Letter from Paris

By Albert Wu, Michelle KuoNovember 21, 2015

Letter from Paris

EVEN THOUGH WE LIVE only a couple metro stops away from where the first set of shootings happened, we learned about the terrorist attacks on Paris through social media; a friend in California messaged us on Facebook, asking if we were okay. We had no idea what he was referring to.

That Friday night, we consumed the events online. We were stunned to hear that the first attacks happened at Le Petit Cambodge, a restaurant we liked so much we thought about moving into the neighborhood. Its long communal wooden tables, stools, industrial chic, and green plastic chopsticks made us feel at home. Aside from the menu being in French, we could’ve been back in Oakland or San Francisco, where we first met and got married. Steps away is the Canal St.-Martin, where Amelie skipped stones, and where tree-lined streets turn into pedestrian zones on Sundays.

Then our thoughts turned worriedly to our students. We are professors at a liberal arts university in Paris. The Friday before, our students had just organized an event at the Bataclan, where hundreds of hostages were now being held. The area around the canal is popular with young people. We tried to contact them, wanting to account for where they were, and this task occupied us as the death toll climbed. Many were out of town because we had our fall break, but we feared the worst.

We were lucky; we did not lose any. One student ran home in the midst of the chaos; from her window she saw a man with an AK-47 running down the street. Another had almost become a bartender at Le Carillon, a shooting site now pockmarked with bullet holes. Yet another was on her way to Le Petit Cambodge and running late.


Midnight on Friday in our neighborhood was eerie. No drunken singing; no rumbling of the metro that sounds through our walls like distant thunder. The corner bistro, normally open past two a.m., was closed. We peeked out our windows, expecting to see a ghost. We didn’t see anything.

The quiet continued on Saturday. We slept in, unawoken by the garbage trucks, the city’s services having been shut down.

As the streets got quieter, the noise on social media got louder. Battles developed. Why not mourn as well the Lebanese who were bombed the day before? Or the people bombed in Baghdad? Does the West value French lives more? More sniping, more rebuttals. Declarations are important on social media. Opinions are important. Admissions of doubt, hesitation, feelings of inarticulateness, less so.


On Sunday the streets flanking the canal again seemed full of life. We walked the city to pay our respects and, also, to get out of the house. The bright sun blotted out the usual debris that floats on the water. With the indifference youth display to trash, friends sat on the concrete bank, legs dangling as if they were sitting on the coast of Amalfi. A priest biked past us, zooming determinedly. The strange note was the flower shops — they were all open. And lines were long.

We thought about how to teach the next day. What was a suitable response? What type of space could we create? How to mourn the dead, to feel pain and sorrow? Our students live, as we do, in a parallel world where people attack or defend the tricolor shading of their profile photos, and the passionate discussions supposedly demonstrate passionate convictions. We didn’t want our classroom to mirror the debates on social media. We didn’t want to force anyone to speak, or to feel.

Like the neighborhood that was targeted, our university is a global microcosm. Though French and American students compose the majority of the student body, a remaining 40 percent or so come from a stunning array of countries — Kazakhstan, Chile, Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Latvia, just to name a few. The university represents more than 100 nationalities. One assumes this makes for diverse discussion, but often it does not. (Americans tend to dominate.) We hoped our Muslim students would share what living in Paris was like. We hoped our students from war-torn countries would speak about living daily with violence. And we hoped those many others who felt vulnerable for the first time in their lives — many are 18, away from home — would feel comfortable talking about their fears. How could we pull this off? We had no idea.

Closer to the streets where the shootings happened, the sounds quieted. A man cradled a bouquet of lilies with both hands; another woman held a single rose. Next to Le Bonne Bière, where five people were shot dead, was a modest laundromat whose facade had been shattered by bullets. In front, police tape cordoned off a tree. On the concrete sidewalk, a corrugated notebook paper, held down by candles, on which someone had written in small precise letters: “Ici une personne est morte.” Here a person died. Daisies had been taped on the tree trunk, but the enclosed ground seemed sparse, in need of more flowers. We laid ours here. A man and his daughter squatted on opposite sides of the tree, lighting candles that had gone out.

Near the now-shuttered Le Petit Cambodge, people were quiet but still neighborly. Friends embraced, not having seen one another since Friday. A Dalmatian broke from his leash, pounced on a Labrador; the owner apologized, the dogs sniffed one another, appearing to reconcile. In front of the restaurant, flowers formed mountains and Asian incense filled the air.


The university is still a space where people meet. This particular means of human contact should not be understated. A classroom, in the wake of a terrifying experience, is already special; but given the time we spend in front of a digital screen, it’s maybe even sacred. The teacher asks, “How are we feeling?” and students look down; any answer sounds stupid. The teacher asks, “Are the attackers’ actions comprehensible?” More averted gazes. In hoping somebody else will speak, they are listening.

On Monday and then Tuesday, conversation slows, halts, picks up speed. A Syrian who spent time in Lebanon speaks of seeing tanks and blood on the streets of Beirut. “But even this is a shock,” he says. “I came to Paris thinking I would be safe.” An American apologizes, asking if she can tell a story that might be “off-topic.” She says she got caught in a stampede from a false alarm on Sunday; somebody had probably set off firecrackers. She had never been so scared in her life.

How do we deal with our fear? More security, some students say. And tightening borders. Now others jump in. A Muslim student from Libya is interviewing Syrian refugees in Paris for a class project. She worries for their safety. “Where are we to go?” they asked her after the attacks. “Will we be able to stay in France?”

Then tentatively, one student asks, “I don’t want to sound ignorant, but is religion a motivation?” Others try to answer. The young Libyan woman quotes in Arabic a verse from the Koran, that only God can take a life. A Muslim from Syria says Friday was a holy day, how could they do this on the holy day?

If not religion, then what is it? A social problem, some say. A student who has lived in the Parisian banlieues, the impoverished outskirts of Paris, shares that she knows teenagers 20 minutes away who have never seen the Eiffel Tower. We pause to ponder this; our school is a five-minute walk away, most of us see the steel icon so often it barely registers. Then, prisons: 60 percent of the inmates in France are Muslim. The statistic astonishes. How to get rid of the divide between Paris and banlieues, between Muslims and non-Muslims? Education, in schools and in prisons, is maybe the only way out.

We appear to be getting somewhere. But it is the nature of conversation to meander, make circles. We come back to our revulsion. The shooters in the Bataclan aimed at chests and abdomens, then they aimed at the bodies crouched on the floor. We talk about our fear again. Will attacks happen again? Why wouldn’t they? Three of the suspects were French. They blew up the country they were born and raised in.

“It’s evil,” a young woman says. A few bristle involuntarily but hide it — it has been a long weekend and there’s palpable kindness. “This might sound clichéd,” another offers, clearing his throat, “but nobody is born evil.” And then we weigh in, gently; we do not want anyone to feel bad. To use the word evil buys into Daesh’s corrosive ideology of us vs. them, pure believers vs. infidels. As hard as it is, we must try to ask: How might their lives have turned out differently, what were the forks in the road before they settled on a path of despair? How might we be present at those forks?

Few think bombings are a good idea. “We will lead the fight, and it will be merciless,” François Hollande said, and bombs struck Raqqa soon after, on the same day names and pictures of victims began to appear. Together we fear the repetition of violence, its further escalation. The Muslim woman from Libya, who wears a hijab, has been spat on, told to go home; it’s bad in Paris, she says, but what she really cares about is the NATO bombings in her native Libya in 2011, which left people hopeless. Bomb, get bombed, bomb, get bombed — when will it ever end?

What should we do, one of our students asked. She was scared, said she wanted to transfer. We can't tell you what to do, we said. We’re scared too. But we hope you stay.


LARB Contributors

Albert Wu (@albertowu) is an associate professor of history at the American University of Paris. His first book, From Christ to Confucius (Yale University Press, 2016), examines Sino-European through the lens of missionaries.He has published in academic and popular journals, including American Historical Review, Commonweal, and The Point. With Michelle Kuo, he writes a weekly newsletter: ampleroad.substack.com
Michelle Kuo (@kuokuomich) is an associate professor at the American University of Paris. Her award-winning book, Reading with Patrick (Random House, 2017) combines memoir, reportage, and research on racial and economic inequality in rural Arkansas. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of BooksPublic BooksThe Point, and other publications. She has worked as an attorney for undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and incarcerated people. With Albert Wu, she writes a weekly newsletter at ampleroad.substack.com


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