Now I do not consider myself a timid person.  I asked several different people a variety of standard questions, such as, “How long have you been selling here?” and “Do you feel the market has changed in any way over the past few years?”  I even broke the photojournalist’s rule of  “snap (the picture) now, ask later” in an effort to be as polite as possible to find a worker or customer who would open up. But as the morning progressed, I found myself taking a lot of nonchalant shots from my hip.

One woman, who runs an Egyptian tapestry stand out of the side of a van with her husband did talk to me for a few minutes.  I was able to get her first name, Zohra, which was a big deal.  Zohra told us that she had been selling the same intricately woven fabrics and Korans translated into French since 1998.

“I’ve seen all the same people (in the market) for years,” she said.  Zohra said that her customers use the fabric as decorative table cloths and furniture covers.  Then Zohra adjusted her hijab (female headscarf) and gestured across from her to another stand with different, lighter fabric — the sort of material light enough for clothing.

The man with the stand across from Zohra’s would not give a name at all, but did say that he and his family had managed business in the market for five years.  As he spoke to us, he folded two large pieces of cloth together to display on a hanger.  The top part was a sheer mesh with flowers and scrolls embroidered with gold thread and sequins, the bottom a light pink polyester blend.  It looked like the making of an Indian sari more than anything.  When I asked if the patterns on the sheer fabric had any meaning or significance, he said that sometimes they did, but that the ones he sold were just for decoration.

There is apparently a controversy over whether or not the North Africans and gypsies that inhabit the area are “truly French,” and whether Catalans and those not native to the Perpignan area accept each other as equals.  And then there was the murder that took place a few years ago in St. Jacques…but that’s another story — one that no one will talk about.

While St. Jacques is known as a “bad neighborhood,” I felt that the market was a safe haven for anyone to walk around.  The large common area is well populated by all sorts, not just the locals.  Catalans (historically Roman Catholic) shop alongside French Muslims, North Africans next to gypsies, and so on.  The vibe, at least for this foreigner, is not a hostile one.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that this local market is safer than the tourist traps and over-crowded beaches that Americans seem to favor.  Here, everyone is just out with their grocery lists, picking up some local fare or browsing the bras.