Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 33 seconds

Seeing Oppression

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 33 seconds

Rambling post ahead 🙂

I’ve been reflecting on a lot of different but interrelated things this week and neurons are firing in my brain. Things I am reading, conversations I am having, stuff I am listening to… I don’t even know how to connect it all or do it justice and I almost don’t want to read or hear anything else until I get my head around this. Except i can’t get my head around it and I wonder if writing will help!

Seeing Oppression – with Empathy (on colonialism, racism, religious oppression and more)

So I wanna start with this epiphany moment. I was listening to the Boney M song “Rivers of Babylon”. I want you to know how I heard it (hubby used to sing it a lot so i used to hear his misconstrued lyrics). Then why I looked up the lyrics. 

By the rivers of Babylon, there we had fun, yea, yea yea, when we remembered Zylon (?!?)… They carried us away in captivity requiring of us a song… Now how shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

Ok so my hubby used to just sing it til “we had fun” part. And I suddenly heard the captivity, requiring song, strange land…Lord’s song…and I was like, hang on, this is a song of OPPRESSION. They couldn’t possibly be saying “fun” there. I theorized this might be a song about slavery and about how slaves were required to sing (I don’t even know that they were)… And I wondered why they were more concerned about singing in a strange land than that they were captive. And I had no idea what Babylon had to do with it (ancient Iraq, rivers of Euphrates and Tigris). What’s it got to do with African people being taken as slaves? And what’s this Zylon?

So I looked up the lyrics. Correct ones according to Wikipedia would be:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion… They carried us away in captivity requiring of us a song… Now how shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

I also learned that this song has biblical references and the whole Babylon thing refers to Jewish persecution and exile. Woah. More background from Wikipedia reveals that the Rustafarian faith uses the term Babylon to refer to oppressive governmental systems. From Wikipedia

Therefore, “By the rivers of Babylon” refers to living in a repressive society and the longing for freedom, just like the Israelites in captivity. 

Just like Israelites in captivity.


I had never EVER made a connection between the historical oppression/persecution of Jews from that time up until world war2 and Connecting it with slavery. I also found myself making a connection between slavery and colonialism and immigration. It’s actually pretty obvious but something connected in my head. Let me try this, OK? Bullets for now coz my mind is not thinking straight.

  1. Historical oppression takes a toll on a group of people regardless of whether their  present situation is oppressive. It matters as a collective even if individuals are not systematically oppressed. Let me know if I got this wrong. I don’t know what it’s called but it seems self-evident to me. 
  2. We all know that oppressed people, when liberated (or while living with oppression) will not necessarily be kind. They may oppress those weaker than themselves while they are weak. E.g. African American man oppressed by white men, turns around and oppresses African American woman. bell hooks writes very empathetically about this, about men in general, in her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love
  3. In many ways, African Americans carry the burden of BOTH historical and present oppression. They also often have lived experiences of oppression as individuals and as a collective. History of slavery, incidentally, closely tied to colonialism. Somehow they took the black ones and left the fair ones behind (?!?)
  4. Jewish people have histories of oppression. As a collective. Many as individuals. In the present situation, and especially in Israel and US, I suppose they are in positions of power. But antisemitism still exists on an individual basis…but no systematic bias/discrimination that I am  aware of. So umm suddenly, I find myself kind of understanding of what might be happening here and this is all in my head but I talked it out with someone to check if it makes sense. But I always found it weird that Israelis oppress Palestinians who had nothing to do with what Hitler did in WW2 or how Europeans shunned Jews for years or all the different exiles or Jews in history. But I suddenly sort of get the insistence on that particular piece of land with its historical significance where they can lay historical claim. It doesn’t justify it to me, or the violence or oppression,  but it explains it to me psychologically for individuals (I don’t refer here to political motivations. I am no good at that stuff but political stuff, conspiracies etc only work when the story they sell to masses works in some way…that’s the story i am unpacking)
  5. I read Christian Friedrich’s blogpost (after hearing his #2016dml ignite talk) about how to help Syrian refugee students hack the German edu system. And here is Germany, a country I have VERY mixed feelings about (tho i love many German individuals), being one of the more generous countries in the West towards Syrian refugees. And here is Christian a very sensitive educator who is trying to unpack the faults of the implementation of this very conditional hospitality, questioning it and hoping to think of a better way. And I fell a little bit in love, even as I critiqued the lack of Syrian voices in his process (that I could see; there must be some hidden ones). 
  6. But Germany. Same country that oppressed and mass murdered the Jews in WW2. Not Germany. Hitler. But there was some story Hitler sold his people that made some of them believe and follow him. Something about supremacy (and no I am not trying to say anyone is like Hitler so don’t get your hackles up…but this is important before I go on)
  7. But refugees, asylum seekers, immigration. Immigrants. Why are there so many immigrants? Why is there a refugee crisis in Syria? Why isn’t Egypt more welcoming of Syrian refugees? Why are some Egyptian individuals not welcoming of them? It’s the same Brexit type narrative. Our economy is poor and we don’t want  em taking our jobs. Some of em might be ISIS. Etc. Bull. All of it bull. As I believe is any such rhetoric anywhere. And these days it’s everywhere. Someone is escaping almost certain death dammit and the least you could do is open a damn door. Period.
  8. Yesterday I was locked out of my home. I had my key with me and for a few minutes the key would just NOT f#@ng work and unlock the door. I was carrying a bag and my sleepy child. Heavy burdens. And I could not open the door to my OWN house. Every solution I tried didn’t help. I seriously, in that moment, thought, “this is how it feels to be Palestinian the past 50 years. Or Syrian today”. I took a deep breath. I prayed inwardly. I tried again. The door opened. For me. But not for many Palestinians or Syrians.
  9. Those who immigrate to Western countries, as refugees or workers, legal or illegal, are people seeking a better life and liberation from danger or near-death or at least oppression. And they are almost always from a country that was previously colonized by a Western country.
  10. Colonial history has an effect to this day of not only ruining the systems of colonized countries but damaging the psyches of colonized people. That being connected to the West is what can empower them. That Westerners know better and do better. That the best thing to aspire to is to go West. Or be Western where you are. It’s impossible to shake. Very difficult even as you resist and rebel. All you can see are the master’s tools..and we all know Audre Lorde says we can’t dismantle the master’s house with them. 
  11. Class. The elite classes in postcolonial states are Westernized and let’s not get started on the fact I am writing this in English to a mostly Western audience. But class. And now Americans and Trump. I suppose most of his supporters must be poorer and less educated to buy his story. They are oppressed by their poverty and can easily turn back and oppress immigrants and people of color. Because they can. 
  12. Choices and no choices. On Facebook a friend’s wall had a discussion about wishing he didn’t have to say “I didn’t choose to be gay” because even if it were a choice, he should still not need to justify it. I have a close circle of gay friends I love deeply…but since my culture doesn’t really give me much room to fully understand this I made 2 connections. People of color don’t get to choose their color (Michael Jackson notwithstanding) and they cannot hide it. Racism is right there and they can’t hide from it and yet they can’t even defend themselves by saying “I didn’t choose to be black” because it’s like…meaningless to say it. Also: religious oppression. Although many people remain on the religion they were born to, adults make choices about religion (I recognize Judaism is different this way because it’s also an ethnicity /identity or something… Not just a religion)… But anyway. Religion is to a great extent a choice and how far we choose to express it is ours. And no matter what, again, no one deserves persecution simply because they belong to a particular religion. It takes being a minority religion and Nationality someplace in order to recognize, to an extent, how minorities in your own (more dominant, in my context anyway) space live

Ok. Let me stop here and leave my post about empathy til later. It’s related but my fingers literally hurt.

8 thoughts on “Seeing Oppression

  1. I don’t know how to gauge the impact of historical oppression over generations. And there is a lot of context lost when we generalize to a group like Germans. Some were complicit with Nazis, Manny were coerced, and some resisted. I am not confortable generalizing that oppression over a country that to outsiders like us when to Germans, there are many internal cultural differences (I shared an experience I had in a small German town that he could not relate with).

    As a (white) American I’m ashamed of my ignorance of what has shown it’s ugly head since Ferguson. We elected a black Presudent, it seemed like more blacks were reaching middle class, more acceptance in pop culture. But that was a veneer; it feels to me that for many Americans racism runs as deep and strong as a time when we had segregation and hangings. And to me it’s not only the relatively recentNess of slavery as a “normal thing” (within the passing down of family stories) but the more heinous nature of that oppression- to treat other people as property. That means we have an incredible long ways to go, way beyond civil rights.

    I can only directly (and not really fully) relate to being Jewish. My family escaped persecution in Europe in the early 1900s. There were, I was told, family of my grand parents generation who did not make it, were never heard of. I know this history, and it’s more recent in time than slavery, but the impact is to me not even close.

    And I’m not one to roll out all of history, but for Jews it goes way way back farther than Nazi Germany, go back to the Spanish Inquisition, and back back — there’s been a lot. The rabid defense of Israel might be too simplistically summarized as the first time they were not living in someone else’s country for 1000s of years.

    Yet I cannot condone the situation there for Palestinian people by Israel; the once oppressed now oppressing? That’s been on repeats back to ancient history.

    I think it’s difficult to parse a lot of history and detail to a general statement of oppression impact. I totally agree it’s part of the empathy building stage to understand it better. But each time you peel a layer back to explore there are more nuanced layers revealed.

    But I do appreciate your thinking this out in words. We need more of that.

    1. Thanks Alan. I was trying not to generalize about Germans but probably wrote it badly. That’s why I said Germans then said “no Hitler”. I said Germans as a “joining” theme between two points then realized I am only talking about a Hitler and those who followed him. And you’re right that of course not all joined willingly… That’s an important point. It’s not like necessarily a “free choice”. My complicated feelings about Germany have nothing to do w Nazism as I generally interact with wonderful German people whom I love (at least two of them in my f2f context but they’re both half-German) and many of my close friends are German-educated (w v German cultures) and I have a soft spot for Germany’s attitude towards Egypt (in terms of what they fund and how they fund it – sooooo different from American approaches that are more colonial)…
      So… I definitely need to read more about all kinds of things. Probably for each of those bullets. But I wanted to make those connections explicit before I lost them (or my brain exploded) coz I had never linked that

    2. On another note I was hearing (and now read) about an anti-immigration party (I suppose like u have some in the UK, BNP/UKIP) gaining ground after Merkel’s policy w Syrian refugees. I think what Christian’s post was doing was highlighting that despite the policy. .. The implementation isn’t very welcoming of refugees (it’s probably not intentional – it takes effort to see something from the perspective of the “Other”

  2. Thank you, Maha, I completely agree with Alan – this is what we need more of and it takes courage to touch on all of these topics in one post. I am not going into the history of oppression or the Israel-Palestine situation here.

    You are right, we are experiencing a renewed uprise of a right-wing populist movement (mostly coined as Pegida) and a new political party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland = Alternative for Germany). They tap into frustrations of those who feel left behind in Germany (many from East Germany) and those who used to be working class (as in many other Western nations, not much left of the once strong working class group of voters). There has always been a minority of voters who vote nationalist/right wing and a democracy should be able to handle that without problems. The uprise of the AfD, however, draws on developments that can best be described by the term post-factual society. Those in Germany who are most against immigration, refugees, asylum as a human right, etc. live in region who are not ‘burdened’ with integrating refugees and what is presented as facts is usually just the expressed impression or emotion of a few. This is not new to anyone who follows politics: the UK, France, Italy, the USA, they all have had a share of this and there was a vivid discussion of the role of Open Education in this post-factual society (which I believe you were a part of, I was just lurking and trying to come up with ideas).

    I mentioned this to someone at #2016DML: when I was in school (I graduated High School in Germany in 2002), there was not one year in which we didn’t talk about, discuss, analyze the horrors of the Nazi regime. Especially from 8th grade onwards, we discussed the role of the German people, of our grandparents and their parents (who knew what, who wanted to know what, who was solely executing orders, is that less of a crime than to give those orders?) and many other related issues. I remember that I was fed up by this (being a more or less regular student) and that I wanted to take on other episodes of human history, ages and regions of the world as well in school. Looking back, I think that this is one of the ways in which educators can contribute. Our teachers did give us room to express in a safe space, the classroom, that we then used to try out several ways of discourse. From my experience, there are few issues which need a more nuanced discussion than the German history of the 20th century in context with questions of guilt, blame, ethnicity etc. (which is why, even though I think my English is okay for the most part, I always feel a bit uncomfortable expressing my views on this in English as I want to be careful about context, meanings and potential links that my choice of vocabulary might hint at). The classroom can be that safe space for young people to try themselves out, so that, when they step into the real world, they will know a thing or two about how to get along with others, even if they have different opinions. Until two or three years ago, only the creme de la creme of knuckleheads would have voiced a comment as hurtful, wrong, oppressive and shameful as “the jew must burn” on social media. But it seems like this era is coming to an end with Pegida and AfD and their sympathizers and we now get to look back and value what we had without realizing it. This doesn’t seem like a German problem, lots of smart people have noticed this development in the UK, France or the US and their analyses were insightful for anyone who does stuff online (fragmentation of information sources, community and group think, silos, etc.).

    For me, as a white male German, I think it comes down to this: not to talk about … [insert: race, immigration, diversity, right-wing nutjobs, the role of (online) education in this realm, asylum as a human right] is a privilege that I am not willing to draw back on. I might not always hit the right tone when I engage in conversations about women’s rights, hatred against others who look different than me or other things but I will learn and I’ll become better at it. We need to ask these big questions and we need to know that we can never be right about any of this. We can work towards doing the right thing and towards articulating the right answers.

    One thing to add: I know I took a Syrian refugee as an example during my Ignite Talk but, at this stage, my project aims to enable refugees from everywhere to gain better access to HigherEd. Happy to take advice, though, if anyone thinks it might be more efficient to start off with on nationality and then expand (thought about this a while and then decided that I wanted to work with everyone who wants to, regardless of nationalities).

    To end on a more positive note (and this just might be inappropriate): using ‘Rivers of Babylon’ reminded me of the song ‘Go West’ by the Petshop Boys. Two of my friends did a mini-playback show of this in 5th grade and I can’t get these images out of my head now. So, thanks for that, I will travel on the roads of California while humming ‘Go West’ 🙂

    1. Hey Christian – thanks for this very extensive reply! I wanna focus on ONE aspect and insert it into ur Gdoc also. I recognize and appreciate the need to help *all* refugees. However, it is important to also appreciate nuances of the different contexts different refugees come from. What are they escaping? What were their circumstances (eg education, class, etc) before the crisis? How different is their culture from yours? What kind of hardships did they endure to reach you? Here in Egypt for example hostility towards refugees exists but I bet the color matters. Sudanese as darker and some don’t speak Arabic would be treated differently from Syrian (who may look like Europeans and considered more beautiful and who may be able to mimic an Egyptian dialect and pass for Egyptian vs Palestinians or Iraqis with more complicated histories. And apart from differences as a whole community, there are individual differences.
      So I can imagine you doing BOTH specific and general help. Some principles will apply across the board (eg translate to native language of refugees) and some will need to be contextualized. Does that make sense?

      One last thing. U graduating high school in 2002 is making me feel old 😉 very old now

      1. Thanks, Maha, that does make sense completely. Every individual, every group and subculture will be looking for different things and scaffolding, I suppose. Be it dependent on language, religion, gender, previous academic achievements, I could go on. I was hoping that, by not focussing too close on one group of people, the project would be able to provide general information and narratives that fit most of these after which we could try and dig into more specific questions and issues. I also was hoping that this would not be steered and organized by me alone any more, but by and together with those who actually have the issues. Hope it works out and any feedback with regards to issues that I am probably not even aware of is helpful and much appreciated. This will mean a steep learning curve for me as well.

        1. Christian – I was never a refugee myself but I feel you’re on a good track. You gotta start somewhere – and I am sure wherever you find most practical to start will help. You’re obviously aware of different layers of this and of whom to involve in the process at different stages and I hope you get other allies and make a difference. So proud to know someone like you with so much heart and will to take action. I left some notes on your Google doc and I am here if ever I can help in this important and challenging cause

  3. Maha,

    I read your post as an invitation to hard, but compassionate reflection and conversation, about a list of what you refer to as lots of different but interrelated things. I find I can’t assemble any clear response to some of the possible interrelationships you are wondering about–especially between the experiences of oppression, genocide, and exile among Jewish people over time, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. I’ve thought in the last day since you posted how complicated the many threads of your reflection are, and have struggled with various attempts at a response burdened by the current political crisis in the US–the fascist grassroots that the Republican candidate has emboldened, openly racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist Islamophobic, the rise of hate groups and hate crimes. It is clear to me that the kind of empathy of which and through which you write is certainly urgently needed if we will ever find a way to overcome the histories of oppression, colonization, and dispossession noted in your post.

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