Of Paris, and of Fear

I’ve spent most of the last fortnight thinking about Paris.  With the huge project I’ve been running at work coming to an end, I can start looking ahead to next year, and I’ve been thinking about taking some long service leave, even a visit to Europe.  Then, I’ve been playing with a project where I’m writing short stories set in Paris, so I’ve spent a lot of my spare time recently reading histories of Paris, learning about the old geography of Paris, and its now-underground rivers.  On good nights, I’ve been dreaming about Paris.

And then this morning I woke up and heard the news.

News reports are now talking about more than 120 dead – some sources are saying as many as 160.  Seven coordinated attacks.  Terrorists who blow themselves up rather than be arrested. Daesh is taking credit.

I am heartbroken and I have no right to be.

I don’t know how to process this.  The people I know who live in Paris are – well, to say they are unharmed I think fails to cover the enormous psychological impact of an event like this, but none of them were physically injured or at any of the locations where the attacks took place.  So, that’s good. I think.

It’s still horrifying, though.  My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Paris, with all those who have loved ones there.

My thoughts are also with the people of Beirut, who apparently also suffered an attack from Daesh overnight.  I feel a lot less personally affected by this one, which is a little ironic, since I was actually chatting to the brothers who run the local Lebanese place at lunchtime.  I asked if they still had family there and they kind of shrugged and said, yeah, they should probably call their uncle in Beirut, actually, good thought – but everyone in the restaurant, including the brothers, was sort of surreptitiously watching the TV in the corner, which was showing non-stop coverage of the Paris attack.  A little surreal.

I don’t know how much of this is an unconscious expectation that things are always chaotic in the middle east, whereas we expect peace in our nice, safe Western countries, and how much of this is just a little bit racist – or if this unconscious expectation is, in itself, a little bit racist.

I do know that I find the Paris attacks more upsetting, for whatever that makes me.

There is a lot of talk on the news on the importance of not giving in to fear.  Of being careful, but not changing who we are.  Of staying strong and united.   Of expressing solidarity with the peaceful Muslims who are our neighbours and who have condemned these attacks.

These are good words.  These are the sorts of things I would say.  These are the sorts of things I believe in.

Except, today I was walking to the shops, to get a few bits and pieces for a project I’m working on.  My suburb is sometimes called ‘Little Turkey’, and it’s very multicultural, with a pretty high Muslim population.  About half the people you meet on the street are speaking a language other than English, and there are women wearing every conceivable colour or style of hijab.  This is one of the things I love about Coburg.

Which is why I’m ashamed to say that when I saw a group of young, middle-eastern looking men walking towards me, talking loudly in Arabic, a couple of them with the full beard and skullcap look, I felt a moment of quite physical fear, and stepped a little out of their way.  Not because I thought they would attack me or anything, just because of who they were.

I don’t think they even saw me, to be honest.  I hope they didn’t.  I hope they didn’t see a woman flinching at the sight of them because they looked Muslim.  I wish I hadn’t seen it, either.  I hate that my instinct at that moment was to be afraid.

Last year, I wore hijab for a week, in solidarity with the Muslim women in my area who had been attacked.  The thing I noticed most was how hyperaware I was of the way people reacted to me.  You notice when people flinch at the sight of you, even if they then cover it.  You notice the more overt reactions – people moving away from you on public transport or saying nasty things within earshot. You notice when people are aggressively kind, too.  It’s a nicer form of being reminded that you are different, but you still are reminded.

I don’t want to contribute to that feeling of being other.  I don’t want to be afraid of my neighbours – it hurts me, and it wrongs them.

And so my thoughts and prayers tonight are also with my Muslim neighbours, particularly the hijabi women, who are so visible and thus so vulnerable to those whose fears turn into anger and violence.

One last thought on fear.

It seems to me that the whole premise of Daesh is fear.  Fear of the modern world.  Fear of a loss of culture, religion and lifestyle.  Fear of difference.  Fear of women (who, to that mindset, are the ultimate in difference).  Fear of having no purpose.  Fear of complexity, because if there is one thing that fundamentalism does well, it is simplifying one’s priorities, making everything black and white.  Fear – perhaps – of God, but I think the greatest fear is the fear of the world we are actually living in.  A world that is diverse, that has many interpretations of religion, many kinds of people, many ways to live.  Fear, perhaps, that their faith can’t survive in the world they actually live in (which says some terribly sad things about the resilience of their faith, if you think about it).

It’s not surprising that they then try to use fear to control the rest of the world.  Fear is clearly something whose power they know a great deal about.

(Fear is something we have in common.  Which is an incentive to courage if nothing else is.  Ouch.)

I’m not going to pretend I have the answer to any of this.  I can barely grasp what has happened – I can’t believe it is real, and I keep expecting to wake up and find it isn’t true.  I don’t know how you stop a group that is effectively using guerrilla tactics in your own cities.  I am, by nature, a non-violent person, and I have never lived in a war zone or an area subject to terrorist attacks, so I am completely unable to grasp a threat of this nature.

I do think we can do some good in the long run by supporting our young people in our own countries now – giving them less to be afraid of, helping them find a purpose in life and a community that they can be part of.  Reaching out to people who are at risk of being isolated.  Essentially, cutting the supply lines for those recruiting terrorists five or ten years from now.  (This also has the advantage of being a good thing to do whether it has any impact on terrorism or not.)

As for the rest, all I’m left with today is prayer.

I pray that our communities do stand together to support each other.

I pray that the violence will end.

I pray that those who have felt isolated and cut off can find a community who will value them and not treat them as cannon fodder.

I pray that we will have the courage to love our neighbours.

I pray that I will never again be afraid of someone just because of what he looks like and the language he speaks.

But mostly, right now, I pray for my beautiful, beloved Paris and its people.

It isn’t enough, but it’s all I have.

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