I Might Be Charlie

All nations like to begin the story with the chapter that most advantages them.

At Sunday's protest (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

I came to Paris, last week, with a fairly well-defined mission. Halfway through the week, events overtook me. On Thursday, I was determined to ignore the terrorist attack and plug away on my own projects. But by Saturday, I was in a room with some Paris friends discussing the fallout, and on Sunday I was at a brunch with those same Parisians and then off to la manifestation. Since then I've done almost nothing but talk to the people who call this city—and its banlieues—home. I have so much to tell you, but it's raw and unseasoned. I need some time to marinate and then cook.

Immediately after the attack, as is the case with any grand political event, a great number of American commenters leaped in to offer their opinion in various outlets. Some of these commenters were being knowledgeable. Some of them were just being smart on the Internet. I have always used this forum as a tool for my own public education, but something about last week left me feeling like I shouldn't be talking. Perhaps it was because the people who were saying Je suis Charlie and the ones who, in more hushed tones, were saying Je ne suis pas Charlie were not my people, and this was neither my country nor my home. Perhaps it was that these people were my neighbors in mourning and thus I felt a little care should be taken.

I am here for a little while longer. My hope is that by the time I leave I will have graduated from "Internet smart" to the ranks of the "sort of knowledgeable." I'm talking to everyone I can. I'm reading as much as I can. I'm endangering previously agreed-upon deadlines. History is happening around me and I am not equipped to understand. I am mostly unequipped because I only have the barest understanding of the emotional aspects of patriotism. I have spent the past week asking people what, precisely, they believe themselves to be defending. The answers have been fascinating. Just yesterday someone told me that this was really about "the dream of Europe" itself. I have more of an idea of what that means today than I did last week. It can't be forgotten that the deadliest conflict in world history was fought here, and it was fought well within living memory, and this came on the heels of centuries of bloodletting—much of it, allegedly (and that word deserves emphasis), over religion.

I've tried to go back to the history. I'm thinking of Tony Judt and "national forgetting" a lot. I'm thinking of Antony Beevor.  I'm thinking of C.V. Wedgwood. I'm taking long walks through the city listening (via Audible) to Alistair Horne's A Savage War Of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. I have always started from the premise that one should be skeptical of comparing the problems of home with the problems of a country that one does not know. And yet here is Horne describing the attitudes of the pied noir (colonizer of Algeria, often—but not exclusively—French) toward the native Algerians:

Equally a host of preconceived inherited notions about the Algerian were accepted uncritically, without examining either their veracity or causation: he was incorrigibly idle and incompetent; he only understood force; he was an innate criminal, and an instinctive rapist. Sexually based prejudices and fears ran deep, akin to those elsewhere of white city-dwellers surrounded by preponderant and ever-growing Negro populations: “They can see our women, we can’t see theirs”; the Arab had a plurality of wives, and therefore was possibly more virile (an intolerable thought to the “Mediterranean-and-a-half”); and with the demographic explosion spawned by his potency, he was threatening to swamp the European by sheer weight of numbers.

The pied noir would habitually tutoyer any Muslim—a form of speech reserved for intimates, domestics or animals—and was outraged were it ever suggested that this might be a manifestation of racism. Commenting on this, Pierre Nora (admittedly a Frenchman often unduly harsh in his criticism of the pieds noirs), adds an illustration of a judge asking in court:

“Are there any other witnesses?”

“Yes, five; two men and three Arabs.”

Or again: “It was an Arab, but dressed like a person.…”

Horne quotes the French writer Jules Roy, who is told that the native Algerians "don't live like we do" and that "their happiness was elsewhere, rather, if you please, like the happiness of cattle." This racism, like all racism, was not a bout of madness, but an actual tool which made Roy's lifestyle possible:

I was glad to believe it. And from that moment on their condition could not disturb me. Who suffers seeing oxen sleep on straw or eating grass?

The Jewish peoples of Algeria also predated the pied noir, tracing their roots back to the Spanish expulsions of the 16th century and even further. Horne says that Algerian Jews "tended to find themselves being caught between two fires: between the European and the Muslim world." The French effectively turned Algerian Jews into a kind of buffer class, granting them citizenship under the Crémieux Decree in 1870, and denying it to Berbers and Arabs. This award was tenuous—70 years later it was rescinded by Pétain. "Jewish teachers and children alike were summarily flung out of European schools," writes Horne. "The whole community was menaced with deportation to Nazi camps."

And yet...

...during all this time (so several Algerian Jews averred to the author), there was barely a breath of anti-Semitism from any Muslim quarter. By the 1950s the Algerian Jews were tugged in several directions; the least privileged tended still to identify themselves with the Muslims rather than the pieds noirs, and many were members of the Communist Party, while the wealthiest had developed distinctly Parisian orientations. Perhaps typical of the latter was Marcel Belaiche, who had inherited a large property fortune from his father; politically, however, he leaned strongly towards the liberal camps of both Chevallier and Ferhat Abbas, and away from the Borgeauds and Schiaffinos. After 1954 a significant proportion of the Jewish intellectual and professional classes was to side with the F.L.N.

I don't yet know how all of this connects to the events we are seeing today. But I proceed from the working theory that all nations like to begin the story with the chapter that most advantages them and the job of the writer is to resist this instinct. And I proceed from the working theory that the story of black people in America, is an excellent launchpad for a larger investigation into the limits of democracy and compassion throughout the West. It is not the sole launchpad, and the investigation must, ultimately, go beyond the simple of drawing of parallels.

But it is a start—the only start I have. I don't have much time here. And this is a very new space for me. I have studied black people all of my life. I have only studied the Francophone world for three years. I am, as always, very afraid.

More soon.