How do you begin to wrap your arms around a number like 2,000,000? It’s a luxury house. It’s what Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics earns in about 10 games of an NBA season (playoffs excluded, because those come with an extra financial kicker). It’s 1/10th the rough estimate of the number of people who died in World War II. It’s almost four times the number of people who live in the District of Columbia.
It’s an enormous number. Two million of anything is hard to comprehend physically. When you consider that Yankee Stadium filled to capacity is about 45,000 you have to stand 45 of them side by side at playoff capacity to get to 2,000,000 people.
It’s the rough number of refugees from Iraq. 45 Yankee Stadiums, sold out. It upends the mind. And it doesn’t even consider the 3,000,000 still inside Iraq who are displaced; 20% of the pre-2003 war population uprooted.
In the chaos and cacophony of the Iraq war; in the bombings and body bags, in the shattered helicopters and dismembered children its an aspect of the trauma of Iraq that is lost to the ear, to the eye, to the weariness of a world that didn’t support the invasion to begin with, it’s a silent calamity. Devoid to the images of starvation in the desert, of the emaciated infant in a dead mother’s arms with the vulture atop the wrecked car it’s a disaster visually in waiting. The refugee camps, the endless tents, the lines snaking through the shanty towns are missing. The hook is missing. The visuals are missing. It’s too subtle, too intermingled inside the already opaque cultures of the Arab world for Western eyes to easily see. Not that we’re looking.
The displaced of Iraq, the dislocated and disenfranchised, the hopeless and the harrowed, are quietly slipping into obscurity. After six years the country is falling from the front page of the paper as it mercifully stabilizes. But the cancer of shattered lives being lived largely in the neighboring nations of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iran remains. It festers. The children of this diaspora are no less in need of stability and school, nutrition and nurture than those of the other man-made calamities in the world around us.
The idea that art can speak to this is at once wholly logical and utterly remarkable in its novelty. Art of this nature emerges organically from the people living that life. The power, and often the brutality and the grace of it, emanates from the authenticity of it. The painting of the powerless has power because of that condition, when it is equally work of artistic vitality it resonates because its been lived in. For me, for all of us traveling this journey into the lives of the refugee community, into the current of their tales, a deep question, and a dangerous one, rises from the fact that it is not our lives, not our stories. We are raconteurs not autobiographers.
High above the Atlantic in the silence that lies between the imagining of the journey and the reality of it these are the questions which occupy the mind. How can you hurl yourself forward into these lives with respect and equally with the invasion of what is most deeply personal without doing violence to the pain and power of these stories? If you are going with the purpose of telling those tales, of using the very skills which led you to be selected for the journey to begin with, then you have to be unafraid of the questions you must ask. A journalist will approach this one way. How so a choreographer and a dancer? What lies in the non-verbal, in the marriage with music and language, film and portrait, that speaks to the essence of a story, or a life? And how do you tell it?
Understanding that you cannot walk into these experiences with the answers written, the art fore-ordained its perhaps the most vital thing. Don’t arrive with the end in mind.
9:21 Sunday, October 4, 2009, eastbound.