I must admit that I am not a man who enjoys flying. The thought of a metal hulk being able to effortlessly glide through the air should not happen, and yet it does. And in such moments, especially as the plane taxis to the runway, I make my peace with my maker in case the plane goes down in a ball of flames and I find myself on the other side.
On one such occasion while departing from Naples, I had my hands raised doing my devotions. An Englishman interrupted me and pointed out that I had an “awfully big watch.” It was one of those details that hadn’t crossed my mind. “I suppose so,” I replied and returned to my peace making. I continued unworried about the Englishman’s fixation with my watch, but he interjected again, adding that it was indeed “an awfully big watch.” In my mind I thought: Just leave me alone. I’m about to go down in a ball of flames, and you’re reminding me about the size of my watch. I hoped it wasn’t the latest display of virility. I smiled and returned to my activity until he did it for the third time. I was about to bite his head off until I noticed his wife crying silent tears.
I could see her thought process: This was the end. I would detonate my watch, the plane would go up in flames, and I would grin my way to 72 virgins in Muslim Valhalla screaming “Allahu Akbar!” I realized her husband was too politically correct and polite to challenge me about my dastardly intentions. And so he went on about my awfully big watch in order, presumably, to say that he was on to me.
There was a part of me that wanted to scream at them. How dare you? What gives you the right? etc. But that reaction would merely reinforce the image that their likes had of my likes, that I was the frothing-at-the-mouth terrorist in the movies. Moreover, given that Islamophobia is so normalized now, I feared that maybe I would be the one escorted off the plane, rather than their being criticized for their prejudice.
There was also a part of me that empathized with their predicament. Perhaps they hadn’t come across people like me. I recalibrated and found myself absurdly apologizing to the couple, saying that I was sad that my exceedingly large watch, somewhat vigorous beard and devotional practice should be construed as signifiers of a terrorist mindset. Sad times. In fairness to the couple, they felt extremely guilty and apologized. They knew they were wrong and we had a pleasant trip.
I hoped that by my actions I had guilt-tripped them into questioning their prejudices. But then there was also something that disturbed me about my own response. In some small way, it niggled me. How dare they — I thought to myself — liken me to them? Why was it that I always make sure to get a beard trim and try my best to wear respectable clothes that don’t make people scared of me and get me stopped at the airport. Other tactics I employed were to have a box of duty-free Marlboro cigarettes by my side, just to show I wasn’t one of them. As a journalist I simply didn’t want border police to demand my phone and commit digital assault. It annoyed me that despite all of these efforts, I had been likened to them. Moreover, it annoyed me that I was always faced with these two choices: of being who I am or of just wanting an easy, hassle-free journey. Having lived in police states, I had learned how and when to apply all the “yeses” with the appropriate titles you could think of. Life was easier, but it also made you feel spineless. Those who asserted their right to dignity were sent stamp-chasing and Kafkaesque queue-waiting. Moreover, in free countries, despite knowing full well that such things stink to high heaven, because I wanted an easy life, I just accepted it.
Now I love what I do. I am thankful that I get to cover such a great news beat. Above all I love the morbid thrill of covering terrorism and security. Few people get a front seat to history. Few people get to see some of the best of humanity when the situation is bestial. And I am convinced that it is my brownness, if you will, and my heritage that gives me the privileged access to people who wouldn’t otherwise open up. But that honor of course has a price. There’s another colleague, a proper news veteran a decade older than I whom I bump into occasionally on the same news beat. Whenever we see each other, we exchange anecdotes as to who we’ve been mistaken for by our white colleagues: Uber drivers, delivery people, asylum seekers, terrorists, etc. I fight myself not to give them the runaround sometimes.
And it is this theme that most persons of color experience, albeit to varying degrees, that William Gardner Smith’s novel “The Stone Face” grapples with. First, Smith’s novel posits the idea that race is often situational, as I have tried to show with the anecdotes. Second, the novel is a rare account of a massacre that took place in the heart of Paris on Oct. 17, 1961, in which up to 200 or so nameless North African victims were hurled into the Seine while they protested France’s draconian conduct in Algeria.
“Stone Face” tells the story of an African-American journalist and artist, Simeon Brown, who settles in a vibrant 1960s Paris hoping to escape the discrimination of his own society. The hatred of American society is symbolized in a painting he has been working on for some time, a picture of a cold and psychopathic face he associates with the white man who blinded him in one eye. At the start, that painting represented the racism of American society. By the end of the novel it represents something more.
In Paris he discovers an idyll where he finds a vibrant expat community and faces no discrimination. In fact, African Americans are welcomed. Simeon is no longer the “other”; he is no longer “them” in Paris. He can sit with French men, drink wine, frequent the same bars, love the same women until he is woken up by the stark fact that in Paris there is another group who experience the same oppression that he did in the U.S. In those days France appeared to be the light. To the uninitiated, France really didn’t see “color.” Just like one glance at the current French world cup team would lead you to conclude that France has little issue with race as long as one adheres to the mantra fraternité, egalité, liberté, and yet a deeper exploration would lead one to ask from whence do these men come from if not from the most marginalized parts of France’s suburbs? Zinedine Zidane, France’s World Cup hero, hails from La Castellane, a suburb of Marseille created for the refugees of the Algerian war and known for drug trafficking, arms smuggling and prostitution.
Similarly, the presence of the Algerian community in the Paris slums showed Simeon the fissures. The truth was that the Algerians were the blacks of France and were just at that time struggling for independence. While Simeon’s black friends tried to dissuade him from getting involved with the Algerian conflict, saying that it was between two white peoples, Simeon was unable to accept that argument. And so he inadvertently gets to know some of these Algerians; in so doing he gets to witness the massacre, when French police aided by auxiliaries killed Algerians and dumped them in the Seine. They also interned many others. It is this incident that makes Simeon conclude that race is not skin-deep but situational, that Stone Face exists in France too. He can no longer carry on living in this idyll where the French do not see his blackness and treat him as an American, even ejecting white Americans from bars on account of their racism toward him. He sides with the Algerians on principle instead of race solidarity and returns to the U.S. to take part in the civil rights movement. This book in many ways is an antecedent to many of the ideas that we see playing out currently. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, has sided with the Palestinians — not based on color but on principle.
Some of the story is no doubt drawn from Smith’s experiences. A Philadelphia journalist, Smith was stifled by the lack of opportunities in America and followed many African-American literary giants to Paris. There, he brushed shoulders with the likes of Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes. France is one of few countries that treat their intellectuals like rock stars, and to see Wright sitting with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir must have been an incredible sight.
During the First World War, 200,000 African Americans served on French soil, and as many as 50,000 served directly under French officers. In contrast to the discrimination they suffered in the U.S. Army, they were treated without racial prejudice. So it was unsurprising that many stayed behind after the war ended. In “Stone Face,” Simeon and many other African-American expats have relationships with white women. In fact Simeon has a love affair with a former Holocaust survivor, Maria, a beautiful blond Ashkenazi Jew. These sorts of relationships might get him killed in the U.S. — lynchings were not infrequent in the American South. In France not so.
Between the world wars, while the Cotton Club in Harlem featured the likes of Louis Armstrong, the legendary African-American musician and other Black performers would never have been allowed to patronize the club. In France these same African Americans bequeathed the country, scarred by the horrors of war, that joyful sound called jazz.
When the African-American literati arrived after the Second World War, they continued on with this tradition.
Baldwin, an intellectual tour de force of the civil rights movement, situated his book “Giovanni’s Room” in Paris. Himes’ classic “A Rage in Harlem” was first published in French before it was translated into English. It was a testimony to French intellectual culture and of its willingness to engage with brilliance. Wright, a pioneer in African-American literature who fearlessly pointed his finger at the deep-seated racism in America in “Native Son,” also found solace in France. He and Baldwin found it so amenable that they never returned to the U.S. While they flourished in Paris, the American civil rights movement began in earnest. The movement led to immense heartache. What was one to do? Remain in Paris, where one faces none of the hardship, or fight the good fight? To Smith’s hero, it was unbearable to contrast the image of a little girl being faced by mobs of hateful stone faces as she tries to desegregate a school against his sitting in Paris enjoying the golden shoulder of his girlfriend.
But the truth was that there were problems far closer to Paris. Smith very soon became aware that there was another “them” in France. They may have been lighter than American Blacks, but they suffered the same sorts of oppression and discrimination. In fact, their ghettos were just as squalid, as the book notes, “except that there were fewer cops in Harlem, but maybe that too would come one day. Like Harlem and like all the ghettos of the world. The men he saw through the window of the bus had whiter skins and less frizzly hair, but they were in other ways like the Negroes in the United States.” Simeon, or perhaps Smith, finds himself in a curious position, that of being “white.” There are many Algerian characters Simone meets who accuse him of being “white” while they hurl antisemitic abuse at his Jewish girlfriend and declare boldly: “We’re the niggers here!” This was the essence of the book’s argument: Race can be situational.
There is a powerful moment when Smith writes that some Algerians came into the bar to see the hero sitting there and everyone watched him and made racist comments about the Algerians. “Simeon felt his face burn … but he was afraid of something. Of losing something. Acceptance, perhaps. The word made him wince. Of feeling humiliation again. For one horrible instant he found himself withdrawing from the Algerians — the Pariahs, the untouchables. He for the frightening second had rejected identification with them. Not Me! Not Me! Can’t you see I am different? The lowest part of himself cried.” And that I suspect is what many of us feel deep within when we are offended by being identified as one of them, whether that is on a plane in Naples or on a suburban street in Manchester.
The second part of “Stone Face” is historical. It deals with what the French state viewed as a case of restoring public order and dealing with some terrorists in Algeria, then considered an integral part of Metropolitan France. The Algerian nationalists viewed it as a colonial war. The nationalists had long clamored for independence, but things came to a head in 1954 when they declared their country to be a sovereign and democratic state. And so began the Algerian uprising that lasted from 1954 to 1962, earning the country the epithet “the land of a million martyrs.” The French military and its paramilitary factions, unimaginatively called the Secret Armed Organization, repressed the nationalists. They detained men, women and children. They tortured, raped and disappeared thousands.
Although many of the nationalists depicted the conflict as having a religious tinge, and though it probably was for many ordinary foot soldiers, their tactics were far from holy. The National Liberation Front (FLN) also committed inexcusable atrocities and employed tactics that many of its activists had learned from the modern colonial conflicts. In fact, what is often forgotten is that many of the Algerian nationalists had been forged in socialism and France’s war in Indochina, where many of them had served previously.
Similarly the French officers who came to subdue the Algerian population had also been grizzled and scorched by Indochina. Jacqueline Emile Massu, who led the French troops in the Battle of Algiers, had served in Indochina and the Suez Crisis and had no problems in applying the same tactics in subduing the population so vividly described in an old veterans fictional account, Jean Larteguy’s French bestseller “The Centurions.” The activities of the French paratroopers, working alongside brutal paramilitary organizations like the OAS, led by the “Pieds-Noirs” (settlers of French and European heritage), meant that a large group of FLN activists in France also agitated on the mainland. The war essentially tore apart the Fourth Republic until Charles de Gaulle arrived in 1958 and gave birth to the Fifth Republic.
Because of the presence of FLN activists and a large North African population in Metropolitan France, the French state viewed the former as fifth columnists. On one occasion, the government imposed curfews on the North African population, leading to the massacre along the Seine after thousands of North Africans decided to break the curfew and demonstrate peacefully against the restrictions. The police killed up to 200 North Africans and detained several thousands.
What was even more astonishing is that the police operation was led by a Vichy collaborator who had sent 1,700 men, women and children to Nazi concentration camps. Maurice Papon had recruited former military men as well as Algerian auxiliaries to quell dissent through arbitrary arrests and raids. And yet the massacre was nearly forgotten, probably because it was in short order overshadowed by the Charrone massacre in February 1962, in which eight French communists died. Since they were white, they got far more attention than the victims of the Seine incident four months earlier. Arguably, plain old racism obscured the tragedy. It seemed that in France, then as now, some were more equal than others.
While the incident takes up fewer than 10 pages in the novel, it is no less important. Not only is it a reminder, albeit fictional, of the massacre, it is also the spark or the resolution for the protagonist’s dilemma. It introduces the second part of the argument: Race may be situational, but principles are not, and one must unite on the latter. It is clear where Simeon’s sympathies lie and where ours should too. The incident inspires Simeon to return to the U.S.
It also forces Smith’s protagonists to face up to the French state’s overt racism represented best by Papon, who can act with impunity. It was not until 1998 that Papon was convicted of crimes against humanity for his behavior as a Vichy official.
Simeon, though detained after the massacre, is freed because he’s a U.S. citizen. It does not matter that he is Black or that he identified very clearly with the Algerians. How many times has one been preferred on account of the color of one’s passport even though one looks not dissimilar to an Afghan or an Iraqi at the back of the queue? And yet Smith also notes how his girlfriend experienced antisemitism from the oppressed Algerians. And by doing so he shows how complex an affair race really is. While his friends understandably decide to opt for a very human route of trying to forget, remaining content by taking the blue pill and hoping to bury themselves in good times, Simeon sees no option but to take the red pill and journey along the harder route. He returns to the U.S.
To the protagonist, Stone Face is not just the white racist in the U.S. It could be the French Pied-Noir or the Chinese or indeed the Syrian or the Saudi. Stone Face could be Éric Zemmour, a Berber Jew of Pied-Noir descent who is currently stoking up anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hysteria in France, or an all-powerful sultan locking up a woman because she’s just a tad too vocal. Though Smith is little remembered now, the deeply prescient “Stone Face” seems to have contemporary relevance more than ever.
Moreover, had it not been for books like “Stone Face,” the massacre might have been forgotten. There have been few candid discussions of the incident and its extent. The novel has only recently been translated into French. In 2001, some 40 years after the event, the socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, had a plaque installed along the Seine to commemorate the event. But neither the exact number of the victims nor their names are mentioned in the plaque.
It’s rare to read a novel that seems so personal. I remember covering the Manchester terror attack in 2017 when I was seized by plainclothes detectives. I had done what other journalists had done — knocked on one of the suspects’ houses and left a note. I did nothing more and was walking away from the property when they grabbed me. They presumably thought I was a person of interest, an associate maybe. I tried to tell the officers that I wasn’t one of “them.” I was like everyone else. But neither my press pass nor my word was enough. It was a white colleague who intervened and told the detectives that I was “with him.” They let me go without an apology as if to say: “On your way, son, keep your nose out of trouble.”
I must admit that those sorts of things do eat away. You experience different emotions. First, you excuse it. You rationalize the incident. Twenty-two poor souls had died in a horrendous suicide bombing in the Manchester arena, and the officers were working in an immensely stressful situation, probably one of those defining moments in their career. I’ve lived in police states; not receiving an apology wasn’t that bad. It could’ve been worse. I could’ve been another Jean Charles de Menezes, who was killed by undercover police officers in Stockwell station following the 7/7 bombings. Keep calm and carry on.
Then a colleague said, “Well, perhaps that’s out of order. Imagine if all police officers did that.” I suppose he’s right. And then you realize how much you have internalized the racism so that you just accept it or perhaps even become numb to it. Instead of standing up, like the expats in Paris, you chose the easy life, you let the social media activists scream and shout about it. Then you walk away and ask yourself, are you a coward? And all the while there’s a voice at the back of your head screaming: “Wait, wait, I am not them, I am not them. I am not them.”
Then that emotion turns into deep cynicism, rebellion and maybe something else: raw defiance. Another colleague might say: “Hey, maybe you should tell your line manager.” What could a manager do? Send me a cringe heart emoji with the message “sending you lots of love”? It’s part of the job — life is tough, swallow it, slip it, block it, move on. You tell yourself victimhood is a mindset. And I was damn sure not going to be that person who whines about all the bad stuff that’s happened to them in life. There’s always someone in a far worse situation than me. But then there is something within that says, “If you give a damn, then they will win.” But exactly who is “they” who win?
The internal emotional sparring is coupled with real life professional dilemmas. In the news beat that I cover, terrorism, the term is highly politicized and contested. Just think about the case of Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green girl who left from England for Syria at the age of 15, joined the Islamic State group and had her U.K. passport stripped. It’s not an easy story to cover to begin with and more so because you feel under extra scrutiny to be objective simply because of who you are. I’ve seen white colleagues express compassion for Begum because she was a child. Were I to suggest the same, I’m sure some would attack me as an apologist. I’ve seen the Twitter feeds and screen grabs where I’m accused of being a crypto-jihadist. Being a brown man reporting on terrorism stories means being ultra-objective.
But there is also the flipside. Because there are so few of us on this news beat, some brown folk almost expect you to represent them. And they get incensed when you say that it isn’t your job to do so. They expect that you should be working for “the Ummah.” When I signed for the job, that was outside of my remit. But what I am meant to do is verify or challenge the veracity of the story on behalf of my audience. I am in a privileged position, and I’d be neglecting my job if I don’t ask those questions. But on account of our common heritage, some expect special treatment. You are expected to take their word for it because you’re their coreligionist. You are meant to just accept that they stumbled into an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. You are meant to just accept — no questions asked — that an al-Qaeda jihadist picking up some street hookers was an elaborate FBI setup. “Akhi,” they say, “you should believe my word over the kuffar. I didn’t radicalize anyone.” Of course not, sure, it’s got nothing to do with your ringtone that’s banging out the theme tune of the Islamic State group. It’s got nothing to do with the website that was propagating hardcore jihadism that contributed to creating the current climate. It’s got nothing to do with the fact that maybe the girl left for Syria because she lived in the Dickensian conditions you subjected her to. I remember I was asked by a puzzled kebab boss once to help him locate his 15-year-old brother, who had gone off to join the Islamic State. For the life of him, he didn’t understand who had radicalized his brother. It never occurred to him that perhaps it was he who had inadvertently radicalized him. His views were certainly not unsympathetic to the Islamic State, and I could just picture him waving his fist in joy as they broke through the Sykes-Picot border. So when you ask those questions, of course, the response to that is always what the protagonist in “Stone Face” also receives. Have you turned into them? Are you a coconut? Have you sold out?
They don’t quite understand that the only loyalty I should have is to the facts of the story. As long as I tell the truth in a fair and sensible way that is what should be expected of me. And the fact that you’re between these two states, of constantly trying to find the right balance between these two issues, is probably why “Stone Face” resonated with me so much.