At one point, he too was a child

It was just before noon last Thursday when my sister looked up from her computer and said: “Fuck.” I followed her gaze out the window but I couldn’t see what she was seeing. Did I hear gunshots? Did I understand that a man had just been shot, and that what I was seeing as I rushed out onto our balcony were his last flailing movements in this world?

Later that day, when the police asked us questions, neither of us could give them the information they had hoped for: what had the man yelled before charging at the police station with a large knife? Had we seen anyone else on the scene who had looked like an accomplice? We reacted with a careful weighing of our words, an apologetic shake of the head. Sorry, no, we were not all that useful after all.


Photo© Anna Polonyi

The police shot a man dead in front of my living room window. I was the first to take the dead man’s picture and transmit it to the world. With every snap of the shutter, his body grew colder. With every passing minute, his digital likeness gained more views. That was the tenuous link that tied us together.

I decided to pray for him, though I never pray, and most likely he wouldn’t have wanted my prayers anyway. At one point, he too had been a child, needing of love, deserving of love. I want to give him that love, now, too late, and me: a stranger, a person who had, indirectly profited from his death, by being there to witness it.

To the man who died across the street from me: may you rest in peace. No matter what they say about you, no matter how much hate you may have had in your heart, how much you may despise my addressing you like this—know that you have and always will have a place in my heart.

Version française:

C’était peu avant midi, jeudi dernier, quand ma sœur a levé les yeux de son ordinateur et a dit: « Putain. » Je suivais son regard par la fenêtre, mais je ne pouvais pas voir ce qu’elle voyait. Ai-je entendu des coups de feu? Ai-je compris qu’un homme venait d’être abattu, et que ce que je voyais lorsque je me suis précipitée sur notre balcon étaient ses derniers mouvements dans ce monde?

Plus tard ce jour-là, quand la police nous a posé des questions, nous n’avons pas pu leur donner l’information qu’ils avaient espéré : qu’est-ce que l’homme avait crié avant de courir vers la station de police avec un grand couteau? Avions-nous vu quelqu’un d’autre sur place qui aurait pu être un complice? Nous avons réagi en pesant soigneusement nos mots, en secouant la tête avec un regard désolé. Non, nous n’étions pas si utile que ça, après tout.

Les policiers ont abattu un home devant ma fenêtre de salon. J’ai été la première à prendre sa photo et  à la transmettre au monde. A chaque déclic de l’obturateur, son corps se refroidissait. Avec chaque minute qui passait, son image numérique gagnait plus de vues. Tel était le lien précaire qui nous unissait.

Je décidais de prier pour lui, même si je ne prie jamais, et même s’il n’aurait probablement pas voulu de mes prières. À un moment donné, lui aussi avait été enfant, en besoin d’amour, digne d’amour. Je veux lui donner cet amour, maintenant, trop tard, et moi : une inconnue, une personne qui avait, indirectement, mais de manière délibérée, profité de sa mort, en étant là pour en témoigner.

A l’homme qui est mort face à moi: repose en paix. Peu importe ce qu’ils disent de toi, peu importe combien de haine tu avais peut-être dans ton cœur, combien tu mépriserais le fait que je m’adresse à toi ainsi. Sache que tu as et auras toujours une place dans mon cœur.

 Anna Polonyi

Poetry, not terror



“Even one act of self-irony is the first step towards knowing the self.”  – J. Lentini (Poetry, not terror)

I saw this flyer taped to the side of a container for recycling glass in central Paris. It made me think of the journalists and staff at Charlie Hebdo, gunned down during their editorial meeting exactly a year ago today, along wth a police officer. The following day, a policewoman was killed in Montrouge and on January 9, five more people died buying their groceries at a kosher supermarket.

Obviously, we need more poetry.

(If anyone knows anything about the poet, please let him know we’re fans. I’m pretty sure it’s not Giacomo da Lentini, because he was writing in 13th-century Sicilian).

This J. Lentini has a long list of publications but he looks far too busy to have penned a line like this, in Spanish no less.

My musician friend Mathieu pointed out the sticker in the upper left-hand corner (which I hadn’t even noticed), belonging to an extremist party that tries to spin itself as far-left even though it used to be quite friendly with the National Front and counts anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné among its fans.

Further proof that we shouldn’t count on politicians to bring us their brand of “égalité” and “réconciliation.”




‘Hugs against barbarism’

Like many Parisians, I had a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the aftermath of the November 13 terror attacks. After having been anchored to the desk at France 24 all afternoon and most of that Friday night while the horrific details emerged, I managed to fall asleep about 8 a.m. Saturday and spent that afternoon and evening hiding from the world, checking in with friends, gorging myself sick with news radio and internet updates. By Sunday afternoon, my dog and I needed to rejoin the world, and the sun came out to encourage us. I arranged to meet a friend and we started walking, not realizing until we’d crossed Bastille that our inner GPS was guiding us north to the Bataclan. Heading up Boulevard Richard Lenoir, we stopped to read the chalk inscriptions on the pavement not far from the Charlie Hebdo offices that were targeted by terrorists the previous January. It was reassuring to see so many people on the streets after 36 hours in which life as we knew it had come to a halt. Parisians were sad and subdued, yet children and dogs played along the asphalt normally occupied by the farmers’ market, which had been cancelled. The mood was a mixture of defiant, reflective and shaken.


“Paris, back on your feet!” and “Paris, wake up!”

Moving north, we soon found ourselves milling about with hundreds of others who’d gathered quietly in front of the concert hall to pay their respects, lighting candles and leaving flowers, notes and letters for the 89 people who died there.

After stopping at dozens of makeshift memorials, at Wei and I wound up at Place de la République. Although public gatherings were forbidden under the state of emergency, we didn’t plan to stay long. I had been asked to file a story, but what more could I say? Like so many others, I was still in shock and after being outside for a couple of hours, wanted nothing more but to slink home and crawl under my couette.

Until I saw two young guys smiling and stretching their arms out to strangers near the Marianne statue at the center of the plaza. Jérôme Calvini, 26, a student at SciencesPo, told me that the idea came to him on Saturday morning after a sleepless night. “In these dark times, we need to give each other love and show that we’re united,” he said. “It’s kind of like, ‘hugs against barbarism’.”


So that love triumphs

On Saturday November 14, Calvini started a hug circle in front of the Hôtel de Ville, but told me he preferred the symbolism of Sunday’s informal gathering at République: “I’m trying to show that we’re still alive, that life goes on.”

His friend Cédric Vergez, a banker, said he’d been so depressed he’d barely slept since he heard the bad news on Friday night. But then he got a call from his friend Jérôme. “Today I decided I’d rather act than give in to sadness and anger,” said Vergez. I’ve got to admit, being out here puts me in top form after everything that’s happened.”

As we were chatting, passers-by occasionally interrupted to request a hug from one or both of the men, and were rewarded with instant gratification. “I really needed that,” said one woman, smiling. Calvini hugged one man tight and kissed him on both cheeks, moving him to tears.

“Thank you,” he said, wiping his eyes before moving off into the crowd.

“The first 50 or so hugs, yesterday – I cried, too,” Calvini said. “I’m an emotional sponge and yesterday was just so heavy. But today, we’re laughing and crying at the same time.”

Vergez agreed. “I think this is what we have to do as a civil society – show that we are human, that we are love.”

Turning to provide a double hug to a couple who were tearing up, Calvini added: “And we have to show the terrorists that our difference is a facade.”

At the centre of the hug circle, it was easy to imagine that the world envisioned by John Lennon might just be possible.


[I ended up filing a more journalistic version of this story here. I plan to call Jérôme Calvini pretty soon to wish him a bonne année and see if I can get just one more hug for good measure.]