What happened on Friday in Paris is horrifying. I can only imagine the fear and the anguish of the Parisians. Paris is the city we see romanticized in books and movies. It is the city of love. It is the place my daughter has marked out as her destination of choice for her first trip on her own own - translate: minus her father and me.
I have memories of France. Many memories of a place visited not once but again and again. First, as a child accompanying my parents and later with my own kids. First time I saw an automatic garage door was in Paris when I was seven. We lived in China at the time. Communist China, where everyone wore either blue or gray, and I found the garage door, magical. First time I saw a naked woman was in a park in Paris. I won't forget my father's embarrassment and my sister and my delight. The lady waved back at us two little girls being rowed down the Seine by our father. I still haven't figured out if my father's embarrassment was the result of our excitement or the lady's nudity. Probably, the former. He is a sailor, after all.
An earlier memory of wondering off on my own at age ten to a play ground in Nice and watching horrified as a group of six or seven teenage boys attacked and tore clothes off a girl their own age, while she sat on a swing and screamed hysterically. I couldn't digest what I saw. There were other people walking in the park. Old ladies walking their dogs and no one even looked in the girl's direction, let alone help her.
Another one, at the heart of which lies my mother's remarkably tiny bladder. We were driving through France and my mother had to go and my father did not want to stop. He likes making good time on the highway. When we finally did stop, my mother was desperate. She and I got off and ran into the first hotel we came upon, dashing straight through the lobby to the ladies washroom. No sooner had we entered that a large blond man who was incredibly angry dashed in with an attack dog, and manhandled both of us out of the hotel onto the street while screaming insults at us in French. My mother was wearing a shalwar kurta and had covered her hair with a duppatta to pray to Allah to help her make it to the loo in time.
A more recent memory. Just two decades or so old. I studied at a university in Tunis where some of my friends were French-Tunisian. They had a strange love- hate relationship with France. I didn't get it, until the day I did. My parents were planning a trip to Europe to pick up a car from Germany and drive it back to Tunis. They invited a few people for dinner and my father, to my dismay, insisted I come out of my room to meet them. So, we all sat around, with the various European guests weighing in with advice on the best places to visit and things to do. The French Ambassador's wife piped up:
"Be careful while driving through Marseilles. You will be driving a new Merc and you know, the North Africans in Marseilles, they like to steal."
And then she laughed, and the others joined in. Good thing that my father had not invited any Tunisians to our home that night. I was outraged. My friends were North African. We were sitting in a North African country, enjoying their hospitality, but I am a coward and kept quiet. Thankfully, my parents have more courage than their daughter and spoke up against the stereotype.
A few months later, lost in Marseilles, on the way to the port, my father pulled over to ask for directions. We were running late, tension was high in our car, we frantically searched our minds for the correct French words with which to ask for directions, and in all that we didn't notice that the three boys next to the car alongside which we had pulled up, were holding large metal tools and banging at the car while the car's alarm blared at a volume programmed to induce panic. My father quickly drove away and we stopped at a police station to report what we had seen. It's not worth our time, is what the police told us. I forgot to mention the skin colour of the boys, didn't I? White.
I wish I could say it didn't matter but it did matter to me. It mattered because of what the French Ambassador's wife had said about North Africans. It mattered because I wanted her to be wrong. I was glad that the criminals we saw were white.
Does it mean that I think all white, teenage boys are rapists or car thieves? Of course not. Only a fool would draw such a conclusion and so even though, I am an agnostic, I was born Muslim, bear a Muslim name, and most of my loved ones are Muslims, and so it hurts when I hear people talk about Muslims as terrorists. I wonder about the mental trajectory that takes them from some insane, violent people behaving like crazy, violent people do, to thinking all Muslims are violent because that's what their religion teaches them.
All KKK are white, Christian, and hold up the Bible as their source of inspiration, but I don't assume all Christians are white and demented.
P.S: Not all Muslims are brown and not all brown people are Muslim.