Arabs, Jews give life to “Little Tunis” in Paris
PARIS (Reuters Life!) – On the map, it’s a tiny strip of eastern Paris along Boulevard de Belleville. But for the Tunisian immigrants who call it home, the packed Arabic-and Hebrew-lettered storefronts mark out ‘Little Tunis.’
In a country where relations between Arabs and Jews is often cool, the neighborhood is an island of peaceful coexistence where bakeries, grills and butcher shops sit side-by-side preparing food according to Muslim and Jewish dietary laws.
For the first time in years, Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan, when they fast from dawn to dusk, at the same time as the Jewish high holidays when Jews observe the holiest day of their calendar, the Day of Atonement fast day.
Eighty year-old Maurice Cohen, who has lived here for 25 years, said both religions were observing a time of reflection and solemnity side by side in Little Tunis.
“Despite what goes on in the Middle East, this is a Tunisian neighborhood par excellence, an example of good neighborly relations,” he said.
Many of the customs here are similar, brought over to France from North Africa.
At the Arab-owned Lamama pastry shop, a queue of people spill onto the street as bakers rush to keep up with orders for honey-soaked baklava, almond-stuffed cakes, and hot beignets.
“We sell pretty much the same stuff as our Jewish neighbors… these Oriental pastries even have the same names, just a different touch,” said Amara Amani, whose family also runs another restaurant in the neighborhood.
Down the road, a Jewish shop sells similar sweets.
“We opened up in 1962, around the same time the Muslims started coming, and things have always been amicable,” says bakery owner Alain Zaitoun, whose sales have spiked as Jewish shoppers stocked up for the Jewish holidays.
Many immigrants reminisce about their times back in the old country, when Tunisia, which once had a large Jewish population and is home to the biggest synagogue in the region, was a shining example of peaceful coexistence.
Here, this nostalgia seems to play out on the street, where Muslim and Jewish men wearing traditional skullcaps stroll side-by-side during the pre-sundown shopping promenade.
“Both groups came here en masse following the successive Arab-Israeli wars, but once they arrived in France they realized that Tunisian customs left them with much in common,” said Jean-Michel Rosenfeld, an official at the local city hall.
“I can’t think of any place in France where relations between Jews and Muslims are better,” he said. “I even know a Jewish-owned restaurant that stays open on the (Jewish) Sabbath because the owner passes the keys over to a Muslim friend.”
France’s five-million-strong Muslim minority is the largest in Europe, while its Jewish community of about 600,000 is the world’s third-largest after the United States and Israel.
Relations between the communities have sometimes been tense, especially at times when the Arab-Israeli conflict heated up.
Rabbi Michel Serfaty, who runs a Jewish-Muslim friendship organization, says that French cities like Bordeaux and Marseille are also good examples of Jewish-Muslim relations.
“After all, the two civilizations are very close, and have many similar traditions: they are monotheistic, recognize many of the same prophets, encourage fasting, and have special ways of preparing food,” he said.