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Hiba Essa Al Ateek: Je suis Hiba
February 13, 2015
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I really didn’t want to touch on this subject. I didn’t want to add to the pile of noise where we each wanted our voice to be loud and louder and loudest. And it can get really messy. And ugly.

Believe me, the political world is not my cup of tea. Let me just say it represents everything I loathe and go against and I never want to knock on its door.

But (there’s always a but) it is only fair to elaborate and share my personal experience on this sticky topic since the most repeated question I get asked from family and friends back home is, “How is life in Paris post the Charlie Hebdo attack?”

My first thought when I heard of the news was “a 9/11 taking place in Europe.” My heart sank after finding out “Muslims” were behind these hatred acts.

Paris resembled a “war zone” during the first few days after the attack.  The French were very upfront about the way they felt and were determined to stand united.

I knew things wouldn’t be the same again when I walked into my local coffee store only to be greeted by cold long glares. Everyone stared. My scarf seemed to shout out “Pro terrorist!”

The barista didn’t smile or act pleasantly towards me. My multiple attempts to smile and make small talk were ignored. I guess I was just adding salt to the wound.  

There I stood, feeling all kinds of mad, ashamed and hurt. Yes, Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture but thanks to the acts of terrorism in the name of Islam, my religion was being tarnished once again. This hurt me the most.

To be honest, I walked around fearful. I wasn’t worried about them being afraid of me. I was worried their hurt would turn into resentment and then into anger and maybe revenge?

Yes, I too thought I was exaggerating until my sweet French friend asked me to avoid going out alone for some time. She explained the citizens were angry and most did not differentiate between Muslims and terrorists.

My husband reassured me that the situation at his workplace was normal. But still, we thought it was best that we avoided the streets for the next few days. 

Inevitably, I had an “Aha moment!” It’s my duty to prove to the French that terrorism goes against everything we believe in.

After all, isn’t living abroad all about being open to change, seizing opportunities and being true to yourself and your values regardless of the turbulence thrown at you throughout your journey? I knew one thing. I did not owe anyone an apology and I was not doing this out of guilt.

I said bonjour every time I entered a shop, café or ran into someone in our building. It is not that I didn’t prior to the event, but now it was being done with an effort and specific motive.

I was extra friendly to everyone. I smiled. I chatted (almost forcefully) with cashiers and waitresses. I became a pro at brushing off their glares and cold shoulders.

Sometimes as I gave my order, took my croissant and cheerfully said “Merci” I was greeted by silence. Nothing. I would wait to hear my total only to realise that I am to look at the cash register myself.

It’s important that I mention that there are times when we didn’t face any discomfort when running errands. I don’t want to generalise and stereotype, that defeats my whole point then. But there was a heavy cloud in the air which we couldn’t ignore.  And the outcast feelings were real.

This isn’t “a random act of kindness” project. It’s my duty. It’s genuine. I learnt to be brave and put myself out there; to do things with purpose while being aware that my actions speak on behalf of my faith.  And it’s all part of a bigger picture that’s worth it.

I know I am not alone. I know there are so many people out there facing this struggle. So much has changed since then, including me.

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Hiba Essa Al Ateek is an Emirati woman who swapped the
corporate world in Dubai for life in bustling Paris. Hiba is a
self-confessed coffee addict who, for the remainder of her journey
in France, is determined to master the French language and discover
what it really means to be a Parisienne in the 21st century.

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