When I spot you, dear T, I am not consciously reading the list of names auto-scrolling on my timeline. The three words that prove your existence are visible for barely two seconds. What are the chances of my eyes latching onto them firmly enough for your identity to register? With your unusual second name included, there can be no doubt you are among the 6,747 killed in the three weeks since the airstrikes started.
Like everyone else in the small strip of coastline where you were born—to parents forced from their homes and confined there, dependent for all of life’s necessities on those who dispossessed and displaced them—the local health authorities have been deprived of power and potable water for three weeks, unable to operate their emergency generators with fuel. Food supplies are steadily dwindling. Yet, one by one, they have managed to identify each body they failed to resuscitate. When I notice the headline in the paper of record does not read 6,747 People Killed, but instead 6,747 People They Say Were Killed, I am thinking what an unspeakable struggle that must’ve been.
By now, I’ve heard the cries of the dying and the instantly bereaved. I’ve seen decimated torsos and charred heads, baby corpses—so many baby corpses, T—and shell-shocked children with vacant eyes. I’ve seen infernos in the night sky, landscapes of endless rubble, journalists burying journalists, people breaking down at the news of their families dying on air. But nothing moves me more than a crowd of smiling doctors, many in blue uniforms, singing “We shall stay here” in response to an order to evacuate. They are identifying bombing casualties even as they’re told to abandon their patients because their hospital too will be bombed. And their answer is this joyful chorus, serene—no sign of fear or anger anywhere.
“This,” I say to my daughter, choking up, “is civilization. Not banking, not technology. Not weaponry that kills without a fight. This,” I go on, seeing her face pale, “is what it means to be civilized.”
These doctors, and more doctors just like them, made the list that internet activists have turned into an auto-scrolling image for my benefit; it is as though they went to all that trouble just to inform me of your passing. And I’m flustered because it feels imperative that I do something. For a long while all I can think about is who to contact, where to offer my condolences—as if that was the thing that mattered. Other than scrolling past the post—nothing to be done.
I forget when or how I found out you’d finally left your birthplace. Twelve years ago, when I saw you for the first and last time, it was there. And, though I was struck by its unique marriage of sea and sand, I insisted that you take steps to flee. What sort of future could you have in this dense, desperate cage besieged by occupiers and run by religious fundamentalists?
I remember you nodding seriously, a look of concern overtaking the excitement your face had shown while we discussed journalistic assignments. Years later, when I realized by chance that you’d become a successful interpreter in Sweden, I felt a shimmer of pride for having played my part.
You had grown dear to me while I edited your writing. I reached out with suggestions and queries to which you gave amusing, chatty responses. Do you remember your piece on the refugee camp children’s theater? Your work is how I learned your full name, arranging wire transfers with the newspaper. I helped you to think through family and future, too—you could open up to me, you said, more than anyone in your life.
All of this occurred remotely, of course. Only in the momentary interlude when I was invited to join a group of authors on a solidarity trip to your parts did we get to meet. Otherwise we could not cross the border to each other; neither of us really had reason to. Afterward, when we fell out of touch, it saddened me that I had no evidence at all of our contact, no image or souvenir or letter. I hadn’t even kept our chat logs.
But listen, T—here’s the thing. That interlude was possible because a revolution had broken out in my own country, and direct allies of your rulers were in the process of sabotaging it. Your people’s cause wasn’t the reason I had joined the protests. Ten years before, when the civilized world received its greatest blow from militant members of our faith, I had felt severed from myself. The peace-loving liberal in me dueled with the revolutionary who couldn’t forgive the historical power imbalance. It was the liberal that survived, not because I pardoned the civilized world’s racist past, but because I had faith in law and order, the political freedom and respect for human life that its future promised.
While we sipped coffee on the roof of my little hotel, I tried to explain to you that I envisaged regime change as a way to bring my country into the greater liberal commonwealth: secularism, universal principles, free speech, the individual. I didn’t know how to say that—like the left-wing ideologies of postcolonial dictatorships, like religious fundamentalism now—your people’s cause as it was could only be an obstacle.
To have sincerely believed in that commonwealth, though. To have believed that people like you and I could be part of it. It feels incredibly childlike now as I watch your occupiers level schools and hospitals, refugee shelters full of unarmed people. And, while declaring its unwavering support for the killers, sending them billions and billions in arms while the number of dead children rises, the same civilized world is divesting people of their livelihoods for expressing solidarity with you, policing what can be said about the conflict, and rejecting all requests for a ceasefire. Suddenly, I cannot help but remember that the civilized world is empire. It exists to overpower and subjugate us. To displace, to exterminate us, to appropriate our past.
Incredibly, idiotically naïve, wasn’t I?
Still, as I watched your occupiers unleash their Old Testament barbarism, it was a relief to remember you were in Sweden.
And that is why I was ashen when I spotted your name. You just happened to be home for the genocide? Visiting? What are the fucking chances? I think of your tortuous route winding through my big bad city, long since freed of religious fundamentalists and returned to the only form of governance it has known since independence: military dictatorship. And it saddens me that we were so out of touch it wouldn’t have occurred to you to look me up on the way.
You see, T, I have long accepted that, where two lives don’t happen to overlap, the vagaries of bread or love are bound to drive apart those who live them. But now that you are gone a gooey guilt attaches itself to me. After that first meeting, why did I never try to see you again? I won’t pretend I’d thought about you obsessively, but every time your birthplace was in the news—always because your occupiers were bombing it—I remembered how beautiful you were: bright green eyes, curls of amber hair, a heart-shaped face with a sharp and subtle symmetry, a voice that made the guttural dialect of your coastal strip sound like music. And a body to die for.
Now I can’t help but imagine the horrific ways the bountiful, bubbly life might have been squeezed out of your body. I see slabs of concrete cracking, revealing steel innards. I see scorched asphalt spattered with body parts. I see giant tassels of white phosphorous like the tails of mythical birds in flight. But I cannot place you in any of it, and eventually your face appears just as it did at the door to that hotel: curious, slightly nervous, full of joy.
That implausible joy was one of two things that stayed with me from the trip. Everyone I met in your parts seemed to show it. Remarkable resilience considering how difficult and dispiriting life was. On any given day, missiles could target your apartment building, your orchard, or your fishing boat—your beach. Even on a good day power was unreliable, communication networks spotty, and governance was corrupt, despotic and invasive as any of the region’s worst dictatorships.
Then again, perhaps joy is the prerogative of those who, as the saying goes, carry their souls on the palm of their hand. Even when—instead of resistance fighters or doctors at a hospital marked for instant destruction—they are just everyday people going about their business. Like others living in extremes, your people have perfected the art of being in the moment. The food, the camaraderie, the laughter, the fights. What might life be like on a spaceship under attack from an alien race while on a collision course with the sun?
Nothing quite distracts from the horror and the rage, but almost no concessions are made either; joy is there whenever and wherever it can be. It is real.
When I visited, the atmosphere was cautious and conservative, but defiance of your rulers’ pre-modern strictures was inspiring. Like many young women there, for example, you did not abide by the prescribed religious dress code. Young men were familiar with a method of torture in which they’d be suspended from their wrists with their hands tied behind their backs and beaten with sticks. Almost all had experienced this violence at some point. Yet, it did not prevent them from loudly and emphatically fighting, whether it was for the privacy to kiss by the sea or the need to audit public funds.
On our penultimate day together, there was a big event at a beautiful historic house that brought hundreds of young people from all over your birthplace together with the visiting authors, who gave talks, told stories, and answered questions. A rare treat for the locals; everyone was having a fantastic time. Suddenly, two men in suits at the door motioned to the podium to stop the proceedings.
Several men who followed started filming everyone present, evidently to place people on a list for subsequent interrogation. I remember a mustachioed little man in jeans aiming his Kalashnikov at each of us, casually nodding as he swerved. One at a time, the authors lost their tempers. The leader of our troop spoke to the two men in suits. Members of our party were the guests of the local cultural authorities, yet the same government’s police could not tolerate us inciting young people to rebellion, encouraging women to mix with men in public, playing theologically suspect music. A despondent mood reigned at the hotel that evening.
You and I were in the same row of seats when the hubbub took off, and we exchanged a silent look, a half smile. It lasted only a moment, but it was as though we had been living together for years. It communicated everything beyond the absurdity of the situation: the melancholy, the humor, the hopelessness, the fact that when I said you must leave, I was right.
That was the second thing I took away from the trip, T. Your birthplace was a locus where the pain of being in the world was concentrated and magnified. Whether or not I believed in a liberal commonwealth that would eventually save you, here was humanity’s terminus. There is a part of being human that is so unjust and unconscionable, so far removed from anything morally conceivable, you have to recognize that all of being human is impossible. Impossible to accept or wash your hands of. Impossible to put right. And instead of resistance and solidarity you can only grieve. I was grieving you long before you died, my friend.
You were one connection to a country and a people that, seventy-five years after empire started to deny your existence, still refuse to be gone. Instead of your body in pieces—maybe that’s why—I see you in your ancestral land, among the olive groves. A mythic idyll in some alternate timeline.
White horses cavort in iris-spattered grass. Dark cypresses point to the mountains in the distance. I just know there are no checkpoints or walls, no watch towers or weapons anywhere in the vicinity. Wearing the same off-white dress you had on that day at the historic house, your hair is longer and scruffier, more windblown than I imagine it ever was in your life. And you are cross-legged in the grass, scribbling or drawing in a notebook, your beautiful features spelling neither joy nor pain but the intense concentration that indicates you are safe.
Between this image and your birthplace, T, I guess the idea of a liberal commonwealth was something to hold onto. By the time we met, you see, I’d already grieved how religion could regress to a kind of death cult, and how a postcolonial nation alienated its citizens to the point that many of them were happy to embrace a death cult. Revolution had come to mean simply embracing global capitalism, but with the checks and balances that ensured safety from torture. And now that I’ve been witness to your extermination, there is so much more I have to grieve.