On Death and Friendship in the City of Love

Yesterday was a cold, cold day in Paris.  Late April temperatures dropping near freezing is unheard of.

Ouiceme and I were bundled under fleece blankets on the couch as I wrapped up my last work emails of the night.  A half-stack of crepes cooled on the coffee table beside a sticky mess of silverware and jarred fillings: Ouiceme had made miracles happen in her crepe pan again, and we were on the precipice of a severe sugar coma.  But then she took a glance at an incoming text, and I watched her contented face turn creased.

“There was a fusillade at Champs-Elysees,” she said, switching on the TV news.  Lines of police cars, blue sirens, and tense officials appeared on the screen.

Fusillade?” I repeated.  My late-night French is even worse than my daytime French.

She opened Google Translate and turned the result to me.  A shooting.

As the Paris Chief of Police stated they don’t have any details to release about the shooter and journalists have been reporting misinformation, Ouiceme had a particular worry:

“I am praying he wasn’t Tunisian.  Every time something like this happens, I pray the terrorist is not a Tunisian.  All Tunisians pray for this – that it’s not one of us.”

She knows that when a Tunisian commits a terrorist act, her whole community will suffer raids and more intense discrimination, more hostile questioning.

Ouiceme was born and raised in Paris to Tunisian immigrant parents.  There’s no separation, no boxing-in, between her French-ness and her Tunisian-ness.  Today she’s rocking a Karl Is My Father shirt.  She’s accomplished and well-traveled, lives a peaceful life, checks in on her mama almost every day.  She throws down in the kitchen and  introduced me to mloukhiya, a dark and pungent North African herb sauce we sopped up with fresh baguette.

And nowhere on this planet did any white person, of Ouiceme’s caliber of humanity or lesser, feel compelled to pray that the Champs-Elysees shooter wasn’t a white man.

Nowhere on this planet was any white man bothered in that first hour of uncertainty.  “I hope the shooter wasn’t one of us!  What if people start discriminating against us for raping and destroying entire continents for 400 years and ongoing?!”

Didn’t happen.

Literally one hundred percent of the times I’ve visited Europe, I completely unintentionally end up in a Jewish cemetery.  I’ll think I’m taking a short cut through a park, let’s say, and then see stones on headstones and realize it’s happened again.

If I believed in such things, I’d think it was my own JewGod reminding me to take a minute and meditate on impermanence.

So I wasn’t even surprised when it happened again yesterday, just hours before the Champs-Elysees shooting.  I’d just been up to the 59th floor of an incredibly ugly brown box called Montparnasse Tower; I’d heard it had the best 360-degree panoramic views of Paris.  It didn’t disappoint on that front.

Smile-inducing view from the top of Montparnasse Tower.  I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower some years ago – but of course you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from there

At the top of Montparnasse Tower, there are diagrams that point to city landmarks.  I saw that not far from the base of the tower was Montparnasse Cemetery, and some old dusty wrinkle deep in my brain remembered that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were buried together there.

So I went to Montparnasse Cemetery, and in the northwest quadrant I started seeing Levys and Blochs and Weills interspersed with the crosses.  I was like OK JewGod, I see you.

Montparnasse Tower in the background
Ultimate cat lady goals

Many of the headstones mentioned that the people were Holocaust survivors.  There were memorials without anything to bury for people whom Nazis murdered at Birkenau.  The Champs-Elysees shooting was still hours away, but Ouiceme and I had already talked about the verbal and physical assaults that hijabi women in her family had suffered at the hands of pearl-clutching, scapegoating French people.  I spent much of 2016 listening to American presidential candidates instill fear over Islamic terrorism, and I spent much of my time in Paris listening to French presidential candidates doing the same.

When fetus Hitler was still a glint in his mother’s eye, candidates for the Parisian mayoralty used the Jewish conspiracy trope in campaign ads to win elections.

Europe, you did this already!

You’ve already spent hundreds of years blaming one religious group for your socioeconomic woes.  And you successfully got rid of us – killed us or pushed us out.

Did that make everything better?  Did that fix things?  Or did it leave you wanting to find another group of outsiders to come for?

Today was the day after the Champs-Elysees shooting.  I had lunch with my old friend Essoyomewe “Sam” Telou.  Sam lives two hours north of Paris, in the medieval city of Rouen, where Catholic terrorists burned Jean d’Arc.  The son of a West African diplomat, Sam grew up in New York.  He and his brother run the community-based organization Nuake, which supports local schools and farms in rural Togo.  (Check ’em out and donate or volunteer!  They’re BEAUTIFUL, beautiful, beautiful.)

Sam came into the city today to apply for visitor visas for his French wife and daughter at the Togolese embassy.  I picked him up there at noon and felt a flood of warmth and comfort seeing him standing under the billowing red, green, and gold Togolese flag on that too-manicured block in the 17th Arrondissement.  We went to a brasserie down Boulevard Pereire and split a truffle pizza and a bottle of red Sancerre.


When I told him what Ouiceme said about praying the shooter wasn’t Tunisian, he did something like a chuckle, except that it was sad.  “Just like I was praying it wasn’t a Black man,” he said.

We made plans for me to visit his family in Rouen next summer, to meet his nine-month-old daughter who he describes as the dictator of the household.

I hope France doesn’t elect a xenophobic monster by then.  I hope people like Ouiceme and Sam can spend their prayers on different things.


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