From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Never Forget, Never Remember
by Yahia Lababidi
I look at the lengthening shadow of violence and intolerance spreading across the Middle East, Europe, and now the Divided States of America, and I wonder if the dangerous clown that is Donald Trump might not be the moral crisis we need to awaken us both to the world’s suffering and to our interconnectedness.
How is it that we are told to Never Forget 9/11 and the nearly three thousand lives taken, yet in the same breath we Never Remember the unjust “war” exacted in retribution and the hundreds of thousands of blameless, faceless Iraqi fatalities? There is no exchange rate for human suffering. All human life is sacred, all murder unholy.
Maybe we ask ourselves where Aleppo is and why we should care. We find ourselves confronted at home with gun violence, police brutality, the open wound of race relations, or the plaintive cry — as old as the creation of a nation — of indigenous Americans at Standing Rock. Or physically and psychologically damaged war veterans, homelessness, uprootedness, refugees, ISIS — all terrorists in the shape of our shadows, all side effects of the pandemic of indifference.
A prescription for our current malaise and how we might begin to heal can be found in these words by American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck:
How strange that we should ordinarily feel compelled to hide our wounds when we are all wounded! Community requires the ability to expose our wounds and weaknesses to our fellow creatures. It also requires the ability to be affected by the wounds of others… But even more important is the love that arises among us when we share, both ways, our woundedness.
We forgive to live. As an Arab-American bridge of a man named Gibran reminds us: “Hate is a dead thing. Who of you would be a tomb?” This bears repeating during a time of Islamophobic panic, when the thirteenth-century mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī is a best-selling poet in America. Rūmī was a Muslim and a refugee who lived in a turbulent time not too dissimilar to our own.
What glimmer of light, what lesson might we glean from this mysterious coincidence? How is it that we readily accept that we are governed by physical laws yet believe we can afford to turn our backs on age-old spiritual laws—love, compassion, sacrifice, mercy, trust—without paying too high a price? The price of a new chance to move past the murderous folly in the Middle East and the self-defeating arrogance of the United States is nothing less than surrender of our old, failed, broken ways.
Perhaps President Trump will unwittingly Make America Great Again by bringing about a reassessment of our values. The peaceful, powerful Women’s March on Washington, dwarfing the attendance of Trump’s inauguration and echoing throughout the world, suggests that it might be safe to hope for change again. Provoked by his administration’s disregard for science and denial of climate change, we witnessed the Scientists’ March. It has been heartening, too, to witness impassioned rallies in airports throughout the country, welcoming immigrants and protesting Trump’s unconstitutional executive order or “Muslim Ban.”
For my part, as immigrant and writer, and as a dual citizen of the U.S. and Egypt, I think of my art as a sort of peace offering. Living in America at a moment of mounting mistrust and murderous ignorance directed towards immigrants and more specifically the “Arab/Muslim world,” I see all too clearly how culturally diminished and spiritually impoverished we become when we close our doors to the world and our hearts to others.
I feel a personal responsibility to serve as witness, to protest, and to address our shared humanity. So I try to communicate through my work the great peace and beauty to be found in Sufism, the mystical branch of a little understood, much-maligned faith: Islam. As Juan Ramón Jiménez says, “Ah, to be one of them! One of the poets whose song helps close the wound rather than open it!”
Take action today:
Learn about others. Not just from the horrors on the news, and the particular spin of each station, but through better understanding their culture — in particular, their literature. This list of 25 Arab authors who tweet is by no means comprehensive, or entirely up to date, but it’s a start.
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American thinker, poet, and author of seven books, the latest of which, Where Epics Fail: Aphorisms on Art, Morality, and Spirit, will be published in fall 2018 and can be preordered here.