On January 7, 2015, two jihadis attacked the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has a history of publishing provocative cartoons, including of the Prophet Mohammed. The attackers killed twelve people and injured eleven. Two days later, a third jihadi killed four people and injured several others at a branch of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in another part of the city. Philippe Lançon was grievously injured in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, for which he was a longtime columnist. He spent almost a year in hospital, where specialists reconstructed his shattered jaw. Lançon went on to write a book about the attack and his long road to recovery. The English translation of that book, Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo, was published in the United States by Europa Editions last year. Diwan interviewed Lançon in September-October by email to discuss his experience. His answers were translated from the French by Edoardo Andreoni, an editor at Europa Editions.*
Rayyan al-Shawaf: Rather than ask you why you wrote Disturbance, which may seem obvious, I would like to know how you wrote the book. In other words, can you tell us about the psychological journey involved? Was it trying? Cathartic? Or both?
Philippe Lançon: I wrote Disturbance between June 2017 and January 2018, two and a half years after the terrorist attack, while in England, Scotland, and Rome. Before then, when I was still in the hospital and in the period immediately afterward, I had been writing a weekly column for Charlie Hebdo, in which I told readers what I was going through. Naturally, the column was less intimate, less interior than the book, yet it was undoubtedly a first step toward it—even if at the time I didn’t know that I would write a memoir of my experience.
However, I also think that, two and a half years later, writing the book was not a therapeutic act anymore, nor an act of psychological healing. Rather, it was a literary act, one of creation, which I could only perform once my healing process was concluded. You could sum it up like this: I started writing Disturbance once I stopped seeing my therapist. I felt free enough, and strong enough, to explore and recount what I had been through as if those events had been experienced by someone else. I had the distance, the detachment necessary, to dive in. That is why this book, for me, is devoid of any narcissism. The person who wrote it was no longer the one who had experienced the events described.
RS: Two years have elapsed since the book’s publication. Were you to write such a book now, would you do anything differently?
PL: It’s impossible for me to know what book I would write today, but I’m certain that it would be different because I myself have greatly changed since 2017, and so has the world around me. Above all, my memories themselves have changed. Memory is in constant motion, as is the way in which we interpret our memories and give them order. I sometimes ask myself the question you have asked me. My only answer is this: The book would certainly be shorter, sharper. It would seek more to reinvent my experience than to retell it.
RS: Early in Disturbance, you recall a visit to Baghdad on the eve of the Iraq war of 1991 and wonder what might have happened had you remained a journalist covering the Arab world instead of becoming a culture critic in France. Do you continue to follow Arab affairs, at least insofar as certain countries are concerned?
PL: I can’t say that I have continued to follow the news from the Arab world closely. The main reason is that since 1993, for personal reasons, my life has been oriented toward Cuba and Latin America. I immersed myself in the Spanish language and culture and have never reemerged. That said, I have traveled to Algeria several times as a reporter, including shortly before the Charlie Hebdo attack, always with great pleasure.
Speaking of Iraq, my first major literary profile after the attack was of an Iraqi novelist, Ali Bader. He lives in Brussels, where he is in exile and where I went to visit him. At the time I was feeling very tired and didn’t yet have a dental prosthesis in my lower jaw. Ali invited me to his place for dinner, a tiny studio in a working-class neighborhood. He had prepared masgouf [grilled and seasoned carp]! For me, it was like Proust’s madeleine: I was reminded of the small restaurants along the Tigris where I used to eat at the end of the 1980s (my first trip to Baghdad was in 1986, when I was still studying journalism). The problem was that in this case the madeleine contained fish bones. They got stuck in the gaps in my reconstructed gum tissue or under it, causing me pain and embarrassment. It took a lot of effort to speak while eating, without hurting or drooling too much. Like a good Iraqi, Ali had bought some beer, which relieved me a little, and a few hours later we continued to drink at a bar. He was very funny, very attentive; he brought Baghdad back to life.
RS: Back in France, the trial of several suspected accomplices of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attackers is underway. How does that make you feel? Are you following the proceedings?
PL: I decided I wouldn’t testify at the trial, or even attend—both for personal reasons and because of fatigue. I wrote in Charlie Hebdo about my decision. One of the reasons is that in France my book was read and commented on so widely that I didn’t see any benefit for society or myself in repeating in a few minutes what I had taken so long to think and write about.
RS: In reading Disturbance, I wondered why you didn’t address the question of whether what you refer to as the “space and time” of the attacks was some sort of aberration or the new normal for France. Looking back today, what do you think?
PL: The news in the recent past—from Nice, Lyon, and Vienna—shows that the attacks of January 2015 were just the first manifestations in France of a phenomenon which, in my opinion, began in Iran in 1979, developed with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and reached a first and sinister climax on September 11, 2001. This growth of Islamist extremism continues almost everywhere, though at a different pace in different countries, depending on local circumstances. Naturally, because of its history of colonialism and its 4 million Muslim citizens, France is among the first targets of such extremism.
* This sentence was changed to correct the name of the translator.