Human Face and Cost of Violence

War and violence become abstracted the further we are away from them. All of our exposure boils down to news reports and research updates that try to capture in words, numbers and images a fact that can never be truly conceptualised; brutal destruction of individual human beings.

Amidst all the grandeur geo-political thought exercises, partisan condemnations of who really is the wrong one, victims of this ageless story melt into mere sub-points in an argument.

If numerical citations of how many people died numb us to the deep suffering behind each number uttered, theories and soundbites on why such suffering occurs also distance us from all that is taking place in the world. Human involvement and responsibility disappears as we blame it all on elusive categories, such as politics, religion, power and education.

TS Eliot is right; human beings cannot bear very much reality. All this destruction has a human face and a human cost; both the perpetrators and those who perish are human beings like you and me.

By blaming it on external factors, we are shielded from the knowledge that violence is human, and that you and I too have the potential to destroy. Most subversively, we are protected from facing the deep moral failure in our apathy and lack of action to stop and care for those in need.

It is that reality that I face everyday as a researcher on human rights, Middle East and violence issues. It is that reality that slips into the background in my own writings that offer grand explanations and theories.

So this time, let me do something else rather than telling you facts and figures. Let me tell you a story, a human story in the following half-baked poem I wrote after spending a busy week full of research and reports on violence.

This is a reminder for myself, whose entire education and professional formation taught him to be detached and critical; so that I never forget the weight and sorrow of what it is I am talking about. I hope it will be for you too. 

Violence and Beauty

In the middle of the destroyed town
in the pool of blood
decapitated bricks and mortars,
her dead body lay
in silence
covered in mud,
in sorrow.

Those who saw her
found no trace of her beauty
nor smelt the rose water
she often washed herself with.
Her eyes,
that once made every men drunk,
were frozen in the exact moment
she released her last breath
like a broken clock.
The smell of war filled the air
suffocating every flower,
ever memory
every dream.

She always had suitors, you know,
asking for her hand
from the age of sixteen.
Her father always found them wanting,
“Not good enough for you” he used to say.
Once, a young man-
with a steady job in a big city,
caught her heart briefly;
“No” said her mother,
“He has crooked teeth,
never trust a man with such!”

She awaited hopefully,
wearing her pale pink dress
when she felt it could be the day
fate would finally be kind,
till that day,
when the darkness covered the town,
swallowed her mother and father
and spit her on to the ground,
leaving ugly teeth marks behind.

Her torn dress is crimson now,
her face hidden
under the dark blue of death.
No longing man will ever knock on her door again
Wearing their best suits to woo her family.
Soon, she will be a number,
a fatality in a collateral story,
a story of the monster deep in me, in you, in us
always devouring old towns
to feed its ugliness;
A story that we will never own,
but blame on the aliens
we'd hoped to have possessed us.

She will lay there
and with her, humanity too
covered in dark blue
wrapped in crimson
in silence
in mourning
of the beauty deep in me, in you, in us
that the monster ate,

Loving Prophetic Voices of the Past but Hating Those of Today

Published on Huffington Post UK, 19 January 2012
This week, Martin Luther King Jr was remembered with great love and affection not only in the US but all around the world. His legacy continues to inspire and leads us to believe that we human beings can aspire to and achieve higher moral values and practice them in our societies to better the world.
Every generation needs its prophetic voices to reflect back to itself where it goes astray and what it needs to do to regain what makes us different from animals only guided by their evolutionary instincts to sustain their lives. In other words, being human is a process and cannot be taken for granted. We have to fight to remain human in the face of strong impulses to dominate, exclude, consume and posses. Thus, remembering the prophets of old days is integral for our present as well as the future.
However, something more sinister might be at play in our memorialization of long dead prophets and the issues they fought to change. We know from the experiences of truth and reconciliation commissions and mundane politics that every new regime will seek to hang out all of the dirty laundry of the previous ones to establish their own legitimacy. By dwelling on how the previous governments and generations got it wrong, political and social actors are able to tame the past and seize a powerful moral tool that can be used as a shield against anyone suggesting that the same problems old prophets fought against still continue.
Take the issues Martin Luther King Jr fought against. It is true that the African American community is not facing blatant racism it faced when he was alive. Yet, even the fact that Barack Obama received more death threats than any other previous US President as soon as he took office signals to the deep undercurrents that still exist.
The core element of racism - exclusion of a particular group on assumed reasons of difference - always remains within all of us and our societies. It only changes its properties and objects, but mechanisms of exclusion are very much alive and kicking. Today, it shows itself not so much on biological qualities of skin colour, but in properties of belonging. You are either with 'us' or with 'them'. You are either 'in' or 'out'. 'Your' life and rights can be overridden if it is not in 'our' interest. 'You' can be denied to live among 'us', who have unlimited access to roam around the world including 'your' country.
In other words, the reason why the prophets of Old Testament protested by walking around naked, covering themselves in ashes, preaching a message of repentance from injustice and exclusion of the weak and vulnerable is still valid today as it was then.
It is easy to love the long dead prophets and seek to affirm moral decency based up on social ills we think to be long gone. But, it is extremely hard to love today's prophets who speak up for today's ills. They disturb, shame and challenge us by their mere presence.
That is why we prefer hearing stories of abusive priests, corrupt politicians, incompetent NGOs and selfish celebrities, rather than saints and selfless people out there who are not part of the rat race we find ourselves in. They make us feel dirty and judged, even though the last thing on their minds are us but the suffering, excluded and needy. Thus, we remain cynical of anyone with any claim of morality, but not because we do not believe in morality. In fact, we demand people to treat us morally. Yet, the moral truth that we see in the lives of prophetic voices of today disrupt our self image. That is why we only wholeheartedly and en masse celebrate the dead, not the living.
Voices such as Martin Luther King Jr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela or many others who stood boldly when their countries were being carried away with poisonous currents are not and cannot be reduced to history lessons, cold stone memorials, school trips and quick quotes to remove our own guilt and responsibility. They are messages of repentance, reminding all of us to look deep into our own hearts, not some distant future. They demand action, change and courage from us, today, here and now.

Reflections from Tahrir square tonight

Unpublished Blog notes

I am currently in Cairo. Over the years, I have come to love this country and it's people with all of it's complexities. And the experiences of tonight brings home all the good and the bad.

When I heard the news that Copts were protesting by the television studio near Tahrir square, I thought about how much things have changed here. Copts protesting was unheard till very recently. The church leaders have always refused it, mostly out of fear and Copts never thought their exclusion will end anyway.

As I walked towards the area, it became clear that the protests have turned violent. Smoke was everywhere, and people were running and shouting. Then came the military in their riot gears, firing rounds and tear gas. Soon, I had my own share of the gas and joined running crowds.

Muslims were marching with Christians, defending rights and protection for all Egyptians. A Muslim told me that he is here to defend Christians. Then picked up empty shells on the road and showed them to me.

Protesters grouped by Tahrir square, and the military police sent more troops. More rounds.. More tear gas.. Then, a water cannon truck got stopped by crowds and torn down.

A young girl ran to me and asked me if I was a foreigner, I said I am. In perfect English, she asked me to run and go to any hotel I can enter. She said its not safe. And when I asked "what about you?", she said "this is my country. I will be here." Her genuine concern for me but disregard for her own life moved me deeply.

Eventually, I walked away from the area as my eyes burnt and I kept coughing.

Tonight, I saw first hand what I have been writing about and researching in Egypt for years now. Coptic youth are even coming against the Church's demands for calm and are now demanding a life equal with their Muslim compatriots. Since the impeachment of Mubarak, their situation only got worse. You can watch a TV debate I partook on the topic here!

But tonight, I was also reminded that the deep human longing for freedom and dignity are universal and inherent to all of us, whether Muslims or Christians or atheists. When it is denied, people will eventually raise their voices.

Now, the Egyptian media is playing a dangerous game and some army officials are asking Egyptians to defend their army. The reports make it look like only soldiers got killed and wounded, so as to signal the blame on protesters for escalation of the problem. It just goes to show, the Revolution is not done yet, but it is in the making.

Beauty, depending on where you live

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 27 November

I still find it very sad that the first Filipino words I learned were “malaking ilong.” I kept hearing those words repeatedly as I walked around Manila’s giant shopping malls in my very first days of living in the country. When I asked what they meant, a friend told me the sad truth in full agony and embarrassment: big nose.

I have never been under the illusion that I had the world’s most conservative and miniscule nose, but until that point in my life it was never a public exclamation or excitement. What caused me to emerge in a real-life Cyrano de Bergerac role was the fact that Filipinos, no offence, do not tend to have proper noses – proper as defined in this part of the world.

The positive side of it was that I could have made it to a basketball team in the country, as my height, which was normal for us, was rather exceptional there. In fact, twice, random pregnant women pinched my back site on the streets, due to the belief that if they did so their children would also be tall like me. I always laughed thinking, “They did not see the malaking ilong as they approached me from my back, that would be my revenge!”

These funny exchanges signal a much more complex issue of how our perceptions of beauty are shaped by our cultural and geographical location, if not orientation.

I always found it amusing to see the excessive money spent and great lengths gone by some Asian women to lighten the color of their skin, and at the same time to see my British friends go great lengths with fake tanning and torturously long sun bathing to darken their skin color, just a bit for a day or two.

Similarly, I get puzzled by seeing increasing obsession in the West with size zero, if not the closest to that “ideal,” and at the same time listening to the comments of my African and Polynesian male friends on how thin Western women won’t make it as suitable brides in their countries, and how my Middle Eastern and Latino friends love their curves.

What can be seen as most mundane in one country, e.g. blond hair in Scandinavia, can be seen as an extremely attractive feature somewhere else, e.g. a blond Scandinavian woman in Turkey.

Obviously, these are tongue-in-cheek over-generalizations. Yet, they draw our attention to something much deeper than what meets the eye. It seems, that just like we travel between different time zones, there are invisible lines that separate different perceptions of beauty and attractiveness across the world.

This challenges the conventional wisdom that beauty is a subjective judgment of the individual and that it is in the eye of the individual beholder. Somehow, collectives produce and then internalize descriptions of a “desirable woman.” Thus, the beholder is looking at its object through the limited angle and lenses provided by his or her culture, not simply out of personal taste. So, we learn “beauty,” just as we learn what is a “good life.”

The realization that beauty, and thus personal conformity pressures we face, has strong social conditioning can be liberating. The first thing that comes to my mind is the fun strategy of moving to another “beauty zone” if the one you are in is stressing you, just like people move to warmer climates.

If you feel your nose is too big and people laugh at you in East Asia, move to Central Asia and the Middle East. If you feel your looks are just plain and common, move to the far end of the world, where your hair color or skin complexion is rare. If you feel a bit too conscious about the extra pounds you have put on as the years go by and if the Western culture is causing you to have nightmares, pack your bags to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. You won’t regret it.

The second thing is of course an assuring realization that most people are lead to feel horrible about themselves by the aggressive assertions of their cultures. It is indeed heartbreaking to see eating disorders haunting 14-year-old girls who think that they are “too fat,” and it is similarly heartbreaking to see an olive-skinned Asian trying to look “white” as a statement of social status.

This does not need to be! All across centuries and across different cultures we have been shaped to confirm into shapes and behaviors that were presented to us as what it means to be beautiful and worthy. Yet, long gone are the days since Chinese women had to wear iron shoes to keep their feet small, or British women had to cover their faces with that ghostly white powder.

Being exposed to another culture and its perception of beauty helps us to see the bizarreness of what we are exposed to as the “plain truth” in our own home culture; hopefully, leading to a much more mature and confident self-actualization, if not the first flight to a different beauty zone.

Facebook, Starbucks and traveller's sanity

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 25 September

On some levels, I despise and love social networking sites and globalised brands.

Ethically, I have a lot of questions around sites like Facebook that register a significant amount of personal data on its users. Not only does this make me nervous about privacy issues, but the prospects of what a profit seeking company can do with such information scares me. In addition to this, I have growing worries about the long term effect, if not damage, these sites have over human bonds and relationships.

Similarly, I have a lot of ethical questions on globalised brands that haunt me pretty much everywhere I go, like the golden arches of McDonald’s or that chemical taste of Nescafe. I have a lot of questions over where and how they get their supplies and what they mean for local economies. In addition to this, we are all worried about how these popular products are changing other cultures and the long term damage they are causing their hosts.

All of these nag me each time I check my profile on that you-know-which website and every time order a grande cappuccino at that coffee shop chain store. Yet, I must be honest, I enjoy consuming them and most importantly, I am increasingly realizing their positive side effects.

When one starts travelling around the world, the thrill of the new things, new tastes and places is overpowering. Initially, every second of this exposure is exciting and energizing, especially for the adventurous traveller. However, the same excitement eventually gives way to various stages of integration to a new culture, which often involves frustration, agitation and hunger. Most people who dwell in a foreign country are able to come out of that process with a renewed sense of comfort and excitement.

For the frequent flyer, however, there is no chance of stability and continuity in adjusting to the new culture. Non-stop travels between countries, hotels, board rooms and airports become disorienting and increasingly damaging to physical and emotional health. After all, we human beings are not meant to live this way. Although constant familiarity gets boring, constant change is far from pleasant.

In previous years, I had sought counsel from various trained psychologists and books in order to develop practices that would enable me to cope with such tensions that emerge from over-travelling. Conventional wisdom suggested that I should take various pictures, small items, comfort food and music with me to wherever I travel, so at least I can create a personal and familiar space in an impersonal hotel room some random place. This tip has been a helpful one.

The internet and globalised brands, however, also bring a positive contribution to this curse of modern life. I step in to a coffee shop in Amman, or Beijing, or Cairo or Istanbul or Washington D.C. and I find the same decoration, almost the same menu, the familiar tastes and smells. When I grab my coffee and close my eyes, I could in fact be in that particular shop near my home in London, and for the next 30 minutes, I can charge my adaptation batteries.

Social networking sites help me to feel ‘connected’ with my life in normal circumstances. I step into an internet shop in Tehran or Beirut, or Manila, or Boston or Valetta, and within few minutes I share in the lives of my friends, while looking at their pictures, reading their musings and laughing at their silly comments. I hear news about who is going out with who, who likes which movie, who moved where, who just graduated and who just had a birthday. And with few clicks and sentences, my physical loneliness in a new setting disappears as I recharge my social batteries to handle all of the new people I am about to meet.

On some levels I know these are shallow coping mechanisms, with a hint of hypocrisy and guilt. And yet on other levels, I am glad for the globalised world we live in, not only for creating new challenges for us but also for giving us tools to handle them.

What is your first language?

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 11 September

The terms 'native tongue' or 'native language' have never sat comfortably with me. They are simply a static perception of languages as if they are biological functions. They are not. We are socialized to learn them.

When we are born, all that we have is our biological capacity to control sounds we can produce and place into a defined structure presented to us by our families, communities and education.

Depending on where we are born, we are confronted with expressions that we are trained to fit in. Our alignment with what is presented to us is both freedom and enslavement. Learning the language frees us to express ourselves, to be independent and to handle social transactions. Yet at the same time, it is enslavement as languages are also social products with limited vocabulary and sounds. Language limits us to certain vocal tones and certain perceptions and feelings.

This, becomes a problem when one learns another language. At its most visible level, we struggle to learn new sounds and use them properly. After all of these years, I still struggle with the 'th' sound in English, often pronouncing it as 't'. Similarly, I still can't hear the difference between 'w' and 'v' and often pronounce 'woman' as 'voman' and 'vision' as 'wision'. So I can't laugh too much when my Korean, Nepali and Bangladeshi friends pronounce my name 'Ciya' as the 'z' sound remains a problem for them.

Learning another language, however, is more than learning new sounds. It is learning an entirely new world of emotions, experiences and conceptualizations. It took me years to switch to 'ouch' rather than 'ah!' when hurt, or joke British style. When we learn a new language, we do more than learn words; we adjust to a completely new social code. So the Turkish 'Afiyet Olsun' does not work that neatly when translated into English, or 'Elinize Saglik' when complementing food. A Turk who learns English has to learn other behavior and language to adjust to table manners of another culture.

This thrilling opening of new horizons is challenging, as the bilingual person has to be a chameleon to dwell on both horizons simultaneously. This is easier said than done, as the person increasingly mixes vocabulary and syntax and expressions. I increasingly use Turkish expressions in English, and English ones in Turkish, which is always met with confused looks.

Recently, during a first visit to a friend's house in London, I exclaimed "So this is where the lion sleeps then." My 'witty' joke made no sense. I assumed that the English gentleman knew the Turkish expression "Aslan yattigi yerden belli olur"; a lion is known from where he sleeps. Similarly, I vividly remember when my then Cambodian housemate advised me not to pursue a romance with a colleague with the wise words: "As they say in Cambodia, 'Don't eat chicken in the Pagoda.'”

My grammar and sentence structures also get confused. I end up writing sentences in Turkish words on English skeletons. I have embarrassingly signed emails with the friendly wish "serin kal!" (stay cool!), which is utterly bizarre in Turkish. This gets more difficult as we learn other languages and live in contexts dominated by them.

After years of living on three different continents and being exposed to various languages, I find myself a bit confused when people ask me what my 'native tongue' is. Once, I stuck my tongue out and said "This one!" Yet, I cannot deny that Turkish has a special affect on me. I realize this when I listen to sad songs. Turkish ones touch me more deeply than any other language, perhaps because they are more depressing. Or perhaps at a young age I learned a particular way of suffering for love, a Turkish way, thus I am not moved that much by Scandinavian break-up songs.

I think particularly in one aspect the language of our initial upbringing always remains different than acquired languages: swearing. I find myself saying the rudest words in other languages with no shame or guilt. Whereas I blush using even the softest swear words in Turkish. This is due to my upbringing, which has caused me to internalize certain psychological responses to certain words. We automatically know that using swear words is improper in every language and country, thus we abide by the social norms, however, the language of our childhood evokes much deeper feelings of social reactions in us, thanks to our parents.

So, then, the question to ask to someone who lives in a country other than their own and who is potent in multiple languages, is not what their native language is, but which one they learned first.

Trotting the Globe by Day Light or Night

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 29 August

I love people watching, especially at airports. If it’s a daytime flight, I make it sure to have a pleasurable extra hour beyond the hassle of check-ins and security checks. My travel ritual includes a grande cappuccino and an Italian mozzarella panini savored at a strategic corner of the terminal with the best view of the hurried masses.

This is in fact a mobile age and international travel has enriched and empowered our world beyond our wildest dreams. Encounters with other cultures, fleeting visits to far away lands and daily exposure to the images of the most unspoiled natural wonders around the world are all things we take for granted.

As the seduction of “what is on offer,” or “exclusively” focuses our attention on all that can be bought with money – from taste to scenery, the darker side of this mobile age goes unnoticed by those who can afford to travel around the world in broad day light.

It isn’t only the “able” that travels around the world, gracing airports, cruises and border points out of a desire and means for something new. There is another group; the “forced”, as Zygmunt Bauman masterfully exposes in his Wasted Lives.

Unlike the able, the forced is not welcomed, lured and sought after. There are no marketing strategies seeking to attract them or no ‘fast track’ treatment to ease their discomfort. On the contrary, all border and immigration systems are designed to keep them out.

Unlike the able, the forced do not move around the world out of boredom. The forced are compelled to leave their lives, homes and affinities behind as a result of wars, persecution, famines and other calamities.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, “there were some 42 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2008.” Some of this 42 million are refugees and asylum seekers in other countries and some are internally displaced peoples. This number, of course, is a realistic guess and the truth is likely to be much higher.

In addition to this 42 million category, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, there are around 800,000 people, mostly women and girls, who were trafficked across nations, most of which end up in forced work in sex industry. This number does not include the people who are trafficked within their countries for forced labor and sexual exploitation.

To this most painful core of the forced, we must also add the millions of irregular migrants who venture into the unknown for the hope of a better future. They too watch the same commercials the able watch. They, too, are seduced to chase the exotic, the beautiful and the unspoiled. Just like hungry cats staring at a butcher’s window, the irregular migrants must wait for the perfect moment to sneak into the shop to grab whatever they can before being kicked out.

The irregular migrants, mostly young men who can risk the adventure of swimming across channels, jumping over fences, walking in wilderness or hiding among boxes of goods, just like millions of asylum seekers and stateless people, do not have the time or luxury of people watching and cappuccinos. They are hurried, anxious, fearful and shaken. Most of the forced travel contrary to their desires, or tastes, or dreams, and with no eyes to witness their ordeal.

Where as the border guards are at worst a nuisance who ask four or five questions at best and want to see what is in your bags for us the privileged who freely travel, credible reports show further suffering for the forced, in the forms of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as detention in inhuman conditions and forced deportations back to the hands of their abusers or the reasons for their original departure.

The forced and the able are both products of the same globalization process. Their mobility is encouraged and enabled by the same structures. They travel on the same paths to the same lands. Yet, they experience the global world extremely differently from each other. One sees the world in bright light through excited eyes, the other in the dark with terrified eyes.

Do we ever return 'home'?

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 14 August

During the last 10 years or so, I had the privilege and joy of living on three different continents, traveling widely in more than 25 countries, along the way learning foreign languages and undertaking in-depth academic studies on different religions, societies and cultures. I must admit one thing; I find leaving for a new place much easier than returning to where ‘I belong.’

A new country, a new language, a new cuisine, new friends and new thoughts thrill me. In those settings, I can make sense of my struggles, cultural misunderstandings and oddities. Both my hosts and I know that I am an outsider, cherish and treat me and communicate to me with that mutual understanding.

But, every journey also has a return. Adventurers might choose a solitary journey to reach where no one reached before, yet, with diaries kept and frantic pictures taken they signal their ultimate goal; to return and tell others. The same principle also applies to intellectual enquiry; although the human soul that pursues wisdom to make sense of the world around herself, ultimately she is moved to share what it discovered.

Just as those who ‘know,’ those who ‘see’ will tell, that they find communicating what they have experienced to people ‘back home’ much more difficult than the actual experiences, as they struggle to put the extraordinary into ordinary terms for those who are not aware of the reality outside their boundaries.

Those who return also face the horror of the disparity between their memories of the place they started their journey from and what they find when they eventually reach ‘home.’ Memories of intimacy, affinity and charm struggle accepting the difficulties in communication and the seeming inability of their old friends and families to ‘click’ with who they have become now.

Memories of hometowns clash with the towns as they are now. Streets look alien, cities all too small, and special hideouts extremely dull and ordinary. Even the populations seem different, as if an alien invasion took place and replaced the city overnight with some Martians.

It is not only the adventurer that has changed but also his or her audience. Time did not stop for those who stayed home, even though geographically they stayed still. They continued their existential journey full of successes, losses, disappointments and incommunicable explorations. They too struggle to make sense of the homecoming adventurer and they too face the odd disparity between then and now.

That is why the joy of seeing loved ones gives way to alienation quickly and that is why one feels more lonely and lost ‘back home’ than in foreign lands.

It is in fact true that no one can take a bath in the same river twice. Water runs, life moves on, riverbanks, cities, friends, music, food change. To expect a return to the sanitized memories of the past is impossible. To dictate relationships to be what they once were is a betrayal of the very intimacy one once cherished. To demand cities to shrink back into childhood memories that are possibly not the full picture is to demand an illusion.

For this reason, one must forget about ‘home’ if one wants to find one. The past must be laid to rest as the past, and the adventurer should do what he or she does best – learn a country all over again.

It in fact hurts to think that ‘home’ must be achieved and fought for. However, the truth is it was always so. It’s just that by losing it, we come to realize how much we take for granted.