man who had meditated twice a day for forty years described his practice this way, “My early morning practice sometimes gets delayed until 6 pm.” I had a good laugh, thinking of all the things that get delayed like that. And one thing we put off is remembrance. It is a powerful human experience but a painful one. Veterans Day is a deeply held way of honoring fallen soldiers. I’d like to extend our remembrance a little further today. Difficult, yes. And at the same time, the realizations gained the hard way, by suffering through something awful, can be surprising and inspiring.
PARIS ATTACKS OF 2015
On this day, Friday the 13th of November in 2015, France experienced a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris and in a suburb to the north, St Denis, home to the great Stade de France, the sports stadium where the famous world cups are played. The attacks began outside the Stade de France and apparently were bungled, fortunately, because the three suicide bombers died and only (if we can put it that way) one bystander. A guard patted down one of the suicide bombers, found the bullet-proof vest he was wearing and turned him away. No terrorist got inside the stadium.
It was a warm November Friday, and people were enjoying themselves at restaurants, on terraces, and at a concert venue called Le Bataclan, formerly owned by brothers who were Jewish. Terrorists were on the move with assault rifles: one hundred thirty victims, ninety at Le Bataclan.
Earlier on Friday afternoon I came into town to visit a Chinese acupuncturist. I climbed out of the metro Plaisance, in the 14th (arrondissement or quarter) after teaching all day. A large billboard greeted me with the most delicious looking vegetables and rice arranged in such an appetizing fashion. The billboard was an ad for the restaurant called Le Petit Cambodge (The Small Cambodia). A perfect, healthy meal to follow the acupuncture, I thought.
I was excited to go because I have been a student of Cambodia for a very long time, starting when Nixon secretly bombed Cambodia, which in turn gave rise to the protests and four deaths at Kent State. And thereafter, I made sure to follow the country’s history. Two different taxi drivers from Cambodia who took me to the airport engaged me deeply in French conversation about Pol Pot and the genocide visited upon Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when you were shot, for example, for wearing glasses, because no peasant would need glasses. I had even written a story about a child who refused to speak. I had read about a related trauma termed hysterical blindness. Cambodian women’s eyes refused to see although there was no physiological reason for it. The country’s culture is also represented in Paris by exquisite Buddha statues from Cambodia, some of the most impressive in the world with faces that transcend the duality of joy and suffering. And now there was a restaurant, giving me a chance to sample food from Le Petit Cambodge. I memorized the address: 20 rue Alibert in the 10th. “Oh,” I finally said to myself, reluctantly changing my mind. “It’s a bit far to get over there and then get home after such a long day.”
ON THE TERRACES
At 21h25 (9:25 pm) terrorists opened fired on Le Petit Cambodge and the dinners thronged on the terrace. Eleven people were killed. A nearby bar, Le Carillon, attacked at the same time. Four more deaths. Five minutes later, the café A La Bonne Biere, was hit, another five mowed down. Two other restaurants within minutes, the bistro La Belle Equipe and the restaurant Le Comptoir Voltaire, 20 more victims, not to mention all the wounded.
And then came Le Bataclan. Three hours of terror. Ninety victims. Isis took responsibility. France had authorized too many air strikes in Syria.
Offerings in front of Le Petit Cambodge.
On Monday at school the aftermath. One student said that the little restaurant down the street was now boarded up. The two brothers who owned it had been shot and killed at Le Bataclan. “My dad was offered a ticket to the concert at Le Bataclan. He wanted to go, but he had to work late.” The son of the school’s director was actually at Le Stade de France, among a group of young soccer players watching the game against Germany. So many young people in their late twenties and early thirties cut down. The whole nation was brought to its knees. A second terrorist attack in the year, the first in January when terrorists stormed the editorial meeting of the weekly satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo, murdering 17.
Place de la Republique is the square where French people go to protest and to mourn. Candles, flowers, photos, keepsakes lined the monument, and on top a figure of Marianne, a young woman who depicts the spirit of France. All of us made our pilgrimages there to grieve and to remember.
For me, the important thing about remembrance is not, “Oh, this happened.” But the act of setting aside time to remember pays tribute to the person, recognizing in this case that their life was cut short.
Remembering plays a big role in literature, too. Our memory shapes our identity. And what we are capable of remembering can be expanded as we read, and therefore, it seems to me, that who we are as a person grows also. Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, trains our gaze on the marginalized, the misbegotten, as a way of keeping these margins in our sight, so those who people them are not forgotten. And remembrance in music, too, is very powerful. As it happened, I was driving today and heard a jazz rendition of Neil Young’s song, “Ohio,” written in honor of the deaths at Kent State.
The re-opening of Le Petit Cambodge four months later, was a beautiful thing. A mosaic rests on the back wall in honor of those who were killed.
According to a newspaper report, “A statement posted to Le Petit Cambodge’s Facebook page back in December read, ‘Le Petit Cambodge will reopen, because for every one of us life must go on, but also by respect for the customers who that night were at the restaurant. [Not to] reopen it would give in and concede a victory which will never be gained. It joins several other restaurants targeted in the attacks that have already reopened, including Le Carillon and Cafe Bonne Biere.'”
And a husband, Antoine Leiris, whose wife, Hélène, was killed at Le Bataclan wrote an open letter on Facebook to his wife’s murderers. “You will not have my hate,” he wrote. And he said about his son, “For as long as he lives, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.” He has now written a book (in French) with this title. Other books include a book-length encounter, a dialogue, between the father of a victim and the father of one of the terrorists, Lola and Samy, the same age, called, Il nous reste les mots (We Still Have Words). This happens to be available in English on a Kindle edition. Yasmina Khadra wrote the novel Khalil, from the point of view of one of the jihadists, which I read and was a challenge to digest but helped outrage not harden into hate.
Here is a clip of Jeff Koons presenting a memorial sculpture to Paris, There are 11 flowers in a bouquet of tulips, the twelfth left out as a placeholder for the victims. Fresh, inspiring, controversial, as remembrance can be.