I've been working with a small team to prepare a report on the placement of mines in and outside of Kobane by ISIS. We were visiting a number of villages and their mala gal ("people's house"-like local councils) to prepare the report.
In the process we spent hours with the villagers who were helping us to compile the information. Right at the end of the day, as we were getting the last report a mine exploded in a distant village (unfortunately I took the picture too late as we were rushed for time and focusing on getting the details; and so the photo barely shows the last remnants of the cloud of smoke, which just a few seconds earlier had been a menacing streak stretching towards the sky).
A number of images flashed across my mind as we turned our heads to silently view the dark smoke rise. I thought of the old YPG de-miner who had lost both his hands while de-mining and the apt way he saved our numbers on his Iphone; or the sun-weathered hands of the handsome young YPG who worked with a team to remove mines every day and the fearless matter of fact way he spoke of the work he did, as if he planted harmless flowers rather then remove remnants of war and terror; I watched his hands intently as his fingers weaved into one another and I thought how those hands had saved so many lives- more than a doctor ever could. I remembered the kind middle aged man chatting cheerfully with us, as if the topic was not how many people had lost their lives due to mines; and as we waited he lightly toasted bread on top of a wooden heater, a simple lunch with simple people whose strength and kindness was immeasurable.
And suddenly, as he spoke and we huddled around the heater grateful to be out of the bitter cold, an intense feeling of shame and guilt made my heart clench so hard I had to look away. I was able to leave the village at the end of the day and go back to the relative luxuries of Europe. But for these people, for them, and their children this was their lives as European de-mining NGOs refuse to risk their staff getting to these villages.
Knowing these people, even for less than a day made my worry and sadness at the cloud of plume in the distance all that much more intense. The fact is, we naturally care more about the pain or loss of those we know. But this selective empathy becomes a problem when we produce institutions and laws and procedures that elevate selective empathy so that white bodies, white tears, white deaths are amplified, override and erase the large number of brown and black bodies that die every day. It becomes a problem when one white death is made equivalent to hundreds, if not thousands, of dead brown bodies.
I see my Middle Eastern friends grapple with feelings of anger and sadness at the tragedy that occured in France, as privileged and ignorant white people crucify them for their conflicting feelings. As brown bodies we are not entitled to own our feelings, not entitled to matter, not entitled to even live. We are only meant to die silently, and behave as orientalised, exoticised, infantilized masses even as we are slaughtered; our deaths a necessary, invisible means of continuing malignant empires built on the blood and bones of thousands and thousands of our people murdered, bombed and massacred.
What we are endlessly encouraged to do is remain ignorant of the institutionalisation of our worthlessness- our minds forever colonised- so as to produce unending solidarity with our oppressors.