Voices from a Paris classroom

Du 7 au 11 janvier, le monde entier avait le regard fixé sur Paris, cite des évènements terribles dont la tuerie dans les locaux de Charlie Hebdo marquait le commencement.  Au sein de la horde de journalistes qui couvraient ces attaques terroristes, les plus grands organes de presse américains tentaient non seulement de saisir chaque détail des évènements qui ont fait trembler Paris pendant plusieurs jours, mais aussi de comprendre la réaction de la France face à celles-ci, y compris au sein des salles de classes des écoles françaises, suivant la directive gouvernementale instaurant une minute de silence à midi le 8 janvier.

En écrivant cet article, je me suis fixé comme but d’illustrer les défis auxquels j’ai dû faire face en tant que professeur, ainsi que les discussions que j’ai eues avec mes élèves alors même que ces évènements se déroulaient. Il me faut tout d’abord préciser que je suis musulmane, d’origine marocaine et française, née aux États-Unis; j’ai vécu et enseigné pendant une décennie à New York où j’ai vu de mes propres yeux la chute des tours jumelles le 11 septembre 2001. Je vis désormais à Paris, où j’enseigne depuis dix ans. J’ai publié plusieurs articles (dans l’International Herald Tribune et Teaching Tolerance) dénonçant le terrorisme dès la chute des tours. Désormais, des profondeurs de ma salle de classe, je ressens à nouveau le besoin de m’exprimer, car il me semble extrêmement  important que les arabo-musulmans modérés fassent entendre leur voix. Je pense également que les problématiques soulevées par mes élèves concernant le terrorisme, la liberté d’expression, et le rôle des citoyens au sein de la démocratie pourraient nous inspirer, nous pousser à réfléchir à d’autres manières de nous confronter à ces questions à l’aide de perspectives nouvelles,  car elles se posent bien au-delà de ce qui s’est passé à Paris au mois de janvier. J’ai écrit cet article en anglais, ma langue maternelle, dans l’espoir qu’un public anglophone puisse s’y retrouver.

J’enseigne l’anglais et l’éducation civique dans un lycée privé sous contrat avec le ministère de l’éducation nationale. Les échanges relatés sont directement inspirés des conversations qui ont eu lieu dans ma salle de classe à Paris, mais cet article étant une synthèse de celles-ci,  il ne reflète que mes opinions personnelles, et non celles de l’établissement où je travaille ou d’élèves en particulier. Par respect pour leurs vies privées, j’ai choisi de ne pas citer leurs noms, ni celui de l’établissement

Anissa Bouziane

I was teaching in my Paris lycée on January 8th, immediately following the day when 12 people were gunned down at Charlie Hebdo’s offices.  The hostage taking and assassinations of the Hyper-Casher grocery store had yet to occur, and the Mont Rouge killing of a police woman was yet to be linked to the web of terror that would grip Paris for several days, but the French Ministry of Education declared that every classroom in France should hold a minute of silence.  Though mine was a private school in a posh neighborhood, I knew my diverse student body (some of whom came from the Paris banlieues) might not all share the same reactions to the events of the day before; even if they did, the shootings had been so brutal, so atypical of anything recently Parisian, that there was a need to put a frame around what was happening.  Thankfully, my headmaster had announced that everyone should be in class a few minutes before the noon bell.  I hoped ten minutes should suffice to explain what we were doing.  At 11:50 a.m. I watched my 10th graders file in.  This was an Advanced English class, but I had the same group for Civics, where for more than a semester we had been studying the relation between citizens and the rule of law in the French Republic.

Miraculously, by 11:52 a.m. everyone was seated.  “We are going to hold a minute of silence,” I said, “does anyone know why?”  A few hands went up:  For Charlie Hebdo.  For the cartoonists who died.  Against terrorism.

“All of you are right,” I replied, “but there’s more to it.  Yesterday, people, who claimed offence at what others had written and drawn, responded to pens with weapons of war.  Those inexcusable acts resulted not only in the loss of 12 lives, but also attacked the foundations of our society.”  I paused and added:  “So, it is also as a sign of respect for our society that we bow our heads, whether we liked the caricatures or not.”  We still had three minutes left.  Silence can be heavy matter in a classroom.  I felt I had no choice but to ignore protocol.  I evoked my own background:  “Most of you know me well, know that I am Muslim and Arab, some might even know that I was raised in my father’s faith.  A handful of you might know that my mother is Catholic and her mother was Jewish.”  I could tell from the reaction on a few faces that not everyone had known.  “There are several in my family who found the caricatures offensive, but that offense in no way justifies murder.”  I wanted the students to hear it from me.  They needed to put a face on a Muslim who did not believe that Allah gives any man or woman the right to murder another because they feel offended.  The bell rang:  noon.  Silence.  I set the timer on my phone for one minute.  Everyone was quiet.

Teachers know how hard it can be to keep a class still for any period of time.  I dreaded the possibility that some wisecrack from the back of the room would split the silence, for a room could get dense with the unspoken fears, questions, and beliefs, but much to my relief the silence was not broken until my phone chimed the end of our 60 seconds.  My students had held on and handed me a teaching moment – I could not fumble, so much more had to be said.  We spoke of free speech, of its history in France, of how caricatures and pamphlets had helped usher in La Revolution, of how the French loved to lampoon institutions.  Some saw all this as part of being French.  One boy recounted that his father read Charlie Hebdo regularly, “those who died felt like my papa’s friends.”  Another claimed no one should get offended because Charlie made fun of everyone: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and atheists.

I noticed a girl in the back of the room on the verge of tears.  She was of Algerian immigrant background, from a pious family, her flushed face seemed to be begging me to say something. I knew from 9/11, how dangerous it was to appear relativist.  I had been a New Yorker then and had witnessed the collapse of the Towers.  More than a decade ago, answering the question “why” had been like tiptoeing through a minefield, where missteps lead to the accusation of making excuses for terror.  Nevertheless, for the sake of the girl in the back row, and for others in the class whom I knew to be of Syrian, Saudi, and Lebanese origin, I thought it important to model a moderate’s response.  I told the boys to tamper their ardor, reminded them that certain of the Charlie caricatures, particularly the ones in the Sharia Hebdo issue could be construed as profoundly offensive because pornographic and therefore insulting in a deeply hurtful, even, hateful, way.  I reiterated that in no fashion should that offence be dealt with through violence, but rather through the courts, or with other drawings.  Pens should respond to pens.  I left it at that.  We were Thursday afternoon, and the bloodshed in the Paris streets would soon resume, as would even more spirited debates inside my classrooms.

Friday, I was not teaching, but instead home, watching along with the rest of France and the world, as the terrifying hostage crisis at the Hyper-Cacher market unfolded to its deadly end.  I knew the kosher market, had shopped there when sent to administer baccalaureate oral exams at a lycée in the neighborhood.  Less dramatic in scale than 9/11 this felt nonetheless terribly personal:  individuals murdered by gunmen who stared them in the face an then pulled the trigger.   By now we knew the names of the terrorists, knew their stories:  these were children of the Republic, French men, whose immigrant origins should not have left them outside the framework of society.  How had they strayed so far?  Abandoned by the social services system, failed by the educational system, corrupted by the prison system?  Is any of this an excuse for the type of matricide all of us were witness to?  No, for inside the very market where Coulibaly the murderer was gunning down Jews, Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim like Coulibaly, was saving the very people Coulibaly would try to assassinate.  And outside of Charlie Hebdo headquarters one of the Kouachi brothers shot Ahmed Merabet at point blank; Ahmed was a French police officer defending the rules of the Republic, which the terrorists defied.  By the time Friday was over, so was the killing spree, but 17 people were dead, and France felt beaten and bruised.

Without the march on Sunday, January 11th, I, like many other French, might not have found the energy to get out of bed Monday morning, but the march allowed me to face my students armed with a key ingredient:  hope.  For whether you liked Charlie or not, you could not help but recognize that something magical happened in Paris that Sunday afternoon when more than 3 million French took to the streets.  Je Suis Charlie, for a moment became:  Je suis un ȇtre humain, I am a human being.

My first class on Monday was 12th grade English Literature.  We met on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I had not seen them since before the violence. They were eager to talk.  How many of you were at that march?  Half-a-dozen hands went up.  I confessed:  “Initially I wasn’t going to go to the march.”  Several faces took particular notice.  “I had lunch with friends who were going, but I was scared to go.  I went home.  But when I saw on television what was happening Place de la République, I knew I had to be there, so I biked all the way across town to be a part of it.”  In the front row two girls raised their hands.  Before they spoke, I added:  “It doesn’t matter if you were in the streets yesterday or not, you were in Paris, when in response to violence, people searched for solidarity.  That’s historic.”

Hands went up and comments flowed:  “I feel proud to be French.  Liberté, Egalité, Fratirnité, those words stand for something now.” Another student recalling what we had learned in Civics class called out:  “That’s Article 11 of La Déclartion des droits de l’homme et du citoyen!”  A Jewish boy admitted that for the first time ever he wore a yarmulke in the streets, “I taped Je Suis Charlie onto my kippa, because on Sunday I was Jewish and French.”

The conversation moved towards what had happened at the Hyper-Casher.  I insisted on its anti-Semitic nature.  “But Madame, we now know that it wasn’t an anti-Semitic act,” a girl said.  I looked at her puzzled.  “On the internet the freed hostages said that Coulibaly talked to them and explained his actions rationally.”  Hands went up, but I was the one to answer:  “The internet feeds us things without the filters and historical context that can help us make sense of information.  That the gunman expressed a rational-seeming argument for his actions, in no way changes the essence of what he did.  Given the history of 20th century Europe, given the legacy of the Shoah, the minute someone steps into a kosher store, rounds Jews up at gun point and kills them, that is an anti-Semitic act.”

A boy asked:  “Do you think millions of people would have walked out into the streets to protest the killing of four Jews?”  No one replied.  He went on:  “How many walked out when Mohamed Merah murdered children in a Jewish school?”  There rose a cacophony of voices.  Where was the teacher’s manual for this class?  I soldiered on:  “Yesterday’s march might have been a tipping point.  Meaningful not only because of 12 cartoonists and three police officers were gunned down, but also because four Jews were murdered for no other reason than because they were Jews.  The rising tide of anti-Semitism in France is all the more shocking because during World War II Jews were rounded up and sent to their deaths without sufficient numbers of people rising up to say anything about it.  So today it matters that millions of people took to the streets to say no to several forms of inhumanity.”

All hands went down but one, “What if I don’t feel I am Charlie, because I would never have drawn those cartoons?”  Another continued:  “It is blasphemous to draw a picture of the Prophet, what Charlie did was wrong.”

I searched for a frame:  “Blaspheme is an issue of faith, one that matters to those who share a common faith.”  A student replied:  “So someone outside the Muslim faith should have the right to draw what he chooses, right Madame?”  I pivoted:  “Setting aside blaspheme, one reason so many Muslims are upset by the cartoons is that they are seen as vulgar and insulting, even hateful.”

“Charlie insulted everybody!  It wasn’t hate!” Again, the defense of Charlie as an equal-opportunity offender. “Well Dieudonné insults Jews, and he gets thrown in jail!” one student called out.  I stepped in:  “Remember Article 11 of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen tells us that all citizens have the right to free speech, as long as it is within the framework of the law.  Dieudonné crosses the line because he incites hatred.”

“Why is everyone so sensitive?” one boy called out, and in his words I heard a long-ago echo from across the seas of Rodney King’s “Can we all just get along?”   “The problem,” I ventured to explain, “is that there are sites of soreness on the politic body of France.”  Students looked at me puzzled.  “There are events in French history that are loaded with emotion because of the pain they caused.  The deportation of Jews from France during the Second World War is one of those sites, but the French justice system has become particularly sensitive to that history.  The Algerian war and other colonial acts of violence are also sites of soreness, unfortunately they are far less recognized… maybe that is what needs to be dealt with in order to help society heal.”

Someone in the back row yelled out:  “What about the dead in Nigeria, in Iraq, in Syria?” Others followed:  Why mourn 17 in France and not elsewhere?  Because the violence targeted more than 17 people, it targeted an idea of freedom.  What if that freedom is flawed?  What of the politicians who showed up at the march?  What of those who weren’t there?  Voices were loud.  No one bothered with raising hands.  My classroom was on the verge of chaos.

“Time out!” I shouted.  “This is no way to pose questions, and it won’t help us come up with answers.”  The room fell quiet.  “Look at the state of the world you are inheriting.  I am sorry and I apologize that my generation has left you such a mess.  But if you are going to be better at finding a solution, then you must root yourselves in knowledge.  Read.  Read Paxton, read Fanon, read Derrida, read Stora, read Saïd… write your own histories, write a better direction for tomorrow.”

“I am reading Voltaire!” one kid said. “Which book?” I asked.  “The Treaties on Tolerance.”  I smiled:  “Yes, read – become lawyers, politicians, journalists, and cartoonists.  If the laws seem imperfect to you – work to improve them.”  The bell rang.

A few days later, students went to buy the historic “survivors” issue of Charlie Hebdo. They stood in line for hours, hoping for a piece of history that might bring a sense of closure to such a tumultuous week.  Though some found the cover funny and touching, others were offended… it seemed nothing had been resolved.  Looking at the picture of a small, tearful man holding a Je Suis Charlie sign against a green background, I bemoaned the magazine’s choice to claim the drawing was yet another caricature of the Prophet.  Did we really need that now?  But the more I stared at it, the more I saw it for what it could be: the representation of a man offering forgiveness, a little drawing by old cantankerous boys whose friends had been murdered and whose hearts had been broken. Before the social networks went wild, before angry mobs took to the streets of countries where freedom of speech can get a person jailed, I urged my students to think of the multiple ways in which that cover could be interpreted, think of the power of the pen, and of the obligations of those who wield it.  The classroom after all is the breeding ground for so many things; maybe with some luck it might be the place where the next generation comes up with a way to break us out of our cycle of war without end.

Anissa Bouziane

Anissa M. Bouziane is a Muslim of Moroccan and French background, born in the United States. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from Wellesley College and an M.F.A. from Columbia University.  Writer and educator, she has been living in Paris for the past ten years, where, among other things, she teaches English and Civics in a private lycée under contract with the French Ministry of National Education.

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