Liberty, Equality, Atrocity: Paris in a Time of Terror

Parisian nightlife performer Eli Adem and the author discuss the eroticization of Arabic men. Photo: Tony Whitfield.

Last night, France experienced its third major terrorist attack within the past year and a half. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhmel, a 31-year-old French citizen born in Tunisia and now living in Nice, deliberately drove a large rented truck into crowds gathered along the seaside promenade in that city, mowing down locals and tourists who were watching the Bastille Day fireworks. As of this writing, 84 people were killed, including 10 children, and more than 200 were injured along his two-kilometer drive of terror. However, 52 people remain in critical condition, so the death toll could very well potentially climb over the course of the next 48 hours.

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“Wolves carried out this carnage.”

Apparently, Bouhmel was acting alone from undetermined motives. This, however, didn’t stop French politicians from immediately invoking the all-too-familiar tropes of our post-9/11 world. The president of France, François Hollande, spoke of an “enemy who will continue to hate all the people who enjoy liberty” and evoked the image of “[t]he whole of France…facing the threat of Islamist terrorism.” He also announced that the state of emergency that had existed in France since the November Paris attacks would be extended for another three months. Meanwhile, his main rival in next year’s French presidential election, Marine Le Pen of the right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Front National, predictably called for a “war on Islamic fundamentalism,” while one of her senior advisors, Eric Domard, went full Grand Guignol in remarks describing “wolves…carry[ing] out this carnage,” conveniently ignoring the fact that the signs so far point to a single actor.

Somebody let the Front National know what they thought of their racist policies.
Somebody let the Front National know exactly what they thought of its racist policies.

Of course, all of this sounds familiar to American ears, since our politicians use nearly identical language in the aftermath of terrorist actions either at home or abroad. In these constructs terrorists aren’t ever acting out of political convictions or grievances that could be construed in any way as legitimate. Rather they are petulant children who have a personal resentment towards our more enlightened Western values. (I’ll refrain from bringing religion into the conversation, since nearly all instances of Islamic radicalism have arisen within a context of geopolitical instability or conflict.)

Additionally, the threat they pose is directed equally at the entire country, never mind the fact that the vast majority of terror attacks are carried out in large urban centers or transportation hubs. And, of course, the enemy must be dehumanized by being rhetorically turned into animals—and you know what we do with wolves, don’t you?

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Le Pen’s words, on the other hand, don’t quite correlate to the American worldview the way they would seem to on the surface. The FN’s leader isn’t just advocating that France actively go after bad guys like ISIS where they operate in places like Syria and Iraq. What would be mere boilerplate sabre rattling when used by a US politician functions as un sifflet pour chien for her followers, one that they hear loud and clear.

When Le Pen speaks of a “war on Islamic fundamentalism,” she additionally means every aspect of Muslim/Arabic culture at home that drives white French nationalists crazy. This has been most notably symbolized in the controversy over women and girls wearing the hajib at work or at school, but other areas of conflict have emerged as black and brown Muslim people from Africa and the Middle East try to assimilate into white, Catholic France.

Maybe France could use a little less joi de vivre and little more of this. Graffiti in 10th Arrondissement.
Maybe France could use a little less joi de vivre and a little more of this. Graffiti in 10th Arrondissement.

Of course, what gets conveniently erased when politicians implicitly contrast French liberty with Islamic wolves is the complex legacy of colonialism and imperialism that undergirds all of these relationships and interactions. There is a deep, troubled, violent history between France and the Muslim world that the country’s much-vaunted joi de vivre covers over with a thick foundation of Chanel cosmetic merde. The French state has committed its own share of atrocities against its Arabic citizens and colonized subjects, and none of these incidents have an associated hashtag.

Just a few days before this latest attack, I returned from a research trip to Paris, where I was gathering information and impressions for a project that I hope to be doing there in a few years. The piece will attempt to historicize the “terrorist,” a figure both demonized and eroticized, within the context of this legacy of French interventions in the Arabic world.

While there I paid a visit to Pont Saint Michel, the site of a massacre by the French National Police of Algerian protestors during that country’s civil war on October 17, 1961. Bodies were thrown from the bridge into the Seine. It took the French government 35 years to acknowledge that an incident had even taken place that night, and it still disputes the figure of 200 dead that most historians believe is the approximate number killed (though not all at that location). Today it is a bustling intersection encrusted with tourists, where the Latin Quarter meets Notre Dame. It is almost inconceivable when standing there that within living memory so many were slaughtered on that spot—and that their deaths were covered up for decades. They just disappeared.

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Other impressions of Paris and its relationship to the Arabic world:

  • My first night, I have dinner with my friend and collaborator on the project, Tony Whitfield , on Place de la République. On our way to eat, we stop at the huge statue of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic, with representations of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity at her feet. The monument is now the site of a makeshift memorial to the victims of the Paris attacks in November. Amid heart-wrenching photographs of the dead, wilted flowers, spent candles, and personal mementos, someone has added a caustic bit of graffiti: Fuck Le FN.
  • The streets of Paris are filled with cops on my first few days there. It seems every major Metro station is swarming with macho military guys and their machine guns. All day and into the night, enormous convoys of National Police cars and vans, 20 to 40 vehicles in length, race up and down the Parisian boulevards with lights flashing and sirens bleating. (European sirens don’t blare). The first time we witness this, concerned that there’s been an incident, Tony and I ask one of his French friends what’s going on. We’re told the official reason for the overwhelming police presence is “training exercises,” but my first days there also coincide with the festival of Eid (the celebration marking the end of Ramadan). Nobody believes for a second that these are really training exercises.
  • “You’re Lebanese. You’re like the masters.”

    I meet Eli Adem for afternoon beer and ganja. Eli is a boylesque performer and Parisian nightlife personality and hopefully will be playing the central role of the terrorist in our piece. I mention to him that I had been told by a straight Algerian woman that Arabic men were on the bottom of the heap on the Parisian dating scene and asked him if he had experienced any prejudice as an Arabic man in the gay community there. He says that in his experience being Middle Eastern is a turn-on for potential sexual partners. But then he stops himself: “You know, it’s funny you say this…because when I tell people I’m Arabic—taxi men, they’re Palestinian, Moroccan, Algerian—they say ‘You’re Lebanese. You’re not the same. You’re like [the] masters…You don’t have to deal with Occidental people like we do. You’re not treated like we are. You’re different.’”
  • Yellow loveliness featured in the Arable Garden installation at Museum of the Arab World.
    Yellow loveliness featured in the Arable Garden installation at Museum of the Arab World.

    Tony and I pay a visit to the Museum for the Arab World to see their exhibition on the gardens of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal. It’s an exhaustive (and exhausting) deep dive into horticultural technology, irrigation engineering, architecture, religion, and cross-cultural/trans-historical aesthetic practice. The experience culminates in an outdoor installation of trees and flowers, “Arable Garden,” designed by landscape artist Michel Péna. While part of the exhaustion of the experience is due to the French proclivity for showy erudition, there’s also another aspect about the show that feels more like a need to prove over and over and over again how sophisticated these brown people were.

  • I go to the largest gay sex club in the Marais—Sun City—because I’ve been told that its design and amenities were based on the hammam, or Turkish bath.  It’s the same depressing roundelay of preening, desperation, and rejection that can be found at any comparable New York facility, but I have to admit, the walk-around steam complex is pretty cool. By the time I leave, the Metro has stopped running, so I need to take a cab back to our apartment in the 11th Arrondissement. My driver and I somehow manage to communicate in a dialect of franglais we invent on the spot, and as we are stopped at a traffic light on Boulevard Voltaire, he suddenly says, “That’s where it happened,” and points to our right. I look out the window and realize that we’re in front of the Bataclan concert venue, the site of the worst of the November massacres. It’s walled off by black police barricades. Silent. Unreflecting. The City of Light has become a dark place indeed.