By Shahzaman Haque
After my free diving session, when I came into my cloakroom, I heard that there had been a terrorist attack in Paris and 18 people were dead. It was 10.45 pm, 13 November, 2015. The terrorists had carried out the attacks in several places in Paris from 9.20 pm to be precise. While I was packing my bag in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, the attacks were still ongoing in those places.
While discussing the horrible event, everyone in the cloakroom was calm, stunned and mysteriously quiet. I saw the 13-year-old son of my coach running toward him and saying, “Papa, did you hear the news? There is a bomb blast. What should we do?” The father replied worryingly, “What can we do? We will go home”. I went outside the swimming pool and it was the first time that I feared for my life. I was thinking about my baby girl, who could lose her father. Each step was accompanied with heavy heartbeats. It was like that video game character, where you find your vicinity dangerous and your goal is to squeeze yourself to safety. I remembered how my mother was trapped when the riots engulfed my town in India and how she returned home safely. This time it was my turn.
Unconsciously, I looked up at the dark pale sky, perhaps my last glance, covered with twinkling stars and heard a deafening noise of invisible helicopters. Enmeshed with fearful thoughts, I decided to take the metro, though in such circumstances, there is always a risk. There were only two stops for me. My next stop was the ‘Stade de France’, where 3 blasts happened. I feared what would happen when the metro brakes at that stop. Surprisingly, when the metro halted, the public, comprising of mostly young football fans, huddled in the compartment and appeared very composed. Looking curiously at each of them, I wanted to ask if they knew anything. Most of them were quiet and looked relieved. Some were talking about the match and some were talking about other stuff. I had a more worried mien on my face than they had. When I finally got out at my second stop, a bunch of young fans also came out, and they shouted excitingly, ‘on a gagné’ (we have won). I thought that the blast was not so serious at the stadium, as I had imagined.
Finally, I was home.
Paris is considered to be one of those safest places on the earth, where it is unimaginable that a terrorist attack could take place. On 7 January, 2015, when I told my parents at the Louvre Museum that some terrorists had attacked the office of the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and we must cut our visit short and rush home, my mother looked at me with stupefaction, and said, “Here, also, these incidents take place?” The next few days, before their departure to India, it was a bit of a tense atmosphere. We heard incessant debates on Islam, often euro-centric and Islamophobic, on the radio and on the television, but also some wise-words.
A simple research would show that Paris and France have been the target of terrorist attacks since at least 200 years. There have been roughly 75 attacks, but the deadliest one was the recent attack of the 13 November, in which 130 people were massacred. However, let us not forget two other attempted attacks, which did not go the way the terrorists planned. In the first instance, Sid Ahmed Ghlam was supposed to assault a church at Villejuif, when he instead shot himself inadvertently in the foot. The second attack was planned in the Thalys train coming from Amsterdam to Paris in which Ayoub-el-Khazzani could not load his Kalashnikov before being overpowered by the US Marines on holiday.
The Charlie Hebdo attack, as it is often said, was targeted with some specific purpose, on a specific set of people, although it is as condemnable as the terrorist attack of the 13th November. But the latter generated a sudden, deep and profound wave of shock and grief among Parisians in particular. Were we safe in Paris or not? The government quickly termed this horrible attack as a war and vowed to punish the Daesh, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility. In the midst of all this rhetoric, our own lives seemed to be at risk. The people killed were common people, sitting and sipping wine on the café terrace, or who were celebrating birthdays in the restaurant, or some aficionados, who were at a rock concert. It is very possible that many victims had heard only vaguely about the Daesh. So they mightn’t have known, just before the attack, who was killing them and for what reasons.
The attack took place on a Friday evening. To put security at the top of the totem pole, the government announced the closure of all the public and private institutions on Saturday. Many buses and some metro trains were cancelled. Schools, markets, swimming pools, museums and other public attractions were closed. I went for my grocery shopping in my neighbourhood. The streets were empty. It was not the usual Saturday, which we have come to know. I could only see some old people walking their dogs. Bars, cafés and restaurants were closed. More than 7% of the people ordered their pizza for delivery rather than going out to eat or pick-up, according to Pizza Hut. Also, according to “Le Point”, there were only 7 000 people who went to cinema in Paris on 14 November, a fall of 90% in comparison with the Saturday before, when 103 000 people were recorded. There was a grim, war-like feeling.
Although feared, there were hardly any reports of a backlash on the Muslim community in Paris. There were a few instances of islamophobic inscriptions on some mosques in the suburbs of Paris. Many people came forward and spoke on the barbaric terrorism of Daesh emphasizing that Muslims were its first victim. Donald Trump, one American Republican presidential candidate, supposedly told that it was good that there are many Arabs in America, but when 9/11 happened, a lot of them cheered. Though these claims are certainly false and highly exaggerated, many of my family members, who I spoke to, were in shock and disbelief in the States, and in France. I did not come across a single person of the Muslim faith, who was jubilant. Islam was not equated with terror and demonic faith by the mainstream media in France.
The 13th November terror attack has raised a lot of questions. One of the questions, which comes to my mind, is that this carnage brings into the open the enemy residing amongst us. Most of the terrorists were French, though some have remained unidentified. French terrorists have killed French people. It reminds me vaguely of the “Reign of Terror”, which took place in 1793 when French revolutionaries killed fellow countrymen for not being revolutionary enough. But, perhaps, this analogy may not be justified. Here the French appeared to have different cultural and religious baggage. This has become a harsh reality. Marine Le Pen, the head of the French right-extremist wing (FN), advocated for nationality to be given to Muslims only with “certain conditions”. During the regional electoral campaign, she warned that the sharia may replace the French Constitution.
According to French government sources, around 2000 French jihadists fighting in Syria and around 7000 living in France are under surveillance. Why are these 9000 people, mostly French, the enemy of France? But let us not be mistaken that all of 9000 people under surveillance are of Islamic faith. Any person whose ideology does not converge with the Republican ideology of France or who has a tendency of seeking separatist rights related to a region may find their name under surveillance.
Invited on national television, the brother of Paris terror suspect, Salah Abdeslam, pleads to his brother in a hoarse voice to surrender to the French authorities. The brother speaks quite good French with a Paris suburban accent, who was flooded with tough questions by the anchor in a polished high-status Parisian accent. Though language and accent are not necessarily the marker of identity, here we see a glimpse of a clash of classes between the brother and the news-anchor. Mathieu Kassovitz’s movie, La Haine, has powerfully encapsulated a varied disturbing, vexing suburban environment. Often used in the mainstream media, the brother objected to the word “radical”. For him, his brother was not radicalized but was just misled.
Paris was considered the capital of the Orientalist world in the first half of the nineteenth century. Many had left it to head for Asia and the Middle East with an unquenched thirst for knowledge and passion. I wish we had the same flow of a rich cultural exchange between these two civilizations, instead of a fuzzy engagement in an endless war against terror. Like many other cities, we have paid with an arm and a leg in this ruthless attack. And we hope to never hear about it again.
Shahzaman Haque is Associate Professor and Head of the Urdu section at Inaclo, Paris. His main areas of interest are family language policy, language transmission and historical sociolinguistics of the Urdu language. Some of his publications can be found here: https://inalco.academia.edu/ShahzamanHAQUE.
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