Storytelling and narratives
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Storytelling and Silence: Narratives of a conflict zone

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:

“I worry sometimes though, especially lately, that too much devil’s advocacy distracts from the truth of our own convictions. That balance, I suppose, is one of the finer points of life, especially the lives of people like us, who come up against passion (our own and others’), empirical evidence, emotional evidence, and critical political analysis and must, for our peace of mind and our careers, make sense of it all. It’s a privilege, isn’t it?”

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.

10 Comments

  1. I can’t imagine doing what you’re doing. You have an incredible gift and calling, and I’m glad there are people like you doing the hard of being a peacemaker.

    You’ll be in my prayers.

  2. If only the rest of the world spent as much time being open-minded/open-hearted and as thoughtful and considerate of both sides as you … then we might not have half of the problems we do now, would we?

    This: “silences have a story to tell.” is so powerful. Loved it.

  3. I feel like this line, ” I am a firm believer in the power of storytelling and, in this instance, silences have a story to tell.” could go down in the history books and become one of those quotes from the greats. Because you are great. Especially the stories that you tell or choose not to tell.

    I’m not sure if this is something that interests you, but have you ever thought about starting an anonymous blog so that way you could write stories without having them be traced back to you?

  4. I was recently in DRC on an ICC mission; I am not a field person – far from it. When I came back I tried to put in context everything I had experienced through that week in this strange land. I found myself having entirely conflicting thoughts, debating in my own mind before and while I was asked to give my opinion on what I thought should come next. And I ended up with the same conclusion. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong answer and story to tell. Sometimes one’s truth can speak louder than words, reason, conviction. And in these strange lands, those might be the times when one should keep silent.

  5. I have been wondering about this very topic lately; that is, the experiences you are having that do not involve blooming anemonies or other such delights. Thanks for addressing it. The irony of blogging isn’t it? Sharing experiences without sharing the most deep, dark, or life-changing ones…it is a limitation of the web. I suppose it ensures that face-to-face talks over tea still have a place! Can’t wait to have one of those with you friend, and I await in anticipation as to what part of the world that will be in!

  6. What you write is not so much silence to me because your experiences are part of YOU. It comes through in your writing, in your personality – and I mean this in a positive light. I think it enriches your ideas, your conveyance of thought and gives us, your devoted readers, a deeply rich tapestry that is all Roxanne. Someday though, someday when the time is right, I do believe you will have a wealth of things to say directly about all you have experienced, if you choose to.

  7. Thank you all for your thoughtfulness, support and love.

    Kim, I love that you think of it as a kind of selectivity. Perhaps for now I am indeed being selective and one day I may be able to widen the filter a little and let the “right words” – as in the words that feel right to me – about conflict spill out.

    Marianne, I know you have been there and draw so much inspiration from how you yourself have told stories of conflict without putting yourself or anyone else unnecessarily in harm’s way and without sensationalizing. Thank you for the example you set.

    And Liz, I love you too – so much. Thank you for your kind words; they, too, bring tears to my eyes.

  8. Every time I read your words I want to cry. I feel and can’t begin to explain my emotions about so many things I encounter, and then you post something that says it. I love you so much.

  9. Beautiful, wise post. I remember the difficult terrain of talking about conflict in Gaza and Israel and also found myself often retreating into silence.

  10. I always guessed that you were circumspect because of security issues, but learning about the other reasons for your choices is illuminating. The thing is, I never really saw this as a sort of silence–I saw it as a kind of curating, a way of being selective. One of the nice things about reading your essays is that they don’t require a lot of knowledge that would take forever to build up. They always work no matter how much information a reader might have about a specific conflict zone. You always tell a particular kind of truth here, a human truth that incorporates and transcends cultures and allegiances. And of course, that’s what storytelling is.

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