I admit it with some embarrassment; in my daily perusal of the New York Times I sometimes skip over the articles on Iraq. The ones that say 14 people were blown up in this market, or two soldiers were wounded while on neighborhood patrol. I have taught courses in human rights. I have taught courses in war and peace. I have taught courses on politics in the Middle East, assigning the writings of Edward Said, confident that the students must know this, filled with anticipatory pleasure that I will reread his eloquent words again.
And yet, I barely breeze through these articles sometimes, on Tuesdays maybe, after squeezing in a long run in the pre-dawn hours, shuffling my children off to school, and heading to work in my largely administrative university position. Despite my own voting records, and the records of countless people like me, as we try to strip the funding from this ill-conceived war, as we try to see that some semblance of justice is upheld for the contractors who commit human rights violations, as we try to insist upon just a few more visas for destitute Iraqis, many of whom work for us, it is the place of this war in the minutiae of most of our lives that has caused some of our ears to prick in some surprise when we hear five years. Five years.
Foreign Policy In Focus recently put together a summary of statistics; statistics that should not belong to the wealthiest country in the world, to a country that prides itself on one of the most progressive value sets in history. And yet the numbers tumble out; 81,632-1,120,000 Iraqi civilians dead. How could we be so unsure? How could we not know whether 1,038, 368 people celebrated their eighth birthdays or graduated from high school or handed their daughters off in marriage? We are a bit more confident about our estimates of Iraqi refugees, 2.2-2.4 million (it helps that other countries are trying to count them as their cities and slums swell uncomfortably). But here too we don’t know whether the intended birthday trinkets were left behind, whether education was abandoned such that gutters could be swept or handouts could be taken in the streets of Damascus and Iran, or whether elderly fathers were left behind, too frail to make the trip outside Iraq.
Images of these victims are rare on the mainstream news and generally when they appear, perhaps as background snippets to a discussion of troop strategy, we cannot quite move beyond this level of Arab as abstraction. We can’t quite be moved at the gut towards a glimmer that we insist is the glimmer of a shared humanity. We may call these infractions human rights violations, we may count them and track them and remember to read these numbers most days of the week, but I have only rarely seen the lurching of a human gut towards these suffering people.
One instance when I have seen this primal lurch – and I write this with discomfort about what it says about ideologies and theories of ethnicity and kinship – is in the body of my own husband. A Lebanese-Palestinian who has been in the United States for a decade, he is in fact very assimilated, a man whose work and day to day life are quite far removed from the politics of the Arab world. Yet one evening, many months ago, we watched (on which channel, I cannot recall) coverage of the aftermath of a bombing that had hit a civilian neighborhood. The images were as they always are; too many effects of personal life strewn about gaping concrete, too many confused and dirtied people. A few minutes into the broadcast, the newsman let the sound of a woman in the background into the clip and it was a piercing, accusatory, sad, fractured voice. She spoke in Arabic, there was no translation. But as she yelled in her hijab my husband shook slightly, teared slightly. “It sounds like my mother. Like all the women I know.”
Those who write on human rights and the media, those like Samantha Power and Susan Moeller often talk about the way media manipulates certain human rights stories such that we feel a sympathy; we can relate to the suffering widow or the grief-stricken father. Quick images of bellies swollen as a result of fetid water or child-sized coffins try to tug at fatigued heart strings in the Western world, imploring us to save the children of Iraq. We are to see that these people are human. This, the theory goes, will compel our continued attention to the war, the suffering. But I squirmed uncomfortably that humid evening, eyeing my husband in his sweaty white undershirt and blue jeans. The men behind the wailing woman, they had sweaty white undershirts on too. The Arab abstraction had disappeared for a moment in our living room, replaced by an Arab, ripe with flesh and feeling.
I don’t know how we move ahead in a world where it is a world populated by cultural abstractions, intangible humans, and visceral Arabs (and Sudanese, and Guatemalans, and so many more). Optimism is difficult though the imperfect democratic system may yet help us out of this deeply problematic quagmire as I suspect that there may be enough who can continue to read the stories most days, to vote and register our dissatisfaction with this war. If so, I think we will have hobbled out on ration, principle, and a good deal of concern that it is just too damn expensive.
But I fear that we are still terrifyingly ill-prepared to really grapple with the meaning of the abstract Arab, the human that glimmers and beckons out of reach, and the lurching in the gut of one Arab to another.