With every new tragedy in Paris my thoughts turn to the people I have known there over the years, with a wish and a prayer for each of them. It is not that my heart does not go out to the victims of other atrocities – the Yazdi women, the schoolgirls of Chibok, the countless civilians in Lebanon and Syria, so many of them women and children. But my mind’s eye does linger a bit longer on Paris, where many friends live – Paris has always been a magnet to foreigners. And there are other people there whom I have known only fleetingly, but whose charm, or kindness, gave them a place in memory. Among these friends and strangers, the one to whom my heart goes out this week, above all, is a radiant young woman from Timgad. She is not on my Facebook ‘safe’ list; I never knew her name.
I met her twice. The first time was on an airport bus – of all places – on a bleak late-winter afternoon at Orly. I stood in the bus waiting for the other passengers to climb up, and suddenly my eye was caught by a flash of colour. Walking across the grey tarmac was a raven-haired beauty in a lipstick-red coat, the kind of double-breasted overcoat that has a whiff of the eighteenth-century to it, or perhaps of the Little Prince (though his coat, I believe, was blue). Over her arm, in a huge transparent dry-cleaner’s bag, was a preposterously complicated wedding dress. When she reached the bus, she climbed up and made her way to the back, where I was standing, and smiled a movie-star smile. Soon we were deep in conversation: our plane was headed for Constantine, in Algeria, but she was on her way to Timgad, a town two hours south, just north of the Sahara. Her hometown, where she was going to be married. Had I heard of Timgad?
Indeed, I myself was headed there. As it happens, the Algerian city is something of a legend among ancient historians, for the most bookish of reasons. It was in that seemingly remote outpost on the edge of the desert, eighteen-hundred years ago, that a stone-cutter first used the lower-case letter forms, known to palaeographers as uncials, that are the ancestors of the two-case Roman alphabet I am typing just now. Timgad was a Roman military colony, and up to the time of the Timgad stone-cutter, the conquerors had used only capital letters in writing their books and carving their inscriptions. There is a marvellous story to be told about how the new letters found their way out of Africa and into medieval European manuscripts – they turned out to be surprisingly useful – and from there into print. I told my new friend that my dream of visiting Timgad was about to come true: some archaeologists I knew were headed there, and they had invited me to come along.
My friend (I can only call her that) was surprised and delighted to hear that the fame of her home city had reached me, and she began waxing lyrical about the archaeological park. It is a marvel, she said. (Indeed: it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). We talked about whether she might take wedding photos there, and I began to imagine something like the impossibly glamorous portraits one sees of girls posing in fairy-tale dresses next to Italian fountains, only this time with Roman military inscriptions in the background. I asked whether she would have a long honeymoon, and she said no, just a few days. She and her fiancé are pharmacists in Paris, she told me, and they each had just a week off from work. So they chose to spend their time on the wedding preparations at home – and on the ensuing festivities with friends and family – instead of on a honeymoon.
Then the conversation turned briefly to her work as a pharmacist, and her studies – first in Batna and then in Paris. Her tone changed: suddenly I was speaking with a grown-up, a person of responsibility, someone who makes a difference every day in the lives of her Parisian neighbours and uses hard-won skills to protect the health of the most vulnerable. And then, the bus pulled up to the plane and we boarded – in our different rows – and that was that. Later, in Timgad, I kept an eye out for a wedding dress in the distance. But if my friend and her new husband ended up having their photo session in the archaeological park, I missed them.
Still, the day-and-a-half we spent there was awe-inspiring. It was partly the people: there were throngs of Algerian families spending a day out in the ruins, and a surprising number stopped to speak with me, when they saw that I was reading the Latin inscriptions. They asked me to translate, or to tell me what they knew about Algeria’s years as part of the Roman empire. None of them had studied Latin, but it’s close enough to French, more than one person told me, that it makes an interesting puzzle to look for the names of emperors and generals who appear repeatedly from one inscription to another. And I spoke with a student from the nearby University of Batna, a young woman who had studied both Latin and English, and had her younger sister along with her. For some reason, the two of them kept smiling – I suppose I made them nervous. But I smiled, too, because I could see a beautiful future for a country that could produce such a diversity of bright young women, from my red-coated friend with the beautiful (and self-confidently visible) raven hair, to these bright-eyed, bookish, veiled and smiling sisters.
In the airport at Constantine the following Sunday, I was preparing to board the plane back to Paris. I was sad to have to leave so soon; I already knew that this week in Algeria would remain in memory as one of the loveliest of my life. (Indeed, it has.) I had met so many lovely people, and I knew I was unlikely to see them again. And then I was shaken from my reverie, by a man I didn’t recognize. Like virtually everyone else in the waiting-room he was Algerian, and like virtually everyone I spoke to in Algeria, he was smiling. In his hand he held a confectioner’s white cardboard box, open to show an array of handmade sweets in tiny white cupcake-papers.
‘Wedding sweets!’ he said, in French. He gestured across the waiting-room to a woman wearing a red coat. ‘From my wife!’ he said, and smiled again. Of course: she had told me they would both have to be at work tomorrow morning; naturally they were on the Sunday afternoon plane. So I did have a chance, in the end, to hear about the wedding. Evidently it was marvellous, though they were both bone-tired, understandably, and desperate for a good night’s sleep before facing Monday morning. I wished them well, and then we boarded; we smiled good-bye to one another when we reached Orly. I never saw them again.
My friend and her husband married over years ago. Where are they now? Still in Paris, I imagine. If they have been lucky, there is at least one child by now. By UK standards France has enviable parental leave and subsidized child care, so with luck neither my friend nor her husband has had to give up their work in order to raise their children. But what does the future hold for them, across the next two decades, as moderate Muslim parents of Parisian children? I wish them well, with all my heart, but I do not envy them.
And over the next few years, it is likely to get harder and harder for moderate Muslims to raise bright-eyed and bookish children in Paris, and other Western cities – and that, of course, is what Daesh wants. The more Muslim children are targeted for bullying at schools in France and England, in Germany and the US, the harder it will be for moderate Muslim parents to raise moderate Muslim children. That, above all, is what Daesh wants.
So, to my friend in the red coat: you are in my thoughts. And to each of the rest of us, in Paris or London, or Marseille, or Chicago, or Berlin: a plea. Keep an eye out for my friend, and her sisters, wherever you can. It is on her success as a parent, in preposterously complicated circumstances, that we are all depending. I don’t think she would mind my saying that she is likely to need your help. And if you are ever in a pharmacy in Paris, and a raven-haired pharmacist advises on your prescription, please give her my love.
Rome away from Rome – Garden of the Damned – In Search of Augustine – Twin Peaks – Looking for Miracles – Life on the Edge – In the land of Giants – From Africa to Ifriqiya