Aligned with my own
Kuwait, 2009. On a hot spring afternoon, I discover three Grade Nine boys – Abdullah*, Habib and Hamad – divvying up a small piece of hashish in the high school bathroom. There is no grey area – one of the boys drops the hash right in front of me – so I do what most teachers would: I confiscate the hash and march them off to the principal’s office.
I wish I could claim comfort in doing the right thing, that broken rules demand consequences, that as a mere teacher I have no responsibility to block the necessary processes. I wish I could say that I can’t anticipate what happens next, that the disciplinary machine will spool up, the school will contact the police, the boys will end up being held for days without charge and two of them will be tortured.
But I can’t. Even as the principal – Bruce – and I discuss next steps, we both know the police will be called, and we both know how visibly and brutally enforced Kuwait’s laws are. In truth, I made the decision the instant I saw the hash: I have to say something or else I’ll be the one held responsible, deported or imprisoned. What might happen to those boys is easily weighed against my family’s happiness and freedom.
Hamilton, 2014. I write an essay about the drug incident and contact Bruce to fill out his side of the story. I learn that the investigation eventually revealed that the main suppliers were a pair of Kuwaiti students who, due to their nationality and family status, were never charged. Who, despite being confronted with evidence of their involvement – as well as the lies they told –maintained their innocence throughout and were, in fact, surprised when the lies were repeated to them.
Bruce chuckles and says, “This might sound bad, but no one can lie like a Kuwaiti.” To me, the disclaimer is unnecessary – I’ve encountered this reality again and again. In the Middle East, what we might call lying or dishonesty is a common manifestation of tribal mentality, where providing for and protecting the family is the primary concern.
A cab driver, for instance, who overcharges a passenger might see the transaction as merely another way to take more money home at the end of the day. A student who pays someone to write an essay for her is just being clever and resourceful. A politician who bribes and lies to his constituency is being shrewd in his efforts to elevate his status. Likewise, a citizen who hears the lies yet still votes along tribal lines is just doing his best to protect his own.
My school and I essentially voted along tribal lines when we ignored our reservations and brought the Kuwaiti authorities in. We weighed the possible outcomes against the school’s status and our own safety, and sent those boys off to their cold, hard jail cells. And yet even now, knowing about the fear driven into three innocent families, the bare feet beaten by wooden sticks, the trauma of enduring best friends’ screams, I still can’t say that I’d do any differently if again placed in the same situation.
That’s hard knowledge about myself.
I do feel some comfort in knowing that tribalism is universal – we all do whatever it takes to protect our people. As a person of faith, I also lean on the knowledge that we aren’t our own, that we’re called to think of the collective. However, sometimes it feels like our tribal voice often silences the knowledge and understanding we’ve been called towards, too, as though we’re afraid to admit that we’re wrestling with many of the same issues as everyone else.
I’d like to believe that tribalism doesn’t have to be the primary force that raises our voices to the world, but rather discernment and love. We can strive for life even as we speak up for a woman’s right to make reproductive choices. Promote purity and a righteous lifestyle and still stand with those who maintain that gender and sexual identity are not always a matter of choice. Cry the injustice of global warming but still promote the responsible use of our abundant natural resources. Evaluate the pros and cons and risks of stem cell research while rejoicing in its fantastic potential. Acknowledge Israel’s right to defend itself but not its systematic abrogation of Palestinian human rights.
Of course, that means admitting and accepting the danger of being wrong in the moment and the years to come. Or right. Or both.
Hard knowledge, indeed.
* All names have been changed.