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State of Emergency: Travels in a Troubled World

The prologue of Navid Kermani’s travelogue describes an eclectic teahouse in Cairo, and what follows is, indeed, an eclectic collection of writings with no chronological, but rather a topological order.


The prologue of Navid Kermani’s travelogue describes an eclectic teahouse in Cairo, and what follows is, indeed, an eclectic collection of writings with no chronological, but rather a topological order. Kermani moves westward from Kashmir, beginning his odyssey in the Indo-Iranian region, proceeding to the Middle East, and wrapping up the action in a movie-like scene on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. This principle might seem odd to a pedantic reader, or simply to someone who prefers reading reports –especially from sensitive and war-torn areas– as close as possible to real time, fearing that they might lose freshness and relevance over time. Initially, I found the sequence distracting too, and I felt compelled to list Kermani’s logs chronologically: Palestine in 2005, Afghanistan I in 2006, India (Agra/Delhi, Kashmir, and Gujarat) in 2007, Italy in 2008, Iran in 2009, Afghanistan II in 2011, Pakistan and Syria in 2012, and Iraq in 2014. However, as I read the book, I kept discovering reasons as to why the author made such a choice.

One of the factors that make the flow of the chapters natural is the crescendo of emotional states, which go hand-in-hand with the personal growth of (what I perceive as) the homodiegetic narrator personified in Kermani –his tone seems quite detached in Kashmir, where he refrains from telling a local, worried about the bad international reputation of his country, that the world does not think about Kashmir at all, he becomes teary-eyed while visiting a mine victim in Afghanistan, he suffers the effects of tear gas with his co-protesters (and to a certain extent compatriots) in Iran where, faced with anti-riot troops, he remarks that he cannot be just a reporter even if he wanted to: “behind us the clubs, ahead God help us” (p. 181), he grows more and more perturbed in Syria, as the atrocities therein are more perturbing, in the short chapter on Palestine, a partial, disillusioned, and speechless Kermani admits that he has stopped reporting and started judging instead, and finally, he rejoices at the arrival of a ship that has saved refugees from death at sea (who are about to find a pseudo-paradise in the safe/barbed haven) on Lampedusa, as if welcoming Noah’s Ark post-flood (which is a far more appealing image of refugees’ arrival than that of the Trojan horse, with which they are more commonly associated by the media). Such an escalation of inner states not only unfolds smoothly, it also gives the (presumably) Western reader a chance to ponder increasingly intensely on the far-away and almost imaginary “other,” until that “other” comes knocking on the door of Europe.

Secondly, Kermani’s preference for the regional over the temporal implies an interconnectedness of the given states of emergency through local influences that spread and overlap until they become one global state of emergency. The disregard of linear time in his rearranged string of events brings to mind the concept of cyclical time. Befittingly, Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence originated in Egypt and India, which are State of Emergency’s first settings too. There is, in fact, only one state of emergency replicated in different parts of the world. The narrator seems trapped in a time loop, a nightmarish Groundhog Day of all kinds of wrongdoing, while a curious character development takes place (much like in the movie of the same name), Kermani starts off as a thrill-seeker, a flâneur, (an Orientalist oblivious to local customs) –he commits a faux pas by walking on a holy lawn with his shoes on, which he realizes from the “grumbling of the crowd” (p. 29), but as the plot thickens his mission evolves too; at the beginning, in Kashmir, a traumatized woman he interviews seems fed up with Western reporters: “From time to time someone comes by and asks the same questions, but nothing ever changes” (p. 53), to which he resignedly admits that he can only make sure she is not forgotten, in Iraq, he pretends to be a pilgrim in order to be able to meet Grand Ayatollah Sistani (something I would categorize as “Orientalist”) and for the greater good of “spreading [his] message” (p. 206), he somewhat abuses the trust of Muhammad Reza, Sisani’s son, who admits him on the condition of utter confidentiality, and in Syria, he writes about the ICU of a burnt-out hospital, where presumably the Shabiha has shot to death three patients and a nurse, despite the staff’s fear “that if anyone finds out about the intensive care unit, they’re all dead” (p. 257). However, Kermani appropriately alters the description in the book, while noting that he submitted the unaltered report to an appropriate institution.

Although Kermani’s last two moral dilemmas are understandable, and to the reader his decisions would seem quite justified, I cannot help but think of his resemblance to the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personalities he speaks with, while he ponders their variations of the ethical trolley problem, each concluding with the acceptance that they must “sacrifice a few people to save many” (p. 111). Moreover, all of his interviewees blame the “other,” most often epitomized in the West (Kermani acknowledges that negative preconceptions work both ways), for the adversity in their own countries, but even when leaders/fighters do admit misconduct in their own ranks, they always attribute them to certain factions unrelated to them, despite Kermani’s endeavors to elicit at least one self-critical word. I see this externalization of evil as the overarching theme, in the sense that everyone in State of Emergency is compelled to fight the evil that is supposedly outside of them, and thus feels that the end justifies the means.

This ouroboros of a book makes a full circle in the epilogue, again in the Cairo teahouse from the prologue, where the head waiter (also known as the Teacher, mu‘allim) cites the Quran, prophetically noting that “things won’t change unless people change them” (p. 299). Indeed, what will save the world (and alleviate the doom of our predestination to repeat the same mistakes over and over again) by prompting people to action if not empathy? My personal impression is that the aim of these distressing but captivating articles is to bring closer the disadvantaged who are, in our everyday cocooned lives, out of sight and out of mind, and to trigger empathy both temporally and spatially –as people most readily empathize with whatever is recent in time and whomever is close in space– which will eventually lead to action and to positive change. I believe that everyone can benefit from this book –not just aspiring daredevil explorers who would get the craved adrenaline rush (unfortunately, accompanied by a bitter taste of injustice), vicariously from their safe reading spaces, but also apolitical people oblivious to the part of the world plagued with suffering.



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