Why Paris Matters

This essay is in no way written from a critical perspective. It is not motivated by facts and figures, rather it is a reaction to the recent tragedy in France. Paris was attacked on November 13th, and I personally felt that this act was something much more hurtful and deep than I could imagine. I had just returned a week before from Paris to home in California. Like many other visitors, I took a picture of Paris and posted it on my Facebook page. It was only several days after the events that some people cried out that while the carnage was horrible in Paris, there were also killings in Beirut, Lebanon and in Syria. They were asking why were those places not receiving the same attention? Why Paris matters and not other cities?

This is not the place to explain the history of the world for the past two or three centuries, from the time of European powers entering Asia and Africa and the impact and consequence of colonialism on the people and their world-view and reactions of these people to what happened to them. The creation of such countries as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and eventually Israel by the French and the British has done much to destabilize the old world, which had never seen such levels of violence. Nowadays, we are used to say that there has always been violence in the Middle East and so what is going on today is simply a fact of life. This notion is wrong on so many fronts, and in fact one can blame much of the instability in the region because on the European and now American powers in the past centuries. Hence, we should all take blame for what is taking place in Beirut and Damascus and remember that these cities were the crown jewels of the region and stable havens of culture and prosperity for centuries.

On the other hand, I have no real connection to Paris. I am like many other millions of people around the globe who travel to that city and simply fall in love with it. I lived at la Masion de Artistes for couple of months at the 10th Arrondissment, in the same neighborhood that was attacked by the terrorists. My daughter, Donya was also conceived in this wonderful and hip neighborhood, where on one side a more raw life exists next to the Gare de l'Est, and on the other side the hip stores and restaurants line the Canal St. Martin. Unlike many who say the French are snobbish and do not really deal well with foreigners, I felt at home and had wonderful colleagues and friends at the L'École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), who accepted me very well as an Iranian-American who had arrived in April some five years ago.

But these are not the reasons why Paris is so important to us. Anyone who has read the history of modern Iran, or Persia as it was known before the beginning of the twentieth century, knows how important Paris has been to the Persians. While England and Russia manipulated the politics of Qajar Iran, the Persians saw France as one European nation that stood for freedom and liberty and a counter power to the imperialists. The Persians saw Napoleon as their savior and the French as their friend against the British and the Russians. Persians first went to Paris to study and learn "new" sciences, be it for military or the art purposes. The highest number of modern technical and cultural terms (about a thousand words) that have entered into modern Persian, a language with a long history (twenty five hundred years), have been transmitted through French. This is because of not only the travelers, but also the first institution of higher education in Iran, the Dar ul-Funun, which had many French and French speaking professors. When the Persian kings in the nineteenth century visited Paris, they were dazzled with the city of lights and tried in some ways to mimic it. Even the modern capital of Tehran was partly designed based on the Parisian map. This sense of awe with Paris' culture and modernity has lasted till today.

The first time I stayed in Paris for more than a month, I myself felt like a nineteenth century Persian who had travelled to Paris. I kept thinking of the first Persians who saw the instruments of the modern world such as gas lamps, the cinematograph, and the new fashion and food. The books, architecture and museums brought a sense of awe to me, as it has done so for the past two centuries for my ancestors and many others, walking in the streets of Paris.

In a sense Paris is indeed first and foremost important for Parisians, but in many ways, it also belongs to the people of the world. It is the cultural capital of the world, and it has been for the past two centuries. Paris belongs to all of us, in a way that Beirut and Damascus feel less so. It is no wonder that when Paris was attacked, Tehran was among the many cities in the Middle East where people held candle light vigils and laid flowers at the French embassy. The pain of this attack was much deeper and culturally rooted than many would like to admit. From those Persians who have read Victor Hugo a century before, to the recent unveiling of the Persian book by Dr. Daryoush Shayegan on Charles Baudelaire, from the introduction of the cinematograph to Persia in 1900, to the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, and from the paintings of Claude Monet which hang at the Tehran Contemporary Museum of Art, and much more, these have made deep impressions on Iran and its culture for the past two centuries.

Even Napoleon, France's greatest hero-general looms large in the Iranian psyche. It is no wonder that one of the best known Persian novels took its name from him (My Uncle Napoleon), written by Iraj Pezeshkzad. Some have named their children Napoleon, and even my favorite sweet, the Mille feuille in Persian is known Napoleoni. As one of my Arab friends once remarked to me mockingly: You Persians know more about what is going on in Paris than about your neighbors. What he meant, was that we, like many others, have a love affair with Paris. Many people in the world in fact have the same love affair and so that is why an attack on Paris matters more than any other single city in the world.