An Afternoon with Ali Akbar: a photo essay

Not your ordinary newspaper vendor, Ali Akbar is a local celebrity in the affluent boulevard Saint Germain of Paris. He left Pakistan at a tender age in search of a better life and has now lived for 40 years in France. Initially an illegal immigrant, Ali finally gained the right to stay in France when François Mittérand’s government retroactively regularised illegal migrants in the 1980’s. His humorous headlines (“Sarkozy assassiné! Sarkozy assassinated!”) and emblematic personality has won him much popularity in the quarter, an asset which has helped him build a life in France. Today, he is father of five sons and the author of two autobiographies which have been translated into more than 10 languages.

I spent an afternoon with Ali on his daily route in the 6th arrondissement to document his life as a newspaper vendor and his longstanding popularity in the quarter. You can view the original photo essay on the Sciences Po Paris School of Journalism’s student blog Migrants in Paris. I’ve also turned the photo essay into an interactive photo slideshow on Vuvox.

Selling to the elite

Around 12.30pm, Ali starts making his habitual rounds on the affluent Boulevard Saint Germain. Despite his diminutive size, he walks at a breathless pace, often cutting across traffic to get to the other side of the road, and always with a stack of French newspaper Le Monde in arm which he sells to the French elite.

“Ça y est! Ça y est!”
“That’s it! That’s it!” Covering more than 10 kilometers a day, Ali’s signature cry is instantly recognisable by the quarter’s inhabitants – a tactic which has won him much sales and consequently much popularity with his employers. He often furnishes his pitch with the headlines of the day. Sometimes they are real. Sometimes they are cheeky, blatant lies such as Sarkozy is dead. Today, he cries: “Strauss-Kahn candidat! Strauss-Kahn candidat!” Strauss-Kahn is running for president.

In the restaurants
All the restaurants in the area know Ali well. He kisses the cheeks of the female waiters, gives them big hugs, shakes the hands of the managers. His loud cry throughout the dining hall bothers no-one. He knows the floorplans so well that he can easily cover a restaurant within a minute (if no loyal clients stop him for a chat), coming in through the front door and zipping out through the rear entrance like a fresh gust of air.

Les fidèles
Ali has friends – the loyal ones – in every café and brasserie. They expect Ali everyday and never fail to buy a paper. This Turkish man is, amongst dozens of others, his “very good friend”. The two warmly embrace and exchange updates. The man smiles after Ali as he runs into the restaurant to make his rounds. “I have known Ali for nearly 35 years. I know his whole family! His five sons, his wife. He’s quite a character, isn’t he?”

Tempted to stay
Ali often sits down with his loyal ones while passing them the day’s papers, chatting easily as though they have known each other forever. For this group of men, forever does not seem like much of an exaggeration. They have been friends for 40 years. One man is an astrologist, the other a palm-reader. The conversation runs naturally and Ali is always tempted to stay for a coffee. “I cannot stay,” Ali says ruefully but firmly. “If I do, it means I get less sales.” The men understand. “Allez, au travail!” They wave him jokingly back to work.

A ladies’ man
Groups of ladies greet Ali as though they are his grandmother, clucking at him affectionately although they cannot be very different in age – Ali is 57. One lady inside the brasserie raps sharply on the window and beckons him. “Are you forgetting about me?” she calls out. Ali is by her side in moments, giving her a warm hug and kisses. The ladies pass him bills which he swiftly exchanges for small piles of coins. He works so quickly that the lady inside the brasserie has to call him back to her: “I still need to pay you for yesterday!”

Hailed on the streets
Between cafés and restaurants, Ali is often stopped on the streets. Sometimes these are also loyal ones who do not want to miss buying a paper from their favourite vendor. Sometimes they are strangers who turn at the sound of his cries. One loyal one laughs knowingly as he spots the Pakistani. “Who died today, Ali?”

Bonjour around every corner
Ali is never too busy to respond to shout-outs on the street. People lean out of car windows to call out to him. Old men walking their dogs wave to him. Being with Ali is like going around with a social passport in the 6th arrondissement. His friends seem to all be friends with each other, as though they form a club of his loyal ones. Even I get friendly waves.

Weaving through traffic
Ali transports his papers from one end of the Boulevard Saint Germain to the other using a sturdy old bike with a basket on the front and back. He weaves through the traffic in the narrow streets with complete ease, but the sight of the small Pakistani man in his haste makes it terrifying to watch.

A local celebrity
“Ça y est, Ali! Somebody is following you!” A couple of waiters call after him while keeping their eyes on me. Ali responds jovially between his trademark cries. “Yes yes, she is my friend. A journalist from Malaysia!” They laugh and pull him over gently by his arm. They want a picture with their local celebrity.

Camaraderie
Ali also sells to restaurants. At Le J’Go, he hands over a pile of Le Monde papers and special issues and is given a glass of red wine in return. He tells me confidentially: “I don’t always drink. Only once in a while. I never take advantage, you know. That’s not what friends are for.” The chef and the bartender are cool dudes: no hugs and affectionate gestures here, just laid-back shows of mutual respect and camaraderie. “I like this place,” Ali says. “The atmosphere is good.”

Sharing his views
Nearing the end of his route, Ali gets us a couple of glasses of red wine (again on the house). He grows philosophical while reminiscing about his life, speaking of how there are good and bad people in the world, but the good are in the minority. I ask him how he feels about the most recent crackdown on work permits. He replies thoughtfully: “In life, it is good if you are forced to suffer a bit. It is more difficult now, so what? This means you will work harder. You cannot really appreciate happiness if you never work for it.”

Lunch break
Around 3pm, Ali makes his way out of a brasserie and into a Chinese caterer. This is where he has his daily lunch. “The food is good and cheap here. Asian food is always cheap, you know,” he says. He picks out a box of white rice and some shrimps and dumplings to go with it.

“I make the world laugh, but the world makes me cry”
Ali’s first book and the one he is best known for – Je fais rire le monde… mais le monde me fait pleurer! – is an autobiography which traces his journey from Pakistan to France as well as his personal struggle with his family. It is an alternative source of income besides his newspaper, but only a modest one. “I make 80 cents per book when a bookshop sells it.” Ali carries a few copies with him in his bicycle whenever he goes on his newspaper route. For someone who has never gone to school, his writing is unexpectedly alluring – the language is simple, the narrative startlingly aware.

Immortalised as the Loved One
In 2011, the district council of the 6th arrondissement held a poll asking residents to nominate the “Loved Ones” of the quarter. The only foreign nominee, Ali emerged with the most votes. His portrait has been immortalized on the wall of a building on Rue du Four, a collaborative painting which he himself participated in. The mural is located here.

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