Monday, January 19, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

A week after the terrorist attacks that took place in my neighborhood, the disquiet reverberates across Europe with Belgium taking its turn this weekend. The incessant sound of sirens, police and national guard armed with rifles, and the Je Suis Charlie signs still emblazoned on shop windows, doors, consuming advertising spaces and websites of local companies and institutions, all of it brings terrorism into our daily lives here in Paris.

It’s disturbing to have police with bulletproof vests, carrying rifles in my neighborhood. Of course, they are present for the security of the community. But, the side effects include a pervasive sense that I live in an unsafe world. Terrorism is now on my doorstep. Another part of me also feels as though I am living inside a thriller movie. Events like these don’t happen in real life: terrorists with Kalashnikov rifles storming a satirical magazine in the 11th arrondissment. Ten days later, clarity on what happened to the editorial team at Charlie Hebdo, is even harder to come by. I am filled with sadness at the human lives lost in this destruction. I also wonder, all the time, where does my emotional response to the murders end, and the anger towards the complex set of political events that have led to this mess begin? And is that line so hard to see because clarity is not forthcoming from those in the know? It’s confusing to know what’s going on, even though I am in the middle of it all.

As I ran along the quais of the Seine on Wednesday, January 7, around noon, the city erupted into sirens. I knew something was wrong. I knew something bigger than Paris was happening because in among the unmarked cars with the blue flashing lights, ambulances, the Red Cross was racing past. The Red Cross never come out in force here. Once I reached the Bastille I was in runner’s heaven: streets had already been emptied of traffic, but I had no idea why. This kind of disturbance to the traffic happens all the time in Paris, so in spite of what should have been alarm bells, I quite enjoyed the empty streets. Until I reached rue Chemin Vert. I could go no further. No one would answer my questions of what was going on — clearly the other bystanders had no idea and the police weren’t saying—I went on a circuitous route, 1 km off my path, to get home. Only when I looked at my phone and the BBC breaking news did I learn why my running route was blocked. Though even then, I didn’t fully understand the severity: gunmen shootout at magazine office in Paris. How much of this was the drama of the press? Only later, when I watched the footage of the police officer being shot on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, did I start to recognize what this was.

Caught between disbelief that this was happening in my neighborhood, a fear that I was in danger, and an uncertainty about the scale of the events, it took time to realize that the world as I know it changed on Wednesday morning.

I watched the events of 9/11 from a distance, in Berlin, and I watched the world try to come to terms with what had happened. I couldn’t imagine what it might have been like because I wasn’t there. My brush with terrorism is not, as you can see, so close. But what I now understand that I didn’t then, is that the politics and effects of terrorism are a personal, physical experience. I feel the Charlie Hebdo massacre in my body. My understanding of public violence, public trauma, public mourning, has been changed through my proximity to these events. Terrorism (and the resultant racism) is something I now live with, it won’t go away, it will only get bigger.

Boulevard Richard Lenoir
When I ran down Boulevard Richard Lenoir on Friday January 9, I ran past the ever growing memorial of flowers and candles that now sits where the policeman was murdered, I felt it in my heart, my blood ran cold, I was filled with tears. As I reached the Bastille, the French flag at half mast, blowing in the strong winds, against a dull grey clouded sky drew another tear. I felt in my body the anger and actions of two brothers with a grudge to bear. I am so far removed from the Kouachi brothers and what was their lives, but their trauma, the trauma of the murdered, and that of the French public, become mine, every time I run past the memorials accompanied by police in bulletproof vests.  It’s a strange experience that I don’t yet fully understand.

The French have responded with characteristic grace to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The march on Sunday January 11 was an extraordinary experience. Most moving was the fact that everybody was there, together. Veiled Arab women and men holding Je Suis Charlie signs was perhaps the most moving sight, and the children holding up pens in a sign of solidarity and peace. Nobody wants any of this, and yet it affects us all.
Graffiti is all over the city
As the police continue to raid terrorist cells, the government meets for hours on end, the press rummages to find its explanations and analyses of what’s going on, I wait to see what it all means, what will be its lasting effects on my small world. I don’t know where this is going, but I do know that the world as I know it changed last Wednesday morning.