Paris, je t’aime

Fayes T Kantawala was having dinner with some Americans on the day of the Paris attacks

Paris, je t’aime
Do you keep business cards as souvenirs? Not in a creepy people-stalking kind of way (what is Facebook for?) but more like tangible memories: I have a small stack of cards from museums I’ve visited, restaurants I’ve enjoyed eating at, shops that I want to remember, etc. Often when I’m traveling and having “movie moments” by a river (or more likely in front of a bakery), the places I’ve visited can blend into one rose-tinted thread. The cards help me remember details, like the street I was on or the smell of the sea air, thing that make the memories both realer and more magical.

Of all the places I’ve visited, I’ve got the most cards from Paris, mainly because anything you eat there tastes like heaven wrapped in butter. The terrible recent attacks had me thinking about my time in Paris last year, and I found myself going through the cards I’d collected, revisiting the mussels I’d devoured in the Marais or the steak I’d had in a small but warm place in the 11th arrondissement. Many of the places the gunmen wrecked were in the areas I had cards from, had visited, had made memories in. It made me sad to think of that kind of violence in a city that is so lovely.

But there are lovely cities all over the world that are now infected with terror, and so when I heard the news of a coordinated attack on Paris and its citizens, it saddened me immensely, but it didn’t surprise me. I was reminded of the Peshawar massacre, of Damascus, of Cairo, of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, of the murder of Theo van Gogh and of the countless large and small atrocities that have made up the majority of massacres through my adolescence and adulthood.
News of the attacks saddened me immensely, but it didn't surprise me

I was meeting up with friends in New York’s West Village the night of the Paris shootings, and all anyone could talk about was how awful the whole thing was. There were three white Americans and myself at the table, and I confess that I struggled with their sense of shock. At first I thought it might be because a part of me is now numb to the violence and terror that has gripped not only my country but my entire generation. “Terrorism” is a word we hear almost every hour, and we have all been living with for more than 14 years now, if you count down from 9/11. Two of my dinner companions were acting like they would never have thought such a thing was possible in their lifetimes, which I found a little disconcerting mainly because you could literally see the Freedom Tower (the building that had risen on the ashes of the World Trade Center) from our corner table.

That’s when it dawned on me that it wasn’t I that was inoculated, it was them. The idea of a brazen terrorist attack, which you and I may take for granted (in any country, really) is not something my American friends have seriously contemplated, despite the notorious one in their own recent history. If you are born here and do not travel, chances are the rest of the world will always remain a news story to you. Things that happen over there would never happen over here. The reportage around the Paris attacks had op-eds and articles written by a cross-section of global citizens that called out this reductive, semi-xenophobic way of thinking. Writers everywhere have called out people for trying to link the attacks to migrants and Middle Eastern refugees, and have been careful to explain the particularities of France’s relationship with Islam in order to understand the context in which these events have transpired. To contextualise the attacks is not to justify them. There is no justification for the mass murder of innocents. There was none in the Peshawar massacre of school children and there is none here.

Jordanian cartoonist Osama Hajjaj's take on the terrorist atrocities in Paris
Jordanian cartoonist Osama Hajjaj's take on the terrorist atrocities in Paris

Attacks in the West receive disproportionate coverage — this is a fact, and it’s not a good one. It suggests that some lives matter more than others, that some people matter more than others, and that some countries are more important than others. In short, it suggests ugly truths and we never really want to confront those.

Another truth is that when the French respond to this terrible tragedy with words of war, it again revises the narrative after the fact. The French are already at war with Da’esh, they have been for two years in Syria, like the rest of the coalition.

To forget that is dangerous because narratives matter. It matters that people know this is the latest eruption of an underground magma that is floating around the entire world, not just Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq or even Pakistan. It’s everywhere.

When I said this at dinner, my American friends looked at me with an expression that said “Aw, well, you’re from a warzone”, to which the only response is “Why do you think you’re not?”

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