Before Tragedy Was Cool

From Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar’s response to the Paris attacks

When the news from Paris started to break, a dark cloud settled over me. I’m American-born and ethnically Muslim, but kids at rock and roll shows are my people in a realer way than any national or ethnic ties could generate. I took the attack personally. It’s hard to overlook that after the fall of Al-Qaeda, political targets seem to have given way to cultural ones. The highest-profile western victims of Islamic terrorism since bin Laden’s death have been cartoonists and concertgoers. I consider comics books and rock and roll far more central parts of my identity than my name or skin tone.

My despair and fear were shared by many. At the last count as of this writing, 127 people were brutally murdered in the coordinated attacks in Paris, by monsters shouting “Allahu Akbar” like fucking buffoons. I felt terrible.

I felt a way that I didn’t feel the day before, when I had read reports of a suicide bombing in Lebanon, for which ISIS also claimed responsibility, that killed 43 and injured more than 200. This was the headline at The New York Times:

As journalist Ben Norton trenchantly pointed out, if the Times’s house style were consistent, this would have been the headline the following day:

Of course, it wasn’t. Why wasn’t it? Joey Ayoub, a Francophone Lebanese Arab, addresses this question in a piece called “The Streets of Paris are as Familiar to me as the Streets of Beirut.” “To the world,” he writes, “my people’s deaths in Beirut do not matter as much as my other people’s deaths in Paris.”

It may not be universal to live with dispersed national and ethnic allegiances, the way Ayoub does, the way I do. But it’s a deeply American experience, one that characterized the lives of most of our ancestors, and one that immigrants, who comprise at least an eighth of our population, continue to live with. Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about it in a story called “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” about a young girl whose family is visited by a refugee from East Pakistan.

At six-thirty, which was when the national news began, my father raised the volume and adjusted the antennas. Usually I occupied myself with a book, but that night my father insisted that I pay attention. On the screen I saw tanks rolling through dusty streets, and fallen buildings, and forests of unfamiliar trees into which East Pakistani refugees had fled, seeking safety over the Indian border. I saw boats with fan-shaped sails floating on wide coffee-colored rivers, a barricaded university, newspaper offices burnt to the ground. I turned to look at Mr. Pirzada; the images flashed in miniature across his eyes. As he watched he had an immovable expression on his face, composed but alert, as if someone were giving him directions to an unknown destination.

Lahiri’s protagonist goes through the same confusion I felt as a child, the same difficulty reconciling the angry faces and dead bodies in far away places depicted on TV screens with the knowledge that I’ve been to some of those places and know people who live there. The alienating effect of the screen renders these places an “unknown destination,” even for expatriates like Mr. Pirzada. But they remain full of people still.

As Ayoub puts it, “Some bodies are global, but most bodies remain local, regional, ‘ethnic.’” They’re easy to ignore. I was glad Norton and Ayoub, among others, reminded me of this fact, that the innocent have no nation, and should be mourned as one. But inevitably, this egalitarian impulse was met with a backlash, predictably from the right, but lamentably also from the left. In one such case, Guardian journalist Jamiles Lartey suggested that the push for solidarity in the light of tragedy is akin to the effacement of racial inequality called for by the rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement in favor of the ineffectual slogan “All Lives Matter.” He calls those who bring attention to Beirut “tragedy hipsters.”

You can read Lartey’s whole response here, and it makes some entirely reasonable points. Unfortunately, he has gotten the whole thing backwards. Black Lives Matter is a necessary rallying cry because black lives are valued less than white ones. The movement exists to inform those who would ignore the brutal subjugation of black bodies that they exist and live. Like the bodies of Mr. Pirzada and Joey Ayoub’s families and neighbors, they are not acknowledged by society at large. People have to be reminded, rudely if necessary.

Is it crass, when a tragedy like this occurs, to link it to other tragedies? I’m well aware, and as repelled as anyone, by the sanctimonious self-satisfaction peddled by leftist dilettantes. But the impulse to consider Paris alongside Beirut has a name. Its name is solidarity. As Sam Kriss has written, the political imperative after news of an atrocity is “to insist on having an opinion, not the knowing sneer of someone who was right all along, but undiminished solidarity in the face of devastation.”

ISIS doesn’t want you to care when it kills innocents in the Middle East. Nor do they want you to mourn when they die in American drone strikes, which have killed at least 459 innocent civilians. They want you to see these people as enemies. It’s an openly stated part of their program. This is their greatest common interest with the nationalist right wings of America, Israel, and all of Europe: to pick up the mantle of western racism by generating a so-called “clash of civilizations.” Only by affirming our common humanity can we refuse to let them win.

My instinct is to work out my emotions through music, so after I heard about the Paris attacks I spent a day listening to Eagles of Death Metal, in musical kinship with the victims. But it was hard to take joy in their cheerful celebration of the messy human excess of rock and roll. I looked for French music instead, to bring me closer to the site of the tragedy.

Django Reinhardt was a disabled Romani Gypsy who lived in France during World War II, and who probably remains Europe’s greatest jazz musician. “Nuages,” which means “clouds,” was written under Nazi occupation. It’s particularly poignant that a Gypsy, who was of an ethnicity fascism sought to eliminate, who found his voice through the African-American music that fascism had made illegal, spoke for the people of Paris through the lilting melody of this song. Historian Michael Dregni has written about its debut:

“Nuages” became an ersatz anthem to Paris during the Occupation; after Django unveiled the song in concert at the Salle Pleyel, the crowd would not let him begin a next tune, forcing him to stop and replay his new melody. And then play it again. In all, he performed “Nuages” three times in a row, and still the crowd was not satisfied.

I hope that after the tragedy in Paris, we can live up to the ideals “Nuages” represents. Those of music and solidarity. Of the articulation of the universal that comes from the margins. Of playing it again, together.