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An afternoon with Ali Akbar

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An afternoon with Ali Akbar

  1. 1. Quick on the go Not your ordinary newspaper vendor, Ali Akbar is a local celebrity in this Parisian district. 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.
  2. 2. "Ça y est! Ça y est!" "That's it! That's it!" Covering more than 10km a day, Ali's signature cry is instantly recognisable - 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. Today, he cries: "Strauss-Kahn candidat! Strauss-Kahn candidat!" Strauss-Kahn is running for president.
  3. 3. In the house All the restaurants in the area know Ali well. He kisses the cheeks of the 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 friends have stopped him for a chat), coming in through the front door and zipping out through the rear entrance like a fresh gust of air.
  4. 4. 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. "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?" the man says.
  5. 5. Tempted to stay Ali often sits with his loyal ones while passing them the day's papers, chatting easily as though they have known each other forever. This group of men have known Ali for 40 years. The conversation runs naturally and Ali is always tempted to stay for a coffee. "I cannot stay," he 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.
  6. 6. A ladies' man Ladies greet Ali as though they are his grandmother, clucking at him affectionately although they cannot be very different in age - Ali is 57. A lady inside the brasserie raps sharply on the window : "Are you forgetting about me?” Ali is by her side in moments, giving her a warm hug. He swiftly exchanges bills for small piles of coins, working so quickly she has to call him back : "I still need to pay you for yesterday!"
  7. 7. Hailed on the streets Between cafés and restaurants, Ali is often stopped on the streets. Often these are “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. Locals mimic his call to hail his attention: “Ça y est!”
  8. 8. 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.
  9. 9. 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 is terrifying to watch.
  10. 10. A local celebrity “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.
  11. 11. 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 says confidentially: "I don't always drink. Only once in a while. I never take advantage, you know. That's not what friends are for.”
  12. 12. Sharing his views on restricted work permits 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. I ask him how he feels about the most recent crackdown on work permits. He says: "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."
  13. 13. 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.
  14. 14. "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. It is an alternative source of income besides his newspaper, but a modest one. "I make 80 cents per book when a bookshop sells it."
  15. 15. Immortalized as the “Loved One” In 2011, the district council of the 6th arrondissement asked 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.

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