what they did yesterday afternoon
by warsan shire
they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like:
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
♦ ♦ ♦
Warsan Shire’s “what they did yesterday afternoon” was first published as a part of ‘Riot Pieces,’ a collaborative project by writers and other artists in response to the devastating and deadly social unrest that occurred in England from August 6 to 8, 2011.
Did you know that August 2011 was a time of devastating and deadly social unrest in England?
Because I didn’t.
Or if I once did, I have since forgotten.
November 12, 2015: Terrorists attack in Beirut. Many are killed, many are wounded, and countless more are devastated. A nation is in mourning.
November 13, 2015: Terrorists attack in Paris. Many are killed, many are wounded, and countless more are devastated. A nation is in mourning.
November 14, 2015: I read the last two stanza’s of Warsan Shire’s poem “what they did yesterday afternoon” circulating on social media. I don’t know what poem they are from or why they were written, yet still they bring me comfort.
It is good to find words that can speak for us, when we are in mourning.
Far away, here in my country, people too are grieving. We are grieving on Facebook, and we grieving on Twitter. We are grieving through comments and photos and memes.
Because it is 2015, and this is how we grieve things that happen far away.
Because in 2015, far and near are no longer such clear conditions. If they ever were.
Far away, in yet another country, my president condemns what happened in France as “an attack on the civilized world” and his officials say he will talk terror as well as climate when he travels to Paris at the end of this month, because this is politics as well as grief.
And also, I am certain, because this is grief as well as politics.
From across the world, people are sharing stories. People are saying, this is a story that matters.
Saying, mine is a story that matters.
Saying, mine are a people that matter.
See my grief.
See my grief too.
And sometimes also: see my anger.
I have grown increasingly uneasy with a phrase that appears and reappears in public anguish, even as I recognize the sincere gesture intended by the words. Recognize me too, when I say: Je ne suis pas Paris.
I am not Paris.
Je ne suis que moi-même, et ce travail est déjà assez difficile, de jour en jour.
If I ever knew what happened in England at the start of August, 2011, I do not remember it now. I do not know who set Warsan Shire’s aunt’s house on fire, nor whether her aunt survived. I do not know how many did die. I do not know their faces. I do not know why they died, except that it was surely senseless.
I do not yet know how many we will say died in Beirut last Thursday or in Paris the following day. With so many still wounded, it is too soon to know. Each time I read yesterday’s headlines, the numbers had mounted.
That number never changed.
The number 147 circulated yesterday among the headlines on social media, telling of a tragedy and horror even though not technically news: the slaughter of 147 people, most of them college students, by terrorists from the Al Qaeda-affiliate al-Shabaab, which occurred on April 3 of this year, at Garissa University in Garissa, Kenya.
People shared the story of Garissa yesterday for many reasons:
- To point out gross disparities in media and social media responses to tragedy in Europe vs. tragedy in Africa.
- To express their grief and rage at being expected yet again to participate in mourning white death on a global scale rarely if ever granted to other deaths, or in solidarity with that rage.
- As a performative marker in that strange curation of identity that Facebook pages have become, or perhaps without even realizing the date of the story as they shared it.
Whatever the cause, Garissa became wrapped into the stories of Paris and Beirut yesterday. The final post I saw last night was a listing someone had made of those killed in this week’s attacks; the person who shared it had added:
“Including the people killed in Kenya in April, the final number is 147 higher.”
“But,” one woman points out in an online exchange, “we did know about these deaths in Kenya. I did share this story when it happened. I changed my profile picture on Facebook. We did all of these things. And now we don’t remember.
“What are we doing now, if we have already forgotten the spring?”
Like many people I know, since the news from Paris broke here late Friday, I have been remembering my own connections to France.
In 1972, still a toddler, I took on my first international flight when my family visited a colleague of my father’s in Paris. While I don’t remember that trip, I do remember that I adore Jean-Michel — and his alluring accent! — when he visited us two years later. The adults went out on fishing boat while my brother and I stayed ashore with someone else, and when they returned, they brought back an enormous fish Jean-Michel and my grandmother had reeled in.
“I theenk eet is a feesh,” the Frenchman described what he said to Gram, as he helped her grip her bowing line. “I theenk eet is a beeeg one!”
Jean-Michel stayed with us from time to time throughout my childhood, always bringing presents for the children. Ten years later, when his wife, Adèle, learned I was studying French in school, she immediately invited me to spend a summer with them. The only rule: pas d’anglais. I would speak only French.
That summer led to me to study French and Francophone-African literature in college, to live in Paris as as a student, to travel through France again and again as an adult.
Today I do not know if any of Jean-Michel and Adèle’s family was injured in these attacks, or even if they still live in Paris. In 2004, following the reelection of George W. Bush, my father’s old friend told him he had decided to sever all ties to this nation that had unleashed Bush and his policies upon the world — and then gone back for more. They have never spoken again.
Anguish takes many forms. Sometimes it looks like sorrow.
Sometimes it looks like rage.
This history of connections does not make the events in Paris actually personal to me. But it does makes them feel more personal. Human intimacy lingers.
I do not mourn more for people dying in Paris than for people dying in Kenya. Both tragedies are grievous beyond the imagining.
But — to speak an honesty that pains me — only for one does this universal anguish also feel like personal anguish. Far bigger than a fishing trip, I am tied to the City of Lights through the power of (my) whiteness and the legacy of (Western) empires and plunder.
Intimacy and empire have never stood clearly apart.
They create one another.
I remembered Garissa, once the story began recirculating yesterday. That is, I remembered sharing in April the stories of the 147 Kenyans who were killed there.
Remembered, because I choose not to post links to the story for several days after the news broke.
Remembered, because every initial media reporting included graphic pictures of the dead.
Not until articles began reflecting the people behind the number — showing their faces and telling the story of their lives, not only their deaths — did many of us feel comfortable posting links.
Did you notice what the reports out of Paris have not shown us? Is your grief any less for the bodies we have not seen, the photographs of carnage that have not been shared?
Can we remember to see what we are not seeing?
Even when our hearts and minds can hold onto no more tragedy, when we have forgotten the numbers and no longer remember if we ever even knew them, I hope we can remember this lesson from the grieving for Garissa and the anguish over Paris:
No number is just a number.
No death is not a loss.
And I need not see another’s blood, to know that it is red as mine.
[A prayer after Warsan Shire:]
I come from a world
that is thirsty
and a world that is on fire.
Help me make of my soul water
for my world hurts
# # #
“Beirut/Paris” image via Habib Hadad (@habibh) on Twitter.