Thursday, September 10, 2015

Reality intrudes

Holidays are meant to be happy. They are times for celebration and deliberate forgetfulness--of routine, of duty, of cares. They are about getting away from the despair that stares at us everyday from the pages of a newspaper and the big problems of the world: climate change, the care of the elderly, poverty and the arms trade, among many others. Some destinations might offer a true "getaway" but many of the more interesting places in the world are fascinating places just because they do not shut the world out, they draw it in.

So here I was, in Istanbul, one of the more favoured destinations for travellers and tourists alike. Its syncretic culture, the links with a past that connects to so many strands of history, and the beauty of its mosque-lined riverfront make it a continuous journey of discovery. Not to mention the great food and the beautiful people.

This was my second visit to the city, made more special because I was sharing it with my daughter.

But something was different this time around. The difference was Syria.

The heartrending image of Aylaan Kurdi and every other fleeing Syrian mother, father, child and grandparent that we have encountered on our small screens speaks to us again and again of the huge tragedy that is modern warfare over resources, identity and means of livelihood. But because of the exigencies of daily life, we sigh, we shed an inward tear, we take note of our passing heartbreak, and we move on to manage our present. There's not much that most of us can do except stay aware and stay sensitive and donate a bit when there's a chance--and of course stay on top the micro-causes that we have control over.

But once in a while the stories jump off the page of the paper or screen and enter your own everyday space. You come face to face with the people making the news, the nameless thousands who are experiencing the tragedy of displacement and disenfranchisement, those who are rendered homeless by the circumstances of a war not of their making.

On the streets of Istanbul, the fallout of the Syrian tragedy stares you in the face. Mothers and children foraging for food, little boys hanging on to the sides of pedestrian walkways and begging, clumps of people of all ages huddled in public parks. You're warned by tourist guides to "watch out" for the refugees, to avoid the darker side streets where they may be seeking shelter.

Syria has been more than a news story to us in my University department as well. One of our second year MA students is from Syria. Her parents are among the many who have stayed in the country despite the difficult conditions. Her brother has been missing for close to three years, and as conditions worsen, her parents refuse to leave, holding on to the hope that their son might return. Life is hard, and precarious, with militant groups barging into the house and taking things with impunity, acting like looting marauders. Still, they will not leave, and back in India, many miles away, their daughter suffers silently, wondering what the next day's news will bring. Her continuous yet very understated, heartbreaking anxiety filters out to us in some measure, and we are reminded of the huge human tragedies, the very personal stories of loss that are the real measure of conflict.

We in India are used to scenes of deprivation and displacement, and of loss created by conflict of all kinds. We may respond (or not) to it in different ways, but it is impossible to ignore and to not be affected to some degree, even if we don't actively think about the reasons for poverty, war and the everyday violence of hunger and homelessness. Sometimes, we're shaken out of our habitual apathy by the scale of tragedy, such as the Nepal earthquake or the floods in Assam, or the riots in Muzaffarnagar, and we write a cheque or parcel a box of clothes and blankets.

But in Istanbul it felt different. As it feels different when I walk into the office and see this young woman looking at her phone or lost in thought between the busy-ness of classes.

In Istanbul, maybe it was the contrast between what I thought I should be feeling (the sense of a holiday) and what I was forced to confront. Maybe it was the sharp awareness of the privilege of travel as opposed to the punishment of fleeing home. Maybe it was the hollow hopelessness on the face above the outstretched arm of the big-eyed boy, or the tired calling of the mother who simply sat on the street as her toddler ambled around, and tourists dodged them on their way from one sight to the next.

Maybe this is how tourists feel when they visit my country?