Taking Flight

How teenagers in an impoverished Parisian neighborhood discovered Buddhism and the courage to sustain hope.

Mariane Pearl

BEHIND THE APARTMENT building where I grew up, on the northeast side of Paris, there was a concrete block that we nicknamed le carré, or the square. Its real purpose, as far as I can remember, was to provide ventilation for the building. From time to time, hot dusty air would come out of it. When you sat on le carré, you would have a view of the building that faced ours, with its tiny windows and parking lot. But for my friends and me, it was the concrete nest of our unfinished selves, a silent observer of our gregarious, insecure teenage lives. It was there that we created love stories and dramas. It was there that we shed tears, shared laughter, and spent long boring hours waiting for time to pass.
By the time we were fifteen years old, a lot of us had dropped out of school. The luckiest ones had some direction—they wanted to become musicians. They had a vision for their lives and who they wanted to become. But there we all were hanging out at le carré, guys in tight jeans and long curly hair, and some of us girls hiding our bodies in ample hippie clothes.
We all used slang language created by reversing syllables and introducing Arabic words into our French language. Most of my friends came from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. We also had a few Jewish friends and a couple of Protestants. My brother and I were half Dutch, half Cuban, and vaguely atheist. None of us had much faith. My Muslim friends were facing the type of racism that no one openly acknowledged. It was more of a rampant rejection. If you looked Arabic, or if your name sounded North African, it was more difficult to have high hopes for your life, or to be accepted into French society. 
Le carré and the streets surrounding it were our territory, and we covered it like a herd, secretly wishing we could fly. We smoked marijuana, and when we were high, even though we were still sitting on that concrete block, we were no longer prisoners of its limitations. Hopes and dreams would be unleashed.

Ben, my best friend, was the eldest son of first-generation immigrants from Algeria. When he was seventeen, his father kicked him out of their home, so Ben moved fifty feet away; he moved in with us.

My mother, who was widowed at thirty-eight, had taken on the burden of protecting all of us but was beginning to feel overwhelmed. She had a way of becoming everyone's best friend, and our one-bedroom apartment became a refuge. There were drugs out there and bad guys. Many had parents who were working too hard or had no job at all, who had lost touch with their growing kids. By then we all dreamt that we could fly to America. No wonder my mother was concerned.

One of the kids who grew up with us, Thierry, called us from downstairs. He was holding his crossbow. He saw my mother's sweet, round face at the window and simply said, "I just killed my father." Thierry had just found out that his father had seduced the girl with whom Thierry had been having a passionate love affair. My mom took him to the police. It was then that she knew that things were getting worse all around us and she could no longer protect us.

The Africans in our neighborhood had turned to hard drugs. One day, my brother, Satchi, visited the dealers, hoping to get high. Instead of the usual torpor and lazy scene, he found the stoned dealers surrounding a young woman, a drug addict. She was having sex with them in exchange for heroin. The young woman turned her head toward my brother as she was being brutally abused, and my brother knew that he was looking into the face of total despair and self-hatred. For the first time, he was scared for his life.

The next day, he announced that he would be leaving Paris. He and Ben had decided that they were going to move to the south of France, away from the misery we all had started witnessing, to find a job and pursue their dreams.

In Aix-en-Provence, a small and charming town in the southeast of France, Ben met a young man who played the saxophone and sold circus button pins. Ben and the young man engaged in a conversation about world peace. Ben was attracted like a magnet to this man and his incredible idea that our lives indeed have a purpose and that we all have a mission that is unique and precious.

That same night, Ben went to his first Nichiren Buddhist discussion meeting. He saw people who, instead of criticizing society and being cynical about it, had decided to transform their lives and their environment. They were ordinary people, most of them with ordinary jobs. There were a few Arabs, too, and they had a lot to say. They had hope and the courage to sustain it. And they had positive thoughts that didn't require getting high.

Ben and Satchi started chanting the Nichiren Buddhist mantra with fervor. Their practice gave them energy and direction. They started to feel stable and more solid with a will of their own. They marveled, as unknown feelings like compassion and hope began to rise in their hearts. They started working hard. "I had seldom felt so happy," recalled Ben. But instead of trying to tackle world peace, my brother and Ben got advice from a local Buddhist to go back home and change their own lives.

My mother and I immediately noticed the change in my brother. He looked more exalted, his energy was different, and even his voice had changed. My mother was still worried. When Satchi started going to the back stairways of our apartment building and hiding in the bathroom, she thought he was using drugs. She wept and called on my deceased father to help her from the heavens. One morning my mother found the courage to stand in front of the bathroom door waiting for my brother to come out, but this time there was no smoke escaping from under the door. In tears, my mother imagined her son sitting on the toilet, holding his arm straight, his fist clenched, looking for a vein. When my brother came out, he was surprised to find our mother so defeated. They sat down on the living room couch and my brother ended her nightmare. "I am a Buddhist," he said triumphantly. He'd been chanting in the bathroom to avoid disturbing us. My mother's relief was so intense that she wept and laughed at the same time, and then she thanked my dad.

Soon after, my brother let go of le carré and found his first job, at an electric factory. He began living on his motorcycle with his guitar. He was the same young man, yet he was different. He had started making an effort toward his own development, and he liked it. His empty rebellion against society turned into a revolution of the self. Buddhist friends were supporting him and harbored no doubts about his ability and eventual victories. He wasn't wasting his life in a cloud of smoke anymore, getting high; instead he had found a solid spiritual ground on which to walk. I followed him on this path, as did my mom and many of my friends.

Ultimately, we were all able to fly away from le carré without having to escape ourselves. Nichiren Buddhism provided us with the wings and the direction. We finally understood that we each had a mission that was unique and precious, and that our lives would become the stage on which we could accomplish it.

From The Buddha Next Door: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Stories. Editors Zan Gaudioso and Greg Martin. © 2007, Middleway Press; http://www.middlewaypress.com

Image: Flight, II; Krista Elrick; 2007; archival pigment print © KRISTA ELRICK

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