I will always remember where I was when it happened. I was walking out of a meeting on Kloof Street, just after 3pm on 7 January 2015, when I received the first message. I will always remember the words coming seemingly out of nowhere, without a context and yet unmistakably talking about something truly horrible: ‘Did you hear about Charlie? It’s terrible.’ And then a second message very soon after and a third one. I will forever remember my hands shaking, that thing in your throat that makes breathing so tight and tears swelling your eyelids to bursting point; I will remember the confusing, conflicting emotions, and then the many, many messages between friends, family in France, journalists. I will remember where I was on that day the same way I remember where I was when I watched the falling towers of 9/11 (in the lounge of the Hôtel Costes in Paris), heard about the death of Pope John Paul II (at a restaurant in St Michel, a few steps from Notre Dame), the terrible massacre of Marikana (at work, in Sea Point) or the passing of former President Nelson Mandela (in bed).
I remember where I was when I heard about every one of these events, the same way I remember where I was when my sister gave birth to my little niece (on my scooter, the Place de l’Opéra) or when my publisher called me to say I was appointed the new editor of ELLE (at the magical mountain of Zlatibor, in Serbia). My memory doesn’t make any conscious preference, you see; it stores images in boxes and tags them with happenings that have imprinted my life with the force of a bulldozer. So here they are, floating in some undefined space in my head, past pictures of places, people and even conversations glued for eternity with the designation (and now famous hashtags) of life’s tragedies and joys. It doesn’t store all the tragedies and joys of this world I felt so far, probably because it doesn’t have the capacity to, or because some things might affect me more than others. Of course, it doesn’t mean that, on the scale of pains and blisses, they are not as important or as outrageous. It just means that my response to them might vary and with it, their impact on my memory.
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When, on 7 January, my best friend sent me that first message, it hit that special nerve, and left me sad and confused and angry. In the days afterwards, like a tightrope-walker, I balanced between embracing the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ revolution (which I have, fully) and continuing to be horrified at the news that Boko Haram was bleeding Nigeria just to the north of our comfortable lives. I am Baga, too. I was torn between taking to the streets, as I have so often done, growing up in a country where taking to the streets is an art de vivre (although the lethargy of the last few years had faded that spirit somewhat) and joining those who were outraged that the same infatuation didn’t follow the Baga carnage. Novelist Taiye Selasi once beautifully said, ‘My identity is rooted in things much much smaller than nation, and things much much bigger.’ I wholly agree: I am but a mixture of the journeys and people who have carried me from one place to another, one culture to the next.
So I cried for 9/11, Marikana and Mandela (to name only a few), and I cried for Charlie. I cried for good people dying, I cried for good people massacred and I never, ever allowed cynicism to creep in. Born in Paris, I grew up in a family where my father regularly read Charlie Hebdo and revered Georges Wolinski’s cartoons. The attacks on the satirical weekly (hence its name – an abbreviation of ‘hebdomadaire’) magazine struck not only at human life (and the famous faces that composed the editorial team) but also at the thoughts and philosophies, and creative freedoms, that blessed my childhood and, later, teenage years. It wasn’t that I particularly liked Charlie Hebdo, or that I always scrupulously read it. I sometimes paged through it, shrugged my shoulders at the cartoons, occasionally lifted an eyebrow. But what mattered was to know that it was ‘there’, that it had a space to exist, to be offensive or controversial. That mere fact was enough to make me happy: that we were truly free to pursue what we wanted, desired, hoped for, argued with.
The paper’s content and contentious cartoons filled some murky space in my head, a hole in the wall where the shocking and the irreverent could sit together and be safe. It served as food for my thoughts and inspired words for my debates. It came up at dinner conversations, like the ruminations of a distant and petulant cousin whose jokes and unfiltered comments are too uncomfortable to be shared yet often strike right where it hurts, at the heart of truth. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t the only French impertinence: countless publications, movies, TV programmes and books have fed discussions and fuelled debates for centuries. They were part of the making of a culture, they are the essence of a nation that believes in entities that can freely challenge authority and defy establishments while still treasuring notions of bourgeoisie, protectionism and patriotism. It is a land of contrasts and layers firmly built on the values that defined the Frenchness of the French: of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (or the promises of it). And I cried for Charlie. The attacks left a void in that microcosm inside my head. It sucked the sap of tolerance, and made my knees weak; it killed not only 12 people, it also shook the idea that we could digress, disagree and dare without risking a bullet in the head. It wasn’t because I personally digressed, disagreed or dared.
It was because I knew that, should I want to, I could. And that right, along many other rights that mould modern societies, is fundamental. I will always remember where I was when it happened. In the aftermath of the tragedy, after people gathered together, raised their pens and lit their candles, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, like many more before, has joined the other unforgettables in my memory. The event’s hashtag and trail of emotions will always be there; but the void left is now filled with the hope of people coming together, of a silent march of rebellions, of debates and discussions, of digression, disagreement and daring.