A weekend in Paris after terror

What's it like going on a romantic getaway in a city that had just suffered a terrible terrorist attack? Mostly just confusing

Nobody wanted to be interviewed. Recorder in hand, I circled the monument on Place de La Republique where, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Parisians had gathered in solidarity. The celebration of the Third Republic was strewn with flowers and wreaths and covered in graffiti. People milled about quietly reading the messages – and ignoring me.

Which was fine, because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to interview anyone. I was on a romantic weekend away with my girlfriend, a trip we had booked months before the tragic attack. Two weeks later, we had landed and checked into our hotel room in the 5th.

Our plan was to eat and drink our way through Paris. But I knew I had to write a story: I’m a journalist who happened to be in a city that had just witnessed a terrifying terrorist attack. So I packed the recorder in my bag and we set out to walk the streets.

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We ate butter-fried Dover sole in Aux Deux Freres, deep fried cuttlefish in Le Verre Vole and brunch at Breakfast in America. We were served exquisite coffee by a rude and tattooed waitress in Holbelly and sipped extraordinary wine served by a gracious sommelier in Septime Cave.

Charlie Hebdo followed us everywhere we went. Enormous banners hung from buildings declaring that we are all Charlie, a message echoed in stencils and graffiti on sidewalks and post boxes. The prophet Mohammed cried on newspaper kiosks that all declared in unison, “No more Charlie Hebdos”.

We walked the hill into Belleville, through North African and Chinese neighbourhoods only to find that Ô Divin was closed on Sundays. Turning the corner, marines stood guard outside a Jewish school. Their weapons were directed at the floor but their eyes bored holes through our heads. Not hanging around, we descended the hill back to Holbelly, where the rude waitress was clearly annoyed we’d showed up five minutes before the kitchen closed. The slow cooked pork was incredible.

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I spent the weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack reading as many opinion pieces as I could find. I thought I would analyse them all in a meta analysis, piecing together all the different ways the tragedy had been used to justify different agendas and  exploring whether anything could be learned.

It was exhausting reading, full of reactions and counter reactions: I am Charlie, I am not Charlie, we are ALL Charlie, are the 2,000 Nigerians dead at the hands of Boko Haram Charlie?

It was an attack on free speech, Charlie Hebdo are racists, Charlie Hebdo satirises everyone equally, free speech must have limits, no one deserves to die for a cartoon.

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The columnists opined on who was to blame and what was to be done. Some speculated that the right wing would use it as a pretext for cracking down on immigration, followed by reports of hundreds of Islamophobic attacks across France. As the bodies of the dead from the supermarket siege were flown to be buried in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu urged the Jewish community to abandon Europe.

I idiotically watched the video of the brothers running through the streets and assassinating Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet as he cowered on the ground. And my stomach turned in a knot as I thought of having to face death suddenly, on an otherwise normal day.

I think of the drones flying over Afghanistan and ISIS fighters throwing homosexuals to their death from buildings, CIA sponsored coups in Latin America and the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan through blasphemy laws.

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Can we say the Charlie Hebdo massacre was an attack on free speech when French comedian Dieudonne was detained for sympathising with one of the attackers? If Muslims have to condemn the attack, do I have to condemn everything carried out in the name of democracy? Has a Western democracy reached its pinnacle when, in the name of absolute free speech, its citizens can call for genocide without facing charges?

I read and read and read. But who is right? Who has the most compelling argument? I worry about deciding, in case an article or piece comes along exposing why I was wrong, why we can/cannot be Charlie, why we can/cannot limit free speech, why Western imperialism is/is not responsible for the attack.

We got drunk at an awful bar, ate kebab in bed and woke up hung-over. We stagger out of bed and make our way to Place de la Republique where I circle, unsuccessful in attempts at getting people to talk to me. Maybe they sense my resignation, my feeling that regardless what they said, it would only serve to confuse me even more.

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“I am optimistic about France,” says Air Force engineer Hubert. “It is a melting pot, Muslim people, Chinese people. It’s good because  France could come together to fight terrorism in the future.”

Perhaps he’s right. If we want to have a better future, we need to start expecting the best of each other. In the meantime, we know that a couple of idiots with bad ideas and automatic weapons can ruin it for the rest of us. And I’m not really sure whether we can ever expect to protect ourselves from that. M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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