Friday, May 6, 2011

The Death of Bin Laden, and What it Means (or Doesn't Mean) To me

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

 I think it was on Blackberry messenger that someone first told me Bin Laden was dead. That message was soon followed by FB status changes, and news headlines all over the Internet. I remember my first, honest reaction being "..And? So what?" What does this change? Is the US going to dismantle the Patriot Act, and restore the civil liberties it stripped away? Are we going to see an active effort on the part of mass media to quell the stereotypes about Middle-eastern peoples? Are all troops going to be immediately withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, to be followed by economic reparations to these countries? Are the hundreds of thousands of dead women, men and children, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in New York, in the UK, in Pakistan, in India, in Palestine, going to be miraculously reincarnated? What exactly is gained by the death of one man?

Of course, since that first reaction, I've had time to think, to read what others are saying and listen to those who have valid thoughts on the issue. I realized that it's not my place to tell others they shouldn't rejoice in his death, nor lecture them on pacifism and forgiveness; I did not lose family or friends in 9/11, my family and loved ones aren't serving in a US or Allied military, I am not a Muslim who may feel relief that one of the most infamous embodiments of perverted radical Islam is no more, and I'm certainly not a full-blooded US citizen for whom Bin Laden represented a threat to the land I call my own. I am between all of these, invisibilized, a transnational woman of color who's never been able to vote because I was too young when we left the one country where I am a citizen. What right do I have to feel anything about Bin Laden at all?
I often turn to these song lyrics by Ani Difranco:

"I've got friends all over this country
Friends in other countries too
I've got friends I haven't met yet
I've got friends I'll never know"

For me, those words aren't about superficial, hand-holding, we-are-all-one nonsense. It's about acknowledging interconnectedness, it's about recognizing that jingoistic nationalism is not an option when one has family and friends in multiple locations of the world, transplanted by the inexorable forces of history and political economics. It's about saying that the color and origin of your passport should not factor into whether you deserve full human rights. And it's about understanding that we didn't get to this point in our collective human history because the 'bad guys' kept harassing the 'good guys', and that what happens to one of us, happens to us all. US ALL.

I was 14 years old when 9/11 happened, a bookish Sri Lankan girl attending a strict, Islamic school in the United Arab Emirates. I remember always feeling othered by the majority Muslim student body, shamed by my teachers because I couldn't read Arabic well, regularly encountering ignorant, insulting questions about my Buddhist faith. I remember the racism practiced against the South Asian expatriate community by the Arab Emirati citizenry, I remember being told that as a South Asian expatriate, I would never vote, own property or have any adequate legal recourse in the face of discrimination and exploitation. When 9/11 happened, my mother cautioned us, Don't talk about your opinion in public, don't get involved in any discussions, just don't say anything, be careful. Then the announcement about the invasion of Afghanistan. My aunt and my mother decided to keep their valuable jewelry and the family passports in Ziploc bags, all together, so they could be grabbed and taken with in case of... what? I was too afraid to ask, and they to tell me.

I wonder if they know, the people dancing in the streets and rejoicing in Bin Laden's death, that their passports guarantee they will never have to lie low, cower under uncertainty to protect themselves. I wonder if most of my progressive friends who are US citizens know.

Ten years since 9/11, I'm 24 years old, about to graduate from a US institution with a B.A in Women's Studies and English. I have yet to vote, anywhere. I am not a US citizen, and when I marry my partner, we will undergo extensive and embarrassing questioning about the 'validity' of our relationship. To most white USians, I will never look like a US citizen. To Emiratis, I look like the women they think fit only to clean their toilets and cook for them. To Sri Lankans on the island, I'm one of the "absent elite"*, someone who's had the privilege of foreign life and education.

But I stood up against the killing of innocent US citizens all those years ago, when my 6th grade classmates were high-fiving each other about 9/11. I stand up for Islam, for Muslims and the people of the Middle-east when US-ians loudly sprout their racist, Islamophobic ignorance. I refute the idea that Sri Lankans and other Third World nations are inherently prone to violence, by constantly pointing out the history of colonialism that orchestrates that violence. I belong nowhere, and yet somehow I belong in several places. I have been racially profiled in post 9/11 airports. My Sri Lankan passport prevents me from transiting and traveling through several key global locations. I've been called a 'Paki' here in the US. I have a right to state my opinion on Bin Laden, because even though as a non-citizen and transnational WOC I'm invisible and incomprehensible to many, the things he did, the things that those before him did, the things that those who created him and then hunted him down did, affect me every single day.

As I write this, I'm wearing my sweatshirt that says "Anti-Racism", and my green Kaffiyeh that I purchased in Dubai, in December 2008 when Israel was shelling Palestinian homes mercilessly. I remember reading the newspapers everyday, looking and weeping at the pictures of burnt Palestinian bodies, at the father kneeling in tears beside his two dead toddlers. In the summer of 2009, when the Sri Lankan military was pushing ruthlessly upwards into the Northern provinces, the Internet briefly swam with images of mutilated and destitute Tamil civilians, ousted by the military or rounded into miserable concentration camps. I remember feeling untold pain, but also wanting to scream at everyone who was posting those pictures Don't you people have any respect? Those suffering brown people are my people, they are not objects for your First World camera to win you photography prizes.

Colonialism, genocide, racism - all of which are predicated on the mass murder of innocent people - existed long before Bin Laden took to his caves and his militia, and will continue to exist as long as we allow those in power to lie to us, to offer us false symbols of national pride as our economic security crumbles around us, to placate us with a false rhetoric of exceptionalism while they roll back our civil and political rights.

Last week a transwoman in Baltimore was brutally assaulted. Many trans and queer friends of mine are afraid to hold hands in public, afraid of walking alone to their apartment, afraid of heterosexist, cissupremacist violence. Arizona and the US writ large continues to criminalize the same people it depends on to pick its fruit and raise its children and build its computers. The high school students in Tuscon might face criminal charges for protesting the war on Chican@ Studies. Planned Parenthood has been stripped of its Medicaid funding in Indiana, with similar bills popping up elsewhere. The economic war on the poor, on women of color, on the differently abled, has gained frightening momentum since those buildings first crashed to the ground.

Suheir Hammad wrote: "I'm looking for my body/ My form in the foreign/ In translation". I'm looking for my place in all of this, as I've been looking long before 9/11, as I will continue to look after Bin Laden's death. All I know is, the economic, political, social and cultural violence being perpetrated on marginalized bodies needs to end.
******
Bin Laden is dead.

I look at what's happening in Arizona, in Chattisgarh, in Jaffna, even here in Minnesota. I look at the images of people celebrating Bin Laden's death with stars and stripes, and I try to understand what it must feel like to look at a flag, any flag, and be assured it represents you.

Bin Laden is dead.

I look around at everything I know: and I feel a complicated sorrow, I feel anger, I feel fear, I feel like I've been poisoned by hate and anger, and wearied by the struggle to resist that poison.

I feel everything, but joy.

"I will leave Draupadi in her garden, watering her mysterious plant. I can't give you it's name, because I haven't figured it out myself, what you reach for when the consolation of righteous rage no longer consoles you. But I hope it grows into a tree so huge its roots crack the foundations of the old palace. I hope the wind blows its seeds across the land, giving birth to more trees, and more, so that long after Draupadi's bones are covered by glaciers travelers everywhere will rest under their shade, and bless that which comes after vengeance "
-Chitra Banerjee Divakruni, from "The Vine of Desire"


*phrase used by Chandra Talpade Mohanty in "Genealogies of Home"