I was barely out of Bordeaux train station when I heard the news of the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The gothic church is one of the world’s most prominent religious symbols, a historic landmark on the Seine.
It is one of the most important stops for every visitor who comes to Paris, the city of lights, so we can have an unforgettable photograph in a family or personal album, one that is as important as the recording of milestones like birthdays, annual family trips, graduations or wedding photographs. Behind us or in front of us or near us stands the tall spire of the cathedral, which is now gone forever and will not return.
I stood stunned with my two French friends, silent and disbelieving, each of us looking at his phone, skimming through the news sites looking for something we hoped was not true due to the magnitude of loss and pain.
I stood stunned with my two French friends, silent and disbelieving, each of us looking at his phone, skimming through the news sites looking for something we hoped was not true due to the magnitude of loss and pain. Like a terrorist incident or a crime that claimed the lives of innocent people, we were struck with grief, as if we had lost something intimate that belonged to us. We looked at each other's faces blankly: Did this really happen? Or is it just a movie scene that was presented in news format?
Like madmen we tried to avoid the harsh truth, speculating even though our phone screens were full of news notifications: ”Notre Dame Cathedral is burning,” and “Notre Dame Spire Falls." We didn’t believe it until Le Figaro published a video showing the collapse. The spire of one of the most important cathedrals in the world, and the most visited place in France, was burning in front of the eyes of hundreds of tourists and visitors, and the people of Paris, who did not sleep all night as they followed the news about the conditions of the cathedral and its walls.
A crushing event for the French people and for the world, who, like us, wrote with melancholy about this enormous loss. It is a loss that does not only affect the Christians of the world, but means that the entire world lost a part of its history and its cultural heritage, much like the world lost the city of Aleppo, and Baghdad after the American invasion, and as we lost Palmyra and Mosul after dark forces destroyed them, a loss that is similar to our daily pain, in a world that destroys its heritage or leaves it to be robbed by the ignorant, the fanatics and the zealots.
I was disgusted by some of the reactions, particularly by those who likened the spire’s fall to a blow against France’s colonial past, and saw it as retaliation for its bloody history in the old colonies.
I was disgusted by some of the reactions, particularly by those who likened the spire’s fall to a blow against France’s colonial past, and saw it as retaliation for its bloody history in the old colonies. I read comments full of hatred. Can a grown up man who lives in our time see historical legacy be destroyed so wantonly, and not feel pain? Is it conceivable for one to gloat over the burning of the spire of a cathedral named after the Virgin Mary, who is revered in all religions? A church that has been a spiritual hub since its establishment in the Middle Ages, not to mention its literary status?
Who among us did not read in his youth the timeless novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame? A novel that transported the imagination of every child to Paris, thanks to Victor Hugo's charming and fluid style. We were entranced by the description of the cathedral and its spire, with the characters of the novel, with Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Judge Claude Frollo.
What happened yesterday in Paris is a loss that for me means the death of part of my relationship with this city that I came to in the summer of 2015. I was confused as I stood before this massive and charming city. The cathedral was my first destination, and I wandered about it, sat staring at the architecture in all its splendor, and the dozens of tourists who took turns taking photos, smiling or frozen in astonishment.
I wandered about the church like an ascetic, I who come from the Lebanese city of Tripoli that is full of exquisite Islamic architecture, of mosques with lofty domes that are deftly and meticulously designed, which date back to the Mamluke and Ottoman eras, from the Al-Baratasi Mosque and the Grand Mosque of Mansouri to the Tinal Mosque.
I was one of the sons of this city, influenced by the religious architecture (and I still am), but when I found myself for the first time in the presence of this cathedral I found myself staring through the ages. I compared my city to Paris, compared the Gothic architecture to my city’s Islamic architecture. It, too, is an open-air museum, much like Paris, with its alleyways and markets, fascinating stories, tales of families and endless charm, even if part of it is burned and finished and destroyed. It will remain, like the great cities of old, with their histories and their heritage, their stories piled one atop the other.
My relationship with the Cathedral of Notre Dame is very personal.
My relationship with the Cathedral of Notre Dame is very personal. There I met Frédéric, a French painter. We met in the lobby, walked and drank cold beer, exchanged kisses, as the august spire stood before us with its powerful aura. It was a moment I will never forget in my life, when we were silently smiling, looking at each other, our fingers touching the features of our eager faces. In that moment I said to Frédéric: "What if the Hunchback of Notre Dame was stealing glances at our kisses from the tower?"
Now that I have seen the painful video, this moment is stuck in my head and the sentence leaves a deep hole in my heart. I remember it with the pain of one who has lost his romanticism forever.