When I was asked to pen an essay regarding ‘resilience’, the topic seemed straightforward enough. First thoughts were to wax lyrical about great athletic feats in the face of adversity, to regale you with tales of Churchillian spirit during the Blitz and maybe end with an against-all-odds analogy using the most famous of underdogs, Rocky Balboa.
Romanticised notions of resilience to be sure. But then a band of Islamic criminal thugs unleashed hell on the streets of Paris and the concept of resilience got a whole lot more relevant, and a whole lot more profound, too.
Eleven years ago my then-girlfriend booked us a last-minute break to Paris where we saw in the New Year beneath the enchanting, sparkling Eiffel Tower as fireworks exploded in the air. It was a beautiful night. Spirits were high, spirits were drunk as those historic city streets swarmed with good natured revellers. The French, I thought, sure know how to throw a party. But all good things must come to an end.
It had become apparent upon our arrival the previous morning that the low price of our trip was inversely proportional to the distance our hotel was from the French capital. The centre of Paris was a good train ride away, but now, in the early hour’s of New Year’s Day, 2005, the only way back was by taxi but a million-plus more were in need of a ride. And so we waited. And waited. And waited. A couple of hours had passed before a car finally pulled over for us. The door opened, I shouted the name of our hotel and the driver motioned for us to enter. But it wasn’t a taxi. The driver, I noticed, was a man of Middle Eastern descent. It was a bitterly cold night. We shrugged our shoulders, Gallic-like, and got in.
Growing up in England threats and acts of IRA violence were relatively common. In 1974, my hometown of Birmingham, which has one of the world’s largest Irish populations outside of Dublin, suffered what was at the time the UK’s most deadliest terror attack when a night of pub bombings killed 21 and injured 182 more. In 1993, a London bomb killed one, injured over 40 and caused $2 billion worth of damage to the capital. Three years later a 1500kg bomb exploded in Manchester, destroying a shopping mall and maiming over 200 souls. Public litter bins had long since been removed from most city centre streets in case they be used to stash explosives.
We drove past Paris’ iconic Moulin Rouge and I remember thinking it looked far less imposing as it did on the big screen. I remember the warmth of the car heater. I remember the feeling of a total lack of familiarity. There was no conversation with our driver. He couldn’t speak English, we couldn’t speak French. It was but a few hours into 2005, there were no smartphones, no digital maps or Google Translate. As I watched the bright glare of Paris shrink in the wing mirror I had the sobering realisation that maybe it wasn’t the wisest of decisions to get into a strange car, in a strange city, driven by a strange, Arabic man.
The world was — still is — reeling from the attacks of 9/11 and al-Qaeda, not the IRA, now dominated the news. It was a new form of terrorism. It was terrorism on steroids. And the threat, it felt, was everywhere. Earlier that year, a co-ordinated bombing campaign killed nearly 200 people in the Spanish capital of Madrid. Just weeks before our Parisian trip, kidnapped British hostage Kenneth Bigley was beheaded and the footage posted online. In just a few months more, London, too, would be under seige.
We left the deserted streets to cut through a series of car parks and industrial estates on the city’s desolate outer edge. Street lamps were few and far between. I didn’t like it. I tried to check where we were headed but the man waved his hand to implore me to relax. I’d met Irish over the years, but not once did I ever consider them a threat, a potential affiliate of the IRA. Yet, now, in this make-do taxi with paraphernalia dangling from its rear-view mirror emblazoned with Arabic script, I was ashamed for fearing the worst. I could sense my girlfriend’s anxiety when suddenly from the maze of back alleys and short cuts we appeared before a brightly lit building and our driver turned and smiled. We’d been driving the best part of an hour. It’s name was certainly similar to our hotel, but it certainly wasn’t ours.
The Northern Ireland Peace Process hailed the end of the IRA’s deadly reign coincidentally around the same time al-Qaeda entered the fray and our resilience would be tested further still. I’ve discovered I only half-knew the meaning of resilience having looked it up for the first time for the purpose of this piece. It’s not simply about standing one’s ground, about harvesting the strength and the tenacity to fight for what’s right, but the power to recover to where you once were. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, resilience is also defined as the ability “to spring back into shape.” To put those litter bins back on the city streets, or, as the population of Paris have proven, to persevere with our everyday, integrated lives.
We finally managed to call the manager of our hotel who gave instructions to our driver. It was nearly as far again and when I pulled out my wallet to pay him his fair fare for having twice driven two strangers in a strange town from one side of the city to another in the early hours of a cold winter’s morning he wouldn’t accept a dime. I insisted, but he insisted more. His warm act of kindness has stayed with me ever since. Bonne année, he simply said, happy new year.
The retaliatory French air strikes against Isis bases in Syria launched immediately after the atrocious Friday 13th attacks were ordered in understandable anger, but maybe also understandable haste. Time will tell as to the wisdom of further military action in a region already torn apart by and tired of war, action, which, many argue, simply serves to spawn further fundamentalist ire. Has the War on Terror worked thus far? Perhaps most pertinently, we must ensure to not make enemies at home. Shocking has been much of the reactions on social media and below-the-line discourses damning all Muslims and calling for an end to the assistance of refugees, most of whom, let’s not forget, are attempting to escape those very same radicals, for somehow communally bringing this terror upon the West.
“As a proud Frenchman, I am as distressed as anyone about the events in Paris,” writes Nicolas Hénin for the Guardian. “But I am not shocked or incredulous. I know Islamic State.” Hénin, a journalist, was held hostage by the group in Syria for the best part of a year. To create hatred and division within our integrated Western societies is, he says, their main aim: “At the moment there is no political road map and no plan to engage the Arab Sunni community. Isis will collapse, but politics will make that happen. In the meantime there is much we can achieve in the aftermath of this atrocity, and the key is strong hearts and resilience, for that is what they fear. I know them: bombing they expect. What they fear is unity.”
As we were. It’s not just about fighting back. It’s about remaining true to ourselves. Remaining resolute in the upkeep of the principles upon which our democracies are based: tolerance, acceptance and reason. The Eiffel Tower will sparkle, the Parisians will continue to party and we wish them a safe and happy Christmas and to paraphrase my old French friend, we also wish them a very bonne année.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces