A brief encounter seldom encapsulates the brutality of war. However, it can open scars in uncertain ways.
In the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq, when the wounds of war were still fresh, an American journalist walked into his newsroom in Dubai. He had spent months embedded with the US military in Iraq, representing a prominent magazine. Those were the most turbulent days of a backlash against the invasion.
The “former American journalist who covered the Middle East”, as he chooses to call himself, took pride in impartial journalism and considered himself lucky to survive this phase of violent times in Iraq. However, that morning, as he settled down to file his report, he was introduced to a young Iraqi girl who had just joined the organisation.
It somehow ended up becoming an awkward encounter for him. Ironically, he has almost entirely forgotten the episode. It seemed the trauma of being so close to the carnage or the guilt of representing the aggressor’s country. Nevertheless, he has a telling remark on his encounters with ordinary Iraqis.
“Not all Iraqis hated the American invasion. Even some who did would be unfailingly polite. Others less so,” he says. A conflict influencing social behaviour, especially against those who perpetrated it, deserves a bigger scale than one encounter. For the American journalist recounting those circumstances, “it was really about individuals dealing with their experiences and traumas that might affect how they interact with someone who is from a country that might have attacked them”.
That said, there is an enormous difference between being a journalist and an active combatant. “Most Iraqis that I have met understood that difference,” he says, with a sigh of relief.
The siege child
Data analyst and migration expert Emina Osmandžiković is a Bosnian Muslim. She is the proud member of a community often referred to as ‘Bosniak,’ one of three officially recognised ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other two being Orthodox Serbs, and Roman Catholic Croats. Born during the Bosnian war at the height of its capital’s siege — one of the longest sieges of any city in modern history — Osmandžiković’s family members fled the country as refugees.
“Today, they live scattered around the globe, having continued their lives in the safety of other countries,” says Osmandžiković. Her parents chose to stay and raise her and her younger sister in a future-oriented and yet war-scarred country that has struggled to stand on its two feet ever since the 1990s. She was raised to be blind to differences.
Osmandžiković’s parents travelled around the Balkans and ensured that the sisters interacted with all the region’s communities, regardless of their ethnic, religious, and other differences. To her, there is no “other side” as such. However, her easily recognisable Muslim name, especially in the Balkans, has landed her into some tricky situations.
She recalls being at a conference in Athens, Greece, a few years ago when an unpleasant sequence of events unfolded. “Right after my lecture on non-European refugees and their integration into the European Union (EU), I went into a local coffee shop to buy some coffee,” she says.
The owner of the coffee shop was a robust, tall person with a forest of tattoos covering both of his arms, most representing the Orthodox cross and similar symbols of Christianity.
“When I ordered my coffee, he asked me where I’m from. I responded that I’m from Bosnia and Herzegovina and made a joke that we’re almost neighbours (one of those ‘our spinach pie is better than your situations’),” Osmandžiković recalls. However, the moment she responded, he looked at her sharply, more carefully, and asked her name.
“Somehow, I knew I was supposed to lie. I said Emina, a neutral name with ambiguous ethno-religious affiliation,” she narrates, adding that the tattooed giant almost sighed half an air gallon of relief and chuckled, “as if he was contemplating on some long-lost times.” This was a classic instance of the bogey of conflict triggering socially awkward behaviour.
But the matter didn’t end there as Osmandžiković’s curiosity was getting the better of her. When she asked his name, which happened to be a typical Greek name she can no longer recall. “He then looked at me and said: thank God you are our orthodox sister. You come from the right side of Bosnia, our side. I was there during the war, and I support our orthodox brothers. Your coffee is free, sister.” That was easily the most bitter coffee she ever had.
For Keti Archaia, a 25-year-old Georgian citizen, the raging Russia-Ukraine conflict has re-ignited the dilemma surrounding how to share space with people perceived as aggressors. “It’s difficult to speak while wounds are still fresh as the situation in Ukraine unfolds. But I think the problem is not as much in nationality as much as it is in the absence of shared values and political standpoint,” she says.
Interestingly, Achaia has encountered differences of opinions within all three nationalities (Russians, Georgians, and Ukrainians). To her, they are all equally problematic. “With recent developments, it has come to a point when these different standpoints can no longer co-exist without the bitterness of the conflict,” she says, emphasising that standpoints should not be confused with nationality.
Archaia still holds faith in humanity and hopes that we remain civilized enough not to hold ordinary citizens accountable for the actions of their leaders. “But I also believe that no action is still an action. Citizens must speak up against their leaders and hold them accountable in the first place,” she says. According to her, that is where the real conversation needs to happen.
In the interconnected world we live in, it is impossible to avoid meeting people from “the other side.” Is access to information and connectivity making us more socially awkward? “Not at all,” says Archaia. “If anything, connectivity helps us to exchange information and gather the courage to speak up.” She cites the Soviet Union example where, “absence of connectivity and information made people paranoid.” “I hope no one wants to go back to that,” Archaia adds.
Yana Korobko, a Kyiv-based psychoanalyst, clinical practitioner, and author, generalises the war as not being against a nation. “This (Russia-Ukraine) war is against political ideas and regimes. There are many Russians who don’t support Putin,” she says. That almost automatically means one cannot hold all Russians responsible; nor can Ukrainians be absolved of all culpability.
According to Korobko, meeting radical otherness is always worrying, not to mention the wide access to the other side of the aisle today. “Such meetings happen spontaneously and are oftentimes unsolicited,” she says of the social encounters that often turn awkward. Often, the discrepancies that existed are forgotten.
Born and raised in Los Angeles by parents from Mexico, Yesenia Serna has grown up with a deep understanding of Mexican culture and traditions. Now, she lives in Italy and tries to hold on to what it means, especially while cooking. Serna shares Mexican recipes on her Instagram page YesiCooks.
Serna feels too American to fathom the bitterness surrounding the wall with Mexico. However, she is sensitive enough to understand that stereotypes during social engagements will continue to influence us unless we learn from history. “The beliefs of an ordinary person can be the same as that of their ancestors who committed the crimes, and you’ll know this with a conversation that runs deeper than just the surface,” she says.
Serna doesn’t use the word “awkward” to describe such encounters. “I think we’re “reactive” because having access to this information has made us more aware of politics, privilege, micro-aggressions, etc.” she says. “We’re able to react to certain situations and in many cases come to the defense of either ourselves, our people, or the underprivileged,” says Serna. Going by Serna’s hypothesis, it’s the surroundings and the social milieu that define our response to stimuli of this kind. Yet, heredity matters as much as the environment during human engagement of a social category.
More than two decades after the conflict, “Bosniak” Osmandžiković still finds deep-seated divisions present even across the region, not just Bosnia’s immediate neighborhood. “I’m a Slav, perhaps more so than the Greek cafe owner. But what matters is what lives in the heads of people rather than what the truth is,” she asserts.
Undoubtedly, no sane person would hold an ordinary citizen responsible for a war crime his/her country committed. But with growing instances of hyper-nationalism, would this be a thing of the past? For Osmandžiković, perhaps, this depends on the type of conflict.
“In a highly polarised world, such narratives dangerously flirt with extremist tendencies. And looking at the scale-up of such societal issues, you end up with entire communities that are politically sharpened, hyper-sensitive to ‘out-group’ individuals, and staunch fighters of any opposing narratives, whether official or alternative positions by other/minority groups,” she elaborates.
Perhaps, access to information and connectivity is making us more socially awkward than was the case, probably just a few decades ago. Moreover, social media is a powerful tool that we can use to connect with people worldwide endlessly. We can also use it to isolate ourselves in our cognitive bubbles with only like-minded people, shunning others out.
According to Osmandžiković, now we have virtually intractable access to a cornucopia of information. However, not everything we read online (or offline) is accurate. “Most things cannot be classified as apolitical. And in the age of information, we are often lacking the skills of critical thinking to process it into knowledge on things,” she says, adding that this applies to both an individual and a societal level “with entire countries included in this exercise of “numbing of the mind”.
Going by Osmandžiković’s argument, all this leads to mass desensitisation. “I believe Hannah Arendt called this the banality of evil, put in the context of mass atrocities and war scenarios,” she says, unsure how we can escape it unless we keep seeking ways to develop our critical thinking skills.
“There is much more out there that can connect us rather than divide us, and the trick is to find these meeting spots. Otherwise, the world may become more fragmented than ever before, swimming in the sea of information we’re unable or unwilling to process,” she concludes.
Ehtesham Shahid is editor at the Emirates Policy Center
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