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A Day of Mourning in Paris  


Walking home from a delightful feline evening with three women friends at Le Café des Chats, the café where cats have free rein, Anna and Sion turned left at rue de Rivoli, and Rachel and I headed to the Place de Parvis Notre Dame, where she headed right and I turned left along the rue du Cloître Notre Dame on the north side of the Cathedral. The moon was directly overhead, slightly past full, shining on the gaping mouths of the gargoyles. They looked like monsters, mad dogs, straining to attack, held back by the force of the church and centuries of solid stone, radiance all around them. 

I passed over the Pont de l’Archevêché, heavy with love locks. Paris attracts romantics from around the world, and the weight of their yearning for lasting love threatens to collapse the bridge. Four young men across the street were leaning down to examine the locks. I listened, looked, scanned for danger. They spoke French (which tends to give me a sense of relief), were laughing, seemed safe.


Turning east along the Quai de la Tournelle, I headed home along the Seine, whose ruffled surface mirrored a fractured moon.

Another four men advanced toward me, heavy-set, middle-aged, talking amongst themselves.

I stood waiting for traffic to pass, alert again to possible danger. Out of the side of my eye, I monitored how close they were, before crossing the street.

And I had two thoughts: after years of living in Los Angeles, and before that, Santa Fe, New York City, Boulder, and Cambridge—after attacks by men in Berkeley, Cambridge and New Orleans, all averted by a weapon I hadn’t know I had, my voice—screaming in one case, talking calmly in two others—I still have the habit of scanning for threatening men. 

And once again, I felt happy to be living in a city where I feel safe, where I can walk alone at night, even late, as now at 11 p.m., or even later, like returning from a favorite writing café at 2 a.m., though I’ll probably never lose the habit of scanning for danger. It seems to be an intrinsic part of being a woman.



The following day came the shocking news of the murder of twelve journalists and staff at the office of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, by two terrorists with Kalashnikov rifles.

Horror. Grief. Sorrow. One state of mind bled into another. Richard and I cried, talked, and read newspaper articles online, many from links on Facebook. What a stunning locus/web of community and news. Friends in the U.S. and beyond sent moving messages of empathy, many wishing us safety.

We watched French news stations, and BBC. We heard President Obama and John Kerry extend their sympathy and support of democratic ideals to the French (Kerry in passable French—bravo, Monsieur Secretary of State!). French journalists and intellectuals discussed the events with nuanced intelligence, the absence of hysteria, and invited Muslim imams to voice their condemnation of the terrorist acts. President François Hollande declared the following three days to be days of mourning.


At the Place de la République, we gathered spontaneously with fifteen thousand other Parisians, lit candles, stood in solidarity with the victims. “Je Suis Charlie,” said the signs. I am Charlie. Such a respectful gathering of grievers. Standing in silence, then the waves of applause, and the chant, Char-lie, Char-lie, Char-lie. Then silence, then repeating the clapping and chant. No speeches, no politicians; the police present only to direct traffic, not in their Robocop outfits. 

That first day we heard no anti-Muslim sentiment expressed, just deep gravitas, grief, and a sense of unity. One French Muslim woman interviewed on TV wept, Ceci n’est pas Islam! Je suis Française! Je suis Française! (This is not Islam. I am French.)

On Thursday, I awakened feeling flattened by sadness. Over the course of the day, I found myself circling through the stages of loss and grief again. In reading the news and Facebook posts, I saw a few of bitter hatred, ones that urged killing the terrorists, that kind of thing. 


That seems to me to be a far greater danger than another terrorist attack in Paris—the massing of hatred, the backlash, the rise of anti-Muslim scapegoating, fueling more terrorism in a murderous feedback loop. In this decade, we’re already seeing a mirroring of the reactionary xenophobic spirit and crimes of the 1950s—the McCarthyism that had a devastating effect on so many artists and intellectuals, including the career of a writer relative of mine, and his actress wife.

So what is needed? For one thing, understanding. How does a lively young French man of Algerian descent descend into such barbarity? Look at Chèrif Kouachi, the younger of the two brothers, in this video, a 2005 investigative documentary about jihadism. 

Chèrif Kouachi might have gone in another direction. Like so many young men growing up in a western culture, he liked rap music and pretty girls. Like so many young people, he had no sense of direction, but was searching for guidance. He met a teacher, Farid Benyettou, who told him that, “The scriptures showed the virtue of suicide attacks. It’s written in the scriptures that it’s good to die as a martyr.” Farid “gave me a justification for my coming death.”


His doubts vanished. He was trained in the use of Kalashnikovs, was on his way to Syria in 2005, hoping to go to Iraq, when he was arrested by police, along with Farid Benyettou, and spent time in prison. When he was released in 2008, he apparently convinced others that he’d put all that behind him.

At the Café des Chats on Tuesday night, I’d taken off my feather necklace, and dangled it in front of two sleepy cats. The small tortoiseshell leapt to the game, following the feathers with her marble eyes, batted them, snatched the leather cord and trapped that bird beneath her paws. 

The big gray cat seemed indifferent, even contemptuous. After Anna and I played birdie with the small cat for another few minutes, the big cat suddenly whacked the tortoiseshell hard across her cheek, shocking her into stillness. 

“Woah!” we exclaimed. A second later he sank his claws into my index finger, breaking the skin. Game over. 

I had the thought today that these two Kouachi brothers somewhere along the line had turned into cobras. Deadly, hooded serpents who, when provoked, killed. 

What turns a young man into a cobra?

Let’s take a break here, and return to this subject in our next Paris Play.


Artwork (and stencil) © 2014 C215

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Reader Comments (10)

Thank you for this intimate reflection, a welcome break from wide-screen POV of the news cycle. And for the thought-provoking iconic photographs. Thinking of today's huge and remarkable outpouring, we must remember this happened in the City of Lights, City of Love, and keep the lights in our hearts lit.

Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 20:37 | Unregistered CommenterJB in London

Ah, Janelle, what balm to hear this from you. Yes, that is our sentiment exactly: we must keep the lights in our hearts lit. Judging from the two million or so people at the march today to the Place de la République, the light was unwavering, We're stunned by the beauty of the French.

We hope to see you in London or Paris before too long, and to catch up on your news. Thank you for your kind words.

Much love,

Kaaren & Richard

Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 20:44 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Kaaren-- this is so raw, rich with sensory detail and provoking. My thoughts have been with you and Richard and all the citizens in Paris. The way you paint that quiet sense of safety, contrasted with the memory of and habitual scanning of danger, is ripe with tension. Thanks for giving your personal backstory-- a stunning reminder of how vulnerable we are while going about the daily routines of living-- a night out with friends, a trip to the mall, a day at work... It's infuriating and, yet, how like you as a writer to take a deeper look at those who have terrorized. What was the point at which they could have been reached, taken a different turn? And on what other shoulders (than the obvious) does responsibility lie? Looking forward to the next installments.

Love to you and Richard.


Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 20:49 | Unregistered CommenterCassandra

Cassandra, Your message means the world to me. Thank you for thinking of Paris and us, and for your empathy. Oh, yes, we are vulnerable, but never have I felt safer in a city than in Paris. We've been out a few nights since the violence, and it still seems a relatively safe city, but who knows.

Is any child born a cobra? I don't think so. But if we don't try to understand the roots of violence, it will never end. Terrorism seems to be on the rise. The big question is why. Your questions are the ones we're asking now.

BIg love,

Kaaren & Richard

Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 21:03 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Dear Kaaren,

Your essay is so rich in imagery and heart. I felt like I was walking with you, after being in the cafe, helping you scan for potential danger. And how I empathized with you about our mutual love of Paris, which has always been the city of light and a vortex which has fostered great art, literature, theater, music and philosophy. There is a tangible aura in Paris that makes people want to open up their creativity and be in love. It has attracted lovers for years and has provided the stage set for their love affairs. Lovers lock in embrace on bridges, on benches in the Champs de Mars, on Metro seats and almost anywhere.

Remembering back to the 1950s, when I lived in Paris with my family, my brother and I explored Paris thoroughly, for the year that we lived there. Being young we always felt safe riding the buses and metros. What neighborhood and treasures would we find, we wondered, when surfacing from a new underground metro stop?

Sometimes we were followed by one or two Algerian men. It never occurred to us to be afraid. I was thirteen but looked older.. I never flirted with these men and I avoided their eyes. They would make a smooching sound with their lips that I found repulsive. But we thought it was just a game of hide and seek. My brother and I were clever enough to lose them, by getting on and off our mode of transportation and disappearing into shops. One time we stopped in a Patisserie and bought our usual pain chocolat or pain d'epice, and saw them walk right by the shop window.

Now years later this population of Muslims that populate France has grown. They have become French citizens and have lived in France for several generations. The roots of this karma go back to the French colonization of regions in North Africa: Morocco and Algeria and so forth. With French passports immigration to France was easy. But unrest in the world and the beginning of terrorism has brought danger into places that were once safe. Two cultures and two world views co-exist in the same country. The extremists, who are lit up with zeal and purpose, feel they have an important mission to fulfill...to kill all the infidels. The friction they feel with the dominant culture is similar to a marriage partner declaring divorce.

What has happened in Paris this week, seems to be a form of guerrilla warfare that has greatly mutated from the days when my brother and I were followed. Just a small percentage of Muslims believe that suicide and murder of innocents is noble and just. However that minority has espoused a distortion of the Muslim religion. It is hard to unwind brainwashing and propaganda and the toothpaste is already out of the tube. How can the true Muslims speak up against these terrorists when a cousin or grandson may be part of this Jihad? Sometimes they don't even know that their family members have fallen into extremism. However, I believe that the true Muslims are part of the answer to stopping the extremists, by telling the world that these people are not true Muslims.

Thank you for being in the march yesterday. You were there for so many of us here in the USA that wanted to be there. With your essay you have made it come alive for us. You were our representatives and now our "correspondents." You painted the picture so beautifully with both words and photos. I only wish that you will continue to keep us informed in your colorful way. Paris has stood up tall and declared light, and love and unity. May it be the crucible of transmutation. "Allons enfants de la Patria".

With love and blessings to you both and to Paris and her diverse population. Nancy Clemens

The march of solidarity in Paris yesterday made my heart sing. To see people of all faiths with placards saying"Je suis Charlie" touched my heart and brought tears. I felt like I was with them chanting and singing. We will not live in fear. We will not accept terrorism was the message. We are honoring life and union. I felt as if the spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood, in higher realms was smiling down on the crowd scattering invisible flower petals.

Monday, January 12, 2015 at 17:37 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Clemens

K & R:
Brilliant written and photographed images.
Tension, love, grief, & gorgeous analogies between
the playful kitten/hardened cat and the terrorists.
Thank you and love and light to you at such a
sad and difficult time.

Monday, January 12, 2015 at 18:27 | Unregistered CommenterSuki Edwards

Thank you for sharing this post. We get lost in the big picture the TV news gives us, and need to be reminded of the true picture.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 at 16:43 | Unregistered Commenterjohn guzlowski

Dear Nancy,

Thank you so much for such an eloquent story about your life in Paris. We can hear how well you know her and love her.

And yes, the world has changed since these Algerian men followed you making kissing sounds when you were a young girl.

I've spoken to many Muslims since the events of two weeks ago, and without exception, none condone the violence, yet all have reservations about how far free speech should go. That perhaps jeering at, insulting the religious leader of their religion is disrespectful. No one has said this with anger. Just an observation with which I happen to agree. At the same time, every Muslim I know appreciates living in a democracy where free speech is allowed.

Thank you for "being there" with us on that march, and for your empathy and good wishes. I'm so glad we've become friends this way, before even meeting!

Much love,

Kaaren & Richard

Thursday, January 22, 2015 at 2:58 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Dear Suki,

We love your words as much as we love you. We had a good time weaving this story and photos. And you know how cats are, being one yourself. I wouldn't say the big cat was "hardened" so much as that he'd just had it with being provoked. He's probably an introvert who finds being all day in a cafe around strangers who want to interact is his idea of hell.

We've come out of the stress of two weeks ago, and are heartened by the renewed efforts by intelligence and police to track down terrorist cells across Europe. For now, Paris feels shaken but calm. Thank you for your good wishes.

Much love to you and Fred,

Kaaren and Richard

Thursday, January 22, 2015 at 3:06 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Dear John,

Thank you for YOUR words. As you know, it's always easier to get a clearer view of events if you're right there on the ground. Subjective stories and images: that's what you and we love, and why we write and photograph.

We're glad to hear from you, and grateful.


Kaaren & Richard

Thursday, January 22, 2015 at 3:10 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

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