Just before the announcement to evacuate, I sat in the Notre Dame, struck again by its beauty. The mass taking place was reverential, and the singing echoed around the building in that wonderful way it always does in old churches.
Tourists were moving around taking pictures, so struck by the grandeur of the place they had possibly not noticed the signs banning photography – they were making noise, but trying not to. Hours later, that sacred atmosphere I had found inside the cathedral had been forced outside by fire.
There were thousands gathered by the nearby station. Some were singing. Some seemed shell-shocked. Some cried. Although some continued to drink, eat and laugh in Parisian bars that night, I saw with my own eyes that many people were devastated by what had happened.
I think this response reveals uncomfortable truths about what our culture values and what it does not. The Notre Dame’s appeal is in its heritage and history. I too am utterly in awe of the fact that generation after generation has preserved, expanded and protected the cathedral and its treasures for hundreds of years.
But France’s ability to do so is a privilege it has denied others. If you stroll further along the bank of the Seine, you will come to the Musée du Quai Branly, which is dedicated to the study, preservation and promotion of non-European arts and civilisations. After 126 years, France’s president Emmanuel Macron has just ordered that 26 pieces in the museum looted during the colonial era be returned to Benin.
I understand why some are grieving the damage to the Notre Dame so heavily, but I also know that not everyone can afford this sentimentality.
Other countries are still campaigning for the return of some of their most precious artefacts which were looted during the colonial era. Nigeria, where I originate from, is one of them. For the most part, these countries’ demands have not yet been met. Their efforts to preserve their artefacts are not so different from what the Paris fire service was doing that night. But culturally, that issue is interpreted very differently.
There are also those who live in and around Paris who cannot afford this kind of sentimentality. The Notre Dame can be saved at any cost it seems, but not them. On a taxi ride through Paris’s “banlieues” (loosely translated as the ghetto) today, I saw villages of tents where homeless people live on the ring roads.
In my work with children from some of the poorer areas outside Paris, there was a little boy in my class who was full of joy because he was finally moving out of his mouldy social housing. The other children in the class who weren’t as lucky said nothing. The recent gilet jaunes protests are a testament to the fact that some feel they have been left behind. Descriptions of the Notre Dame as a symbol of national unity thoughtlessly excludes and marginalises them.
I am forced to face the reality that mourning the Notre Dame so intensely is a profoundly elite exercise. A frank metaphor for where we stand in Europe today in terms of race and class. If burning buildings have people in them, you might have to wait a while for the government and local authorities to act.
If it contains historical artefacts, the government will be there right away – but it won’t matter anyway because there are billionaires ready to step in with their cheque books.
The damage to the Notre Dame is sad, no doubt. The Notre Dame was free to enter and it probably helped people from all walks of life survive in its own way.
Drawing parallels is not always helpful, and it is certainly not a question of one or the other. Still, it would bring me joy if a politician could say with conviction that they would end the issue of homelessness in five years (as Macron said about repairing the Notre Dame).
Perhaps the cathedral fire gives us a unique opportunity to revisit what our culture values, and make sure it isn’t just artefacts of European origin. Perhaps it gives us a unique opportunity to remember that there are many different things and people worth saving.
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