This is the second article in the e-magazine Creativity Is Risky: Free Speech in a Charlie Hebdo World. Given the xenophobia we are seeing in Europe in reaction to a flow of humanity from Syria, this article has become particularly timely. Indeed, I was completely welcomed by Muslim women in Paris. It was pluralism at its best.
When I lived in Paris a few years ago, I frequented a hammam, a public bath. These establishments, dat- ing back to the Roman Empire, were adopted by the 7th-century Umayyad caliphs that succeeded Muhammad. The name is derived from hamma, meaning “to heat” in Turkish and Arabic; in English, they’re often referred to as Turkish baths.
The hammam was up the street from my apartment on Rue Oberkampf, in the 11th arrondissement (the same district as Charlie Hebdo’s offices). The facil- ity had a gym and pool and the men’s and women’s hammams on the second floor. Our hammam featured a steam room, dry sauna, communal area for tea and conversation, a massage room and showers.
I was one of the regulars. After lengthy stays in the steam room and sauna, we would exfoliate with a rough glove until the skin turned pink. Sometimes we would do each other’s backs. Our skin was like butter afterward, and that was the point.
I was the only American. Everyone else, save for a British woman who came in occasionally, was French or of North African descent. The Muslim women knew each other quite well and would enjoy cups of tea or pray toward Mecca at the appropriate times.
Women who normally dressed in headscarves or burkas walked around naked and literally let their hair down. The hammam was freeing for all of us.
I often chatted with Fatiah, an Algerian-French wom- an who was a devout Muslim and who worked for the city of Paris. She was quite welcoming despite our cultural differences. Fatiah wanted to know how I was acclimating—she knew of my struggle to fit in at work. She listened. She said France could benefit from outsiders, that it should welcome them more fully; Americans, for example, could contribute to the economy and business life. She became part of my weekend ritual, and we made for an interesting pair.
One day in the pool, she got quite upset about cartoons she had seen mocking Muhammad. It was 2011, and Charlie Hebdo was in hot water with Islamic critics. It had provoked criticism and security warnings as early as 2006, when the editor published cartoons by a Danish artist that featured Muhammad and lamented fundamentalist violence.
As Fatiah expressed her outrage, it was my turn to listen. It was not my place, literally or figuratively, to debate the issue.
Nearly four years after leaving Paris, I often think of Fatiah, of our candid conversations, our shared love of the steam room, our ability to meet in the middle despite our completely different walks of life. I wonder how she is doing. I’ve lost her phone number.
I miss those days at the hammam, where I was the minority and yet completely welcomed. Where we all came to feel our best. With a bit of distance, I can see it was pluralism at its best, too.