Some people belong to worlds that are small and limited to themselves, their immediate families, their work, and perhaps a few small social circles.
I almost envy people who have such small worlds.
My world is comprised of myself, my immediate family, my extended family, a small number of best friends, a very large number of friends and social media contacts, and then every man, woman, and child living in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
It is a burdensome world I live in.
Some people are even less fortunate than me. Their worlds are so large that they encompass everyone on planet Earth and beyond. People like that have so much empathy it makes you and me look like unfeeling zombies.
I have been considering all this over the past few days. Why is it that, while I sit safely in my home in the UK, I can feel so down about everything happening in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, and Syria? When bad things happen there, it is as if they are happening to my own family. No. It’s not “as if”. It is happening to my own family.
A few days ago I attempted to start a small creative writing project. I began writing about a woman who finds herself dead in a dark grave. It takes her awhile to gather her thoughts. Her head hurts. She almost immediately starts to think about her children. She lovingly tells us a bit about each one. And slowly it all comes back to her. In one group of paragraphs the woman is Palestinian, killed at home by an Israeli bomb while she gathered her children under her arms to protect them. In another set of paragraphs she is an Iraqi mother whose children watched in horror while she was raped then battered to death. In a third set of paragraphs the woman is a Syrian mother who died on a smuggler’s boat from hunger and sheer despair after having watched two of her younger children quietly pass into oblivion. I never got as far as writing all those paragraphs. I was physically incapable of getting that far. I put myself in the shoes of the first mother, an Egyptian woman not very different from me, who was shot while sitting in her car by thugs wanting the money in her purse. This is something that actually happened to the sister of a former work colleague of mine. I put myself in that mother’s shoes and felt so much anguish that I could not bear to continue to write. I could not possibly write about the other mothers. I would not have been able to hold myself together.
I’ve been wondering what it was in my upbringing that made me feel so close to other Arabs. I cannot remember a time, for example, when I haven’t been aware and passionate about the situation in Palestine. There are images in my head of watching the news from Palestine with my father in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps I noticed how important that news was to him. Perhaps I asked him to explain it all to me and I absorbed the passion he felt. Palestine was always so close to me that it was in my dreams. As a child, I would have nightmares about being bombarded by Israeli shells. I was all the little Palestinian children.
Now I am all the Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi mothers.
It is overwhelming.
When I was tweeting the Egyptian 2011 Revolution, I was followed by people from all over the world. Some of them interacted with me, making sure I was safe at the end of each day. A few of them have continued to keep in touch with me until this day, reading almost every blog post and becoming close online friends that I am certain I will be fortunate enough to meet some day soon. They are not Egyptians. They are not Arabs. They are not Muslims. Yet these people had worlds so large that I was a natural part of them. These people had so much empathy that they had the ability to embrace my much smaller world into their much larger one.
I am not as good as they are at encompassing others into my own world. I scan through the daily news and have a general idea about what is happening. But it is too much for me to know the details. I cannot read the personal stories. I would not dream of getting in touch with an anguished mother. I was not even able to use my simplistic writing skills to tell a murdered mother’s story.
I feel so helpless. I cannot protect the children. I cannot protect the mothers. I cannot even console them. All I can do is to feel them and to carry their anguish inside me. And it is absolutely overwhelming.
You write with a beauty of words and feeling that is tangible. I feel your words–I empathize. As I sit here thousands of miles away, I am drawn to the idea of a small world view and the choice to have empathy for others. Should not the empathy you choose to experience extend beyond the Arab world you so beautifully articulate? The pain and anguish being felt, first-hand, in Gaza and in Israel by so many innocent people is inclusive of many beliefs, nationalities, faces, names and lives. There are many at fault in the bloodshed and empathy is the first-step in seeking to understand and resolve differences that lead to the terrors of war. But empathy should be experienced beyond the borders of nationalistic ideology or limited — filtered through a person’s own religious and belief system. If my empathy is exclusive and restricted–a small world view–will not my capacity to understand also be limited? Empathy for all is what the world needs to grasp and hold–empathy for others, not just their own…a larger, more inclusive world view may help where empathy can be a path to peace. Namaste and blessings to you…
Very moved by your piece and by the horrific story that unfolds before all of our eyes on TV screens right now…