Western Activists: We Don’t Want Your Pity

First published at The Sleuth Journal, this piece is by Syrian rapper and activist Mohammad Abu Hajar. Abu Hajar’s rapping can be seen and heard here.

As new arrivals to Europe from the Middle East, we come from countries where death in war has become an almost mundane, non-urgent event; I am now in an environment where war is understood not as brutal current events but as historic ones. For us in the Middle East, by contrast, war is just another unpleasant reality we live with, like many others: occupation, poverty, dictatorship, corrupt governments, marginalization, etc…

For me, being in Europe after participating as an activist in Syria in an epic revolution showing unbelievable steadfastness by ordinary people, is important for many different reasons. Firstly, I feel like I carry a duty to tell the stories of my countrymen who I left behind, the stories of daily life full of wishes, pain and stolen moments of joy, moments stolen from between the jaws of death. Secondly, Europe means to me a platform where politics are taken to another, more advanced level, with freedom of expression and human rights – at least the basic human rights – well maintained. To me, being in Europe means acquiring new techniques and methods of analyzing political events; all this is in addition to doing my Master’s degree in Economics at a European university.

The new knowledge and culture that I’ve encountered here in Europe are extremely important to me, yet it’s still important to relate the other untold side of the experience. What I’m trying to write about here is an entirely different subject to the usual topics. While the political and social dimensions of the relationship between the locals and the new arrivals are both well covered by academic research and papers, the psychological and the personal aspects of this relationship have been largely overlooked.

The reason behind writing those words is a cumulative explosion of a feeling that many in these societies are not yet able to consider us as fully equal human beings. I don’t wish to generalize here; I’m not talking in this instance about the hostility of the far-right motivated by ultra-nationalism, but am thinking specifically about a variety of the more liberal, left wing-affiliated mind-sets or the so-called humanists.

I came to Europe two years ago already musically skilled, with an excellent-grade Bachelor’s degree, and with extensive political experience in the Palestinian liberation movement and the Syrian political situation. I came with tons of stories about the daily struggle for freedom and justice; I was filled with ideas of being human first of all, crossing nations and borders while forgetting about nationalism to reach a wider horizon, I felt more willing to integrate and expose myself to the local political movements. On only my second day in Rome I attended the CGIL – workers’ union- festival in the Circo Massimo area; two weeks later I went to Naples on a train full of Italian activists to celebrate the departure of the Estelle aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip.

In my first hectic year everything was fine; political life in Europe is more developed and there are many activists involved in Middle East causes. The fact that we share a lot of mutual interests and areas of concern boosted my ideas of a universal shared humanity.

Later on, however, I began to notice that a lot of people become oddly excited when they discover that that I’m a Rap musician. I feel their unspoken assumption: ‘How sweet, an Arab – poor- guy – produces Rap music.’ That patronizing attitude reminded me of my childhood, when I’d imitate the elders, and they would say with a sympathetic smile, ‘He’s trying to be a man,’ with a similar pleasant but paternalistic attitude.

Moreover, I feel that too many of the activists, we – the activists of the Third World- are just additional numbers for the list of connections they want to build, in order to boast to their friends and/or to satisfy an underlying desire to play the hero’s role, to acquire heroism by proxy, which they try to satisfy by knowing heroes or being witnesses to heroism.

I remember how, every time I’ve received an invitation to “discuss” politics with someone, I’ve reviewed the way I’m going to present the causes of my countrymen from Palestine to Syria to Bahrain. While I’ve prepared for a discussion, however, what actually transpired has invariably been simply a monologue from the host wanting to present his own unique solution to solve our conflicts as though we’re simpletons incapable of resolving our issues for ourselves, the same dilemma that Edward Said stated in his masterpiece, ‘Orientalism.’

Above all, the nature of the locals’ relationship with the new arrivals can be summarized by: the former shows pity for the latter.

But nobody wants pity or to be assigned to the role of victim; even those who have been victimized, generally speaking, give more value to acknowledgment and solidarity than to pity and even then nobody likes to be categorized as a victim permanently, it’s a kind of objectification, and I doubt that anyone likes to be treated as an object, whether as the object of heroism or of brutality.

This attitude from the host societies, even while it’s non-hostile, still reflects an underlying feeling of superiority, even if it’s presented in a different way; here it comes to in the form of patronage.

It is noteworthy here to mention that I’ve spoken with many activists from different developing countries now based in Europe about this issue; the majority answered that they feel there is a kind of pity in the attitude of Western activists, which is deeply annoying to most of them.

I asked the same question of a Western activist, who said that she too definitely perceives this attitude from her fellow Western activists, and is aware that the majority treat activist colleagues from Third World countries according to the rule, “We shall speak for you”, this is the way that most Western activists understand the concept of brotherhood with fellow activists from other less-developed countries, that is, as little more than selective patronage at best.

In conclusion, I’d like to emphasize that what I’ve said here does not in any way aim to detract from these Western activists’ work; this is simply a declaration of my own feelings, which I can’t state to be unquestionably correct.

2 thoughts on “Western Activists: We Don’t Want Your Pity”

  1. Yes, I also see this attitude in the best of people. Maybe even in me. It is something we feel strongly for the oppressed …. my Father told me once that the Irish feel this harder in our souls because we have been oppressed. ANYWAY. I will share and see what falls out of it…Keep it up this was eye opening.

  2. There are certainly some westerners willing to experience second-hand heroism through the earthquake known as the Arab Spring. Who like watching revolutions overturn tyrants.
    But sadly there have been far more who are deaf to the aspirations of the various peoples struggling for their futures, and more concerned with gloating over the failures of past politicians than supporting genuine struggles for change.
    The progressive movement in Britian, at least, has become inflitrated by a reactionary form of pacifism which is insensitive to the demands of the people and which only listens to professors and conspiracy bloggers, and which ultimately results in apologism for the likes of Gadaffi and Assad.
    This faction is far more guilty of treating people as livestock to be reared by the most efficient farmer/dictator than the romatics evoking dreams of the Spanish Civil War.

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