I make some phone calls in advance. Just to be sure. Negative. Even Samia Labidi is away from Paris. The Tunesian-born writer and activist has been an acquaintance of mine for many years. Her magazine, the now defunct Electroshoc printed the Mohammed cartoons as a token of sympathy. Her brother Karim took part in a terrorist training course in Teheran as a young man.
I am here to collect material for a book and I need useful information for my work on freedom of expression. And not simply to enjoy looking at the mansions at Place de Vosges, the purple flowers and the passing boats on the Seine from my vantage point in the café near the Place de la Bastille where I like to sit for hours. So I make some more phone calls.
An employee from the organisation Reporters Without Borders tells me on the phone that they would like to meet me. And – via email – Syrian born singer and composer Abed Azrie invites me for a coffee. He lives in a tiny apartment near Place Pigalle which used to serve as a dressing room for the naughty girls at the Moulin Rouge. I have known him since I did an interview with him almost ten years ago.
Azries motto is: ” There is no truth, only truths”. His compositions are a mixture of Islamic mysticism, tango and everything else. I decide to go.
This is my first trip out of Denmark after the terrorist attack on Krudttønden in Copenhagen where I was sitting on the stage next to Mohammed cartoonist and art historian Lars Vilks when the terrorist Omar Abdel el-Hussein tried to shoot his way into the lecture hall.
This morning a bad stomach flu caught up with me but seated at the front of the plane I just feel tired. Turbulence causes the aircraft to shake violently. And there are no clouds, which I think is a pity. When clouds gather like a carpet outside the window of a plane they remind me of landscapes straight out of The Hobbit. I have loved that story since I was a child.
My favorite hotel in Paris is only a seven minute walk from the old offices of Charlie Hebdo in Rue Nicholas Appert. All the flowers, letters, pencils and drawings of sympathy are gone now. However, an imposing blue police car is parked outside number 10, a modern building with bright and ugly fluorescent lights emanating from the first floor. Two young men try to enter through the gate but are immediately stopped and questioned by a police officer armed with a machine gun. He lets them through.
”How are you?” Editor in Chief Gérard Biard and I had asked each other a week ago. I rang him up to ask if he could find time to meet me while I was in Paris. He couldn’t.
Biard and I have only met once before the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him how Simon Fieschi, the webmaster is doing. I don’t know him personally, we only spoke on the phone a few times, but after reading in the newspapers that he might never walk again I can’t get him out of my mind. One of the bullets fired by the Kouachi brothers hit his spine.
Photo: Simon Fieschi and his girlfriend, Maisie Dubosarsky, visiting Australia.
The cold fact that so and so many were wounded in a terrorist attack does not really say much. Whether it happens in Afghanistan, Israel or Boston we are rarely told if the victims are maimed or just slightly wounded..
Once discharged from hospital even wounded police officers disappear from the media. “Oh that’s nothing” some of them tell me when finally I bring myself to thank them for their efforts at Krudttønden on February 14th. But is it really nothing to them? How does it feel to be a policeman or a bodyguard in the aftermath of a terrorist attack? What is it like for them to read the papers or hear on tv how they should have acted differently according to experts and dissatisfied critics? My feeling is of gratitude toward the men and the woman who were doing their job that afternoon in Krudttønden.
Later that evening I walk past Rue Nicholas Appert 10 once more. In the twilight the police car seems to blend in with the surroundings. Apparently the place is guarded day and night. Probably because a publishing house tied to Charlie Hebdo still has its address there. They’ve just published an essay written by Charb, the cartoonist just two days before he was murdered. It contains a passage about a time when Charlie Hebdo was classified as more dangerous than Al Qaeda.
It reminds me of Lars Vilks. After the terrorist attack he was accused of having ”gone too far” by a man who has otherwise supported him, Peter Kóvács, the spokesman of the small community in which he used to live, because he ”puts other peoples lives in danger.” Vilks lived for 20 years in the same house in the village of Nyhamnsläge, but after the terrorist attack his landlord terminated the lease. Since the 14th of February Vilks and his bodyguards have been moving around between various safe houses.
Taking up a permanent residence is too dangerous for him at the moment. But I’m in Paris and free to move around. Over a nearby boulevard the moon hovers like a sickle over the neighborhood. From an outdoor restaurant flows the music of a woman’s laughter. Paris is warm and beautiful.
How long a beard are military men aloud to grow? It is morning and two men in military uniforms armed with machine guns guard the synagogue in Rue Pavee. One of them has a very long grey beard. I keep thinking about the beard as I stroll around the neighborhood. Then I walk further down Rue de Rosiers and see several armed police officers in front of a gate. Around the corner from the narrow alley lies the Jewish bookshop. Unprotected.
«But I suppose the length of a beard is just as irrelevant as my sadness at losing my Max Mara dress that somehow disappeared at the local dry cleaners. And just as irrelevant as excessive when the dress turned up after all with a 24 hour delay. As irrelevant as my mail to art curator Agnieszka Kolek who sat on the panel at Krudttønden on February 14th. She had had to return to London whithout her red hat and other outerwear because the house of Krudttønden had turned into a crime scene and only accessible to the police: “I survived – who cares about a hat?” Agniezska Kolek wrote back to me, after I had explained how much the loss of her hat bothered me. I wanted to know the price of the hat and offered to replace it for her. But it turned up again, curled up in the sleeve of her coat. Terror makes you do and think strange things.»
It is afternoon now. I pass through a gate and yet another gate on my way to drink coffee with Abed Azrie (photo). The composer has spent 40 years in Paris. He comes from a Christian family in Aleppo and the news from his hometown is not encouraging. But he has met a Kurdish singer with “a wonderful contralto”. I leave his apartment with one of his latest CDs. “Remember to write and tell me what you think of it,” he says. The flower pots outside his home lighten up the white wall. I leave him laughing in the doorway.
“In Islam there is no room for fun” Ayatollah Khomeini once stated. “God and the Prophet never forgive” sounds like an echo of the Ayatollah. Nevertheless it was the kindest sentence in the mail that I and Uwe Max Jensen, co-founder of the Lars Vilks Committee, received the day after the terrorist attack in Paris.
Lying on my hotel bed I almost doze off. I watch the green walls and practice my French while listening to the happy voices of hotel employees loudly chatting away down in the yard.
I think of the person who sent us the mail. Who are you? Who wrote such unkind words? How is your life? Evil mails of that kind should be left to the police so that they can look for digital tracks – often in vain. But we ought not to complain, some people get enough threats to paper their walls with.
The next morning French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says on tv that the terrorist threat is higher than ever. Almost by chance an Algerian-French student is apprehended. He is suspected of planning a terrorist attack on at least one church in the parisian suburb of Villejuif. I eat breakfast at a café on Bastille Square. The sun is shining through the glass doors but it is too early in the day to open them.
The same afternoon I take the Metro to the Bourse. I turn right at the palace of Brongniart and pay a visit to the organization of Reporters Without Borders.
“Freedom of expression and of information will always be the world’s most important freedom“, their homepage states. 30 people work at the office in Rye Vivienne. I have a nice talk with one of them. Even in this organization I feel a sense of shock after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in the heart of a Paris accustomed to supporting reporters, cinematists and cartoonists in countries like Iran, Mexico and Syria. Large images of Charb, Wolinsky and the other murdered victims from Charlie Hebdo are displayed in the open plan office. “Je suis Charlie” is written on a wall. But the police officers that have been guarding the entrance are gone now.
The employee explains about the reporter Zineb el Rhazoui who was associated with the editors of Charlie Hebdo and with whom they are in contact. When the massacre took place she was on holiday. Then calls to kill her started to circulate on the social media. They come from followers of ISIS. Rhazoui now lives under the watchful eye of five police officers. There are threats against her husband Moroccan writer Jaouad Benaïssi. Rhazoui is only 33 years old. Pictures of her on the internet shows a sensitive looking woman with wavy hair. Can she adapt to a life like that? I leave the organization with several copies of their newly published photobook “100 information heroes”.
On the last day of my journey I go to Boulevard Pereire. On my way from the metro down the great boulevards I sense an old anxiety. It first hit me half a year after the tragic death of my mother. I was 13 then. Today I am an adult. Anxiety affects me seldom and I always know what to do: I find something pretty to look at.
This time I find row of green plants in what seems to be a sunken garden on one side of the boulevard. Before long I recognize the gate. I have been here before.
Inside number 5 are the headquarters of L’association Française des Victimes duTerrorisme (AFVT). Its founder Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc was still a young man when his father was killed by Libyan terrorists who blew up him and 169 other people in an airplane over the Niger desert. “I prayed it was an accident. I prayed my father had not been killed in a terrorist attack,” he said when I interviewed him last year.
At the time none of us knew what was going to happen in Paris and Copenhagen. Now we are seated in a small basement office discussing whether or not Guillaume can participate in a conference in Copenhagen and explain what his organisation does.
Most people who work there have experienced terror themselves or lost someone in a terrorist attack. They are in touch with victims in places like Afghanistan, Morocco, Russia and France.
Sometimes terror victims visit French prisons. The prisoners decide themselves if they want to meet them or not and they sometimes meet radicalized prisoners. “Don’t you want revenge?” the inmates always ask the victims. The answer is no. But they do want to explain that no cause can justify terrorism. They also visit schools in the neighbourhoods where some children refused to stand up and observe a moment of silence in tribute to the victims of Charlie Hebdo.
One of the employees of the organization is the Algerian born reporter Mohammed Sifaoui (photo) who exposed the double game played by some Danish imams during the Mohammed crises. In 1996 during Ramadan smoking a cigarette might well have saved his life. He and a colleague had just gone outside the building of the newspaper that they both worked for to have a smoke. A bomb exploded inside. Three of Sifaouis colleagues and thirty random bypassers were killed.
In the evening I catch a plane home to Copenhagen. At the airport there are two heavily armed policemen. A flickering sun shines outside the window and there is a veritable carpet of clouds. Next to me a little boy plays a game on the computer. I feel tired and happy.
The following day I meet more heavily armed men in Sweden where I am picked up by one of Lars Vilks’ bodyguards who drive me to the house where I am to meet him. During the interview the bodyguard never leaves his side.
We talk about his life with the bodyguards. Vilks says that “some of them took an interest in art before they met me – and some of the others I forced to become interested.”
He chuckles. I laugh with him.
Before I go to bed that night I invent a new method of de-radicalization: You could force people convicted of terrorism or who has shown terrorist sympathies to work in art museums filled with sculptures of naked women. Or they could work at cartoon exhibitions, where they received orders through loudspeakers from anonymous female voices. For a true terrorist it must be a fate worse than death. And for their victims it might be an appropriate revenge.
Translation: Agnete Stofregen