In the Marais that Friday, November 13, the air was light and mild as I left the indie press festival Salon L’Autre Livre, reinvigorated by reunions and conversations with poet and publisher friends. Crowds lingered in the streets, happy to be seated with a drink on a café terrace. It was 6:30. No one was imagining that less than a mile away, everything was about to be turned upside down, that dozens upon dozens of lives would meet with an abrupt end, mown down by killers.
That night, my cell phone tears me from slumber. My daughter tells me about the attacks. She can’t reach her brother. Text messages and phone calls fly this way and that. My son says he’s trying to reach a friend who was at the Bataclan. More text messages and phone calls asking after friends and loved ones. As the hours drag on, I realize the scope of the tragedy in the photos of those luminous faces filing by on my computer: at first because their loved ones haven’t heard from them, and then because their loved ones have learned they were killed.
Place de la République . . . those boulevards where we were packed so tight we could barely breathe, much less move forward, there were so many of us. Sunday, January 11, 2015: it wasn’t even a year ago. How many of us rushed out to proclaim our indignation, affirm our commitment to the values of the Republic? On placards, the names of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the policeman killed in Montrouge, and the hostages at the kosher supermarket in Vincennes . . . The comfort it gave us to form a giant cortege against atrocity. As if that day were enough to curb it, put an end to it. Because such violence was unheard of for us, in Paris. Because we quite simply could not conceive of it ever happening again. Who in that crowd on January 11 lost their lives on November 13, on almost the exact same patch of earth, only a few months later?
In Tunisia, the Bardo National Museum, March 18 . . . another murderous rampage slaughters more than twenty people in a place of culture meant to help us understand the past that made us who we are, or find out about the shared roots of people on both sides of the Mediterranean. Seventy miles from there, Sousse, June 26 . . . with a smile on his lips, a shooter opens fire on dozens of tourists. For some, it is their first time in Tunisia; for others, the second or third, simply because they have grown particularly fond of that country.
Ankara, October 10 . . . The Russian plane over the Sinai, October 31 . . . Beirut, November 12… And the list goes on, of massacres perpetrated in every corner of the Mediterranean by that barbarous hydra, ISIS, which has plunged massive swathes of Iraq and Syria into darkness and, along with Assad, the region’s other murderer, flung millions of people into a search for asylum down paths often no less perilous than staying put, within reach of their tormentors. And everyone is aware of how long it will take to overcome ISIS and its pseudostate. We’re talking years, maybe even a generation . . .
I did not smell the stench of death or of weapons, nor did I experience the terror of those people whose bodies were covered with the blood of those who didn’t make it, just beside them. I did not have to run blindly through the streets, panicked by explosions just a block away. I did not have to find out I’d lost a loved one that night. And yet, like thousands of other people, I am left shaken—my world has been shaken in some unspeakable and insidious way. I remember thinking—was it Sunday, or Monday? Little matter—about the people in Syria living in cities under siege or torn apart by war, who every evening share what has befallen them and congratulate each other on still being alive. Is that what it means to be at war? Noticing how slender the thread is that ties one hour to the next, how easily it can snap at any moment. Yes . . . but also, shoring up lines of defense. Setting each little stone in place with determination—yes, and clear sight. For this concerns us all. There is no stone too small when it comes to defending what we hold dear.
And so now, more than ever, let us rise up and resist. We will not let an organization that thirsts for violence and cruelty destroy us. If only in tribute to those who are already its victims . . . We will not let ISIS attack friendship, learning, freedom, or living together in peace. We will not let ISIS pursue its work of death. This affects all of us, wherever we are, in our daily lives. This affects the humanity within each of us, standing up to forces that would enslave or annihilate it. This affects the words from which our thoughts emerge, words that serve as bridges between us, the very words fascist movements past and present have always tried to erase, to obliterate, the better to dehumanize us and insure the reign of dictatorship. Let us find the words to speak to those young men and women who let themselves be recruited and fall into the traps of propaganda on the Internet. We have underestimated the ability of ISIS to persuade and seduce in societies where screens are fast becoming the only contact with the world for some teenagers and young men seeking adventure. Let us find the words to open their eyes before they march off, right into the maw of the wolf.
Let us speak of communication, the passing on of thoughts and the exchange of ideas. Let us cultivate a passion for learning, for the arts, for all the things the enemy abhors because they bring life, conversation, freedom. Let us take loving care of our ability to live together in peace, as embodied by those who paid with their lives Friday night on the melting-pot terraces of the cafés and restaurants of Paris, at the museum in Tunisia, and elsewhere across the Mediterranean. Let us, hand in hand, defend the circle of democracies and those on their way to becoming democracies. Against anything and everything. Yes, it might take years, maybe even a generation. But we still have our words to expose and combat false ideologies, words that simply express what we think, what we love, and what we will not tolerate. Each of these words will be a thread in the great tapestry where we will continue to weave our tomorrows because we say no to darkness.
November 19, 2015
First published in Babelmed November 19, 2015. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.