In a World Without Strangers

writing by rebecca elizabeth yeong ae corey

Paris – Beirut – Thoughts



I felt terrible, visceral sorrow when hearing about the attacks in Paris and Beirut, both cities I have been lucky enough to visit.

I understand why many American/Western people react more strongly to the attacks in Paris, for various reasons:

  • how many people have gone there or have friends and family who have visited (just count how many friends have changed their profile picture to them smiling broadly in front of the Seine or the Eiffel Tower or in the Louvre vs. how many people could have gone back through their albums and found a selfie or snapshot in Beirut);
  • long-lasting shared historical and cultural ties and similarities (think of how French Enlightenment ideals like liberty and equality were incorporated into the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and how the American Revolution influenced the French one);
  • how the media reports it and how world leaders react (see the following New York Times article headlines:Three Hours of Terror in Paris, Moment by Moment‘ and ‘Obama Calls Paris Events ‘an Attack on the Civilized World‘ vs. ‘Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold in Southern Beirut’;
  • and the symbolic significance of the city in our collective imaginations (remember all of the movies, books, poems, even your typically boring and predictable public restroom print featuring the Eiffel Tower, etc, that have brought alive for us the City of Light and made it feel close to us, real, and important)…

… and so that when violence strikes there, we are more apt to react with justified and deep compassion, grief, and outrage.

I absolutely don’t think anyone should feel guilty about or second-guess that initial reaction. But out of respect for the dead and for our own capacity to learn, we need to resist the temptation to view the attack in inaccurate and dangerously “easy” ways (see: “they just hate our freedom and democracy”, “Islam is an inherently violent religion”, “they attacked us so we should fight back in self-defense“, “this just proves the borders should be closed to Syrian refugees” — any of these statements fall apart completely at the slightest critical interrogation, see also here and here).

Somehow, this question I’ve been asking myself is provocative, though I’m not sure why it should be: When we as a country go to war and drop bombs and missiles on others, killing hundreds of civilians as “collateral damage”, what makes us believe it won’t ever touch us? When it is there, why isn’t it called murder or terror, just an unavoidable and acceptable cost of war?

Then it is here. Or a “there” that is familiar and relatable. We are terrified and terrorized. And our cries for the principles we hold so dear — freedom, peace, love for humanity — pour forth. I just wish we were always so vigilant about how fragile those beacons can be. I wish we applied those beliefs universally rather than on contingencies.

I spent too many of my Sunday hours on all the back-and-forth and round-about, and I got sick and disheartened by reading everything. But I’m glad I kept going until I found this piece by Michael Brull in the New Matilda, an Australian news blog. I’ve included an excerpt below that I thought was especially important, but I recommend the entire thing.

“Some may feel it is inappropriate to respond to the murders in Paris with anything but sympathy and expressions of solidarity. Yet Daesh has not risen in a vacuum. For those concerned about preventing such atrocities in future, it makes sense to examine the types of policies that have contributed to its emergence and strength. Two factors that created the crucial preconditions for the rise of Daesh were the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Western support for Syrian jihadis. […]

Our policies helped create the conditions that gave rise to Daesh, and Daesh has made it clear that waging war on it would result in terrorist attacks on the civilian populations of those who have sent soldiers to fight it. This does not mean that no-one should fight Daesh. What it does suggest is that the policies which helped create the conditions that gave rise to Daesh are worth re-examining. And what I would also suggest is that just as those who murder innocent civilians on the streets of Paris may cause murderous fury in response, so might Western foreign policy.”

Also, the New York Times has now addressed the disparity in coverage and global sympathy here (calling it ‘the compassion gap’).

And Vijay Prashad, on, writes:

“French president Francois Hollande reacted to the Paris attacks with tough words: “we are going to lead a war which will be pitiless.” But the west – including France – has already been at war against both ISIS and groups like ISIS. Who else will be attacked? Will the strategy change? Will the western leaders be able to take a longer view than one constrained by the emotional reaction of the present and be able to see past the reflex of more war? Would the western intelligentsia and its leadership be able to acknowledge that some of the strategic choices made in the west have only exacerbated animosities and conjured up a great many threats? It is unlikely. […]

There is no justification here. There is only the recitation of a pitiless history that is buried under official clichés.”

Mostly, this post has just been a way for me to compile the links and articles I’ve found the most clear-sighted and to share them in a coherent way in case anyone else is interested. I cannot conclude these thoughts except to regret that they are not more sympathetic than I wish they could be. I feel hardened that so quickly after murder upon murder, I rush to broad statements, yes political statements, that do nothing to materially change anything, nor offer comfort to anyone’s suffering. (But the least — and yet the most — I can do is follow a conviction that to strive to understand, and to do so in conversation with others, is the only way forward.)

15 November 2015

Update: I’ll continue to add links that I think should be a part of this discussion:

Our Terrorism Double Standard: After Paris, Let’s Stop Blaming Muslims and Take a Hard Look at Ourselves” by Ben Norton on

Terrorism and the Other Religions” by Juan Cole on

14 African Countries Forced by France to Pay Colonial Tax for the Benefits of Slavery and Colonization” by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin on

Twisted Dreams of Africa


If you want to see Africa, for the love of god, please don’t watch the Taylor Swift “Wildest Dreams” music video. Watch this one instead, Congolese artist Baloji’s latest, which is an “ode to the struggle, the resilience” of the Congolese people and shows striking footage of the artist on a road trip through Kinshasa and the people and scenes he sees along the way:

Or better yet, watch them both, side by side, and notice the stark differences. Then consider the fact that Imperialism was/is behind these realities and portrayals of Africa, in both the past and present. The colonial safari fantasy was based on white supremacist ideology and practice that resulted in the murder and oppression of hundreds of thousands of African people for almost a century. Today, that same mindset actively exploits the continent’s people, resources, and culture.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Baloji’s video is set, has experienced one of the most extreme examples of that brand of evil and the country’s immense wealth continues to be violently extracted by foreign multinationals, supported by their governments. The Congolese people suffer as the direct result of the attitude in Talyor Swift’s video — that African lives and cultures don’t exist or matter.

The note at the end of T Swift’s video — that promises profits from the video to supporting an African wildlife organization — is almost worse. It perpetuates the valuing of safari animals over people and the sense that Africa is a place that needs Western charity more than basic respect and actual understanding, including acknowledgment of the West’s complicity in Africa’s modern-day struggles.

Yes, I get that it’s “just a music video”, pop culture is for entertainment, and people will think I should lighten up — but I won’t, because I know these things have great power over millions of people’s perceptions and beliefs, and those in turn shape the material conditions of the world. If you want to be entertained by the glorification of a time period and system that was brutal, racist, and unjust… I guess that’s a choice. But I don’t think it’s one than many people would making knowingly, especially if they saw an alternative, such as the vision, beauty, and dignity in the Baloji video.

The thing is, when the content like that in Taylor Swift’s video is what we’re presented, it works its way deep into our subconscious. I’ve lived in East Africa for more than seven of the last nine years and it’s STILL a process for me to disengage from the stereotypes and false perceptions about Africa that I grew up with in America, many of which I internalized without ever consciously knowing it.

Bottom line is this: if you think about even a tiny bit of the history and present reality of the exploitation of Africa by colonialist and capitalist greed, then it’s impossible to ignore the political and ethical implications of consuming this sort of pop culture without first questioning and then condemning it.

We have options, about the representations we create and appreciate. We can speak up against racist and economic atrocities– even when they’re hidden underneath the golden tones of America’s sweetheart’s latest hit — and listen to voices who for too long have been ignored.

Lyrics to Baloji’s song (as subtitled in the video) below:


Here even the clouds are threatening

Optimism is vigilant

Concrete utopias

Here since laws replace amulets

Blood, sweat, and tears

The Holy Grail is mineral

Sub-tropical pandemic

They named a provisional president

Out of the old regime

Each candidate declares victory

Like in Gao after the flood

Faith isn’t a reliable commodity

The goats become carnivores

In the Ministry of Imponderables

To bring lasting peace

They have to choose between peace and justice

Or fear the vengeance of grandsons

Looks for a providential sign

In the pandemonium

No bare minimum service

Ode to the struggle, to resilience

The goal: Black Excellence

Congo, my country

Turned into a playground

Land of conflicts, land of high stakes

While brothers sacrifice their lives

For phones that contain their blood

The Congolese reproduce the thieves’ gestures

Thoughts that divide, thoughts that oppose

More reading:




“I don’t want anything else from this world. Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.” – Abdullah Kurdi

Whose crisis is this
whose child
whose deadly voyage

My daughter is almost his age

The other day when a small bruise
appeared on her cheek
I nearly cried

Is it only me, or do other mothers
imagine terrible things,
falling branches, burning cars,
and being left alone
with love tearing through
a great abyss inside

She loves to play in the ocean
she picks up small seeds that have washed ashore
she understands much more
than she can say

and I am the opposite
searching for words, offering them up,
but knowing so little
and understanding
nothing at all

except this,
I would face endless waters
and waves
and bombs
for her


Only some mothers have to

Scout Grows Up… It’s Time I Do, Too


Yes, it’s painful and sad to read the first chapter of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (Oh, Jem) — even worse to read this NYTimes review that reveals “Atticus Finch is a racist”, plain and simple.

Just as grown-up Scout/Jean-Louise has to face that the idealized childhood vision of her father isn’t real (or is at the very least too uncomplicated), I sense America beginning the same awakening in relation to ourselves and our past. To Kill a Mockingbird gives us the sense that righteousness can prevail, if not in the courts, then in our hearts. And that it matters. Continue reading “Scout Grows Up… It’s Time I Do, Too”

Who We Are

What happened in Charleston is the convergence of two of the most grotesque and horrific things about America — gun violence and racial hatred. Neither one is inevitable, but every time it happens there is “shock”, denial, and willful avoidance of what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. Continue reading “Who We Are”

Whose Lives Matter

mike brown trayvon martin24 November 2014 – A grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri has decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson, the white policeman who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen

Around the country cities roil, surging with an ache and a cry, descendants of chains, of hopes, of hangings, of sit-ins, sons and daughters of daily prayers, arms raised to receive an inheritance of tears, black and white and Brown. Continue reading “Whose Lives Matter”

ArtWatch Africa – Cultural Rights are Human Rights

Stone Town, Zanzibar

I. Seeking out the spirit of human rights

Three weeks ago I spent seven days with artists, cultural activists, and human rights advocates from sixteen African countries in a workshop on human rights as a part of the ArtWatch Africa project. It has taken time for me to process the experience. The collective intellect, energy, and emotion present each day in our small conference room was remarkable. The Arterial Network team had done a great job at bringing together a diverse group of individuals from festivals, arts centers, think tanks, human rights organizations, and government institutions, all eager to learn more about using a human rights-based approach to protecting artistic freedom of expression and promoting cultural rights.

Habib Koite from Mali performing at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, which took place the same week as the ArtWatch workshop.
Habib Koite from Mali performing at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, which took place the same week as the ArtWatch workshop.

Continue reading “ArtWatch Africa – Cultural Rights are Human Rights”

Instagram*, Hidden Costs, and the Price of Doing What’s Right

A recent photo I took using Instagram that may now be sold by the company.

It’s been a hard week to be living in a foreign country without the support of family and close friends. Not someone who is easily shaken up, I was a bit surprised at how much I’ve wept since the shootings last Friday in Connecticut. When I’m on the phone with people from home I’m okay, but in those moments of aloneness and silence it’s hard to keep it together, even in the office. What I posted on my Facebook was about all I could muster on the topic publicly:

No, no, no. Tears are not enough, but they come. Words are not enough, but let’s speak them anyway. Prayers in the language of any religion or from none can never hurt, let’s lift them. Holding on tight to each other, let’s try it. Demanding laws, debating cause, all of it, anger and grief and love and compassion, feel it, remember, go forward and make it better. Continue reading “Instagram*, Hidden Costs, and the Price of Doing What’s Right”

A Number of Disturbing Events

a poem comprised of quotes from the third and final presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

what are our priorities?
various forms of chaos

isn’t there a risk?
the answer is yes

they have to understand
this can’t go on,
that’s why we’re going to keep on pressing

attacking me is not an agenda

I like American cars
that’s not what you said
that’s the height of silliness

research is great
it hasn’t worked
I’ve made a different bet

you keep on trying to airbrush history here

go back
we can’t go back

I’ve met some of these people
I met a young woman
someone was just weeping

I’m still speaking

the same rules
year in and year out
wrong and reckless
digging our way out
back to our shores

keeping faith
would do us harm

I will fight for your families

because of our character
we have come to the end
I’m optimistic about the future
on the other side

this nation is the hope of the earth
it’s a silent one, and they’re winning

horses and bayonets,
the hope of the earth


Live from Occupy Wall Street – May Day 2012

I have always enjoyed the fact that my birthday falls on May Day. In my younger years, I felt that it carried both reason and resonance, setting the tone for a life I hoped would be marked by the hippie spirit of the pagan flower and fertility rituals that inspired the holiday. That is, I believed that being born on May Day meant I had some affinity–perhaps hidden but running deep– with nature, peace, and music. My reasons for all of this were vague, symbolic, and somewhat sentimental. Accompanying these beliefs were hazy daydreams of walking barefoot through tall, fragrant grass, being able to approach and befriend wild deer and foxes, and circle-dances with blossom-laden maidens. I also harbored the secret pride of having a birthday on a special day, one marked on calendars and remarked upon by friends, but not big enough to usurp the attention from myself, a fate for those poor fools born on Christmas, Thanksgiving, or another major holiday.

Once I hit college and began to understand history as more than the excuse for commemorative holidays, and collective action as more than the wave at a football game, I found another reason to celebrate my birthday as auspicious and meaningful: International Workers’ Day. Originally memorializing the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, where police violently dispersed a public assembly during a general strike, the holiday has become a worldwide event for the working class to voice their frustrations, hopes, and demands. Demonstrations and strikes on International Workers’ Day are usually hosted by labor, socialist, communist, and anarchist groups. More recently, immigrant groups in the U.S. have rallied around May Day to call for immigrant rights, workers rights, and amnesty for undocumented workers, protesting Arizona’s anti-immigration bill and other draconian immigration reform legislation. So I added justice, resistance to oppression, and social equality to the list of principles enshrined in my birthday, and by proxy, I hoped, in myself. Continue reading “Live from Occupy Wall Street – May Day 2012”

These Days

That will be $207, the woman at the counter says, and what a discount. Divorces use to run a lot higher, but with the economy what it is these days (and love what it isn’t) the rates sure have gone down, plummeted really. Why, I paid $650 when I divorced Tom, and that was contested (not by us, by the children, and their lawyer was a real piece of work, charged them $300 an hour and that was with the “children under the age of 12” discount), she tells me, and I got the house and the dog and even one half of the hot tub, that being one of the marital assets we purchased together with our shared bank account.

I recommend buying a hot tub, really I do, because you would not believe how it helped me unwind as I was going through those ugly divorce years, even though it was a little hard to keep the water in, it being only half the tub. We do have hot tubs on aisle 19, if you’re interested, and I promise it will be a purchase you would not regret. Tom always said that a hot tub is a good investment, because they tend to appreciate in value since they are always cleaning themselves, the water swishing and sloshing around as it does. I adored that about Tom, how he thought things through quite seriously, made such rational decisions that took account of both the present and the future. But I guess that’s just how men are, evolved to think like that– it’s evolutionary psychology, really. Have you heard about evolutionary psychology? It’s highly scientific and explains just about every disappointing fact about human nature: why homicide exists, why some people have attached ear lobes, why some people are cowards, why men cheat…

Honey, that’s another thing I got from the divorce: advice. There’s a booming advice market, these days, and aisles 86-95 are devoted to self-help, specifically. I found out that Tom couldn’t really help having the affair with Celia (she was our cat groomer, did the cat’s claws in all different colors), because it was just hard-wired in his biology, a remnant of the caveman days. Well, I figure if it’s backed by science, there’s just not much I could have done, though Tom did hint that if I had just watched what I ate a little more (our diet pills are on aisle 270), invested in some of those new skirts with the see-through backs (aisle 532), and kept the leaves out of the hot tub (nets on aisle 900 but chain saws for the trees solves the problem permanently, and those are on aisle 1002), then maybe we would have had a shot, and Celia wouldn’t have seemed so attractive.

Bless her heart, she can’t help the fact that her bust-to-waist-to-brain ratio is so ideal, I know that now, but at the time it did seem unjust and I was tempted to take it out on her in an extra-legal fashion, but I just came here instead and went straight to aisle 2474, for a limited-time-only, therapeutic murder simulation with our state-of-the-art holographic technology, and you’re in luck because that offer is still available. I can give you a discount of 20% if you pay now, the first of 12 easy installments of $29.99 (sales tax included). These days, you can never underestimate the power of a virtual homicidal experience to prevent a real-life catastrophe.

It was just lovely chatting with you today, and I hope you enjoy your purchase. No returns on divorces, of course. Here, don’t forget your receipt. You can write some of this off (taxes, dear, always pay your taxes).

Pick a Side: Kony 2012 and the problem of “Good” vs. “Evil”

We all know who Joseph Kony is now. Does it matter how and why? And what does it say about us that it took Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video to get us here? 

Social media and identity

A few days ago I watched Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video and felt a strong reaction swell within me– partially cerebral, partially emotional, complicated, complex, and even contradictory. I wondered how I’d fit this reaction on my Facebook and Twitter. I’d have just a sentence or 140 characters in which to express myself. I’d place a hashtag to send the small fish of my thought into a teeming ocean of ideas, most likely to be lost and ignored. And that’s the problem: Kony 2012 makes us believe that activism is just a click away. Nothing more is required of us than to be “aware,” to accept the message without question, and to pass it along without truly engaging with the ideas presented. Continue reading “Pick a Side: Kony 2012 and the problem of “Good” vs. “Evil””

Show Me Where It Hurts

The foundation of a house in the Lower 9th Ward left as monument and testament to the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina









Three weeks in a row, after we
have made the obligatory trips
to Café du Monde and the French Quarter,
I drive visitors to the Lower Ninth Ward
to see the empty lots and abandoned homes. Continue reading “Show Me Where It Hurts”

For Salma

The hardest part about traveling is surely the friends you leave behind. Today I learned from my dear friend Brian that Salma, our neighbor anfriend in Bagamoyo, Tanzania in 2007, died sometime in the past two years due to complications during a botched surgery. Salma was one of the two “house girls” that lived with the Dihenga family next door to the Kunjombe’s house where I stayed. Her wild laugh, exuberance, and absolute kindness are still vivid in my memory. The day I left Bagamoyo to return to the United States, Salma paid a man with a film camera to come take photos of us. When I returned to Bagamoyo in the fall of 2009, Salma had the photos from that day in an album next to her bed. She also had a baby who was only a few months old. Brian was not able to find out what happened to the child after Salma’s death. The sadness I feel about Salma’s death bears with it a certain shame that I could not be with her and that it took me so long to find out about her passing. I’m also reminded that the injuries I sustained in Tanzania would certainly have been fatal if not for my relative wealth. I am sick with anger at the injustice that I should survive when she did not because of this fact. Continue reading “For Salma”

New Orleans: A Developing Country in America?

“This isn’t America. New Orleans is like a developing country.”

In the four weeks I’ve lived in New Orleans, I’ve heard this statement from nearly ten different people. Glancing around at the Wal-Marts, the boutique frozen yogurt shops, the SUVs, and the stately houses on St. Charles Ave., it’s been hard for me believe the comparison. But the complaints about the city do parallel those I heard about and witnessed in Tanzania: there is rampant corruption. Nothing works the way it should. Everything happens slowly. The labrynthine bureaucracy slows progress. Change is slow to occur, or absent altogether. People are satisfied with the status quo. Poverty is persistent and pervasive. It’s not safe. The roads are awful and people are bad drivers. And I mean, really bad drivers. Continue reading “New Orleans: A Developing Country in America?”

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