Sunday, January 18, 2015

Je suis

One of the only people I know who went to the marche républicaine is a devout Muslim immigrant from Morocco. In my frank and nosy American fashion, I had been asking around, trying to find out who had gone among my friends and colleagues and hear their experience of what I'd missed.  He hadn't stayed long, this friend told me; there were too many people, he didn't feel comfortable.  And, he added significantly, some people were carrying the caricatures of Mohammed.  It wasn't the place for him, he decided, so he went back home.

Another friend, a Muslim of Moroccan origin who grew up in France, shrugged when I asked him if he'd gone. He supported freedom of speech and was upset about the attack, but he wasn't sure he would be wanted at the march or even safe.

"No matter now long I live here, I'll never be considered French," this second friend had told me before, very matter-of-factly. "When I go to Morocco, I'm not considered Moroccan, either."  He didn't feel he belonged anywhere. But that was just the way it was, and with his engineering diploma and abilities (he is hands-down the best software developer I've met in my career), he could go anywhere, so he left first for Dublin, then Barcelona, learned to speak English and Spanish fluently, and picked up some Catalan.  It was only reluctantly that he came back to France, and he still isn't sure he will stay forever.  He has options, he explained, but the kids in the projects, with no education and no prospects, who are denied a national identity as well... though no justification, is it surprising a tiny minority turn to violence?

For my part, I feel that "Je suis Charlie" is awkwardly chosen.  Flashed across television screens, reprinted on billboards, and taped to shop windows, it is everywhere right now in France.  I am certain that the sentiment behind it of respect and solidarity is true and laudable. Yet instead of making a unified statement of what we believe, it calls for us to make a unified statement of who we are.

What if who you are has already been decided for you?

"Portraits from the March: 'French before being Muslim or Jewish'" was the title of an article which appeared in Le Monde on January 12.  Why the hierarchy of identity? wondered the American side of me, though I know full well that the French notion of laïcité requires religion to be personal, private, and secondary. I thought those interviewed for the story were brave, both for showing up at the march and for telling their story.

"Up until now, I'd never been insulted," said Hanane-Nina Kaji, a librarian who attended the march wearing a headscarf.  "Now, it's almost as if I'm a considered a terrorist! I've heard 'You, you are all the same,' or 'Go home!' But home for me, that's here...'"

I won't pretend I was comfortable when my friend admitted he had turned around at the march and gone home. We both agree on the essential: that acts of terrorism and violence are unequivocally unacceptable. But I would have wished that he'd come to the same conclusions that I had: that since Charlie Hebdo had used the same crude humor against Catholics and Jews, against the far-right Front National party as well as mainstream politicians, caricaturing Mohammed was fair game. That we should allow symbols to be questioned and even ridiculed because it is simply too dangerous when we do not. Instead, he disagreed with me and I learned just how deeply he had been hurt by the caricatures.  France, according to him, is afraid of Islam without attempting to understand it.  While I talked of freedom of speech, he wondered where were the voices in the press who were willing to explain his faith and his culture. We weren't talking about exactly the same thing, but I still knew I should listen.

Some of the signs carried in the march started with "Je suis Charlie," and then continued, with one or usually several of the following: I am Muslim. I am Jewish. I am a cop. I am French.

I'm reassured by this that we've got half the conversation right.

So much for me, now, I'd like us all to say. "Et toi?"

Monday, January 12, 2015

Charlie and Me

I've never read Charlie Hebdo. I was aware that it existed, but it purveyed a brand of Franco-français off-color political humor that just wasn't my thing.  To tell the truth, I wasn't sure that I was acculturated enough to really "get" it, even after a decade of life in France: my politically correct American prudishness has worn off some, but not that much, quand même. And it feels so uncomfortable to not be in on the joke.

Not that Charlie Hebdo's humor was so hard to understand, as I see now that I'm making up for lost time, along with much of the western world, through the tamer cartoons which are currently being republished throughout the media. I heard it suggested this week that that was perhaps part of what led to the tragedy: in our modern, connected world, the drawings were easily transmitted; since they were visual, they needed no translation to generate hate.

When I heard about the attack in Paris, I was shocked, but not entirely surprised.  I remembered when Charlie Hebdo republished the controversial drawings of Mohammed back in 2006, and also when it was the victim of a firebomb attack in 2011.  I left work on Wednesday at the normal time, shaken, but not much more.  The victims named cited in the news meant nothing to me. Cabu? Charb?  My husband had heard of them all, of course, and on the television Wednesday night began the testimonies of the grieving French intelligentsia. The people who knew the journalists and artists of Charlie Hebdo shed personal tears over the friends they'd lost. Paris is a small place. Everyone who is anyone here knows each other.

That's when it hit me, the sadness but also the indignation. Free speech is an American value.  Free speech is a French value. Free speech is the core value of the democratic world.  This is normal enough: free speech is an Enlightenment value, and if Voltaire were alive today, he'd probably be writing for Charlie Hebdo.  But there's something specific about the French expression of this, an urge to push it to an extreme, sometimes to prove a point and sometimes simply to prove that it can be done.  The unalienable right to unruly dissension.  It is considered healthier to loudly offend than to say nothing at all.  If you've ever engaged a Frenchman in an argument, you know what I mean: arms are waved, your feelings aren't spared; you're almost certainly victim of crude and often undeserved exaggeration, but it's deployed in part to keep you honest.  In French public dialog, the fringe provocateurs of the Charlie Hebdo throw the punches others may pull, and so what if many are below the belt: it's still part of a long and important tradition.  And they're having a grand time doing it, knowing they're mocking the decent and the codified and making us laugh against our better judgment.

By evening on Wednesday, Place de la République was already full of anonymous mourners and the first "Je Suis Charlie" icons appeared on my friends' Facebook pages.  It seemed a bit presumptuous to call myself Charlie so soon, since after all, we'd only just met.  And given the peculiar role of Charlie Hebdo in French journalism, part gadfly, part impetuous kid brother, and wholly out to shock, who could say "I am Charlie" and have it make any sense?  Likely few of the well-meaning people and institutions around the world who copied and pasted it in emails and twitter feeds, and surely not the NASDAQ, which flashed a giant "Je Suis Charlie" on their Times Square electronic display.

But I wanted to do something symbolic, though admittedly useless, as the knot of sadness and anger grew in my stomach throughout the day on Thursday. I hesitated, and then chose as my profile picture the cover of Charlie Hebdo published shortly after the firebomb attack: a drawing of a Charlie cartoonist and a Muslim man engaged in a juicy kiss with the title "Love is stronger than hate."

I didn't go to the Unity March on Sunday.  It didn't seem like a good idea with the kids, and to be honest, beyond the desire to be part of something historic, I wasn't entirely sure of the point.  The Unity March wasn't even called a "unity march" in French, but la marche républicaine, an untranslatable "march for values of the French Republic." And now that I've missed it I suppose I'll never know, but I hope it was more about plurality than unity: the many voices from many places which form the Republic, not with one copy-pasted sentence but with the cacophony of dialog.  Tearful, indignant, resigned, mistaken, enlightened, ridiculous, inspired, dignified, distasteful, rambling, concise, confused, brilliant and irreverent, in many languages or a few simple pen strokes, leading us all somehow together in the right direction.