I want to start this post with something of a disclaimer. This will mostly be my retelling of the experiences in Paris on the night and throughout the weekend of the most recent attacks. There will be many “I” and “we” statements, and I do not want to discredit the stories of others who went through much, much worse on the night of the 13th than I, my father or my peers did.
Furthermore, I understand there is a great deal of uproar in response to the attacks, in many different ways. I read a post shared by a friend of mine on Facebook that I particularly agreed with and I wanted to sum up its perspective quickly before diving into a post of my own. It is important to see this horrific event as a reason for change and action and not as “a megaphone to be used for whatever you yearned to shout.” It is also both reasonable and more than okay to take a stand on social media and voice your outrage. Above all, it is imperative to think first about the terror at hand and grieve for those lost in acts of violence meant to shake a city and a country while having the rest of the world tremble in the shockwaves.
I am not studying abroad in Paris – while it was high on my original list of abroad programs, it was crossed off early due to growing antisemitism, what with 51 percent of all racist attacks in 2014 France being against Jews. Nevertheless, the city was again high on my list of places to visit, and I had the opportunity to do so this past weekend while meeting up with my father on his way to Israel. Never would either of us had thought that Israel would be the safer of the two destinations during his trip.
I arrived Thursday night, met up with friends for dinner and an evening out, crashed on a friend’s couch and then met my father at our hotel near Notre Dame. After a nap, some wandering, the Picasso Museum and the Pompidou – those powerhouses of majestic, moving works of art – we headed to synagogue for Shabbat evening services at the congregation of my father’s former student. While I struggled to understand any French throughout the service, it was both warming and comforting to be a part of such a welcoming community where Jewish beliefs, prayer and values were profoundly exampled.
From services, my father and I attended a small Shabbat dinner at his student’s home, where things were going swimmingly until I checked my phone. At around 9:15 p.m., I received messages from friends making sure I was okay and alerting me – before my news apps had done so – that there was a shooting in Paris. Turns out that we were not far from the (later turned plural) shootings – a mere seven or eight blocks from Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon, and a few more from the Bataclan theater, where attackers killed concertgoers in cold blood.
I told the rest of the crowd at our dinner, and immediately phones and computers were taken out. We began to contact anyone and everyone we could – friends, family, co-workers and colleagues to both ensure them that we were okay and hope that they were alright as well. We watched as BFMTV reporters and anchors told us more and more about the Stade de France bombings, the ongoing hostage situation at the theater, and finally witnessed the live stream of Francois Hollande’s shocked and appalled face as he declared a state of emergency for the city.
I contacted everyone I was close with in Paris. If I couldn’t reach someone, I contacted another friend to see if they had heard from them. I worried lots and lots, but found relief when all who I spoke with were safe and accounted for. I responded to messages on through many media asking about my safety and location. I used Facebook to “mark” myself as safe. I relayed information to my mother, sister and extended family. I listened to each round of sirens pass outside the apartment.
We were able to return to our hotel that evening, but not without seeing a heavily affected Paris. The streets in the 10th arrondissement – a popular area that on a Friday night should be bustling with locals and tourists alike – were as close to empty as they could be. Heavily armed forces with fingers at their triggers stood posts on every other corner, facing up and down streets in case of attackers. More forces were on the way, as we would witness in the morning. It was hauntingly quiet.
The next day, my father and I decided – maybe unwisely – to walk a bit and see the city after the attacks. I was dumbfounded to see people out on the streets – in restaurants, going to and from markets with bags of groceries and even a couple out for a run. It may have been my American paranoia at hand, but walking through Paris technically hours after the events made me extremely anxious. My guard was up for all around me, my head was on a swivel and we were avoiding crowds as much as we could. At times, I forgot about the events from the night before and admired the Parisian architecture and the streets we were wandering. But then I was reminded of what had occurred, and my fight-or-flight adrenaline kicked in yet again.
We wandered to cultural sites that were barren. Museums, schools, parks were all closed, all bearing signs of sorrow and in solidarity with those mourning. Concerts, classes, lectures and other cultural exemplars of Paris were cancelled. The attackers had without a doubt made their impact on the thriving city by depriving it of life, both literally and culturally. It was chilling to walk through the streets.
It was important for us to see those still out on the street, those still going about their daily lives – they serve as a reminder to not let those attackers, those terrorists, win by depriving them of their lifestyle. No matter what, Paris is still Paris, a flourishing city of so many different beliefs, ethnicities, traditions and languages. To give that all away at the hands of the few who don’t believe in that would be to stand against the city itself, especially in a time of such great loss.
This past weekend felt a bit like 9/11. I’m not sure I can make that comparison because of the difference in scale or because I was very young when the Twin Towers were attacked and consequently don’t remember much, but I do remember this troubling, complex mix of grief and mourning with determination and a call to action. Just as Parisians, French and other Europeans mourn, they are also determined to put an end to this ongoing threat of terrorism and ISIS that continues to loom. Columnist Roger Cohen addresses this determination in his article:
“It was wrong to dismiss ISIS as a regional threat. Its threat is global. Enough is enough. A certain quality of evil cannot be allowed physical terrain on which to breed…But history teaches that human beings are capable of fathomless evil. Unmet, it grows.”
I won’t lie – I am somewhat nervous to be in Europe at this time. There is an aspect to traveling throughout the continent that has begun to worry me after this weekend. Nevertheless, I have faith that the leaders of European nations and the West that have been so affected by terrorism and by ISIS will put together a plan to stop attacks like Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and more from occurring again. It is awful to see the life, the culture and the happiness be taken out of a city as I did firsthand this weekend. But in order to prevent this, difficult but necessary actions must be taken. For the sake of those who mourn in these cities, and for the sake of greater peace, let’s hope that action is taken sooner rather than later.