Les Fleurs et Les Bougies

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Place de la Concorde, Paris 2006. Darcy Gervasio.

On Friday the 13th, my husband and I watched live as the terrorist attacks on Paris unfolded five time zones away.  We had just finished skyping with my husband’s cousin who is attending college in Paris; she and her aunt alerted us to the news.  As events unfolded and the body count rose, as armored police and military took action, as Barack Obama and François Hollande addressed the world, and in the aftermath since, I have been overcome with a desire to return to Paris.  Paris me manque beaucoup. Même avant ces evenements tragiques, j’avais une forte envie d’y aller.

In a strange twist of fate, my husband and I have never been in Paris together. We met in Toulouse and visited Strasbourg on vacation, but somehow all our trips to Paris were made separately.  I’ve been a number of times, mostly during my study abroad in Normandie, which was 2 hours by train from Gare Saint Lazare, and again a couple times during the year I lived in Toulouse.  Like many students of French and fans of cinema, Paris held a mythical fascination for me.  An American in Paris has been one of my favorite movies since I watched it with my Dad when I was eleven. My senior thesis was an examination of the pristine Paris in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films Amélie and Une Longue Dimanche de Fiançailles. In 2005, when I visited for the first time during the first weeks of my semester abroad, I discovered that despite the naked trees and winter drizzle, Paris lived up to the myth.  Its winding neighborhoods, the way the Seine separated the Rive Gauche from the Rive Droite, the lovely 19th century buildings with their wrought-iron grills and wooden shutters, the outdoor cafés, and the cathedrals that were older than anything I’d seen in America. The Place de la Concorde, which Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance in, was just as enchanting to me in reality. When my brother visited, we hung out at Les Halles, an historic market-turned-mall near the restaurants that were attacked. I’ve passed the Stade de France on the RER on my way into the city from Aéroporte Charles De Gaulle many times. I never went to Bataclan, but I saw shows at the Opéra Comique and the Opéra de Paris, and I drank wine with friends at cafés and brasseries and on Montmartre in the shadow of Sacre-Coeur.

It is this Paris that was attacked. This image so many of us hold dear, either through personal or cinematic experience.  Just as myths and our own fancies color this image of France and of Paris, so our own fears of mortality and the random acts of evil men allow us to imagine ourselves as the victims of this attack. We can picture ourselves at a concert, at a bar, at a football stadium. This is how terrorism works: it makes people afraid of the most mundane activities, attacking us where we live. And the Parisians especially live life in public. Les Parisiens vivent pour sortir.

There’s a line in Casablanca where Major Strasser (the Nazi) says to Bogart: “Are you one of those people who cannot bear the thought of Germans in your beloved Paris?” To which Rick replies: “It’s not particularly my beloved Paris.” But we know he is lying, as flashbacks soon reveal. Like Rick the American isolationist-turned-resistance fighter, I can’t stand to see death ravage my beloved Paris. But also like Rick and Ilsa, I remain convinced that no matter what, we’ll always have Paris.

And it was with this sense of sadness and outrage that I took to social media to commiserate and check up on our relatives and friends in France (all are safe, though a friend of my husband’s was at the soccer match when the bombs went off nearby).  Although I half expected it, I was taken aback by the speed with which the backlash to the backlash began to appear and well-meaning friends started to critique those of us expressing our solidarity and grief for not grieving enough over similar tragedies elsewhere. I understand the underlying message and the reflex to look for hypocrisy, but I saw this quickness to judge, before the blood was dry, as a kind of “All Lives Matter” rebuke that seeks to bring up every other terrorist atrocity in the wake of this current Paris attack. I don’t want to increase their hit count by linking to it, but for an example, google the blog post “America: Your Solidarity with Paris is Embarrassingly Misguided” which has been making the rounds. Can’t we take a few days to mourn for Paris? Where did this idea come from that unless we are upset about all the world’s suffering, we are not permitted to be upset about any one tragedy in particular?  Who are you to tell me my sincere feelings of solidarity, my desire to return to France, terrorists be damned, are “misguided”?

I particularly resent the serial re-posters who in the last couple days have been (re)sharing articles about the Kenyan campus attack which occurred last April. Some of my Facebook friends’ comments showed they thought the Kenyan attack had happened in the last few weeks, much like the terrorist attacks in Beirut or Ankara. This bothers me because a) blindly re-posting without checking the original post is never good practice and b) I and many people I know did react in outrage, grief, and solidarity with Kenya last April.  The media did cover the Kenya attacks at the time. Modern news cycles being what they are, you can’t completely blame them for moving on eight months later.  For an interesting take on this added layer see “The media did cover attacks in Beirut and Kenya, you just weren’t paying attention.“)

Here’s where the backlash-to-the-backlash folks are correct:

  • We didn’t put Kenyan flags on our Facebook pages or light the Freedom Tower in black, red, and green in April (#BlackLivesMatter)
  • The US media continues not to give the Beirut suicide attack that occurred on November 12th comparable coverage
  • The same with the Ankara, Turkey bombings in October (the deadliest in Turkey’s modern history)
  • The same with Buddhist attacks against the Muslim minority in Myanmar
  • The same with the Boko Haram suicide bombing in Nigeria that just happened today, killing 32 people.

Of course, the absence of media coverage and fewer outcries for solidarity with these countries is due to western bias and to collective racism that values white, western, and Christian lives over black, brown, and Muslim lives in the global South and East. Americans turn these countries into “the Other” in our minds, and we come to expect that this sort of violence is more common “over there.” Sometimes that’s because terrorist violence or civil unrest is actually more prevalent in these countries, but sometimes it’s due to our false perceptions and prejudices.  So we dull ourselves to news of yet more violence in Lebanon, in Myanmar, in Nigeria.

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Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1892) “The four parts of the world holding the celestial sphere.” Musée D’Orsay, Paris. Photo 2006 by Darcy Gervasio

Yet from another angle, the attack on Paris is objectively the deadliest on French soil since World War II.  This type of thing doesn’t happen in Paris often–at least not until Charlie Hebdo back in January.  So it is more shocking and terrifying for a coordinated group of suicide bombers to attack Paris because it is so unusual in France. Is this fair?  No, but it is understandable.

Many Americans have visited, read books, or watched films about Paris. Many more have dreamed about visiting. Many fewer Americans have been to Nairobi, Ankara, Beirut, Damascus. This too is unfair. But it helps us understand why the Bataclan attack was a resonant punch in the gut for so many Americans in a way other attacks may not have been.  As President Obama said, France is the oldest ally of the United States. You don’t mourn the death of an acquaintance or a former colleague with the same intensity that you mourn the death of your brother or your best friend.  This too is unfair, but it is also supremely human.

As important as it is to examine our biases and hypocrisies, even in grief, the outcry to “mourn everyone equally”  also misses key differences.  Not all tragedy is exactly same.  There’s a sliding scale of magnitude. Daesh, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, the Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, the Boston Marathon bombers, or the Irish Republican Army– all considered terrorists–are different organizations with different ideologies, who come out of very different cultural contexts. Let us not forget that, based on what we know so far, the Paris attackers were, with one exception, born and/or raised in Belgium and France, as were the Charlie Hebdo shooters. While they were radicalized and had training, weapons and some degree of communication from Daesh in Syria, these individuals’ grievances and hatred were planted in European, not Middle Eastern, soil.  To prevent further attacks, we must remember this and tend to our own gardens first, as Voltaire might say, before we bomb foreign lands and close our borders to Syrian refugees who themselves are victims fleeing Daesh.  France must heal its own social divisions. This must happen through tolerance and true multiculturalism only, not through “assimilation” and laws that unfairly target the way Muslims dress or worship or apply different rules for visas, work permits, and naturalization for immigrants from Muslim and North African countries.  In my time living there and knowing many Franco-Algerians and Franco-Moroccans (both immigrants and French-born citizens), I’ve seen French attitudes towards Muslim immigrants and observed a general assimilationist attitude in the mainstream culture that “anyone can be French as long as they adopt the dress, behaviors, and values of a traditional white French person.” The focus on assimilation rather than on multiculturalism (aka the American “melting pot” mentality) is a key difference between how the U.S. and France integrate immigrants into their social fabric.

In short, to lump all acts of terror together in an “All Lives Matter” way ignores key cultural and historical differences that could be instrumental in preventing future attacks and dismantling Daesh and other terrorist organizations.  Instead of seeing America’s mourning for Paris as a failure to empathize with similar loss of life in Arab, African or Asian nations, let’s think of it as a start. The start of opening our hearts wider to others in similar plights.  Next time there’s a mass shooting, a suicide bomber, a hostage crisis in another country or in our own, let’s remember Paris. Just as we remember Boston and New York.  Je me souviens de Paris. It takes all of us to hold up the four parts of the world.

Or, in the touching words of this young French boy, let us at least remember that violence is never the answer. We have something stronger. We have flowers and candles to protect us.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Les Fleurs et Les Bougies

  1. Thoughtful. Thank you for writing this. I am horrified at some of the comments coming out of the mouths of politicians we have picked to lead the country. Horrified more that they say it without believing it just to keep or obtain a job.

    • Darcy

      I agree 100%. The governors and candidates jumping on the bandwagon to refuse to welcome Syrian refugees in the wake of this just makes me fume. It’s so short-sighted, hypocritical, and ignorant of the facts about these attacks!

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