relative wisdom

debunking the myth of absolute right & wrong

illustration by Karen Klassen,

excerpted from the print magazine…

I have learned through my self-aggrandizing attempts to save the world that wisdom is not a delicate garment of silky asceticism that one slips on along with the proverbial long white beard. Nor is it something that can be circumscribed within the intimidating pages of some canonic text. For me, wisdom is dirty, its edges frayed, a cloth stained with the blood and sweat of human experience.

It is October and I spend my days at the Afghan/Pakistan border watching hordes of refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly at the edge of survival, bargaining with border guards for their lives.

One woman has offered up her fourteen-year-old daughter for the pleasure of the guards if the rest of the family can pass through. I interrupt this barter, screaming obscenities I didn’t know I could speak in Urdu, at everyone, including the mother and the guards.

The young girl, hidden behind a blue tent burka, tugs at my side. She lifts the netting over her head and exposes a face as luminous as the moon. Without batting an eyelid, she tells me that she doesn’t mind servicing these men if it means that her little siblings and cousins, her mother, her grandparents and her two aunts can cross the border. I stop still in mid-sentence. I don’t know what to do. What can I say to her? Where is my place here?

A storm of conflicting questions crashes into my mind. What in fact am I doing here? Trying to save this girl? From what? What is this privilege that gives me the authority to march across borders waving my diplomatic card and bringing ordinary humans to a standstill? Who am I to stop this girl and her family from making their choices?

This Pushtun family stands hostage in their own ancient land at a boundary drawn on a whim by Western armies, wielding their power for one last punch before withdrawal. This consequent hard and fast national line, fighting against the mountainous geography of the region, divides into two the land of the Pushtuns. On either side you find the same people, the same language, the same culture, the same history. On one side they are called Afghan Pushtuns and they form the majority ethnic group of Afghanistan. On the other, they are called Pakistani Pushtuns and they form a minority ethnic group of Pakistan.

I contemplate telling this girl that even if her family manages to cross into Pakistan they are likely to wander the streets of Peshawar without food or shelter; that the process for gaining access into refugee camps has become ridiculously bureaucratic, requiring an official stamp of refugeedom from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); that even if they make it into a refugee camp, the conditions there are almost as brutal as what they have run away from in Afghanistan. This is “knowledge” that I possess, but who am I to say this to her?

I tuck the diplomatic card I have been brandishing around back into my bag and turn away, allowing them to finish their transaction.

But I could not forget the girl. When, how does one decide to surrender one’s life to save another? How can she transcend her own biological instinct for survival, her instinct to protect herself from violence, for the sake of a greater good? Not even knowing whether her sacrifice would lead to good. This was not some rogue sage who had lived life, seen the world, come to terms with it and decided to surrender it. This was a fourteen-year-old girl. Doing her duty? Submitting her right to higher duty?

Sikeena Karmali was born in Nairobi, Kenya to parents of Gujarati descent. She worked in international development and human rights from 1994 to 2004. Her first novel, A House by the Sea, was published by Vehicule Press. She lives in Vancouver and acts as contributing editor to ascent while working on her second novel.

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