Lost French generation: Family mourn convert who joined Isis

Lara Marlowe: Family and friends grieve for ‘the real Quentin’, not the fallen jihadi fighter

 

When they gathered in St Martin’s church in Sevran, northeast of Paris, to pay homage to 23-year-old Quentin Timothée Roy, the young French man’s family and friends said they would remember the cheerful, gentle young man they raised and grew up with – “the real Quentin” – not the Muslim convert who recently died in Syria, having enrolled in the ranks of Islamic State.

I first interviewed Quentin’s mother Véronique in November 2014. She asked me to identify family members by middle name only. Quentin had left for Syria in September, and Véronique was warned that Islamic State punished recruits for relatives’ media interviews. 

On January 15th, she received a WhatsApp message from a stranger, telling her Quentin was dead. “We want this Mass so his soul will rest in peace and so we will have peace,” Véronique (54) and her husband Thierry (56) told the parish priest, Fr Michel Picard. 

With Quentin’s elder brother Yannis (28) between them, the amputated family locked in an embrace while they read an excerpt from The King of Terrors, the 1910 sermon delivered in Westminster on the death of Edward VII. 

“Death is nothing at all/I have only slipped away into the next room . . . Whatever we were to each other/That we are still,” Quentin’s parents read. 

“Nothing will change,” Quentin had told them when he announced his conversion to Islam in 2012.

“Hey bro’, it’s time to say goodbye,” said Yannis, his voice breaking. He recalled complimenting Quentin on the smart suit he had bought on becoming a driver for Uber, shortly before he left for Syria. 

Quentin dropped out of sports training when he converted, donned an Arab khamis, and broke up with his pretty girlfriend.

“You asked us not to force you to choose between your family and your religion,” continued Yannis. “You said you cried every night in Syria when you thought about us. But we couldn’t pull you back.” 

Many of the 250 people crowded into the small church wept as Yannis spoke.  “Adieu,” he said. “I hope you’re at peace now.”

A large crucifix with an emaciated Christ hung above the altar. I couldn’t help thinking of the near daily crucifixions by Islamic State in Raqqa. I wondered what Quentin would think of the ceremony. 

On the night of November 13th, Véronique passed the Stade de France on the RER commuter train about the time three suicide bombers blew themselves up there. “Quentin?” she texted in panic. “Cou cou Maman” (Hi Mama), he replied the following morning. Far worse atrocities are visited on Muslims in Syria by western powers, claimed Quentin. The Paris attacks that killed 130 people were carried out in self defence, he said.

The altar in St Martin’s resembled the makeshift memorials on the scenes of Islamic State’s massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan: votive candles; a photograph of the deceased heading a football; Quentin’s childhood plush toy; and a Haitian flag, because Quentin’s father is a Haitian of mixed race.

Forgotten victims

The families of Islamic State recruits are ordinary, average French people, and the forgotten victims of the war in Syria. Véronique sells advertising for a lifestyle magazine. Thierry owns a small cosmetics company and plays in an amateur rock band. The relatives, friends and neighbours who came to grieve with them are of different ages, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. 

They represent a tormented France, grappling with an insidious, invisible force that explodes in sporadic bursts of violence. Islamic State is “stealing our children, draining our life force”, Véronique told me the first time I interviewed her. 

Some 2,000 French people have been recruited by Islamic State, said prime minister Manuel Valls said on January 27th. Six hundred are in Syria now. Another 154 have been killed there. Close to a quarter are converts, like Quentin.

Quentin’s godfather Gérard Antoine caressed the face on the photo-poster as he rose to speak. “Quentin was looking for truth, for something absolute. He burned his wings,” he said. “Let us pray for wars to end and for young people to stop dying. Things should not be like this.”

Quentin’s goddaughter Chloé, a frail, blonde 12-year-old, sobbed as she tried to play “Hallelujah” on the piano.  Quentin loved American pop and gospel music, until it became haram (sinful) for him.  So that is what they played at his memorial service. 

The ceremony made obvious how intensely Quentin was loved and cherished.  His conversion and departure remain a mystery, barely elucidated by his search for meaning, his permanent identification with the underdog.

As the ceremony ended, the congregation rose to sing Let it Be, then applauded. “You can leave offerings and we will say Mass to the memory of Quentin,” said the priest. The mourners lingered in the rain on the square outside while the bells of St Martin’s tolled for the town’s lost youth.

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