Guilt, a luxury; and other emotions of someone watching Libya from afar

As I listen to the newscasts each day on the radio, and watch from afar as the world changes abruptly across North Africa and the Middle East, two things have struck me. The first is that somewhat cynical adage, hiding very near in the shadows in the wake of Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Egypt: "meet the old boss, same as the new boss." No one had confirmed this for me, but I felt there was a good chance, with military running the country now, that a new regime might turn out looking suspiciously like the old one. I hope not, but time shall tell. A news story from yesterday's broadcast confirmed my thought--actually quoting the exact same adage--and related Egypt's revolution to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-05, in which protesters largely quit their progressive work too soon and things returned to much the same as they had before. (Listen to that here: Lessons for Egypt from Ukraine.)

The other has to do with my distance. A week or two ago, an American schoolteacher who had been living and teaching in Libya at the American school there was interviewed for a news report after she had landed somewhere in Europe, and she was talking about the collective sigh of relief that had arisen from all the passengers aboard as the plane finally lifted off the ground, spelling their imminent escape and safety. I was relieved for her two, as Libya is engrossed now in an all-out civil war, Muammar Gaddafi's forces and supporters, against those who want his more than forty-year regime to end.

I was also stricken by the fact that I would have the option to leave, I may have been so lucky. I am watching this at a very comfortable distance, not forced to watch as my neighbors are killed, and I must chose to leave my home and take my family to flee for Tunisia, or Egypt--and begin life as a refugee, the kind that end up on the covers of magazines, that the world takes on as a human rights issue or as the plight of whatever country has been good enough to offer me sanctuary. If I were lucky enough to get away.

These thoughts were not very developed in my mind, but I keep returning to them, in their ameba form, as the terrible situation continues to unfold and worsen across Libya. The American women who was interviewed had remarked that she expected her school and home would be overtaken, that she may not ever be able to return. I remember thinking at the time that surely she was overestimating the thing, this would play out instead much as it already had across the African north. A few more briefings on Libya's past--and how deeply it differs from that of Egypt's or Moroccos--and I'm chastised. A few weeks of watching Gaddafi rage like a lunatic--who makes Charlie Sheen look like a kitten, and I'm again embarrassed to think of my naivete of a few weeks ago.

Then, there in a book I happened to pick up, was a passage that got at this lingering pang in my head, and my heart: this distant emotion, this lack of connection, symptomatic of being a concerned citizen in the world, who is also only relatively aware of the danger and uncertainty that plagues many places, a kind of madness that I myself, as an American living a truly blessed life for being here, will never quite be able to understand. I am convinced it takes a great deal more faith to live in many other places on this earth, and Libya is the actualization of pain at this moment.

Spring break last week gave me some time to read some non-school items, and I have been absolutely engrossed in Barack Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I am honestly truly impressed with Obama's writing, the way he can write a flowing, complex emotion or experience out into words. He has also had a fascinating life, and it was in the midst of his years in Indonesia as a young boy, watching his American mother assimilate and attempt understand this island nation, the homeland of her second husband, Lolo, that he recounts exactly the evocative words I could not myself write.

Innuendo, half-whispered asides; that's how she found out that we had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times. The idea frightened her, the notion that history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth could soak up the rivers of blood that had once coursed through the streets; the way people could continue about their business beneath giant posters of the new president as if nothing had happened, a nation busy developing itself. As her circle of Indonesian friends widened, a few of them would be willing to tell her other stories--about the corruption that pervaded government agencies, the shakedowns by police and military, entire industries carved out for the president's family and entourage. And with each new story, she would go to Lolo in private and ask him: "Is it true?"

He would never say. The more she asked, the more steadfast he became in his good-natured silence. "Why are you worrying about such talk?" he would ask her. "Why don't you buy a new dress for the party?" She had finally complained to one of Lolo's cousins, a pediatrician who had helped look after Lolo during the war.

"You don't understand," the cousin had told her gently.

"Understand what?"

"The circumstances of Lolo's return [to Indonesia, from Hawaii, where he met Stanley, Obama's mother]. He hadn't planned on coming back from Hawaii so early, you know. During the purge, all students studying abroad had been summoned without explanation, their passports revoked. When Lolo stepped off the plane, he had no idea of what might happen next. We couldn't see him; the army officials took him away and questioned him. They told him that he has just been conscripted and would be going to the jungles of New Guinea for a year. And he was one of the lucky ones. Students studying in Eastern Bloc countries did much worse. Many of them are still in jail. Or vanished. You shouldn't be too hard on Lolo," the cousin repeated. "Such times are best forgotten."

My mother left the cousin's house in a daze.

. . . .

Power. The word fixed in my mother's mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But here power was undistinguished, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he'd escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn't his own. That's how things were; you couldn't change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting, just as his brother-in-law had done, making millions as a high official in the national oil company; just as another brother had tried to do, only he had miscalculated and was now reduced to stealing pieces of silverware whenever he came for a visit, selling them later for loose cigarettes.

She remembered what Lolo had told her once when her constant questioning had finally touched a nerve. "Guilt is a luxury only foreigners can afford," he had said. "Like saying whatever pops into your head." She didn't know what it was like to lose everything, to wake up and feel her belly eating itself. She didn't know how crowded and treacherous the path to security could be. Without absolute concentration, one could easily slip, tumble backward.

He was right, of course. She was a foreigner, middle-class and white and protected by her heredity whether she wanted protection or not. She could always leave if things got too messy.

((Italicized portions are my own emphasis.))