PARIS – Seeing Ali Akbar selling Le Monde on the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is startling. Not simply because he is often calling out his own headlines like, “Monica Lewinsky pregnant by Obama! She’s got twins!” or “Sarkozy converts to Islam!” But when was the last time you saw someone selling paper newspapers on foot in the street?
Akbar admits, “it’s just me now.” When he began in Paris 42 years ago, he was one of many vendors. But this is merely one of the many things about Akbar that are exceptional. The formerly illegal Pakistani immigrant, born into poverty, has become one of this wealthy Parisian neighborhood’s local celebrities, without ever being a resident. In 2011 he was voted one of its “Loved Ones” and the local government commissioned a mural of his face on Rue du Four. He has written two autobiographies and is working on a third book about Saint-Germain and its residents (in French, his third language). He also says he has not gotten more than about five hours of sleep per night since he was 15 years old.
The 62-year-old has raised five children in a Parisian suburb, and when asked why he continues to work selling papers during his retirement, he says, “I do it for myself…and for my clients in the neighborhood.” At 50 cents per copy, and between 40-50 copies per day, he agrees that he earns very little money doing such labor-intensive work.
But work has evidently been an integral part of his life, beginning at age 10, shoeless on the streets of Pakistan. He would wake up at 3 a.m. to work a buffalo herd, fetch the morning’s newspapers and sell them on the streets, shine shoes and clean stores: “All [the work] I could find.” In his books he describes the poverty, hunger, abuse and “misery” of his childhood. He ultimately left his mother, seven siblings and abusive father in Pakistan before he was 18. By way of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and China he eventually ended up Paris in the 1970s, learning French as he went, “by listening.” He soon met a newspaper vendor in Saint-Germain who taught him the trade in France. And some forty years later he is a mainstay of the neighborhood.
When asked about his business model, Akbar answers, “I am not ruled by anyone…I am entirely independent.” While known as a vendor of Le Monde who often wears a Le Monde baseball cap, he buys the papers directly from a distributor, not from the publication; it is simply the paper that sells best. Playing off of this reputation though, he titled his first autobiography, Je fais rire le monde…mais le monde me fait pleurer (I make the world laugh…but the world makes me cry). His second is, La fabuleuse histoire du vendeur de journaux qui a conquis le monde (The fabulous story of a newspaper vendor who conquered the world). He actually carries around some copies of other French newspapers too, but admits with a smile that he gets them for free from nearby hotels.
Akbar’s energy is contagious and exhausting. He covers the entire neighborhood at a brisk pace for about four hours every afternoon, both on bike and on foot, smiling and calling out his chosen headlines, constantly hailed over by loyal clients and friends. “It’s not easy, my work…but I love people,” he says.
When asked what advice he would give to the world, he answered, “We can always succeed in life when we fight and struggle…People need to know you can succeed anywhere. It’s up to you how much you focus.”
His opinion on the state of the printed press, however, is not so optimistic: “Yes, its finished.” He has concluded that the newspapers of the young are their smart phones, and that hard copies are “really too expensive for students.” What few papers he sells in Saint-Germain are to older “intellectuals.” He notes that if not for the academic character of the neighborhood, he would barely sell any.
But despite this, Akbar’s days remain busy on the streets of Saint-Germain. He calls out to an older well-dressed woman walking across the street: “Catherine, Le Monde, today?” She smiles and says, “maybe tomorrow, Ali!” As he puts it, “The press is dead but not me. I’ve resisted, to exist.” And this could not be truer. With the odds stacked against him at birth and now stacked against his adopted profession, Akbar has resisted and persisted remarkably to get to where he is today. And he shows no signs of stopping.