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A Night Out with Umar, One of Paris's Undocumented Rose Sellers

In the Oberkampf neighborhood of Paris, Umar sells single roses, earning 20 cents per stem to support his family in Pakistan.

by Lawrence Neil
14 February 2015, 3:28pm

Photo via Flickr user gaijin_seb

On any given Thursday night, Parisians pack the covered patios in Oberkampf, a neighborhood in northeast Paris. This nightlife district falls on the path of Paris's gentrifying corridor that began in the Marais in the 2000s and has since crept up past Republique toward immigrant communities, increasingly blurring the line between fro-yo zone and no-go zone, suburban and Sub-Saharan, rapidly pressing towards Paris's northeastern banlieues.

Oberkampf is where I first saw Umar (not his real name), one of Paris's many rose sellers. In the yellow streetlight of the world's most romantic city, Umar walks and sings on the sidewalk. He is middle-aged—late 40s—and clean-shaven with a sudden smile. He walks with a straight back. Like hundreds of other South Asian men in this city, Umar spends his nights selling roses to the 20- and 30-somethings who pack the cafés, bars, and pubs of the Parisian nightlife.

These men are ubiquitous in the bar scene, weaving through stools and booths in 15-minute intervals, rarely acknowledged by more than a grimace, a waved hand, or a shaken head. Sometimes they sell flashing mouse ears.

Umar missed our planned meeting time but he probably had other things on his mind, like how he would make his 20 to 30 cents on the Euro selling the individually wrapped roses he holds in his left hand. He buys them in bulk from vendors in northern Paris, for prices ranging between 60 and 80 Euro cents per rose. Umar's selling price? He demonstrated as he approached a group of bar-goers.

"One for one! Two for two! Four for four! And for you—" He paused and gently nudged his knuckles into the cheek of a remarkably receptive man seated beneath a heating lamp. "Five for five!" His company at the table laughed, as they always do with Umar.

Umar is a Pakistani immigrant denied asylum and living without papers. He has been in France for two years and some months, choosing to flee a dangerous professional situation on recommendation from friends who have been living in Paris for ten years. He left behind a wife and four children, two teenage sons and two young daughters. He speaks to them every week. Without working documents and with his asylum case rejected by the French administration, it is difficult to find a source of income, and he, like the many other bouquet-toting men from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, has taken to selling roses from bar to bar.

"I pay 200 for a room. Plus electricity, and food. And other bills. I have to find money," Umar explained. "Some have language problems, some have no papers, but rose sellers are pure people. Not thieves. Not liars. We do things the right way, not the wrong way."

And Umar's is really the right way. Over the course of the evening, he sold close to 30 flowers. He said it's because these are the days of love, with Valentine's Day fast approaching, but another vendor I spoke with on my walk home sold none.

Umar's relative success as a rose seller may be the result of his having turned himself into a fascinating brand; he sells a brief performance of himself, rather than just a flower. He is charismatic and gregarious, flipping apathetic Parisians into laughing buyers within seconds. He turns them into kids. He serenades them. He invades the personal space of canoodling couples with panache and charm.

"MONSIEUR!" He bellowed in his rich, sing-song voice as he walks into a café and pulls out a shimmering blue flower. "Extraordinary new variety, Monsieur, WATER DIAMOND! WATER GALAXY! GALAXY FLOWER!" The flower is blue, with sparkles. It's also fake, as Umar told me beforehand, laughing like he'd pulled off a sly trick. All in all, Umar concedes that Parisians are polite, kind people. The man buys two flowers for the women at the table.

Photo courtesy of the author

"Red roses are the symbol of love, so they are the most popular," Umar explained. "But white, too, is popular. It is the symbol of friendship. And it is the symbol of purity. And it is the symbol of peace. And white people buy the most," he told me, "for their girlfriends."

While bartenders and restaurateurs are generally disinterested in rose vendors, allowing them to take benign spins around their shops, they literally embrace Umar. One restaurant owner talking on a cell phone kissed Umar on both cheeks. Inside, Umar bowed to the owner's son behind the bar with a flourish; the son bowed back, and Umar turned to a table in the relatively upscale restaurant, where he sold a man a rose.

"Lots of people remember me. They say, 'Your way of selling is the best,' or, 'Your smiles are the best,' or, 'Oh! Singer Flower Seller!'" Umar told me with a smile.

I asked if he sang when he first started selling and he told me no. When I asked why he began to sing he looked at me like I was dumb. "Because I have the best voice."

On the street regulars gave him hugs and asked how his night was going. When he walked past someone he recognized in a bar, he'd backpedal and blow them a kiss. Servers saluted him. If an acquaintance spoke to him in French, Umar just started to sing and pranced away.

"I only speak English. Here are the French words I know. Bon soir: it means, 'good evening.' Bonjour: it means, 'good day.' Mademoiselle, monsieur."He looks straight ahead. Does he want to learn French? "Nah," he shrugged.

"Even though you've been here for two years?," I asked.

"And some months," he replied.

Umar only works Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. For the most part, bars are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are not busy enough. That's 50 euros a week, if things go exceptionally well.

But each month Umar manages to send money home to Pakistan. He told me this toward the end of our evening after we'd spent a few hours together, as more and more cafés closed.

"My children are students. I send money so they can keep going. School is their life." Umar's demeanor switches between joking and serious frequently and suddenly.

He grew quiet. His few remaining roses, Water Galaxy included, swung by his left leg as we walked through a quiet square. I asked him what he spoke to his children about.

"I am a father of little kids. I love my family. Our children. From France, I love them because it is very important for them to be happy. When we talk—we talk about love."

I asked him their names and he told me each, slowly. We stopped at an intersection even though there were no cars. "My children say, 'Papa. You come back.'" His voice shook. "'Because I need not money; I need Papa. Papa, come back.'" Umar turned away, with wet eyes. "Life is difficult in Paris because I love my children. I cannot return because I do not have papers."

"Without paper, no life. I have no solution." He looked at me once again, wiped his nose, and put on a sudden smile. Like that, he walked into another bar.

When he came back out, he looked up the road and said, "I must finish my work time now." With four or five roses still in his left hand, he turned and walked away.

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Tagged:
Paris
asylum
GENTRIFICATION
undocumented immigrants
Roses
Vice Blog
valentine's day
banlieues
parisians
Oberkampf