The graffiti on the wall down the block from my student apartment in Paris was profane, referencing oil. I walked past it at least once a day in the winter and spring of 1991 on my way to class at Reid Hall, the building shared by Middlebury’s School Abroad with a cluster of other American colleges. Often, I walked by twice, once to class and again in the evening on the way to the home of the family I was renting from; they lived in another apartment a few blocks away from mine.
It wasn’t the only reminder that the Gulf War was unpopular in that corner of France. Dinners with the family—included in my rent and at least as educational as my semester of classes—featured regular conversations about current events.
All this returned with the clarity of a formative moment after the November 13 terrorist attacks on Paris. I work in a newsroom, so I spent the evening reading about those harrowing events unfolding across the Atlantic. The next morning, I woke after a lengthy dream, in which I was walking home from work through the darkened Paris streets. I stopped at a small restaurant, nothing fancy, and felt I was known there, a regular. It was my first dream of Paris, and my first in French, in years.
I don’t want to name the Parisian family I lived with, but other students of the era who rented from them will no doubt know who I’m talking about. The father was a school principal and an ardent Socialist, and the mother, his younger second wife, was Syrian. She had a young son, maybe eight or nine years old, whom she’d brought with her when she left Syria.
They were wonderful people, and I did indeed learn as much from them as from my classes. After spending my first five days in Paris with no one but the family, speaking nothing but French, I showed up at Reid Hall for the first day of class, and the first word I heard was a slack “Hey,” one of several cultural divides that proved hard to navigate that semester.
Most Thursday nights were couscous nights at the family’s apartment, and I remember them still as some of the best meals of my life. Often visitors—usually from another part of the Arab world or North Africa—would come by, bearing Tunisian pastries or dates stuffed with a mix of cheese and honey.
Conversation turned to the Gulf War. As the lone American at the table, I was often called on to explain the ways of my government. I wasn’t a supporter of the war, but I wasn’t prepared to offer a heartfelt denunciation either. Diffidence was my shield against my fellow diners’ questions. At one point, we decided that we’d consider me a Swede, officially neutral.
The question, or entreaty, that stayed with me from those conversations, because it is so resistant to solutions, was Pourquoi est-ce que les Etats-Unis peut pas fouter la paix au Moyen Orient?
Why can’t the United States leave the Middle East the fuck alone? Our economy’s thirst for oil is such that this question struck me, even then, as rhetorical or unanswerable.
Perhaps that was a failure on my part. Would another student in my seat at the dinner table have decided to seek an answer, or at least to reassure a Syrian woman resettled in Paris that her question was worth answering, even haltingly and incompletely?
To recall that question again, posed by a Syrian, reminds me that the conflict now manifesting itself in terrorist attacks and waves of refugees was already under way, visible and audible and angry, 25 years ago.
Alex Hanson ’92 is the features editor at Valley News, a daily paper in Lebanon, New Hampshire.