Notre Dame de Paris: The wounded soul

©Laurent Grandguillot/REA

The fire at Notre Dame has struck at the soul of Paris, at the spirit and memory of Christianity and of the world itself.

I learnt French reading Victor Hugo, who immortalised this most transcendent of cathedrals. I became infused with the spirituality of this space and, as I read Hugo’s words, learnt how to know and see it as part of my education, my French culture, which is both juxtaposed and complementary to my Arab roots.

At Notre Dame this week, I saw how fire is insatiable, stubborn against all appeasement. I saw faces distraught as a wave of emotion engulfed the world. Such is the power of the spirit of this place, which attracts more visitors than any other in Europe.

And I am sad because I know that this cathedral forms part of my universe as a writer.

Islam has always enjoined its followers to respect and celebrate these cathedrals, which are havens of peace and reconciliation. Muslims visiting Notre Dame in Paris see it as a pilgrimage site where we pray to the same god, unique and merciful. But this cathedral is more than that, it is the identity of this Paris which belongs to no one—yet belongs to all those who love the city.

It is hard to imagine this island in the city’s heart without that majestic, grandiose presence. A piece of French history was taken by the flames last night. France has lost a few pages in its long story. Pages which we will never be able to read again. And here the cultural tragedy gives way to grief.

We can, of course, read or reread Hugo, which will remind us of a simple truth—the power of literature. This monument was saved by a novel. When Notre-Dame de Paris was published in 1831, it sounded the alarm. The building was in an "unacceptable" state of dilapidation. Victor Hugo’s novel spread its fame far and wide, leading eventually to its restoration, from 1844 to 1864. The architect Viollet-le-Duc took the opportunity to resurrect its spire—a distant twin, separated by centuries from its sister, built around 1250 and brought down by revolutionaries between 1786 and 1792.

The steeple and spire of Notre Dame collapses as the cathedral is engulfed in flames on 15 April, 2019. ©Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP

Yes, the cathedral will be rebuilt. It will take time, but as we pass that time we must keep its spirit alive within us, held safe against the noise and the dust.

It is its presence—a lofty, delicate spirituality—that will restore Notre Dame de Paris to its identity: our identity, because it is open to all and belongs to the memory of the world.

I grew up in Morocco, where the co-existence of Muslims, Jews and Christians was quite normal. At the time, in the 1960s, we were taught the history of religion without any prejudice. We were told that Islam was inspired by the values of the other two monotheistic religions and that we must not only respect them, but encourage mixing and dialogue.  

This is the spirit King Mohamed VI wanted to remind people of last month when Pope Francis was welcomed to Morocco and the two leaders listened to Muslim, Jewish and Christian songs as people came together in a beautiful spirit of friendship.

Notre Dame de Paris lost a part of itself to this pitiless fire. This morning, scarred,  ravaged, gutted, she stands tall. Her spirit lives. But it will be many long years before the cathedral regains what she lost in just a few hours.

There remains her memory, her façade, her magnificent doors, her history and all the books she has inspired.

Beyond religion, our task will be to restore her beauty, perhaps by devising new ways to conjure the sublime. Our scorched cathedral will be saved, because the people of France and the rest of the world will unite to return to her what the fire has taken away. 

South facade of Notre Dame. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Franco-Moroccan novelist, essayist, poet and painter. Winner of the Goncourt prize for his novel La Nuit sacrée (1987), he is one of the most translated francophone writers in the world.

©OECD Observer April 2019




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