Yesterday morning when I was walking to class in Paris, the city was all police cars and sirens. Oblivious being that I am, I blocked out the noise, figuring perhaps Paris is often loud with sirens. Near Notre Dame, I realized there was a bomb siren going off. This I chalked up to “Oh, must be a monthly emergency alert system.” I also sensed the possibility that the sound I was hearing was the same siren that people back during WWII heard. Then I looked around at the ancient church and the unchanged cafe facades and considered how maybe the city even looked the same 70 years ago. If I stared at just the right things, I could convince myself it was 1943 Paris. I was lost in this thought pretty much until I arrived at school, where someone announced what had happened, that gunmen had stormed the office of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 journalists. This insane and horrific act of “retribution” because the newspaper had done something the day before which lies entirely within the rights of the press: They published a cartoon with the Prophet Mohammed. This goes against Islam, and the gunmen felt the newspaper staff should be obliterated because of it.
I had lectures and workshops all day Wednesday and while we all spoke a little about what happened, we had other work to do. At night, I walked home the same route I had walked eight hours earlier. There seemed to be fewer people outside. But there were people at cafe tables drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. There were people in restaurants enjoying dinner. Then, at République, a large square with huge bronze monument in its center, there were a few hundred people chanting “Je Suis Charlie.” “I am Charlie.” My French is so non-existent, that although I wasn’t sure of the exact translation, I joined in. On the other side of the statue, there was a quieter scene. People bent to ignite the wick of tea lights in remembrance of the dozen people killed. A guy with a saxophone quietly sat down and started to play somber tune that made me cry. Crying in public always makes me want to be alone, but I didn’t leave because this saxophonist had me transfixed. Then, he played a song that was frenetic, crazy; it sounded more like panic than music.
I walked through République on my way to class today. The candles and papers signs declaring liberty of speech are all a soggy mess after the night’s rain and the morning’s winds. A few people tried to relight the wicks. But it’s too wet and gusty.
I was in Yemen when there were protests over an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube. Protestors stormed the embassy where Mr. Dame and I worked, and then marched toward the hotel in which we lived. A friend who lives in Yemen posted a news story about yesterday’s tragedy in Paris on her page. Someone responded to that post with: “ I honestly don’t know who’s to blame, psychopaths with extreme religious views or provocative journalists seeking fame through the defamation of other faiths.” I did what I don’t normally do, and commented on this controversial post, because I was so angry and upset that someone would imply that “provocative” journalists share as much blame as people who MURDER those who published something they disagree with. As a classmate of mine pointed out today, it’s akin to someone blaming a woman who was raped for dressing provocatively. Yes, what the staff of Charlie Hebdo did was provocative. It was a thumbing of the nose not necessarily at faith, but at the perceived control religion has over freedom of expression. The staff must have known there would be retribution. But they are not the ones to blame.
In class this morning, one of our teachers started out by encouraging us to go through today keeping in mind that “People died because they wrote. And we’re here because we write.”
To freedom of expression, always.
The Dame in Spain