Monday, September 11, 2006

I wrote my final MA exam with a sense of growing irritation. Monitors and professors kept tiptoeing in, whispering conversations and stalking out again. Rather than a handful of people seeing us through the exam from beginning to end, staff kept changing over. It was annoying and disruptive. I remember thinking I wished that they would all just shut up and go away. Once the papers were finally collected, a senior professor announced that something very important had happened and we should all immediately go to the student bar below and watch the news (it had a large screen tv). As we gathered our belongings, he came to me and said it was imperative I do this immediately as the incident involved New York and he knew how many American friends I had there. I remember thinking 'What are you going on about?' and looking at him as though he had grown an extra head. We slouched downstairs, somewhat tired and disgruntled, as one does after a three hour exam and discovered the news. It was September 11th, 2001. For quite a few minutes I remember thinking it was a really well put together roleplay (the MA was in International Conflict Analysis - the irony) and how had they managed to get all the newsreaders I knew so well from my time in America to agree to do a roleplay for a British university department? One does think strange thoughts! Gradually comprehension dawned, and with it horror. My first phonecall was to the giri to ask if he'd seen the news; my next to our friend who worked in one of the World Trade Centre towers. No answer; and calling again and again and again throughout the night trying to get through to New York.

I suspect we can all remember where we were on September 11th, 2001, when our tv screens showed us extraordinary, unbelievable footage. The sadness for me, is the lack of application of the lessons we should have learnt from that experience. America, ironically and unnecessarily, has grown ever more isolated instead of capitalizing on the immense worldwide support which initially flooded in. For the US administration and many Americans, '9/11' became an American tragedy, instead of a tragedy touching us all; as if only Americans died or were affected. They (temporarily I hope) lost recognition of the interconnectedness of all humanity and in came the us vs. them, 'if you're not with us you're against us' mentality. I could go on, but (happily for you) I won't.

This morning I started Michela Wrong's I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU: HOW THE WORLD BETRAYED A SMALL AFRICAN NATION. As I read her foreword, it all seemed to click into place with what I was thinking about today's anniversary:
History is written - or, more accurately, written out - by the conquerors. If Eritrea has been lost in the milky haze of amnesia, it surely cannot be unconnected to the fact that so many former masters and intervening powers - from Italy to Britain, the US to the Soviet Union, Israel and the United Nations, not forgetting, of course, Ethiopia, the most formidable occupier of them all - behaved so very badly there. Better to forget than dwell on episodes which reveal the victors at their most racist and small-minded, cold-bloodedly manipulative or simply brutal beyond belief. To act so ruthlessly, yet emerge with so little to show for all the grim opportunism; well, which nation really wants to remember that.

The problem, as the news headlines remind us every day, is that while the victims of colonial and Cold War blunders do not pen the story that ends up becoming the world's collective memory, they also don't share the conquerors' lazy capacity for forgetfulness. Any regular Western visitor to the developing world will be familiar with that awkward moment when a local resident raises, with a passion and level of forensic detail that reveals this is still an open wound, some injustice perpetrated long ago by the colonial master. Baffled, the traveller registers that the forgotten massacre or broken treaty, which he has only just discovered, is the keystone on which an entire community's identity has been built. 'Gosh, why are they still harping on about that?' he thinks. 'Why can't they just move on? We have.' It is a version of the 'Why do they hate us so much?' question a shocked America asked in the wake of September 11. Eritrea's story provides part of the answer to that query. It is very easy to be generous with your forgiving and forgetting, when you are the one in need of forgiveness. A sense of wounded righteousness keeps the memory sharp. Societies that know they have suffered a great wrong have a disconcerting habit of nursing their grievances, keeping them keen through the decades.
(p. xii)
Perspective. Identity. Grievance. Acknowledgement. Humanity. So much food for thought...



Post a Comment

<< Home