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Environmental Humanities Research Hub

Grounded

Written by Anna-Louise Milne, Professor of French Studies at the University of London Institute in Paris | 15 Sep 2023

Uneasy is the land, it is shuddering.
The long-neglected district of La Chapelle, an entrenched ‘point de fixation’ for both migrant camps and crack usage in one of the densest and most troubled neighbourhoods of the densest and perhaps most volatile city in Europe, is a maze of incomprehensible barriers and sudden sink holes. The diggers and developers are answering the call of the imminent Olympics Games (due in 2024) and the longer-term climate-related ambitions of the current townhall, as well as opportunities for real estate in one of the last zones of substantial brown sites within the inner city. Together they are overturning the ground, reshaping it, plumbing it, for a future announced as more ‘eco-friendly’. Given the scale of this transformation with its colourful, inflationary messaging, it would be easy to pass over a more modest, unlikely development on the edge of the public park where a fluctuating group of displaced people have spent the summer raising a traditional mud construction known as a Tolek hut or a ‘case obus’ from the ill-served land of old railway sidings. But arguably this makeshift building site is the more significant change in the landscape. 

Earth Hut - grounded

The site is known as the Cour du Maroc because the workforce serving that part of the huge sprawl of transport infrastructure came from Morocco as immigrant labourers. Today it sees regular gatherings of often hundreds of migrant men, sometimes with family, but more often alone, from East Africa, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan of course. Most are on the move and stuck at the same time, held in the contradictions and vicissitudes of an asylum system that deploys time to its ends, using acceleration, stoppage, pushback, delay, to control citizenship and ensure border control. The men need a stable place to sleep, an opportunity to use the skills they already have or gain new ones, access to language classes, the confidence that rights enshrined in European and international law will be respected, and ultimately the chance to reunite their family or build one in Europe. And these preoccupations dominate the questions and demands that are addressed to solidarity organisations that also come and go around this area. The ‘mudhut’ they have contributed to building is too small to house anyone, though people do store bags and covers in it. It is also too big to be part of a model village, though Mohaman Haman, the architect and urbanist behind the initiative, would like nothing more than to see his ‘cases obus’ proliferate here and elsewhere across the Île-de-France. The process of building it is undoubtedly instructive of traditional ways of using natural materials (earth, straw, gravel, the gluey substance that comes from pounding yams), expertise which Mohaman is invited to share in various architectural schools and which he dearly hopes to see taken more seriously in his own country of origin, Cameroon, where giants like the cement industrialist Lafarge dominate the land. Although it is still positioned as a fringe interest (and often unpaid), we can easily see how his decades-long commitment to rekindling awareness of earth-based constructions in France and in Cameroon[1] will be sucked into a new cycle of building orthodoxy as developers seek solutions for an overheating planet. Meanwhile, the local authorities’ tolerance of the way this unsolicited activity has commandeered part of a public park probably just reflects the fact that they perceive it as a less harmful occupation than many others in the area.

End of story?

Mohaman stresses the collective, all-comers, aspect of this project. Local children work alongside German tourists and Eritrean asylum seekers, while older workers from Mali and elsewhere taking a break from the jobs on the city’s breakneck building sites add advice, and still largely disoriented people from Afghanistan try to get a sense of the lay of the land in Paris. The components of the scene are quite specific to this crossroads, but they also reflect one of the aspects that Mohaman also underscores about this vernacular architecture: traditionally everyone would play a role in the building of a ‘case,’ and more, this new construction would contain within it the legacy and materials of previous ‘cases,’ and previous lives, in this context the lives of the Chibanis or migrant workers from North Africa who laboured right here. So the collectivity that is constituted with and through this exercise in earthworks is not just the relatively contingent grouping of people ‘thrown together’ by the violent winds of contemporary politics. It reaches back and out, and this extension is part of what it would mean to receive this work as a land claim, a self-declared stance as custodian of this plot of earth, beholden it by bonds of care and duty, in contrast with treating this project as a ‘happening’ or event. It’s a stance, let us note, that may well be necessary if the people who gravitate here have any chance of standing ‘their ground’ against the forces at work around them.

The idea of a land claim in a context so marked by successive waves of immigration is counterintuitive. Habitually such a claim invokes the constancy of ancestral belonging. But is endurance in time, often in the face of genocidal colonisation, the best grounds to build on? What assumptions are built in? Where does this leave the ever-growing diasporic communities around the world? And how long is long enough to found a claim to be custodian of the land? These are questions that intersect with the political alliances that the feminist militant and scholar Fatima Ouassak is arguing for in her new book Pour une écologie pirate (2023).[2]

Fatima Ouassak book
Fatima Ouassak - Pour une écologie pirate

Her position is incongruous and significant in a landscape divided between the tragedies and systemic damage of racialised violence, on the one hand, and white, middle-class dominated, ecology movements, whether these are positioned relative to parliamentary objectives or civil-disobedience strategies. She defines the inhabitants of the banlieues and housing estates of global cities as the ‘sans terre,’ the landless, and yet claims that their connections across time to the fight for the land in the wars of decolonisation in particular, and their patient resourcefulness in the face of secular adversity, underpin their capacity to transform the battle for the planet today. So the stakes she raises in calling for these alliances are strategic and ethical. Not only: what does the ecology movement stand to gain from seriously considering its failure so far to ignite the energies of those on the frontline of racial capital, in Europe and abroad? But also: at what cost, and to whom, does this failure go on imperviously? Readers of this blog are likely to be predisposed to receive her arguments and can possibly point to occasions and dialogues where similar analysis is offered. But the Tolek hut in La Chapelle is an occasion for thinking about what this stance might mean in built form. 

And at first sight, it looks fairly far-fetched. But perhaps that is exactly the perception we need, rather than ducking behind benevolent amusement or blithe admiration, so long as we take it seriously, detaching it from any connotations of whimsicality. Because this is a work of determination, as well as the sum of skills that come from a long way back, and materials that have been patiently transported and stored, ground and dried, reshaped and repaired, none of which was called for here. But it is also easily dismissed and fragile as a result, requiring a particularly patient sort of attention and care. And in all of these respects, it is the ungrounded groundedness, or the uninvited custodianship, that matters. The project shares a self-elected duty to this site with other, largely overlooked acts: people who take the time and the care to nurture a fellow presence, human or not, in a relation to the world around them that bypasses the state and the local authorities, expecting little to nothing from them and not waiting for authorisation. But what the Tolek hut materialises is a particularly multilayered relation to time, to the time of transmission from one generation to the next, but also the time it takes to grind the earth into powder, to wait for the sun to dry it, to find the next batch of earth from a network of like-minded builders scattered far and wide, to imagine this accretive process as part of a shared future as well as a valued past. All the experiences of time that congeal in this ‘case obus’ are challenges to the linear time of development as they are to the perverse fluctuations of the asylum system. And they offer a way into imagining custodianship of the earth in patterns that extend across continents and answer to the longue durée as well as the upkeep of the everyday. It may well be sadly far-fetched, in the particular state of the world that is La Chapelle, to imagine the ‘landless’ of the Cour du Maroc claiming a prerogative to protect and shape the future of this ground. But Mohaman Haman and his cobuilders are already doing just that. The key thing is not to pass by, lured or harried by the shudders all around.

[1] Mohaman Haman created the association CICAT (Coopération internationale pour la conservation et la promotion du patrimoine architectural traditionnel) to support the exchange of skills and knowledge between Cameroon and France in particular. The association was notably at the origin of an exhibition of vernacular architecture around the world under the auspices of UNESCO in 1996. This blog is part of a larger project to gather an account of Mohaman Haman’s pioneering work since the 1970s.

[2] This book is the second in what Ouassak has announced as a trilogy. The first volume was La Puissance des mères. Pour un nouveau sujet révolutionnaire (La Découverte, 2021), which draws on her experience in founding the militant group Le Front des mères.

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