In the spring of 2006, I had tea with a woman I knew slightly but thought might become a friend. We sat at a low table in the Senior Common Room at SOAS. The room is attractive, curved at the far end, light and airy. A portrait of the explorer Richard Burton looked down on us.
My new acquaintance was short and dressed in beige in an academic hippy style. She began, without preamble, before we’d properly settled in: ‘I’ve travelled in the Middle East’, she said, and then, with that presumed authority some English women can manage, she let fly the racist crap.
‘I’ve seen what it’s like.’ Unstoppable, wringing her hands, she told me of her concern for Afghan women and began telling stories. Horror stories, every one.
‘Did the women themselves tell you these stories?’ I asked. ‘Well, no, not exactly.’
I kept my mouth shut, screaming inside. Some for sure had been true once, but these were stories that had been around a long time. They were recycled, mythic. One was already a repeat when I read it again in a UN report on Afghan women in the early 1990s.
By 2006, for forty years, my life had been focused on Middle East. Listening to liberal feminists spout orientalist shyte was part of the deal. And this one, like others, was determined to keep me silent. She was determined to protect her perfect sense of right and wrong. And though I tried, I couldn’t counter her certainty – about American aims, and aid, about NGO aims and aid, about the torrent of money that flowed into the country along with the violence.
In this conversation she diminished me. Far worse, she denied the humanity, the complexity and evil in our world.
She evinced no interest in real people, no empathy for real women, or men, or children or even cats and dogs. But somehow, she knew best and she knew it all – what was under the veil, beyond the veil and, frankly, up the veil.
She was hateful and made me angry. When I went home, I wrote a poem.Continue reading