I’m going to start by stating the most immediate and obvious thing: I am lucky. I wasn’t hurt in the terrorist attacks in Paris 11/13/15. No one I know intimately was hurt or killed. I wanted to write about my experience, albeit a quiet and very fortunate one because I learned something important.
I was coming home on the underground metro lines from a gig in the 17eme… I was tired and ready to get home to my boyfriend whom I hadn’t seen since the previous night with him waking early and me going to bed late, as is our current norm. On the metro, I heard over the loudspeakers the news that the train wouldn’t be stopping at Republique or Oberkampf, the middle way point between me and my destination. Republique caught my attention. It’s one of the hearts of the Right Bank, and was the site of the massive march and demonstration after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. It’s also a big station with multiple major metro lines crossing. To close down all of Republique seemed more than your average suspicious package left behind.
I felt alert in that quiet-tired way, when the idea that something could be wrong is starting to play in your head, fleeting but somehow persistent. I was sitting across from an older gentleman, age 50 or 60 maybe, with an intellectual-appearance, details that were at once careful and undone. Curly wild grey hair, thick rimmed glasses, a beaten leather briefcase, smart but modest shoes. He listened more and more alertly to the warnings at each metro stop as we got closer to Republique, his ears and eyebrows peaked – my gaze solidly on him. I’m still a relative caveman in Paris. I decided a while ago not to get another iPhone or French carrier because I wanted to separate myself from the obsessive internet and social checking I became accustomed to in Seattle. I don’t speak or hear perfect French. I sometimes get turned around on streets & directions and can’t open certain doors. I need other people a lot more than I used to, to say the least- to get to a new address, to escape small trappings and to know if everything is OK. This man was my information.
With a click of his briefcase, he pulled out his phone, thumb tapped away, eyes scanned across the screen and then his jaw dropped just slightly. He mouthed some words and then looked around for someone, anyone to confirm with. Two tipsy teenagers, wrapped around each on a seat adjacent to him caught his eye and he leaned forward, face urgent and said something to them. They paused but looked confused and folded back into each other. What did he say… dix-huit, what? We crossed eyes, me motionless and him rising to get off the train. “Ce qui s’est passé?” I asked quietly. What happened? “Dix-huit morts…” 18 dead. And he was out the sliding doors.
We passed through the empty Republique station in silence, not stopping. Slowly, people were beginning to get on their phones, reading, dialing numbers and pressing their hand to their ears to hear with the underground reception. No one was panicking but people were in motion, waking up to an unfolding, incomprehensible and incomplete story… or just beginning to grow a sense that something was very wrong. Two blonde Danish women got on the metro and were talking gravely, quietly among themselves, standing over me. I turned my face to them. “It’s an attack,” one said to me. So quietly and softly, as if not to wake a baby.
My body was cold, I gripped my tiny phone, an early Samsung model that does not have internet and barely has texting. Frozen underground, our bodies were like question marks in our seats. We were passing right under the violence past stations Republique, Oberkampf, Charonne, along the line 9.
A call came into my phone which alarmed me and snapped me back into my body. It was a number I didn’t recognize. “Hello?” I said. My voice, my English, startled the quiet hold in the metro car. It was my boyfriend Paul’s mother. “We’re listening on the radio,” she said. “Do you know what is happening?” I nodded into the phone, “There’s an attack.” “Yes,” she said, “Where are you?” I explained where I was, how many stops I had left. She had tried to call Paul, too, but hadn’t reached him. I assured her he told me he was staying home tonight, waking and working early the next day. “Are you scared, Hana?” she asked me. “Yes, but I’m ok,” I said. “I’m scared,” she said. We got off the phone and I began dialing Paul over and over, a cold flood in my chest. He is home, right? He didn’t go out for a drink with his cousin or our friends? He would have told me, right? We frequent Republique. I’d later find out one of the attacks was in one of our regular bars Le Carillon and my favorite restaurant, Le Petit Cambodge right across the street.
A man of about 25, handsome in sports clothes with dark hair, brown skin and light eyes was crying in front of me now. Crying silently and staring straight ahead. A woman a few seats up had her fingers clenched into her brows and was listening to her phone. People were catching each others’ eyes and almost everyone was still. What were we leaving behind as our train moved us safely into the periphery of Paris? Multiple times, I had the strange and reckless sensation to get off the train. To get above ground. To do something. The quiet and restraint on the train felt unbearable, though looking back I marvel at it.
At my stop, Mairie de Montreuil, the last on line 9, I hurried off. Everyone was moving quickly, efficiently, but no one pushed or hustled each other. The streets were quiet, too quiet for a Friday. I trotted swiftly up Avenue Pasteur toward our flat. He’s fine, he’s home, why doesn’t he have his phone? I hurried more. I ran 5 sets of stairs, pounding my boots into the old wood, sweating through my winter layers. I slammed my key into the lock opened the door and called his name. Nothing. All lights out. I burst into our room. I couldn’t see anything. I called again. I reached for the light switch but couldn’t find it and rushed the bed. At first I didn’t feel him, but then found his body flat as a pillow under the blanket on my side of the bed. He was breathing so quietly, fast asleep. I woke him by saying his name over and over, he was startled and dreaming, murmering and I kissed his face and told him something had happened…
As the night unfolded, us on our bed with computers open, his news in French, mine in English, on the phone with our friends and family, we would find out that the violence was worse than we could have imagined. In the days since the events, I have felt exhausted and soul-tired, hyperactive and hungry, loved and lonely, grateful and beaten down, physically ill and emotionally strong.
But the most important thing that’s happened to me wasn’t on the metro, or online or bursting into tears in my lovers’ arms listening to his heartbeat… it was in the supermarket of Montreuil the day after the attacks.
Montreuil is a village or commune right outside of Paris. It’s not fancy although it’s becoming increasingly desirable and has a growing young and intellectual “bobo” population. It’s a mix of modern and old, diverse, artistic, vibrant, fast-growing (for better and worse) and politically-charged. It’s a neighborhood of 20% immigrants (including myself) and with 26% of the population under the age of 20. There are 90 nationalities living in Montreuil and a significant Muslim population. We have the largest community of Malians outside of Mali. As I looked at the faces of the people in line with me at the grocery I thought, my fear is nothing compared to some of these people. They are fearful today because they are from a certain country, speak a certain language, practice a certain religion and because of random violence. I am fearful of just the latter.
I’m not saying I know my neighbors’ experiences, or can tell you their religions, hardships or nationalities by looking at them. I can’t. I do know, however, that when I enter a business or a room or a metro, no one wonders if I’m a threat or treats me like I might be. And thus, I don’t know the half of it.
For me, this night of terror taught me about the danger of fear. The future will be marked by how we treat our neighbors, the people who seek refuge in our countries and communities, how we include them, and if we are wise enough to challenge our understandings of history, politics and religion by going deeper into the topics we do not yet have a grasp on or do not like to think about. For myself, I have a lot of learning to do about France, about the Middle East, about the complicated history and brutal political campaigns against immigrants in France (and the U.S.) as well as the crises suffered by children living in the space between the national identity of their birth country and that of their parents’.
In short, my own fear taught me that I need to take better care of my neighbors and the community that I live with. I’ve told people many times, I feel safer in Montreuil than anywhere in Paris because I know the faces of the people on my street, in the tabacs, and at the supermarket. But I don’t know where they come from, what they’ve been through or will be subjected to. I hope we can learn to take care of the victims of violence, which can be inflicted by individuals, governments and culture.
We have to stop assuming our personal safety is more important than anyone else’s.
Image : Jean Julian