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In the first book of his Marseille noir trilogy Total Chaos, Jean-Claude Izzo describes his hometown: “Marseille isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see.”

On a steep hill sandwiched between Cours Julien and Place Jean Jaurés, sits a tiny sandwich shop and a man who embodies Izzo’s quote in its entirety. A friend who shares a love of this city and its hidden treasures told us about this place, which she happened upon one evening. So together we climbed one of Marseille’s many collines to Blé d’Art, a small, but impossible-to-miss, brightly painted storefront.

“Every day when people pass my shop, they smile,” says the owner, Ghani Smahi, who uses Blé d’Art as his artist moniker as well as the name of his shop. Blé d’Art is many things to many people. Known as a late-night spot to stop and get a sandwich or a crêpe, it is also a room where musicians from the Conservatoire Pierre Barbizet, a music conservatory across the street, and others from around the world gather for impromptu jam sessions. However, to be clear, Ghani is the star of the show – and the real reason not to miss this extraordinary locale.

Ghani’s artistic eye is evident upon entering his eclectic shop. The walls are decorated with his favorite phrases, beautifully hand-painted in his native Arabic script. Musical instruments hang from the ceiling. Freshly cut spring flowers fill the room. In the back there is a screen that sometimes displays a wood-burning fireplace. On one wall rests a piano, and on the opposite wall is Ghani’s open kitchen with a rice maker, a clay tagine pot, other cooking utensils, and a glowing, golden tea pot he uses to brew mint tea.

Originally from Aïn Séfra, Algeria, Ghani is not only physically striking, but upon meeting him, one cannot help but feel they are in the hands of a master emcee. He is immediately warm and welcoming, and has a way with words. “The city of my birth is on a plateau, surrounded by mountains and the dunes of the Sahara,” he fondly recalls. “The sun is reflected in the dunes and is the source of the Sahara’s golden color. It is indescribable. We call it alrabie al’asfar, the yellow spring.”

Born to a nomadic father, Ghani and his family moved a lot, but ultimately returned to Aïn Séfra, where he attended school. He was drawn to the arts, theater and writing, but it was a time of political upheaval. Like many young Algerians at the time, he became active in politics. During the Algerian Civil War from 1991 to 2002, known in Algeria as “The Black Decade,” life became very difficult. Ghani had the opportunity to travel to Lisbon as part of an Algerian delegation that participated in Expo ’98. He references a French expression: “La goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase,” which means “the drop of water that makes the vase overflow.” “That is how I felt,” he says. “I had enough. I was raised free, so I chose my freedom. I thank my parents for how I see the world because they opened my eyes and taught me to see the truth. My heritage, my family.”

After arriving in Lisbon, he defected as a political refugee and did not return to Algeria. Over the years, Ghani worked at different jobs, learning different trades, but kept returning to the kitchen because of his love of cooking and entertaining. He traveled to many parts of France and ended up in Marseille in 2012. After working in other restaurant ventures, he opened Blé d’Art in 2021.

We chose this evening to visit Blé d’Art because we heard there would be good music and were hungry to try the merguez sandwiches. Ghani goes to the organic market every Wednesday morning in Cours Julien and buys fresh ingredients. Afterwards, he slow cooks them in clay tagine pots, blending spices, chickpeas, carrots, onions, raisins and other vegetables depending on what he fancies that day. The result is an exquisite, savory stew served hot inside matlouh, a flatbread made with regular and semolina flour, that is well worth the trip up the hill. Ghani spreads the bread with harissa before adding the stew and then the option of merguez, chicken, or a rotating “chef’s special” that can include anything that might have inspired him at the market that week.

Ghani buys his matlouh from a baker in Noailles with whom he has been working for years. The bread is absolutely delicious and perfect with his stew because it is hearty and holds the juices. When asked about the “manini” on the hand-painted menu outside the door, Ghani explains: “Well, the idea for the sandwiches is a panini, but that is an Italian word with a masculine prefix. My idea is the ‘manini,’ so it’s a feminist version of the panini. My mother, Rabiaa, was a big influence on me. When I was a child, we didn’t have a lot of money, but my mother always made lentils and we loved them. She was a really good cook.”

At about 10 p.m. a crowd of young women gather. They have traveled from Montreal to join their friend, a pianist and a student at the conservatory. Other musicians began to arrive: a gentleman from Paris, another from Toulouse, some are Marseillais. We sit wherever we can find inside the cramped but inviting room and settle in to eat our sandwiches. The musicians choose their instruments and begin to play. It is a lively show and we all sway to the music. Ghani is the master of ceremonies and sometimes picks up a drum or a tambourine to join the group. Occasionally, his velvety voice mesmerizes the room as he reads his own prose against the backdrop of the instruments.

This evening, it is Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, and we are treated to traditional Algerian music. When asked if he would celebrate Eid with his family later, one of the musicians says, “This is my family.” Often there is live music, but Ghani also likes to mix it up. There are nights when DJs play techno or electronica and people pour into the street out front. The music can get loud, but it doesn’t seem to bother the neighbors. In fact, one night that we visited, an 80-year-old man passed by and stopped to dance as an American funk song bound into the narrow street. Ever-present is music at Blé d’Art; it is as important as the food. Ghani shares his philosophy, “Music is happiness. It’s better than medicine.”

Long after we have finished our sandwiches and shared shots of spiced rum, we realize we are in the wee hours of the morning. Our imaginations have been captured by the musicians and we are lost in the best way possible. Ghani has kept us spellbound, and we understand this is no accident. This is his nature. Guests slowly exit and gather to say their goodbyes in the light of the streetlamp. As we leave, we ask our host why he chose the port city.

Affably unaware of his poetic attributes, his words echo Mediterranean Noir writers. “Marseille put a spell on me,” he says. “Marseille is my love. The secret of the city and my salvation is the sea. I cry, I laugh with the sea. Marseille is a city of extremes. Water, fire, love, hate, peace and war, black and white. You either love it or you hate it. Marseille is the only city in the world where, if you’re a stranger and you live here, you’re going to become and feel Marseillais. You’re not born Marseillais. You become Marseillais.”

Editor’s Note: Blé D’Art owner Ghani Smahi tragically passed away in a scooter accident in July 2023, shortly after we published this feature. The future of the venue is uncertain for now, and CB will post updates as we receive them.

Published on June 08, 2023

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