Safe Haven for Body and Mind – What Paris Means To Those Who Grieve

The global outpouring of grief that followed the November 13 terrorist atrocity in Paris, may in part reflect a mix of gut concern and intellectual anguish, by those who over decades have come to regard the French capital as home and safe haven, both for body and more significantly mind.

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In his letter below, French academic Olivier Tonneau, who lectures at Britain’s Homerton College, Cambridge, offers a personal perspective on the identity of one of Europe’s greatest capitals, while addressing the strange grief contest that surfaced on the Internet in the hours after the terror attack.

This article was first published on the author’s blog at the Mediapart in English website and is reprinted here with acknowledgments to and kind permission of the author and Mediapart.  Mediapart is a subscription access web news service in English published by some of France’s most successful investigative journalists. Please note © copyright by Olivier Tonneau and Mediapart. Photos © copyright by Viola Berlanda (rights free for this publication only.)

What Paris means to those who grieve


I was caught in a kind of crossfire after the Friday attacks in Paris: soothed by all the messages of compassion, solidarity and love for Paris, and disturbed by those who understood these messages as indicative of a partial attitude towards tragedies that unfold around the world. Many resented the lack of attention given to the tragedy that had unfolded twenty-four hours before in Beirut, as if only Western lives mattered. In these few lines, I wish to share what Paris means to me and countless others, and why grieving for Paris should not be construed as a parochial emotion.

There is a kind of homage to Paris that probably feeds into the suspicion. Paris, we are told, is all about free love, elegant women, croissants and irreverence. That is true enough, and I certainly embrace it. But such characterization, I imagine, mirrors images of Western wealth and luxury, carefree hedonism in the heart of the capital of a powerful nation that also happens to be at war in various parts of the world, and certainly holds its share of responsibility for the chaos of world affairs. Hence the haste to emphasize ignominious aspects of France’s past, as a counterpoint to the idealization of some sympathizers. Some reminisced, for instance, on the horrifying massacre of Algerians by the Parisian police on 17 November 1961. It is certainly right to keep such tragic events in mind. My love for Paris does not, however, imply their denial. Rather, I remember that it is also in Paris that, after the First World War, the founding father of North African nationalism, Messali Hadj, met his wife Emilie Busquant, created links with the French Communist Party, then returned to Algeria to organize the Algerian Muslim Congress, which was modelled on the Estates Generals of 1789.

Tributes to those who lost their lives in Paris Friday November 13 2015 (Photo : Viola Berlanda Copyright No unauthorised reproduction)

Tributes to those who lost their lives in Paris Friday November 13 2015 (Photo : Viola Berlanda Copyright No unauthorised reproduction)

I am well aware of the horrors of French colonialism, but I like to remember that it is in Paris that two students named Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor met, elaborated the concept of négritude, launched the journal L’Etudiant Noir and set up the publisher Présence Africaine, which is also a bookstore where I go every time I return to my home town. It is in Paris that James Baldwin escaped the racism he experienced in the United States, as well as the homophobia of his evangelical Christian background. His books were a revelation to me in my teens, and I did not model myself, as a young decadent, on Julien Sorel but on the eponymous protagonist of Giovanni’s Room.

In 2004, the Algerian writer Mohammed Kacimi was animating a theatre workshop on Lebanon when he was accosted by a young woman who put a manuscript in his hands and dashed off. The manuscript became The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing, and it is a extraordinarily powerful account of the war in Lebanon. Reading it created the emotional conditions for me to be truly appalled by the attack in Beirut. So poignant is Darina Al Jaoundi’s story that I needed, while reading, to remind myself that she had lived to write it. What saved her is that she found a home and safe haven in Paris, of whose spirit she is now also part.

Perhaps those who have expressed their sympathy for Paris would not resort to the same references as me to express what Paris means to them. There are some who will take advantage of the attacks to advocate jingoism and promote so-called Western values.
My answer to them is that I cherish Paris not as the site of governments that have disgraced themselves by receiving dictators, but as the city where so many pariah found their home. They have shaped what Paris means in the collective imaginary in ways that I hope no terrorist nor statesman can ever undo. France’s great paradox is perhaps that it has hosted and indeed cherished so many of the opponents of its own government. Paris has an Aimé Césaire Library and a Léopold Senghor Bridge. It has a high school named after France’s most controversial rebel, Louise Michel, and a boulevard named after its earliest rebel – Etienne Marcel. The ability of Paris to canonize outlaws is perhaps a unique feature of the city. This expresses the paradox of Paris which, as the capital of a powerful nation, is both a site of power and of resistance to power.

Tributes outside the shuttered Camboge Restaurant in Paris (Photo : Viola Berlanda Copyright No unauthorised reproduction)

Tributes outside the shuttered Le Petit Cambodge Restaurant in Paris (Photo : Viola Berlanda Copyright No unauthorised reproduction)

Julia Kristeva once wrote that Paris cherished exiled intellectuals but was hard on anonymous strangers, and there is certainly some truth to this. It is also true that the city is undergoing a process of gentrification that is slowly reducing its social diversity. Yet some diversity still exists, and the terrorists hit precisely the areas where it does, thus targetting not the Paris of discrimination and power, but that of resistance and solidarity – Paris as a symbol of universalism in the true sense of the word. Often the idea of universalism raises suspicions of white supremacism. I am a universalist, not because I rank so-called Western values above others, but because I strive to hear the many voices that have cried out, throughout history, for freedom and equality. There is no better place than Paris to hear these voices, of whom so many – Lebanese, Algerian, Senegalese and countless others – have spoken at the terraces of its cafés and in the alleys of its gardens. These voices give Paris a symbolic status irreducible to politics or demographics, and the attacks aimed to wound our belief that they can engage in conversation, and transform myriads of individual stories and experiences into shared ideals.

It is true: there has been more expressions of sympathy for Paris than for Beirut. The general sense that violence is endemic in the Middle East blurs the perception of events into an appalling continuous tragedy. I suspect most people could not say when war last begun in Beirut and when it last ended, much less why it happened. Probably a lot of people cannot even locate Beirut on a map. I can readily sympathize with how isolated people with personal ties to the Middle East must feel when disaster hits their country and they live amidst people who do not seem to care. It is frustrating and unfair that so many deaths caused by fanaticism, war, or by that most banalized of all evils, corporate greed, are passed over in silence. Rather than resenting the worldwide sympathy that the Paris attack has raised, this sympathy should be drawn upon and universalised. As a gateway to a world whose complexities are so hard to grasp, and whose manifold evils so difficult to apprehend, Paris can take you anywhere.

The letter writer: Dr Olivier Tonneau lectures in Modern Languages at Homerton College, Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is a member of France’s Parti de Gauche and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity

Related pieces by Olivier Tonneau:


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