Cover Story

Vive Paris: Friday the 13th

Page 1 of 1
13 NOVEMBER 2015: As news flashes on my iPhone of the Bataclan massacre, I remember going there when I was very young. It was a cinema then, on Boulevard Voltaire, and we kids loved it, as it was built in the peculiar style of a Chinese pagoda. We used to make fun of the name ‘Ba Ta Clan’, until our parents told us that it was named after an opera of the much-loved French composer Jacques Offenbach. Today it has become a place for concerts, of course. And my first thought was for all my young nephews and nieces: Joachim, the son of my brother Pierre-Yves, who loves heavy metal music, Juliette, daughter of my cousin, Sofia, the anti-conformist, who is into theatre and music…

A quick call to my brother and my cousins: they are all safe. Relief floods all over me.

It started at 9.20 pm with three suicide bombers blowing themselves up in France’s National Stadium. Were they trying to get at French President François Hollande, who was present? That would have been a major blow to our country. Then at 9.25 pm, two gunmen with AK-47 rifles riddled up with bullets Parisians sitting on the terrace of a popular café called Le Carillon. A few minutes later, gunmen opened fire on an Italian restaurant frequented by the young. At 9.36 pm, two other terrorists rained bullets on La Belle Equipe, a famous restaurant at the limit of 10th and 11th district. A little later, a lone gunman entered Le Petit Cambodge, a restaurant I have never heard of before, still in the 10th district, and opened fire indiscriminately, killing 14 people. The main attack happened at 9.40 when three jihadists, probably assisted by two other men—one a driver and the other a spotter—massacred more than 80 people at our childhood’s Ba Ta Clan, where the Eagles of Death group was playing.

The shooting lasted more than 15 minutes. At 12.20 am, the French police, which reacted amazingly fast, stormed the building after having tried to negotiate with the terrorists who were still holding hostages. Two of the men blew themselves up and the third was shot dead. In all, 129 people died and more than 300 were injured during these attacks, many of them fighting now for their lives.

Only barbarians would attack Paris, I thought, the most beautiful city in the world. Its heart, from the 17th district to the first arrondissement, is eternal, forever unchanged, supremely romantic in the true sense. Nearly 14 centuries ago, Arab invaders, led by Emir Abd el-Rahman, came within 300 km of Paris and were stopped on 25 October 732 by French King Charles Martel, near the town of Poitiers. It was a stunning defeat. Otherwise the whole of Europe could also have become Muslim, like much of North Africa did. Other invaders are coming today, peacefully as refugees. Will they succeed where Abd el-Rahman failed? So I brooded when I learned that one or more of the terrorists had come hidden amongst refugees.

The Bataclan is hardly 12 minutes from the Charlie Hebdo offices, where on 7 January this year, two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, killed pointblank 11 journalists and cartoonists because they had dared to draw, among other controversial cartoons, Prophet Muhammad in a hat with protruding rocket launchers and bombs— which, as one French newspaper headlined after the attack, ‘is pretty close to the truth’. The 13 November attacks, I thought, have proved wrong all those who justified directly or indirectly the Charlie Hebdo killings: Al Jazeera TV channel, for example, which is owned by the state of Qatar and has been recruiting with its petrodollars some of the best anchors of CNN and BBC. The executive producer of Al Jazeera, Salah-Aldeen Khadr, gave instructions to its journalists to say that these attacks were only against ‘racist’ cartoonists and not against Free Speech, while Mohammed Salim, one of the Doha-based journalists wrote in an internal email that ‘if you insult 1,5 billion people, there is bound to be some killing...’

The Paris killings had no motivation except to instil terror.

13 NOVEMBER 2015, 11 PM: As more news filters in about the attacks, one of these at rue de la Fontaine au Roi, a pizzeria where nine people died, I remember that it is quite close to my old college, Cours Polles. It is ‘une boîte à bac’, which literally means a ‘graduation box’, where rich people put their lazy kids to be crammed with useless knowledge so that they pass the Baccalaureate, which is the diploma you get at the end of your secondary studies, before entering university. Every morning, I would drive my Peugeot mobylette, from my home rue de Bourgogne, that starts from Chambre des Députés, France’s Lok Sabha, take rue de Varenne, where are at 57° N, reside French prime ministers, cross the Seine at rue du Bac, drive along Quai des Tuileries, turn at Boulevard Sebastopol and enter the 10ème arrrondissement.

Who are these attackers? I ponder. When we were young, our generation did not know much about Islam. Arabs were derisively called ‘bougnoul’ (wogs) by some kids, though we knew it was an insulting word. There were not so many mosques then and the Arab population was low-key and unobtrusive, mostly coolies (manoeuvres) working in the streets. Our maids were Spanish or Portuguese, the poor countries of Europe in those days. The great-grand children of the ‘coolies’ are today educated—in fact, there are so many brilliant French Muslim writers, singers, satirists, comedians, film directors that it has led to a near revival of the French language and its creative scene. Yet, there is also a big chunk of the youth, which is drawn to the radical Islam preached in many of France’s new mosques sponsored by Saudi Arabia or Qatar. And the largest contingent of youth who have left home to join the ISIS, comes from France.

14 NOVEMBER 2015, MIDNIGHT: We hear that Le Carillon, a trendy bar in near Canal Saint Martin, has also been attacked. And it sets me reflecting: why did jihadists target the 10th district, where all the assaults except the one at Stade de France took place? Well, firstly, it’s one of the most ancient arrondissements of Paris. La rue du Faubourg Saint- Antoine, which crosses the whole of the 10ème arrondissement and borders the 11th and 12th, is one of the longest in Paris (nearly 2 km) and oldest. It was built by French King Charles V ‘the Sage’ in the 12th century. I recall my grandparents often talking about it, as my great grandfather had a wooden factory making toys, rue du Faubourg Saint- Antoine, which burnt during World War I.

What else? Le 10ème arrondissement, which in my youth was not prized as a real estate market, as it was deemed too ‘popular’, has become one of the fastest growing districts of Paris because it is young and hep today. ‘Young’ is the key word here. Another expression is ‘La Génération Bataclan’, the Bataclan Generation, a hedonistic, multicultural, cosmopolitan and tolerant one that loves the 10th arrondissement. The area which goes from Place de la Bastille to Place de la République, where all the attacks took place, has some of the best restaurants today, fashionable night clubs and concert places such as Le Bataclan, and the young live there in lofts or old maid quarters that were bought cheaply and renovated. Every night, winter and summer, young men and women assemble on the steps of l’Opera Bastille to play guitars, smoke joints or just chat.

14 NOVEMBER, 1 AM: By that time many of us had seen, on TV or on our phones, replays of the France-Germany football match with echoes of the suicide bombers blowing themselves up near Stade de France. This stadium was erected in 1998 for the Football World Cup and we were all there, 81,630 of us, when France beat Brazil 3-0 on 18 July 1998 and became world champions. Vive la France!

Why did these three suicide bombers target the stadium? Well, maybe because it’s a landmark. Anyone who lands at Roissy Charles de Gaulle and is driven to Paris city can see it on the left as one enters the suburbs: white and elegant with its shining canopies. Secondly, it’s a place of Unity: the French, whatever their religion or country of origin, are always in communion in Stade de France, whether it is to watch their favourite team Paris Saint- Germain (which is owned by a Qatar sheikh) or cheer the French team during a rugby world cup match. Obviously the idea was to create a stampede and kill as many people as possible, but an alert security guard stopped the first suicide bomber from entering.

The Stade de France assault, though it had the least casualties, had the biggest effect on the minds of ordinary people. It was as if the French were attacked in their very hearts. Though French TV channels and newspapers kept cautioning the French masses not to link these mad acts of terror with the sizeable Muslim French minority (12 per cent), I can see many people becoming more and more suspicious of Muslims, and that it borders on Islamophobia. I said so to my old childhood friend Daniel. But he shot back: “This is not about ‘bad’ Muslims. There are tonnes of nice, God-fearing, friendly Muslims all over France. It is about what their scripture teaches them.” I argued that we should also see quotes of the Qur’an asking believers not to kill innocent people which were posted on social media (#Koran) the very next day by horrified Muslims. “Alright, he replied, you can do a simple test: ask your friendly Muslim neighbour to come with you to your church or your temple. He or she will likely refuse. Then ask them why. If they are sincere, they will tell you that their religion tells them that your temple or church is an evil place. And after that you will understand why the terrorists in Paris are not just mad, fanatic isolated cases, but that they actually carry to the letter what is taught in their scripture.” I kept silent, as I could not find a fitting reply.

15 NOVEMBER 2015: The first leads emerge of the identity of the attackers and their links with Belgium. Of course, one can ride the TGV to Brussels from Paris. It takes an hour and 15 minutes only, a marvel of French technology. I have done it. But there are no borders, no checks and the Belgian police is not known to be lax. This is the new Europe.

A furious debate is going on in a café place de la Bastille, not far from where four of the attacks took place. A man in his mid-fifties says: “We keep hearing that the kind of terror we just saw in Paris is only the work of a few ‘fanatics’ and that the majority of Muslims are peaceful. But what we witnessed during the rise of Nazism is reproduced today: nobody can see the threat, everybody wants peace at any cost, people are scared of war and violence and those who speak about a demonic force that wants to take over the world, are lambasted.” Another middle-aged man says: “We keep seeing Muslims, after the New York or Paris attacks, joining multi-religious marches, but we have not witnessed anywhere in the world Muslims descending together on the streets to protest against these acts perpetrated in the name of their Prophet.”

17 NOVEMBER 2015: We now know the identity of the ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. The French cannot comprehend why this man created so much suffering, why so many innocents have been killed in the flower of their youth. “Ya-t-il un dieu (is there a god)?” cries a young girl at one of the vigils. I remember then that the Dalai Lama often says that Tibet pays today for its ‘black karma’ of the past, mostly of feudalism and not opening up earlier to the world. In the same way, he emphasises, China, which killed—directly or indirectly—nearly a million Tibetans, will pay for this terrible karma one day, now or later. Do we, the French, also have a black karma, I ask myself. Our colonisation of Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria was often brutal, and it shamelessly exploited the populations there till their independence in the late 1960s. Could it be said that the Paris attacks are in some way linked to this ‘black karma’ and that there is no absolute injustice? I can’t and won’t say, as I am neither a yogi nor a prophet. But surely those terrorists who killed so many people and blew themselves up, probably thinking that they will go to heaven, will have to pay for this black karma in their next lives.

18 NOVEMBER 2015: Word of the shooting in Seine- Saint-Denis, not far from Stade de France, reaches us. The first thought that comes to my mind: if politicians give the police anywhere in the world a free hand, they work fast and efficiently, as they did in France. After the 26 November Mumbai attacks of 2008, we saw how inefficient the police were in finding who the local residents were who gave logistical and intelligence support to the Pakistani terrorists. Have any of them been caught today? My second thought: why target France so often? Charlie Hebdo, the TGV attack and now this? Well, for one, more than a thousand French Muslims have joined the ranks of ISIS. Secondly, a bit like in India and elsewhere in the world, today’s French Muslims put their religion before their nationality. This is why, for instance, many observers have pointed out that French footballers, many of them Muslim, hardly ever sing La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem. Nobody has so far heard these footballers condemn the Paris killings. Lassana Diarra, who was playing in Stade de France on 13 November when the bombs went off and whose cousin was killed in the Bataclan, only tweeted the oft-repeated argument of nearly every Muslim after an Islamist attack: ‘let us stay united in the face of a terror that has nothing to do with colour or religion’. Then, every French politician, maybe in the spirit of ‘laïcité’ (secularism), has tried to please the Muslim minority in the hope that this constituency could be won over—from the propping-up of Syria’s Assad, hated by French Muslims (which actually gave rise to the ISIS), to President Chirac inviting Zinedine Zidane to the Élysée Palace, after he head-butted Italian player Marco Materazzi and made France lose the 2006 World Cup final, whereas he should have been punished.

19 NOVEMBER 2015, 2 PM: Is it the epilogue? Two terrorists killed in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of them a female jihadi who blew herself up. Seven arrested. What will these seven reveal? What is the challenge facing France and Europe today in the face of these suicide attacks, which are extremely difficult to foretell and stop? Patrick Roux, an expert on terror, feels that it’s not so much about more weapons, more and more police forces and more surveillance, “though this is of extreme importance”, but how you look at jihadism. The ISIS can be defeated, he says: “The combined forces of the United States, Europe and eventually China, as it also deals with the same problem in Xinjiang, makes it an impossible war to be won for the ISIS, Daesh, the murderous Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda.” But he adds, “Even if you decimate these groups, another five- headed monster will surface elsewhere under another name.” What is the solution then? “Every country in the world must put pressure on Saudi Arabia for Sunnis, and Iran for Shias, to commission their top Islamic scholars and mullahs to reform the Qur’an and remove all mentions of jihad against infidels, so as to stop this modern Holy War.” Otherwise, he warns: “There will come a time, which is not very far, as the Paris killings are already showing, where everybody will become wary of Islam. Anyone looking slightly Muslim, in a plane, a train, a shopping mall, will be looked upon suspiciously. Anybody with a Muslim name will have problems entering any country. Muslims looking to buy or rent a flat will face resistance. It is already happening.” And he concludes, “Muslims will cry themselves hoarse and speak of persecution or Islamophobia. But they will have only themselves to blame.” Meanwhile, France is a tinderbox waiting to blow up.

19 NOVEMBER 2015: It is now confirmed that the attacks’ mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed in a pre- dawn raid on 18 November. I look at the beautiful and haunting youth of Paris, crying, praying at makeshift memorials, or having this lost look that one gets when one does not understand how so much cruelty and horror can exist in this world, and a thought strikes me: ‘La France se réveillé’, the French are waking up. After so many decades of too many holidays and endless strikes (a couple of traits France shares with India), and endless whining about the cost of life, I can perceive in these faces that beyond their grief, France is touching again this spirit of Fraternity, Solidarity and the old French fighting spirit, ‘L’Esprit Gaulois’ (the Gallic Spirit).

The Mother of Auroville, Puducherry, once said (and it struck me like a bolt of lighting): “The victors are those who are fallen, lying dead on the ground.” And she was right, the victors, are those who were killed on Friday, 13 November 2015. Their sacrifice will not be ‘inutile’, in vain, whatever their karma was. The losers might be followers of Islam who would be committing suicide if they think they can take on the whole world. Islamic fundamentalism, whether it is armed, or the more subtle form among the silent masses who still think their God is the only one, cannot win this battle against Humanity.

Vive Paris! Vive la France!