Friday, July 13, 2007


I recently read a post by Harmonie that touched a nerve with me. It is one of the most despicable aspects of any society but perhaps just more pronounced and blatant in the middle east.
I remember when I first came to Kuwait. After somewhat settling in and getting to know my new in-laws better, I found myself curiously watching the 'hired help'. Now don't get me wrong, because my husband's family treats their maids well, but I was fascinated by them. How did they get here? What were their lives back home like? How could they leave their children behind?, etc.
Many are the times that I would go out and sit with the maids, after they had served and cleared away dinner. At first, they looked at me as a crazy American, but I think they came to tolerate and then maybe even like me.
The first occasion that I had the misfortune to witness mistreatment was when I was waiting in the car outside of the grocery store. I was people-watching and spied what appeared to be a mother, her overgrown baby girl, around 14, and their maid. While the mother and daughter rapidly churned toward the store, they intermittently spun around in turn to spur the maid along. I can only guess that she was still not progressing as they wished because then one of them, I think the daughter, swung and hit the maid repeatedly in the head with her purse. Now, I am not pretending to have never witnessed any wrongdoings, but this was shocking to me. Why? Was it that the violence was so unwarranted?; was it that the maid was so unflinchingly accustomed to it?; or was it that the balance of power was just so exceedingly unfair? I think it was all of it.
But what ensued was perhaps equally if not more troubling. I felt so terribly complicit. Granted I was in a foreign country, but I felt the injustice of what had transpired was far greater due to my inability to say or do something. I later told my husband that in the future, I was going to be like Buford Pusser and carry a big stick in the car with me.
Many years and distance separate me now from that day, but the memory is still fresh. I have often recalled it and played over in my mind my culpability. But what intrigues me about the larger issue is what I have been able to extrapolate from it.
The question is, for any society: what enables a person/people to accept the mistreatment of others? When does a person learn the devaluation of the other? It must be a long, convoluted, and complex amalgam of variables brought to bear. But, it would be naive to dismiss the effect that desensitization has on a people.
Once, when I was out of the room, my son was watching a movie where there was some killing in it, and I came in and said, "Turn that off; that is terrible." My son replied, "It's ok, Mommy, you get used to it." Well, we had a little conversation, believe you me, and I told him that that was the point: I didn't want him to get used to it, because that would be indicative of the death of his heart.
In the States, people, often the ones who stand to lose money, will object to anyone drawing a correlation between watching violence on T.V. and violent behavior. That is just insane though, and I think the excuse is blown out of the water by a little thing called advertising. If the television didn't have influential power, then why would billions be spent on producing seductive advertisements?
I know I am being simplistic here, but I feel more than certain that one of the ingredients in viewing some people as dispensable, is viewing them as objects, merely shells that don't/can't feel. How else could anyone justify treating another human in a way that she would not treat a loved one? And just to go a little religious on you: it says in Islam that a person will not be judged as much by how she treats her peers, but how she treats those over whom she has some power.....(steps down from her soapbox, exits stage right).


Intlxpatr said...

I love this post, Carly. We ALL become desensitized. We look away. We don't get involved. We don't give enough to those who are hungry.

And worse, we know that one day we will have to account for all our shortcomings.

And our omissions may be just as bad as hitting. :-(

Carly said...

Thank you, Intlxpatr.:)
You are right, and when this vanity fair closes, we all will see reality.

Harmonie22 said...

What a wonderful post.

You've shown it in such a crystal clear fashion; learned behavior. It's like this ugly self-perpetuating cycle of discrimination and abuse.

Carly said...

Thanks, Harmonie. I often wonder if my writing is lucid enough, or if it is as jumbled up in type as it is in my head. :)

error said...

good post! its sad really overwhelmingly true

personaly i would not keep quiet in such situation i would go like "haraam" or something of that sort that would be the least one could do.

i'm not saying what what you did was wrong by being quiet i can understand how difficult it can be for you given your in a different culture.

skunk said...

as an expat kid that grew up here all i can say is you just have to keep your kids aware of what is and isnt acceptable.

theres alot in this country that isnt normal, and ultimately you want your kids to be able to survive anywhere not just here.

there are good people here, so find them, because as the saying goes,... you are the company that you keep.

Carly said...

Error, thanks for stopping by. Yes, now I know to say, "Wallah haraam". :)
Skunk, thanks again. I know there are many wonderful people there, and here, in cyber-world. :) I feel quite sure that my husband especially, is going to keep the kids on a tight lead, so to speak.

Karen said...

What a great post, Carly.

I agree with what you have said. I think that the violence seen in the media, can have a desesitizing effect, especially on the young. It's also not an easy thing to get involved when you see a wrong being commited. It can be a scary thing.

i think another part of the problem is isolation. We often don't know any of our neighbours. Our extended family is spread far and wide. We do little in the way of face to face communicating and so on. It's very easy to become univolved and desensitized when your main interaction with the rest of the world is through TV, video games, films, etc.

In someways, the 'olden days' weren't that bad....

Carly said...

Hey Karen,
thanks for the comment. Sorry it has taken so long to reply, but I've been in the twilight zone for a couple of months :) You are right about the 'olden days'; they are lookin' good right about now.