9/11: Breaking free of terror

Ten years on and with 9/11 once more upon us, it is sad to think that this day will forever evoke feelings of such sorrow and unbridled hatred.  The suffering of those involved and affected by the events on that day is utterly unimaginable to me, and I cannot even begin to comprehend the pain they bear, nor the torment faced by those who lost their life to such a tragedy.

Without giving too much time to those responsible, I think it is true to say that I have never really understood such rampant hatred.  I cannot assume motives or grounds for such an operation to be executed, but can only profess my belief that no wrongdoing in this world deserves punishment by such evil.  ‘An eye for an eye’ is never something I have attributed much conviction to, and although I do not consider myself a religious person, I still do not believe that anyone on this Earth has the right to play God and pass the judgement of death on anyone.

At the time, Australia seemed so far removed from what was happening in the US, at least to me anyway.  I watched with disbelief as the events unfolded on TV that day, but couldn’t seem to make sense of what was really happening.  I went to school as usual, and watched as a number of classmates feared for family or friends that lived in the states.  In between classes we would turn on the TV to watch the impact of the planes over and over again as the world began to grasp the severity of the situation.

The following month I had been set to make my very first solo trip overseas.  I had signed up for a three month student exchange program in Italy, and had thought of nothing else since the beginning of the year.  A new suitcase had been bought, a pile of things to take with me piled messily on the floor, and emails with my soon to be host-sister, Sara, had been exchanged.

When my parents started talking about pulling me out of the program, that was when first I felt the events of 9/11 truly influence my life as it was.

I was angry and confused.  How could such hatred ripple so far across the globe to affect my enthusiastic plans to travel a world I had been so excited about exploring?  What had I ever done to these people to warrant such an intrusion on my life?

It was then, I think, that I first began to truly fathom the weight of terrorism, the fear it evoked and the changes it could awaken.

In the end, I was permitted, with much trepidation on my parents’ behalf, to go forward with my student exchange.  They decided that it was in fact probably the safest time to travel, with so much surveillance and the number of safety measures that were then being taken when travelling.  I advocated that such acts of terrorism should not force us to stop living the life we had intended for ourselves, for then they had all but triumphed in crippling us with terror.

When I arrived at Singapore airport, I watched with a speechless curiosity as small troops with large guns patrolled the airport solemnly.

The armed troops may have since receded, the fear numbed, and the memory faded, but the events of 9/11 still resonate loudly in the extra security measures when travelling, the sorrow of those who suffered loss, and in the date that will for many years to come remain a reminder of an innocence we all lost that day.

Despite it all, however, I remain hopeful that time will heal the hurt caused, little by little.   One year ago today, I watched a very close friend of mine take her wedding vows in a church filled with loved ones.  Together we shared a wonderfully happy day and rejoiced in their love, happiness and a bright future.  Together we created a memory that now has me looking back on this date with joy.

We cannot forever dwell in the misery of our past if we are to ever find joy in the pleasures of the future.  Whilst we must grieve those lost and honour them their suffering, whilst we must remain heedful of those who continue to sanction war, death and hatred on the world, I think it is important to remind ourselves not to seize on the hate from which such a tragedy first arose.  Hate and prejudice will not recover loved ones, nor change the past.  Nor will it bring peace to the future.

Before I relieve you all of this rant of mine, I implore you all to read Pico Iyer’s short travel story, The Khareef, which can be found in his book Sun After Dark.  In this spectacular account, Iyer travels to Oman, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, just six weeks before the attacks on the two towers.  I found it an extraordinarily moving account of a journey to a place so far removed from anything we know, and yet chilling in its mysterious allure.  Most importantly, however, it shines a small light on a group of people affected by the events of that day; those that we often spare little thought for.  The ending is spectacular and Iyer is a truly magnificent writer.

Joss Whedon once said, “War is not just the business of death, it is the anithises of life.”  Here’s to hoping that despite the tragedy we relive today, we nonetheless fight to break free of terror and war, and continue to strive for peace and happiness for all.

What 9/11 now means to me: My dear friend Ruth and her husband Tim on their wedding day - September 11th 2010

~storytelling nomad~

Review: The Khareef by Pico Iyer

Travel literature is often regarded as boring and unvaried. Personal tales of “getting off the beaten path”, discovering the “inner journey”, finding romance on a moonlit night in Paris, or being rendered speechless by one of the many colossal icons across the globe have been overdone, and the small shelf allocated for travel literature in bookstores bears testament to its limited demand. With readers often slightly bewildered by a genre that offers an obscure mix of fiction and non-fiction and few fresh ideas to spark interest, travel literature seems to have been becoming a forgotten genre.

Thankfully, Pico Iyer offers a refreshing change amongst the underdogs with his enchanting tale The Khareef. This piece, from his collection of travel stories Sun After Dark, details Iyer’s 2001 trip to Oman. As he reflects on the Oman as it was, as it is, and later as it will come to be, Iyer illustrates a place far removed from the rest of the world, triggering colourful images of a magical, otherworldly and far away land, somewhat stuck in the past, but juxtaposed with snapshots of contemporary influences.

Those unfamiliar with the travel writing genre, may be unacquainted with the British born novelist, who in 1995 was named by the Utne Reader as “one of the 100 visionaries worldwide who could change your life”, next to the likes of Noam Chomsky and Václav Havel. A regular essayist for renowned Time magazine since 1986, Iyer has also made a name for himself contributing to prominent publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic and Harper’s. He is also the author of Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk and The Global Soul, to name a few.

With all this behind him, The Khareef doesn’t disappoint as a travel piece to outshine travel pieces. The word khareef refers to the south-western monsoon that passes through the southern tip of Arabia each year, and it is with this image that begins visions of a “heavy chill mist” falling over Oman with its veiled women, “only their mascara’ed eyes looking out”.

There is a distinct feeling of isolation highlighted through vast desert images, abandoned hotels and little to no connection or intimacy with any people or of the place itself. Little dialogue gives the impression that Iyer is simply observing and reporting what he sees rather than interacting or becoming a part of it. He describes a place somewhat resistant to receiving foreigners as its own, stuck in an odd limbo between past and present, yet ironically destined to continually and dramatically change and transform within the restrictions of its isolation. There is little magic in Oman, but Pico Iyer shares with his readers the enchantment that veils this far away place.

Without warning, readers are led on an unexpected path of deeply thoughtful explorations as Iyer begins his piece far from where it finally ends. Late night encounters with young boys and their guns “guarding their turf as in East L.A.”, black veiled women tapping away on their slow computers “linked to a world no one really believes in.” Curiously, his detached voice offers a distinct undertone of discontentment with Oman as Iyer passes through, observing but never engaging. He evokes the feeling that foreigners are from too different a world to ever truly belong there or understand it, and yet despite this, sanctions a deep appreciation for its uniqueness, antiquity and detached charm.

Iyer’s command for language is flawless. The words roll off your tongue like poetry, each line evoking an image that draws you further into the desert, carrying you along as if swept up in the khareef. In an interview with travel writer Rolf Potts, Iyer stated that the writing process for him involves trying “to catch the feelings — the sound, the smell, the tang, of a place” (cited in Potts n.d. ⁋10) Indeed, colourful images of the landscape, the sounds, the people, all contribute to a read which takes all the senses on a memorable ride.

The Khareef liberates itself from the more mundane in travel writing. In a rare moment, it succeeds in delivering a place both desolate and neglected, yet also alluring and irresistible. It is hard to say how exactly Iyer manages to make his readers both distance themselves further from Oman and at the same time yearn a closeness to it.

If you are looking for a travel story that strives valiantly to set itself aside from the rest, look to The Khareef. Let Iyer take you on a magical journey to a particular kind of cheerless hell that leaves you wanting more, without suffering the reality of it. And brace yourself for the ending. It will undoubtedly remind you that despite our absolute dislocation from Oman, it really isn’t that far away at all.

~storytelling nomad~