Experiencing the Paris Attacks
BY FATIMA NANAVATI
I had just finished midterm exams and was excited to finally have a break from the chaotic stress bubble commonly known as graduate school. I went home to frantically pack my bags for an exciting weekend trip to Paris. Being fortunate enough to study abroad in Italy, I had been eager to visit my first home-away-from-home for a while.
I moved to Paris when I was 17 years old and ready to experience the world outside of my childhood home, laced with a small white picket fences, in the town of Oakville, Canada. After a couple of years studying and working there, the city had gained a spot in a special corner of my heart. It was my city of “firsts” and kick-started my (somewhat) adult life. Everything from buying my own groceries, to paying rent, to making new friends, to finding my way around, and even falling in love. It was the city that I will always hold a bias toward, regardless of how cliché it may seem, because it was “mine.” So, after I moved around to various corners of the world for four years, only to end back in Europe, I needed to go back and visit this special home.
I flew out of Bologna on Thursday, Nov. 12 on the prestigious airline dedicated to debt-wrangled students, RyanAir. After a few security checks, bus rides, and metro surfs, I was in Port Maillot and headed off to meet with my old friends at the local Ismaili Temple. We had a wonderful night catching up and made plans to enjoy the weekend together. I sent off a few text messages and posted an obligatory Facebook status of returning to “my” city. I was not expecting anything particularly spectacular for this trip. I just wanted to wander around the Murais, eat copious amounts of chocolate filled crêpes, and laugh over my butchered French accent.
Unfortunately, that’s not what I got.
Friday evening, after climbing up to Sacre Coeur, wandering around the holiday displays at Lafayette Galleries, and eating my weight in Indian food, I met up with some old friends at Happy Day’s Diner. This diner was a classy way for Parisians to get a taste of America, with fresh milkshakes and ground beef burgers. As we laughed over old times and caught up on our fleeting lives, my friend Afshan got a text message from Alaïa, our French friend, “Where are you guys? What are you guys doing?” Assuming that she was inquiring about our plans for the evening and wanted to join us, we told her that we were having dinner in the 10th Arrondissement with hopes of later going out to enjoy the rowdy fun of Rue Oberkampf. She unexpectedly replied saying, “Did you hear about the shootings? Be careful!” The phone died promptly after reading this message and we quickly relayed the information to the rest of our friends at the table. Everyone simultaneously pulled out their cellphones and began Googling furiously. At first, there was a sense of composed annoyance. One friend said “Oh my gosh, someone shot eleven people at a restaurant, that’s ridiculous!” At this point, I was appalled but wrongly stayed calm.
It was 9:30 p.m., so we decided it was best to cancel our plans to go out and just head home after dinner. Within the next 15 minutes, the situation escalated more than we could have ever anticipated. We read reports of up to 18 deaths from gunfire in the 11th and 12th Arrondissements, which was much too close to our location. We frantically paid the bill and went outside to decide our routes homeward. Then we heard a loud thud. It startled us momentarily as we stood on the sidewalk in our already frazzled state, but we dismissed it as the sound from a large garbage truck or a distant strike of thunder.
As a dozen police vehicles raced past us moments later, we knew it was time to get out. We created a group chat to keep in touch and headed toward the train, metro, and taxi stands. A few of our friends who were living outside the city center were greeted with a pleasant surprise when their taxi driver decided to turn off the meter and not charge them to get home. The rest of us headed toward the train station. We stood in silence on the platform waiting for the RER B and listened anxiously to the muffled announcements over the intercom. It’s a truly chilling moment when you ride a crowded train and can only hear the sound of your heart beating in your ears. Cloaked in the finest clothes and fixed upon the chicest shoes, each Parisian stood silently poised with a face painted with fear.
We rushed out of the metro along with a crowd of desperate faces; desperate to get home, desperate to contact loved ones, desperate to understand what the hell was going on. As we arrived back at Afshan’s dormitory, the security guard rushed us inside and told us to not leave for the rest of the evening. He worriedly mentioned hearing the sound of a machine gun and gestured dramatically to ensure that we understood his quivering French. As my phone reconnected to WiFi, I received a flurry of worried messages and missed calls from my loved ones. My heart was warmed by the fact that my friends and family took the time to check in on me, but then I became scared. Was it really serious enough for my grandma to call? Why is a boy whom I haven’t spoken to for ten years so concerned about my safety? Why do I have 14 missed called from my mother? And then, we turned on the news.
In the time that it took us to pay the restaurant bill, take the train home, and message the group chat mentioning we were safe, more that 40 more people had been killed in what I had originally assumed to be an isolated violent incident. As awful as it may sound, I was not “scared for my life” when I heard about the initial shooting at the restaurant, Le Petit Cambodge. There have been more than 900 mass shootings in the United States, many of which followed a similar MO of a “violent gunman shooting at innocent civilians without concern.” With the recent bombardment of this reckless gun use in the media, I did not expect this situation to be anything more. However, as I dove into various news articles, listened to a French news reporter on the radio, and simultaneously answered worried phone calls with a composed voice, I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. My stomach was in my throat, and my heart fell into the hollow space where my stomach used to be. I realized that I had just been in the middle of one of Europe’s most horrific terrorist attacks.
I read more articles to stay informed and had my eyes glued to the computer screen whenever there was a “breaking news” update, but it did not help. I was sure to contact friends to ensure that they were also safe and talked to my parents for comfort, but it did not help. I tried drinking a hot cup of tea and eating a regrettably large bag of chips, but it did not help. Nothing helped the fact that a group of heartless jerks decided that it would be a good idea to create havoc, solicit fear, and kill hundreds of innocent people in the city that I decided to escape to for a vacation. In the city that I once called my home. That’s all I could make of the event as I laid in bed attempting (and miserably failing) to fall asleep — heartlessness.
I am a student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Relations; I know global chaos like the back of my hand. I understand the meaning of terrorism and war. I know the result of anarchy and genocide, but I only understood it all from one perspective. I knew this chaotic world as an academic with an ambition to make a difference, not as a scared girl running home at the shock of realizing that the garbage truck thudding was really a bomb exploding.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around the extent that these monsters went to in order to instill global fear — and they succeeded. After a hostage situation without survivors, suicide bombers attempting to initiate human stampedes, and horrendous shootings of innocent people, I have to say that I had lost a lot of faith. I lost faith in my profession of “Conflict Management” or “Risk Analysis.” I lost faith in global tolerance and cooperation. I lost faith in humanity.
However, the next day, that very humanity found a way to slowly rebuild my faith. We were afraid to go outside for a while, but after our stomachs started grumbling, we heard positive news from friends, and we felt some sense of safety, since the state of emergency had been lifted. We decided to leave the apartment. Paris was a ghost town. I couldn’t even believe that I could hear leaves falling to the ground and sirens in the distance, rather than the sound of dogs barking and Parisian children chattering. After getting a bite to eat with my old friend from school, we decided to visit the sites of the incidents from the night before. We took the metro to the République Station, a place I remembered as my mother’s favorite spot to have brunch whenever she was in town.
As we walked toward the center of the square past rows of armed guards, I could see hundreds of people standing around the monumental fountain. I’m not sure if I was more surprised by the fact that so many people had shown up to give their condolences, or that I could still hear the sound of leaves falling to the ground. I was surrounded by people, but could probably hear my bobby pin drop if a gust of wind blew my hair the wrong way. Tears began to roll down my face as I saw children lighting candles under a large sign reading “J’être humain.” Regardless of all the agony that the people were feeling, the fear that was looming in the air, and the pain that shook the world the night before, everyone was determined to stand together.
So we did. We all stood together. Locals and foreigners alike stood together while lighting candles, dropping roses, and sharing hugs throughout the day. I can’t say I’m not angered about what happened, not to me, but to my home and to humanity. The attacks that occurred not only destroyed lives, families, and a city, but also a large part of humanity that we all trust to be “good” to us. Knowing that any of us could have been having dinner at that restaurant or might have attended that concert the night of Nov. 13 in Paris still sends shivers down my spine. However, I am now at peace. After seeing the memorials in Paris, experiencing firsthand the strength that people retained, and witnessing the global uprising against such terror, I am now at peace with what had happened.
I am confident that humanity is good and that terror has no place in it. I am confident that our humanity will do everything that it possibly can to maintain the good and rid this beautiful world of such undeserving terror.