Insomnia and Empathy
A strange business, being kept from sleeping because of a news story. The news is essentially basic information you’re told about people you don’t know. And yet, the other night, there I was, unable to sleep because all I could think about was those photographs of Aylan, the three year-old boy who died in the sea and washed up on a beach and whose name and story we all now know.
You'll have become familiar with the images too of course: a tiny body, solitary and prone on the wet sand of a tourist beach, wearing a t-shirt, shorts and trainers; a man carefully carrying him away.
At times of political crisis, I often find myself seeking out books which might provide something approaching an answer to the issues at hand or which will at least give me an understanding. As I lay there in my bed in a quiet suburb of Manchester, I thought about Habibi, Craig Thompson's gargantuan graphic novel set partly in a kind of hyper-fictionalised, bizarro-world Middle East – I'd found it a bit odd and a bit suspect when it first came out, but it now seems in many ways horribly prescient. I also thought of VS Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival, with its newly arrived migrant trying to find his place in a confusing and seemingly cold Britain. Neither seemed to do anything to help and I read news articles instead.
Over the next couple of days, I read about what was taking place in Budapest, much of which at times carried uncomfortable echoes of history – numbers marked on arms, people tricked into boarding trains to camps, unwanted families journeying Europe from nation to nation – and had another difficult night. I was reminded of, among others, WG Sebald. Two of his books, The Emigrants and Austeritz, both concern people finding and struggling with refuge in unfamiliar lands (Sebald himself left Germany to come and teach here in Manchester). But, as I lay there in the darkness pondering these lost, disparate souls, whether camped outside Budapest Keleti railway station, or setting sail from Bodrum in a cheap raft, or huddled in a crowded camp in Suruç, or sleeping soundly in a fortified presidential palace in Latakia, it was a curious section from The Rings of Saturn, one of Sebald’s strange fictive South Coast travel books, which found its way into my thoughts, and which I was pleasantly surprised to find quoted in the book's Wikipedia entry:
As I sat there in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth's slow turning into the dark. The huntsmen are up in America, wrote Thomas Browne in The Garden of Cyrus and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of the night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so, he continues, one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn – an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness.
My daughter was asleep in the corner of the bedroom. Instead of her cot, fitted with a brand new mattress and a breathing monitor, I found myself imagining she was in fact crouched in a filthy sleeping bag, And I imagined that when the clock read 3:30 I would wake her and pull her from that sleeping bag. She was, in this imagining, older than she is in reality, changed from a few months-old baby to a child of two. I had dressed her the previous night, I’d picked out the clothes she wore, both in the imaginary sense that I had selected them for our journey – light but warm enough for a cool night at sea – and in the real sense that, maybe a month ago, I had browsed a rack of velcro-fasten sneakers in a shop, I had selected that red t-shirt with a cartoon dinosaur across the front because I think she likes dinosaurs, and I had hitched those shorts around her tiny, squirming waist in a department store changing room to make sure they were a good fit. Then we set off. We left our house, got into a taxi and were taken to a quiet spot on a beach. There were others, hunched in the darkness, arranging themselves in the dinghy, barely seaworthy and already overcrowded. I looked at my daughter and told her everything will be just fine and, even though she barely understands, that I know she can be brave. I lifted her into the boat and pulled her arms into a lifejacket. Her small hand was hot in my first as we were pushed out into the water and the dinghy spun slowly away from the glow of the shore: a handful of flashlights and mobile phones.
Whatever did I do, I asked myself, to bring such necessity on my family, to bring us to such a situation? How did it come to this, to be swept from what I knew and found familiar and loved into such unconscionable tributaries, and by the caprices of people who have never laid eyes on me? What force set this moment in motion, for me to be risking my life for my girl, and hers too? What maniac, I asked, looking out at the darkness ahead, devised this world?
I returned to reality, to my comfortable bedroom with my child sleeping safely alongside me, and I thought about how, rather than any books I could find, or indeed any great works of art, this is perhaps the truest testament to the imagination, to its power and its scope: empathy, the grand human achievement, traversing continents, uniting us and outlasting us.
This, it occurred to me, is what makes those who argue against taking refugees like Aylan into our country, regardless of how reasoned and reasonable they may sound, seem as though they lack something important and the mere fact that their paltry concerns are entertained as being worthwhile is something that keens with the sting of a recalled humiliation.
The next day I was reminded of 'The New Colossus', a sonnet welcoming those arriving into turn of-the-century America. It was written by Emma Lazarus, herself an advocate for Russian refugees, and I remembered it initially with a rather grim irony, finding little more than giddy optimism and cheap bombast, products to a bygone mindset, one which values reaching out to those who have nothing regardless of consequences. However, after watching video clips over the weekend of a band of exhausted Syrians being extended a warm public welcome in the heart of Europe – and in the public spaces which once staged some of the darker moments of the continent’s cities' history – I found the poem online and read it again, this time touched with, not quite hope, but at least something similar to hope. It's one of those hokey poems which, despite not really being, I don't think, very good at all, still leaves you with a lump in your throat in the way genuinely good poems only rarely manage. 'Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!' Lazarus writes in lines famously inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, there to be seen by refugees coming to start their new lives in New York, although it is equally applicable to Berlin or, I'd like to think, to Manchester.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
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