I arrived at my permanent site on December 10, the same day as a twin bombing in Istanbul that killed 44 people, may they rest in peace, in my former neighborhood of Besiktas. It had been a long day, with nine hours of travel and saying bye to the other volunteers. When I arrived at my site, my family greeted me with the same hospitality I found in Turkey. I spent the evening relaxing, eating, and listening to music with my host sisters.
With my spotty cellphone data, I flipped briefly through Facebook before going to bed. Only then did I see a friend’s status—Istanbul with a broken heart next to it. I knew that meant another terrorist attack. But I couldn’t open the news to see what had happened. I didn’t have the option to read details of the tragedy. Before going to sleep, not knowing seemed like a privilege and a hardship at the same time. In DC, I would have been glued to the computer.
I’ve had many former Peace Corps Volunteers say (slightly condescendingly, as if we chose to live in the information age) that they feel sorry for us current Volunteers who have access to Internet and generous cellphone plans. The thought is that this hinders integration. The more time I spend Whatsapping, Facebooking, or reading articles is less time practicing the language, dancing with my host sisters, or helping my host mom in the kitchen. If I use Internet, I’ll be less mindful and less engaged with my local community.
Indeed, my sleep issues have been so much better since I arrived at my permanent site. Even though it’s just a little over an hour from Marrekech, it is one of the most peaceful and least urban places I’ve lived. And even with data on my phone, this is the least amount of Internet I’ve used, ever. It turns out that not trying to keep up with what’s going on with my friends, domestic politics, and international news, all at the same time, helps me sleep better.
Local and Global Communities
The cost of this mindfulness, of course, is being less aware of what’s going on, not knowing news relevant to my communities and friends in other places, and not keeping in touch as well with loved ones. Even if my host family had wifi, I don’t think this situation would be incredibly different, because people here are so much more engaged in their local community that there’s not a need or relevance to discussing what’s happening elsewhere. My host sisters both have Whatsapp and Facebook and are using it—not to talk with friends around the world, or scroll through news updates, but to talk with family, friends from school, and neighbors.
From my small experiences, the Internet is more of an extension of the local community, rather than a global one. But it’s important to recognize that I’m no more outward looking than my host family here. As a foreigner, from a pretty transient city, I’m just engaged in different, less local communities. Regardless of how much Internet we use, we still all live in relative isolation dictated by the communities we’ve made, wherever these communities may fall on the spectrum of “local” and global.”
The continuance of daily life here, juxtaposed by the tragedy in Istanbul, marks the beginning of my service that is supposed to be focused on helping build this local community for others and myself. Indeed, I must start this seemingly unfamiliar mission by debunking my own belittling assumption that life here is any more “isolated” or “community-based” than my life was in the bigger cities where I’ve lived. My participation or awareness of what’s going on in the world at large never actually mattered to anyone except my own communities. The Internet made me feel bigger than I actually was.
Meanwhile, in other communities, families mourn, pundits analyze, politicians incite, innocent people get arrested, terrorists continue plotting, people are protesting their governments, work continues for colleagues, friends are falling in and out of love (remember, no friends are allowed to get engaged or married while I’m gone), and my mom is sending me pictures through Whatsapp of my dog sitting by our fireplace. President Obama predicted that the sun would come up on November 9th regardless of election results. It’s an important reminder that no matter where we are in the world, there are other things happening in other places, whether or not the news covers them and whether or not we know about them. At the same time, locally, daily life continues.
Hierarchy of Human Life
It seems like whenever a disaster happens in a “Westernized” place (like the one most recently in Istanbul), people on social media are quick to point out a hierarchy of human life that exists in Western-dominated media and subsequently our international system. Why does international news highlight terrorist attacks or natural disasters in industrialized countries more than developing ones, or in cities more than towns? Or, why is everyone talking about what’s happening in Istanbul, when the same thing happens more often in war-torn or dangerous places, even within Turkey, but garners little international attention or condolence?
With this significant critique of “international” media, I’m forced to look inward, and wonder why I’m also thinking more about the terrorist attack in Istanbul than the many other terrorist attacks and innocent lives lost that have occurred since I arrived in Morocco. The simple answer is that the attacks in Istanbul affect the community I made there—they literally “hit closer to home.” Talking with friends in Turkey and offering my condolences highlights this reality. I have the added privilege that my news sources care about this attack like I do. Many other communities that suffer from violence and terror don’t have that privilege.
Even though each community and each person in the world is equally important, in an inherently unequal system, it matters to whom they are important. Through a human rights and justice lens, the media focusing on tragedy in some communities over others is extremely problematic and has even more troubling, devastating consequences. The most recent collective outrage at the dire human rights crisis in Aleppo is directed at politicians who didn’t feel enough outside pressure to take risks that match the urgency of the innocent Syrian lives in danger.
On a personal level, though, I wonder if I’m being hypocritical when I make this critique of mass media, when I spend time reading and discussing some tragedies more than others, depending on my connections to those places.
But in the end, what I read and focus on doesn’t matter much to anyone else on an immediate, individual level. As I said, in some ways, Internet feeds an illusion of my own importance and the need to keep up. In other very real ways, it makes me feel connected to people and issues that matter to me.
My goal for now, then, is to be more intentional with the way I use Internet—to make sure that it’s meeting my rational goal of being a good friend and daughter, and a relatively informed person, but not stoking my irrational need to be completely plugged in to things outside my control.
Maybe that’s what true mindfulness is, anyways. In today’s technology-crazed age, it’s not about being cut off from connections to other places. Instead, it’s about finding the humility and peace of mind to realize that our communities, while important, are not the whole world—they are only our world.
Whether your communities are mostly local or mostly in other places, the communities you’ve made are what make your life important. They are what make death of those within them tragic and unbearable, no matter where these deaths occur. Right now, I pray for the beautiful, diverse, and innocent victims of the December 10 bombing in Istanbul, for the strength of their communities to persevere, and the continued safety and fulfillment of my friends living in Turkey. Even if you seem far away, you’re still on my mind. To change that for the sake of mindfulness or local integration is to take away our humanity in the process.