I deactivated Facebook over 80 days ago (not that I’m counting…), and that same day began to train for a half marathon. I had never run before. Like ever. Except (maybe) from a barking dog that was running toward me, and perhaps the one time I got caught in a relatively fast moving camel herd in Rajasthan.
Haruki Murakami has this great passage in the forward to his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, that revels in suffering related to running – wisdom passed on from his friend’s brother, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” It’s beautiful, honorable, and quite precise. Running seems to be about choosing not to suffer while maintaining the pain. But sometimes, suffering is not a choice, and sometimes, when it is, choosing not to suffer might be called self-care. Funnily enough, this passage came to mind when I thought of why I might leave Facebook.
I had already spent much time talking to colleagues/peers/comrades about how exhausting our political work had been the last few years, with Immigration work, Black Lives Matter movement work on campuses, etc., but the last half of 2016 exhausted me to my core. From the moment the US elections results were announced, and my reactions to those results, followed by the rapidly increasing calls for action by many of my academic peers and my rapidly increasing inability to continuously supply reading lists, fact check the alternative truths posted on various threads, remind people to not continue to post false news, help weed out fake Facebook accounts that were popping up in groups, etc., I was overwhelmed. What tipped the scale was that I no longer had the ability to protect myself from naive and well-intentioned micro-aggressions from other academics that mostly had a tone of how this moment was so much more important than all the moments past, and how this activism was the first true activism taking place in our generation. The amnesia around past action, the claiming of activism, and the disregard of generations of work done by academic activists made me think that perhaps it was time to break up with my social media world. My exhaustion deepened as a colleague asked me to write a policy statement or a letter because they could not as they were on a publication deadline, or when a colleague asked me for reading lists that included women of colour in the academy who I thought were important to read now, or as I was flooded with requests for material on Islamophobia, again.
For being so culturally literate, anthropologists are remarkably poor at being allies and accomplices to people of colour within a US context. Perhaps, it is because we rely so heavily on the assumption that we already know the cultural ramifications, already understand the context, already know why this moment is so important. What we may not know, however, is how to be a person in the world who can see others (people/places/discourses) not as something to be studied, but a person or place or discourse to support, protect, and use our privilege to make equitable. I know I have relied many a time on my ability to anthropologize my way out of very uncomfortable situations – it is almost as if our discipline breeds that empirical study within us as a protective shield when confronted with the otherness of others. If we are going to work in the world and not just write about the world, those shields need to come down.
I thought about how this moment was not time for a political sprint, and how an adjustment had to be made because even though people were wearing safety pins or hijab for a day, it was not making me feel any safer. I had lost hope in a progressive left (or a rigorous right, for that matter) and knew I would have to regroup in order to find something political again. What was happening on social media was not politics. Moreover, I came to the conclusion that it was not the election that I was betrayed by, but the manner in which my social world unraveled, tangled in algorithms and blame, that worried me the most. In order to maintain some sanity, rigor, and capacity, I had to train for what I perceived to be a marathon – or at least half a marathon. And so, I started to run.
I have to say though, I hate running. Like really hate it. I tried reading up on it in sports magazines and all that resulted in me realizing that for the world of running, it might as well be a miracle that someone between the ages of 40 and 60 might pick up long distance running. And if one did, they should take care of their knees, and remember to enter into races closer to age 40 so that they would have an advantage in their slots. None of the sports magazines or books I was reading provided any guidance on how one might gain political insight through repetitive action, or on how one might run in order to write about the social and political world. I looked to fiction, autobiographies, and memoirs to understand what writers have done as runners. I revisited Murakami and his memoir on running and writing. I took careful note of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing in relation to running. I tried to think of everyone I knew who ran and how they wrote social and political commentary in various genres. Perhaps my all-time favorite still remains Guy Mannes-Abbott’s, In Ramallah, Running - a beautiful way to move through, around, between the city and the politics of the context within which one might try to do something as simple as run. I began to realize that my shift to running was an attempt to regain spaces within which writing was a slow, thoughtful process, one in which I was not only contending with a different kind of optional suffering, but one that was reclaiming time as a key component to the act of suffering.
To be fair, running has given me a lot and so, maybe, I don’t hate running. There is something to be said about watching the sun set and the moon rise while you force yourself to lift one foot after another thirty minutes or so into a run. In Sharjah (UAE) where I am currently living, I really enjoy running in the evenings because most of the time, there are women practicing soccer in the field next to the track. We do the hijabi head nod as I run by, acknowledging each other’s existence, alongside concomitant negotiations and decisions to exercise in a mostly male dominated park space. That time in the evening is an interesting time to be out because one mostly sees women and children, and for a moment it flips some sort of normative visual landscape of who is seen and who is not.
There is a mosque next to the park where I run, and often whatever is going on there is in audible competition with whatever is going on in my own little sonic bubble. There is always the moment when I turn off my podcast to listen to the adh(z)an (أَذَان) and subsequent prayers as they flood all my senses. A couple evenings ago, after a quick nod to the ladies kicking the ball around, the breeze picked up, cooled my forehead’s sweat, and I could hear the local mosque reading a well-known verse, فَبِأَيِّ آلَاءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ (Fabi-Ayyi Ala-I Rabbikuma Tukazziban), interspersed between a story on Code Shift about safety pin solidarity. It was enough to make me sigh/laugh/sigh and realize that even though I miss the memes, the panda bears and kittens on Facebook, there is something about the paradoxical IRL that I had forgotten how to enjoy and exist within, without projecting it into the world as a moment to be ‘liked’ or ‘shared.’
Running in Sharjah has been quite remarkable in that I occupy the space in one country, while constantly thinking about the elections, politics, and failures of another. From an international perspective, sometimes the goings-on in the US-left seem self-indulgent. Crisis always are self-absorbed, and rightly so: it is a crisis. But as US academics, we need not be; there are ways in which we might collectively talk, process, and work that can be useful beyond us and our own issues. Ours is not the most important nor the most urgent. It is significant among many issues and pivotal within a larger global context of crisis. What is crucial at this moment, is to really take a larger/global perspective on the impact of our worlds, politics, and consider building solidarity across movements. Significant also are the generations of academic activists who have been working on these issues, and not to burden them naively with more, but to certainly acknowledge the history of people within the academy resisting hegemonic academic narratives. And so, whereas it is not remarkable to say we are in a watershed moment in history, it does seem necessary to say, let’s not make this only about us.
I will end with a shameless plug for the upcoming #AnthReadIn on March 24th, 2017. For those of you still on social media (Facebook and Twitter) join in the virtual conversations — for those of us not on social media, there are ways to create your own conversations IRL – for conversations about what it means to be an ally, do listen to the Code Shift podcast (here).