Saturday, 14th of November 2015 – “Paris plus vague que l’Océan”. It is with these words that Madame Bovary expressed her idealistic yearning for Paris. But, now, Paris is anything but idyllic: it is silent, still, surreal. The beautiful architecture stands in stark contrast with the terror that has crystallized the city.
The terrorist attacks, for which ISIS have claimed responsibility, have shaken us to the very core. So far, there have been 129 deaths, and around 352 injured. 99 of these injuries are critical. As I catch the morning bus back to my apartment in Paris, I am still struggling to come to terms with what happened. The stunning panoramas of the Louvre and Pont Neuf stream in front of my weary eyes, and despite everything that has happened, I am struck by its beauty. There is also something even more impressive: though it is 9 o’clock in the morning, the people in the streets are few and far between. A waiter polishes the tables of his café, a weary shopkeeper swings open the door of his business, a solitary runner jogs along the Seine. Apart from these few souls, Paris is an empty shell. Tired and nauseous, my companions and I will be the only passengers for most of our journey.
I am still struggling to come to terms with what happened
Let’s backtrack. I am a Philosophy and Politics student on my year abroad in Paris and I am studying at Sciences Po, a university specialising in politics. My stay so far has been pleasant, albeit busy, and I have joined a group called “Sciences Po Refugee Help”. Launched through appeals on social media, this student association seeks to help refugees strewn around Paris. Last night I was at a social gathering, hosted in the Canadian pub by the Seine, from which we had a stunning view of Notre Dame de Paris. The pub was crowded and loud, as many watched the friendly football match between France and Germany that was taking place in the Stade de France.
As I stepped outside to catch a breath of fresh air, I got my first inkling that something was severely amiss. Worried faces gazed at mobile phones. “There has been a shooting!” – I hear. “Quoi? Où?” (“What”? Where?”). I soon heard of the two shootings and the bomb outside the Stade De France. Unsure of what was happening, and with reliable information trickling in at a painstakingly slow pace, I gazed towards the pub’s television screens. Whatever had happened, it had not been enough to interrupt the match. Waiting for clearer information, I struck up a conversation with a couple of other volunteers. For a brief moment, I was almost distracted… then the death toll started to rise. The screens started showing news reports and the shootings in the popular areas of the 10th and 11th arrondissements were confirmed.
The bar closed, people dispersed. I was soon with my newly acquired friends and a couple of French female students, who were agitatedly trying to get taxis over the phone. Conscious that we were in a tourist hotspot, we decided to move away from the monuments and the Seine. We walked to Place Saint-Michel, a beautifully lit square. As I struggled to contact my friends in the area, we received news that something was wrong at Les Halles, a key underground station on my way home. Fearing more attacks, we realised that we needed cover.
As we roamed the nearby streets, we anxiously went over our options. All public places were ruled out. Cover was needed. People in restaurants were calmly consuming their meals, oblivious to the chaos a few metro stops away. Others were in the streets, talking on their phones, or bewilderedly peering out their windows. We were getting increasingly agitated, clumsily concealed by my small bouts of hysterical laughter and our worried faces. Suddenly, we saw a couple enter a private residential building. We rushed to the door and found refuge in a private courtyard. Unsure on what to do next, we waited as more news flooded in: 60 dead.
Fearing more attacks, we realized we needed cover
Restaurant employees let us use their bathrooms and offered us lifts home. In the grips of confusion, we decided that it was better to stay put. After a while, an elegantly dressed lady entered the courtyard. One of our French companions approached her and struck up a conversation – I was too strung-out to understand. What followed was one of the most heart-warming displays of kindness that I have ever witnessed: she welcomed all five of us into her apartment, where an elegantly set table indicated that she was planning on hosting a dinner party the following day.
She offered us refreshments meant for her guests, she chatted with us, and told us she is a retired artist with quite the career behind her. As we sat in her living room, the occasional siren pierced the air, telling us that the chaos was yet to subside. Later, we attempted get a taxi again. Upon hearing that we were stranded, our kind hostess looked at us and with a matter of fact tone said: “C’est comme la guerre!” (It’s like a war!). She had hit the nail on the head. As my friend James said: “There are people that go through this everyday”, and indeed we all knew that our experience was nothing. Had the kind woman not welcomed us, we would have had no other choice other than sleeping in the courtyard outside.
Luckily, it did not happen to us. But, every night, scores of homeless people have only one option. Many of them were fleeing the same horrors that petrified Paris last night. If you wonder how refugees live in Paris, just take a look around – there are entire families camping out on mattresses, forced to beg in the hopes of having enough money to afford a roof over their heads. Fathers, mothers, young children, and pregnant women.
And yet, so many are prone to pointing their fingers against these very people. Hatred is mounting and is already being exploited by unscrupulous politicians and newspapers. In Italy, where I grew up, right-wing newspaper Libero’s headline was “Muslim Bastards” [“Bastardi Islamici”], leading to the issuing of a lawsuit. In the US, some Republican politicians have already tweeted about immigration controls and gun ownership, and many other examples are available all throughout the world. Yet, not a single word is spoken about the deaths caused by ISIS in Lebanon the day before.
Hatred is mounting and are already being exploited by unscrupulous politicians and newspapers
As I look at Paris this morning, its beauty untouched by the blanket of shocked stillness that shrouds the city, I feel as if I had been trapped in a dream. Not the romantic dreams of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, but rather a surreal nightmare that I am yet to fully comprehend. I expect it to hit me soon, as I put my sleep-deprived self to rest.
I may be tired, but it is clear to me: to succumb to the same logic of these vicious attacks, spreading blind hatred and inhumanity, is to play the terrorists’ game. Let us stay human.
Rational and human.