I feel like I haven’t slept. I know I have because I kept waking up. When I wake up my mind is racing. I am a Kiwi. I am also an expat. I have spent over half my life as an expat and most of that time I have lived in Muslim majority countries in Asia and the Arabian Gulf. What has happened in Christchurch feels like my two worlds have collided at breakneck speed.
I will never understand Islamophobia, the alt-right, white nationalism or how political leaders who preach any of it get elected to power. I have never been treated with anything but the utmost respect by Muslims. I am lucky I have the privilege of having a lot of very close Muslim friends. They run the spectrum from very observant to not so much. My children are in the same situation. Since my youngest child started preschool she always had a gaggle of girlfriends who were all Muslim aside from her. It never occurred to her that such a thing as Islamophobia even existed or you could have a problem with someone because they have different celebrations, different clothing or darker skin than hers.
We recently moved to Europe. It was a huge change for us after spending over twenty years in warm climes with the sounds and smells of Arabia and Asia. We were excited when we arrived in our new apartment to find the people who lived downstairs from us were from the Arabian Gulf. We were even more excited when we discovered they burnt oud every other day and the smells wafted up to our apartment. I have managed to find a woman from Egypt who can make Biryani for us. Perfect shawarma is still a problem though (as you might recall from an earlier article). But what we truly miss the most is the call to prayer. In the Arabian Gulf they don’t use a recording as they do in parts of Asia and if you are lucky the mosque closest to you has an Imam with a beautiful voice. It was always there in the background. A timekeeper, a reminder of where you are, a soundtrack, the knowledge that my friends, neighbours and colleagues were going into a time of quiet meditation and reflection.
Having recently relocated to Europe I have a strange feeling of being slightly removed from it all. I am no longer in the Muslim world surrounded by my Muslim friends and acquaintances and I am not in New Zealand with friends and family either. I am isolated from all those deeply affected by this. This is part of the expat experience but it’s the part we don’t like. It’s the part we find difficult to deal with. It’s at these times we spend longer on the phone, longer on social media, trying to figure things out, feeling simultaneously connected and disconnected, so simultaneously affected and powerless.
Not long after 9/11 myself and a couple of friends were in the elevator of the high rise tower we lived in Sharjah and were joined by a couple from Egypt. They asked us if we were American. We all replied no and they responded by saying well in case you are we want you to know we are truly horrified and heartbroken by what has happened in the US, it is not us and it does not represent our people or our religion. Now I am the one who wants to make amends, the one who wants people to know me and my home, the one who wants to give comfort and support. I want to scream from the rooftop this is not New Zealand and it does not represent our people or our country.
New Zealand does not have political or public leaders who espouse hate. We don’t embrace leaders whose power comes from division. There is no public support for right-wing ideology and thought. New Zealand still has plenty of issues around racism and discrimination. I am not suggesting that our leaders can’t do more to alleviate it however it is not a public and political narrative that is promoted in New Zealand like it is in many other countries. These narrow mindsets come from ignorance, a lack of exposure and a lack of empathy, and we need to have a more public discussion around them and to hold our leaders more accountable for ways they are working to address them but we should also be thankful we don’t have leaders who welcome division.
One day the world will be able to not just tolerate but embrace the rich tapestry of diversity. Until then it’s heartbreaking to endure tragedies like Christchurch and to see our news sites and social media filled with political leaders and discourse based on division and hate. For now, we must keep teaching our children, our peers, our families that love, tolerance, friendship, understanding and empathy is the way forward. We should teach them diversity is good and brings so much depth and joy into our lives. We should ask our schools and workplaces to celebrate everything; Diwali, Christmas, Eid, Chinese New Year. We should go forth into the world wearing our hearts on our sleeves and welcoming people from all walks of life into our own lives because it will make all of our lives better.
“We were not a target because we are a safe harbor for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it. And those values, I can assure you, will not, and cannot, be shaken by this attack.” Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister
A fund for victims of the Canterbury shootings has be set up by NZ Victim Support. Chick here to be taken to it.
Rachel Nelson is a New Zealand expat who has lived and worked in the US, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar and Germany.