i’ve been working in the middle east on and of for a number of years now, in countries that, when i’m home in france or visiting family in the uk, people will usually look at me for a second and then shake their heads and then pronounce me crazy, or brave or just stupid or all of those things.
the current stint is coming to an end, i’ll be heading home to france and family in the next few weeks. i’m not sure when or if i’ll be returning anytime soon. perhaps this has caused me to reflect on what, if anything, i’ve learnt over the years. the one thought that springs to my mind is the difference in my outlook from when i started doing this stuff compared to my thoughts and feelings now. i distinctly remember sitting on a bus years ago in scotland heading to the airport for my first trip to the middle east, knowing that the country i was headed to was exploding into an almighty war. my naievity at the time, the feeling that i was traveling far away and lack of assuredness over whether i would return.
i recall the feeling with no small amount of self ridicule. my usual thought now when on the train, subway or car heading to the airport is simply that of calculating my tally of airmiles by the time i return home - and whether the trip i’m undertaking warrants surrendering some of those miles to upgrade my seat. gone are the feelings of bewilderment and nervousness. gone is the feeling of awe and worry. i don't think this is not simply a case of familiarity breeding contempt. it’s a case of familiarity and repetition being the catalyst for education, enlightenment and the stripping away of my personal, unwittingly held western arrogance - bred into me through private education, officer training for the british army, an easy upbringing in the uk where intolerable cruelties included such minor things as the batteries running out on my walkman or being short of cash as a university student.
i remember my first trip to a war-torn country and being shocked by the scenes. i wallow in it and relished it. i was unable to understand how people could accept to live in such circumstances. frequently i looked on and thought, ‘there but for the grace of god go i’. the lottery of birth, that i was born in a country where my passport afforded me luxuries, from the freedom to travel to having clean water come out of taps in my home: i had avoided the hardships in my life that i was witnessing daily. these thoughts too, i now recall with a not insignificant amount of foolishness and idiocy.
i've learnt how fortunate i am. my nationality affords me a visa to travel more or less anywhere i need to go for work. that the welfare state and nationalised health services in europe are excellent and under appreciated. that i can work hard, be rewarded for my efforts and provide for my family. however, i have learnt that people the world over are essentially the same. they work hard to provide for their families. they are affected by war, genocide and famine in the same ways as previous generations were the world over. yet life goes on. laughter, celebration, worship and friendship continue. as does pride in their nationality. not in a nationalistic, fascist manner, just simple pride to be born in the same place as their ancestors, families and friends. there is no defeatism. i've met many people offered western passports or visas to travel away after they worked for coalition forces during conflicts, who are proud to say that they refused the offer in order to stay and help rebuild their country.
additionally, i’ve met many who have seized the opportunity to move west - legally or illegally - as they believe this is the safest and best decision for their families. i believe it takes as much courage for those people to move to a foreign land and begin a new life as it does for those wanting to stay put and help create a new nation, usually dealing with the side effects of new found democracy. corruption, protest, uprising and capitalism.
even in it’s most depressed economic state, double or tripple dip depression, it is beholden on developed, democratic societies to meet the challenges of adhering to the UN’s universal declaration of human rights. for all. whatever the complaints of those calling for tighter immigration control and tighter regulation of asylum seekers, they are insignificant compared to the motives of someone willing to uproot themselves and their families from the land of their forebears because they are genuinely scared for their lives and fear for the safety of their children.
people are the same the world over, regardless of race, creed, religion and culture. there is no reason to tolerate ignorance and assumption. put yourself in the other person's shoes and ask yourself what you would do.