Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Relearning how to walk

"Limping is in the mind." 

This was one of my physical therapist's pronouncements earlier this month. 

I find physical therapy a deeply frustrating process. Progress is slow, so slow that it is impossible to tell the difference from one session to the next, requiring that you keep showing up only on the faith that 'this' is helping. 

I am re-learning how to walk. Having no memory of the first time I learned how to walk, given that I was about a year and a half old and such a chubby baby that I took longer than my peers to conquer this milestone, this is an unnatural process the second time around. The physical capabilities are slowly returning: I can lean on my left ankle and foot without wincing in pain. I have left the orthopedic boot behind, and I spent a whole afternoon on my knees scrubbing the grey-ish, rubbery marks that my days on crutches had imprinted on our wood floors. 

But, I am told, limping is in the mind.

I remember that in the middle of December, I could think of no greater freedom than being able to walk barefoot to the kitchen (this coming from a Greek woman whose mother irrationally but effectively drilled into her head that she can't ever ever walk barefoot lest she contract some unidentified uterine pain from such activities). I longed for the freedom of bare feet, for not having to plan my every step methodically. For not assessing whether the patch of snow on which I was about to steady my crutches hid ice underneath it. I also longed for vanity: for pretty shoes that matched, for suits and heels, as opposed to suits and a grey astronaut-like boot that, at best, made me look half like a bionic superhero and half like a stocky, wobbly young professional. I longed for things I do not wish for now that I am mobile and not entirely dependent on everyone around me to fetch me a glass of water.

The return of the barefoot days (and sea breeze).
When the first barefoot day came, I was elated. It did not matter that my broken side had atrophied to the point that my foot was tiny and limp, or that I was under strong advisement to "take no more than 1,000 steps a day." 1,000 steps were better than 1,000 crutch hops or 1,000 wobbly orthopedic boot limps, and I was determined to cherish each one. It almost felt like showing off: "Look at me, I can walk to the coffee maker! (and none of you have to walk behind me to carry my coffee back to my desk for me while I crutch along.)" My demonstration of my newly re-acquired skill was met with exclamations that I'm sure my younger, chubbier self got when she first started walking: "Lookatyou! Walking on your feet!"


I did not notice the limping at first. I am sure everyone else did, but like me, they were too excited to see me regain a level of mobility that was unattainable during earlier stages of recovery. I first started noticing when crossing the street. Cars would fail to slow down because I crossed the street more slowly than the driver expected when she or he looked at a twenty-something girl standing at the edge of a crosswalk.

Strikingly like the grief I have also been battling in the past few months, losing the boot and crutches meant I lost all visible injury -- rendering the quieter, more invisible forms of hurting difficult to navigate.

Limping is in the mind, I am told. I have spent hours in the past month wiggling my toes and flexing my calf next to football players and marathon runners, with me being the least athletic person in the room. I overhear their conversations about plays and training routines and girls, all the while re-learning how to stretch and balance and pick up little glass pebbles with my toes so they can remember how to curl again. The physical injury is increasingly a relic of the past, but the mind is harder to recover. As it turns out, one's brain can get used to the adjusted forms of walking -- the limping and wobbling. This mental rewiring, the adaptation itself, can become the new normal and, to shake the limp, I need to think without it. Or so I am told.

My freshest memory of walking is a limped walk, with one foot dragging slightly behind the other, one hip doing more work than its counterpart, one part of the body carrying more weight. Much as I try, I cannot shift my mental wiring in a way that redistributes my body weight and allows me to walk as I did before. So my best bet, my only one now really, is to learn anew.

I do not limp when I walk slowly. Thus has commenced a new era of strolling, a pace frowned upon by New Englanders who praise efficiency and resent the frigid climate alike. I notice everything now: the buds on trees, the longer light, the shrinking piles of ice on the sidewalk. The walk to the library that previously took 12 minutes from my house now takes 27. The mile from my office to my home took 57 minutes on what felt like the warmest day of 2014 so far. I can credit not only my limp for the delay but also every friend I encountered along the way, and the conversations at street corners that ensued, punctuated by our marvel that it was, at last, warm enough to stop for a few moments and chat on a corner. I may not remember what it was like to walk before the fall of 2013 and its debacles, but relearning comes with its own exhilaration.

I do not remember what the pre-grief era felt like. I have spent the past decade steeped in successive losses, mourning followed by coping followed by more mourning, followed by a familiar recognition of the patterns and cycles of grief -- a recognition that, unfortunately, brings little solace. One of the major milestones in this process of navigating grief has been not being defined by the limping - not letting the loss and the gaping holes it left behind puncture the entire narrative. Yet, as I have realized lately, there are few aspects in my life that are impermeable by it. Grief has colored the way I see.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the process of re-learning how to walk, only to discover that I simply need to scrap the pressures of memory and learn anew, slowly. I do not remember what it was like to live without grief -- it was too long ago and too definitive a series of losses to undo. I have spent the past decade attempting to fight the small pangs of pain that strike in moments when grief resurfaces: at graduations, when others' families gather together to celebrate, or at my loved ones' family dinners, where seemingly endless streams of parents and uncles have inside jokes from years of living alongside one another. As far as grief is concerned, I always did think that limping is in the mind -- that I could train myself to not be in pain, that I could manage it if I could just teach myself how to walk again.

Increasingly, though, I am making my peace with the limping, with the lack of memory of a grief-less period. I am making peace with the idea that learning how to walk again, in life and in the shoes of grief alike, may not be a recovery that looks like my pre-injury self. I am making some slow, wobbly, fragile peace with a new gait that carries the weight, however unevenly, of the losses I have suffered.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Self-reflection and failure in academia

On Friday, Nicholas Kristof published a column titled "Professors, we need you!," in which he argued for the need to make research more accessible and relevant to the general public. While his point on relatable, open research is well-taken, Kristof drew heat from a rank of academics who have been attempting to make their fields more accessible than they have been for decades. One of the more salient critiques, titled "Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!" is at the Washington Post, while others are available at Duck of Minerva and the incredibly titled Mischiefs of Faction. The response that most resonated with me is by Erica Chenoweth at Political Violence at a Glance.

I agree with the critics who have pointed out that Kristof has not acknowledged some of the steps social/political science have taken to relay their research and findings to the general public, but I still think there is room for self-reflection on academic conversations in slightly different terms than the ones in which Kristof casts the issue. On the same day as Kristof published his column, I attended Unlearning Violence, a World Peace Foundation conference on early childhood development, conflict, and peace, drawing together scholars and practitioners from the fields of social science, education, neuroscience, humanitarian policy and more. A Storified list of tweets is available here.

One of the narrative arcs underpinning Unlearning Violence was the acknowledgment that we need to scrutinize how we learn as scholars of violence. Being honest about our failures is a critical part of the collective process of learning. Failures abound: Failed hypotheses about how people survive armed conflict and its aftermath, failed assumptions about which interventions may work, failed interventions, practices that blur the boundaries of the "do no harm" approach that we seek to embrace. One of the panelists spurred some of the most stimulating debate of the whole conference by asking: Where do we read about those failures?

Sure, there is Admitting Failure, a terrific website to "encourage new levels of transparency, collaboration and innovation across the for-purpose sector." There are the conversations we have with fellow scholars and practitioners about what we thought may have worked, but didn't. And there is the private sector, in which - as another panelist stipulated - there is some room to be honest about failure. But our journals, our scholarly writing, are largely centered on successful findings. Telling the stories of what did work, preferably at a certain statistical significance level, often drowns out the narratives of our failure. Interestingly enough, as any humanitarian practitioner or researcher on Twitter can attest, there is no shortage of critique or scrutiny in our field. Yet, as a different panelist noted, there are deeply entrenched reasons for the frequent omission of narratives of failure in academic research. Quite often, continued donor funding depends on being able to show successes. Reputational issues in tenure processes and the publication race also influence the process.

All this to say: Even if we grant that Kristof is wrong in assuming the scholarly world is still opaque to those who do not identify as academics, there are still questions about what the conversations actually look like, whether they occur in the 'Ivory Tower' or in the public domain. To begin with, making our research relatable cannot stop with publishing a paper, as Theresa Betancourt noted at Unlearning Violence. Building the types of relationships that allow us to identify key stakeholders at our research sites is crucial for then relaying that research to them and thinking of ways to make the research useful to the people at the heart of it. Furthermore, being honest about our failures -- both our failed assumptions and our failed approaches -- is important, particularly if we can carve out some more space in which to openly and candidly discuss these failings. As panelist Michael Wessells asked, "do we build the skills of ethical reflection among humanitarian practitioners and researchers?" And as audience members added, do we carve out the space for the discussions that may flow from this reflection? This may require setting aside our 'expert' identities, which are often out-of-step with the realities of researching violence. As Wessells asked: "Who can claim to be an expert in a war zone? We don't live there [most of the time]. We are all students. That's the attitude we need."

Kristof may have miscast the issue of the role of academics in policy, politics, and broader social conversations and, in doing so, ignored the many scholars who work hard to foster a public conversation and make their research relatable. That said, questions still remain about the nature and openness of that conversation and the institutional and professional prescriptions that limit what we do (not) discuss. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Healing and failing expectations of sunniness

This is the second post in a series of reflections on grief, inspired by recent loss, injury, and an abundance of pain. Part I is available here.

"I'm sure you are starting to feel better… aren't you?" 

"Look at you! You are getting so good on your crutches!" 

"Are you… feeling happier yet?"

Forty days after the death of a loved one in Greece, we conduct a service called μνημόσυνο -- a 'mnemosyne'. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was a titaness who was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, quite literally the daughter of Earth and Sky. At a mnemosyne, we remember the person we lost and begin to let go of a layer of the grief. In traditional circles, mourners wear black until that first mnemosyne, 40 days after the loss. For some, that is the permissible return of color into life. For others, particularly in rural areas, it is not unusual to wear black and keep the grieving rituals for a full year.

Well-versed in the traditions of my homeland as I may be, I am not sure how we decided forty days is the appropriate time to mourn and that the 41st ought to mark the beginning of letting go. And yet, I do know that in every period of grief I have survived until now, it is around that seemingly arbitrary 40-day mark that something starts to shift inside. The pain does not magically evaporate, nor does memory. After all, the word 'mnemosyne' refers to the personification of memory. But something little cracks, rearranges itself, propelling you into the next stage of recovery. 

What happens when that next stage of recovery is not the 'healing' you and everyone around you expected? 
In my professional sphere of conflict management and transitional justice, 'healing' is a charged term, right alongside 'reconciliation'. Some, like Martha Minnow, have acknowledged that 'healing' may be "an absurd or even obscene" notion to impose as a requirement for survivors and victims of violence, and others, such as Miriam Aukerman, have concluded that "transitional justice can strive for at least enough forgiveness, reconciliation, or healing to make coexistence possible." While I can wrap my mind around both their arguments, I have to ask: What is enough? And how do we know that this level of sufficiency has been met? How do we know we, as individuals or communities, whether in the realm of conflict and violence or outside of it, have healed enough? How do we know others have healed? When can we pronounce ourselves healed? And what about the un-healable pieces that linger after the spotlight has moved on?
Shifting from the transitional justice realm to the personal one, Cheryl Strayed tackles that question of 'sufficient healing' and the expectations others have of our own recovery after loss in an essay about everything from sex to mourning. She writes:
"We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to "let go of," to "move on from," and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, hospital workers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was alarmed by how many people knew them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only was I supposed to feel these five things, I was meant to feel them in that order and for a prescribed amount of time."
There is an impatience to the process of recovery from grief and its emotional bruises or even from physical ailments. Some of it is our own; it is self-imposed impatience, and there is a degree of needing to give ourselves permission to not be well -- as my beloved friend Erin puts it, permission to just "lie in the mud." But some of it is social impatience, born out of an eagerness on the part of our loved ones to see our pain subside, taking with it our fragmented pieces and returning us to the world with wholeness. They want us to lose the crutches, they want us to wear bright teal instead of black, they want us to behave in ways they do not associate with mourning. 

I am a teal and sunshine and rainbows kind of person, the kind some would scowl at in New York City because she's smiling on the subway. Failing those social expectations of a timely recovery, arbitrary as the time frame may be, breeds a little extra impatience. It is the holiday season and the whole world smells like gingerbread, twinkling lights, and jingles. There is a heightened degree of dissonance to not being able to match the sunniness around me, both because my own state of grief and pain is seemingly out of pace with the universe and because it is out of pace with the typically sunny disposition of my ungrieving self. 
As I slide on sheets of ice on the sidewalk on my crutches, I am tempted to think to myself that "this would all be easier in the spring," but then I realize there is never a good time for pain or grief or loss -- other than "not now." I am also tempted to think that 'this' would all be easier if it were 'just' my broken bones, or 'just' the loved one's grave illness, or 'just' grief for my lost family, or 'just' another blue holiday season, as opposed to one stacked on top of the other simultaneously like a messy mille-feuille dessert. When I ask friends about their engagements or homework or their time at the gym or their fatigue, they look at me with guilt, as though none of those stories are worth sharing in light of the mind-numbing cocktail of pain in my own life. Layered misfortune stuns conversation into silence.

Over time in my work in conflict-affected areas, I have witnessed the dangers of creating hierarchies of suffering, of privileging some pain over other, of placing experiences of injustice on a ladder, rendering some of them more worthy of attention or sympathy than the next. I insist on remembering that when contemplating personal suffering outside war zones. My trauma does not trump yours. There is no trumping because there is no winning. Simply put, there are no prizes for most scarred -- so tell me about the engagements and the stressful homework and your worry that you are getting fat and your loneliness. They are allowed to exist alongside mine.

Cheryl Strayed, in the same essay I quoted earlier, disagrees. She contests:
"After my mother died, everyone I knew wanted to tell me either about the worst breakup they'd had or all the people they'd known who'd died. I listened to a long, traumatic story about a girlfriend who suddenly moved to Ohio, and to stories of grandfathers and old friends and people who lived down the block who were no longer among us. Rarely was this helpful. 
And there is a difference. Dying is not your girlfriend moving to Ohio. Grief is not the day after your neighbor's funeral, when you felt extremely blue. It is impolite to make this distinction. We act as if all losses are equal. It is un-American to behave otherwise: we live in a democracy of sorrow. Every emotion is validated and judged to be true as any other. But what does this do to us: this refusal to quantify love, loss, grief?"
I like to think that this is what the refusal to quantify love, loss, grief does to us: It makes us empathetic. It makes us keenly aware of the abundance of pain in our world, of loss in all its forms and suffering with all its faces. It reminds us that we are not hurting alone, that our pain may be unique to our circumstances in ways that only we alone can know, but that Pain at large is a shared, recognized, recognizable emotion. The shared experience of loss is, in itself, paradoxically, part of the fabric that connects one life to the next. We do not all hurt equally all the time -- nor do we need to. This need not be a meritocracy of pain. We do not need to earn the right to our mourning, we need not live, as Strayed puts it, "in a democracy of sorrow." But given the choice to grieve at the top rung of a ladder of pain or in a shared community of loss, I know I'd choose the latter.
I am not 'better' 'yet.' I have not healed. Sometimes the healing itself, from my broken bones to the grave illness to the lost family, is so imperceptibly slow that I am not sure it is happening at all. When I venture online and am confronted with images of happy families with at least ten people who are related to each other sitting around a table and a pile of presents, I feel a tinge of envy, as though the universe deprived me of the ability to ever take that photo with myself in it. When I stumble upon a "10 resolutions to make for 2014" listicle online, inevitably involving eating more vegetables and being more mindful, I groan because I cannot muster thoughtful reflection right now. I cannot dream up a year because my whole energy is channelled to dreaming up the day that just dawned, starting with gathering the courage to get out of bed and facing. It is when you say this out loud that you can feel yourself failing social expectations of sunniness and recovery. 

I am not in constant pain any more, nor am I so overwhelmed by shock that I cannot get out of bed in the morning each morning. But I cannot pronounce myself healed and happy and whole yet, much as I wish to reassure everyone around me. So I long to carve out an in-between space of grief and recovery, a space in which the suffering is not so loud that it obliterates everything around it with its sheer weight but is also not so distant in the past that you feel you can get through the day unaccompanied by pain. 

It seems that such a space does not come easily in this world on December 29th. The expectation is that we reflect and rejoice, dream up resolutions, pop the champagne. Count our blessings. And it is in this light that failing others' expectations of sunniness, or even our own, becomes especially harsh.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

When grief becomes the teacher

My world is rife with loss right now. From a broken foot and ankle to a family emergency to the memories of grief revisited, I am swimming in pain.  In no particular order -- because that is what grief does to me, it disrupts order and my capacity for it -- here are some of the lessons that have emerged from the past month, written with the awareness that there may not be lessons at all in these processes, with the acknowledgment that perhaps we look for lessons so we can hold on to our faith that there is something to be learned, something salvageable to all this. 

"The art of losing isn't hard to master," claims Elizabeth Bishop in her famous poem One Art.

What she quietly neglects to share is that there are no prizes for the mastery of grief and loss.

I once heard someone describe Joan Didion, one of my favorite authors, as "the high priestess of grief." I remember thinking to myself, "what a dubious title! Would anyone really want that 'honor?'" And after developing my own little corner of expertise in the art of loss, I have learned that having mastered the art of loss, in the ways that would inspire Bishop to write poems about, still leaves one entirely naked in the face of it. There is no excellence in grief. All that the mastery of grief affords you is a recognition that you have been here before. You recognize this space. Its rhythms feel familiar to you, but that familiarity does not shelter you from their impact.
In the ears of some, 'grief' is a term of art that exclusively refers to death. Yet, as my community navigates the effects of the symptoms of loss, I wonder whether grief might be a relevant concept for non-fatal losses too: the loss of a job, a cherished relationship, a dream, a particular vision of life. Or even to that memory of loss that still strikes years after the funeral, after the initial cycle of grief is complete and you have walked along the path to healing. And if one were to embrace this expanded conception of grief, then my world is aching with loss right now.

That is one of my newest lessons in grief: It comes in patterns. I'm not sure if we construct these patterns out of a need to make sense of the non-sensical, or if experiencing loss prompts us to be more aware of the losses others have suffered, but it feels as though we are hurting collectively right now... as a community, nursing everything from funerals to broken feet and broken hearts. We are wobbling alongside each other as we move slowly from numbness to anger to acceptance -- to the rest of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' typology of grief. Perhaps we make up typologies because we feel a need for them -- we need the reassurance that "this" is intelligible, that someone else has been through it, and that there are recognizable stages that we will, almost inevitably, move through -- that there is a logic to this madness that appears non-linear and our experience, too, falls within it.
I try to recall the last non-aching memory, the last time I was standing on two feet and nothing hurt, the last time my world felt at balance and at peace. I know it was not too long ago, and yet I cannot picture it. Pain makes it hard to remember there ever was a period without it.
We revert to our earlier wounded selves when grieving. I had to learn lessons of loss at a very young age, and then again really learn them during my senior year of college. They are crystallized in a single memory: Me sitting on top of a washing machine in the basement of Adams House. In the washer were the clothes I was going to pack for the funeral and across from it, against a dryer, was my friend Cooper, silent, not uttering what all of us were thinking then: Why is this happening again? How much loss can one life sustain? It has been years since that moment. The funeral came and went, I graduated, I moved to Washington DC for a brief second, I moved to Egypt, and then Uganda, and then Sudan, and then Colombia, and then and then and then, and somewhere along the lines I learned that life can sustain a lot of loss. Just as we might think we have run out of resilience, we stumble upon a depository of strength of whose existence we were previously unaware. We carry on, and there is an exhilaration that kicks in -- a sheer exhilaration to be able to pull ourselves out of bed and face the world another day.

Since that moment atop the washer in the basement of Adams, there have been moments of healing and moments of grief-- mine, that of others, the memory of grief, new losses. Every time, every single time loss pays me a visit, I revert to that girl. I become my 20-year-old self, sitting on top of scrunched up dryer sheets in a room too hot and too humid, bracing herself for impact.

The numbness sets in soon after. There is an unexpected mental clarity to loss, propelled forward by the inability to generate any more emotion. As I cycle through those motions again, I do it with the confidence that I have been here before, on top of the washer. I am no stranger to the numbness. I sit atop the washer in my head now, confident that the feelings will come again.
Even when surrounded by conflict practitioners who reflect on loss of human life on a regular basis, I realize that we do not quite know how to talk about grief. We do not know how to sit with the discomfort of someone else's helplessness or tears. At times in the past month, I have felt an unreasonable--and entirely self-imposed--responsibility to reassure everyone who seeks to help that I am okay. I find myself comforting those who wish to comfort me. Every time I tell the story of 'what happened', I feel its weight on me. As a researcher and humanitarian practitioner in conflict areas, I have read countless books on the retraumatization that may occur when victims or survivors of violence recount stories of trauma. My circumstances are different and so is the scale of my pain, but I feel compelled to print T-shirts to save myself yet another retelling of the story.

It does not feel fair to me to expect others to magically intuit what kind of compassionate care would resonate with me in my moments of pain and grief -- so I am trying to articulate my needs and it boils down to this: I need to feel whole. I need to feel agency, in moments when seemingly, in the face of the universe's sense of humor, I have none. I need that semblance of normalcy.

It, further, does not feel fair to feel a responsibility to sunniness itself. I am, at heart, an unbridled optimist, but I have no sunniness to supply at the moment. Fundamentally, this has been a time of reflecting on permission: giving myself permission to say I am not okay when asked, to share that which hurts instead of the reassurance that it will not hurt a month or a year from now.
I keep returning to that Leonard Cohen Song: "There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Last night, two friends from my international law study group carried me up their icy front stairs so I don't fall off my crutches. I have been bathed this month, physically lifted in and out of bathtubs. I have been carried up flights upon flights of stairs. Friends have shielded my head from the staircase corner as I scoot up it on my butt. There have been more hugs than I can count, and more offers of rides and food than I could possibly need. 

My instinct is to feel guilty -- guilty for absorbing so much of this world's goodness, for not being able to immediately reciprocate these massive feats of kindness. And, in the same breath, I try to quieten the guilt and replace it with gratitude. 

These are my lessons: We have no obligation to be graceful in grief or patient with pain. We may forget what comfort and stability felt like, what anticipation looks like, what mindful presence really is -- because that is how grief functions: it erases our ability to experience an array of emotions, it rearranges our internal worlds into an incoherent narrative. We may not be able to muster optimism. We may feel a need to comfort those who seek to comfort us. We may bump up against our own limits, physical and emotional, in ways that invite endless frustration. But the biggest lesson of them all has been this: to shed the guilt, to let the gratitude inspire humility, to let love flood everything.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A fall diary of the moments in between

If this fall were to have a narrative arc, it would read like a bibliography full of texts on narratives, memory, and patterns of violence, with titles like Killing Civilians and Precarious Life and Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community. 

James Dawes, whose own book Evil Men has also dominated my thoughts and research this fall, speaks of the moments in between. Dawes and his team, consisting of a photographer and a translator, interviewed convicted war criminals who committed atrocities in the second Sino-Japanese war. He had the following to say about the moments in between the interviews and, while he is referring to interviews and field work in situations of mass atrocities, his words also ring true of the moments next to those consumed by research and thinking about mass atrocities:
"I don't understand how to put these things next to each other. It is like somebody has taken a crowbar and pried open the seams of the everyday, so that the evils we cover over, block out, are now suddenly there, implacably next to us. next to everything. In fact, that is how I think of the time the three of us spend together. They are the "next to" times: what happens next to the interviews. This makes them sound unimportant, and at first I think they are, but over time I begin to change my mind. It matters so much that there is a "next to," whatever it is. I keep thinking about what it means to be next to something, about what fits together."
When I read that passage, I think about what it means to transcribe interview after interview of my own research on enforced disappearance and then step out my front door into the crisp air for the sheer purpose of photographing a leaf.

The 'moments in between' have consisted of not letting a single leaf fall unphotographed.

They are made of walks - walks from work to class to the library, walks home, to the sounds of Fonseca and Carlos Vives and Carla Morrison. They are the sounds that accompany me as I walk bundled in all my knits and which transport me to a time of sweat drops forming on my head in a jungle, away from the crispness and closer to the topics I now read about. We carry all our homes with us.

The moments in between are made of notes. Notes scribbled from my reading on Ralph Waldo Emerson or Oliver Wendell Holmes. Notes scribbled at conferences, like journalist Michele Montas' reflection on the earthquake in Haiti as "having erased our last places of memory," or Professor Perry's prompt to "not write the kind of book that can be read just by browsing the index." The moments in between are also made of talks -- talks constructed in the old-fashioned way by putting pen to paper and letting the blank page stare at me until I either panic or muster the courage to walk onto a stage and lay claim to a tiny corner of narrative as my own.

The moments in between are made of plane rides, and my newfound fear of them. They are, incidentally, the only moments in which I watch television, courtesy of JetBlue, and either become engrossed in cooking shows even though I don't understand half the terminology or become fascinated by how differently one approaches the news when she watches them, rather than reads them.

The moments in between unfolded between Texas and Guatemala, where I have continued to face my demons of paralyzing self-doubt and my ever-recurring questions on where the "I" fits in a narrative about conflict, violence, and atrocities. They involved eating what felt like all of Guatemala's avocados within 48 hours, grinning at the "do not pee here" instruction graffitied onto every street corner wall, and realizing - upon searching for food at a Texas airport - that I was the tiniest thing within view for miles.

There were moments for meeting a self-pronounced mentalist, and the astronaut who hopes to be on Guatemala's first mission to space. Moments for hugging the women who make the International Peace Scholarship possible, thus enabling my own education, and moments for explaining to yet another person at yet another airport "what a girl like you is doing in war zones." Those, incidentally, were the moments I chose to explain the difference between "gender" and "women" and "war" and "conflict," telling you everything you need to know about what crossing an immigration checkpoint with me may be like.

The moments in between were the moments of Indian food, usually on Wednesday afternoons, always with the same girls, always with garlic naan, always with giggles.

There were moments of dancing and red wine -- but those are never the 'next to' moments, they are the moments. They are part of the main narrative. As was the search for beauty, and the hope, and all the love because it is only 'next to' them that the study of atrocities can become more palatable.

But mostly, when I recall this fall between the moments of transcribing interviews and researching mass atrocities and collective memory and writing writing writing and reading until I am bleary-eyed, I see leaves. I hear them crunching under my feet, I hear their rustle in that crisp wind of New England fall that I have so come to love. I see autumnal light.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Malala and narrative co-option

This has, in many ways, been Malala's week. Despite not having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala has dominated headlines, in ways that have prompted Max Fisher and Zeynep Tufekci to craft delicate, thoughtful responses that reflect on Western advocacy.

Tufekci writes:
"[...] But she is but one courageous person. Fortunately for the world, there is no shortage of such brave, courageous individuals. In fact, there is an abundance of them, especially in poor, authoritarian countries. If you think Malala is rare, that is probably because you have not spent much time in such countries. Most Malala's, however, go nameless, and are not made into Western celebrities. (That interview's most telling moment was when Jon Stewart said "I want to adopt you" to her right after she repeatedly mentioned how great her own father was -- such a striking sentiment in which our multi-decade involvement in Pakistan is reduced to finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore)."
"The young woman's power as a symbol is undeniable. In the past months, though, the Western fawning over Malala has become less about her efforts to improve conditions for girls in Pakistan, or certainly about the struggles of millions of girls in Pakistan, and more about our own desire to make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy with a celebrity and an easy message. It's a way of letting ourselves off the hook, convincing ourselves that it's simple matter of good guys vs. bad guys, that we're on the right side and that everything is okay."
Tufekci and Fisher raise important points about Western advocacy, 'slacktivism', and feel-good narratives -- and they are careful to acknowledge that this has little to do with Malala's own incredible experiences and her equally incredible retelling of her story, and more with how 'we' 'in the West' have framed her story and what 'we' are taking away from it. 

To which I ask: What is the appropriate response to Malala's story? Why is being moved not part of it? The story is undeniably moving, and so is Malala herself -- and the way in which she tells her story is disquieting and activating. In many ways, Malala does not let us think that "everything is okay" or that we "are on the right side," as Fisher worries. This is, after all, the girl who thanked the US President and, in the next breath, pointed out that drones and US policy may be part of the problem -- and that much of this policy can and should be reframed in terms of supporting education. 

Malala is, indeed, but one person, as Tufekci points out. But she does not have to be more than that. She need not be the 'universal victim' or 'universal survivor'; those are hefty labels to attach to her and, to the extent that we do, it should prompt us to reflect on what Kimberly Theidon has dubbed "the narrative obligations we impose on people in situations of armed conflict." As I have seen in my own work with women and girls affected by conflict worldwide, there are many more Malala's in the world. This does not take away from how special Malala is. Hers is, indeed, a story of overcoming and courage and it is a story that is accessible to us at present. If this story becomes the launching pad for us to reflect not only on Malala's own life but on the challenges girls confront worldwide and the courage they exhibit in the face of those challenges, let's. After all, Malala herself has made a point of not framing her narrative in terms of only herself and she has constantly recalled the experiences of girls in Pakistan who are not sitting across from Jon Stewart. 

Tufekci and Fisher would likely say that the majority of us likely don't reflect on those other girls and we, instead, bask in the warm glow of Malala and feel we have learned enough, done enough. There is a danger to that and it resembles the dangers of activism-from-the-couch: the activism of Facebook likes and tweets that doesn't leave the digital sphere or the realm of our own homes. Which begs the question: If simply being moved is not enough, how should we be reacting to Malala's story? What would be enough? Who determines "enoughness" and how do we know we have reached it? Who and how can we determine that we are having the appropriate response and reaction to her story? 

A simple answer would be that even if we could not determine what is 'enough' in words, we have so much more to do as far as conflict assessments and gender analyses are concerned, that we know we are not 'there' yet. This has much more to do with us, than with Malala herself, as Tufekci and Fisher note. At the same time, it need not detract from Malala's narrative. Being moved by her, in my eyes, ought not in itself be a source of guilt. And Malala may be "but one person," as Tufekci writes, and she may frame her story in terms of many more girls out there, but let's remember this is still her story. This is still her narrative, her life experience. She can make her own decisions on what obligations, if any, flow from that narrative and what she wishes for her call to action to be... and whether that call to action should involve us at all and, if so, in which capacity. 

This is one of those situations in which the labels we typically attach to situations of armed conflict become insufficient. Malala was a victim of an attack. She is also a survivor of one. She is a symbol and an advocate and a 16-year-old girl and a storyteller. These descriptions could feel more or less true to her. She may pick different words to describe her life and her role in this world, and these words may change over time. 

We, too, are caught between multiple roles. We are viewers. We bear witness to her narrative. We are spectators in some senses -- moved spectators. If we wish to be advocates too, yes, we need to do more and we need to do so critically and thoughtfully and with attention to not distorting Malala's story or using it for our own purposes. But, while we view, let's also try to take Malala's story for what it is -- to listen to the texture she brings to it with as little cynicism as possible. I do wonder: Is it possible that we could be moved and inspired by Malala's story without having those warm feelings represent our ignorance, co-option of her narrative, or attempt to taint her story? I'd like to think it is.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

In conversation with "Evil Men:" Questions on trauma and atrocities

This is a series of thoughts that are emerging from weeks of processing both the testimonies I collected during my recent field work and secondary reading on atrocities, trauma, narrative responsibility, and collective memory. Many of these thoughts are half-baked, as I essentially type from the middle of a conversation between me and the texts. Waiting for perfection is my least favorite form of silence -- so here we go, from the middle of the story, knee-deep in footnotes and question marks.
A view from the walk to the library, between question marks.

James Dawes writes in the preface of Evil Men
"How can we look at violently invasive and traumatic events with respect and care rather than sensational curiosity? How do profoundly private injuries fit into our mercilessly public spaces? At the center of the answers to these questions is a single, structuring paradox: the paradox of trauma. We are morally obligated to represent trauma, but we are also morally obligated not to.
In response, I wonder (partially affected by my legal reading on naturalism vs. positivism): What does moral obligation consist of in this context? From where does it arise? Why is this a moral obligation? To the extent that trauma creates (narrative) obligations -- what are they? And what are the implications of those obligations for how we tell stories, serve, and act? 

In fact -- how do we balance our obligation to different parties affected by trauma? In conflict and development discourse, we often speak of the need to let victims and survivors of violence tell their own story in the ways that feel right to them. While that is indeed an ideal approach, we are so often caught in the murkier lines of vicarious storytelling: we are trusted with the stories of others. We are trusted with their trauma. We asked questions to stumble upon these narratives, or perhaps they were thrusted upon us. How, then, do we fulfill our narrative obligations to the person whose trauma this is? To the person to whom the trauma belongs? Does trauma belong to anyone in the first place? And what about collective trauma -- who can claim ownership of it? Who can speak on its behalf? And where does that leave all the rest of us, interlocutors and witnesses of trauma who have been trusted to tell its story? And, should we figure that out, do we have an obligation to the reader or listener who may not have otherwise been subjected to this trauma had it not been for our narration of it? What are the components of these obligations and, most crucially, how do we begin to unpack and answer these questions without letting them sink us into a paralyzing silence?

Dawes writes, along these lines:
"There is a paradox to representing suffering. To stop people from being injured, we have to tell the story of what's happening; but in telling the story, we can injure people in unexpected ways. [...] We hope to elicit compassion from spectators, but sometimes further their desensitization or even generate disgust. We hope to give therapeutic voice to survivors, but sometimes retraumatize them. [...]
I repeat: How do we begin to unpack and answer these questions without letting them sink us into a paralyzing silence? And, while we are at it, what is our own place amidst these narratives? I have often been told, in academia and conflict management practice alike, that we are/ought to be/ aspire to be mere scribes. We are the vehicles by which these stories reach the world. We ask the questions, and we diligently write down the answers -- when such answers exist, itself a rarity -- and then we report back to the world, rendering ourselves little more than documentarians: secretaries of trauma. However, if I have learned anything from both feminist thinking and critical theory, it is that no process of asking questions, of selecting which questions to ask and which narratives to seek, elevate, or quieten, is apolitical. In The Curious Feminist, Cynthia Enloe prompts us to be surprised by the narratives that enter our lives, and to be curious about them and the processes of trivialization that underpin them. Which narratives did these ones edge out? Which stories are we not hearing? What processes make certain stories appear less worthy of the spotlight than others? How do we make those selections and what do these choices say about the prevailing systems of power?

Enloe's questions presume agency -- they presume an "I." They presume more than a scribe. I have always found it difficult to render myself, as the narrator of others' experiences of conflict, suffering, or trauma, entirely invisible, even when I am deeply conscious of needing to place those experiences of others at the center of the narrative. Yet, once one develops this consciousness that she, too, exists within the story, with all her narrative choices and curiosities, she can no longer ignore her own place and agency within the broader narratives that are not quite hers. Or, as Dawes would put it [emphasis mine]:
"The scale of atrocity is unselfing, and self-examination as a response is a natural protective reflex, a way of restoring one's own emotional reactions to the familiar, central place. It is also narcissistic, and it is luxury morality. But avoidance -- refusing to interrogate one's own relationship to the desire to see, to make something see-able -- is no better, perhaps worse. Why do you do this kind of work? What personal dramas are you playing out, and what blind spots might that leave you with? Atrocity work requires an appropriate drawing of the gaze toward the self that is inappropriate. So the "I" remains here in this book, as do the apologies -- even if now they are disguised as analysis.
And a closing question, for now: What is the place of moralizing in atrocities discourse? Anyone who has ever borrowed a book from me cannot help but notice the color-coded post-it flags emerging from the pages. After finishing a book, I go back to the flagged passages and copy them into a notebook, noticing the broader patterns that emerge (and the similarity of this process to the inductive coding of my primary research in fieldwork...) When I went back through Dawes' Evil Men, I couldn't help but notice the omnipresence of evil -- starting from the title. Here is Dawes in the preface:
How do societies turn normal men into monsters? With more focus: What is the individual psychological process and felt experience of becoming a monster? With yet more focus: Given that those monsters are so often men, what role does gender play in genocidal violence?
Much as I love a good gender analysis, I was stuck on the word 'monsters.' It sounds rife in judgment to me and I wonder: Is that helpful when discussing, analyzing, and seeking to learn from atrocities? Is 'helpfulness' even a useful standard in this situation? One might argue that we do need something to distinguish what Aukerman would call 'ordinary crime' from 'extraordinary evil.' But how useful is the concept of evil itself? What purpose does it serve? What is the purpose of the multiple references to moral obligations? Dawes himself struggles with the question of whether 'evil' is a relevant concept in atrocities analyses and discourse... but he does end up including it in the title, and my post-it notes tell me that evil resurfaces regularly throughout the narrative, as do references to morality. 

As a scholar of atrocities, and as a researcher and humanitarian practitioner who has had to confront many of these issues on the ground, I have developed some perhaps undesired intimacy with acts that Dawes or others might term 'evil.' I would not dream of justifying these acts, and I am dedicating my life to learning how to prevent, manage, or respond to them. I wonder, however: How does judgment blind us in these settings? What might we lose by being guided by narratives of evil and moral obligation? How might labeling perpetrators of mass atrocities 'monsters' limit our thinking? Can we help that reaction? What does 'monsters' capture that other words -- like 'perpetrators,' even -- do not? Is there a way to approach our study and understanding of mass atrocities with minimal judgment? Is that even desirable? 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Our other selves: From the field to graduate school

When the deep breaths came more easily: Day 3 in Massachusetts after returning from Bogotá. 

Returning home is a process of memory and activating the muscle of remembering to be here in Boston is more strenuous than I had recalled.

I used to have dreams about Boston fall. In the years that I lived in deserts or straddled the Equator, cherishing the eternal warmth and sunshine, I missed the crispness of a September morning. This September, with my feet planted on top of crunching leaves, I struggle to feel anchored in place; almost ironically, I am having trouble feeling my feet on the ground.

Leading a life of perpetual transitions allows one to develop a strange set of expertise, of the kind that cannot quite be called a skill or a desirable trait. Pack a carry-on bag in under five minutes. Emerge on the other side of the world and find your bearings sooner than one would expect. Learn to love from a distance, and love well. 'Being good at distance' is not a title anyone craves -- presumably, proximity would win every time -- but once one learns how to navigate loving from afar, it feels like a survival skill.

Learning how to navigate transitions is similar. There is a head-spinning element to constantly leaving, to trading one home for another, one morning routine for the next, one route to work through the mountainy Circulnvalar for a walk to graduate school, one bakery full of your breakfast croissants for another full of muffins. There are elements of managing these changes that can be learned: Unpack as soon as you get 'home.' Create a (new) order, even if it's constructed and artificial. Take your time in re-entering the community -- but put it off too long and you risk dreading re-entry. There are prescriptions, however simple or obvious, that begin to emerge from patterns of constant motion.

What I have found, however, is that no matter how much experience one has in leaving homes behind in favor of creating others, it is difficult to learn to breathe through the lags. My heart moves more slowly than I do. So do my memories. I may wake up in Boston every morning, but a significant part of me still mentally resides in Bogotá. I get dressed to the sound of Carlos Vives and I transcribe interview notes to the tune of Fonseca. I am still living in that story, even if Boston ought to provide a new setting for new narratives. I need time and space to process, and I need to allow nostalgia and reminiscence and yearning for other places, other times to flood those spaces.

That yearning is not limited to wishing for another era, another place, a different setting for the narrative. This is not about wanting to trade in Boston for Bogotá. Both have been generous homes, and it truly feels as though I left one home for another -- arguably, a gratitude-inducing kind of transition. Rather, it is about wishing for other selves -- the selves that emerge when one shifts the setting. I acknowledge that it is possible to be elated and anxious, smitten and devastated at every place... but could it be that different places inspire different sides of us to float to the top? Could it be that certain places inspire whimsy, just as others inspire anxiety, that some trigger ambition to emerge unabashedly while others are daily reminders of humility?

I stumbled more easily in Colombia. I laughed off the mistakes because I had dared to make them. I feared less -- not because there was less to fear, but because the stakes felt larger than myself. Colombia makes me feel small in all those ways one actually wishes to feel tiny because it becomes a daily, living reminder of our humbling place in the face of this world's needs. I danced more, not because I had less to do at night or because I felt less of a sense of responsibility to my work, but because in that setting, dancing felt like an imperative. Dancing at night was how I did the work. It was part of self-care, part of getting out of bed in the morning to face the trauma anew.

And so, no matter how many transitions I have been through, it never ceases to amaze me that we leave our 'field' selves behind so quickly. I am back to typing in the library with my shoulders sitting tightly near my ears, 'typing with purpose,' as Anna Kendrick's character so aptly termed it in Up in the Air. The seemingly ubiquitous two-hour lunch breaks of Colombia have given way to eating with a side of typing. I blitz through my days, filling every minute of my time, collapsing into bed at night. There is no part of me that believes that Boston inherently means blitzworthy typing and tight shoulders and do-do-do, just as there is no part of me that believes Bogotá is just for languid lunches and perfectly manicured nails and salsa turns on a dance floor. But I do know that there is a part of me, with all my idiosyncrasies and sensitivities,  that is susceptible to Boston's cycle of competition and unbridled ambition, just as there is a part of me with whom Colombians' appreciation of leisure resonates. There is a part of me that resents that, in moments of transition, I get swallowed up by my weakest demons: I get caught up in the hamster wheel of commitments and of being and doing and showing and I forget to breathe until I turn blue in the face. There are days when I wake up in my Boston suburb and wish for the Bogotá mountains to be outside the window, just so I can feel a little extra grounded again.

As I wrote in an email to a dear friend recently, I recognize that this disorientation is a product of reverse culture shock, nostalgia, and a sense of remembering (relearning?) how to be at this home. The beauty of having done 'this' a few times, of having been steeped in transition enough times to feel the water boiling around me, is that I have faith that I will wake up one morning, walk out my front door, and feel like something has clicked and fallen into place again, even without the mountains there to greet me.

Until then, though, I wonder: Will I always like my field self better? What is it about our abroad, other selves that can make it easier to be kinder to ourselves... even when those 'other selves' are not abroad just to travel, marvel, and wander, but also to serve, think hard, battle stress, face dilemmas, and confront conflict?  Can one bring some of the sentiment of spaces of whimsy to spaces she associates with stress? How do we carry those other salsa-dancing, two-hour-lunching, manicured, breathing, smiling, stumbling selves home with us?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Field notes from Colombia, Part 10: Farewell

Earlier: Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | Courage

There are those moments on the Avenida Circunvalar when the clouds lift momentarily and the whole world is flooded with light. In those seconds, the weight of my work here lifts too -- momentarily, as though coaxed to evaporate by a patch of blue sky and impeccable clouds. When I think of joy in Colombia during this field project, I think of a taxi zooming through mountain turns on the Circunvalar.

I will miss the conversations with the taxi drivers. A few remain at the top of my mind: The woman who was navigating the city on her first day as a taxista. Perhaps a place is truly a home when you give your brand new taxista directions 100 blocks North and reassure her that you will neither be lost nor be run over by a bus. When she gets terrified, you encourage her to turn up the Carlos Vives bellowing from the radio. If these field notes had a soundtrack, it would be a marriage of Carlos Vives and Fonseca. Other taxistas would disagree with me: There was the one who loved Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, or the one who paired his sharing his opinions on the conflict here with Bach's cello suites. Regardless of their musical tastes, and for reasons I cannot even begin to understand, all of them that Greece is a cold-climate country and all of them think its women are beautiful. I never had the heart to correct them.
Colombia has grounded me in mountains. Summer to me has always meant waking up to the sound of waves and swatting mosquitoes off my back. This is the first summer of my life that I haven't seen my toes on the sand through transluscent Greek water. I like to dream that this is not a trade-off, that I haven't exchanged the salt and sea droplets drying on my back for mountain sunrises, that I haven't traded in my homeland for all the other homes that have crawled into my heart. On an optimistic day, I hope I am simply adding hues to existing traditions. I am diversifying memories.

I will miss falling asleep to the sound of Colombians dancing. I will miss watching Colombians dance, and eating papas con chorizo at a street corner at 3 AM after letting others guide my own steps. My Colombia tastes like achy feet and papas at a street corner. It also takes like Masa's almond croissants. Almendra, the word for almond, is one of the most beautiful words to my ears. Fifteen years after first reading Love in the Time of Cholera, I can finally begin to understand why Marquez's imagined worlds always seemed to taste like almonds.

This was a summer of rainbows. Of fast-moving clouds and puffy pink sunrises that almost compensate you for your bleary eyes after a night of nightmares. Of feeling the waterfall spray on your face and your heart pounding from the altitude, only to discover that sometimes you best remember to breathe where the air is thinnest, in the most breathless spaces.

I will miss the tree that smells like jasmine during those seventy steps between my house and Crepes & Waffles. When I walk under it at night, it brings me back to Jerusalem. Colombia transports me, as though this one home can contain glimpses of all others. It finds a way to wink at the nostalgic nomad: The restaurant called L'chaim, the salsero who will wish me καλημέρα when he finds out I am Greek. There is something enlivening about remembering from where you have come, with your feet planted firmly on the ground of a place that will make a heart wander to revisit every home it ever loved.
My favorite moments under the jasmine tree unfold around 7.30 PM each night, when the security guards of the K-9 teams allow the bomb-sniffing puppies to run around the park. For ten minutes, if you are lucky, you can catch dogs sniffing each others' butts and wagging their tail as a sign of affection, not violence. There are more such dogs now than during my last time in Colombia, or maybe I am more attuned to their presence. This realization makes me cherish the whimsical butt-sniffing even more. When the security guards notice me smiling, they will sometimes oblige and give their German shepherds a cuddle. I know they are performing for me, but in so doing, they unite my Colombian universes: a single gesture blends a reminder of the conflict with unbridled affection.

The affection is unavoidable here. Desire is one of Colombia's many currencies. This is a country that touches and stares and whispers 'belleza' as you walk down the street. This is a country of princesas, and preciocas, and amorcitas. All these epithets are gendered in ways I cannot bear to ignore and, in the same breath, I cannot be cynical about calling someone mi vida. My life. When my assessment of the culture of affection becomes too rosy for my Colombian friends, they remind me of how fleeting and broken love can be here. They remind me of the men who are perros -- literally, dogs -- and of the men who cheat and of the women who cheat and of the ones who don't call and of the ones who call you princesa for two weeks before they disappear into thin air. They speak of rigid expectations, often crushed, that define the reality of a challenging love, that render longevity in romance difficult. On a rosy day, I will remind them that these quandaries of life and love are not confined to this land.

On a keenly aware day, I, too, feel choked by the rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity. This is one of the countries in which I most notice the performativity of gender and how narrow the expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman can be. On a flight to Cali, I noticed every single woman had her nails done. On the same flight, a passenger asked me if this is my natural hair color. When I nodded yes, she asked me why I don't like to go to the hair salon to get 'this beautiful hair' straightened. Sometimes, I feel as though I provide Bogotá with its only messy curls. Sit at Juan Valdez long enough and you will observe there is a uniform for women here, one of many: leggings, tucked into boots, topped off with a leather jacket. And straight hair, of course. I am torn between finding these expectations suffocating and appreciative of a type of beauty, between finding them endearing and superficial.

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?
And then I meet the people who break the mould. Last Friday, I was the only person with done-up nails and high heels in a room full of anthropologists. I have come to cherish both the irony and the awkwardness of this, surrounded by Colombians in jeans and Converse who were there to patiently walk me through the process of grave exhumations. Some of the most transformative moments of my research were the ones whose profundity extinguished all room for artifice. In many ways, these are the stories that cannot be told. They are not my stories, or this is not the medium for them, or it is not yet the time to tell them. Even in their untellability, I realize that allowing these narratives to cross my path continues to fuel my faith in humanity. 

The responsibilities of storytelling were on my mind this summer, in terms of the responsibilities of the storyteller to the people to whom the story belongs and to the reader. I have watched my own role constantly shift, as the different capacities I have occupied in conflict-affected areas compete for attention: conflict manager, gender-based violence specialist, academic, researcher, listener, writer. Storyteller. It is an ever-evolving contract between multiple storytellers, and it requires finding my own place in the universe of intersecting narratives.
I will carry the contrasts in my heart, with appreciation for moments that fracture your expectations, for the moments in which appearance deviates from reality. There was the time I was followed by a policeman for five blocks near the Presidential Palace, only to learn that he wanted to find out if this señorita was married and, if not, would she go out with him? Or the time a whole group of policemen in Cali gave up their seats at the tienda for two sleepy gringas looking for coffee before the city had had the chance to wake up. Or the numerous instances I have walked past the sports bar, Locos por el Futbol, only to hear "A Total Eclipse of the Heart" or another 1990's sappy favorite bellowing from the speakers -- with more than one man singing along. Or that other time during my solo meal in Usaquén, when the table of brunching men behind me spent twenty minutes discussing baby showers. There are moments that insert cracks into an image such that you can no longer say "all of these kinds of people are _______" in Colombia. Colombia makes you fill in the blank, and question the 'all.' It requires nuance and texture.

And yet, the often heart-warming contrasts cannot allow me to forget about the shadow economy of fear, in which boundaries are overstepped or invisibilized. Many of my interviewees use 'invisibilize' as an active verb: to render invisible. 'To (forcibly) disappear' has been another active verb that has punctuated the narrative. The hierarchies of privilege that define other aspects of life here also determine fear, risk, and danger -- with human rights defenders often finding themselves at the bottom. I have been conscious of how my own layers of privilege color my experience and provide an extra layer of protection in most instances: I am a foreign, Western-educated woman who is affiliated with a US university and is not fully embedded in the realities of advocacy in Colombia. I am also conscious of how the human rights defenders I have interviewed rarely use the language of fear directly. They speak of 'risks', 'danger', 'threats', but rarely fear itself. I seek to learn from their example as I sift through trauma, both vicarious and my own. In the moments of human connection, of asking the questions and recording the answers, of finding beauty, of experiencing learning or vulnerability or hope, I, too, feel less afraid.
This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece. Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based roles in conflict-affected areas to being here in an academic capacity, with asking questions without being able to immediate use the answers to implement an initiative that responds to needs. I asked myself what the service of academia is, and whether it is immediate enough and close enough to the source of the need for me to feel that it can be a true service. I watched my communities shift and the often-solitary-occasionally-lonely rhythms of academic fieldwork give way to a group of thinkers who would proofread my every word, assess the effectiveness and ethics of my every interview question, and give my Spanish translations their correct subjunctive forms. I will miss spelling my name on the phone each time I requested an interview and hearing the other person repeat 'Rossan' to me, without an x or an e. I am Rossan in Colombia and by the end of my time here, I have learned to pronounce my own name as such, too. I will miss the workers at Auros, my neighborhood copy-scan-fax store. They, too, are part of the routines of my research, and I can tell they are perplexed by the formalities of the process. I credit them with having taught me how to say 'stapler' in Spanish and with having helped assemble my every consent form.

And then I was silent. When the questions died down and the music quietened, I found myself sitting alone on the Cartagena city walls. Colombia can be uncomfortable with solitude, and Cartagena is a city that demands affection. It is a country of two and many, one in which you can always squeeze in an extra seat at the table or an extra person in the airport line to say goodbye. This summer has blurred the lines between solitude and loneliness, raised the cost of distance from loved ones, and lowered the barrier to entry into becoming a loved one in the first place. This country is full of loved ones, my loved ones. It is full of love.

I have felt small this summer. It is the kind of smallness I crave, the kind that emanates from being humbled and cannot be corrected by high heels. I have felt lighter too. I have laughed more easily, stumbled more confidently, made mistakes less shyly. When I'm abroad and alone, unshielded by familiarity or company, I say yes more. I dare more, especially after midnight when the words fall out of my mouth without fear of the Spanish subjunctive.
I sometimes feel about Colombia like a photographer who only wishes to capture her lover's dreamier side, all the while aware that another side exists, having pushed up her fingers right up against the underbelly. I cannot definitively reconcile my memories of Colombia, those of almonds and rainbows, with the memories Colombians have narrated to me. I know they exist side-by-side, almost unfolding in parallel universes. I understand that the differences in the hues of these narratives partly emerge out of my biased eyes: those of a Colombia-loving foreigner whose multiple layers of privilege circumvent many glass ceilings and shield her from some of the challenges of life and work here. I do not wish my fondness for this land to render me blind to its injustices or to push the many conflicts that continue to unfold away from the capital to the periphery of my own vision. 

At the same time, I am hopeful -- not out of ignorance or bias, but by choice. I choose to be hopeful because I have met so many Colombians who are, who believe in Colombia, who have dedicated their life to peace. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: "We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can't see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing." 

This post appeared in installments as my Eternally Nostalgic column on The Equals Record.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Field notes from Colombia, Part 9: Courage

Previously: Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma

I routinely inhabit the space between courage and paralyzing fear. It is in conversations with other professionals who work in conflict zones, tinged with bravado and a veneer of fearlessness, that I realize just how extensive my own list of fears is. Between July 2009 and July 2010, I boarded 43 flights in and out of conflict-affected areas, rendering my carbon footprint equivalent to the size of an elephant's paw (if not a whole elephant). I stared at the wing to assess the stability of each and every one of those flights almost the entire time, as though staring at the wing could prevent pilot error or the twists of fate that result in plane crashes. More than once, I have considered that I have too many fears, that I scare too easily and too often, to remain in my chosen line of work.
"You are going to die." That is the face of a threat: chillingly concise. Sometimes it arrives via text message and sometimes it is on a flyer slipped under your door. Sometimes it is accompanied by extra breaths on a phone call, signaling you have company, and sometimes by footsteps tracing each of your own. This is a Colombia that unfolds in parallel to others, right alongside the Colombias of salsa dancing and almond croissants. Many of my friends are bewildered to hear me talk about it, remarking that it sounds like an action movie; at the same time, for many of my colleagues, this is a professional reality.

What does this reality consist of? This info-graphic by Semana reveals a map of the reported deaths of human rights defenders in the first half of 2013. An average of 6.1 human rights defenders were killed each month, with the murders spanning almost every region of Colombia. That figure does not include threats, intimidation, surveillance, or other instances of non-lethal violence that human rights defenders may encounter by virtue of the work they do in this country. A December 2011 report by the International Service for Human Rights lists attacks against the physical integrity of human rights defenders, illegal surveillance, intelligence activities, raids of NGO premises and theft of information, and arbitrary arrest and detention. The same report also lists steps the government has been taking to protect human rights defenders and increase government-NGO cooperation. A hopeful eye may remark that the situation may have changed for the better since December 2011. Yet, on August 6, 2013, the national watchdog group Somos Defensores (We are Defenders) reported that the first half of 2013 was the most violent six-month period on record for humanitarian workers in Colombia. This assessment is based on reported incidents and, given the underreporting of these events due to fear of reprisals or other reasons, it is possible the actual figures are different in ways we cannot quite estimate.

There is chilling irony to the threats, as human rights defenders are often threatened with the same crime  whose prevalence motivates their activism. It is not uncommon for support groups for the families of those who have been forcibly disappeared to be threatened with the possibility of the enforced disappearance of one of the leaders or spokespersons. As one of the human rights defenders I recently interviewed discussed, the threats can also be deeply gendered: women are often threatened with sexual violence or with hints that their children or family may be harmed, whereas threats against men often suggest intended homicide. The gender breakdown of activist groups is underexamined and rapidly changing, as women often form a significant part of these groups and are increasingly holding leadership positions within them. In part, this is because the immediate victims of conflict-related crimes, such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, are often men, with surviving women directing the search process for their missing family members and navigating the transitional justice labyrinth.

Earlier this year, my favorite professor in graduate school assigned a book in her syllabus titled Killing Civilians. In addition to the charming title, the book cover depicted a homicide. While it was not the kind of book one wanted to fall asleep to reading, only to find her loved one wake up against the chilling book cover, Hugo Slim's Killing Civilians taught me the importance of knowing exactly how violence is directed and carried out in situations of armed conflict. As the subtitle suggests, the book discusses "method, madness, and morality in war." The professor who assigned it frequently repeats that we need to read the testimony. We need to know what happens when somebody is being tortured or disappeared or when their office is raided, painful and hair-raising as these accounts may be. In a sense, reading the testimony is a way of bearing witness; it infuses life into statistics and charts. It makes it harder to look away.
The hierarchies of privilege that define other aspects of life in Colombia affect one's experiences of fear, risk, and danger. Being a foreign, Western-educated woman who does not permanently live in Colombia, I experience different types and layers of protection and risk -- with more of the former than the latter -- than my Colombian colleagues. In many ways, this is not my story, but I feel a responsibility to tell it, out of recognition that this Colombia, too, exists, alongside the rest of them. When I ask my colleagues whether they are afraid, a pattern emerges in the responses: Being a human rights worker in this country -- and in most others, I would posit -- is not 'just' a job. It is a lifestyle choice, a life choice. The implications of choosing this path here are so pervasive and affect so many aspects of one's daily life that one is constantly called to re-examine and reaffirm whether this path is, indeed, for her. When I ask my colleagues how they cope with fear, most present it as almost a non-choice: They cite focusing on the work, the need for it, the service component that invites all else to fade into the distance. 

In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, "fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps most precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions." Unlike most of my colleagues, I am laden with fears. If there is a way to be innately brave, I do not possess that trait. Yet, it is in the moments of endeavor that Aung San Suu Kyi describes, it is in the instances in which I feel most engrossed in, dedicated to, and present in my work, that I feel less afraid. 
And then the fear crawls in at night, keeping me awake. Or it catches me at unlikely moments. Say, for instance, when a plane is taxiing on the runway or when I'm in a crowded mall. It manifests in different ways, all of which share a common expectation: I anticipate something awful happening. Therein lies the irony of fear and courage in my life: I bear witness to, document, and respond to acts of mass violence and yet, I am most afraid in moments of seemingly blissful peace. 

This summer I encountered another level of worry, relating to fear for those who entrusted me with their stories. Protecting the privacy, security, and confidentiality of those who agreed to be interviewed as part of my investigation is my responsibility as a researcher -- a responsibility rendered difficult in a setting in which the cultivation of fear is a currency. Protection, in this context, can be a patronizing concept. After all, those participating in my research presumably have agency over their lives and reaffirmed their desire to voluntarily share their stories after a detailed-to-the-point-of-bureaucratic explanation of informed consent, the interview process, and possible risks. This begs the question: If they are not afraid, why am I? Is there a way to maintain vulnerability and care without being paralyzed by the fear that rushes in to fill all vacuums? Is there a way to be a professional in this field while being dignifiedly afraid? Is there dignity to fear?

Optimism, fueled by a constant search for beauty and hope, is an antidote to fear for me. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: "We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can't see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing."

I draw hope from that statement, and from the knowledge that many humbling individuals are pushing to move mountains in this country. At the same time, this cannot be another story that ends tidily on a hopeful note. If it did, it would be a disservice to those who have lost something while pushing to move mountains: their sense of security, their dignity, their life.