At a Crossroads in Paris – the city where anything can happen. By Patricia Killeen
Paris might be one of the best places in the world to enjoy life’s proverbial ‘Crossroads’. To be honest it might even be worth hopping on a plane or train to see how an interesting and tumultuous time could unfold in the City of Light and the people you might meet. As Sabrina Fairchild said in the movie Sabrina “Paris isn’t for changing planes, it’s… it’s for changing your outlook, for… for throwing open the windows and letting in… letting in la vie en rose”. There’s so much going on in this city and for me Paris was and is an amazing backdrop but like everywhere else it’s also about the people you meet. A few years ago when waiting on the metro I met a sparkling, generous lady called ‘Tata Milouda’, who inspired me to pick up my pen and here’s the story.
The night I met Milouda, I was dressed up to the nines and must have looked pretty incongruous waiting at the Saint Ouen station in the 93 district for the metro to whisk me into Paris. One of my friends, the then editor of Grazia magazine, was hosting a masquerade ball in the Opera Garnier. It was fashion week, and the invitation list was a who’s who of the fashion world along with international artists like Kanye West strutting their stuff. I was carefully carrying my newly bought Venetian mask in one of my better plastic bags (a Lidl bag wouldn’t have been up to this occasion). However, I was still feeling stressed and indulging in one of my habitual worries in Paris; the “am I overdressed, underdressed, badly dressed” dilemma, when all of a sudden a woman started to gesticulate and shout in front of me. Now anyone who’s taken the infamous metro Line 13 knows the line and the quays can be pretty animated at times, so I wasn’t paying much attention and was still very much focused on the probable failings of my outfit. Then suddenly the little woman in front of me came into focus and I realised she was slamming not shouting. She started improvising, saying “look at this beautiful woman with her hair flowing and her elegant attire”, “this is Paris, this is Liberty!”, she shouted and then slammed on into one of her famous numbers entitled “Mon pen, my notebook, my Liberty”. Reassured by this unusual vote of confidence, I gave her my full attention and I also noticed two cameramen were filming her from the other side of the quay. As my metro arrived she gave me her card and said ‘my name is Tata Milhouda, I’m on Face book. I know we’ll become friends’.
The next day as I was recovering from my Grazia party hangover I was pondering on how useful as well as pretty my Venetian mask had been, (I’d caught my bracelet in a “Devil Wear’s Prada” type of fashion editor’s dress – but as behind my mask I might have been someone extremely important, she was uncharacteristically gracious about it). Then I remembered the lady slammer from the metro, and I fired up my computer to find out more about her. It was to be the most original Disney like tale that I have ever come across…
Milouda was born in 1950 in Machraa Ben Abbou, a small village 1h45 south of Casablanca. Her father had three wives and twelve children. In her village in the 1950’s girls weren’t allowed to attend school. As a child she accompanied her brother to and from school, carrying his school bag with pride but only to relinquish it and be left woebegone and alone outside the pearly school gates. When she begged to be allowed to go to school her father beat her. They weren’t well off and when a rich uncle living in Casablanca offered to adopt her little sister her parents agreed. This was a fantastic opportunity for her little sister whose life in the city was radically different from the village. She would even benefit from an education at a top notch private school. A while later the uncle requested that the seven-year-old Milhouda be sent to keep her sister company. Young Milouda thought “this is it – my luck has arrived” and off she went. However, she was to work as an unpaid servant for her uncle and aunt from the age of 7 to 14 and to address her little “uptown” sister as “cousin”. Once again she would have the heart breaking job of accompanying a sibling to and from school while being denied her own dearest dream – to learn how to read and write. When she cried her grandmother told her she just had to accept that her sister had a wonderful “destiny” but hers was a different and “lower one”. Her mother told her to “be patient Milouda, one day you’ll go to paradise and you’ll happy then”. Gutsy little Milouda replied she’d like a little paradise right now, but her mother just sadly shook her head and sighed.
At 14 her parents arranged a marriage for her with an older man who turned out to be violent and vindictive. In her village if a girl was still single at fifteen she was considered to be over the hill. One of her sisters was even forced to marry at eleven! The first of Milouda’s six children was born when she was fifteen and for the next twenty-five years, like most of the other women in her village, she was oppressed and unhappy. However, despite her mother and grandmother’s belief that she would have to settle for her lot, a different destiny was slowly starting to twinkle in the stars for Milouda…..
When she was forty her husband decided he wanted to build a house and Milouda volunteered to go to Paris to work as a cleaning lady to earn the money for the construction. He agreed as long as she left the children behind and she would send every penny of her wages back. She left with 3 words of French, (hello, goodbye and thank you), her newly acquire passport and 100 francs ($16) in her pocket. She lived as an illegal immigrant for five and a half years. Her first employer, a rich Syrian, confiscated her passport, beat her and locked her up by for a few months. When Milouda became ill he threw her out into the streets but she managed to pick herself up and somehow find other cleaning jobs to look after her very basic needs and send money home. The life of an illegal, illiterate immigrant was frightening but she kept the faith and also kept chickpeas in her pocket to count the number of metro stops to negotiate her way from one cleaning job to another. In 1993 when she was 43 she managed to divorce her husband through the Moroccan courts. For Disney princesses their wedding day is the happiest day of their lives but for Milouda it was the day her divorce was granted. In 1994 she was granted the Carte de Sejour, (equivalent of the green card) and by 1998 her three daughters were settled in Paris with her. Whoever was in charge of cranking up the wheel of life for Milouda was back from a long leave of absence…..
The real turning point in her life was in 1999. Not long before her 50th birthday, she took an enormous leap of faith and plucked up her courage and knocked on the door of an association that ran literacy courses and French classes. She took to learning like a duck to water. Her childhood dream was finally coming true. After learning to read and write the association asked what she’d like to be trained at and were bemused when she answered ‘Theatre’. To keep her happy they sent her on a theatre course where the other much younger students made fun of her age and her French, but Milouda didn’t care. Now she knew how to read and write she had found her voice and her liberty. She had her note book and her pen, “the crossroads of her soul”. She was living in Paris the city where “everything is possible!” She met Fabien Marsaud (stage name: Grand Corps Malade) the famous French slammer who adopted her and nicknamed her Tata (aunty) Milouda. From the very first time she heard him slam, she knew this technique of using raw, urban poetry would be her medium to tell the story of her life, the pain of her past and the joy of her new found liberty. She slams about how as a young girl she had been “a sleeping rose in an abandoned garden”. Her life has changed miraculously. Sleeping Beauty is no longer young, but she’s definately wide awake, performing and travelling the world. She inspires her audiences to search for their own personal liberty and means of expression and joy. At 57, (2007), she gave her first one-man show, “Et vive la liberté”, where she joked, danced and slammed her way to fame. Three years later, at 60, to the consternation of her siblings in Morocco, she would shake out her long hennaed hair, that had been hidden for so many years, and she’d dance and slam on the stages of the ‘Cabaret Sauvage’ and at the ‘Maison de Métallos’.
But that’s not the end of the story, the Disney tale continues, Hadja Lahbib made a documentary film entitled “Patience, patience T’iras au Paradis” about how six Moroccan immigrants from Molenbeek Bruxelles radically changed their lives after seeing Tata Milouda’s show. Filmed between France, Belgium, Morocco and even New York where Tata Milouda and the six immigrant women sparkle in a story of group solidarity and personal liberation. She would also play the leading role in another film entitled ‘D’une Pierre deux coups’. She was a contestant in the French equivalent of ‘America’s got Talent’. In 2012 Frederic Mitterrand declared her a “Chevalier des Arts et Des lettres” for her significant contribution to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance. A wall of the Museum of Immigration (Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration, 293 Avenue Daumesnil, 75012 Paris) will soon be dedicated to her life story. She encourages the thousands of women that follow her on face book to lighten their hearts by writing about their lives. Three of her protégés have film projects and nine of them are writing books – some of these women only learnt how to read and write after meeting Milouda! Today she’s well known in France, Belgium, Germany and is starting to be known in Canada. At 66 she has more projects than a teenager and her joie de vie is contagious. She wants to continue until everyone in the world hears her slam about her life, women’s rights and the horrors of domestic violence and illiteracy.
Oscar Wilde said “when good Americans die, they go to Paris”. Tata Milouda staked a claim to her bit of paradise while here on earth and why should anyone procrastinate? Heaven can wait, there’s so much in Paris for the mind, body and soul.
The film “Patience, patience T’iras au Paradis” will be shown on 29 November at 7pm at the Maison de Métallos, 94 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 75011 Paris and Tata Milouda will be there in person to present the film.
Please put invitation from Patricia Killeen and you will receive free tickets but you have to order them on: email@example.com