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Breaking bread, defying borders

Published: October 15, 2010
Section: Features


PHOTO BY Alan Tran/The Hoot

I must admit that I was a little nervous as I stood waiting in line to ask a question of the speaker, who minutes before had captivated an audience with a short, but well-crafted and well-spoken speech.

She spoke in immaculate and steady tones with little-to-no hesitation, and had a stony, contented expression that would make any young student feel her presence. I did have good reason to be nervous. However, neither her speaking nor her overall presence was the most significant aspect of the event to observe, but rather her overall message.

I was walking up to the microphone to ask a question of a woman who had been in war zones in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Israel. Somehow, she had come out still preaching compassion.

On Wednesday night, Brandeis was visited in the Rapaport Treasure Hall by Anna Badkhen, a war journalist.

She has immersed herself in some of the most significant conflict zones of the 21st century and has attempted to get in-depth stories that paint vibrantly colorful pictures of the people affected by war. SoJust, an on-campus organization devoted to promoting social justice, orchestrated this event in which Badkhen came to talk about not only her new book, “Peace Meal: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories,” but also about what she had learned throughout her years reporting in a diverse multitude of hostile climates.

The writer made one of her main points clear early on and accentuated it throughout. Modern war journalism, she said is flawed because of its lack of compassion for those on whom it reports. Early in her speech, she told a story about discussing war with her son.

She and her son were discussing the conflict in the Congo–one which she noted has cost the lives of nearly five and a half million people. She repeated the staggering figure to the audience slowly and dramatically, and explained how it is unfathomable to imagine such a thing.

She suggested that in order to truly understand the impact of that figure, one would need to imagine all of the complexity and love, every little detail and every subtle nuance of him or herself, and then multiply that by five and a half million. That is what she wanted to get across and continues to want to demonstrate. It is not a nameless, lifeless and anonymous five and a half million who have been killed, but rather people with just as much life and emotion as anyone else, and yet the media does not give them the complexity of understanding they deserve.

In her speech she discussed her experiences and ideas while a slide show showed images of war. There were the traditional images such as a car exploding, mixed in with images of kids just standing their smiling, as well as images of food.

She finds food, the subject of her book, to have a particular ability to unite people and to show resilience of lively culture even in war. She claimed that although war pervades the lives of many, they carry on their culinary traditions. Furthermore, the fact that everybody eats unites those in a society not exposed to war every day with those who live a different life. She read the epilogue of her book to the audience, in which she wrote “dining in war zones was an act of defiance against depravity.

“It was a celebration of the verity that war can kill our friends and decimate our towns, but it cannot kill our inherent decency, generosity and kindness: that which makes us human.” She finds something innately special about people sharing a meal, persisting even with the destruction around them, and finds that a meal can be “a chance to link that person’s life and yours”.

In the introduction of her book, she describes a scene of a warzone, which despite the clearly pervasive conflict, is still pervaded with a sense of humanity that she believes is never lost, even in times of war. She describes a boy playing with shrapnel, a soldier, who dances despite also carrying a rifle, and a girl who picks flowers from “a crater hollowed out by an air-to surface missile”.

To Badkhen, all of these people show that they are still moving on with their lives despite the destruction all about them. Most interesting to her however, is that “a woman’s family will generously share their dinner with [her], an outsider, in the relative safety of their home”, even when “a firefight rages outside”.

Badkhen bemoaned how the media today simply goes to a shallow level of reporting on war, without digging deeply into the intimate stories of those affected by war, as well as trying to understand the humanity that resists even the most violent of conflicts. She commented on a story where it was listed that “in other violence, two people were killed and ten wounded” in Afghanistan. She pointed out to the audience how those people would remain anonymous, and how they were simply lost to the reader. She feels that this is disrespectful, and yet also feels that it undermines our ability to create wise policy with relation to war zones.

At one point during the evening she brought up the complex situation in Afghanistan, she observed, in which people would switch sides more than and more than again depending on the way the war was going, and did not have as explicit and determined a motivation as we would expect. A shallow understanding of war, espoused by reporters who just list off the number dead without any names or explanation completely fails to explain this, and therefore gives us a faulty understanding of war.

In the end, her message is one of the power of knowledge. When her son asked her about the war in the Congo, she explained to him, “you are already helping, by asking, by knowing.” Badkhen believes that it is the mere fact of asking questions and becoming informed about the true nature of conflict that gives people the ability to change the world. Because their knowledge informs every decision they make for the rest of their lives.

And now we come back to my question. I could hear it in the microphone that my voice was a little unsteady and likely my body language conveyed the same. I asked her how one could reconcile the need for compassion in news with the importance of having the cold hard facts.

I wanted her to explain to me how a journalist would be able to blend these two major polar opposites: the intimate profile, which shows a deep understanding but just of one person, and the broad statistics and facts, which although all-encompassing do not have any emotional breadth. She explained quickly to me that it was indeed possible to blend the two, and suggested that journalists indeed do it all the time. A little abashed by the quip, I sat down.

I waited and listened as many others asked very interesting questions. I learned about her favorite dishes she had eaten while in war zones, and about her very first experience in Afghanistan in 2001.

I even heard of her being threatened by a boy with a knife on the streets of Iraq in 2003. I learned that although she has been doing this for nearly a decade, she never gets used to war. Finally, after a while, I decided to stand up and ask another question.

Feeling a little less nervous, I walked back into the line of eager questioners. She had already explained what the problem was, but now I wanted her to further explain how the average person can help remedy the problems of conflict.

So I went up to the microphone, and asked her how me understanding and becoming informed on a conflict could truly help. The answer she gave me sums up a major subtle point in her argument.

She explained that even though I feel that my own direct contribution is minuscule, I should not think in terms of how I can change the world in 2010, but rather in 3010. She suggested that if I gained knowledge and made positive decisions, and then instilled them in my children, then they would do the same thing, and thus my impact would be multiplied with each new generation.

Thus, Badkhen argued that it is fine if the progress is slow, and it is fine if all you do is share a meal with someone, but that all that matters is that progress is made.

All that truly matters is that we as a society go beyond a shallow understanding of the world, and try to truly feel our connection to people, regardless of where they live, and indeed especially if they are many miles away, embroiled in a conflict which we cannot possibly understand from the basic cold figures presented to us by today’s media.

At the end of the event, in the carpeted, decorated Treasure Hall, filled with guests eating happily, or praising Badkhen’s work, I bought a copy of her book and had her sign it. She looked up at me and asked casually and yet thoughtfully, “what do you want me to write?” I replied in a jokingly cliché way, “something that will hopefully change my life”. I opened my book after she signed it. It said “Josh: Travel with your heart open. Stay vulnerable. Onward,–Anna.”