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We Still Have Words review – two fathers come to terms with terror

Georges Salines and Azdyne Amimour both lost a child in the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015. Salines’s daughter, Lola, and Amimour’s son, Samy, were at the Bataclan concert hall that night. One was killed, the other was one of the killers, who blew himself up at the scene. Both were 28 and compatriots.

Lola, brought up in France, Martinique and Egypt, worked as an editor of children’s books. She loved sport, travelling and rock music. She lived with her friend Agathe and their cat Billy. Samy was more of an introvert. The son of a Franco-Algerian family, he had started studying law at university before getting a job with the Paris public transport authority but in 2013, he had gone to fight as a jihadist in Syria. His father had tried to stop him, in vain.

In 2017, Samy’s father contacted Lola’s father and asked to see him. At the time, Salines was the head of an association of survivors of the 13 November attacks. At first perplexed by Amimour’s request, he felt curiosity for what the terrorist’s father might have to say to him. After their first meeting in a cafe near Bastille, the two men remained in contact. Together, and with the help of the political scientist Sébastien Boussois, they agreed for their conversation to be published as a book: We Still Have Words, translated into English by Jonathan Hensher, is published this week at a time when France is reeling from yet more Islamist attacks.

Before that first meeting, Salines, a doctor who works in public health, asked Amimour what he wanted to discuss. He replied: “I want to speak with you about this tragic event, as I feel that I am a victim too because of my son.” Others would have been shocked, but thankfully, Salines had attended a conference at the Quilliam foundation in London a few months earlier. There, he had been moved to tears by mothers of jihadists who had been invited to speak and had shared their terrible burden of guilt.

He thought that if some parents of terrorists were complicit with their children’s crimes in the way they had educated them, others were blameless. Still, for Salines, the prospect of meeting the man whose son may have personally murdered his daughter was uncomfortable, but he overcame his reluctance. “Our meeting moved me deeply,” he recalls. “Azdyne is an endearing character with a remarkable life story, who gives an immediate impression of humanity, of a great love of life, of tolerance and of self-taught culture.” The men kept in touch. For Amimour, their conversation was “a form of therapy”, a way to “condemn violence in the strongest possible terms” and to “help in the name of the Islam I believe in”.

On 13 November 2015, it had already been several months since Amimour had heard anything from his son who had gone to fight with Islamic State two years earlier. That night, Amimour was in Liège, Belgium, where he runs a clothes shop. He shut the shop early so he could settle down to watch a football match – France v Germany. Georges Salines had seen his daughter Lola earlier that day at the swimming pool where they occasionally swam lengths together during their lunch break. “We chatted about nothing in particular. When you don’t have any reason to think that you won’t see each other again, you don’t say the things that really matter.” Salines didn’t ask her what she would be doing that evening. Amimour asks Salines to tell him more about Lola. The simplicity and ease with which these two fathers ask each other questions and listen to the answers is inspiring and very moving.

When Salines asks Amimour to try to tell him what could have led to Samy’s involvement in the atrocity at the Bataclan, Amimour remembers revealing details. Around the age of 15, Samy became more and more uncomfortable in the presence of his parents, non-practising Muslims. Amimour managed a bar in central Paris at the time, and he could feel his son’s disapproval. He refused a glass of beer his father gave him. “I could see a kind of hatred in his eyes.” Samy became interested in religion, following a Belgian imam who, Amimour later discovered, had links with a jihadist recruiting organisation. Then, Samy dropped out of university. One day, the son yelled at his father: “If your business isn’t doing well, Dad, it’s because you don’t pray enough.” For Amimour, “it was like a punch in the gut”. Salines asks if, as a child, Samy suffered from discrimination for being an Arab in France. “He never complained of being called a ‘dirty Arab’ or the like,” says his father. “He was surrounded by diversity and tolerance. We lived in a four-storey block where from one landing to the next you could find families of every origin – Moroccan, Algerian, Romanian, French, Portuguese.”

We Still Have Words is at its most powerful when both fathers tell each other their family stories: how they met their wives, how they became a family, each with three children. Both men are Mediterranean, Salines from Sète in the Pyrenees, Amimour from Annaba in Algeria; both are warm and share a very French fraternity despite the circumstances. Amimour worked hard all his life, first in the film industry, on Claude Chabrol films in the 1970s, ran bars in central Paris, owned clothes shops in Belgium, always travelling. “An absent father,” he concedes to Salines.

The book ends with letters from Amimour to Lola and from Salines to Samy. “Our life down here was the one that mattered, because it’s the only one there is. I feel sorry that you didn’t know this, sorry for you, and sorry that you did so much harm chasing after an illusion,” Salines writes, while Amimour tells Lola: “Your life was stolen from you by a murderous ideology… Did I fail in my job as a father? I thought I was giving my son a good upbringing… I’m so, so, sorry Lola… We must fight to make sure that this can never happen again.”

Agnès Poirier’s most recent book is Notre Dame: The Soul of Paris (Oneworld, £16.99)

We Still Have Words by Georges Salines and Azdyne Amimour, translated by Jonathan Hensher, is published by Scribner (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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