A friend recently asked why I hesitate to write about my own experiences of conflict. “You work with women affected by conflict, you live in conflict zones and you own a domain with conflict in its name. What gives?”
Colombia taught me a lesson about “the stories you cannot tell.” Journalists and aid workers alike were careful not to reveal identities or talk about their passions in a way that could alarm the omnipresent domestic surveillance apparatus. I learned to do my work with the hairs at the back of my neck raised and my lips tight.
Shortly after I left Colombia, a wiretapping scandal came to light, revealing that the secret police intercepted the emails and phone calls of aid workers, journalists, judges and even government officials. The recent raid of the State Security building in Cairo has revealed a similar thoroughness to the mechanism of domestic surveillance in Egypt. In an article titled “Egyptians Get View of Extent of Spying,” the New York Times showed that surveillance was constant and not necessarily related to the subject of one’s work: 26-year-old Salma Said found photos in the State Security archives depicting herself and her husband at a party on a friend’s balcony. I have lived and worked in both Egypt and Colombia and they have taught me to err on the side of caution when narrating conflict. That is how I have come to write about my pink fuzzy slippers or blooming anemones.
Yet, concerns about security and protecting the beneficiaries of my work is only half of what motivates my reluctance to talk about conflict as I witness it. In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the sides have dug in their heels — and yes, there are sides, much as we would prefer to deny them in the name of ‘co-existence’, the darling word of the 1990s conflict mitigation universe. There are parallel narratives of the same events, sometimes disputing the other side’s facts altogether. In discussions about conflict-related issues, my interlocutors often try to discern my loyalties. Sympathy for ‘the other side’s’ argument or the nuancing of the plight of all involved is a sign of wavering and can discredit one’s views. Being a foreigner and not belonging to either religion affected by the conflict almost reinforces the perceived need to prove unequivocal loyalty to a side. Other markers of identity can exacerbate the polarization; I am slowly learning that ‘humanitarian worker’ can be a dirty phrase. While I vow to remain patient and open-minded, conversations about the conflict frequently render me pensive and silent.
There are indeed people who do see coloration and nuance and the “yes, but” mode of argument and I am blessed to be able to converse with them and learn from their example. However, more often than not, these people and I already share similar views and accounts of the conflict. There is a danger to only or primarily discussing charged issues with like-minded individuals who reinforce each other’s viewpoints. I shared these thoughts with a beloved friend and mentor of mine and, in response, she wrote:
Indeed it is. Striking that balance is exhausting and head-spinning, but I am committed to seeking it because, as my friend said, it is a privilege to attempt to make sense of it all. Continuing to keep an open mind and an open heart is the first step to making peace with the parallel narratives. Embracing my own silences and being mindful of when they emerge out of fear or timidness to state my view is a next step.
Silence, too, is a part of this land, this conflict, and the many narratives that run through it. I am a firm believer in the power of storytelling and, in this instance, silences have a story to tell.