Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Seeing Oppression


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.


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