In 1983, as a student in France, I lived in an apartment building where two young Lebanese men rented the top floor penthouse flat. I can't recall their names anymore but we exchanged pleasantries almost daily as we would invariably meet entering or leaving the building. The elder of the two men, I think he was twenty-eight, was a very thin, bespectacled, highly strung character prone to unexpected bursts of anger. His flatmate usually appeared more friendly and relaxed and by virtue of being very good-looking would often have a new girlfriend on his arm. I always felt a sense of unease around these two men and although they would frequently invite me for coffee, I always declined. One day, the younger of the two confided in me that they were refugees from Lebanon. Almost all of their families had been killed in the war (which would last from 1982-1985) and these two, first cousins, had escaped to France. The reason for the unpredictable rages was what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- the result of relentless and merciless pounding of guns and explosions which had decimated their families. He explained that they both suffered with nightmares and anxiety. Here they were in France in limbo hoping to return one day to Lebanon to rebuild their lives but with no living family and Beirut in ruins, they wondered what they would be going back to. Exiled and alone they had lost all hope.
I was barely nineteen and incapable of processing what these two chain-smoking young men could have possibly endured. I came from a middle-class family where nothing terribly exciting ever happened. Nor did anything awful blight the suburbs apart from the occasional scandal of an extra-marital affair, whispered abortion or once when I was six, a good friend of my parents drowned when his pleasure boat capsized in a storm. I also recall a school friend being killed in a car accident and what would be the first time I attended a funeral. Other than the usual drama that living incurs, our parents and most of their peers lived to old age. I still have a friend from my primary school days- we have known each other since we were four years old- and the fabric of our existences has remained pretty much intact in spite of all the real and imagined dramas.
Consider the opposite where everything you know gets destroyed. In Arab tradition, to have no extended family means that you become an outcast. An individual without a palpable beating heart of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and shared community means that you have no history to vouch for you. I recall vividly that although both men dressed as westerners, they were more influenced by Arab culture. They may have looked like they were integrated but in fact, their minds belonged miles away.
This memory of my past is still relevant today- young men with so much promise abandon hope completely. The attack in Nice yesterday by a young disenfranchised man outwardly appearing to embrace Western values but deliberately deceiving everyone including himself. Unlike my former neighbours in 1983, the young man who committed the atrocity in Nice, was not escaping from a war but was trying to create one. His ancestors no doubt came to France to find a better life. Their dream turned sour when they failed to integrate and admire French culture which remains one of the great civilisations in the world. Instead they probably stayed stuck in the ghettoes they created in order to 'protect' their way of life.
No one should believe that these young men- and they are almost all young- are motivated by Allah's Islam. I would bet they are semi-literate losers, straddling the west and the 'homeland' but still believing that everything that is wrong in their lives is not their responsibility. Like the man who beats his wife rather than admit to his own insecurity. But here's the thing: no government owes anyone anything except to create an infrastructure in which people can live their lives. What we make of our lives is entirely of our own doing. To be less than human and to have no humanity is also a personal choice and not some curse we inherit from our ancestors. Hate engenders hate and it is what each generation passes to the next. Someone has to decide to break the cycle. Which is why it is critical that leaders in Muslim communities across Europe make themselves heard to the public and loudly condemn these atrocities. Most importantly these leaders should be working tirelessly to root out the misguided and dangerous members in their midst and I write this at the risk of being very un-PC, and hand them in to the authorities.
Photo copyright SvD.