Ilan Halimi’s Tortured Ghost Will Continue Haunting France
In the final part of Tablet’s series on French anti-Semitism, echoes and paradoxes of a gruesome murder
The trap that would lead to the abduction, torture, and murder of Ilan Halimi was set in the winter of 2006 on Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, a few blocks from where I live. In the months prior, kids from one of the toughest cités, Bagneux—who called themselves, Clockwork Orange-style, “the gang of the Barbarians”—had repeatedly tried to abduct people for ransom. Led by a 27-year-old first offender named Youssouf Fofana, the fifth child of Ivory Cost migrants, the gang members were between 16 to 26 years old and ethnically diverse. They set up their prospective victims in a particular way: A girl, selected by Fofana, would get in touch with some man for a date and ask him to bring her back into the suburb after their appointment. As a diversion for the cops, the youngest members of the gang would set fire to a car, while the others would jump on the potential victim.
So far, though, their method had spectacularly failed: All the targets, most of whom had Jewish names, had either foreseen the trap or escaped. In one almost successful attempt—which ended after the gang apparently panicked—the victim, Mickaël D., was found handcuffed and swimming in his own blood and told the police that his aggressors had called him “kike” and “dirty Jew.” Fofana had also tried to blackmail doctors by sending his pawns to ask for fraudulent sick leave. All those doctors were also Jews. And he had sent anonymous threat letters or Molotov cocktails to public figures—the president of Doctors Without Borders, Rony Brauman; Jérôme Clément, director of the French cultural channel Arte; lawyer Joseph Cohen-Saban among others, all of whom were Jewish. All these plots had failed, too.
But persistence is the key to success. In January 2006, under the assumption that had driven Fofana from the start, and that he repeatedly stated at his trial three years later—namely, that “all Jews are rich”—he and some of his gang started to pace the Boulevard Voltaire, looking for “Jewish stores.”
It came down to “Emma the bait,” a k a Yalda, to pick up the victim. The daughter of an Iranian nurse and political refugee, Sorour Arbabzadeh was 17, beautiful, and fleshy. Although obviously smart, she also was still in the 10th grade. In France since 1999, after the death of her father—a violent man, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, who had married her mother by force and reportedly beat Sorour during most of her childhood—she was raped two years later, at 14, by three teenagers of the cité. (A complaint filed by the mother against the boys at the time was soon withdrawn, possibly under pressure of the neighborhood.) The battalion of juvenile court judges, trained caregivers, and social workers who’d followed the girl since then had been unable to prevent her from multiple suicidal attempts.
Sorour, the trial showed, was brought into the gang by Tiffen, a semi-homeless young woman of 20, who was born in Brittany to a Catholic family and then converted to Islam at 15. Out of her devotion to Fofana, Tiffen had found some targets for the kidnappings in the cité for him—some of them among her own friends—but she lacked confidence to play the vamp part and had suggested Sorour instead. In a blink, Fofana was convinced. “I can do marvels with you,” he is reported to have said to Sorour the minute they met.
Immature, manipulative, and manipulated both, Sorour said she accepted Fofana’s proposal to be used as a honey trap as “a favor to him” only—and against the promise of a reward of 3,000 to 5,000 euros. Whether she’d become Fofana’s sexual partner in the meantime, or the girlfriend of some of the other gang members, or both, is unclear to this day (she denies it). Two years after the facts in 2008, while waiting for the trial in jail, she wrote a letter of apology to the victim’s family. In 2009, after the verdict that sentenced her to nine years, she tried to kill herself again, three times. One year later in 2010, Florent Gonçalvez, the director of the prison she was jailed in, was forced to resign, along with a guard, for having fallen in love with her—and giving her preferential treatment.
On Jan. 16, 2006, Sorour entered a cellphone store on the Boulevard Voltaire, where she flirted with a 22-year-old clerk named Ilan Halimi. One hour after the young man gave her his number, she called him to fix a date for a drink four days later, on the 20th at 10 p.m., in the inner south suburb. “He’s nice,” she confided to Tiffen after hanging up, “he’s cute.”
The 20th was a Friday. “It was Sabbath! Sabbath!” Ilan’s mother, Ruth Halimi, told me. A small but strong and maternal woman of Moroccan origins, she has managed to keep her strength and dignity through the whole ordeal thanks, she says, to the comfort of her religion and the support of the Jewish community. (Ruth Halimi has been employed at the Council of Jewish Organizations in Paris for the last 22 years.) “I’m furious with Ilan to this day!” she said, before adding, “Do not get me wrong, he was a great, great kid. He was amazing, the pillar of the house. He played the father role with his sisters since I divorced, a very responsible young man. But I was already pulling my hair out because of this Chinese girlfriend he got. So, what did he need to see this other one for? A Muslim? And a Friday night on top of it?” Well, he was 22.
The said day, he met his new acquaintance for a drink at the Paris-Orléans, one of those gray, anonymous cafés where the ground is strewn with cigarette butts and race tickets and migrant workers from the old generation watch TV. She said she lived alone, offered that he bring her back home. When she arrived, to the gang hidden nearby she gave the proper signal, which was to look in her purse for her keys.
Some months later, after Ilan had been found walking on a railway line, naked and handcuffed, three times wounded by a knife and with two-thirds of his body covered in third-degree burns (he died a few hours after his transportation to the hospital), Sorour told the cops that she heard his shrill voice cry for two minutes as he resisted the gang members who were trying to lock him up in a car trunk. (Students in an adjacent street also saw him from afar, struggling as he was taken by the arms and legs. Because of the high pitch of his cries, they say they took him for a girl playing a joke, and thought of a joke and didn’t call the cops—they would’ve come too late, if ever, anyway.) In tears after the car took off, Sorour found comfort in the kind words of Maurice, another one of the gang members—a computer engineer from Martinique who also had converted to Islam. “This is not your fault,” he told her. “This is all over anyway.”
A bit later that same evening Fofana invited the two of them plus Sorour’s boyfriend Sami—an apprentice model she’d recently met on the Internet—to a cheap restaurant in Montparnasse to celebrate. She had an ice cream. Fofana also offered Sorour and Sami a 109-euro three-star hotel room nearby for the night. Not exactly the 5,000 promised but a good, relaxing time nonetheless. And she did get pregnant that night. So, she spent three weeks—the whole three weeks during which Ilan Halimi was wrapped in tape from foot to head with only a hole left for him to breathe (“He looked like a mummy,” said one of his jailers to the police afterward), nourished with a straw only and left on the ground, first in an empty unheated apartment of the cité, then in the building’s boiler room, which was even colder, untied only to be taken to the toilet, and beaten and burned with cigarette butts out of Fofana’s frustration, since, despite threats and pressure, “the Jews” did not pay—those weeks during which he saw his situation worsen once in the boiler room because then he could only piss in a bottle and defecate in a plastic bag, which infuriated the jailer who had to hold the bag for him and beat him for it—those weeks at the end of which he was cleaned up with cheap soap and water first, and then with acid, because his jailers, inspired by a TV series, thought acid would erase any traces of their DNA, then beaten again, handcuffed, and, put naked in a pair of sheets, was taken out of the building and into the woods only to be stabbed and burned alive by Fofana—those weeks during which the Halimi family was harassed on the phone and the police were at a loss, and every newspaper in the country wondered who the gang of the Barbarians could be—Sorour spent them with one question only (as her text messages to Tiffen indicate): Should she break up with Sami, call Maurice whom she had fallen in love with, and maybe get an abortion in passing, or should she stay with Sami and have his baby?
Steven Salaita’s case isn’t about free speech. It’s about common sense, and the rightful consequences of bigotry and violence.