Sunday, 25 September 2016

Wild Flowers: Unfinished Thoughts on Privilege and Intention

“What is your connection to genocide?” he skeptically asked me.

“My connection to genocide?” I stammered for the first time in our conversation.

“Yes, your connection. You are not Armenian, you are not Palestinian, Iraqi…You are Canadian. So why are you here? What is your connection to genocide? Are you a scholar?”

We are standing at the back of an auditorium where scholars, students and activists from around the world have gathered for a conference entitled: After Genocide: From trauma to Rebirth - A Gendered Perspective. 

I want to tell this man that I have seen children changed by the violence they had no choice but to bear witness to. I want to tell him that I have seen state policies of violence and discrimination seep into a city’s buildings and make a home within their foundations, claiming the buildings, and by extension the entire city, as their own. I want to remind this man that I am human and my tie to genocide, to violence, is simple: humanity binds me to the pain of others. Instead, I hesitantly tell this man, “No, I am not a scholar. I am a teacher.” Clearly unsatisfied with my response, he gives me a confused look and a slight nod, shifting his focus back to the presenter at the front of the room.

Sitting in my windowsill with my journal aglow from the orange street light below, reflecting on this conversation, I look around my apartment. I have been here in Yerevan for one month. I have been asked countless times why I have decided to move my life here, to Armenia. Colleagues ask how I heard about their country, eager to hear my response. Strangers ask if I have come to meet an Armenian man to marry, because, they say, you can not find a man more loyal than an Armenian man. 

The familiar look of tepid confusion washes over their faces when I explain that I have come to their country - their home - to learn.

Catching a glimpse of the oversized and unwashed coffee mug I left on the kitchen counter while rushing out this morning to the conference, my mind brings me back to this man, the one who questioned my motives so intently. I suppose that when you have been fighting for over one hundred years to have your pain recognized and named by a world that has all but forgotten - or actively denied - your pain ever existed, a foreigner seeking to hear your stories and learn your pain is a strange, and possibly unsettling, encounter.

His questioning brings light to the ever-growing crack in my moral foundation. This crack is my subconscious’ manifestation of the privilege I have been afforded by my Canadian passport. It grows, expanding it’s darkness - my guilt - each time I trespass on land I have stolen a permit to visit simply by being born Canadian. It grows each time I learn how my government has silenced, restricted or denied the voices of others. I try my hardest to force wild flowers to grow from this crack, their petals unfurling as I water them with good intentions.

Though these flowers push themselves through my rib-cage, attempting to project their colours and honesty to each person I meet, they are born from the darkness that is my privilege - privilege that divides and categorizes us as humans whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. I try to situate myself in conversations about these places and experiences that don’t belong to me very carefully. Consistently washing my hands of any ownership of emotion or experience, I remind myself that I am here, both literally and figuratively, simply to learn. Still I wonder, what the implications of this desire to learn by witnessing - to learn by being, rather than reading and institutionalized education are? Can I truly be a well-intentioned visitor with a widening crack in her chest, leaving only the proverbially advised footprints when I depart?

Tatev, Armenia
As these thoughts race through my
mind, I watch stray cats court each other on the street below. Faint music from the building across the street seeps unassumingly into the outside world. I close my eyes and imagine a young couple dancing slowly in each others arms, windows open to allow the cleansing winds from Mount Ararat to sneak into their home, washing over them as they embrace. I too allow the breeze to enter my home, rustling the program of the conference that sits on my kitchen table, reminding me of the poignancy of its whisper.

Intoxicated by this city, I wonder again about this ever-expanding crack I do not yet have a name for and the wild flowers that sprout from it’s darkness. I pluck them frequently, offering them silently to the many people who have asked me to tell them stories of their homelands, lands they have never physically visited. I offer them to the poet who teaches me the word hiraeth, homesickness for a home-land she has never been. 

I offer them to the young sister of a friend, who struggles to understand why the bombings in her city are not in the news in my city. I offer them to the many people who have shared their family histories of violence and displacement to me, a woman who’s family history is painted only with peace and privilege.

Tonight, as Yerevan serenades me from my windowsill, I silently offer them, with red cheeks, to the man who questioned me today, “What is your connection to genocide?”

Tuesday, 24 May 2016


The ghosts of the past lay dormant just behind my eyelids, woken by the smallest of triggers. Erupting abruptly tonight, they dance around my mind, taking turns hoisting death above their shoulders. Betrayed by my subconscious, their hypnotizing dance continues as they sway just out of reach, obscuring my eye’s ability to see the desert scene in front of me clearly.

I want simply to soak my skin in the warmth of the setting sun, to let its peaceful rays wash over me. I want the oud's melodic whispers to relax my bones but, it's aching tune is no match for the grotesque masquerade ball taking place in my mind. It's taunting twists and turns of death mock the serenity of the dinner table in front of me.

As alertly and honestly as I can, I inhale deeply. Inhaling the music and the light smoke from the shisha pipe rising above the table next to me, I inhale the quiet grace of the evening. I inhale, pleading this new breath to tire the dancing ghosts behind my eyelids. I inhale slowly, squeezing my eyes shut as I exhale the dusty rubble that has been building a home in my chest over the last year. Turning to look at the sunset behind me, I ask the setting sun to pull the plug from the soles of my feet, to drain the grief from my body like it's draining the sky of its light.

Exchanging only silent forkfuls of food, the man who has brought me to this desert restaurant seems perturbed by my trance. His kind eyes narrow as they watch me stare intensely at the musician in front of us. As if trying to locate me on an old, tattered map, he seems to calculate the distance between us with his eyes, smiling only when I look in his direction.

Grease from the warm lamb kofta drips between my fingers, racing down my palms. My mind is saturated with memories. With each blink, my mind flashes backwards. Blink. I am sitting in my favourite small kebab shop wedged in between the crowded streets of the citadel in Erbil, eating kofta from a plastic plate. Blink. I am laughing in a cafe in Hebron, being served kofta by a boy with the widest, most innocent smile I have ever seen. Blink. I am in a restaurant in the Marghallas with salty grease dripping down my chin as I overlook the tired beauty of Islamabad. Blink. I am sitting cross legged on the living room floor, in the home of a student, a feast of barbequed meats spread in front of me. Blink. If nostalgia is built on repetitive memory, the grease now lining my hands is the Holy Land of nostalgia.

Nablus, Palestine
Quiet in my reflection, I glance at the man sitting beside me. I can not find the words to describe to him how the grease provoked a feeling of wistful bliss inside my soul. Having spent the last year in paralysis, trying to merely stay afloat through currents I had hoped would dislodge my soul from its place of numbness, I can not find the words to tell him that the grease dripping from my palms is a lighthouse - the first sign of life I have seen in months. What words can I possibly use that won’t cheapen the first surge of hopefulness to pulse through my veins in nearly a year?

I inhale and exhale slowly, distinctly aware of the familiar lightness washing over my body, pricking welcomed goosebumps into my skin. Overwhelmed with relief and gratitude, I smile to myself as the ghosts begin to slow their sway, quieting their disruption of my mind. Inhaling once more, I raise my hand to the world and whisper: I am ready to move on.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Search for Hope

I have sat down to write over the past six months countless times. I have sat down to write with agony, painfully writing words that surprise me with their bite. I have sat down to write with sadness, a sadness that eventually shifts my finger to the backspace button. I have sat down to write with brazen hope, a hope I can’t identify within myself anymore.

The accumulation of these efforts have resulted in sub-par writing I have been hesitant to release to the world. My usual writing has a glimmer to it. I’ve prided myself on writing about the atrocities of the world while expressing my hope in humanity simultaneously. Writing has been a dangerous labour for me these days as the hopefulness of my writing has all but disappeared.

Search for the word ‘travel’ online or mention it to your friends and you will be inundated with magical responses filled with shimmery new experiences naively categorized as simple wanderlust. After the endless new worlds and self-identities travel allowed me, my collection of experiences have broken open the seams of the backpack that accompanied me on my journey around the world to here.

The memories I had packed away are now scattered around my room. The memories of love, hope, generosity and kindness gleam in the sunlight while the memories of violence, death, starvation, apartheid, and war feed on the night. Time has become the weigh-scale for my accumulated memories and I never can tell what will seep out of my mind when I’m alone.

The truth is, I haven’t been able to write because the memories that come at night have all but erased the faith I have carried with me around the world. Coming home, surrounded by all the love I could, and have, ever wanted, I find myself fighting the world with a mixture of awe and bitter sadness.

Ever since I can remember, I have been a voracious reader. From a young age, I devoured books that told me of the pain of the world - beginning with a novel series based around a young girl’s plight under the Taliban in Afghanistan and moving towards memoirs of people who lived a life I thought I wanted - a life of truth seeking, of fighting for humanity, and trying to save lives.

Naively, in 2011, I began my own search for truth, following in the footsteps of the amazing men and women I had met in my books. This search brought me to over forty countries, most of them you would never find on a suggested travel list. I have watched riots in Islamabad, witnessed the velocity with which violence can rip apart society with poverty as it’s catalyst. I’ve seen a country where separate laws for different groups of people rip apart families and futures. I have seen militants defy all faith I had in humanity, slaughtering children and indoctrinating anyone along the way. I have seen good people do unthinkable things.

I’ve seen the way car bombs rip through a city’s serenity and a child’s sense of security. I have seen the way government can use unthinkable violence to promote it’s own skewed sense of morality and silence those who dissent. I have seen my own friends hold onto their ideas of humanity with the strongest clenched hands I’ve ever encountered. Coming home, I have seen an entire privileged society pay to watch a couple hours of these atrocities I know to be real in movie theatres for entertainment. I have seen an entire society turn a blind eye and I have seen our government easily breed hatred for an ‘other’ that I have fallen in love with.

These memories, these thoughts and these experiences make my mind a leaking faucet I don’t have the tools to fix. I am the embodiment of nerves on the brink. Sleepless nights, an unfocused mind and an anger with as much strength as any happiness I’ve ever encountered. A friend insists that the universe keeps giving you the same lesson over and over until you can prove that you have learned it - by this philosophy, I might be a bad learner.

Yet, here I am, despite myself, breathing fully. I am home. And being home, I am finally submitting to the the epiphany that this is happening, and will affect me for the rest of my life. My books and the heroes I met within them tell me to follow the atlas of my heart, despite how stained with the drops of water accumulated by time and memory it may be. But I know, I cannot move onto the next story until I tell this one - of a girl let down and disillusioned by the world - so I must tell this one. Call it a last act of desperate hope, that if I can be honest about the moments-in-between without obscuring them with insincerity, that the slate will clear and I may find my hope in the world again.

“The world needs more anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn't angry enough.”
― Bede Jarrett

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