conflict

A love letter to Colombia, Part IV

eternally nostalgic
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Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece.Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based roles in conflict-affected areas to being here in an academic capacity, with asking questions without being able to immediate use the answers to implement an initiative that responds to needs. I asked myself what the service of academia is, and whether it is immediate enough and close enough to the source of the need for me to feel that it can be a true service. I watched my communities shift and the often-solitary-occasionally-lonely rhythms of academic fieldwork give way to a group of thinkers who would proofread my every word, assess the effectiveness and ethics of my every interview question, and give my Spanish translations their correct subjunctive forms. I will miss spelling my name on the phone. In Colombia, I am Rossan, as Roxanne is too untenable. I will miss the workers at Auros, my neighborhood copy-scan-fax store. They, too, are part of the routines of my research, and I can tell they are perplexed by the formalities of the process. I credit them with having taught me how to say 'stapler' in Spanish and with having helped assemble my every consent form.

And then I was silent. When the questions died down and the music quietened, I found myself sitting alone on the Cartagena city walls. Colombia can be uncomfortable with solitude, and Cartagena is a city that demands affection. It is a country of two and many, one in which you can always squeeze in an extra seat at the table or an extra person in the airport line to say goodbye. This summer has blurred the lines between solitude and loneliness, raised the cost of distance from loved ones, and lowered the barrier to entry into becoming a loved one in the first place. This country is full of loved ones, my loved ones. It is full of love.

I have felt small this summer. It is the kind of smallness I crave, the kind that emanates from being humbled and cannot be corrected by high heels. I have felt lighter too. I have laughed more easily, stumbled more confidently, made mistakes less shyly. When I'm abroad and alone, unshielded by familiarity or company, I say yes more. I dare more, especially after midnight when the words fall out of my mouth without fear of the Spanish subjunctive.

***

I sometimes feel about Colombia like a photographer who only wishes to capture her lover's dreamier side, all the while aware that another side exists, having pushed up her fingers right up against the underbelly. I cannot definitively reconcile my memories of Colombia, those of almonds and rainbows, with the memories Colombians have narrated to me. I know they exist side-by-side, almost unfolding in parallel universes. I understand that the differences in the hues of these narratives partly emerge out of my biased eyes: those of a Colombia-loving foreigner whose multiple layers of privilege circumvent many glass ceilings and shield her from some of the challenges of life and work here. I do not wish my fondness for this land to render me blind to its injustices or to push the many conflicts that continue to unfold away from the capital to the periphery of my own vision.

At the same time, I am hopeful -- not out of ignorance or bias, but by choice. I choose to be hopeful because I have met so many Colombians who are, who believe in Colombia, who have dedicated their life to peace. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: "We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can't see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing."

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By the time you read these words, Roxanne has returned to Boston, which she (also) calls home. Her field notes from Colombia may have wrapped up, but her adventures will continue, in life and on this page.

A love letter to Colombia, Part III

eternally nostalgic
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Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

And then I meet the people who break the mould. Last Friday, I was the only person with done-up nails and high heels in a room full of anthropologists. I have come to cherish both the irony and the awkwardness of this, surrounded by Colombians in jeans and Converse who were there to patiently walk me through the process of grave exhumations. Some of the most transformative moments of my research were the ones whose profundity extinguished all room for artifice. In many ways, these are the stories that cannot be told. They are not my stories, or this is not the medium for them, or it is not yet the time to tell them. Even in their untellability, I realize that allowing these narratives to cross my path continues to fuel my faith in humanity.

The responsibilities of storytelling were on my mind this summer, in terms of the responsibilities of the storyteller to the people to whom the story belongs and to the reader. I have watched my own role constantly shift, as the different capacities I have occupied in conflict-affected areas compete for attention: conflict manager, gender-based violence specialist, academic, researcher, listener, writer. Storyteller. It is an ever-evolving contract between multiple storytellers, and it requires finding my own place in the universe of intersecting narratives.

***

I will carry the contrasts in my heart, with appreciation for moments that fracture your expectations, for the moments in which appearance deviates from reality. There was the time I was followed by a policeman for five blocks near the Presidential Palace, only to learn that he wanted to find out if this señorita was married and, if not, would she go out with him? Or the time a whole group of policemen in Cali gave up their seats at the tienda for two sleepy gringas looking for coffee before the city had had the chance to wake up. Or the numerous instances I have walked past the sports bar, Locos por el Futbol, only to hear "A Total Eclipse of the Heart" or another 1990's sappy favorite bellowing from the speakers -- with more than one man singing along. Or that other time during my solo meal in Usaquén, when the table of brunching men behind me spent twenty minutes discussing baby showers. There are moments that insert cracks into an image such that you can no longer say "all of these kinds of people are _______" in Colombia. Colombia makes you fill in the blank, and question the 'all.' It requires nuance and texture.

And yet, the often heart-warming contrasts cannot allow me to forget about the shadow economy of fear, in which boundaries are overstepped or invisibilized. Many of my interviewees use 'invisibilize' as an active verb: to render invisible. 'To (forcibly) disappear' has been another active verb that has punctuated the narrative. The hierarchies of privilege that define other aspects of life here also determine fear, risk, and danger -- with human rights defenders often finding themselves at the bottom. I have been conscious of how my own layers of privilege color my experience and provide an extra layer of protection in most instances: I am a foreign, Western-educated woman who is affiliated with a US university and is not fully embedded in the realities of advocacy in Colombia. I am also conscious of how the human rights defenders I have interviewed rarely use the language of fear directly. They speak of 'risks', 'danger', 'threats', but rarely fear itself. I seek to learn from their example as I sift through trauma, both vicarious and my own. In the moments of human connection, of asking the questions and recording the answers, of finding beauty, of experiencing learning or vulnerability or hope, I, too, feel less afraid.

Next: Conclusions from biased eyes

A love letter to Colombia, Part II

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I  

I will miss the jasmine tree, whose scent transports me back to Jerusalem and to every home I have loved.

My favorite moments under the jasmine tree unfold around 7.30 PM each night, when the security guards of the K-9 teams allow the bomb-sniffing puppies to run around the park. For ten minutes, if you are lucky, you can catch dogs sniffing each others' butts and wagging their tail as a sign of affection, not violence. There are more such dogs now than during my last time in Colombia, or maybe I am more attuned to their presence. This realization makes me cherish the whimsical butt-sniffing even more. When the security guards notice me smiling, they will sometimes oblige and give their German shepherds a cuddle. I know they are performing for me, but in so doing, they unite my Colombian universes: a single gesture blends a reminder of the conflict with unbridled affection.

The affection is unavoidable here. Desire is one of Colombia's many currencies. This is a country that touches and stares and whispers 'belleza' as you walk down the street. This is a country of princesas, and preciocas, and amorcitas. All these epithets are gendered in ways I cannot bear to ignore and, in the same breath, I cannot be cynical about calling someone mi vida. My life. When my assessment of the culture of affection becomes too rosy for my Colombian friends, they remind me of how fleeting and broken love can be here. They remind me of the men who are perros -- literally, dogs -- and of the men who cheat and of the women who cheat and of the ones who don't call and of the ones who call you princesa for two weeks before they disappear into thin air. They speak of rigid expectations, often crushed, that define the reality of a challenging love, that render longevity in romance difficult. On a rosy day, I will remind them that these quandaries of life and love are not confined to this land.

On a keenly aware day, I, too, feel choked by the rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity. This is one of the countries in which I most notice the performativity of gender and how narrow the expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman can be. On a flight to Cali, I noticed every single woman had her nails done. On the same flight, a passenger asked me if this is my natural hair color. When I nodded yes, she asked me why I don't like to go to the hair salon to get 'this beautiful hair' straightened. Sometimes, I feel as though I provide Bogotá with its only messy curls. Sit at Juan Valdez long enough and you will observe there is a uniform for women here, one of many: leggings, tucked into boots, topped off with a leather jacket. And straight hair, of course. I am torn between finding these expectations suffocating and appreciative of a type of beauty, between finding them endearing and superficial.

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

Next: Wherein, amidst the rigid expectations, I find hope.

A Colombian vignette

eternally nostalgic

For the rest of Roxanne's dispatches from Colombia, you can wander over here to visit her field notes.

I am sitting alone. This has become a recurrent motif of my time here: girl in coffee shop, pen in hand, notebook in front of her, in anticipation of the arrival of the next person she will be interviewing for her field research. I notice my solitude is alarming to many Colombians. It invites whispers or even subtle pointing. Colombians point with their lips, as though they are kissing the air. I sit and wait, in the company of pairs of lips extended quizzically in my direction. At lunch a few weeks ago, my solitude was so perplexing that a whole family decided to join me and inquire about my status here: What brought you to Colombia? Where do you live? Why don't you sound Greek if, as you tell us, you are Greek? You have a boyfriend? Ah, then why are you here alone? I cherish the questions and the solitude alike. Steeped in other people's narratives and quotes, always alone in a coffee shop, it almost becomes an imperative to appreciate the research process and its rituals.

My interview subject arrives and my status in the coffee shop is restored. The collective relief at the apparent end of my solitude is palpable. The interview commences and the irony is not lost on me that we are discussing the darkest corners of a conflict while we are accompanied by carrot cake and surrounded by delicate paintings of women dancers. Perhaps we need the delicacy, fragility, and beauty in those moments. Perhaps, otherwise, they would become wholly indigestible.

Halfway through the interview, a man interrupts. I had noticed him looking at me earlier, pointing with his lips. He introduces himself as a poet and his friend as a philosopher and I think to myself that this is the stuff of Midnight in Paris, written by Woody Allen's Colombian alter ego. He doesn't even apologize for interrupting what I know he knew was too official-looking a conversation for a place that cozy and casual. "My friend over there and I over-estimated how much wine we  could drink. Would you like a glass?" Moments later, before I have had the chance to say yes or no, my interview subject and I continue our conversation about conflict in the company of two glasses of rosé wine.

As the interview wraps up, the poet (or maybe the philosopher?) gestures back towards me. "You know what it means to have a man buy you wine in Colombia?," he asks. I think to myself that it probably means the same thing as in the rest of the world, but I simply smile. "You have to buy the next round!" I decline, as another interview awaits me, but I offer another smile. "You know what I love about you?," he asks me. "You have this giant, world-powering smile one moment, and you look totally serious the next. Smile-business, smile-business. You flip like a switch. It's almost psychotic."

You know what I love about this country? That it never leaves you truly alone. That it inquires, prods, points till it is satisfied. That it jars you and fills your life with contradictions, with dancers and carrot cake and rose and conflict and trauma and contrasting memories. Most of all, I love its interruptions. I love the proverbial poet in a bar who will complement your smile, call you psychotic in the next breath, and in the breath after that, be gone, having returned to his own story.

Telling a new story

eternally nostalgic

"Roxanne Krystalli is a gender-related development specialist in conflict and post-conflict areas."

What do you do when the first line in your biography no longer fits?

I am between stories at the moment, a process that involves consistently living off the top two layers of my still-packed suitcases, debating the merits of paint swatches, and confronting the reverse culture shock inherent in returning to what used to be a home with the task of sorting out the disorienting dance between the unfamiliar and the too familiar.

And the first line no longer fits. Having worked in conflict and post-conflict areas, I know not to confound conflict and war. Conflict, human pain and strife exist in Boston and Colombia and Guatemala and Jerusalem and I have called all these places home at some point along the journey. Yet, you would hardly call Boston a "conflict or post-conflict area."

You would hardly call me a specialist. I have grown wary of specialists and experts. The longer I have worked with women affected by conflict worldwide, the more I have uncovered the boundaries of my knowledge. The universe of concepts I do not understand and of life I cannot make sense of keeps expanding. It would be out of step for the titles and labels to keep narrowing. "Specialist" and "expert" do not fit. Do not even get me started on "guru."

As I fill out the paperwork for orientation at the graduate program that is anchoring my return to Boston, I notice everyone is grabbing for story. The prompts might as well read "Tell us who you are . . . in 250 words or less. In a paragraph. In 140 characters. In a text message without emoticons. With bells and whistles, without embellishment, with enough intrigue for us to want to be your friends, roommates, or mentors."

Life stories evolve, and so do their 140-character biographies. I am slowly realizing that a bio is not the story of "is", not exclusively the story of here and now. It is a journey between points, a question about the axis on which you are traveling. The story of "has lived and has worked", not of "lives and works." And, perhaps most thankfully, it is the story of beyond "lives and works." On Twitter, in her own blog, in the Admitted Students Handbook, Roxanne Krystalli is - still - a gender-related development specialist who works in conflict and post-conflict areas.

In life, Roxanne Krystalli is in transition, perpetual transition. Her heart is in gender advocacy and conflict management, in the Middle East and Latin America. This is the work that feeds her faith in humanity, a phrase she overuses, right up there with "the universe is winking." Her mind likes to wrap itself around the concepts of remembrance and forgetting, nostalgia and grief, of storytelling as a vehicle of empathy and, shyly, maybe even as a vehicle of peacebuilding. She sees the world, really sees, through the viewfinder of a camera. She loves panda bears, everything that smells like vanilla, and the art of loving in itself---as an art.

This is not the stuff of LinkedIn, of student handbooks, or maybe even not of Twitter. But it is the story of now, the biography of a journey from elsewhere and a past "then" to a future that has yet to be painted.

The privilege of a return ticket

eternally nostalgic

For reasons I do not quite understand, Barbarossa keeps recurring symbolically in my life in Greece.

I first became familiar with this historical figure when I was about ten years old and a new convert to the Age of Empires strategy game. That Barbarossa was a 12th century Holy Roman Emperor and the particular objective of that game scenario was to claim dominance over other European Duchies. It was apparently still the age not only of empires, but also of prizing dominance over compassion. At 10, I was fascinated by the concept that you could make digital people forage, build homes and fight just by clicking something in a computer.

The break-down of the dominance paradigm began during my encounter with another Barbarossa: operation Barbarossa during World War II, the name for Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. Every time my favorite history teacher recounted the horrors of that war, I couldn't ignore the memories of the glorification of combat in the first Barbarossa I had known through Age of Empires.

Nearly a decade later, and after I have born witness to the kind of violence you cannot unsee and the kind of compassion you revere over dominance, I was standing in the cave of another Barbarossa. This one was a notorious pirate in the Mediterranean in the late 1400s. The bay in which he used to hide exists to this day and is aptly named Κλέφτικο in Greek: bay of thieves.

Κλέφτικο is a series of cliff formations on the island of Milos, Greece. Behind them, pirates used to hide to observe the shipping route to Crete. Today it is the site of sailboats and snorkels, sea urchins and sunscreen. I have always been intrigued by how history and the passage of time transform places from battlefields into tourist attractions. Two years ago, my love and I had camped in a field overlooking the Horns of Hattin in Israel. Those towering rocks had provided the backdrop for one of the fiercest battles during the Crusades. Now they are the stuff of wheat fields and hiking boots. As we pitched our tent, Elijah noted: "A crusader probably died here."

I am currently in Mexico City and for the first time in a while, there is a TV in my room. At night, I watch images of brutality in Aleppo, Syria parade through my screen. I remember my Aleppo of the car breaking down on the Syrian highway, of the kind man in the tow truck stopping to give us a three-hour ride to safety, of him refusing our money because "you have to help a traveler." I remember leaving at dawn alone for the bus station and being shielded from street harassment by the rest of the women there who glared at any men who dared to make eyes at the foreigner traveling solo.

The tragedy is not that I have lost the ability to return there for now; it is that I am able to leave in the first place. Being a foreigner, even if you are a "conflict specialist", especially if you are a "conflict specialist", gives you a parachute. You arrive at your liberty with a return ticket that you will use when you wish or when the situation necessitates. The Aleppo I saw then came with hotel floors that were less dusty than my own body. The Aleppo I witnessed was a direct reflection of my own privilege. My ability to parachute in and out is an outcome of that same privilege. I am ensconced in another hotel room with clean floors, watching the violence from afar, thinking of those without plane tickets out of it.