Beyond what’s normal

Stories from the Outside

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Pessimism and hopelessness are luxuries I can’t afford. Not only am I deprived from living in a world without experiencing or witnessing oppression, but I also am deprived from envisioning one where oppression no longer exists. I refuse to live in such a world. Hope and imagination — aren’t these the first steps of any movement working toward a reality beyond what we deem “normal”?

I used to sing my lungs out to Dima Bashar’s “Kint A’ada Marra” when it came out when I was 10. I actually find myself murmuring the lyrics of that song every once in a while. Little did I know that this children’s song was a political anthem about the forced displacement of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation, which goes to show how I became accustomed, even as a child, to the normalcy of Palestinian oppression.

Being committed to the liberation of Palestine was an unspoken expectation among Muslim and Arab communities around me. We all witnessed the killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah, the arrest of 19-year-old activist Ahed Tamimi and the killing of 20-year-old medic Razan al-Najjar. We prayed for all of the others who were harassed, displaced and murdered without their names getting recognized. Yet we continued to chant “Falasteen hurrah” (Free Palestine) — we hoped for and believed in a world where Palestine was no longer occupied and exploited.

That hope soon began to fade. Misinterpretations of Islamic text started spreading; self-proclaimed Islamic scholars began to inform the public that the liberation of Palestine only occurs when Yawm al-Qiyamah (the day of judgment) approaches. With Islamic text being an integral part of our lives, these scholars are considered the most knowledgeable in Saudi and many other dominantly Muslim countries. Anything they claim, therefore, is seen as factual and beyond criticism. So of course I believed them when they said liberation would be achieved only when it is almost the end of the world. I fumed whenever I heard such statements. As a child who believed God’s will is the absolute form of justice, I felt helpless against a predetermined case. How could hope even help anyone here?

One of my classmates in middle school asked our Arabic teacher, Mr. Yousif Alkaylani, about this case. He simply answered the question by saying that those self-proclaimed scholars were attempting to take away one of the only tools people had to fight oppression: hope. My hope for Palestine now came to include greater optimism and determination.

Different forms of oppression have become so normalized that we struggle to imagine a world without them. We’ve become so accustomed to experiencing or witnessing them that we no longer grasp their urgency or full devastation — we’ve come to see them as nature simply taking its course. The basic human rights of oppressed and marginalized communities are violated when they’re prevented from imagining and hoping for a world where they’re no longer oppressed. The oppressors ensure the continuation of their dominance by keeping their victims from thinking beyond the one “normal” reality they’ve created. And whenever a movement or an uprising is born by reclaiming that right, they become “the evil” as they oppose the “normal” reality we have become accustomed to.

Not in a million years did I foresee Arab countries protesting their regimes. Not in a million years did I foresee the abolition of laws that limit the autonomy of Saudi women. But I was able to witness the days when “normal” realities were turned upside down. These realities were protested and disrupted. Dictators I thought were immortal were overthrown. Laws and governments I thought were beyond criticism were dismantled.

Even though some of the outcomes were less than what was expected, they were still steps no one thought would ever be taken. This was all led by dreamers who hoped and imagined a world beyond the one they knew, despite being demonized by people and governments alike. 

Now witnessing the Black Lives Matter protests, I see how they’ve sparked conversations about dismantling and abolishing different systems of oppression, one being the prison system. It is one of many systems that are considered an integral part of our societies, yet it has now become widely challenged. And it all started with hoping for a society we hadn’t previously dared to imagine. 

In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?,” scholar and activist Angela Davis highlights how the imagination and ideas of abolitionists were ridiculed and dismissed because they were considered impractical and unrealistic. These same ideas, however, led us to a world where previously normalized systems of oppression, such as slavery, are no longer a normalized reality. She argues that “Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun.” This is because they “posed complex challenges to the people who have lived with it and have become so inured to its presence that they could not conceive of society without it.”

But the main reason Davis “introduced three abolition campaigns that were eventually more or less successful” is “to make the point that social circumstances transform and popular attitudes shift, in part in response to organized social movements.” Perhaps the reason for the success of recent BLM protests is their ability to put forward a concrete vision of a better world — one without police and prison. And we recently witnessed the implications of this vision: Minneapolis City Council members announced that the city would reimagine its current form of public safety and disband the Minneapolis Police Department.

In the words of artist Samantha Maria Espinoza, “i manifest + work towards something that feels and looks and tastes and lives and dies differently than what I know now.” Like her, millions pray and hope for a world beyond what is “normal.” And hope and imagination are their first steps to that world.

Khaled Alqahtani writes the Wednesday column on decolonization. Contact them at [email protected]