Review of We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know by Sophie McNeill (2020)

I write this article as someone who has never experienced first-hand the types of bastardry, misanthropy or tyranny that I am about to describe and refer to. On the contrary, I write it as someone who has been blessed by the type of living, schooling and housing that my great grandparents’ generation could not fathom. I write it as a son, brother, husband, runner, podcaster, environmentalist, bilingual, bibliophile and human rights activist★.

However, the story that we are about to dissect for the next few paragraphs isn’t related to my identity. What was provided above was a description consisting of 9 different labels. There are more that can be provided, but they give a cursory glimpse into the multiple dimensions that compose me, and are often the types of definitions used to categorize a large clump of people on Earth. These types of labels can have us tagged as pariahs beyond redemption, monuments of assumed success, wealth and health, or ciphers that are given a cursory glance and no further consideration. Yet there is more to us than these superficial labels, and we all have a story. This story, be it tragic or inspirational or unremarkable or comical, is a lighthouse of commonality. It allows us to grasp onto shared characteristics that exist among a presumptuous fog where recognition of our humanity can be lost. To that end, we will now embark upon the retelling of one of these stories.

On the 5th of January 2019, much of the world had it’s collective gaze yanked towards the Miracle Transit Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. In a day both gripping and surreal, a place of rest for many a weary traveler became the screen on which a story would be projected of the type that many would consider more likely to play out in a movie like Argo. In a single guest room, a 22-year year old Saudi Arabian woman, Rahaf Mohammed Qunan, had barricaded herself in using a table, chair, mattress and bed base. The reason for her doing this was the hotel staff at her door informing her that her flight ‘home’ was about to take off. Many would be appreciative of being told their boarding time in that manner under normal circumstances. These were not normal circumstances.

What might have seemed like a courtesy for some was a likely condemnation for Rahaf. Using a family vacation as an escape hatch to freedom, she had clandestinely boarded a flight to Thailand; a stopover on the way to Australia where she hoped to claim asylum. It felt as though Rahaf’s journey was shrouded by a swelling rain cloud which threatened a storm of fatal consequences should she be detained. Having endured deprivation of liberty thanks to guardianship laws as well as psychological and physical abuse from her family in Saudi Arabia, Rahaf had also renounced Islam; a crime punishable by death under that country’s apostasy laws. Accosted by Saudi Arabian proxies who had confiscated her passport and banished her to a hotel room that they now loitered around like a pack of hyenas guarding a wildebeest carcass and besieged by the archaic misogyny enforced upon her by her homeland’s bloody minded conservatism, the actual siege that had been set up outside her room was borne of an intransigence sparked by a justifiable panic.

Luckily for Rahaf, her resourcefulness (or maybe it was the hand of serendipity functioning in otherwise horrific circumstances) allowed her to at least hold on to her cell phone. She resourcefully set up a Twitter account that would ultimately engage the passions, sympathies and attention of tens of thousands worldwide for the next few days. Among the throngs on Twitter who were working tirelessly for a humane conclusion to this waking nightmare were Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, Sophie McNeill, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch South East Asia Division, Phil Robertson and Mona Eltahawy, a freelance Egyptian American journalist and feminist. It was thanks to their efforts, among others, Rahaf was ultimately resettled in Canada after 3 days, little food and barely any sleep.

When having conversations with certain friends and relatives, I often hear that the world is in the worst shape it has been in their lifetime. I believe this is in part due to the panoply of local media output outlining the emergence of the COVID-19 outbreak, and images of the gut churning and heart wrenching conclusion to George Floyd’s life (which itself was the climax of centuries of socially condoned and habituated apathy towards black deaths worldwide).

I don’t dispute part of the logic of that argument. A global pandemic that has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands is nothing to downplay. However, the hardships, both economic and safety wise, being experienced globally by some today are often a fact of life for many in places like Madaya, Aleppo, Aden or Rakhine State. These locations are populated with human beings. Human beings with stories. Stories that echo the experiences such as those of Rahaf, Narges Mohammadi, Omran Daqneesh, Alan Kurdi, Behrooz Boochani, Hassan Akkad, Dina Ali Lasloom or Louhain Al-Hathloul.

These types of lived realities are masterfully, yet excruciatingly, portrayed in the 2020 book ‘We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know’ by Sophie McNeill, one of the aforementioned protagonists who helped Rahaf grasp her freedom. She is now a researcher with Human Rights Watch Australia. One of the most simultaneously informative, confronting, infuriating yet inspiring books I’ve read this year, it chronicles the stories of some of the people whom McNeill met during her time as an ABC correspondent in the Middle East and Northern Africa. I’ll say at the outset that my respect for her is immense. Not everyone would be as willing as she was to assist those portrayed in this book such as Rahaf or Nazieh Hussein, an elderly Syrian man separated from his family in Greece and ultimately reunited with them in Germany.

The vast majority of the stories in this book humanize what are usually the nebulous labels and categorizations that are provided to us by a commercial media pack, who often make cursory efforts at reporting on global human rights and are more interested in the evening news wrapping up as neatly as a mini series finale. It is told mostly through the eyes of those at the sites of the events described. It recounts tales of surgeons who are forced to learn how to ply their trade via YouTube videos, as well as tales of surgeons who leave the safety and comfort of lives in America’s Mid-West to serve in war ravaged Syrian hospitals. It illuminates the trauma visited upon asylum seekers who flee countries such as Libya in dinghies that are just likely to sink as reach their destinations, but also illustrates the joy felt by families being reunited or finding a sense of community in a new country. It is a book that relays the details of the deaths of innocents, but also relays the level of care shown towards those seared by the flames of war and persecution.

In some ways, I can understand why some may try to emotionally shut off when reading this. When depictions of carnage, brutality and the venality that composes an aspect of some of those among us are thrust at one incessantly, this may be an understandable psychological defense mechanism. However, this wasn’t written for light bedtime reading, and nor should it be treated as such. It is meant to bring the gravity of these situations home to the reader. If you need help in better visualizing the discomfiting and disquieting scenery that McNeill describes, I’d recommend referring to her chapter notes, where she often attaches links to photos of some of the incidents she retells in addition to the Twitter accounts of some of the everyday people who feature prominently. If you feel that you are getting numb to what you are reading, that will quickly snap you back. Bassel Khartabil’s Twitter account is still online after his callous execution in a Syrian prison and burial in a mass grave*. As are images of Mohammed Eissa, a boy at Dr. Khaled’s clinic in Madaya, whose starvation can be directly blamed on the loathsome strategy of ‘starvation bombing’ by Russian and Syrian Government forces. As are images of dead children whose lives were snatched by chemical weapon attacks in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhan; the visions of their death masks leaving a grim engraving on the memories of those who would see them. This is real and this happens everyday, worldwide.

So what do we do? 

While my intention is not to nit pick, I’m not sure the premise of the title is completely accurate in one sense. My belief is most people with an internet connection theoretically have access to the information that is provided in this tome, but the silos of information that the people at Grong Grong pub tend to store themselves in differ to that of a Guardian reader or human rights activist. The issues that resonate with the former include their own social mobility, day to day living, paying the bills and perhaps, if one is being more cynical, sports and the culture wars. That doesn’t mean their concerns are morally or factually incorrect, nor does it make the latter group a better class of human being. That is just what I believe.

In another sense, and when looked at on a more global scale, the book is entirely accurate in it’s premise. There is a subsection of the globe that does know of the grotesque tapestry that makes up the totality of human rights abuses worldwide, but my feeling is that pluralities among civilian populations in the developed North can tend to be unfortunately distracted with trivia, narcissism and imagined resentments by those who should know better. Their representatives in local parliaments and international bodies often do not have the courage to confront the evils that smolder like the smoldering embers of fires that they refuse to consider pouring any water on. This timidity is intertwined with the nihilistic morality best reflected Joseph Stalin statement to Averill Harriman ‘The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’.

However, I reject this pessimism, hopelessness, expediency and apathy outright. We are all connected to each other in ways that we do not immediately comprehend. As MLK pointed out, we do not finish breakfast most mornings without being dependent on more than half the world. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. As stated above, we are all humans, we all have stories, and we are capable of genuine empathy if we recognize our own image in our brothers and sisters. We might not be able to convince everyone of the reasons why the scourge of war and human rights abuses should be swept from this Earth. We can however take responsibility for what we do about it, no matter how seemingly minimal our actions may seem. This leads me to ask the question that McNeill posed at the end of the book ‘What are you going to do about it?’

★ This is a link to the Amnesty Group I am proud to be a member of.
* A Twitter account, which honors Bassel’s legacy, can be found here.

Suggested Viewing:

Last Men in Aleppo

Exodus: Our Journey to Europe

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