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The Paris Attacks In My Vibrant, Multicultural Neighborhood

As a schoolkid in the 1980s, I lived with my mother in the quartier where the Paris attacks just unfolded. At the boulangerie next door, the baguettes baked by the Tunisian family always had a whiff of North African spices.

Around the corner, we liked to eat at a bistro run by a Frenchman who allowed his roosters to run amok among the diners. All around this Parisian district, running from the Place de la Nation to the Place de la République, there were Senegalese hair salons and dowdy French wigmakers, Moroccan pulse merchants and crêpe-makers from Brittany, whose savory buckwheat treats — to a 16-year-old from California — seemed miracles of chewy crispness.

Gilles, the friend I made in my apartment building, was a little heartbroken at the time we first met, for he had just broken up with his Vietnamese girlfriend; he soon recovered his stride, however, finding a beautiful new French sweetheart.

The terrible irony is that the 11th arrondissement of Paris, where most of Friday's carnage occurred, was back then and remains today a rich stew of multicultural energy. And many of the victims were from the Muslim world, including two Tunisian sisters celebrating a friend's birthday.

Today, the neighborhood is much more fashionable than it was in my time.

Back then, there was the Left Bank, Right Bank, and, at least for the posher Parisians, parts of the city that seemed like outer space (one of them was mine).

A Changing France

A big reason for its current popularity is this: France has changed. The world has changed. And today, more than ever, the 11th arrondissement proves you can be any race or creed and still have Parisian chic and Parisian edge.

Most importantly, for me at least, is what hasn't changed: My old neighborhood remains a friendly place where people of lots of different backgrounds manage just to get on with their lives.

Certainly there will be discussions on whether the frenzied Paris property market will cause it to lose its unique character. But now is a time simply to celebrate an area of Paris that has found a knack for showing that people who share a minimum level of decency, compassion, tolerance — and, lest we forget, joie de vivre -- can build a community that is special.

And that is what the ISIS terrorists have tried to destroy. There are many places in France where one can look — and find — the gust of racial hostility that immigrant communities struggle with, and which threatens to grow stronger after these attacks. The 11th arrondissement is not one of them.

Joji Sakurai sitting at a cafe in France in 2012.
/ Courtesy of Tomomi Sakurai
Courtesy of Tomomi Sakurai
Joji Sakurai sitting at a cafe in France in 2012.

Attacks In The 1980s

When I was at school in Paris, France also felt besieged by terror attacks carried out by the Lebanese Islamist group, Hezbollah. Seven separate bombings were attributed to the group in 1985 and 1986, claiming more than a dozen lives and wounding dozens more.

Fear was rife on the streets, and people looked at one another nervously on the metro or entering department stores.

While I was scared sometimes, fear is certainly not what I remember most about these years. They were three of the best and most important years of my life.

The reason is that I was lucky enough to go to an international school in Paris' 15th arrondissement, which combined the rigors of the French educational system with a student body filled with young people from every continent.

Many of my friends were Iranians, whose families had been driven out of their country by the revolution. On Friday nights, we went out for beers, and my Iranian friends (who, incidentally, lived on the posh side of town) were frequently stopped by machine-gun toting security forces asking to see their papers.

Pushed out by Iranian intolerance, they felt less than welcome on the streets of Paris. They were hurt, I am sure, but shrugged it off with a laugh. They stuck it out in Paris. And succeeded. One of them is a partner in a prestigious global law firm.

It's useful to look at the names of the sites of the attacks, and those nearby: Boulevard Voltaire, named after the philosopher who championed free speech. Place de la République, the expanse where Parisians gather to mourn and celebrate their secular republic. And the Stade de France, the stadium where a multicultural French team, led by Zinédine Zidane, of Algerian descent, won the 1998 World Cup.

These are the emblems of French greatness. And this is why France will overcome its terrible ordeal.

Joji Sakurai is a journalist and essayist based in London.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joji Sakurai