Words by Charlotte Rubin and Tracy Jawad
When the electricity in the UK goes off (in the rare moments that this happens in “developed” countries), you point out how unusual it is, you wait it out, and if it’s taking too long, you check Twitter to make sure you’re not under attack. In countries that exist in perpetual conflict – internal and external, armed or unarmed – this nonchalance is extended to crises like favelas, famine, and even bomb alerts.
Eilat, Israel – Walking around the souk (Middle Eastern market) by the beachfront, some European tourists pick up a bracelet and negotiate its price with the vendor. A loud siren goes off – the tourists are confused; what’s happening? Is it a fire exercise? They realise the noise is a bomb alarm, they panic, drop the bracelet and frantically look around for refuge – but they’re out in the open air, there’s no bunker nearby, and no one to give them instructions. They follow the lead of the locals, who seem awfully calm in the middle of all the chaos. Everyone crouches down close to the walls of the nearby mall, the most solid building in close vicinity, and waits until the siren’s over. When it stops, and no one got hurt, a few Israelis simply stand up and walk on. The tourists are baffled – are they not supposed to wait another ten minutes after the end of the siren before leaving their safe space as prescribed? Why are people standing up? But by the time they even finish this thought, everyone is standing up. Someone picks up the bracelet and puts it back on the vendor’s table. A woman is speaking to her sister on the phone about the scarf she just bought. The souk is back to normal – as if a rocket did not just almost fall on top of one of the vendors’ heads.
Amira Hajj* recalls the first time she heard about a bomb going off at the local mall in Beirut’s Achrafieh district. She was 14, having just arrived from Dubai, and spiraled into a panic. She called her mother first because her friends were unnervingly calm about the fact that their plans for the day included seeing a movie at the very mall that now had a cloud of black smoke hovering above it. She also called her friends back home, informing them that she was safe, but that everyone around her was going on with their day: traffic didn’t speed up or slow down, shops remained open, and Friday night plans proceeded without caution on Hamra Street.
“I remember feeling so scared but having everyone around me remain calm and collected invoked a sense of comfort–like it really wasn’t the end of the world. My panic didn’t last for long after my friends from school started laughing at me for my naivety and shock.”
This phenomenon, whether it be the result of desensitization, apathy, or social conditioning, speaks volumes about human resilience. The ability to adapt and rebuild, from concentration camps to chemical attacks, militant regimes to religious extremism, is distinctly humane. The assumption that a society ceases to exist under war strips a population of its agency and its dignity; life goes on, even under messed up circumstances.
However, this nonchalance should not be normalized – locally or internationally. It is not normal to wake up in the middle of the night from a siren only to hide in a bunker for safety, or to call your parents once you’ve heard that a bomb has gone off in the bank by your house. Whether or not the attack results in casualties one time does not negate the fact that such an experience is traumatizing, inhumane and unfair. We should not forget that a country in war is not just that. However, we can never forget that it still is in war. Whilst Damascus’ youth still parties on Saturday nights, it remains a ghost town – left behind by families who faced the ravages of war and destruction.
*Names have been changed to respect anonymity requests