The “Other” from Afghanistan: Building Bridges Over Lunch Break / Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

Photo: Refugee Aid Serbia  https://www.facebook.com/refugeeaidserbia Photo: Refugee Aid Serbia https://www.facebook.com/refugeeaidserbia

2016 Summer School Participant
Course: Orientalism, Balkanism, Occidentalism: Thinking through Discourse of 'Othering' and Conflict

We sat silently together in the park, an old Serbian man and I. Nearby on a tattered blanket, two toddlers dozed curled together, their chests rising and falling in the heat. “Look,” he murmured to me, in a ragged voice. “Look.” I glanced up, searching this old man’s face, and found his eyes were filled with tears as he watched the children sleep.

I had just begun Dr. Jelena Tosic’s class, Orientalism, Balkanism, Occidentalism: Thinking Through Discourses of ‘Othering’ and Conflict, and already, on my first day in Belgrade, I found myself confronted with a real-life form of othering—the emotional distance I have placed between myself and the ongoing refugee crisis that has been exploding across Europe for the past year.

I knew I was interested in the concept of “othering” when I enrolled in the course, having spent time in several post-conflict societies. Those experiences taught me that “othering” certain groups of people allows us to psychologically distance ourselves, “us,” from those who are different, or “them.”

In Rwanda, I had studied how othering can be used by those in power to manipulate a vulnerable population into committing unimaginable atrocities. This year, while living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I have seen how othering can be transmitted between generations, reinforced by segregated schooling and divisive political rhetoric.

Dr. Tosic’s course explored this crucial theme by applying theories from three major discourses of othering. Beginning with an analysis of Orientalism by Edward Said, our lectures and presentations deconstructed how the Orient and the Balkans have been represented throughout history using oversimplified narratives of barbarism, primordialism, and the myth of intractable conflict. We then examined “Occidentalism” to understand how the “West” has itself been created and constructed over time.

At its core, the course explored the ways in which we study, write about, and ultimately perceive those who are different from us.

And so, after seeing the refugees in the park, I walked into the Miksalište Refugee Center on impulse my first afternoon in Belgrade. I asked if I could drop by during our lunch breaks, and the volunteers encouraged me to come and help out, or just to sit and talk with people over lunch.

Most of the refugees now in Belgrade are coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan, they told me, and have been traveling by car and foot for months, hoping to cross the Hungarian border to reach the European Union.

I started chatting with a family from Afghanistan. Their son is 16 years old and played football on his high school team. He recalled to me the horrors of their journey with a big, shy smile on his face, giggling at my serious expression. After a perilous trip with a smuggler across Turkey and into Bulgaria, the family was kidnapped and beaten by the mafia, then forcibly fingerprinted by police.

Throughout the week, I left class at the end of the day and joined volunteers from Refugee Aid Serbia to distribute food and hand out clothing in the park. One afternoon an older man, resting at a nearby picnic table, motioned me over. “Sit! Sit!” he implored, offering me space on the bench. “No English,” he smiled gently. “Only ‘Sit.’”

The irony stung me. While European governments built walls and fired water cannons to keep this man out, the first word he learned to communicate was a gesture of hospitality.

Ultimately, this man taught me a lesson without which Dr. Tosic’s class would have been incomplete: that the “other” is a mirror that shows us our own character in how we treat those who are different from us.

“Othering” provides the cultural hegemony, academic justifications, and historical de-contextualization necessary to distance ourselves from the most basic fact—that humans are human, at the end of the day.

The teenage boys who line up for hygiene products in the park want hair gel more than soap. They post duckface selfies on the bus to the border with Hungary. They call their girlfriends back home, telling them they enjoyed the view while driving across Turkey, when in reality they were tied with rope in the trunk.

It is an accident of circumstances that puts me in the neon yellow vest, handing out bruised peaches and tubes of toothpaste, while these people—moms and university students and mechanical engineers— wait in line, hands extended for help.

In this way, Dr. Tosic’s class not only brought me to the “other,” but revealed me to myself.


 

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