by Anahita Saleh, United World College Maastricht
27th April, 2020
On the night of 1 July 2016, at 21:20 local time, five militants took hostages and opened fire on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan, Dhaka. The assailants entered the bakery with crude bombs, machetes, pistols, and took several dozen hostages (foreigners and locals). In the immediate response, while Dhaka Metropolitan Police tried to regain control of the bakery, two police officers were shot dead by the assailants.
It would’ve been just another article on Facebook. I almost scrolled past. I scanned through the first paragraph, my thumb almost on the screen, but then I saw the name of my city. The place I grew up in. I felt sick- but why only after I’d seen that one word?
I was on a flight back home from Dubai with my dad that night. We were strapped in our seats in the clouds, blue light from the live news app on his phone lit up our furrowed brows. We were miles above and away from Dhaka, but I felt invaded, like someone had broken into my home. Holey had the most delicious lemon meringue pies. Crispy crust, the filling sweet enough to be my grandma’s favourite dessert and tart enough to make your lips curl up into a tiny ‘O’. This sanctuary was the crowning gem of our neighbourhood. When inviting guests over to our part of town, we’d give directions to our house by proximity to the bakery. I couldn’t imagine the grassy patch my brother played imaginary games on being trampled on by self-righteous thick black boots. Or the wooden blue deck chairs being reduced to splinters from being used as a cover from raining bullets. Blood on the french windows. Bodies contorted in all shapes on the marble floors.
The next few days, the whole city held its breath in anticipation of the aftershock; the police stopped my friends on the way to their classes, fifth graders had to pass through metal detectors to get to school, my agnostic mother made me memorise a sura I’d have to recite in order to prove I was a Muslim. God forbid you’re ever in a situation where you need to do that, she said, but you can never know.
In the midst of the tension before the storm that never came, a short message written by a girl a year older than me was circulating on social media. It had no title, and wasn’t longer than a paragraph. I remember how I felt when I read it. Being thirteen years old and feeling insecure and lost, her message made me feel like I had the power to change the situation we were in. Her writing resounded with in our social circles like a call to arms. Even if it was giving a stranger a compliment, or having a little empathy for someone who was having a bad day, we could help shift the somber clouds that hung over our heads.
A few weeks ago, I selected this to share with my classmates in English class. It was a text from my culture that I connected with, because I remember the hope I felt when I first read it. However, when being faced with having to justify why I chose it today, I didn’t know what to say. After three years, I read the words that had held so much meaning out loud and they left my mouth as empty noises. The memories and emotions from when I was thirteen were superglued to the back of my brain, as vibrant as ever; I could understand, but I couldn’t empathise- and that scared me. In the three years that followed the Holey Artisan shooting, as I was growing up and becoming more exposed to social media, news stories of shootings became commonplace. I’d be scrolling mindlessly through my phone at breakfast- Kim Kardashian this, Donald Trump tweets that, and then suddenly, shooting at Texas football game kills 10. I’d make a face, I’d feel a tightness somewhere in my chest, and then I’d keep scrolling. One of my best friends from school who moved there this summer asked for a bulletproof backpack for his birthday. When surrealist nightmares like these become a part of everyday life, there are only two ways to be- go insane with constant worry or to exist in a state of slight dissociation. To think that these casualties are just victims of coincidence. Things happen. Lend your thoughts and prayers. Move on. What else can be done?
My question is, when do we reach this point of desensitisation? When is the tipping point for when the influx of media drowns our empathy? Maybe it’s hidden in the blurred pixels of the bloodied face of an unnamed student protestor. Maybe it’s in between the hollow comments of comfort strangers offer after an attack hits too close to home. When diving into this black hole of thought I feel that I’m left with too many questions I don’t have the answers for. I’d rather keep asking them than admit I’ve become unfeeling- less human. But if that is the price to pay for being able to carry on, is it better being this way?
Social media has become the main source of information for most people. We’re bombarded with news and stories every day. What we tend to forget is that this access to information is both the bane and privilege of our generation. We take to the streets for the issues we care about and afterwards, our battle cries echo on and on through timelines and feeds. At the end of the day, it is our duty to harness the power of that information; we need to learn to make our own filters to decide what issues to get charged up about, and which ones to overlook.