Je suis tout le monde

The sound of heels clicking over long-trod-upon stones announced the climax of the event. A lone man, president of the Republic of France, walked in by himself to take his place on a single straight chair in front of the bleachers where gathered the invited officials and families and survivors of 13 novembre, to commemorate the 130 who lost their lives to terrorists that day. The entrance of Francois Hollande was preceded a good hour and some earlier by the entry of the army rifle corps, and the military band who stood in formation opposite the bleachers in the storied Cour d'Honneur de l'Hôtel des Invalides. Already I had been transfixed by the professional orchestra perfectly rendering the profound second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Comfortingly familiar to me were both the music and the sight of the many balding, fair-skinned men in overcoats, and women with their winter scarves modishly tied. Nathalie Dessay passionately delivered the classic French song "Perlimpinpin," a plea to end violence.
                                                     "...Because a child who cries,
                                                       No matter where he is from,
                                                       Is a child who cries.
                                                       Because a child who dies,
                                                       At the end of your rifles,
                                                       Is a child who dies."

After the attacks in Paris, it was good to see almost instant reminders of the tragedy that had befallen forty-one Lebanese in Beirut the day before. Empathetic people were invited to post pro Lebanon sympathies, "Je suis Beirut et Je suis Paris". Of course the victims in Beirut were as important as the victims in Paris. So why did we need reminding?

As I watched the memorial service in Paris from western Canada, it felt like I was one neighbourhood over. Citizen of a bilingual country, and imperfectly bilingual myself, I understood the short, strong, serious address Hollande made towards the end of the ceremony, before walking out over those ancient stones his heels knocked against the second time that day. The stones made me think of the stories that have come into our literature from France, Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and so many more. Heroes, like Joan of Arc. French words that have entered the English language intact, hors d'oeuvres, or have been anglicized. Colonizers, like Cartier and Champlain in Canada, and Père Marquette and Louis Jolliet in the United States. The first non-Indian settler in Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. When the Belgians tweeted images of cats to clog up the Twitter feed, and French people placed thousands of pairs of shoes in Place de la République, because the continuing state of emergency prohibits protest marches, we got it. We understood the literal point of those images, and we got it deeply, on a metaphorical level. If we're thinking tribes and tribal identity, whether I like it or not, I am most definitely part of the French, i.e., European tribe.

I know almost no Arab words. Only salam. And while I have read novels by the Egyptian Nobel prize winner, Naguib Mafouz, and own copies of both Omar Khayaam's lovely Rubiyat,  and Khalil Gilbran's The Prophet, This link to Arab literature shows that of the 105 books listed as "best," I have read perhaps three or four. I may have heard of another couple of titles or so, and I don't think I am unusual. I intend to read Amin Malouf, who writes in French and whose work is all translated into English. The Arab writer I knew first, and have read in French and English, is Albert Camus, of Algeria. Perhaps works written in the language of the colonizers had a better chance of entering the Western canon. The title of Camus's best known work, The Stranger, was ironically appropriate when the novel was published in 1942 and continues to be so.

With luck and serious intent, the flood of Syrian refugees to North America may spark more and broader investigations of the culture, so that names like Faruq (truth) and Barakah (blessing) and often-hyphenated last names, will come to seem commonplace and be easy to say. The North American literary canon is slowly becoming less eurocentric, but if we are to say "Je suis Beirut," and really mean it, cultural barriers must be lowered across the arts, and more works from Middle Eastern countries brought into North American education systems. It isn't enough to eat felafel.