Life in the time of permawar

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How are we to live in this man-made war zone that our world has become?

Photo: Prudence Upton

We live in the time of the permawar. It dots the night sky in Afghanistan and lurks in the hills of Yemen. It is upon us when we indulge in a mug of hot chocolate in a café. It is upon us when we go grocery shopping or drop our children to school or while we board an aircraft.

The bearded man… He is always there… In our consciousness and in our fears.

We try not to make racially inappropriate jokes. We launch hashtag campaigns and declare “I will ride with you” and yet we are caught in this permawar.

“How then are we to live?” The common man poses the question to writers – society’s story tellers and truth seekers.

“Permawar,” says Mohsin Hamid at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, “is a place of near permanent violence and conflict, or at least an absence of peace”.

To address our question, he brings us face to face with our primal fear, that of death, which picks us all, at times all at once and at times singly from the crowd. Death is united in its purpose while humanity stands divided. It convinces its victims to fear themselves.

Should we then turn to machines to deceive death?

“In the face of mortality, we desire our consciousness to persist,” reflects Hamid.

We invent machines to protect us, to think for us, and as they grow more and more capable, we desire to merge with them in the hope that one day we will transcend death. And at the same time we hope that we will still remain ‘us’ in our cyborg states. Will we? We are just embarking on our cyborg realism and “already the doubts have crept in”.

Photo: Jillian Edelstein

“What then of religion?” asks the common man. Faith has shown immense capacity for peace and solace. Hamid remembers his religious grandfather, who could be your grandfather or mine, who prayed, never drank; but he never forced you to pray, fast or believe. He wasn’t a perfect man but he was a gentle man, a man who shaped Hamid’s understanding of faith.

“But people are killed in the name of religion and faith,” we remind the writer.

And so we put our faith in fiction. We put our hopes in seven billion stories. A story for each one of us and “each of these stories just as unique and vast”. Stories that celebrate our hybridity, our foreignness, because as Hamid says, “All of us, whether we travel far afield or not, are migrants through time. Even if you are eighty, and have never left your hometown, yours has become another country from that of your childhood.”

Through fiction we can invent and co-create a new world. One that blurs the boundaries, “not just between civilizations or people of different groups, but also between writer and reader”. One where there is a Muslim soldier in the US army; where Yazidi women won’t be sex slaves; where a Chinese professor’s works are celebrated in Australia; where we do not send our sons to rehab because he loves another man; where we do not seek fair skin as the most important qualification for marriage… The list, as you know, is varied and endless and therefore, scary.

“There is another war at a deeper level, the war with a part of our own selves, of what we might become due to our hyphenated identities,” notes Hamid.

I can speak for myself, as an Indian expat (read immigrant) and my children to come. I am not sure if they will be more Australian or more Indian. Will they prefer a salmon steak over my mother’s fish curry? Will they speak Bengali with an accent? I don’t know these answers. I do know one thing: they will be hybrids wherever they are. Like the rest of the world.

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