Last year, I had an experience that I’ve been ashamed of ever since. I’ve been contemplating it a lot lately. Today, I stumbled on this article which touches on the issue beautifully and inspired me to write about it.
It was about two months after a bombing at a metro station in a different part of Istanbul and one month after the most recent bombing in a popular tourist area in Istanbul that had killed 13 tourists. I was on a metro car heading towards that same area. I know Istanbul well and I’ve never felt unsafe there. But this day, I got spooked.
The metro car wasn’t particularly crowded. Maybe 20 people in the car. I stood near the door people watching, entertaining myself by observing the crowd. I vaguely noticed a man standing near the opposite door. He checked his watch and reached down to check the large bag sitting at his feet, tugging on the handles to keep it upright. It was an over-sized shopping bag, holding something large and indistinct. At first I didn’t think anything of it and my eyes wandered on.
When I looked back his way, I saw him check his watch again, looking stressed. Late for work, maybe. He caught my eye, smiled lightly and nodded, a polite greeting. I nodded back, but felt a twinge of anxiety. What was in the bag? Was I so naive as to think it was safe to be on the metro in the tourist part of a city where a man had recently walked up to a tour group and detonated himself? Two months after a bombing in a metro station in a different part of the city.
The train moved on. I tried not to stare at the man, willing myself to be trusting, to hold fast to my own rhetoric about how being here was safer than driving a car or a host of other risks we expose ourselves to daily. The man looked down at his bag again and I felt doubt rising. And in that awkward social situation that is public transit, our eyes met silently again. And he smiled. There was a stress to that smile, a reassurance. Was he smiling at me to allay my concern so I wouldn’t raise an alarm?
A part of my brain I was trying to ignore reasoned that if he was setting off a bomb, he’d do it at the primary tourist stop. We were two stops away. The doors opened. My feet twitched but I stayed put. When the doors opened again, one stop from the tourist area, my feet moved without my brain giving orders. The man caught my eye as I stepped out the door and I will never forget the look in his eyes.
The moment my foot touched ground outside the train, I felt guilt, not relief. He knew. He knew I was scared of him. He knew why. And he knew he wasn’t a threat.
I walked the next six blocks or so to the stop I had been intending to go to, that last glance etched in my thoughts. A morbid part of me listened for an explosion, wanting my fear to be justified. Because I had succumbed to the fear that I fought so hard to prevent in others.
I travel to Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and other places where mainstream media and the U.S. state department tell us not to travel precisely to see these places for what they really are, to visit my friends here, and to share that experience with other Americans when I go home. To fight the “Islamic terrorist” capital letters on the evening news. To fight against the fear of “other”. And here I was, on a metro car looking at a man with ‘Middle Eastern coloring’, stressed about being late for work, carrying a heavy load, and I was afraid of him.
The rest of that day sucked. I eventually curled up in my bed at a small hostel and took a nap to sleep away the depression I felt at the realization that I too could succumb to that fear. In the year since, I tried to brush off that moment, the look in his eyes.
But last month I found myself on the other side of a similar exchange.
I was back in Istanbul. My flight landed at Ataturk airport and, planning to make a film about the project I was working on, I had my GoPro in hand while exiting the plane, walking through the terminal, looking for baggage claim signs. I was walking alongside the moving sidewalk when a moment of inspiration struck. I set my GoPro on the handrail, scrolling in time with the sidewalk, and walked past it using the handrail as a moving tripod to film myself.
After a few steps, I heard someone say something in Arabic behind me, sounding startled. I turned to see an older woman dressed in traditional long black flowing layers pointing at my camera and speaking worriedly to the people in front of me on the moving sidewalk. They turned to look, concern on their faces as well.
And that’s when I realized that I had just set a small black box with a blinking red light onto a moving sidewalk in a small crowd and walked away. A blinking black box. In an airport where only 8 months before, 45 people were killed in a combined shooting and bombing attack.
I tried to smile, to be reassuring, mimed taking a photo saying “it’s a camera” as I picked it up off the railing and turned it off. I felt extraordinarily silly, guilty, and frustrated at the same time.
Because we are afraid. And that’s not unreasonable. The world feels quite volatile these days. In general, we are still safer day to day than any people have been at any point in history. (Yes, even including terrorism).
But I was wrong to feel ashamed. Being ashamed means we don’t talk about it. We don’t expose those fears and question where they come from. We don’t solve the problem by pretending not to be afraid.
“Saying “we are not afraid” is a shortcut to a false unity — we’ll pay a price for it in the end. It’s a short-term fix that causes long-term damage, because it keeps us from going to the core of what separates us from each other. This bravado prevents us from building a more robust society that is strong enough to not only withstand the next terror attack, but to actually unmake violence itself?—?to love terrorism out of existence.” — Jeremy Courtney, Preemptive Love Coalition
I’m glad for the fear I felt that day on the train, and for the fear I accidentally inspired in that woman in the airport. Because now I have two faces etched in my mind: the man who knew I didn’t trust him, and the woman who didn’t trust me.
That day last year, I had to recognize that as calm and worldly as I try to be, I still have a fear of strangers, of ‘other’. But last month in the airport, it was a humbling moment to realize that I could be an ‘other’ to be feared by someone else.
I can’t help but see a sort of poetry in this, in my actions scaring a woman whose dress and language are increasingly seen as a symbol of fear and oppression to the western world.
I’m going to end this by sharing the words of Jeremy Courtney, the head of a non-profit organization doing great work to take care of the people on the ground in the middle of conflict in Syria and Iraq.
“Real courage is not found in the denial of fear. It’s when we choose to face our fear, take one step toward it, and love anyway.
“Love means listening to the fears of those who are traumatized by terror, who are fearful of the next attack — instead of pretending these fears don’t exist or that they somehow make us weak. It means learning to have healthy conversations about what or who we fear and asking how can we help?
“Love means listening to the fears of those who have become targets for reprisal or marginalization — as a direct result of the fear most of us pretend not to have. The hibaji woman who cannot walk down the street without drawing hostile stares, the refugee with the “Middle Eastern-sounding” name who wonders if he is truly welcome in his new home — love takes one step toward “the other.”
“Pretending you’re not afraid might get you through today or the next day. But if you actually want to change the world you live in — if you want to walk through your fear, not just deny it — preemptive love is the only way.
“This kind of love refuses to pit us against them. It refuses to put our well-being over and against the well-being of others. It says we belong to each other — fears and all.
“Violence unmakes the world — and make no mistake: that is a scary thing. But preemptive love unmakes violence. And that’s the best way to defeat terror.”
— Jeremy Courtney, Preemptive Love Coalition