Kirthi Jayakumar, author of The Dove’s Lament — a collection of short stories that was selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 — is a researcher and an activist who has written who has written and reported from conflict zones around the world. Here, she writes about what Zia in Afghanistan told her, and how his words inspire her:
Ten years ago, a history lesson at school on the Second World War and a lost opportunity to participate in a Model UN session owing to a health setback decided the funny trajectory that is my life. I decided I would pursue a career in humanitarian aid. This took me across the world’s many fragile nations, each grappling with conflicts of a different kind.
On the frontlines, I was able to experience the ground realities up close and personal. I began to tell these stories – stories so real they had to be fictionalized for the world to digest. And as I wrote, I grew, because I didn’t just tell these stories, I felt them. I realized what were just words for me was the reality for someone miles away. I realized that as much as the world had moved “ahead”, it was also terribly backward.
Yet, I realized, there is always hope. One of my most recent experiences as a teacher for students in Afghanistan opened my eyes to the hope that every person harbours. Week after week, I would sit in a classroom with Ziauddin Iqbal, my student from Mazar-e-Sharif. One of the most beautiful and meaningful exchanges that will always stay with me was a conversation about war. Zia told me that we favour war only because our minds are bent in that direction. As humans, we have plenty to offer to the world, but we are predisposed to taking, demanding and expecting, while we seldom give back, or do anything for the world around us. We don’t have a limitation on war – from politics to religion, to assumed hatred and assumed ideologies — everything has come to be known as a cause of war. Although war had destroyed his country, he said he had hopes for a brighter future. That hope, he said, gave him the strength to invest in peace in the present.
Zia made me think of how we pursue war at all times. Our communication is laced with violence. We use words and convey emotions that suggest a predisposition towards violence. The root of this is in the belief that we think we own anything and everything around us. If we spend a moment reflecting on our relationship with the world around us, we will be able to find the number of times we make ourselves the centre of the world. I did this. I said that. I want this. I need that. I must. I should. I deserve. I demand. I expect.
It is when these multiple I’s cross each other’s paths that conflict arises. Add to the mix generous dollops of assumptions, demonization, warped ideas of history and borrowed hatred. The end result? War.
Zia’s words reaffirmed my own commitment. Today, in all the work I do – be it in research and writing, or in my work as an activist, I carry the substance of this hope in my heart. Zia’s plain-speaking took me back by seventeen years, when I was an idealistic eleven-year-old. It’s really all in the mind: war, disease, assumption. If only we spend a moment each day to dust these cobwebs away…