Of the most nightmarish night my home city has ever faced, the pride to be French remains-evan half a world away.
In the 11th arrondissement of Paris, one of the trendiest neighbourhoods of the capital city where one can enjoy typical French bars, restaurants and theatre, life is in full swing. Yet, when one walks by the Place de la République, old demons resurface and it is not unusual to lose track of time. Surrounded by scattered flags, wreaths of flowers and epitaphs, one of the most iconic monuments of Paris is a privileged witness of what happened three months ago, only a few hundred yards away. It has been a while since I have passed by, but my friends told me it is an uphill battle to stay unfazed by the heavy atmosphere there. I do not have a hard time believing them.
All of them are safe and sound, though. I am aware of how fortunate I am to not be part of the 130 families and groups of friends who, more than three months later, are still mourning the loss of one of their own. These types of events are always gut-wrenching reminders that life is hanging by a thread and it somehow makes you want to pick up your phone and tell your loved ones how much you care about them.
Of this infamous Nov. 13, the first thing I recall is a cringe-inducing thud – as if someone had just allowed all hell to break loose – in the midst of the France v. Germany soccer game that was underway at the Stade de France. At that stage, nobody, including myself, was really grasping the full significance of the impending doom. Mechanically scrolling through my Twitter news feed, it did not take me long to realize. That first kamikaze exercise was the foreshadowing of a night of mayhem in the City of Light, vengefully turned off by zealots who will never understand anything about the symbols at which they struck.
As almost every Friday since the beginning of my exchange year in Charleston, I was out, but my heart was not in it – all the more so because I was in a foreign country that is a far cry from my hometown. Every acquaintance that I ran into that night had a touching word for me, providing a little bit of solace. I remember ending up in a pizza restaurant with a friend somewhere around three in the morning, hollow-eyed in front of the TV screen watching the ever-growing count of victims scroll below footage of the stampedes. My attention only being punctually interrupted by a new Facebook notification informing me that a friend was safe. I would eventually receive more than 300 of them overnight. The only one missing belonged to the most important person in my life – my grandmother, 89, who understandably is not fond of social media. I was not that worried, though – she is not really the type to attend the Eagles of Death Metal concert that was going on at the Bataclan that night.
I have always been extremely proud of my country, through thick and thin. As a New York Times subscriber gracefully formulated the day following the attacks, “France embodies everything religious zealots everywhere hate,” and continued, “No country does life on earth better than the French.” The latter is arguable, but I can speak from experience in this regard: all those faces that light up when I say where I come from testify to how the French culture continues to hold the same appeal and fascination all over the world.
The year 2015 went awry for France right from the outset. On Jan. 7, other radical terrorists seeped into the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters, in Paris, and ruthlessly gunned down symbolic figures of the publication only because they dared to caricature the Prophet Muhammed. Some dramatic hostage-taking followed the next days, encouraging a climate of fear throughout the city. In response, formidable gestures of support were spread out worldwide, notably throughout the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag – a hashtag which would mellow into #JeSuisParis 10 months later.
However, this is where the parallel with November attacks end. Those who committed the latter did not attack a publication, or even the freedom of the press; they attacked random innocent people – not that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were at all guilty, but the symbol they were trying to bring down was even greater. ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ those are the words of the French Revolution and those were the particular values these ISIS representatives were targeting.
Most of them committed suicide afterwards, or were killed by the police. A few of them are still roaming somewhere. But if they wanted people to barricade themselves in their homes, they have reached failure.
Paris inhabitants continue to embody everything these ISIS representatives hate; they continue to do life better than any other country in the world; they continue to enjoy breaks at local cafes, to attend concerts and to get punch-drunk on Friday nights to wind down from their week of work. Some things will simply never change, come hell or high water.
France is my country, my pride, my everything. Although I aim to work in an English-speaking country in the future, I cannot imagine not coming back frequently. And it will take way more than bewildered fanatics to prevent me from appreciating every second of my time in the ‘Country of Human Rights.’
*This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Yard.