My Turn: ‘We are all humans’

  • AP PHOTO/ALBERTO PEZZALI AP PHOTO/ALBERTO PEZZALI

Published: 10/3/2021 7:01:29 AM

Bassam is the father of Abir.

   Rami is the father of Smadar.

   A bullet finds Abir as she leaves a candy store.

A suicide bomber finds Smadar.

Abir is 9. Smadar is 15. Two girls. Two fathers. One Israeli. One Arab.

United in death, in grief. United, the fathers, to honor their daughters in an unlikely quest for peace. “We are all humans,” Bassam says, his voice choked with urgency and sorrow. They speak, these bereaved fathers to children in schools, to soldiers in camps, to audiences everywhere, anywhere, to us at home watching on YouTube. The live audience claps The audience cries. Me? More and more I wonder about the humanness of humanity. How to come to terms with those who hate the likes of me? Those who hate many of us? Those who deny us our bodies, our health, our right to vote. What hope is left then?

I am remembering a dinner two decades ago. I was invited along with two Afghani students. The older of the two students was tall and lanky; he was attending Amherst College. I’ll call him Tomas. Dinner was lively, full of conversation and story-telling. Tomas led the way, animating his experiences.

After a lull, I asked him why he had left his country. His mood shifted as he recounted a harrowing background. He had come of age under the Soviet occupation. It was a challenging and dangerous time, but livable, he asserted. That is until the Taliban came into power and everything changed. He could no longer live his life. There was the constant surveillance and the severe penalties for simple infractions like listening to music, the wrong length of beard, the wrong companions. There were the daily horrors of public floggings and executions. He became very depressed and began taking suicidal risks. It was then that his parents had pulled strings to get him out of the country. Thanks to our dinner host, Tomas had ended up in Amherst. “I want to go back to my country,” he concluded, “when the Taliban are gone.”

His narrative has stayed with me all these years, deepening my understanding of the human price of tyranny. I cheered the defeat of the Taliban in the ’90s. Opposed to war and the conceit of nation building in general, I thought of Tomas, hoping he could go back to his country. But now what about those unlivable lives?

Which gets me back to thinking about Bassam and Rani’s plea to realize our common humanity, to overcome generations of enmity. Two fathers hoping by their testimony, by their personal witness to forge “a crack in the wall” of hatred. You can hear their story on YouTube and you can read their story in the powerful book by Colum McCann, “Apeirogon.”

Which gets me thinking about my son-in-law, Tom and the huge bouquet of purple, orange, pink gladiolas he brought us the other day. A truly huge bouquet because he bought out the whole stand from two young people who were selling them in Northfield. And how later he wrote a poem. Or what I read as a poem as he connected gladiolas to his grandfather, a man who had loved gladiolas and their tall, lush blossoms. An immigrant, that grandfather, who had passed on his skills and ingenuity to his grandson. This grandson who stops to buy flowers as a tribute to his grandfather’s memory but also to all immigrants.

I have to remember that when I first met Tom, how I had walled him out, pinning him down with stereotypes. How we passed the salt and glared. How we went to our adversarial corners. How our mutual love, his partner, my daughter, forced us out of our corners. How over the years, we were also pressed into shared journeys of companionship and love. Together, finding cracks in those damn walls.

I am unsure about humanity. Why must children die from suicide bombers and rubber bullets? Why must a young Afghani boy come of age in a country that has seen war and occupation for decades. Is a livable life the most that boy can hope for? Maybe in the years I have left, I will find a way to join those fathers pushing at the cracks in the walls that divide us. For Tomas, and for all of us as we seek not just a livable life, but a thriving and inspired one.

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.


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