Durham Book Festival 2020: Fatima Bhutto, ‘A World on Fire’

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I have to admit, I was in a foul mood when I sat down to watch Fatima Bhutto’s reading of her essay ‘A World on Fire’ for Durham’s Literary Festival. Like many a Durham student (more than 950, according to the BBC), I have come down with an angry bout of Coronavirus, and this morning, I embarked on my fifth day of isolation, alienated from my friends and from the world outside my walls.

Amid the noise of (persistent) coughs, and the occasional sob, Fatima’s voice reached out to me like a warm hand. She grew up in Karachi and Syria, was exiled during the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq, grew up effectively stateless and despite the adversity, gained an education in New York and London. She spoke with all the steadiness of wisdom, and the solemness of intent. Against her black backdrop, it felt more like a national address, or perhaps a witness statement, than a jolly Zoom between booklovers. 

She spoke with all the steadiness of wisdom, and the solemness of intent.

In the space of 30 minutes, she transported me from my coronavirus prison to a gallery of the world’s monstrosities, pointing out tragedies from climate change to domestic violence. The truth is, her message made me realise that my problems were but a mere speck on the chart of global issues she tackled in her essay, and my self-pitying stopped abruptly. 

How could I feel bad for myself, with the knowledge that the situation in Lebanon has become so dire that in July, a 61-year-old man killed himself next to a Dunkin’ Donuts, holding a copy of his unblemished judicial record and a note that read “I’m not a heretic, but hunger is heresy”; that “we have bulldozed wild animals’ natural habitats”, “razed their forests”, and “built shopping malls over […] rich and thriving ecosystems”; that in France, numbers for domestic violence helplines are being printed on the bottom of receipts, and secret hand-signals have been developed for women to use over Zoom to indicate they’re being abused. How could I feel anything but bad about myself knowing that I have been and still am complicit in that western privileged culture that is responsible for 40% of global environmental damage? 

Her message made me realise that my problems were but a mere speck on the chart of global issues she tackled in her essay

Indeed, Bhutto’s reading did stop my self-pitying, and it made me realise that, in fact, I’m not in ‘isolation’. None of us are. My actions have an effect on the world beyond my four walls, and it’s time I realised it. Bhutto’s essay (available on English Pen’s website), is a must-read for any of us who have lost perspective during these testing times. It seems her message was not one of violence in its many forms, rather solidarity; an essential and timely reminder.

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