Beside the pillow, the phone emitted two singular dings. Even from within a fever’s dense fog, I grasped the strangeness of those sounds: rapidly sent messages at a too-early morning hour. We had been in Paris for three weeks and I was suddenly remembering my dreams. This, however, wasn’t one.
From the harsh white light of the phone, his words echoed, “There were attacks in Nice.”
And with that he laid his head on the pillow, and I on mine, as if that were not such a strange thing at all.
When you’re writing or trying to write, sometimes a paragraph inserts itself without you trying for it, without you wanting.
Nearly a decade ago, on what was then my first and only day in Paris, not far from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, I saw a dead person for the first time. Along the berge that adjoins the Seine, two police officers flanked a body bag, black and oblong against the brown-blue wash of the river. Then, the water was low. Now, returning to the city, the water is higher than normal, the river stretching its arms up the staircases that lead down from the street. Now, there is no body on the quai. There are no bodies at Café Bonne Bière or on the Rue de Charonne or inside the Bataclan.
Yet, they haven’t entirely disappeared. The ghosts of the Paris attacks float above the Seine, grip the same pole in the Métro, hold a hand over the snout of a FAMAS gripped by the boyish soldier patrolling the sidewalk.
Along with these ghosts a fear lingers. Not lingers. That’s too weak a word. It vibrates.
Now, the bodies lie in Nice, an hour and half plane ride south.
From my window overlooking the Goutte d’Or, I watch the city, or at least the version of Paris that I have come to know over the past few weeks. Immigrants and those of immigrant descent from Algeria, Congo, Senegal converse in front of shops selling textiles, herbs, rolling shopping bags. The chime of sirens reverberates off of the buildings and around the empty lot across the street. The hospital is just a few blocks away.
Up on the fourth floor, it’s easy to feel removed from the frenetic energy of the street. I haven’t lived in a true city, meaning any place where you must rub arms and shoulders with strangers to get where you are going, for nearly five years. I have lost an animal sense for this type of living. When I go down into the neighborhood, I tell myself, do not run into the shopping cart atop which a man has laid a grate and is roasting corn. Do not run into that vendor’s bag of peanuts, or that bag of peanuts, or that bag of peanuts. Say ‘non merci’ to the men selling bootleg Marlboros at the Métro station. Go in the opposite direction of the combat troops and the car they have stopped.
There is a look I see everywhere. It’s something in people’s faces, or rather behind their faces. It lies behind the eyes of the two models I saw in the Carrefour Market who, in a surprising act of mundanity, grab yogurt from the grocery’s glass fridge. It’s behind the eyes of the Arab Marlboro men outside the Métro, and the men selling roasted corn on the sidewalk. It’s behind the eyes of the Congolese women in their Batik dresses, their babies wrapped to their backs. Behind all of these eyes, the shadow of the bodies linger. They linger, vibrating. Now, eyes narrow at backpacks, at men in dishdasha with chestnut skin. Now, the water is high.
The idea of Français de souche, or French by blood, refers to a regionally specific brand of white supremacy. If you are Français de souche, you were born with Caucasian features, thereby making you more French than anyone born and reared here that happens to have a darker complexion, a certain texture of hair, beliefs from an alien land.
In 2015, a French court deemed Français de souche to be an invalid categorization of human being: the concept of native French “does not cover any legal reality, historical, biological or sociological…” Whiteness is “in no way a legal component of the quality of French.”
In 2014, an annual survey conducted by the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) found that more than a third of French citizens believed that a “child of immigrants born in France is not really French.”
Yet, Marie-Hélène Bacqué, a professor of sociology and urban studies at the University of Paris, says,“It’s part of the French Republic idea that as citizens we’re all race-blind and equal.”
To the residents of this neighborhood, the Goutte d’Or is a village. Women walk to and from the Métro, a piece of roasted corn in one hand and a Tati shopping bag in the other. In the vacant lot across the street, men have set up a hodgepodge of tables and chairs. They are raking the dirt, removing the garbage, laying the framework for a pétanque terrain, the turf where a traditional French game of boules will be played by the people of this neighborhood. On top of faded graffiti, they have hung a white banner painted with the words, “L’ASSOCIATION LA TABLE OUVERTE VOUS INVITE TOUS A LA PETANQUE!” They are setting up an open table, a place for dialogue, a place for a coming together.
A resident of this village states that there is no coming together: “I am not French. Even if one day I get the documents, I cannot become white. I remain African.”
To others, to some on the Rive Gauche, this is not a village; this is a ghetto, a cage, a cocoon, a space apart.
I like to sit at a particular café in Montmarte, the kind of neighborhood travel magazines illuminate in glossy photos. The cafe is inside an airy building with floor to ceiling windows, which look out on the edge of a small wooded park that forms the base of the Sacré-Coeur. Because of the trees, the basilica’s three domes are hidden from view. You cannot see the tourists from here, either.
Manand, the manager of the café, speaks impeccable French. He does not meet the standard of Français de souche. He smiles when I ask for wi-fi. I am comforted by this smile.
“Where are you from?”
I tell him to guess, as surely anyone asking for internet access must signal “American!”
“Of course,” he says, and without a hint of malice, “American girls are always smiling.”
Of course we smile. We smile because despite terror in our own country, it is easier to scapegoat a religion rather than sensitive ourselves to the complexities of our modern world. We smile because it is easier to deny our own inability to find comfort with fellow citizens who don’t share our button noses and golden hair. We smile, pressing our AR-15s to our prayer-riddled hearts. We smile because our memories are dreadfully, embarrassingly short. We smile because honey, why don’t you smile, you’re prettier when you smile? We smile because it is the easy thing to do, so we do.
Ten days after Nice: while I sit inside a cathedral in Provins, a priest in another medieval church is forced to his knees. He becomes another body. The details seep from the phone in my lap. Another body. Another and another.
Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.