Friday, March 24, 2017

Playing with the Enemy


I had the good fortune yesterday to see Mandana, one of my former students and a teacher from Iran, do a music class with five young girls. From the first minute on, the atmosphere was fun, playful and wholly involving as the kids did some movement exploration so expressively, connected to their own ideas and bodies and to each other as well. After the first activity, Mandana introduced me to the kids and each came over with a welcoming smile and confidently looked me in the eye, shook my hand and told me their name. None of this in itself was extraordinary except for one fact— these children were Syrian refugees.

Mandana told me that when she began this work with them a year ago, the kids were angry, frightened, unresponsive, hitting each other. As any of us should be able to imagine, they were traumatized by being torn from their homes and culture and landing in a strange place with a language they couldn’t understand. Trauma is a deep wound in the human psyche, sending by necessity any sense of trust or openness hiding in some secret part of the soul or surrounding it with protective armor. The only healing is a long, slow and patient process of creating a safe place to coax it out again, surrounding the trauma with love, care and laughter as well as the necessary tools of belonging (like speaking the language of the host culture). It was extraordinary for me to try to imagine that these open, warm, friendly, funny and expressive kids had begun these classes in the grips of trauma. I watched them transfixed and teary-eyed to witness so clearly what it looks like when decent adult human beings choose to help.

And then contrasted it to the image of a 5-year old boy in the U.S. airport being handcuffed by U.S. officials. Five. Years. Old. An adult “just doing his job” treating this boy like a criminal and an Enemy of the State because the President of his country, himself traumatized by riches and privilege and hole in his Soul but with no intention to heal, ordered such an action. What have we become? What would happen if the policy-makers had to first come to this music class and join the circle and look these smiling kids in the eye as they shake their hand?

Institutional terrorism—a name I think these practices deserve—is based on the lie that the “other” is less than human and not worthy of concern. It requires a whole hiding vocabulary— words like “collateral damage" and "enemy" — to continue unchecked. Everyone who agrees to this language, who refuses to see the faces of the people devastated by these actions, who accepts the portraits of people as sharing nothing in common with them because of different skin shades or dress or names for God, is a collaborator in these evil deeds. I’d like to think that many of them with essentially good hearts would feel differently had they been to this class. Could this be required for every immigration officer? Every Congressperson?

Mandana invited me to lead an activity and I decided to bring my whole class of 16 teachers. We had a marvelous 30-minutes playing Table Rhythms, challenging the kids to figure out some complicated patterns and rhythmic techniques through a process that was fun, supportive, challenging and satisfying, with not a single word needed to be spoken. Bodies, minds and hearts were all active and awake and held within the circle of community. As they always are in this radical healing work I’ve been fortunate to be part of. Every class with any person of any age in any place is a step toward wholeness and healing, a radical refusal to continue the damage of dehumanization, a radical affirmation of humanity’s beautiful promise and possibility. But when the folks in your class are from Syria and Iran, the places my country has declared “enemy,” the ordinary acts of teaching music become extraordinary. The smiling faces of these girls will live with me for quite some time to comfort me in times of despair and remind me what work lies ahead. 

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