Paris isn’t special

  • What about other historical buildings?


I was no more than 15 years old when I first visited Paris, and I heard no music in the streets. My family and I stayed at an uncomfortable but cheap two-star hotel near Gare du Nord station. I despised the food, none more than the barely-edible loaf of bread they called ‘baguette’ which I only knew back then as “watta (stone) bread”. The Eiffel Tower was fascinating, but as a privileged child who by that age had already seen massive feats of design and engineering like the Statue of Liberty and the Pyramids of Giza, I wasn’t entirely blown away.

Outside Notre-Dame, I had a notably unpleasant experience at an ice-cream truck, of all unlikely places. I asked for a mango ice-cream, but the vendor grumbled something in French pointing towards a menu which was also written in French. Vanilla then, I said meekly, assuming that he was trying to tell me that he was out of mango. “Chocolate or blueberry? Wake up!” he yelled, in English this time. I apologised, chose chocolate, and gave him a tip for bearing with me. At the time, I thought I deserved it. Silly me, being intolerably paindu in such a special city.

Paris wasn’t special. Notre-Dame means nothing to me. The overbuilt electric pylon called the ‘Eiffel Tower’– one which Parisians themselves despised for the longest time before the marketing investments began to kick in, I assume– means nothing to me. Am I allowed to say that? Is it okay if I harbour the same apathy towards Parisian monuments that most Westerners already have towards, say, Badshahi Masjid in Lahore? I certainly don’t wish them ill, but I also don’t feel uniquely moved by any misfortune that befalls them.

I’ve often wondered why Paris isn’t special to me. Mass-media has consistently assured me that it is. I’ve seen that episode of Dexter’s Laboratory with girls swooning over the eponymous character’s French, ‘the language of love’, even though all he says is “cheese omelette” in French over and over. I’ve heard praise of Paris– ‘The City of Lights’– in many Hollywood films and popular novels. It’s the world’s favourite honeymoon destination. Did I miss something?

We don’t envy the attention to Notre-Dame, but we cannot help feeling resentful about the inequality that becomes evident in these times

Parisian structures are not the first and last word of their kind. Notre-Dame is a beautiful, historical site. There are others too. “Europe’s First”. “Asia’s finest”. “World’s largest”. “The first example of”. “Pioneering use of”. There are many such descriptors applying to many structures around the world that you’ve never heard of; not because they do not match the historical or aesthetic value of Notre-Dame, but haven’t been marketed nearly as well. Like people, some buildings are heard more than others.

Did you hear of the three black churches that burned down in Louisiana? You’re unlikely to have heard about them. They stood for over a century as historical centres catering to the social, spiritual, and political needs of the black American community. They were burned down in what appears to have been an organised hate crime. It was only after Notre-Dame’s misfortune and the worldwide, media-facilitated mourning that followed, that these charred churches managed to issue an audible ‘ahem’. What about us, they asked. 400 million euros were pledged to Notre-Dame by wealthy French and American patrons within 24 hours. It wasn’t until the global left loudly addressed the inequality, that the three black churches also received $1.8 million worth of donations for their restoration.

Notre-Dame is a historical building. What isn’t? Is Rawalpindi Railway Station not a historical building? Its walls have heard over 140 years of quiet sobs and unrestrained jubilation over trains departing from or arriving at its platforms. Is that worth a historian’s attention or, dare I say, affection?

But Parisian buildings are special, aren’t they? Arc De Triomphe just naturally oozes history–magic, unlike thousands of other old cities with countless old buildings. I’ve often asked our grieving connoisseurs of fine arts, if the US bombing of Baghdad perchance knocked some Mesopotamian relic off its pedestal. If it did, they didn’t hear it over the noise of dropping bombs and– oh, what’s it called– the ‘fog of war’.

Paris is special only because we’ve been told that it’s special. No stack of bricks is inherently important. It’s important because its owners and patrons are ‘important’; because the race of people it belongs to is ‘important’. It’s important because it’s been adopted and romanticised by literary elites. It is these important landmarks whose destruction unites the world in grief, while the rest of us mourn our losses privately.

Why should we envy the attention and affection received by Notre-Dame in its time of crisis? We don’t, but we cannot help feeling resentful about the inequality that becomes evident in these times.

Notre-Dame, in my mind, was an ice-cream cone that tasted of shame. I understand that it represents something nicer to others. Why then should I envy the attention, no affection, Notre-Dame is receiving at its time of crisis? I don’t, but I cannot help feel resentful of the inequality that becomes particularly evident in these times.