Capitalist societies have committed great wrongs yet, every time, they were embraced by their own victims and celebrated for their merits--their sins washed away. The Capitalist system, in an attempt to compensate for the great losses it had caused, put into place a system with noble ideals. In an attempt to distract away from their economic and social misdeeds, they created institutions that were focussed on the individuals who had lost out and who were stuck in the proverbial mud of the system. Individuals for whom their only salvation was painted under the title of “human development.”
The swiss man Henry Dunant, born to a businessman who cared for orphans and a mother who devoted her life to caring for the sick, traveled to Italy in 1859 for a business trip. There he found the Battle of Solferino raging. The battle, fought between Napoleon III and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Austrian empire, was for the unification of Italy and it was a bloody fight, indeed. Dunant found the city full of the wounded and the military services to be inadequate. Thus, he dedicated both his fortune and his inherited empathy for those in distress to this cause. With the publication of his book, A Memory of Solferino, he called for an organization of trained volunteers in every part of the world to take care of the victims of war. He called for an international convention to create a global organization concerned with caring for the wounded in the field and avoiding civilian casualties in hostilities. Thus, the International Movement of the Red Cross was born. The Nobel Committee awarded it the first prize for peace in 1901.
Capitalist societies do not necessarily stop the production of ethical ideals. Nor do they cease support for global and local individuals who seek in their work to create light from darkness and attempt to bloom even the most desolate wasteland. Just as they do not stop the ignition of wars. Such societies are home to slogans like “Changing the World” but also to ones such as, “The White Man’s Burden.” They embrace all, including contradictions, under their roofs. They take on the task of improving the lives of the most vulnerable and gather financial support for the less fortunate peoples of the world through the local branches of international organizations. Yet, often that work is clouded by accumulated corruption, mistrust and misappropriation of aid. Ocular aid programs, tents, heaters, baskets of food consumed in Rwanda, and the Philippines and the Arab world are accompanied by expensive banquets, launch campaigns, guidebooks and calls for donations from hotel lobbies.
These communities worked at the cultural level on the deployment of aid to the world’s children, youth, and able-bodied adults and this comes under the glossy slogan of “Talent is Everywhere.” But these projects are accompanied by stiff challenges in the Arab world, surrounded as it is by the legacy of colonialism. In a part of the world with strong memories of espionage, authoritarianism and the need to prioritize security above all else, humanitarian action has been met with distrust. It is not enough for humanitarian aid to be benevolent in practice and intention, it must also overcome a legacy darkened by all of these factors.
Often, volunteers, as subordinates, end up becoming the victims of transgressors despite their noble intentions. Many who deal with this type of work do so in government circles, drowning in bureaucracy and authoritarianism. Given that, many projects fail or are entirely ineffective.
In this environment, the same places that are meant for the clear and transparent expression of thought also serve as incubators for repression and unjustified suspicion. Often in these situations, local aid workers are treated with suspicion whereas, in the same instance, their foreign counterparts would get a free pass. For example, in a security center in the Arab world, if two volunteers are detained, say a Spaniard and a local, and the reasons behind their involvement in the work of volunteering are being investigated, their conversation might go something like this:
-"Your Arabic is excellent!"
-"I learned it in Spain with the aim of volunteer service for the victims of the wars here."
-"I want to forget it for the same reason because without it we wouldn’t be stopped at the security center here!"
In the same era tarnished by capitalist colonial wars in which Henry Dunant was trying to ease the ugliness of the world, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) declared, “Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself.” The extraordinary writer was of course writing in the context of a feudalist society in which the weaker groups lived the lives of peasants. None can deny his influence, whether it was his work The Kingdom of God is Within You, which deeply affected both Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., or the epic War and Peace, which remains ever relevant. Yet he spoke most deftly of the current misdeeds in the short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” In this story, he epitomized the sweeping desires of imperialism, as carried out by the Russian landowners of the Tsarist era, with a truly great metaphor. In the tale, Pahom, the main character, strikes a deal with the Bashkirs, natives of the land he longs to own and whom he believes to be a simplistic, unintelligent people. The deal is that all of the land he walks on before the setting of the sun will belong to him. Motivated by the goal to claim as much land as possible, he covers so great a distance that he falls down dead. “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed,” wrote Tolstoy, answering the question proposed in the title. At the end of the day, a hole six feet in length is the only proper home for those consumed by their own greed.
*The Arabic appeared on May 05, 2015
Dr. Shahla Ujayli is a professor of Arabic Literature at the American University in Madaba. She is the author of the award-winning novels The Cat's Eye and The Persian Carpet.
Translated by Julia Norris