I’ll never forget the first time I hit another person. I was in primary school, playing footy on the field, when one of my friends yelled at me for making a mistake and without thinking, I punched the side of his head, driving his face into the fence. I remember his shock, how the boys around us seemed to absorb it, and the game kept going even as he ran to a teacher and both of us left the field. I had detention for a week, writing lines in the office, and maybe this is why I became a writer, this buried impulse to respond to harm with words. It’s been two decades and I still think about that moment, about all the instances of violence in my life, how it’s never just physical, how the impact shivers into the fabric of your being, splinters your spirit. I have become an expert at cataloguing my faults, each sliver of wood in my soul, this small forest of sorrows; this is what I’ve been doing throughout the pandemic, writing line after line and hoping the hurting will end.
Millions around the world have exited the field, have been killed by this virus, and we keep absorbing the violence of that, within an intensified isolation, as if it’s not exacting a toll on our spirit, our collective sense of self. Truthfully, I don’t know how much writing or reading can help, but I do know that without it, I would long since have left this life. We need to stop reacting instinctively and pause for long enough to understand our behaviour and change for the better—as opposed to pausing in the hope that we won’t have to change, which is the current policy. The ability to simply stop seems to have deserted us, or more accurately, the engine of capitalism continues to force us onward, no matter the cost.
One of the stranger truths in these sick times is that, despite this being our third year of living (but mostly suffering and dying) with Covid, this is also the longest stretch I’ve gone without having a cold or flu, without contracting any virus. That’s because we no longer over-crowd, we wear medical-grade masks, we sanitise our hands, we stay home if we’re ill. Try as I might, I’m not sure why a vocal minority are so keen on returning to the unsanitary recent past, to coughing and sneezing on each other in confined spaces. Maybe the freedom-to-make-you-sick crowd are simply afraid of losing touch, afraid of losing the myriad ways we take comfort in each other, and I’m not immune from that. I miss seeing my family regularly; I miss accidental everyday contacts, like at the supermarket check-out aisle, where my hand now flinches back when grabbing my bags, trying not to touch the other person.
This hesitancy has impacted my life so much I always try to keep the space around me empty. Fearful of crowds, I curve around people, keep myself to myself. I’m an introvert typically, but there’s no doubt that my existing tendencies have intensified by an order of magnitude. I suspect this is true of everyone experiencing an emergency, a disaster without an end date, which is what life has become. It’s worth asking, then, what do yours look like? How are you changing and are you happy with it? Despite having three vaccine doses, and being able to isolate because I work from home, my anxiety remains high. After some reflection I’ve realised what drives my terror is not becoming sick, but the idea that I could hurt someone else by unknowingly infecting them, like my immuno-compromised father in-law or my pregnant wife. And so I return to that moment of reckless disregard when I hurt someone in a fit of fury; until then, I had been subject to numerous beatings at home, I knew what it felt like to be on the other end of a fist, shoe, brush, belt, wooden spoon, rolling pin, vacuum cleaner, but I’d never been the one doling it out, and what I discovered is that it felt the same. It turns out the other side of violence is violence.
I’m no saint—the impulse to harm is still present. Whenever I see mask-less people putting myself and my vulnerable loved ones at risk, I feel the urge to knock some sense into them. Even that phrase, that cliché, tells us that we believe instruction can be delivered by a fist, that pedagogy and violence belong together. I’m a Muslim Arab man born and raised in Western Sydney: I’ve seen cops bash my relatives, I’ve run from their sirens, I’ve learned that graves and prisons are the only places society wants to see my body in. That is to say, I learned violence violently, at home and on the streets, and what else can be expected in a penal colony which refuses to look in the mirror?
I choose to look, and to write, in order to know why I am the way I am. Without that understanding, whatever change occurs (and it’s always occurring) will not be for the better. Many people believe that this is wrong, that to even think on harm is to re-enact harm, and you have to “get over it” as if “it” is a stationary bump in the world, instead of the constant flux of your soul. The only lesson this allows for is oblivion. And yet, whenever I revisit a memory, I find something new, and alongside every pain I find that there was also love present, or a reaching—however warped—for it.
Even now I am tempted to write that the other side of love is pain, to pull apart the universe within love, to designate it as safe or harmless. There is no such thing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it—on the contrary, it means we have every reason to try our hardest to minimise the potential for harm, or loss of life. For some reason, this is often presented as a ‘polarising’ or controversial notion, perhaps because we’ve swallowed the devil’s greatest lies: that cruelty can secretly be kind, or that the world will always be this way.
Growing up, I rarely had friends over at my house. I was terrified of my mother, who was unstable, often high and often violent, but on this occasion I had the house to myself. My two closest friends came over, and we were eating snacks in the lounge. One started flicking M&Ms onto the floor, and when I snapped at him to stop, he sniggered. ‘Why? It’s already dirty anyway,’ he said. I looked at the carpet, saw that it hadn’t been vacuumed in a while, and was overcome with shame. I swore at him, said that didn’t mean he could make it dirtier, then made up an excuse for us to leave because I couldn’t bear to be there with him anymore.
I see this dynamic at work everywhere today, where far too many people look at the dirtied floor and think, ‘It’s already dirty, who cares?’ instead of, ‘How can I help make this better?’ Still others, sensitive to criticism due to guilt, are stuck in a cycle of fight and flight. Everyone leaves hurt, with nothing solved. All around us people are dying or sickening, all around us the world is dying or sickening, with the only solutions offered being more of the same—brutal border policies, warfare, and a reckless disregard for the well-being of others in the name of profit.
I used to wonder how it could be that everyone could get up and go to work no matter the devastations our governments were wreaking overseas, no matter the tens of thousands of bombs being dropped on people who looked like me. I thought it was simply racism, but the pandemic has revealed this callousness is the bedrock of modern life, and pays no heed to borders. It strikes me as cruelly apt that this disease demands increased isolation from us, as though after another century of imperialism and colonisation, of corporate greed and misinformation, nature has divined a literal way to demonstrate how far apart we are, how much we are hurting each other, and how easily we can fall.
But then, I am a romantic, a hopeless poet always attempting to find meaning in the events occurring around us, to use language—when all else fails—to touch another human being, to say, I am trying to love you.
Omar Sakr’s debut novel, Son of Sin (Affirm Press), is out this week.