(Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)
"You are lucky to be in Paris at this time," says a friend phoning from New York. "Here, we are like rats in a box, going round and round."
In the past few weeks I have heard similar lamentations from friends in London and Berlin, not to mention Beirut and Tehran.
It must be the name of Paris that leads our interlocutors into imagining the rosy times that I am supposed to have in these dark and dreary days of the coronavirus pandemic in the City of Light.
The image they have of Paris is the one depicted by countess movies, novels and travelogues of a bubbling city dedicated to generating joy.
After all, Ernest Hemingway called it "a moving feast" while Henry Miller saw it as "an improvement on paradise". Iranian novelist Sadeq Hedayat believed Paris was the best place to live and die in. This was, perhaps, why he spent years there in exile before committing suicide.
Long distant admirers of Paris may conjure up images of the Latin Quarter, where scruffy intellectuals sat in cafes such as Deux Magots and Gymnase to plot revolution, always in distant lands as far away from themselves as possible.
It was in those cafes that the future Khmer Rouge plotted genocide in Cambodia and the spoiled offspring of rich Iranians planned a revolution that was to kill their fathers and drive them back into exile.
The City of Light, of course; but also the city of other delights both carnal and spiritual.
One remembers lazy afternoons spent discussing the fate of mankind and providing answers to non-existent existential questions, and warm evenings visiting exhibitions of structuralist paintings with no structure, rounding up all that at sunrise with a generous bowl of onion soup in the fruit and vegetable market in Les Halles.
Those were the days of Juliette Gréco, the underground Taboo Club, the red notes of Miles Davis and J.A. Clancier's poetry recitals.
Physically, Paris, the only grand capital city planned to appear grand is, indeed, a beautiful shell. But what makes it the Paris that everyone admires is not limited to grand boulevards, imperial edifices, Gothic churches and manicured gardens. Its soul is in its cafes, restaurants, theaters, cinemas, museums, exhibition halls, cabarets, night clubs, luxury shops and street markets.
These days, however, all of those are closed, pandemic obliges.
Parisians used every opportunity to launch a feast. Now, however, grim is the name of the game. Every year, the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveaux, the year's vintage wine from Burgundy, occasioned street feasts in November. This year, the great event wasn't even mentioned.
The streets are deserted and a night curfew that starts at 8 pm drives the few passersby running back home.
Because Paris apartments were always small and ill-quipped, Parisians spent as much of their lives as possible outside. Now, however, there is no outside. You are allowed to go out for a walk or to buy food, provided you have signed a lengthy authorization. Special police, sometimes chaperoned by heavily armed soldiers, roam around to check your "papers" without which you pay a heavy fine.
Having nowhere to go and nothing interesting to do, being in Paris these days feels like being in Moscow in the 1960s, when the only excitement was provided by rumors about the arrival of new supplies of potatoes or a one-day availability of hot chocolate in Cafe Pushkin.
Well, maybe the comparison with Soviet Moscow isn't quite apt.
A better comparison, perhaps, is with Beijing in the 1970s, with endless hordes of cyclists whizzing through the streets like hordes of locusts in my home province of Khuzestan. Today, in Paris you have an increasing number of cyclists pedaling to nowhere in all directions and, because the French don't have a culture of cycling, always threatening to knock down hapless pedestrians like me.
The joy of being in Paris these days also includes the legally enforced wearing of a muzzle which, the French being masters of euphemism, call "le masque" as if you were in a Venetian carnival.
As a result, everyone wears a muzzle, everyone, that is to say except the dogs, of which the French own more than 40 million. Ironically, at the start of the coronavirus scare, the government advised against wearing "le masque" and ordered the destruction of millions stocked up around the country.
Lucky Parisians, like me, have other delights waiting for them.
Television is saturated with coronavirus news with an endless number of "scientists", often with Greek or Latin descriptions of their specialty, appearing to tell us they don't know what is going on and, yet, they want us to do this or that.
The horde of scientists are often followed by the president, the prime minister and various other ministers, telling us they have decided to close the country on "scientific advice" on a virus about which they know nothing, for which they have no cure and aren't sure it can be curbed with a vaccine if and when we have the logistics to use it en masse.
To add spice, we learn that the president himself has caught the thing and that the prime minister is self-isolating to see whether or not he got it from his boss.
To sugarcoat the pill of lockdown, the French are constantly told that things are worse in Great Britain, not to mention the United States, where Donald Trump, hate-figure par excellence, is supposed to have encouraged the virus to splash its way across the continent.
Meanwhile, economic meltdown is looming, with GDP set to fall by 12 per cent and unemployment rate to double.
The roots of this unbelievable population control, something even Lenin could not dream of, may be found in the culture of dirgisme (overall control) that assumes the governments know best even when they admit they don't. Developed in the aftermath of World War II, that culture was mixed with the cult of science to project certainty as a tool of social control. Thus, we assume that if the government and the scientists say it, it is not only the best option but it is also true.
A government that says "I don't know what to do" loses all credibility. And a scientist who peddles doubt joins the philosophers' club.
No, friends! Our lot as temporary Parisians isn't any better than yours. The sky is the same color everywhere. The good news is that there may be someone up there that sees beyond our doubts and certainties.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.