Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Lassana Bathily, a French-speaking African-born Muslim, just 24, whom I met on his recent visit to Los Angeles.
It’s early Friday afternoon on Jan. 9, and Bathily is at work at the Hyper Cacher market in Paris, where he has been living since 2006. He’s in the basement inspecting a delivery. This is the job that saved his life. After years of limbo — much of it as an illegal immigrant living in fear of being deported — he’s finally found a home, working with Jews. Normally at this hour, he would be saying, “Shabbat shalom,” to his co-workers before heading out to say his Friday prayers at a nearby mosque.
But on this particular Friday, something broke the rhythm. As he was wrapping up for the week, he heard the sound of people rushing down the stairs to the basement. They were coming down so fast, they collided with a case of wine. A few bottles broke. Wine started to spill. He looked up and saw a dozen or more panicked customers. Some of them were familiar to him — one woman held a baby.
“Les terroristes sont là,” he heard a customer cry out. “The terrorists are here.”
He heard noises upstairs. It could have been gunfire; he wasn’t sure. He was thinking fast. He loved these people. They were the shoppers who kept the store in business — the store where he had this great job and where he felt so at home. And now, they were all in serious trouble.
The terrorists are here.”
It hadn’t been easy getting this job. A Muslim friend of a cousin had a longtime relationship with the store’s kosher meat supplier, and he’d been able to get Bathily an interview. When the people doing the hiring asked for his qualifications, he’d answered honestly: “I’ve never done this before,” he told them. “Try me and see if you like me.” Well, they did, and they liked him so much, they promoted him. Now, whenever supplies came in and had to be inspected, he was the man in charge.
On that Friday afternoon in the basement he knew so well, as a scene of terror unfolded upstairs and a group of panicked customers faced him, he was also the man in charge.
How did his life come to this improbable moment?
Who would think that during those long years of wandering through Paris, trying to be invisible, he would end up a central player in the biggest news story in the world? And that all those years of feeling so vulnerable would culminate in this moment of feeling so needed, with people looking to him to help them survive a life-or-death situation?
“How do I get them to safety?” was the only thought in his mind. Taking the service elevator and letting them out the back exit was out of the question. The terrorists would probably see them leaving.
There was only one place to hide them: the freezer.
Quietly, he shepherded the group inside as he turned off the lights and refrigeration. The baby was crying. He asked the mother to do her best to keep him quiet. He walked into the freezer with them and immediately called the police. There was no cell connection inside the freezer. He walked out and tried again. The police line was busy. He called a few times, but no luck.
That is when he called Dennis Mercier.
Mercier is the Frenchman who’d really changed Bathily’s life. France has a mentoring program through which people volunteer to help immigrants stay in the country. For years, Bathily had attended night schools and trade schools in the hope of building a life for himself. He studied mosaic tiling, and then plumbing, but without legal status, he couldn’t find work. He slept on the floor between the beds of two Muslim friends from Mali and ate sparingly. If his roommates had food, they would share it; if not, he drank water and went to sleep.
Mercier had volunteered to be his mentor. He was especially helpful after Bathily’s application for working status was declined. Mercier found an error in the dossier and arranged for an appeal. But on the day of Bathily’s hearing, Mercier was in Casablanca doing human-rights work, so he couldn’t be there to help. Instead, he had a law professor write out a statement that Bathily could read to the judge.
Three weeks later, in November 2010, Bathily read these long-awaited words on a registered letter: “Carte de séjour avec aucun delais,” authorizing “a work permit without any delay.” He couldn’t believe his good fortune. He called Mercier right away and read him the letter. Mercier couldn’t believe it either, so he asked Bathily to come over with the letter. He did. It was true. Bathily was now a free man in France — free to work and send money back to his mother and other family members in Mali. And, for the first time in a long time, he could walk the streets of Paris without fear of being stopped and deported.
When Bathily called Mercier on Jan. 9, he was desperate for help. He had to find his way out of the store. Whispering so he wouldn’t be heard, Bathily told his mentor what was going on and that he couldn’t get ahold of the police. Mercier quickly hung up and called the police, but he, too, couldn’t get through. So he went out on the street and flagged down a policeman. Within minutes of the call to Mercier, shrieking police sirens were the only sound anyone could hear.
Now the real ordeal began: What to do?
It didn’t feel safe for everyone to just stay in the freezer, all huddled up. Who knew how many terrorists might be upstairs? They could simply come down, maybe hear the baby crying, blow open the door and kill everyone. As Bathily discussed options with the group, a co-worker named Zari came down with a demand: The terrorist wanted the key to the main entrance so he could lock it. Bathily gave her the key, but noted one piece of good news: If the terrorist was using Zari to deliver messages, he was probably working alone.
A short while later, Zari returned with a second demand: The terrorist wanted everyone to come upstairs. Now it got complicated. There was no way Bathily would allow the 15 or so people he was hiding to go up, possibly to be slaughtered. But he knew, too, that he couldn’t just say no to a terrorist with guns, especially when the terrorist had warned Zari that he’d kill everyone upstairs if the people downstairs didn’t come up.
Bathily had been thinking about that terrorist since the ordeal began. This was just a few days after Islamic terrorists had gone on a rampage at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. So he figured the guy upstairs was probably a Muslim, like him.
That Charlie Hebdo attack was a big source of shame. Responding with violence to insults is not what Bathily was taught by his parents or by his Muslim teachers in the African village where he grew up. Of course, he was offended when someone insulted his prophet, but he believed violence was the wrong response. He’d learned that punishment was God’s domain, not man’s. How could fellow Muslims have strayed so far from that message?
In any event, the crisis was heating up, and a decision had to be made: Which hostages would go upstairs? Bathily decided to stay with the group, while two men volunteered to return with Zari. It wasn’t an easy call. The terrorist surely knew there were more hostages downstairs, but Bathily was hoping that these two would satisfy him for now and buy some time to plan their next move.
At this point, with the possibility that the terrorist might come down at any time and wreak havoc, Bathily didn’t see any choice: He had to make a run for it to let authorities know what was going on. A few hostages pleaded with him not to risk his life that way, but he left anyway.
He took the service elevator and prayed that the terrorist would not see him as he walked out. That was the second bit of great fortune in his life — the terrorist didn’t see him. He got out through the back exit. He was now outside, breathing the Parisian air, about to be greeted by police commandos who had no idea he was one of the good guys.
One of the commandos screamed at him to get his hands up, while another ordered him to get down on the ground. He tried to do both, awkwardly. He sensed that they might shoot him at any second. He was almost relieved when they handcuffed him. They kept him handcuffed for a good 90 minutes.
Meanwhile, he tried telling them what was going on inside, but because they couldn’t trust that he wasn’t one of the terrorists, he didn’t get very far. It was only after a co-worker from a second store identified him that the police began to listen to him.
By now, several hours into the ordeal, Bathily was finally able to give the police information they would need to eventually rescue the hostages. He provided a detailed layout of both floors of the market, right down to which windows were broken, as well as the crucial information that it was likely only one terrorist was inside.
It was a bittersweet ending after the hostages were rescued in a daring raid. Bathily learned that four hostages upstairs had been shot dead at the very beginning of the crisis, including his good buddy and co-worker Yohan Cohen. Bathily was disheartened when some of the upstairs hostages at first called him “un lache,” a coward, because they assumed he had run for safety and abandoned the others.
But when the hostages from downstairs showed up, their reaction was completely different. They embraced him and thanked him. Many of them were in tears. They all hugged. The ordeal was finally over, and his new life was about to begin.
The story of Lassana Bathily I’ve described here came directly from a conversation I had with him when he was in town to be honored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. As I reflected on his story, which touched me deeply, it struck me that during these days of Passover, when we look back on the Jews’ ancient story of liberation, Bathily’s story is also one of liberation — two liberations, in fact.
The first is the story of liberation we all heard about that was broadcast around the world — the story of a Muslim man who helped to liberate a group of Jews held hostage by a crazed gunman inside a kosher market.
The second story is less publicized and more personal. It’s Bathily’s own story, a tale of one man’s journey from an African village to a cosmopolitan city and his struggle to be accepted and build a life for himself. This was his liberation, and to reach it, Bathily needed the virtues of patience and perseverance and the help of guardian angels like Mercier.
He also needed a reverence for life. It’s true that life at any moment may be dark and unhappy, but life itself holds the promise of the deepest joy, no matter how deep the struggle. Bathily’s struggle to make it in a foreign city, and the simple joy he eventually found in his job, made him appreciate the very promise of life.
It was this appreciation that guided him on that infamous January day. Consider the contrast: While a terrorist was upstairs killing people, Bathily was downstairs trying to liberate them. He countered the worst human depravity with the highest level of nobility. He understood that nothing is more worthy of liberating than life itself.
But Bathily’s story holds another lesson of liberation — it’s the lesson of liberating ourselves from our own prejudices.
The “upstairs survivors” who initially called Bathily a coward did what many of us do in the heat of emotion — we react only to what we see. Shaken as they were by their ordeal, the survivors could see only an African Muslim who had escaped a hostage crisis, and they assumed he had abandoned his Jewish hostages.
It’s only when they looked beneath the surface and freed themselves from prejudices that they realized Bathily was a hero, not a coward.
How poignant that such a life lesson should express itself so clearly and metaphorically in one place. Here was the very visible stereotype of the violent Muslim terrorist on the main floor of a kosher market, while just below, on the lower floor, was the opposite — a quiet, religious Muslim man who was doing everything he could to save lives.
When I spoke to Bathily by phone a few days after meeting him, he was back in Paris, pondering his future. Right after that fateful day of Jan. 9, a petition to grant Bathily French citizenship was signed by more than 300,000 people and was immediately adopted by the French government.
He’s now on disability leave from the market, visiting with doctors to overcome the trauma of his experience. He said he misses the camaraderie of his beloved grocery store, which reopened with all new employees two months after the attack. The memories are too intense, he said, for him or any of his former colleagues to return to that same place.
As Bathily spoke, I heard party noises in the background. I thought about his newfound celebrity, and I hoped it wouldn’t go to his head and that people wouldn’t try to exploit him. I asked him whether he’d ever thought about working for an organization that promotes peace and coexistence among different religions.
His voice rose up against the background noises: “If you hear of such an organization,” he said to me in French, “please tell them I’m interested.”
I hope Lassana Bathily finds that organization and finds that new job. It would be one more step in his improbable journey of liberation.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at [email protected].